When I was a teenager, the film critic Pauline Kael was one of my idols. I loved her reviews. Even when I disagreed with her I learned something new. I felt sure that I could predict which movies she’d like and which ones she’d trash, but I was never that sure. She was always surprising. She was crazy for movies and wanted to be overwhelmed by them. She wrote sprawling reviews. They were always something to look forward to.
In the late ’80s, she fell ill, and I wrote her a note, saying, in effect that she could not die before she had the chance to review my first movie. Weeks later, I received a postcard with scrawled handwriting on one side–“It wasn’t the prospect of reviewing your first movie that laid me so low, although something sure as hell did. Good luck, Pauline Kael.” She retired from the New Yorker not long after that.
Her reviews were also condensed into blurbs in the front of the New Yorker. Here is a random selection, sure, as always, to raise an eyebrow, make someone furious, and perhaps turn your head too.
It’s a rainy day in New York. Enjoy:
All of Me
US (1984): Comedy
93 min, Rated PG, Color.
Steve Martin is Roger, a lawyer who has been sent to revise the will of Edwina (Lily Tomlin), a rich, bedridden spinster. Edwina has imported a Tibetan swami (Richard Libertini), who at the moment of her death is supposed to capture her spiritual substance in a bronze pot and transfer it into the curvy body of the lovely Terry (Victoria Tennant), who has agreed to vacate it. Edwina instructs Roger to arrange for Terry to inherit everything she has, but he thinks she’s crazy and refuses. The argument precipitates her demise, and in the confusion her spirit pops into Roger’s body, and enters into joint occupancy with him. This is the nifty premise of a romantic comedy about how two antagonists in the same body fall in love. Martin and Tomlin are both uninhibited physical comics. They tune in to each other’s timing the way lovers do in life, only more so, and in her early scenes Tomlin presents a distinctive enough caricature for us to sense Edwina’s presence when Martin simulates her being inside him. He’s a wizard at keeping her vivid for us. And the director, Carl Reiner, seems to have an intuitive rapport with the two leads, with Libertini as the disoriented Tibetan, with Jason Bernard, who plays a black musician pal of Roger’s, and with the talented Madolyn Smith, who plays Roger’s nasty fiancée. Reiner’s weakness is that the gags aren’t thought out visually in terms of the LA locations; the camera setups are often klunky, especially in Edwina’s mansion (it’s Greystone, where THE LOVED ONE was also shot, and which was for some years the base of the American Film Institute). The film has a halfhearted subplot about Dana Elcar as Roger’s philandering boss; it also suffers a dip in energy when Edwina’s spirit finally enters Terry’s body, because the beautiful, mild Victoria Tennant doesn’t indicate that Terry is at all changed. Edwina seems to disappear (but she comes back). Parts of this picture give viewers the kind of giddy pleasure that is often what we most want from the movies. The ingenious script, by Phil Alden Robinson, was adapted from an unpublished novel, Me Two, by Ed Davis. Universal.
A Clockwork Orange
US (1971): Science Fiction
137 min, Rated R, Color.
This Stanley Kubrick film might be the work of a strict and exacting German professor who set out to make a porno-violent sci-fi comedy. The movie is adapted from Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel, which is set in a vaguely socialist future of the late 70s or early 80s-a dreary, routinized England that roving gangs of teenage thugs terrorize at night. In this dehumanizing society, there seems to be no way for the boys to release their energies except in vandalism and crime. The protagonist, Alex (Malcolm McDowell), is the leader of one of these gangs; he’s a conscienceless schoolboy sadist who enjoys stealing, stomping, raping, and destroying, until he kills a woman and is sent to prison. There he is conditioned into a moral robot who becomes nauseated by thoughts of sex and violence. Burgess wrote an ironic fable about a future in which men lose their capacity for moral choice. Kubrick, however, gives us an Alex who is more alive than anybody else in the movie, and younger and more attractive, and McDowell plays him exuberantly, with power and slyness. So at the end, when Alex’s bold, aggressive, punk’s nature is restored to him, it seems not a joke on all of us (as it does in the book) but, rather, a victory in which we share, and Kubrick takes an exultant tone. Along the way, Alex has been set apart as the hero by making his victims less human than he; the picture plays with violence in an intellectually seductive way-Alex’s victims are twisted and incapable of suffering. Kubrick carefully estranges us from these victims so that we can enjoy the rapes and beatings. Alex alone suffers. And how he suffers! He’s a male Little Nell-screaming in a strait jacket during the brainwashing; sweet and helpless when rejected by his parents; alone, weeping, on a bridge; beaten, bleeding, lost in a rainstorm; pounding his head on a floor and crying for death. Kubrick pours on the hearts and flowers; what is done to Alex is far worse than what Alex has done, so society itself can be felt to justify Alex’s hoodlumism. With Patrick Magee and Adrienne Corri; score by Walter Carlos. Produced by Kubrick, for Warners.
