Peter Bogdanovich directs Marty Kaplan’s adaptation of Michael Frayn’s highly successful stage farce about a director (Michael Caine) and a cast of hapless actors trying to whip a sex farce into shape. The transition from stage to screen may be bumpy in spots, but this movie is much funnier than Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc?, and the long-take shooting style is executed with fluidity and precision. The basic idea is to hurtle us through three increasingly disastrous tryouts of the same first act, which might be loosely termed Desperate Dress Rehearsal in Des Moines, Actors in Personal Disarray Backstage in Miami Beach, and Props in Revolt in Cleveland; the fleetness of this raucous theme-and-variations form makes it easy to slide past the confusion of all the onstage and offstage intrigues. I can’t comment on the changes undergone by Frayn’s material, except to note that I find it hard to buy the closing artificial uplift, which seems to have been papered over the original’s very English sense of pathos and defeat. Ironically, after the warm and dense ensemble work of Texasville, Bogdanovich reverts here to the cold-blooded mechanics of choreographing one-trait characters, though the chilly class biases of his early urban comedies once again give way to something more egalitarian and balanced.… Read more »
Stanley Kubrick shares with Orson Welles and Carl Dreyer the role of the Great Confounder — remaining supremely himself while frustrating every attempt to anticipate his next move or to categorize it once it registers. This odd 1987 adaptation of Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers, with script-writing assistance from Michael Herr as well as Hasford, has more to do with the general theme of colonization (of individuals and countries alike) and the suppression by male soldiers of their female traits than with the specifics of Vietnam or the Tet offensive. Elliptical, full of subtle inner rhymes (for instance, the sound cues equating a psychopathic marine in the first part with a dying female sniper in the second), and profoundly moving, this is the most tightly crafted Kubrick film since Dr. Strangelove, as well as the most horrific; the first section alone accomplishes most of what The Shining failed to do. With Matthew Modine, Adam Baldwin, Vincent D’Onofrio, and R. Lee Ermey. R, 116 min. (JR)
From Film Comment (January-February 1975). An expanded version of an entry for Richard Roud’s 1980, two-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. (“Dream Masters I,” incidentally, which appeared in the same issue of Film Comment, is devoted to Walt Disney — a much longer essay that can be accessed here.) I was delighted to receive a handwritten letter of thanks from Avery himself sometime after this was published which I still have in one of my scrapbooks. And, for the record, despite my gripes here about the unlikeliness of a Paul Fejos Festival, I did actually attend a Paul Fejos retrospective at the Viennale in 2004, almost 30 years after this was written. — J.R.
A double feature of my two favorite Preston Sturges comedies, both of them sublimely wacko. Christmas in July, his second feature as writer-director (1940, 66 min.), is in many ways his most underrated movie, a riotous satire of capitalism that bites so deep it hurts. An ambitious office clerk (Dick Powell), determined to strike it rich in an advertising contest with his stupid slogan (“If you can’t sleep, it isn’t the coffee, it’s the bunk”), is tricked by a few of his coworkers into believing that he’s actually won, promptly gets promoted, and goes on a shopping spree for his neighbors and relatives. Like all of Sturges’s finest work, this captures the mood of the Depression more succinctly than most pictures, and the brilliantly polyphonic script repeats the hero’s dim-witted slogan so many times that eventually it becomes a kind of crazed tribal incantation. As usual, the supporting cast (including Ellen Drew, William Demarest, and Raymond Walburn) is luminous, and Sturges uses them like instruments in a madcap concerto. In the simultaneously tender and scalding The Palm Beach Story (1942, 88 min.), Rudy Vallee turns in his all-time best performance as a gentle, puny millionaire named Hackensacker. Claudette Colbert, married to a penniless architectural engineer (Joel McCrea), takes off for Florida and winds up being wooed by the millionaire, and when McCrea shows up she persuades him to pose as her brother.… Read more »