Old Reviews, Volume #3

            Between the December and January issues of Magazine (which was in November, 1979), I went down to Tennessee to work on “Evil Dead.”  I saw and reviewed “The Rose” the day before I left.  I made it very clear to Sam, Rob and Bruce that at some point during the production I would have to sneak off, see some movies and review them.  They all said that would be no problem.
            So, we shot and shot and shot, and as my deadline loomed ever closer, they wouldn’t let me leave (“It’s not going to let us go!”).  I finally had to pitch a fit –  something I did quite well at that time – and I was able to take a day off, go into Knoxville and see as many movies as I could in a day, which were: “1941,” “Going in Style” and “The Black Hole.”  Sam was particularly peeved that I was going to get to see Steven Spielberg’s new movie before him (remember, this was Spielberg’s follow-up to “Jaws” and “Close Encounters,” when expectations were running incredibly high).
            When I got back to the house in Morristown, where 18 of us were living while making the film, intending to sit right down and knock off the reviews, I found to my surprise, and ultimate consternation, that Ted Raimi had arrived that day.  Ted was eleven or twelve at that time, and, having been a very close neighbor for eleven years and being good friends with his brothers, I’d pretty much known him since he was born.  Ted was an astoundingly obnoxious, though very funny, kid.  Since he hadn’t been able to get a ride out to the cabin location, he’d been stuck in the house by himself for most of the day.  Now that I’d arrived, Ted decided that there was no way on earth he was going to allow me to write these reviews.  I sat there at the kitchen table, in front of a big old manual typewriter, while Ted spent the next three or four hours bugging the living crap out of me, and succeeded magnificently at not letting me write the reviews (admittedly, much of what he was doing was making me laugh very hard, but you still can’t rationally critique a movie while you’re laughing).
            Ted finally got a ride out to the cabin at about 3:00 AM and I was so tired and cross-eyed that I decided to go with him and work for the rest of the night, trying to make amends for having played hooky that day.
            When I told Sam, Bruce and Rob that I had not yet written the reviews, because Ted wouldn’t let me, and that I’d still have to write them as quick as I could the next day, they all got really mad at me, but, of course, not at Ted.
            Then Sam got all freaked out, in a highly comic way, that I’d seen Spielberg’s new movie before him, and I was now forbidden to say a word about it.  Nevertheless, each time Sam passed me for the rest of the night he’d say, “It’s great, right?”  And each time I’d smile sweetly, nod, and say, “Yeah, it is.”  Then Sam would frown and look me right in the eyes, trying to see if I was bullshitting him or not.  And I’d keep smiling.
            The next day I blasted out the three reviews, called them into Magazine, and made my deadline.
            That Friday night the whole cast and crew went into Knoxville and saw “1941.”  As we came out of the theater Sam stepped up to me, pointed in my face and said, “You son of a bitch, you lied to me.  You said it was great.”
            I smiled and said, “No, you said it was great, I just agreed.”

December, 1979

“METEOR”

            American International Pictures finally made the big dive into huge-buget movies, and although “METEOR” is really nothing great, it’s a lot better than Universal’s huge-budget attempts.
            Samuel Z. Arkoff, head of A.I.P., got all of the “right” people together
for “METEOR”: director Ronald Neame, who did “THE POSIEDON ADVENTURE,” screenwriter Edmund H. North, who won an Academy Award for “PATTON” (with Francis Ford Coppola), and, in a burst of originality, Sean Connery for the lead instead of Charlton Heston (thank God), Henry Fonda as the President of the United States (a role he played before in “FAIL-SAFE”), and, of all the nutty ideas, Brian Keith as a Russian astrophysicist who can’t speak English and needs Natalie Wood to interpret for him.
            The major problem with “METEOR” is exactly the same problem as films like “BLACK SUNDAY” and “THE CHINA SYNDROME;” if we are going to be built up and built up for a giant disaster then for God’s sakes give it to us. No one goes to one of these films for the two minute character studies of all the stars, nor for all the meaning-less subplots that always abound, they go for one reason and only one reason – to see a huge disaster, and none of them ever pay off well enough (except the first “AIRPORT” film, and “TOWERING INFERNO”).
            Happily, “METEOR” does have some compensation. Preceding the main, five-mile-long, meteor are several smaller “splinters” which begin wreaking havoc all over the Earth. One splinter blows the top off of a mountain in Switzerland and causes an avalanche, another causes a one-hundred-foot tidal wave in Hong Kong, and (for reasons probably only known to Edmund H. North) yet another splinter burns up in the atmosphere and freaks the hell out of an Eskimo family in Siberia.
            Even though special effects have become almost blasé at this point, many of the effects in “METEOR” are pretty good, such as these splinter scenes and several more. The special effects that aren’t very good are the spaceship models which have an uncanny resemblance to spaceship models.
            “METEOR” falls into a category of movies commonly referred to as “junk,” but as far as “junk” goes, it’s rather fun to watch.

