The Guilty: One-Man Show

Jake Gyllenhaal in The Guilty

The Guilty
****
(Streaming on Netflix October 1)

The dialogue-rich story of the worst night in a 911 operator’s life could have worked as a radio drama, but that would have meant missing Jake Gyllenhaal’s iron-clad performance in this taut psychological thriller.

He’s in virtually every frame as Joe Baylor, a street cop who’s stuck on Emergency Dispatch duty pending trial for police brutality. Gyllenhaal is almost animalistic here:  mouth taut, eyes darting like rococheting bullets as a life-and-death scenario unravels over the air, maddeningly out of reach.

One can guess the film’s conceit—a man alone in a room having desperate conversations with unseen callers—arose out of necessity in the COVID-19 filmmaking era. But art often arises out of the bonds of limitation, and The Guilty is a case in point. Besides the visual riches of Gyllenhaal’s performance, the film showcases some truly spectacular voice acting from stars like Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Riley Keough and Peter Sarsgaard.

The film is pretty much a shot-for-shot remake of a 2018 Danish film of the same name, but director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer)—who ordinarilly loves to expand his action films into sprawling set pieces—wisely sticks to the prototype. This may well be the first film Fuqua’s made in which the hero does not walk slowly away from an exploding car or building, but Gyllenhaal provides all the fireworks he needs.

Dear Evan Hansen: Dancing On a High Wire

Dear Evan Hansen (Opening Sept. 24)
****

Ben Platt and Julianne Moore

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

A feel-good musical that focuses on teenage depression and suicide? Yes, please! Dear Evan Hansen’s endlesly appealing cast walks a treacherous tightrope, barely keeping its collective balance above a chasmic premise that threatens at any given moment to swallow them all alive. Most of the songs from the smash Broadway production have been kept, along with Tony Award-winning star Ben Platt in the title role—another tricky decision, since he’s now 26. Yes, maybe he’s a bit old for the part, but with those enormous eyes and awkward gestures, Platt more than makes up for his chronological handicap with deep knowledge of the character. 

Julianne Moore shines as his harried, distracted but loving mom (The studio insists that’s actually Moore singing, in which case the film’s voice coach did her no favors by teaching her to trill like a teenage contestant on The Voice).

I don’t rember the last I cried at a movie, and if Dear Evan Hansen is unfairly manipulative in drawing them, you have to give the filmmakers credit for knowing precisely which strings to pull and when. 

Swimming With Hal Holbrook

On February 2, 2008, Hal Holbrook Had a Story to Tell

Here’s a photo of the late, great Hal Holbrook, who I’m sad to report has just died at 95 after a long, eventful, and ridiculously creative life. It’s a photo I’m particularly fond of, taken at the Hotel Bel-Air on a February evening in 2008, as Hal graciously accepted the AARP Movies For Grownups Lifetime Achievement Award.   

Not visible in this photo, just to Hal’s left, is me—trying to figure out a respectful, non-creepy way to drag one of the past century’s most beloved actors away from the podium. 

“This is one of the greatest moments…of my life!” Hal had declared, pausing for dramatic effect, acknowledging the standing ovation from a roomful of celebrities, holding aloft the golden Movies For Grownups Chaise d’Or trophy.

“You know…” he then began, adopting the storyteller’s cadence that he’d perfected as a young man, playing Mark Twain thousands of times in the stage show that first made him famous. “This morning I was going for my morning swim. I swim every morning. I highly recommend it. And I was doing a backstroke. Just slicing through the water. Stroke…stroke…stroke…And I watched the ceiling above the pool just slide by, and I got to thinking about the things that brought me to this spot, here in this room, tonight…”

Then Hal Holbrook, summoning his considerable actor’s gifts, harkened back to his earliest childhood memories in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a vaudeville dancer. His voice quivered slightly as he recalled being abandoned by his parents at age two and, along with his two sisters, being raised by his grandparents. 

He spoke of school; of developing his Mark Twain persona as a project in college; of being discovered by Ed Sullivan in the 1950s. 

The audience was rapt. Holbrook, the consummate storyteller, had this A-list group in the palm of his hand. 

There was just one problem. Hal had been speaking for 10 minutes and he was barely into his young adulthood. One could sense the slow rise of nervousness in the room. 

