Star 80

US (1983): Biography
102 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Written and directed by Bob Fosse, this movie is based on Teresa Carpenter's "Death of a Playmate," in the Village Voice, and other accounts of the murder of the Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten by her estranged bodybuilder husband, Paul Snider, a pimp and a two-bit promoter, who, after killing her, sodomized the corpse and then shot himself. Fosse uses the case as evidence that murder is inherent in pornography and that the whole world is scummy. As Paul Snider, Eric Roberts uses a wet, mushy voice here, and he makes you feel the man's squirminess and rage. He gets the film's central idea across: that Paul Snider represents a mutation of the Playboy "philosophy," and that it's his frustration at not becoming a success like his idol, Hugh Hefner, that's driving him crazy. But Fosse keeps Roberts shouting and sweating and twisting his face for what seems an eternity. Mariel Hemingway tries hard as Dorothy, but she's all wrong for the part--she's simply not a bunny type. Fosse must believe that he can make art out of anything--that he doesn't need a writer to create characters, that he can just take the idea of a pimp murdering a pinup and give it such razzle-dazzle that it will shake people to the marrow. He uses his whole pack of tricks--flashbacks, interviews, shock cuts, the works--to keep the audience in a state of dread. He piles up such an accumulation of sordid scenes that the movie is nauseated by itself. With Carroll Baker, who, as Dorothy's mother, manages to suggest that the woman has some substance; Josh Mostel as a private detective; and Cliff Robertson and Roger Rees. Cinematography by Sven Nykvist. A Ladd Company Release through Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

A Star Is Born

US (1937): Drama
111 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The first version, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. The director, William Wellman, had a hand in the story, and Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Robert Carson devised the script, which purports to tell the true inside story of Hollywood and the perils of fame--how the fresh young actress, Vicki Lester, becomes a great star, while her spoiled, big-headed husband, Norman Maine, falls from stardom and sinks via alcoholism and despair. The film is peculiarly masochistic and self-congratulatory. The cast includes Adolphe Menjou, Lionel Stander, May Robson, Edgar Kennedy, Andy Devine, and Owen Moore. Produced by David O. Selznick; released by United Artists. Selznick acknowledged that the 1932 film WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD was the source material.

A Star Is Born

US (1954): Musical
154 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Grandiose, emotionally charged musical version of the 1937 tearjerker. Judy Garland and James Mason are the leads (although she looks tired and worn, and he gives such a remarkable performance as the washed-up, decaying star that he brings a bloom to the movie). This updated version is a terrible, fascinating orgy of self-pity and cynicism and mythmaking. Garland's jagged, tremulous performance is nakedly intense; her musical numbers include the capering "Born in a Trunk" and the dark, heavy torch song "The Man That Got Away." With Charles Bickford, Jack Carson, and Tommy Noonan. George Cukor directed, from Moss Hart's acerbic rewrite of the 1937 film. George Hoyningen-Huené served as color consultant, and the strikingly sumptuous color design gives the film deep, neurotic, emotional tones. Warners. CinemaScope.

A Star Is Born

US (1976): Musical
140 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

The Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson musical version, with the milieu switched to the rock world, is sentimental, without being convincing for an instant. Those in the mood for an emotional extravaganza can swoon and weep, and giggle, too. Directed by Frank Pierson; adapted by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, and Pierson. With Paul Mazursky and Gary Busey. Songs by Paul Williams, Streisand, and others. Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book When the Lights Go Down.

Star Spangled Girl

US (1971): Comedy
92 min, Rated G, Color, Available on videocassette

Sandy Duncan's comic talent shines through--she has a troll-like spark of genius in her timing--and Tony Roberts' and Todd Susman's talents almost shine through, too, but the material is atrocious Neil Simon. The situations are so contrived that the wisecracks aren't funny even when they're funny. But when they're sour they're certainly sour. Directed at breakneck speed by Jerry Paris, but the picture can't go by fast enough. Paramount.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

US (1982): Science Fiction
113 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Wonderful dumb fun. The director, Nicholas Meyer, hits just the right amused, slightly self-mocking note in the opening scenes, and the same actors who looked flabby and embarrassed in the 1979 STAR TREK-THE MOTION PICTURE turn into a troupe of confident, witty professionals. The theme of this endlessly inventive movie is death and rebirth, with the prim, smug Admiral Kirk (William Shatner), who has become stiff from sitting at his administrative post, taking a three-week cruise on his old starship, the Enterprise, encountering his old enemy, the maniacal Khan (Ricardo Montalban), and waking up. Montalban plays his fiery villainy to the hilt, smiling grimly as he does the dirty; his bravado is grandly comic. The regulars are all present: Mr. Spock, "Bones" McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, and the fuddled Chekov. And the crew has acquired a voluptuous half-Vulcan--Saavik, played by Kirstie Alley. Such guest performers as Paul Winfield, Bibi Besch, and Judson Scott shine in their roles, and DeForest Kelley makes the prickly Bones more crisply funny than he used to be; his performance helps to compensate for the disappointment of Leonard Nimoy's ashen, dried-out Spock. The pieces of the story fit together so beautifully that eventually the director has you wrapped up in the foolishness. By the end, all the large, sappy, satisfying emotions get to you. The story is credited to Jack B. Sowards and Harve Bennett, and the script to Sowards, yet it isn't hard to detect Meyer's hand (especially when he leaves his signature--at a crucial point he has the hero echo the words of the hero in TIME AFTER TIME). Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

