Old Reviews, Volume #6

         

April, 1980

“BEING THERE”

            One of the most difficult things about reviewing films is trying not to say exactly the same thing as every other critic. Actually, most reviewers probably don’t even consider this a problem, it’s merely par for the course, but it certainly annoys me. Every now and then, however, it is impossible to avoid this dilemma. This happens to be the case with “BEING THERE.”

            Jerzy Kosinski, author of the novel and screenplay, is without a doubt a brilliant writer. Of his seven novels five are written exactly the same way; short vignettes all involving the same character. His two exceptions to this style are “THE PAINTED BIRD” and “BEING THERE,” neither of which are anything like the other five.  “BEING THERE” is Kosinski’s longest single narrative story and although it’s really a great idea — a person lives his entire life with no other input beside tending a garden and watching TV, then is forced out into the world — it is also very literary and very concise. The novel is only 116 pages (in large type) and is wholly complete. Everything that’s in the novel is in the movie, and then some, and that’s what hurts it a little.

            And now for the comment that every reviewer seems to have made – “BEING THERE” is a one-joke film and after about an hour and a half it begins wearing a tad thin. Throughout the film everyone finds Chance (Peter Sellers) to be very wise, and it’s easy to understand how they might, but toward the end you really can’t see how absolutely everyone is being fooled. Had the movie been shorter, like a half an hour (it runs 130 minutes) this wouldn’t have been a problem. However, it’s still down right amazing that the book made it to the screen in as good of condition as it did.
            “BEING THERE” is refreshingly original entertainment. It’s also expertly filmed and directed, strangely funny and the character of Chance is perfectly played by Peter Sellers (although he’s really too old).  Without question, this is the best role Sellers has had since “DR. STRANGELOVE”. His ability to completely exploit the role without overdoing it is amazing. It’s also the foundation upon which the whole movie rests.  It is such a pleasure to see Peter Sellers in a role that is worthy of his abilities.

Even though his Inspector Clouseau character from the “PINK PANTHER” movies is funny by the third one, it was enough. One certainly can’t blame either Peter Sellers or Blake Edwards for keeping the series going, Lord knows how much they’ve made from it, but at this point it is like seeing the same movie over and over again.

            “BEING THERE,” on the other hand, is something completely new for Peter Sellers and he performs magnificently. Jerzy Kosinski’s screenplay and Hal Ashby’s direction make it one of the truest renderings of a book to film ever. Not only that, but it has possibly the oddest end credits ever.
            “BEING THERE” may wear thin in its last half an hour, but even at its thinnest it is still first-rate entertainment.

 

“COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER”


            The story of a singer or dancer or actor’s meteoric rise to fame, the problems of their neglected husband or wife and their difficulty dealing with the fame is about as tried and true of a storyline as there is. And in just about everyone of these stories (including all three versions of “A STAR IS BORN”) the ascent is a lot more fun to watch than the fall. Also, it’s just a little bit difficult to feel sorry for a character because they achieved their goals, became famous, and then can’t cope with it. It’s a malady that we all wish we were afflicted with and when those few who do get it begin complaining, the remedy from down below seems so simple – give them a good swift kick in the ass and tell them to straighten up.



Coal Miner's Daughter vs. Nashville Breakdown


            “COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER,” the story of country singer Loretta Lynne, is a good movie, however aside from the early scenes of her growing up in Kentucky, it is exactly like every other film of its ilk. It’s also plagued with a rather peculiar problem: the scene of Loretta Lynne breaking down during a concert was already recently done in the film ‘NASHVILLE.” The scenes are more than just similar, Ronee Blakley’s character and breakdown were very definitely based on Loretta Lynne (“the queen of country music,” white dress and all), so the two scenes are almost exactly alike, except that it works better in “NASHVILLE.”
            What makes “COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER” more than just worth seeing are quite a few terrific performances: Sissy Spacek as Lynne ages from fourteen to about thirty-five or forty and pulls it off effortlessly and even though she isn’t really a great singer, she sings number after number with such natural authority that she is a country-western star;


Tommy Lee Jones as her husband gives the performance of his career, Levon Helm (formerly the drummer for The Band) does amazingly well for a first-time actor with very few lines — but best of all, Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline is absolutely breathtaking and a superlative singer. It’s too bad she is in so little of the movie.
            Michael Apted, who directed the very underrated “AGATHA” last year, does a nice, standard job. The cinematographer, Ralf Bode, who photographed “SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER,” also does a first-rate job. 
            “COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER” never hits a moment of greatness, but it is exactly the sort of film that Hollywood does best and when it’s performed this well, there is very little more you could ask for.

