(On Cable TV, August 2019) I’m not a big fan of small-town dramas, but there are two or three things that make Splendor in the Grass worth a look. The first is the most obvious: the casting. With Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in the lead, there’s additional interest that other movies with lesser-known actors may not have. The other is more subtle, but with its premise turning around the dilemmas experienced by two circa-1928 teenagers dealing with romance, sex, and future prospects, you can feel the film trying to say something about the changing perception of teenagers as of 1961. Splendor in the Grass, directly written for the big screen, is nonetheless messy in ways that originally scripted movies usually aren’t: At times, with its time skips and changes of situation, it feels like an adaptation of a novel being overly slavish to the source material. There are a few melodramatic junctions that stretch the bounds of a believable drama, but so it goes. Director Eliza Kazan was trying for something more than comforting formula here, and the result manages to transcend specific time or place. But even if you’re not having any fun seeing the story go where it goes, at least there’s Wood and Beatty delivering early great performances.
(Third Viewing, On Cable TV, July 2019) I recall seeing Brainstorm at least twice during my childhood and teenage years, leaving a lasting impression each time. (But apparently not enough in terms of narrative, because even though I remembered many of the film’s visual high points—ah, those optical tapes! —, much of the finer details and subplots were like brand new this time around). 1983 was a remarkable year for technology-oriented thrillers, and even if Brainstorm earned its way on that year’s roster by uncontrollable means (most of the film was shot in 1981, but production issues following star Natalie Wood’s death delayed its completion and release by two years), it certainly earns a place alongside Wargames, Videodrome, Blue Thunder and even Superman III in musing about the trouble that technology was about to get us into. An analog Virtual Reality thriller, Brainstorm offers a deeply convincing portrait of how revolutionary technology is developed in the lab, only to escape its creators’ control once the technology is perverted by others (either in the vulgar or the ideological sense). Christopher Walken headlines the film as a scientist who develops a way to record and play back subjective experiences, with Natalie Wood as his estranged wife and Louise Fletcher in a great performance as a driven scientist. The retro-technological feel of the film is wonderful, what with its bulky early-eighties laboratory and industrial environments—it’s pure charm for techno-geeks such as myself. But the way Brainstorm develops its ideas is what holds attention, examining in turn all the possibilities offered by the new technology and how it could be used. It ends with a third act that focuses on an extended remote hacking episode, our protagonist moving through physical space in order to stay in virtual space. (The ending reduces everything cosmic to an isolated pay phone, which is the final touch to crown an intensely clever script.) Director Douglas Trumbull clearly shows his understanding and mastery of special effects, with sequences that still play extremely well today, and a willingness to play with the codes of cinema in order to make story points … most notably by switching between aspect ratios to show people affected by sensory recreation. I liked Brainstorm quite a bit when I was younger, but I think I like I even more today. It’s a great science-fiction film, perhaps a bit forgotten today but still very much fascinating to watch.
(On Cable TV, September 2018) I sometimes do other things while watching movies, but as The Great Race went on, I had to put those other things away and restart the film. There is an astonishing density of gags to its first few minutes (from the title sequence, even) that require undivided attention. While the first act of the film does set up expectations that the second half fails to meet, it does make The Great Race far more interesting than expected. Clearly made with a generous budget, this is a comedy that relies a lot on practical gags, built on a comic foundation that harkens back to silent-movie stereotypes. Making no excuses for its white-versus-black characters, the film features Tony Curtis as an impossibly virtuous hero, facing the comically dastardly antagonist played with gusto by Jack Lemmon in one of his most madcap comic performance. Meanwhile, Natalie Wood has never looked better as the romantic interest (seeing her parade in thigh-high black stockings unarguably works in the film’s favour) and both Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn are able seconds. The film’s visual gags are strong, and so is writer/director Blake Edwards’s willingness to go all-out of his comic set pieces: The legendary pie fight is amusing, but I prefer the Saloon brawl for its sense of mayhem. There is a compelling energy to the film’s first hour, as pleasantly stereotyped characters are introduced, numerous visual gags impress and the film’s sense of fun is firmly established. Alas, that rhythm lags a bit in the last hour, with an extended parody of The Prisoner of Zenda that falls flat more than it succeeds (although it does contain that pie fight sequence). Still, it’s a fun film and the practical nature of the vehicular gags makes for a change of pace from other comedies. I liked it quite a bit more than I expected.