Another 10 minutes slid by. After reminiscing, dewey-eyed, about Shirley Booth and a 1966 TV version of The Glass Menagerie, Hal finally returned to his framing device; swimming on his back, backstroking through life. 

“And so,” he said, and you could almost feel the breeze from the audience’s sigh of relief, “I do recommend a daily swim. It clears your mind; it focuses your memory. As I swam there, on my back, looking at the ceiling, I thought about making the difficult decision to play a gay man in That Certain Summer, with Marty Sheen, back in 1972…”

Hal Holbrook was swimming. The rest of us felt like we were beginning to drown.

I turned tentatively to Hal’s wife, the actress Dixie Carter, who was sitting to my left at a large round table near the stage. Her eyes were fixed on the love of her life, her mouth slightly open in a proud smile. 

“Do…do you know how long Hal was planning to talk?” I whispered.

She turned to me, her smile not diminishing in the least.

“Oh, don’t worry. Hal could go on like this all night!” she enthused.

I felt an elbow in my right ribs. It was my other table mate, Julie Andrews.

“You’ll have to do something,” she whispered.

After another 10 minutes did a slow crawl, Hal was lovingly telling a story about his stint on TV’s Designing Women in the 1980s, costarring with Dixie. There was no end in sight.

The actual host of the evening was Monty Python’s John Cleese, but as tall as he is, Cleese was nowhere to be found. I imagined him sliding down into his seat, Basil Fawlty-like, just wishing to be left out of the unfolding drama. As the movie critic for the event’s sponsor, AARP the Magazine, and creator of the Movies for Grownups Awards, I had given the evening’s opening remarks and made some introductions. Although I was not the master of ceremonies, it appeared I would have to be the sergeant at arms. 

 At the next table sat my editor at AARP the Magazine, Nancy Graham. She was frantically nodding her head toward the podium, mouthing the words, “Get him off!”

In a distant corner, I heard Rob Reiner stage whisper: “Are there any rooms available in this hotel, because I think we may all have to check in!”

Tentatively, I rose from my seat and made my way to Hal’s left, about five feet from the raised podium. I stood there, wondering what to do next, goofily resplendent in my tuxedo (earlier in the evening, Michael Moore had mistaken me for a waiter). I was now aware that not a single person in the room was watching the speaker. Every pair of eyes was focused on me.

“Save us, Obi Bill,” they pleaded silently. “You’re our only hope.”

I knew I needed to catch Hal’s eye, but that was difficult because at this moment his eyes were actually closed, his face raised upward, his voice waxing rhapsodic about discovering love again with his beloved Dixie. I moved slightly forward and shifted from foot to foot, hoping that when he re-opened his eyes the movement would draw his attention.

It did. Hal looked at me, flashed a smile, nodded—and continued with a story about reuniting with Marty Sheen in an episode of The West Wing. 

Finally, I had an opening. Once more, Hal employed his framing device: A man in his twilight years, backstroking through his pool of memories. 

I stepped onto the podium. I was within two feet of Hal. He turned, looked at me utterly unsurprised, returned to his microphone and said, “I guess that’s it. This has been a great honor. Thank you, and good night!”

During his six decades in show business, Hal Holbrook may have enjoyed louder ovations at the end of a performance. But he most certainly never got a more grateful one. 

He had been up there for 40 minutes. 

About five years later, I interviewed Hal one last time in relation to his film Savannah. As we wrapped up, I reminded him of that night in Bel Air.

“Oh, yes!” he said. “I did that swimming thing.”

Who could forget?

The Court Jester: Oh, Kaye!

Danny Kaye laughs it up in The Court Jester

The Court Jester  (1955)  
**** 
Paramount Home Entertainment Blu-ray

I’m beginning to fear we might lose Danny Kaye.

Among the most natural entertainers of his era, Kaye was a consummate song-and-dance man and physically reckless clown. As such, his talents best served those of us lucky enough to have seen him on his Peabody Award-winning 1960s variety show or, better yet, live on stage. As similar talents like Carol Channing and Nathan Lane would also learn, the movies richly reward those who know how to establish intimacy with their audience—but often don’t know precisely what to do with singular talents that seem determined to grab viewers by the throat and throttle them into submission.