—JOSH BECKER

“YANKS”

            It’s somewhat difficult trying to review this film because within just a few moments after viewing it I could barely recall having seen it. It’s hard to imagine anyone considering making a TV movie out of “YANKS,” let alone a two-and-a-half hour, big-budget film.
            In 1943 American soldiers began arriving in England by the thousands.  “YANKS” concerns itself with two soldiers that happen to fall in love: Richard Gere with Lisa Eichorn and William Devane with Vanessa Redgrave. Neither story is particularly unusual, or, for that matter, particularly interesting. They’re both very slight little stories without much conflict and neither has much of a resolution.
            John Schlesinger has always been an interesting director up until this point even if his films weren’t always successful. He’s very visually oriented, but has almost consistently worked with good stories, too (“MIDNIGHT COWBOY” and “MARATHON MAN” being his best films to date). With “YANKS” he obviously wanted to make a movie that would be referred to as “lyrically atmospheric,” which is perfectly fine to try for, but that doesn’t mean that the story is secondary. And so “YANKS” becomes a new turn in Schlesinger’s career; his first totally unmemorable film.
            Nonetheless, there are some nice things in it: “lyrically atmospheric” cinema- tography, Vanessa Redgrave (who, politics aside, is absolutely a joy to behold), a visually interesting fight scene between some white and black soldiers, atmospheric landscapes and a rather lyrical ending. Add this all up and you have about an hour’s worth of entertainment.
            And yet, for all it is lacking in story and all of its excess in time-filler, “YANKS” isn’t really boring. It’s actually kind of a nice little picture in a tremendously large frame.

—JOSH BECKER

“THE ROSE”

            Considering that the music industry happens to be located in Hollywood, one might imagine that the film industry had some inkling of an idea of what music was about, but they don’t. “THE ROSE” fails for the exact same reason that Barbra Streisand’s “A STAR IS BORN” failed – neither Barbra Streisand nor Bette Midler are rock and roll performers.
            Even though the story of “THE ROSE” works better than “A STAR IS BORN,” Streisand comes off much better than Midler because she just sang her kind of songs to a rock and roll audience (which looked out of place, but sounded better). Every song that Bette Midler sings in “THE ROSE” (with the single exception of “WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN”) just isn’t her kind of material. And it’s not a matter of Bette botching the songs, the songs botch her.
            Bette Midler is absolutely terrific at singing old songs and ballads (i.e. “IN THE MOOD” and “FRIENDS”), so then why was she cast as a Janis Joplin-like rock and roller? The answer is simple enough: who else is there? And to answer the answer — nobody, including Bette Midler.  This brings up yet another question: if there is nobody suited to play the role, why make the film? This is obviously an ignorable question since the film was made and it’s really not that bad.
            Bette Midler gives everything she’s got and does a commendable job of it. When she is happily bounding around drinking and swearing the film is a lot of fun, it’s much like a female version of “THE LAST DETAIL,” however “THE ROSE” is a tragedy so there aren’t too many of these happy scenes. When it gets down to the heavy-duty drama Bette doesn’t fare quite as well. Since the character of Rose isn’t particularly subtle to begin with, and Bette Midler doesn’t seem to be any too subtle herself, by the second half of the film all of the histrionics become totally ineffectual. There is a scene near the end when Rose is in a phone booth doing drugs and weeping on the phone to her parents that is so drawn-out it’s almost unbearably tedious. To compound this it’s in extreme close-up, which is not Bette Mildler’s best angle.
            And it’s not really Bette Midler’s fault. Her role is just about the entire film and she is just not a strong enough actress to handle it. This isn’t meant to imply that she isn’t a good actress, on the contrary, she does one hell of a job for her first film, but it’s simply not enough.
            This situation wouldn’t have been so bad if some of the other characters were given some screen-time. Fredrick Forrest does what he can, but his role is intentionally subordinate to Rose, so it’s not much help. Alan Bates, as her promoter, is the only other person in the movie as strong as Rose, however his character is almost completely one-sided.
            This may have been calculated to keep Rose in the spotlight, but it only hinders Bette Midler and ends up being a major waste of Alan Bates’ talents.
            Since quite a bit of “THE ROSE” is Bette Midler on stage singing, if she just had some really good songs to sing (that were within the realm of her abilities) the whole film would have been improved immeasurably. It’s not even as though they would have been that difficult to find either, for several of Janis Joplin’s songs would not only have been suitable, but great.

