My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979). It’s always fun to watch Judy Davis lead with her chin, and sharp, distinctive onscreen personality was basically in place from the beginning. She plays a young Australian woman in the late 19th century who is certain that greatness awaits her out in the big, bad world. Her headstrong nature is continually put to the test, and part of the pleasure of the movie is watching Davis emotionally endure the various indignities and challenges laid in her character’s path. Armstrong balances the storytelling nicely, evoking the period without letting the film become needlessly smothered by its trappings. It emphasizes the story’s universal qualities rather than its sterling credentials as a piece of the revered, solemn past.
Get Carter (Mike Hodges, 1971). Michael Caine plays a gangster bent on retribution in one of the films that doled out as a calling card of his iconic stature in nineteen-seventies British cinema. He may look plenty cool dishing out personal justice, but the movie itself is a by-the-numbers revenge drama. There’s no real personality to it, just a body count with some Bondian sexual exploits to break things up. The sex scene accompanied by revving race car noises is especially tough to take. There’s plenty to debate about the sadism of the film being portrayed as heroic, or, more accurately, without much of a thought at all, but the worst sin is that it’s flat-out boring.
Robin and Marian (Richard Lester, 1976). It has a great hook, revisiting Robin Hood and Maid Marian many years after their legendary exploits. They reunite when Robin returns to the forest of his former glory after years of toiling unhappily for the king, rekindling their romance, which in turn stirs Robin’s taste for adventure. In an interesting marker of the desperate preservation of current stars, Sean Connery is in his mid-forties as he plays the somewhat washed-up hero, or around the same age as Russell Crowe in the recent franchise attempt that positioned itself as a sort of prequel to the more famous exploits of the robber of the rich. Connery is quite good as the beleaguered warrior rediscovering his sense of joy. On the other hand, Audrey Hepburn, returning to screen after nearly a decade’s absence, is a little fussy as Marian. Lester’s shot-making is naturally expert throughout, but there’s not enough verve to the film. It needs a dose of the fresh energy that Robin is feeling.
Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974). I’d need to look all the way back to the cinematic endeavors of the Marx Brothers to find another movie as unabashedly fun as Brooks’ happy spoof of Frankenstein. Everything works marvelously, from the old-fashioned look of the film complemented by the lovely black and white cinematography to the totally game performances of the actors. Even the hokiest, moldiest jokes comes across as fresh and vibrant. Brooks has a unquenchable love of gags, but he also had a respect for the the narrative rigors of moviemaking. He finds a way to fit the humor in to the framework rather than lazily bending the storyline to suit the need for a laugh. It’s a discipline that sets the film apart a multitude of other comedies.
The Rack (Arnold Laven, 1956). It’s such an earnest drama that it feels like discuss questions should scroll up the screen at the end. Paul Newman plays a soldier back from the Korean War who is brought to trial for supposedly colluding with the enemy when he was a prisoner of war. It’s an early role for Newman, released just a few months after his breakthrough in Somebody Up There Likes Me, and his performance has all the qualities of a great actor still honing his craft, occasionally pushing a little too hard in the process. The film is adapted from a Rod Serling teleplay, and Laven does little to liberate it from its origins. It feels locked into its sets, especially the many courtroom scenes which unfold with little visual flair. It’s just one more thing that makes the whole endeavor feel stuffy.