Kaye made some good movies (my favorite being The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), and there are many who consider 1955’s The Court Jester—now available on Blu-ray for the first time—not only his best film, but also one of the top movie musicals ever made. It’s a Kaye vehicle from the first frame: The star, in a jester’s outfit, sings a humorous patter song during the opening credits, making in-jokes about how songwriters Sammy Cahn and Sylvia Fine (Kaye’s wife) should split up their credits, and poking fun at the fact that the film has two directors (frequent collaborators Norman Panama and Melvin Frank).

Then it’s off to the races with a complicated story about Kaye’s nebbishy character, a humorous sidekick to a dashing Robin Hood-type bandit, who rises to hero status himself as he helps defeat a cruel king who is determined to murder a baby, the sole heir to the throne he usurped in a bloody coup. Whew! And that’s just a thumbnail summary. There’s also a running gag about hypnotism and a birth mark on a baby’s butt.

Basil Rathbone, years removed from his defining role as the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne opposite Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, seems to be having a great time as the villain. Shot primarily on a studio set, The Court Jester has a decidedly high school musical feel about it, albeit one that employs one of the century’s great performers, an angelic young Angela Lansbury, and an army of small actors who seem to be attending a Wizard of Oz reunion. 

As the title suggests, The Court Jester is meant to be nothing more than a good bit of fun, and that it surely is. More significantly, it’s a reminder of how easily we can forget some of Hollywood’s most extraordinary, if nonconforming, geniuses.

Penguin Bloom: Hope is the Thing With Feathers

Naomi Watts with the eponymous Penguin

Penguin Bloom
***
Rating: TV-14
Run Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Stars: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver
Writer: Harry Cripps, based on Cameron Bloom’s book
Director: Glendyn Ivin

Streaming on Netflix. Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

Seriously, if you cannot find it in your heart to draw enjoyment from the sweet-natured true story of a profoundly depressed woman who rediscovers joy thanks to a wounded magpie she nurses back to health, there is some dark hole in your soul that needs attending to straight away.

Penguin Bloom—oddly named because there is, in fact, not a single penguin to be found for its entirety—follows in the sure-footed steps of soapy animal redemption movies like Marley and Me and The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s the sort of film PETA would produce if they were to redirect their red paint budget into movie production, a movie you don’t have to be a pet lover to love.

Naomi Watts, as serious a screen actor as you will find, brings undeniable weight to the role of Sam Bloom, a nurse, wife of a successful photographer, and mother of three young boys who, in 2013, suffered a shattered spine in a devastating fall. Paralyzed from the waist down, the avowed health nut and surfing fanatic was plunged to the pit of despair with the news that she would never walk again.

It’s tough going early in the film as Sam stares vacantly from the windows of her home on the picturesque coast of New South Wales, Australia, repulsed by the notion of being helped in even the most humdrum daily activities by her endlessly patient hubby Cameron (The Walking Dead’s Andrew Lincoln). She snaps at her children, pulls away from her mate, and seems destined to spend the next 50 years or so cursing at the world that betrayed her. Even Sam’s determinedly cheerful mom, played by an almost militantly upbeat Jackie Weaver, can’t pull her out of the doldrums. 

Then comes hope in the form of a feathery fluff ball discovered, abandoned and sickly, on the beach below Sam’s home. The kids name the tiny magpie Penguin because of its black and white markings (I would have gone with Heckle or Jeckle, but, then again, I’m not sure Australians share my childhood memories of old Terrytoons).

Of course, Sam wants nothing to do with the playful bird that hops around the house croaking noisily and breaking things. Also of course, sometime after the rest of us have all grasped that Penguin is a feathery allegory for her own situation, Sam begins to rediscover the supremely human dynamic of needing others while simultaneously being needed.

Just why Sam has to learn this from a mischievous bird rather than from, say, her own three children is one of the narrative gaps that could have easily snipped the blossom off Penguin Bloom, but Director Glendyn Ivin, a prolific Australian TV director, knows how to keep the story plunging forward before we ask too many questions. 

What matters is Penguin Bloom’s charming, if familiar, premise, and the heartfelt performances by a first-rate cast that knows how to give it wings. 

Red Penguins: Free Enterprise On Ice

The Moscow Red Penguins’ Mascot in Happier Days

Red Penguins
****
Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Director: Gabe Polsky

Streaming on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play and other platforms

You can’t make this stuff up.

