Black Sunday. Director John Frankenheimer, making what has justly been touted as a riveting come-back with this film, hits just the right balance between fast pacing, clever technological effects and the skillful pretense of social relevance that this kind of political suspense thriller requires.
The plot revolves around a terrorist scheme by the Palestinian Black September group (Munich Olympics, 1972) to murder a stadium full of football fans at the Super Bowl, 1978, by simultaneously shooting 80,000 steel darts into the bleachers from the underbelly of the Goodyear blimp. The political motives of the principals involved, although necessarily handled mostly as a premise for suspense, are carefully presented so no-one can take credit as a sympathetic protagonist. Bruce Dern, as an ex-POW who was court-marshalled for making a film commending the North Vietnamese cause during his capture and has gotten nothing but divorce and psychological grief since his return to the States, is brilliantly manic as he engineers the blimp-massacre to strike back at America for himself and to aid the terrorists at the same time. Robert Shaw plays a professional Israeli commando tailing the Black September group who is on the verge of beginning to soften and see the other side's point of view, and he conveys the tension between self-doubt and the need to stay tough for appearances with great finesse. Only Marthe Keller, as the bitter Palestinian woman who masterminds the plot, comes up wooden--she seems a little too cold and calculating for someone who's bearing two generations of suffering on her heart. The real star, though, is Frankenheimer, whose direction is tight and professional, and whose product is gripping.
Network. This is the film that garnered Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay at last month's Academy Award ceremonies, and if you haven't already, you're probably dying to see it. Take our world for it--don't. The best thing about this movie about the shenanigans behind the evening news at UBS is commentator Peter Finch's letter perfect impersonation of Eric Sevareid. But once you get over your amusement at that stentorian phrasing you find... nothing. The film is as sterile as a 30 second clip of Amy Carter walking to her integrated school. Faye Dunaway won her Best Actress award for Chinatown, not this lemon. Peter Finch is dead, and far be it from us to talk about the dead. William Holden turns in a solid performance as the network news chief, but the dignified Holden comes off rather like a Shetland pony in an 8 x 11 porno still-he looks more dignified than the questionable debutantes around him. Paddy Chayevsky's script is polemical, cliched, and, like most tracts--boring. This film is a real disappointment; there is a great story there in the world of Rather. Reasoner, Cronkite, and Chancellor, but it's not to be found here.
Play It Again, Sam. So what do you do if you're short and ugly? We wouldn't know. But Woody Allen has had to grapple with this problem for several years now, and apparently he has come up with a workable if not ideal solution: turn your shortcomings into assets. To date, Allen has made a half a dozen films in which short, hebbishy guys come out on top. By far the best of these is Play It Again, Sam, the tale of a romantically unsuccessful Bogart fan. In Bogart Allen has found the perfect role model for the short uglies of the world; after all, for Bogie--and life--dames are simple. This is the only one of Allen's films that he does not direct himself, and what is lost in manic humor is gained in coherence and sensitivity. Diane Keaton plays the paramour as usual with a perfect blend of love, whine, and neurosis. And the brilliant recreation of the famous Casablanca airport scene seems a perfect ending touch to this wonderful film.
Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven. Now that Rainer Werner Fassbinder is being mentioned in the same breath with fellow European director-luminaries Goddard and Fellini on this side of the Atlantic, his work will attract an increasingly demanding eye, and if this latest film is any indication, that scrutiny is all for the good. For Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven alone would never earn the German director the level of status and respect his name now commands, and a final verdict on Fassbinder still seems far off in the distant future. This 1975 release relates the tale of an ageing housewife (Brigitte Mira) whose insulated petty-bourgeois world crumbles when her husband suddenly goes on a suicidal-homocidal rampage at his job. Sensing that something must be seriously amiss in an existence that drove her spouse to self-destruction, the elderly frau reaches out to those who people her reality, only to find indifference and a demented flair for exploitation that knows no bounds. Whether it be her egotistical children, glib reporters eager for another story or leftists looking for a living example of the abuses of capitalism, the story remains the same: a "What's in it for me?" mentality greets Mother Kuster's futile search for solace and love. A suffocating cynicism permeates almost the entire film, yet it ends on an incongruous note of optimism that leaves one mystifies. An eminently forgettable move.