—JOSH BECKER

January, 1980

“THE BLACK HOLE”

            During the production of “THE BLACK HOLE” the joke on the Walt Disney Studios lot was referring to the film as “THAT DARN BLACK HOLE,” however a more apt joke would have been “20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THAT DARN BLACK HOLE.” The film is blatantly the “STAR WARS” version of “20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA” and it’s actually a pretty good idea.
            But knowing the roots of the storyline doesn’t mean too much because very little emphasis is put on the story, which is a shame, but very intentional and really nothing to get upset about.
            Those folks at Disney decided to put all of the importance on the special effects and they don’t let up for a minute. Even during expository dialog scenes, major special effects are going on, whether the people are just floating around surrounded by computer readouts, or they are standing beside a window out of which can be seen ten miles of a spaceship stretching off into the distance. Many of the effects are just astounding, some are a bit more common at this point, but the fact remains that they just don’t stop.
            And yet, for all it’s technical wizardry, “THE BLACK HOLE” never really ignites. It’s never slow or boring and there is always something to look at, but we are never given the chance to totally lose ourselves in it.
            Within moments of the film’s beginning the plot premise is stated and gotten out of the way and the action begins. We never get to know anyone or like anyone, just view the proceedings from outside. This sort of cheats the audience out of ever being able to feel the intensity of the situations, and considering the dire straits these characters are faced with, that is something of a loss.
            But playing down the human aspects of the story does allow for that many more special effects and as they get bigger and more terrifying, logic seem to dissipate until we plunge into the black hole and we get a Disney-style “2001” ending. There is nothing going on that a twelve-year-old couldn’t pick up, but at least the explanations are not verbally stated, which is surprising for a Disney film.
            “THE BLACK HOLE” isn’t nearly as good as “STAR WARS,” however it is the
best “STAR WARS”-inspired film to come out yet.

—JOSH BECKER

“1941”

            Steven Spielberg was executive producer on the film “I WANNA HOLD YOUR
HAND” which was written and directed by Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and even though it was beautifully shot and exceedingly clever, it really wasn’t that funny and died a horrible death at the box-office. Steven Spielberg’s newest film, “1941,” was written by Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale (with some help on the story from John Milius) and is also beautifully shot, astoundingly clever and not particularly funny.
            But why isn’t it funny? It has John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd. It has more comic situations than half a dozen other comedies combined. It has a few shticks that are as inventive as anything Buster Keaton ever thought up, so why isn’t the goddamn movie funny?
            Let’s face it, comedy is a very strange thing. Some people can’t help being Funny, while others can’t be funny for anything. Spielberg was able to get some very substantial laughs in “JAWS.” This may be because the situation was so tense that any humor was an emotional outlet, or it could be that the actors were just funny, or that at the time Spielberg was funny — whatever the case may be, Steven Spielberg has gotten laughs in the past, but never in a comedy.
            “1941” is a comedy and he is always going for the laughs and unfortunately, rarely gets them. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t one big laugh in the film, although there were several chortles.
            Generally, if the film is a comedy and it doesn’t make you laugh, it’s a stinker. That’s the bottom line. That’s not exactly the case with “1941.” The movie is such a spectacle and has such astounding production values that it’s always watchable.  It’s a beautiful production. There is so much to look at and there is so much money splashed all over the screen that it’s a handbook on the possibilities of big-budget Hollywood film making.