It’s 1990, and the former Soviet Union’s once-fearsome Red Army hockey team, suddenly deprived of endless government funds, is on the verge of bankruptcy. To their rescue skate none other than the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, who not only buy half the team but infuse the onetime Communist flagship with a decidedly Capitalistic approach to selling sports — including free beer nights, car giveaways, and strippers. Lots and lots of strippers. 

That’s just the first 20 minutes or so of Red Penguins, the relentlessly insane true story told in this jaunty documentary, a tale that starts out like a Damon Runyon yarn, populated by hucksters and hustlers — but descends into Mario Puzo territory as the Russian mafia sinks its fangs into the enterprise and very quickly ruins the fun for everyone. 

Director Gabe Polsky has the good sense to set the stage with a collage of evocative news clips — then sit back and let his collection of characters spin their stories. They’re a colorful group: two former Penguins owners who saw opportunity behind the collapsing Iron Curtain; the Russian general manager who cheerfully, if tacitly, acknowledges he skimmed more than $1 million from the owners; the Red Army general, resplendent in his uniform, who frankly admits he lacked the authority to overrule the gangsters who demanded a piece of the action; and the Russian oligarch, eyes dead even when he laughs, who spreads out his pudgy hands and exclaims to the camera, “Have I killed anybody?” The inevitable answer is yes, yes you have.  

But mostly there’s Steven Warshaw, a wiry young go-getter who’s made his name dreaming up off-the-wall promotions for minor league basketball and baseball teams. Tapped by the Penguins to launch their new Moscow franchise, Warshaw jumps the first Aeroflot jet East. He eagerly goes to work injecting his Barnum and Bailey sensibilities into the raw wounds of communist Russia’s chaotic transition from communism capitalism — albeit a funhouse mirror version of capitalism as we know it. 

Warshaw, who is also a producer of the film, is a most appealing companion/guide through the saga of the team that became known as the Red Penguins. Appalled by the decrepit condition of the team’s once-glorious Ice Palace venue, he evicts the squatters living inside. The team’s stark, military-inspired logo is replaced with a cartoon penguin on skates. The sparse initial crowds, accustomed to the old guard’s no-nonsense approach to the game, are startled by the presence of a penguin mascot skating on the ice and leading them in cheers (We get to meet the guy in the penguin suit, an eccentric performance artist with a Salvador Dali mustache, who recalls frequently removing his plush head so “People would know who I am!”). 

Then there are the strippers, some of whom ride around on the Zamboni machine. Free beers are passed out to everyone, no matter how young. A lucky fan is invited onto the ice to sit at a cafe table and be served beer by a real bear. And a hockey shoot-out results in one superfan winning a car (Fearing being hijacked outside the arena, the winner opts to accept cash instead). 

Of course, the Red Penguins are an instant sensation — so much so that Disney approaches the Penguins to discuss a $100 million partnership. In the Wild East of post-communist Russia, that’s a good thing and a bad thing. Before long, the oligarchs move in and begin siphoning off enormous chunks of money. They’re more than happy to let Warshaw continue his hockey hijinks, but the whole enterprise assumes a life-and-death pall. Needless to say, Disney backs out. 

But the rules of society aren’t just breaking down inside the Ice Palace. All of Russia seems to be swirling into a black hole of crime and corruption. Polsky presents lots of footage — some of it downright shocking — of the mayhem erupting on Moscow’s streets. Terrifying dash cam videos show cars full of criminals cutting in front of motorists, forcing them to stop, and emerging with guns drawn. Other clips depict pedestrians being pummeled by gangs, shoppers facing empty shelves, seemingly law-abiding citizens suddenly lurching at each other, swinging their fists. It’s a portrait of Russia in transition that few in the West ever saw — and which goes a long way to explaining the latter news clips when an ineffective, puffy-faced Russian President Boris Yeltsin is replaced by the steely-eyed, stone-faced upstart Vladimir Putin. 

Delighted with Warshaw’s innovations, the oligarchs invite him to stay on. Otherwise, they add, they’ll kill him. He has a better idea and catches the first Aeroflot jet out of Moscow, never to return. Some of his former co-workers aren’t so lucky: In a grim coda, Warshaw runs down a list of five Red Penguin employees, including one player, who were murdered — one of them shot in the Ice Palace parking lot. 