US (1984): Science Fiction
105 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

With Leonard Nimoy at the helm, this is the first movie directed by a Vulcan; maybe we shouldn't be surprised that it's achingly prosaic. This one is really only for Trekkies; others are likely to find it tolerable but yawny. Its predecessor, STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, ended with Spock's casket's being sent to a newly created planet, the paradisiacal Genesis, where, the audience could assume, Spock would be reborn. But this new film seems to take a churlish attitude toward its lighthearted, delicately self-mocking predecessor; almost vindictively, the new film requires that Genesis disintegrate. Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) and his venerable crew must steal the now mothballed Enterprise to rescue Spock--whatever form he's in--and take him home to Vulcan. The principal diversion comes from the Klingons, a bunch of ogres whose brains appear to be on the outside of their foreheads, and their Lord (Christopher Lloyd), who manages to be droll despite the absolute nonexistence of comedy scenes. There's also a ceremony conducted by a Vulcan priestess, played by Judith Anderson (in her 87th year); her voice is so commandingly intense it's scary, and she brings a spot of high style to this movie--her huge, pointy ears only add to her grandeur. The rest of the time there's not much to look at besides the collection of hairpieces on the crew of the Enterprise. From a script by the producer, Harve Bennett. Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

US (1986): Science Fiction
119 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Things are fairly comatose in space, and you may start feeling passive and depressed, but then the seven crewmates travel from the 23rd century back to 20th-century San Francisco to save a pair of humpback whales, and the encounters there between the seven and the more primitive San Franciscans allow for a few modest jokes. Here's a typical scene: Chekov (Walter Koenig) has been badly injured and is unconscious in a hospital, where he is about to undergo an emergency operation. In order to save him from the barbarities of 20th-century surgery, Bones (DeForest Kelley) hurriedly--and furtively--cures him by placing a small disk on his forehead. The scene is meant to be comic, but, with Leonard Nimoy directing, Chekov doesn't wake immediately--he wakes gradually; and when he's asked his name and rank he takes so long answering that any possible humor leaks out of the scene (which has no other reason for existence). Some of the kidding around is fairly genial, and William Shatner's Kirk is less stoic here than in III--HE'S pleasantly daffy. The others in the crew also have an easy, parodistic tone. But the picture doesn't have much beyond the interplay among them and the jokey scenes in San Francisco. The crewmates are supposed to be technical wizards of the 23rd century, but they deliver their lines as if they were ancient tortoises who had to get their heads out and up before they could say anything. It's a relief to hear two San Francisco garbagemen talk, because there's some energy in their voices, and when Madge Sinclair turns up for a minute, as the captain of the S.S. Saratoga, her crisp, urgent tone is like a handclap. Screenplay by Steve Meerson, Peter Krikes, Harve Bennett, and Nicholas Meyer; story by Nimoy and Bennett. Catherine Hicks is the teary-eyed marine biologist; Jane Wyatt and John Schuck also turn up. Paramount.

Star Wars

US (1977): Science Fiction
121 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

One of the biggest box-office successes in movie history--probably because for young audiences it's like getting a box of Cracker Jack that is all prizes. Written and directed by George Lucas, the film is enjoyable in its own terms, but it's exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. There's no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the image of a double sunset. The loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, and the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head, and even if you've been entertained, you may feel cheated of some dimension--a sense of wonder, perhaps. It's an epic without a dream. Maybe the only real inspiration involved was to set its sci-fi galaxy in the pop-culture past, and to turn old-movie ineptness into conscious Pop Art. And maybe there's a touch of genius in keeping the film so consistently what it is, even if this is the genius of the plodding. Lucas has got the tone of bad movies down pat: you never catch the actors deliberately acting badly; they just seem to be bad actors, on contract to Monogram or Republic, their klunky enthusiasm polished at the Ricky Nelson school of acting. In a gesture toward equality of the sexes, the high-school-cheerleader princess-in-distress (played by Carrie Fisher) talks tomboy-tough--Terry Moore with spunk. (Is it because the picture is synthesized from the mythology of serials and old comic books that it didn't occur to anybody that she could get the Force?) With Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, Kenny Baker as R2-D2, and Alec Guinness as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi. A Lucasfilm, released by 20th Century-Fox. (STAR WARS was the first film of a trilogy; it was followed by THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, 1980 and RETURN OF THE JEDI, 1983.)