            But there are no surprises. The idea of everyone in Los Angeles going crazy with paranoia after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and a stray Japanese submarine actually attempting an attack is a good idea for a film, but everything that happens is totally predictable. Once all of the characters are introduced and we see just how crazy or inept they are, that’s exactly the way they remain for the rest of the picture. Belushi is a crazy pilot, Ackroyd is a crazy tank commander, Toshiro Mifune is an inept sub commander and everyone else is simply an inept human being. There are no really normal characters, nor are there any particularly witty ones; everyone is crazy or inept. Not because we decide they are, but because that’s the way they are.
            When Woody Allen does something completely illogical in one of his movies, at least he is convinced that it’s rational. It’s not just that he’s acting illogical that’s funny, it’s how he perceives it in tandem with the illogical act that’s funny.  When Belushi acts crazy in “1941” he is acting crazy. It’s not that he’s acting normal in a crazy situation, or that he’s merely crazy — he’s acting crazy and that’s just what it looks like.
             That is the problem. Nobody in the film actually seems concerned that the Japanese may be attacking, it’s just an excuse for them to play nuts and vainly try to make us laugh.
            In “1941” Spielberg appears to be going for the type of black comedy that Kubrick had in “DR. STRANGELOVE” (both of which, by the way, have Slim Pickens in them). We are supposed to be laughing in the face of a possible nightmare. The main difference is that the characters in “DR. STRANGELOVE” are crazy because of their situations, whereas the characters in “1941” are crazy because Spielberg, Zemeckis and Gale think that’s funny.
            Every now and then Spielberg either forgets or ignores the fact that he is making a comedy and shows what an astounding filmmaker he is, particularly during a dance contest at the Hollywood USO. The music, dance and film technique combine for a great effect.
            And yet, for all of the great things going for “1941”: beautiful special effects by A.D. Flowers, a rousing John Williams score, immaculate cinematography by William Fraker, the fact remains that it is a comedy and it’s not very funny — and I’m afraid that is the bottom line.

—JOSH BECKER

February, 1980

“GOING IN STYLE”

            Amidst all of the mega-buck, special-effects films of recent days, it’s nice to see a movie that depends solely on it’s cast and story for affect. It’s also nice to know that the decision-makers in Hollywood still feel it is worthwhile to finance a “little” movie.
            “GOING IN STYLE” is about three elderly men who become aggravated with sitting in the park and watching the rest of their lives pass them by. They decide to not only join back into the mainstream of things, but to get some fun and excitement. However, once they fulfill their dream of thrills, which occurs about halfway into the film, writer-director Martin Brest doesn’t seem to have any idea what should logically follow, so the entire second half is merely a response to the first.
            It’s always great to see three veteran actors like George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg get roles they can do something with, but none of them ever really gets a chance to get up a full head of steam. But alas, the realization of their humdrum lives and their big thrill all come too early into the story, and what is shown of their boring lives is actually the best part of the film.
            Living exclusively on their meager social security checks, the men live together in an old apartment in New York watching their final days slip by. The interplay between the three of them is so natural that it’s fascinating, and also rather unique in recent films.
            But once again, halfway through the threesome is split up and from then on the whole load is dumped on George Burns to pull off, which he actually does, although with very little help from the script. To lose the interplay between Burns, Carney and Lee Strasberg so early is a crime. It may have seemed that since Lee Strasberg had the fewest lines his character wasn’t really that necessary, but quite frankly he was the one that I was looking at most of the time. He was the quietest of the characters and spends most of his screen time responding to the others. Just to see Strasberg’s face as George Burns outlines his plans for their big day of fun, or even a simple little thing like him asking for a little more hot water in his coffee and Art Carney begrudgingly pouring him “a little” more were just wonderful.
            “GOING IN STYLE” generates an amazing amount of energy through three bored old men, which, though apparently simple while you watch it, is really a major feat. And even though George Burns is a strong enough performer to carry the second half of the movie himself, with Art Carney and Lee Strasberg in the first half no one needed to carry anything, it all magically hovered around them.

—JOSH BECKER

 

 

 

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