US (1970): War/Comedy
116 min, Rated PG, Color.
Robert Altman’s marvellously unstable comedy-a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It’s an episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected, and it keeps you busy listening to some of the best overlapping comic dialogue ever recorded. The title letters stand for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital; the heroes, played by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould, are combat surgeons patching up casualties a few miles from the front during the Korean war. They do their surgery in style, with humor; they’re hip Galahads, saving lives while ragging the military bureaucracy. They’re quick to react to bull-and in startling, unpredictable ways. The movie’s chief charm is a free-for-all, throwaway attitude. It combines traditional roustabout comedy with modern attitudes. It’s hip but it isn’t hopeless. A surgical hospital where the doctors’ hands are lost in chests and guts is certainly an unlikely subject for a comedy, but M*A*S*H is probably the sanest American movie of its era. With Tom Skerritt, Sally Kellerman, Robert Duvall, René Auberjonois, Jo Ann Pflug, Gary Burghof, Fred Williamson, Roger Bowen, David Arkin, Michael Murphy, John Schuck, Kim Atwood, Bud Cort, Carl Gottlieb, and Corey Fischer. The semi-improvised material takes off from a script by Ring Lardner, Jr., based on the novel by Richard Hooker (a doctor’s pseudonym). Cinematography by Harold E. Stine. Produced by Ingo Preminger; the associate producer was Leon Ericksen. (The movie provided the basis for the long-running TV series starring Alan Alda.) 20th Century-Fox.
Richard Pryor-Live in Concert
US (1979): Comedy
78 min, No rating, Color.
Probably the greatest of all recorded-performance films. Pryor has characters and voices bursting out of him. He personifies objects, animals, people, the warring parts of his own body, even thoughts in the heads of men and women–black, white, Oriental; when he tells us about his heart attack, he is, in almost the same instant, the helpless body being double-crossed by its heart, the heart itself, a telephone operator, and Pryor the aloof, dissociated observer. Watching this mysteriously original physical comedian you can’t account for his gift and everything he does seems to be for the first time. The film retains the impetus of a live performance. Directed by Jeff Margolis.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
US (1982): Science Fiction
113 min, Rated PG, Color.
Wonderful dumb fun. The director, Nicholas Meyer, hits just the right amused, slightly self-mocking note in the opening scenes, and the same actors who looked flabby and embarrassed in the 1979 STAR TREK-THE MOTION PICTURE turn into a troupe of confident, witty professionals. The theme of this endlessly inventive movie is death and rebirth, with the prim, smug Admiral Kirk (William Shatner), who has become stiff from sitting at his administrative post, taking a three-week cruise on his old starship, the Enterprise, encountering his old enemy, the maniacal Khan (Ricardo Montalban), and waking up. Montalban plays his fiery villainy to the hilt, smiling grimly as he does the dirty; his bravado is grandly comic. The regulars are all present: Mr. Spock, “Bones” McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, and the fuddled Chekov. And the crew has acquired a voluptuous half-Vulcan–Saavik, played by Kirstie Alley. Such guest performers as Paul Winfield, Bibi Besch, and Judson Scott shine in their roles, and DeForest Kelley makes the prickly Bones more crisply funny than he used to be; his performance helps to compensate for the disappointment of Leonard Nimoy’s ashen, dried-out Spock. The pieces of the story fit together so beautifully that eventually the director has you wrapped up in the foolishness. By the end, all the large, sappy, satisfying emotions get to you. The story is credited to Jack B. Sowards and Harve Bennett, and the script to Sowards, yet it isn’t hard to detect Meyer’s hand (especially when he leaves his signature–at a crucial point he has the hero echo the words of the hero in TIME AFTER TIME). Paramount.
US (1977): Science Fiction
121 min, Rated PG, Color.
