Movies

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• The Long Riders
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The Hollywood Knights
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La Cage Aux Folles
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The Changeling
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Penitentiary

• It was an interesting idea to have the real-life brothers Carradine and Keach starring as the real-life brothers Younger and James in yet another film about the great Northfield, Minnesota, bank robbery. But that's about where the novelty ends. None of the characters is very well developed in the film, and since they are all multiple killers, whose deeds are repeatedly splashed in blood across the screen, it is difficult to evoke much sympathy for any of them. The events are more or less predictable, with no surprises, and the script has about as much effervescence as a stretch of mud on a moonless night. The main character trait that emerges in the brethren is the steadfast determination to rob banks no matter what the risks or the cost in human life, as if it were a holy mission. A psychological portrait of them, showing what led to such murderous determination, might have been interesting, but the film doesn't provide this, either. The Western may be dead as a film genre, but THE LONG RIDERS doesn't do anything to revive it.

• Plato said that art is an imitation of an imitation. This may not be true of art in general, but it appears to be true of THE HOLLYWOOD KNIGHTS in particular, though not in the sense that Plato meant. Some years ago a nostalgia series was born with American Graffiti, successfully enough to invite a host of imitations, each of which watered down the soup a little more. Then there was one imitation with a special twist, National Lampoon's Animal House, whose success is imitated once again, this time in Hollywood Knights. But by now the theme has been run into the ground. Nothing remains but unfunny jokes, vulgarity substituting for wit, and empty stereotypes making do in place of honest characterization. The stupidity of the Beverly Hills police is quite beyond belief, but in the end the antics of the kids are no more perceptive. Unlike Graffiti, this is the '50s as nobody remembers them.

• The subject of the uproarious French film LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (inaccurately titled Birds of a Feather in the English translation) is the conflict between two diametrically opposed lifestyles, forced by circumstances into interaction with one another. As such, it is one of the most delightful comedies around and highly recommended to all those who are not intolerant of alternative lifestyles. Predictably, it would do well in New York City but not in Redneck, Texas.

But what makes this slim picture (less than an hour and a half long), adapted from a popular French stage play, so delightful throughout is texture. There is not a moment in the whole 90 minutes in which there is not some significant addition to the characterization and to the riotously comic situation. Every word, every gesture, every pause, every seemingly trivial incident, adds its bit of depth to the characterizations and indirectly to the series of comic ironies that ensue. Not one sentence, not one facial expression, not one step across the room, is wasted. The whole is so texturally rich that it takes a second viewing to pick up the full comic impact of every detail. The phrase that has been supposed to describe all art, but does not, is especially applicable to this one: "Infinite riches in a little room."

• After the hokum and stupidity of The Amityville Horror, one would have thought that the haunted-house genre of films would have self-destructed simply from shame. Perhaps it's just as well that it didn't, for now we have a new one, THE CHANGELING, in which the genre comes out alive and flourishing. Partly owing to an original and well-done script, and partly to the acting of George C. Scott and his wife Trish Van De Vere (not to mention that reliable old pro Melvyn Douglas), it is quite an absorbing filmâ€"and this in spite of the fact that it includes not only a large house that emits strange noises and produces remarkable psychokinetic effects, but also seances and other appurtenances of the occult, all of which have been done to death in previous films. But in this film the combination works, and the hokum has enough of an admixture of detective-story realism to be convincing if one suspends whatever disbelief one has about the animate manifestations of inanimate dwelling places. It's all put together well enough to provide tension, surprises, and scares for the most scare-hungry viewer; and in the present case, at least, the willing suspension of one's disbelief is worth the trouble, provided that one can forget all about it and return to the real world immediately on leaving the theater.

• Detective stories, monster stories, Westerns, battle sagas, high-seas adventures…films in all these genres tend to repeat each other, and the new ones don't necessarily incorporate the best features of the earlier ones. But in all of them one is inclined to say, "I've seen all this before."

The same is true of prison dramas. They tend to become more violent and explicit as the R category leans more toward X, but otherwise they are fairly repetitive. The newest one, PENITENTIARY, is largely a rehash of old material but has several distinguishing features. (1) It is almost entirely about black inmates, and the film was produced, directed, and written by blacks. It's their picture and is much better done than most. (2) It is full of relentless driving energy, never pausing for a moment, and the energy gradually becomes contagious. So does (or might) the violence depicted, cheered increasingly by the audience as the film proceeds. (3) More than half the footage is given over to boxing sequences. If you're not a boxing fanâ€"particularly of the most savage kind of boxing, which makes Rocky look tameâ€"this film is not for you. (4) Yet the film doesn't emphasize or even show much of the "degrading" conditions of prison life: the protagonist, though imprisoned by mistake, gets out, better rather than worse than when he entered. The two best scenes both recount the reflections of an old man who has been in prison for over 50 years, and there is no bitterness or even "social protest" in his ruminations. In spite of the violence, the picture is amazingly upbeat.

Yet the story line sags here and there, and the boxing scenes become quite repetitive. On the whole the film doesn't come up to one of the better prison films of a few years ago, Paul Newman's Cool Hand Luke, nor to another of the good earlier ones, Burt Lancaster's Brute Force. But by far the best prison film of all was the first one, director Mervyn LeRoy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1931) starring that incomparable actor Paul Muni. Seen even today it is a work of mind-blistering intensity and tremendous emotional power. For a story in which every detail is fraught with significance, keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout, and for explosive propulsion to a shattering climax, nothing done since has approached it. For the best of all films in this genre rolled into one, you would have to see no more than this one picture.

John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. His special interest is the area of aesthetics.