It’s a convoluted story, and Polsky doesn’t always give us a chance to catch our breath before moving on to the next wrinkle. Still, even for those who don’t know a slash from a slap shot, Red Penguins works as a fish-out-of-water tale, a stark history lesson, and a rousing sports epic. On anyone’s ice, that’s a nifty hat trick. 

Marriage Story: Two Is The Loneliest Number

Scarlett Johannson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story

Marriage Story
****
Rating: R
Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes
Stars: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Wallace Shawn, Julie Hagerty
Writer/Director: Noah Baumbach

Two towering performances breathe uncommon humanity into writer/director Noah Baumbach’s study of a marriage on the rocks.

Reminding us of his serious acting chops ahead of his next Star Wars appearance, Adam Driver explores the darkest corners of a man blindsided by the deep unhappiness of his wife. Scarlett Johansson, in a performance that nearly measures up to her stunning turn in the current Jojo Rabbit, mesmerizes as a woman emerging from a haze of unhappiness.


The pair go at each other with merciless precision — the kind of deadeye target practice you’ll find only between people who once loved each other. But they never lose sight of their shared devotion to their young son, played by doe-eyed newcomer Azhy Robinson.


Baumbach seems to take a bit longer than he should getting to the film’s bittersweet fadeout. But we do get to spend the two-plus-hours in the company of a flawless supporting cast including Julie Haggerty as the mother-in-law who just can’t quit her daughter’s ex, Wallace Shawn as a gasbag thespian, and Alan Alda as the kindhearted divorce lawyer no client wants (but really needs).

The Tin Drum: Rattling the Reich

Oskar beats his different drum in the Oscar-winning The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum (1979)
*****
Rating: R
Run Time: 2 hours 22 minutes
Stars: David Bennent, Mario Adorf, Angela Winkler, Charles Aznavour
Writers: Jean-Claude Carriere, Volker Schlondorff, Franz Seitz, Gunter Grass (from his novel)
Director: Volker Schlondorff

Published in the Huntington Park (CA) Daily Signal and Downey Southeast News March 21, 1980

The Los Angeles International Exhibition, FILMEX, opened Tuesday with the long-awaited premiere of The Tin Drum, a West German-made film that shared best picture honors with Apocalypse Now at Cannes last year.

The Tin Drum was worth the wait.

Director Voker Schlondorff has created a masterpiece in the film, which traces Europe’s decline into World War II through the eyes of a three-year-old child who refuses to grow up. 

At birth the infant Oskar, played by 12-year-old David Bennent, decides he will give life on Earth a three-year trial, after which he will decide whether or not to continue growing. On his third birthday he decides he wants nothing to do with the grown-up world, so he stages a fall down the cellar stairs to explain the fact that he will no longer grow.

During the ensuing 20 years, Oskar watches through his child’s eyes as the world is plunged into war and his country is ravaged by the Fuhrer’s Brown Shirts. Disgusted by their cold regimentation, he sabotages a Nazi mass rally by playing his tin drum in counterpoint to a fascist march, resulting in a confused band playing The Blue Danube.

To be sure, The Tin Drum is fantasy, but it is a black-edged fantasy with deep shadows of mystery and the macabre. The fantasy of Sclondorff’s movie is in the European tradition of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson; of a world full of wonders both beautiful and beastly. 

As played by Bennent, Oskar emerges as a classic movie character, a peculiar cross between the young demon of The Omen and Dennis the Menace. He is at the same time fiendishly diabolical and playfully innocent. He is responsible for some ghastly incidents, yet he causes them out of childish fancy; concurrently responsible and an innocent bystander. 

The cast is filled out with fine actors, none of whom would be considered “stars,” even among German audiences. The one exception is the great French singer and songwriter Charles Aznavour, playing a Jew who feels the full force of early Nazi antisemitism with heartbreaking authenticity. 

The rest of the actors play well with young Bennent, but wisely allow the youngster fo display his surprising versatility. He is menacing and playful — even seductive as Oskar sets out to become a father halfway through the film.

Chief architect of The Tin Drum’s success, however, is director Schlondorff. He has created a rich canvas of images, arraying from newsreel objectivity to contrived “filmishness.” The Tin Drum adopts the slick production look that is ordinarily associated with Hollywood yet retains an unmistakable European sensibility. Schlondorff is not afraid to create ambiguity and leave some questions of detail unanswered, two things American directors have long been reluctant to do. In his film, Schlondorff treats the thin line between fantasy and nightmare, sometimes struggling bit between the two but always rewarding his audience with precious bits of humor, horror, and pathos. 