Star!

US (1968): Musical/Biography
176 min, Rated G, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Cast as Gertrude Lawrence in this biographical musical, Julie Andrews lacks the insolent confidence and the elusive, magical sophistication that can make mannerisms into style; she's pert and cheerful in some professional way that is finally cheerless. Trying for glamour, she merely coarsens her shining, nice-girl image, becoming a nasty Girl Guide. The director, Robert Wise, and the writer, William Fairchild, appear to be aiming for a dispassionate portrait of an archetypal empty ratfink kind of star--a female Citizen Kane of the theatre and high society. But the ambivalence doesn't come across successfully, partly because Andrews is never convincing as a magnetic, tough-sentimental performer. Some of the best songs of Cole Porter and Noel Coward and Kurt Weill and the Gershwins are mangled, while audiences inside the movie go mad with enthusiasm. As Coward, Daniel Massey (who is Raymond Massey's son and Coward's godson) has the best lines and gives an amiable parody-impersonation. With Richard Crenna, Michael Craig, Beryl Reid, Jenny Agutter, Robert Reed, and Roy Scheider in a bit. Choreographed by Michael Kidd; the ugly, unflattering swell clothes ($347,000 worth) that Andrews wears are by Donald Brooks. At a cost of $14 million, STAR! was a catastrophic box-office failure. 20th Century-Fox.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Going Steady.

Stardust

UK (1975): Drama
97 min, Rated R, Color

A hyperbolic English melodrama about the rise of a working-class rock group which never invites the viewer into the story. At first, the central character, played by David Essex, seems to be a fairly ordinary grubby kid, pushed to the top by shrewd mercenaries, but by the time he has acquired riches and stardom, the film's nastiness turns against the crowds who pursue him and he is presented as a doomed hero. The director, Michael Apted, shows his usual flashes of talent, but he overreaches. The editing is irritatingly mannered, and the exposé aspects are fuzzy-minded. The hipness and bitterness aren't entertaining, and they don't serve any serious purpose, either. When the hero OD's on a big international live TV show, the neo-Nazi grandiloquence of the spectacle is too sodden to be satirical. Written by Ray Connolly, the film continues the story of the 1973 THAT'LL BE THE DAY, which dealt with the hero's earlier days. With Adam Faith as the manager, Keith Moon, Marty Wilde, Edd Byrnes, Ines Des Longchamps, and Larry Hagman. Cinematography by Tony Richmond; produced by David Puttnam and Sanford Lieberson, for EMI.

Stardust Memories

US (1980): Comedy
91 min, Rated PG, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Woody Allen wrote, directed, and stars in this obsessional pastiche, modelled on Fellini's 81 and shot in black-and-white that suggests a dupe of a dupe of 81. Allen plays Sandy Bates, a comedian-writer-director who goes to the Hotel Stardust, a resort on the New Jersey seashore, to be the celebrity-in-residence for a weekend film seminar and is besieged by his fans, who want him to make more comedies, though he doesn't feel like it, because all he sees is human suffering. The pushy fans are photographed as Diane Arbus grotesques--big-nosed, fat-lipped, with outsized thick goggles--and Sandy Bates is presented as their victim. To say this picture isn't funny is putting it mildly; it isn't good, either. Everything in it turns uncomfortable, morose, icky. With Charlotte Rampling, Marie-Christine Barrault, Jessica Harper, and, as Sandy's sister, Anne DeSalvo. United Artists.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Taking It All In.

Starman

US (1984): Science Fiction/Romance
115 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

This sci-fi romance, directed by John Carpenter, has something of the sentimental paranoia of EASY RIDER transposed to the 80s. With Karen Allen as a young widow with sad, glazed eyes and Jeff Bridges as a gentle extraterrestrial whose spacecraft has been shot down near her cabin in Wisconsin, and who takes the form of the husband she mourns, the picture has a melancholy gooeyness. He will die if he doesn't make it to a designated spot in Arizona in three days, to be picked up by his mother ship, so the two of them set out in her souped-up 1977 Mustang. En route, her fear of him changes to love, and he experiences some of the pleasures and pangs of being human, male, and American. And we experience some of Carpenter's idea of tenderness: when the two are in a roadside restaurant, he asks her to define "love," and she tries helplessly, wet-eyed, thinking of her dead husband, while a synthesized heavenly choir in the distance makes wistful, whimpering sounds. In this victimization fantasy, it's all sweet innocence between the starman and the widow because everything else has been displaced onto some violent hunters and the government, which pursues the two flower children with a dozen or so helicopters--embodiments of evil. Bridges is mildly amusing at the start, but the picture is muted and draggy; it lacks vitality. With Charles Martin Smith, who is likably sane, Lu Leonard as a friendly waitress, and Richard Jaeckel. From a script by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon (rewritten by the uncredited Dean Riesner). Columbia.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