One of the biggest box-office successes in movie history–probably because for young audiences it’s like getting a box of Cracker Jack that is all prizes. Written and directed by George Lucas, the film is enjoyable in its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the image of a double sunset. The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, and the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head, and even if you’ve been entertained, you may feel cheated of some dimension–a sense of wonder, perhaps. It’s an epic without a dream. Maybe the only real inspiration involved was to set its sci-fi galaxy in the pop-culture past, and to turn old-movie ineptness into conscious Pop Art. And maybe there’s a touch of genius in keeping the film so consistently what it is, even if this is the genius of the plodding. Lucas has got the tone of bad movies down pat: you never catch the actors deliberately acting badly; they just seem to be bad actors, on contract to Monogram or Republic, their klunky enthusiasm polished at the Ricky Nelson school of acting. In a gesture toward equality of the sexes, the high-school-cheerleader princess-in-distress (played by Carrie Fisher) talks tomboy-tough–Terry Moore with spunk. (Is it because the picture is synthesized from the mythology of serials and old comic books that it didn’t occur to anybody that she could get the Force?) With Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Kenny Baker as R2-D2, and Alec Guinness as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi. A Lucasfilm, released by 20th Century-Fox.
The Sound of Music
US (1965): Musical/Biography
174 min, No rating, Color.
Set in Austria in 1938, this is a tribute to freshness that is so mechanically engineered and so shrewdly calculated that the background music rises, the already soft focus blurs and melts, and, upon the instant, you can hear all those noses blowing in the theatre. Whom could this operetta offend? Only those of us who, despite the fact that we may respond, loathe being manipulated in this way and are aware of how cheap and ready-made are the responses we are made to feel. We may become even more aware of the way we have been turned into emotional and aesthetic imbeciles when we hear ourselves humming the sickly, goody-goody songs. The dauntless, scrubbed-face heroine (Julie Andrews), in training to become a nun, is sent from the convent to serve as governess to the motherless Von Trapp children, and turns them into a happy little troupe of singers before marrying their father (Christopher Plummer). She says goodbye to the nuns and leaves them outside at the fence, as she enters the cathedral to be married. Squeezed again, and the moisture comes out of thousands–millions–of eyes and noses. Wasn’t there perhaps one little Von Trapp who didn’t want to sing his head off, or who screamed that he wouldn’t act out little glockenspiel routines for Papa’s party guests, or who got nervous and threw up if he had to get on a stage? The only thing the director, Robert Wise, couldn’t smooth out was the sinister, archly decadent performance by Christopher Plummer–he of the thin, twisted smile; he seems to be in a different movie altogether. With Eleanor Parker, Richard Haydn, Peggy Wood, Anna Lee, and Marni Nixon. The music is by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II; the script by Ernest Lehman is based on the stage version by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Editing (William Reynolds), Musical Scoring (Irwin Kostal), Sound (the 20th Century-Fox Sound Department).
Dog Day Afternoon
US (1975): Crime
130 min, Rated R, Color.
One of the best “New York” movies ever made. Sidney Lumet directed this fictional re-creation of an unusual bank robbery on a 97-degree day in August, 1972, working from Frank R. Pierson’s very fine script. Sonny (Al Pacino), who is trapped in the middle of robbing a bank, with a crowd gathering in the street outside, is a married working-class man; he got into this robbery mess by trying to raise money for his lover Leon (Chris Sarandon) to have a sex-change operation. The most touching element in the film is Sonny’s inability to handle all the responsibilities he has assumed. Though he is half-crazed by his situation, he is trying to do the right thing by everybody-his wife and children, the suicidal Leon, the hostages in the bank. In the sequence in which Sonny dictates his will, we can see that inside this bungling robber there’s a complicatedly unhappy man, operating out of a sense of noblesse oblige. Pacino has a telephone conversation with Sarandon that by ordinary dramatic standards goes on too long, but this willingness to violate ordinary practice permits the two actors to go further and further emotionally. Lumet keeps so much low comedy and crazy melodrama going on in the bank, on the street, among the police, that he can risk the long, quiet scenes that draw us in. (He doesn’t even use a musical track.) Pacino’s Sonny, grandstanding to the crowds who cheer him on, brings just the right urban craziness to the situation. The contrast between the small, frightened nutty robbers inside the bank and the huge apparatus of police, F.B.I., and news media outside adds to the lunacy. And Sarandon gives one of the finest homosexual performances ever seen in a movie; he’s true to Leon’s anguish in a remarkably pure way-he makes no appeal for sympathy. There are structural problems and there are gross, static scenes involving Sonny’s relatives, but there are also surprising, wonderful things from such actors as John Cazale, who plays Sonny’s partner in the robbery with a despairing burnt-out face, and Charles Durning as a police detective who becomes irascible and begins shouting like Sonny. The cast, which is huge and of highly variable quality, includes Penny Allen, Carol Kane, Gary Springer, James Broderick, Judith Malina, Susan Peretz, and Sully Boyar. (Sonny is based on John Wojtowicz, who was serving a 20-year sentence when the film was released.) Produced by Martin Bregman and Martin Elfand. Warners.