The Tin Drum will be released to American theaters next month by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. The film is subtitled, but the printed words serve only to fill in a few blanks. As a cinematic achievement, The Tin Drum Speaks for itself.

King Kong (1976): Urbane Gorilla

Kong enjoys some private time with Jessica Lange

King Kong (1976)
***
Rating: PG
Run Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
Stars: Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange
Writer: James Ashmore Creelman (Based on 1933 screenplay)
Director: John Guillerman

This review appeared in the January 27, 1977 edition of Critiques, the arts supplement to the Rutgers Daily Targum 

By the time you read this, enough copy will already have been written about Dino DeLaurnetiis’ production of King Kong to keep the magnificent monkey himself buried in typewriter ribbons. 

Thus far, among the things, he has been called  symbol of mankind’s rape of natural resources, a political foreshadowing of a coming world war, and the personification of that real-life monster, the American city. Writing in National Review, Hugh Kenner went so far as to expose Kong as a remake of Milton’s “Paradise Lost.“

Kong has got to be, and probably is, any or all of these things, because as a monster film, it certainly doesn’t cut the mustard. Neither did the 1933 original.  Neither one is all that scary. So much effort goes into making the monster lovable and, most importantly, pitiable, that we forget how terrified we are supposed to be. At least the original had Kong chew up an occasional native or subway rider. Paramount’s new widescreen ape is, comparatively, as menacing as a big, fluffy sheep dog. 

What we get then, is (with apologies to Patty Hearst), an urbane gorilla who would, if he could speak above an occasional growl, say “Please” before  making off with  a screaming and scantily-clad Jessica Lange. With the aid of some astounding special facial effects, Kong can look curious, infuriated, confused. He can even smile with a big, toothy grin. 

Is this a monster?  Of course not. Monsters are mechanical, thoughtless creatures who make little kids spill their popcorn. The only popcorn I saw spilled during Kong was when the monster partially undressed the heroine. And that guy was no little kid.

Still, if Kong is not scary, then at least it is entertaining. The characters each pursue their individual vices with jolly good humor. The Princeton professor (played by Jeff Bridges, and why do they always have to be from Princeton?) selflessly seeks the source of an age-old monkey myth. He stows away on an oil company ship bound for Skull Island, where Ape and Oil await. He is discovered by the executive in charge of the operation (Charles Grodin), who designates him the official photographer for the expedition, because that is apparently what you do with stowaways. 

It’s here that the story begins to break down. The executive, who is supposed to be a whiz at this sort of thing, has brought along three thousand dollars worth of photo equipment, but not anyone who knows how to use it. Luckily for him, it just so happens that Mr. Princeton Professor is also an ace photographer. Ah-Ha!

Lange is the beautiful woman who, in another hard-to-absorb coincidence, is found adrift in the middle of the ocean. She is soon torn between her love for the Princeton professor and for the ape (not much of a choice, I’ll admit, but in another unrealistic plot twist the Princeton guy wins out). 

Director John Guillermin is very careful not to allow any of his actors to out-play the ape. They give generally flat performances, their main triumph coming as they manage not to act too embarrassed by the silly dialogue. 

Ah, yes, a word about the dialogue. The script is self-consciously contemporary, with an occasional not-too-offensive vulgarism (Lange goes so far as to pound at the leering Kong and scream, “You male chauvinist ape!”). 

One cannot help burtrecall the original Kong, and how in the early 1930s everyone in Hollywood was so enthralled with sound in film that they felt obliged to jam in as much spoken word as they could. So we found Robert Armstrong turning to Bruce Cabot and spitting out gems like, “I’ve seen it before: A swell egg like you gets a look at a pretty girl, then he cracks up and goes sappy.” 

Now, that’s dialogue!

And so the ape is taken to New York City, where he is to become the centerpiece of a huge oil company promotional campaign — after all, when you think of petroleum products, you think of a monkey the size of an apartment building. It is notable that, from the South Pacific, Kong is taken to far-away New York rather than the more convenient Los Angeles. This confirms the suspicion that King Kong is a Metropolitan New York Monster. Let’s face it: When it comes to monsters, L.A. is out. They always head straight for Manhattan or Tokyo. And if you happen to live in Tokyo, you can just forget it — there are just about as many monsters living there these days as people. 

