Old Reviews, Volume #2

            In 1979 I moved back to Detroit from L.A. for the second time.  I then became the film critic for a free local Detroit entertainment weekly newspaper, inexplicably called Magazine.           

From Magazine, October, 1979

CRITICAL RATIONALE

          Published criticism of the arts is a very often misunderstood form of journalism. That it is journalism is something of a question because criticism, as the word itself implies, deals with opinions in the main and facts as a foundation, whereas the rest of journalism is just the opposite. This is a fact that seems to have eluded quite a few well-known critics. Some seem to think that criticism is an art—form in itself, which it is not, while others seem to think that it is another form of publicity, which it most certainly is not. Criticism is a response to art. Criticism is a by-product.
          For the most part people seem to have two opinions of all films: “it was good,” or “it was bad”. The reasoning behind these opinions are usually: “because I liked it,” or “because I didn’t like it.” These reasons and opinions are also interchangeable. To have reasons or opinions beyond this is really rare for most people, thus the need for published criticism.
          There are more reasons for liking or disliking a film than it was good or bad, however most people don’t seem to give movies enough thought to vocalize their reactions any better. Therefore, whether one agrees or disagrees with a published critique it may just help in substantiating one’s own opinion. Whenever a film’s meaning eludes me I always consult the reviews to see if anyone else figured it out.  In this respect, the mainstream, large publications are pretty worthless.
          All reviews can be used as an indication as to whether or not to see the film if one is willing to accept some unknown person’s opinion. The problem is that the large magazines and newspapers seldom give too much of a reason. Most published criticism usually consists of four paragraphs: a lead-in and a quick pro or con in the first paragraph, plot summary of the film in the next two, then a quick recap of the opinion in the last and get out. When I read this type of review I find it mandatory to skip the middle two paragraphs because most critics seem to think it’s their right to ruin the end of a movie. As far as I am concerned that is blasphemy. There ought to be laws passed against that sort of thing, it’s not fair to the public or the filmmakers.
            I love movies. There is no film that is beneath my dignity to see (unlike many reviewers). I’ll happily go and see the biggest Universal disaster film or the lowest budget drive-in horror film. For the first half hour I’m willing to go along with most anything, but if it hasn’t done something to hold my interest in that time, then I begin getting critical. Nothing pleases me more than to see a good movie, and even if I’ve read all the reviews and a film is unanimously panned I still hope for the best. This may seem rather childish, however I see no good in pre-judging.
            It appears to me to be pretty common that if a film is acclaimed by enough people that it must be good. I don’t believe what anyone says until I see it and quite often find myself in a minority position because I can’t see what all the excitement was about.
            A friend of mine was standing in line for a movie in Hollywood and began talking with a couple in front of him. He asked the woman what her favorite movie was and after a long moment of inner scrutiny she replied, “THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN,” which is certainly an important film to the history of cinema, but not very likely to be anyone’s favorite. My friend spontaneously burst out laughing, and the man, feeling that his girl had just been mildly insulted said sarcastically, “No, what she really meant was ‘THE SOUND OF MUSIC’.” My friend stopped laughing and answered that “THE SOUND OF MUSIC” actually was one of his favorite films and the conversation quickly came to a halt. This isn’t to say that “THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN” wasn’t really her  favorite film, although it certainly is an odd choice considering that it is fifty-five years old, silent, Russian and rather boring, but is may have sounded like an impressive
response.
            “And where,” you might be asking yourself, “does this fellow get off calling ‘classic’ films ‘rather boring’?” In public, whenever I condemn a film that everyone seems to like, someone is bound to say, “that’s your opinion” with a lot of venom in their voice as though it were discrediting. What these venomous folk fail to take into consideration is that there is no right or wrong in opinions; there is only yours and mine. This column will be mine.
                
—JOSH BECKER

“TILL MARRIAGE DO US PART”

           Italian sex farces must be a real scream if you’re Catholic, Italian and very guilty about sex, but otherwise they need a bit of tolerance. The whole basis for this sort of film seems to lose most of it’s urgency the farther the film gets from Italy.
         Nevertheless, “TILL MARRIAGE DO US PART” has so many saving graces that it almost overcomes its displacement.
              Plot machinations of this sort are so tired and wearisome that they are not even worth going into, however one very interesting thing is taking place in the film amidst all of the mega-guilt; Laura Antonelli (of “THE INNOCENT”) is not getting laid very often so that after a while you end up rooting for someone, anyone, to get her in the sack and give it to her real good. And to compound this Laura Antonelli really looks like she wants it, too.
              Sex has become so commonplace in films of recent years that it generally seems to hinder and distract most stories. Film characters end up in bed so fast these days that it
has become meaningless, and inevitably once the sex begins it ends up being little more than a lot of tedious dissolves to varieties of close-ups of flesh that are the furthest cry from erotica. So when Laura Antonelli is all set up for a sex scene (and she is portraying a virgin), then the sex doesn’t occur — again and again — combined with a constantly getting to see glimpses of her astounding naked body, it becomes so unbelievably infuriating it’s funny — and erotic.
             Also “TILL MARRIAGE DO US PART” is a beautiful  production. The sets are lovely, the cinematography is lush and colorful and some early flashbacks are filmed in an amazing sepia-brown and black that looks marvelous. The movie’s pacing is also much quicker than most foreign films.
        