US (1987): Crime
97 min, Rated R, Color.
Morgan Freeman may be the greatest American actor in movies. He gives the role of a Times Square pimp, Fast Black, a scary, sordid magnetism that gives the picture some bite. Magically, he sustains Fast Black’s authenticity; it’s like sustaining King Lear inside GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN. The ostensible star is Christopher Reeve; he appears as a Harvard-educated free-lance writer who fabricates a story about “24 hours in the life of a pimp,” and then becomes enmeshed in Fast Black’s efforts to get clear of a murder charge. The director, Jerry Schatzberg, can make viewers feel the beauty and excitement of everyday grit, and he makes the script (by David Freeman) look and play better than it deserves to, but he can’t give it conviction, rootedness–he can’t conceal the author’s thin, brassy attitudes. Reeve is willing to play a suck-up who’s trying to make his name, yet as an actor he’s physically too inexpressive to play inexpressiveness; it isn’t the character who’s a lug–it’s Reeve. And when we’re told that this journalist has gained the cunning to out-street-smart Fast Black, it’s a white boy’s dream of glory. The screenwriter did, in fact, fabricate “The Lifestyle of a Pimp,” in New York, May 5, 1969; there were no dire results. In the movie, he piles on fantasies of all the things that could or should have happened. Most of the performers do their damnedest. Kathy Baker brings a sexy intelligence to the role of the prostitute Punchy, and André Gregory is terrific as Reeve’s smug, dryly self-amused editor. (He’s his own yes-man.) Schatzberg and his cinematographer, Adam Holender, bring off the trick of using Montreal for most of the Manhattan locations. The funky jazz score (by Robert Irving III) features Miles Davis, and Kathy Baker seduces Reeve to Aretha Franklin singing “Natural Woman.” Released by Cannon Films.
US (1973): Crime
110 min, Rated R, Color.
A true original, and a triumph of personal filmmaking. This picture about the experience of growing up in New York’s Little Italy has an unsettling, episodic rhythm and it’s dizzyingly sensual. The director, Martin Scorsese, shows us a thicker-textured rot than we have ever had in an American movie, and a riper sense of evil. With Harvey Keitel as Charlie, Robert De Niro as Johnny Boy, and Richard Romanus, David Proval, Harry Northup, George Memmoli, Amy Robinson, Cesare Danova, and, in bits, David Carradine, Robert Carradine, and the director–he’s the gunman in the car. Script by Scorsese and Mardik Martin; cinematography by Kent Wakeford; produced by Jonathan Taplin. (Most of the film was actually shot in Los Angeles.) Warners.
US (1990): Drama/Crime
146 min, Rated R, Color.
The director, Martin Scorsese, gives you a lift. He loves the Brooklyn organized crime milieu, because it’s where distortion, hyperbole, and exuberance all commingle. His mobsters are high on having a wad of cash in their pockets. The movie is about being cock of the walk, with banners flying and crowds cheering. Based on Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book WiseGuy, it’s a triumphant piece of filmmaking-journalism and sociology presented with the brio of drama. But the three major hoods, played by Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci, don’t have a strong enough presence, and the movie lacks the juice and richness that come with major performances. (It’s like the Howard Hawks SCARFACE without Scarface.) What you respond to is Scorsese’s bravura: the filmmaking process becomes the subject of the movie. Watching it is like getting strung out on pure sensation. Paul Sorvino as Paulie and Lorraine Bracco as Karen both come through, and Tony Darrow as a restaurant owner, Welker White as a drug courier who needs her lucky hat to make a coke delivery, and other performers in minor roles give the movie a frenzied, funny texture. Christopher Serrone plays the boy who turns into Liotta. The screenplay is by Pileggi and Scorsese; the cinematography is by Michael Ballhaus; the editing is by Thelma Schoonmaker. Warners.