Movies

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• In refreshing contrast to much of today's knee-jerk propaganda, CONRACK is a "message" film that can be enjoyed on its own terms. Idealistic without being preachy, optimistic without being naive, the movie vividly illustrates the value and potential of the human mind, even under circumstances of appalling neglect. Jon Voight stars as a white teacher at a rudimentary all-black elementary school on a poverty-ridden island off the coast of South Carolina. The movie, based upon a true incident, details the teacher's attempts to overcome the island children's appalling ignorance. (Most of them don't even know the name of their country.) His unorthodox and highly imaginative teaching methods succeed in igniting sparks of interest and enthusiasm among the jaded children, but clash with the value system of the school's black principal (Madge Sinclair), who has inherited a legacy of despair which she is dutifully attempting to pass on to the next generation. Voight also runs afoul of the superintendent, a "benevolent racist" played by Hume Cronyn with a dignity that the part does not deserve. Paul Winfield has an interesting role as the island's bootlegger, who trades whisky for reading and writing lessons. But the heart of the movie is found in the interaction between Jon Voight and the children. He cajoles, teases and taunts them, catching them up in his unrestrained enthusiasm as he mixes classical music and swimming with more basic subjects. The students think he's crazy, but respond in spite of themselves, learning for the first time to enjoy their own minds. Martin Ritt, who directed SOUNDER, has another winner in CONRACK, and hopefully the movie will be a liberating influence on the situation it has so skillfully brought to light. Rated "PG."

• There's no denying that BLAZING SADDLES is funny. In assembling this parody Western, Mel Brooks and his cohorts pile joke upon joke, with reckless abandon and no regard for race, creed, continuity or good taste. The movie is not internally consistent enough to be a satire, or clever enough to be sophisticated; essentially, it is a 95-minute collage of low-comedy sketch material, with the whole adding up to less than the sum of its parts. But it is chock full of jokes. Cleavon Little stars as a black sheriff imposed upon an unwilling Western town, with Harvey Korman and Slim Pickens as the villains attempting to destroy the town for their own profit. Gene Wilder is Little's amiable sidekick, while Madeline Kahn does a bawdy tandem imitation of Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. For this reviewer, the type of comedy featured in BLAZING SADDLES is best taken in small doses; a full-length feature is overdoing it. Rated "R."

• For a movie about someone with all the answers, MAN ON A SWING provides few answers of its own. Joel Grey stars as a mysterious stranger who telephones a police station, offering his alleged powers of clairvoyance to help solve the brutal murder of a young woman. Cliff Robertson is the police chief, obsessed with the murder and willing to accept help even from such an unlikely source. The movie starts out promisingly enough, liberally sprinkling clues about the murder and about Joel Grey's seeming authenticity as a mentalist. Then the doubts begin to creep in. But rather than aiding the exposition, they serve only to muddy the waters, making the case as difficult to unravel as Watergate. Screenwriter David Goodman attempts to balance the evidence for and against Grey's clairvoyant powers as evenly as possible, without drawing any definitive conclusion. As a result, even the eventual solving of the murder is dramatically unfulfilling; the movie seemed to promise more. Frank Perry's uneven direction infects the performances: Joel Grey's psychic re-enactment of the crime from the victim's point of view eventually grows tiresome, while Cliff Robertson underplays his role from start to finish. Dorothy Tristan has a thankless part as Robertson's wife. The sound track deserves some special award for irritation; incidental noises drown out whole sentences, forcing the viewer to concentrate on the words and diverting his attention from the film as a whole. But maybe it's just as well. Rated "PG."

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