             However, halfway into the film Laura Antonelli finally does get laid and the scene isn’t anywhere near as good as one might have imagined. After that the film disintegrates as the meaningless plot plays itself out. For an hour we’ve been built up for a mighty screwing, and what finally arrives is quaint Italian comedy that isn’t at all sexy.
               Sex comedies of this ilk have been the mainstay of French cinema for years and have become entirely unbearable. Italy’s sense of humor rarely seems to connect with the rest of the world, so it’s kind of nice to see an Italian film that is mildly funny and rather easy to sit through. “TILL MARRIAGE DO US PART” may not succeed completely, but it’s certainly a lot more fun than most foreign imports.

—JOSH BECKER

November, 1979

“APOCALYPSE NOW”

         The only problem with “APOCALYPSE NOW” is that it is lacking all the elements of a good story and doesn’t have a decent lead character. Believing the hypothesis that drama is based on conflict, “APOCALYPSE NOW” is unbelievably lacking. A fellow is sent to find another fellow and kill him, which is exactly what he does — great.
           Along the way we are treated to some brilliant individual scenes, some of the most fantastic camera-work ever (although none of the prints in Detroit are in 70mm and therefore are not nearly as impressive), and there is also quite a bit of drab voice-over narration that doesn’t move the story forward one iota.
           Martin Sheen in the lead is particularly monotonous as his character stays on the same low-level note throughout the film’s two and a half hours. Robert Duvall is fun in a short role as a helicopter commander, however most of his dialog is unintelligible because the background noise is too loud.
         Dennis Hopper also has a pretty good short role, but it’s real short. Marlon Brando appears toward the end and entirely destroys the slight amount of momentum the film was able to build. Brando is neither good nor bad. He was given no character to work with and was not able to pull the ending off by himself. This is a terrific shame since the entire film builds to whatever Brando will do, which, as it turns out, is nothing more than pontificate about the meaning of horror and recite poetry.
           There is an old piece of advice given to young writers that goes something like: if you don’t know the ending, don’t begin. No one should have to inform someone who has won three Academy Awards for best screenplay of this.
         Nevertheless, not only did Francis Ford Coppola not know the ending when he  began, he apparently still doesn’t know, for there are supposedly different endings on different prints.
           The basis of “APOCALYPSE NOW” as a descent into the maelstrom is interesting, but also doesn’t work. Aside from one quick fake scare, there is nothing even mildly horrifying in the film, so when Brando is muttering “The horror, the horror,” he must be referring to something that happened before the film began.
           “APOCALYPSE NOW” is fascinating to watch and just about any frame is worthy of being blown up to an 8x10 glossy and hanging up on the living room wall, but that doesn’t make the story any better than it is. John Milius wrote the original draft of “APOCALPYSE NOW” in 1969, and this is just an assumption, but it probably was a good solid story and not very epic. By the time Coppola got done re-writing it, shooting it and going crazy, then having Michael Herr write the narration, the narrative is so muddled that neither Vittorio Storaro’s immaculate cinematography, nor Marion Brando with a shaved head could get the film to work.
           And so “APOCALYPSE NOW” ends up being quite a bit like Brando’s performance in it – neither good nor bad, but somewhere between a thirty and forty million dollar oddity.
           In March, after I first saw the film, I spoke with Gray Fredrickson (who is one of the producers) in McDonald’s in Los Angeles, and he appeared to be more than a trifle worried about recouping the film’s costs. His worries are entirely justified too, for at four times the cost of “STAR WARS” it isn’t a quarter of the event and needs to make it into the top ten of biggest grosser ever just to break even.
           Nevertheless, there is one good thing to be hoped for if “APOCOLYPSE NOW” bombs then maybe Coppola will be compelled to make “THE GODFATHER PART THREE.”

—JOSH BECKER

“TIME AFTER TIME”

            Nicholas Meyer, writer/director of “TIME AFTER TIME,” is the most blatantly influenced writer around. Two of his three novels are Sherlock Holmes stories and “TIME AFTER TIME” is not only influenced by the writings of H.G. Wells, it also has H.G. Wells as the lead character.  Malcolm McDowall portrays Wells and does a really marvelous job of it.  McDowell’s career seems to have completely expired after “CLOCKWORK ORANGE.” He did do “O LUCKY MAN,” but then films like: “ROYAL FLASH,” “ACES HIGH” and “THE PASSAGE” seemed to do him in.
            It seemed that McDowall would become another one-role actor like Joel Gray in “CABARET,” but “TIME AFTER TIME” should hopefully get him back into the mainstream. He is able to imbue H.G. Wells with a naive amazement that is terrific to watch.
            Also giving a first-rate performance is David Warner as Jack the Ripper, who steals Wells’ time machine and travels to San Francisco in 1979. Wells goes after him and the rest is love, chases, and extreme cases of future shock.
            Nicholas Meyer has made a real good Saturday afternoon matinee-type film, and even though the narrative is somewhat slipshod, and the outcome is rather preposterous, it’s actually quite a bit of fun to watch. As for cinematic time travel however, I’ll still take the story and film that inspired “TIME AFTER TIME,” H.G. Wells’ “THE TIME MACHINE.”

—JOSH BECKER

 

 

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