â€¢ Manhattan â€¢ Circle of Iron â€¢ Alien â€¢ The Warriors â€¢ The Last Embrace â€¢ The Silent Partner
â€¢ Seeing Woody Allen's latest, MANHATTAN, was a pleasant surprise after a series of unfavorable impressions of his previous films. In this one he never really tries to be funnyâ€"the humor is incidental, and when it occurs it springs from an appreciation of something deeply embedded in the human condition, not (as before) scattered sparks on the surface. Not once does he take a small quip or situation and blow it up to such proportions that you wish it had never been brought in to begin with. Not once do you feel he's so anxious for a laugh that he will try anything to obtain one. That aspect of his films from Bananas to Annie Hall is now happily behind him.
The transition was 1978's serious film Interiors, which he directed but didn't act in. It concerned universal human problems of life and death, marriage and divorce, but most of all love, in tangled webs of human relations. The same description would also apply to Manhattanâ€"but Manhattan is much more probing, totally honest and realistic, devoid of striving for effect, full of human insight and tragedy; and unlike Interiors it is a vehicle for Allen himself, this time transformed from the comic that (in my opinion) he never was, to a sensitive register of important aspects of man's inner life. The film hews a fine line between chill and warmth, between cynicism and sentimentality, never once going over the edge, always remaining in the realm of the credible. He elicits remarkable performances from Diane Keaton, Meryl Streep, and Margaux Hemingway as the three women in his life. The panoramic shots of Manhattan aloneâ€"beautifully photographed in black and whiteâ€"(almost) make one want to go back to New York to live; and the playing of Gershwin melodies is just right for setting the tone, as well as concluding the proceedings. By delivering to us an imaginative recreation of deep and intractable human problems in the real world, Woody Allen has at last given us a beautiful and virtually flawless film.
â€¢ If it were a good kung fu movie, it would at least have made the kung fu aficionados happy. But there isn't that much of it, just here and there in the midst of an insipid and meandering story; and what there is is so badly photographed that one can barely tell what's going on.
It might have been a rousing adventure story. But there's very little adventure in it, just a series of unrelated incidents with David Carradine constantly turning up as a different person, uttering each time a new series of inanities.
If it were a child's fantasy, full of the spirit of soaring adventure and imagination like The Thief of Baghdad, it would have been eminently worth seeing. But it has nothing of childhood innocence about it. What lechery there is, is in the spirit of aged voyeurs; instead of being sexy, it's embarrassing and boring.
If it were a truly philosophical tale about the wisdom of life and the meaning of existence, as it pretends to be, it might have been a welcome relief from lighter film fare. But it is no Stevie. There are numerous enigmatic remarks, each one more lame-brained than the last. Even Heraclitus's old saw about not being able to step in the same river twice is trotted out (twice)â€"this one and all the other mysterious sayings presented without explanation, as if the sole purpose were to keep the viewer uncomfortably mystified.
It's such a hopeless mixâ€"as if one were to put chocolate over mashed potatoes and cover the whole mess with beerâ€"that the only thing one can really do with CIRCLE OF IRON is not allow oneself to be encircled by it.
â€¢ There have been fine science fiction thrillers like The Andromeda Strain in which the viewer knew what the odds were and was kept abreast of every development, pro and con. Armed with this knowledge, the question was whether he could make a plausible prediction or an educated guess and in some way outsmart the plot-twisters. In ALIEN there isn't much point in trying to outguess them, since what one faces here is simply an Unknown. One can wonder what form the unknown kind of life will assume next, thanks to the special-effects department; but in a game without rules, there isn't much a viewer can do that could be called playing. One can guess with some probability the human reaction of the characters to whatever happens, since this is something within our ken, something we can deal with and empathize with (though the characterizations in this film are of the most superficial and noninvolving sort). But to try to anticipate what The Incomprehensible is going to do is a hopeless task.
The opening sequences are the best, for here there is an air of mystery that one anticipates (incorrectly) will add up to something. A space ship lands on a distant planet with a strange crazy horizon and dark menacing shapes unlike any ever yet seen by man. But when we see that the aura of mystery is about all we are going to getâ€"like the Exhibition Quality of opening bars of music, as if announcing something important, which becomes tiresome when these bars are not in fact followed by anything of significanceâ€"then it ceases to be compelling, and we feel cheated for being led on to expect more. One wonders whether the high anticipation apparently felt by the hundreds of people standing in line to see this film was matched by an equal amount of retrospective gratification when exiting from the theater. I for one found most of it, after the unrealized potential of the first 20 minutes, mostly a dreadful bore.
â€¢ From the title one would gather that THE WARRIORS is about knighthood and heroism in combat. It does deal with combat, but it is the combat of competing gangs on the streets of New York, one of which is called The Warriors. A meeting of various gangs occurs in the upper Bronx one summer night, and the whole film is about the vicissitudes of The Warriors in crossing other gangs' turf while trying to get back home to Coney Island. Even the subway system is far from safe from gang warfare, and the picture of New York City that the film offers is enough to scare one away from spending even five minutes there.
If one takes it seriously, that is. And it's not easy to do that, since the story is extremely contrived, and one can practically see the plot machinery creaking behind the scenes. The characterizations are uniformly flat and the characters almost uniformly viciousâ€"all presented without background or reason: no theorizing here about psychological or environmental causes; action is all that counts. There are two fairly violent fight scenes in the film that indicate that expertness at karate must have been one criterion in selecting people to head this otherwise woebegone cast.
Expertness is not something that could honestly be said to characterize their verbal activities. One fairly good line occurs near the end of the film, when at dawn the camera pans on the slum of Coney Island as the elevated subway stops at Stillwell Avenue: "Why did we fight all night long to come home to this?" Though uncharacteristically articulate for the characters, the question is a good one. But no better than the question, "Why did we fight traffic and stand in line to see this film?"
â€¢ There are few imitators of Hitchcock who can fill the master's shoes. Jonathan Demme, the latest pretender to the throne, directed THE LAST EMBRACE with panache and lots of action, but very little meaningful action. There are a few moments of suspense, having nothing to do with the plot: she is poised over Niagara Falls, will she or will she not fall? But the premise on which the story is based is so ludicrous that it's hard to see how any viewer could be convinced by it. Granted that the girl's grandmother was driven into prostitution when she came to the United States almost a century ago, why should her granddaughter now, in 1979, try to kill all the male descendants of her clientsâ€"leaving them warning notes in Hebrew besides? At the beginning, when we realize there's a multiple death threat and that all the other men threatened have already been killed, our interest is aroused, only to be quickly extinguished when the whole story is spread out before us. The plot has only a fraction of the low plausibility of Omen, without the developing sense of mystery and dread. Sometimes a plot is so bad that even Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief" is not possible.
â€¢ A somewhat more effective thriller is THE SILENT PARTNER, directed with a sure hand by Daryl Duke. Set in present-day Toronto, this neat little chiller involves a love-hate triangle (Elliott Gould, Susannah York, Christopher Plummer) along with some shady shenanigans in the Bank of Toronto. The characterizations, as far as they go, are plausibly developed, and the plot takes interesting and unexpected turns. The tension aroused is great enough to hold your attention without scaring you to death, and you can forget all about it immediately afterward without having it give you nightmares or even leaving a bad taste.