Kong, of course, goes ape during a show at Shea Stadium (probably after getting a glimpse of Lindsey Nelson’s latest sports jacket). The National Guard immediately blocks all the bridges to New York, not once thinking the charging chimp might wade across the East River. Which he does. 

Clutching a rather upset Jessica Lange in one hand, Kong scales the World Trade Center, and it’s not giving anything away to say it is there that he meets an untimely end in a  shower of ape blood that would make Sam Peckinpah cringe. 

For those unfortunate — or foolish — enough to have never seen the original Kong, this new production provides a worthy substitute. Watching a monster on a rampage is always exciting, and director Guillerman does a good job of keeping us somewhat interested in the foibles of the human characters. 

But the real star of this Kong, as of the older one, is an idea: A powerful imaginative concept in the form of a huge, prehistoric being returning to punish modern man for messing with Mother Nature. Dino DeLaurentiis spent millions upon millions building a bigger and better monster — but in the end the new one is no more impressive or frightening than the jerky, Gumby-like creation of four decades ago.

This is not to minimize the latter’s accomplishment. If it takes a $40 million remake to get people’s imaginations churning again, then I suppose it was worth every penny. 

Rollercoaster (1977) Disaster Flicks Are Not Quite Over The Hill

George Segal learns the ups and downs of terrorism.

Rollercoaster
****
Rating: PG
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
Stars: George Segal, Timothy Bottoms, Richard Widmark
Writers: Richard Levinson and William Link
Director: James Goldstone

Originally published June 17, 1977, in the Huntington Park (CA) Daily Signal and Downey Southeast News

Surprise! Just when we felt the era of the disaster movie had run its course, Universal comes up with, perhaps, the best one of all.

On the surface, Rollercoaster doesn’t seem too promising: A seemingly insane terrorist travels around the country planting bombs on rollercoasters, giving customers a bigger thrill than they had bargained for. In a race against time, the “authorities” attempt to find the identity of the killer and, at the same time, prevent him from striking again.

Not too original, not too intriguing. 

What makes Rollercoaster special is the atmosphere of good humor that pervades the film. Director James Goldstone (They Only Kill Their Masters) and scriptwriters Richard Levinson and William Link (Columbo) have learned an important lesson from Alfred Hitchcock: That the most sure-fire way to heighten suspense is to make an audience laugh in the face of almost unbearable peril. 

So, we find George Segal as the harried rollercoaster inspector, attempting to deal not only with the horrors of people being crushed by falling coaster cars, but also with his own desperate attempts to stop smoking via aversion therapy at what appears to be a Schick Center. At times he seems genuinely more concerned with his smoke-infested psyche than the problem at hand. 

The bomber, in his attempt to extort money from the owners of the amusement parks, gleefully makes idiots out of everybody from the corporate bigwigs to the FBI. With Segal as the courier carrying a suitcase containing a million dollars, the bomber (cooly played by Timothy Bottoms) cruelly makes him endure all the kiddie rides at a large amusement park before making the drop.

The movie is itself something of a rollercoaster ride: Sure, we feel the sensation of impending doom, yet Goldstone and his writers never really let us lose sight of the fact they will eventually roll us to a conclusion, safe and sound. 

To be sure, the full two hours of Rollercoaster are not necessary. Repeatedly, we find unnecessary characters involved in pointless complications. And the less critical sequences could well have been condensed to little more than half their time. 

Whenever those cars start clicking up the first drop, however, Rollercoaster is a fine thriller. Director Goldstone times his shockers perfectly, teasing his audience with a dozen tragic possibilities before suddenly, and unexpectedly, springing a timely explosion, or a deftly-placed scream or, as in the final scenes, a startling silence.

The film’s chief drawing card for the summer crowds would seem to be the thrilling rollercoaster sequences, crisply filmed by David Walsh and edited with meticulous care by Edward Bierry and Richard Sprague. It’s all enhanced by Universal’s supergimmick, Sensurround — but really, the process smacks of the same kind of corporate desperation that gave birth to This Is Cinerama more than two decades ago. 

Happily, director Goldstone knows it’s not the rumbling of theater seats that makes us feel good about shelling out $3.50 for a movie. His whimsical approach to a tired genre makes Rollercoaster a ride to remember.