 

“HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT”

            James Caan makes his directional debut and proves without a shadow of a doubt that all actors are not born to be directors. In the film, Caan’s kids are taken from him, then he spends two exceptionally long hours looking for them. The only consolation in his finally finding them is that the film ends soon thereafter.

 

“CHAPTER TWO”

            Neil Simon is like the Jeep manufacturer of the theater and film world; his product is always high quality and dependable and they all look alike.
            “CHAPTER TWO” is just a touch more serious than most of Simon’s work and is slightly more affective because of it. James Caan, Marsha Mason and Joseph Bologna all give fine performances and deliver Simon’s multitude of snappy one-liners expertly, although 99% of them are impossible to remember five minutes after the film has ended. While you’re watching it, however, it’s purely enjoyable.

 

“FATSO”

            An interesting, particularly mild film written and directed by Anne Bancroft. Dom DeLuise can’t stop eating and doesn’t really want to stop, but all of his friends and relatives think he should, so he tries. There are a couple of very funny scenes, but otherwise it is strictly TV movie material and the cinematography is even a little too sloppy for TV. Nonetheless, it’s basically original and moves pretty well for a writer/director’s first film, It should be interesting to see what Bancroft does next.

 

“LADY AND THE TRAMP”

            This is one of Walt Disney’s last, really great animated films. It is not only beautifully done, but about as charming and funny as anything that’s presently out. The fact that it’s a cartoon about dogs (filmed exclusively from their point of view) only enhances its uniqueness. There may be trepidation on the part of adults about going to see a cartoon unless they are accompanying the kids, however LADY AND THE TRAMP” should absolutely not be viewed in that light; it delivers as much enjoyable entertainment as one could ask for when going out to the movies.

May, 1980

“THE BLACK STALLION”

            I’m always a little put off when people I know who never notice cinematography tell me a film is beautifully photographed. When this is the case I know the film is either dreadfully long and boring like “DR. ZHIVAGO” or entirely lacking in substance beyond the photography, like “DAYS OF HEAVEN.” When everyone is noticing the camerawork, something is missing in the film.
            “THE BLACK STALLION” unquestionably looks magnificent, however there is assuredly something lacking at its core – caring for the little boy who the whole film is all about. The first half of the film takes place almost entirely on an island with just the boy and the horse with no dialog. The intentions of the filmmakers are very admirable, however it never seems natural.

            Filmmaking is about as unnatural of an undertaking as there ever was and on a production the scale of “THE BLACK STALLION” — millions of dollars, tons of equipment, lots of production personnel — simplicity probably never reared its head. Director Carroll Ballard makes a valiant attempt at making a totally visual film, but the natural simplicity that the film strives for, it rarely achieves.
            The second half of the film is like “NATIONAL VELVET” or “CASEY’S SHADOW” and is pretty standard fare and is even less involving than the first half. Mickey Rooney livens things up a little with a fun performance, but the movie gets less and less exciting as the story builds to its climax. And, just as the story reaches its highest point, it inexplicably lapses into a flashback to the serenity of the boy and the horse on the island and when we get back to the story the excitement is over.
            Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“BEING THERE”) have composed a visually lovely film, but it never gels nor draws the viewer in. The first half of the movie seems to be a completely different film from the second half and every now and then the editing is unnecessarily rapid and jarring.
            Nevertheless, with all of its flaws “THE BLACK STALLION” is a wonderfully admirable film and Carroll Ballard seems like he might be an astounding talent. As has happened several times in the past though, beautiful cinematography does not a great film make.

 

“SERIAL”

            The first half hour of “SERIAL” is an assault on the senses: it’s as meaningless, trite and obnoxious as almost anything that has ever been filmed. There are long stretches of dialog that say absolutely nothing, every character is as shallow and awful as every other, there doesn’t appear to be even the slightest hint of a story and the proceedings don’t look like they’re going to go anywhere either – but they do.
            Amidst all of this horrible, irrational behavior appears the last sane man (Martin Mull) and he is being driven crazy by everyone in the film just as much as we are. Once we have someone to empathize with things getting funny in a totally paranoid way. It gets to a point where you either have to laugh or get mad because everyone is just too stupid.
            “SERIAL” is an exceptionally unlikable film that’s strangely funny because of it. That anyone would intentionally make a film that’s this alienating I find very weird.

 

“MY BRILLIANT CAREER”

            This is only my second Australian film (the first was “NEWSFRONT” last year) and so far I’m very impressed. The life in Australia as portrayed in these films and the films themselves are quite foreign in their thought and approach, yet everyone speaks English so there is no distracting subtitles to deal with.
            “MY BRILLIANT CAREER” is about a young girl coming of age in Australia in the late l9th century. She is free-spirited and wants a career, however everyone else would like to see her married.
            Simple enough. Never once does anything amazing happen, yet never once did the film fail to hold my attention. Everyone in the cast is quite good and Sam Neill, as the girl’s suitor, seems something like a young James Mason at times, while at others is a very quiet, strange presence. Judy Davis as the young girl is very good, but some-what unapproachable, which is appropriate for her character, but always keeps us at arm’s length.
            Be that as it may, “MY BRILLIANT CAREER” flows evenly from beginning to end, the scenery is pastoral, the emotions are honest and it’s pleasant to watch throughout.

 

“LITTLE DARLINGS”

            “LITTLE DARLINGS” is corny, sophomoric, and occasionally downright stupid, it’s also very effective in an enjoyably uncomfortable, squirmy sort of way.
            Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol have a contest at summer camp to see who can lose their virginity first, then the rest of the camp places bets and takes sides. The idea sounds like it could be horrendous or possibly mildly titillating in an exploitive manner.
            It’s actually neither. It’s the story of two young girls going through very identifiable emotional upheavals as they are quickly forced into finding out about sex. Tatum O’Neal’s relationship with a counselor (Armand Assante) is not given enough screen-time or characterization for it to mean anything, although Assante does quite well with what he’s got. Tatum, on the other hand, never really gets going and it’s a combination of her inability and the fact that the screenwriters don’t seem particularly interested in her character.
            The weight of the entire film falls on Kristy. McNichol and she’s wonderful. For a young lady who is neither exceptionally pretty, nor any too subtle of an actress, McNichol is both sexy and totally believable. Her character, Angel, isn’t very bright, but is intuitive in a street-wise way. She nearly chain-smokes her way through the film and finds herself a moron, burn-out of a boyfriend (Matt Dillon) who is absolutely terrific. The relationship between these two mildly insipid youngsters is beautiful. It never gets played out quite as much as it ought to, but while it’s going on it’s real and funny and touching.
            The rest of the story, dealing mainly with the other campers and their role in the contest, is cliché-ridden and fairly meaningless, but it’s performed with youthful exuberance and moves along swiftly. All of the scenes dealing with “camp life” look completely fake with all of the girls always immaculately clean and possibly three staff members visible throughout the entire film.
            But it makes absolutely no difference because it’s all set-up to get Tatum and Kristy as quickly to a point where it would be possible for them to lose their virginity as can be logically arranged. Reality would have interfered, so the filmmakers simply dispensed with it and it all seems perfectly acceptable.
            Overlooking the fact that “LITTLE DARLINGS” is relatively dumb a lot of the time and you will find an enjoyable and oddly moving film.

 

“FOXES”

            “FOXES” is a pretentious little movie that’s actually kind of depressing for no good reason.
            The film has nothing to say and goes nowhere, however it would seemingly like us to believe that it does have a point which might be construed as something meaningful like: “life is short” or “youth is wasted on the young” or some such nonsense. Beyond that there isn’t even the slightest hint of a story to keep things moving forward.
            The only threads holding the action together are Jodie Foster, who gives a strong performance, and the repetition of Donna Summer’s song “On The Radio” that’s never once appropriately used. Casablanca Record and Filmworks also treats us to bits and pieces of quite a few other musicians on their label that also never fit the film.
            If screenwriter Gerald Ayres had simply accepted the fact that he had no point to make and had employed some plot device, no matter how cheap it might have been, “FOXES” might possibly have been okay. As it is, however, it just ambles along going nowhere and becomes rather depressing along the way.

 

 

 

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