The Stars Look Down

UK (1939): Drama
110 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

Carol Reed was only 33 when he made this film and he had not yet acquired the technical virtuosity of his later style; it contains nothing as imaginative as the first sequences of his ODD MAN OUT when the Irish conspirators stage their robbery, and lose their leader in the getaway. But this straightforward film is, in some ways, his finest. It's a remarkably beautiful work, and until the 60s it was one of only a few English movies with a strong contemporary subject. It sustains an emotional tone like that of a Thomas Hardy novel, and the hero (Michael Redgrave, in his first really distinguished screen performance) is a frustrated idealist, not unlike Hardy's Jude. Growing up in a Welsh mining town, this hero dreams of improving the life around him, but marries naïvely, and disastrously. Margaret Lockwood plays the stupid, vulgar, unhappy girl who snares him, and Emlyn Williams is the little sharpie she's instinctively drawn to. One sequence is almost pure Hardy: a group of men are trapped in a mine; the conscience-stricken, criminally irresponsible mine owner, on his way to the rescue squad with the plans that will save the men, has a fatal stroke; the plans fall from his hand, and the trapped men die. With Edward Rigby as the hero's father, Nancy Price as his mother, Desmond Tester as his younger brother, and Ivor Barnard and Cecil Parker. From a novel by A.J. Cronin. The film met with a hostile reaction from organized labor, partly because the miners are seen to be contemptuous of their own union, and few people in the U.S. saw it when it finally arrived here in 1941.

Start the Revolution Without Me

US (1970): War/Comedy
91 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

A parody of swashbucklers that begins bouncingly with the birth of Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder as two sets of identical twins, mismatched by a harried obstetrician--one pair to be raised as peasants, the other pair as aristocrats. But the script doesn't hold up, the directing (by Bud Yorkin) is flaccid, and Sutherland smirks and mugs through his dual role. The picture turns silly, yet, at least, it doesn't turn sour, and Wilder has a fantastic shtick. He builds up a hysterical rage about nothing at all, upon an imaginary provocation, and it's terribly funny. It's the sort of thing you wouldn't expect to work more than once, but it works each time and you begin to wait for it and hope for it--his self-generated neurasthenic rage is a parody of all the obscene bad temper in the world. With a lovely poignant performance by Hugh Griffith as a befuddled Louis XVI, and Billie Whitelaw, Jack MacGowran, and Victor Spinetti. Written by Fred Freeman and Lawrence J. Cohen. Warners.

State Fair

US (1933): Comedy
96 min, No rating, Black & White

Will Rogers in a homey, good-natured comedy-romance that was a huge popular success. He is the farmer who takes his big black-and-white hog, Blue Boy, to compete at the fair. (When the hog feels poorly, Rogers accuses him of shamming.) At the fair, the farmer's daughter, Janet Gaynor, meets a newspaperman, Lew Ayres, and the farmer's son, Norman Foster, encounters a trapeze performer, Sally Eilers; meanwhile, the farmer's wife, Louise Dresser, wins prizes for her pickles, jams, and mincemeat. Frank Craven has a leading role, playing a storekeeper, and Victor Jory appears as a barker. The romance of Foster and Eilers is dismal, but the rest is highly satisfying. Henry King directed; the script by Paul Green and Sonya Levien is based on Phil Stong's novel. Has been remade a couple of times, but this version is the best by far. It's folksy stuff, all right, but Will Rogers and Frank Craven know how to satirize the characters they embody, and Janet Gaynor, sticky-sweet as she is, knows how to sneak into the audience's heart. Fox.

State Fair

US (1945): Musical
100 min, No rating, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Rodgers & Hammerstein take over. Cheerful is probably the word for it--if you're in the mood for cheerful. The story has lost the folk humor it had in its 1933 version, and the Americana has been poured on. Everything is too clean and bright and smiley; it all reeks of manufacture, especially Charles Winninger. The principal actors trying to fake their way through are Fay Bainter, Jeanne Crain, Dana Andrews, Dick Haymes, and Vivian Blaine. Walter Lang directed. The score includes "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "It's a Grand Night for Singing." It would have been a better musical if the lyricist (Hammerstein, who also wrote the script) hadn't been fond of words like "grand." 20th Century-Fox.

State of the Union

US (1948): Political
124 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in a large, expensive political melodrama with satirical and romantic overtones, based on the play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, and directed by Frank Capra. Tracy is the Republican candidate for the Presidency, and Hepburn is his estranged wife, who agrees to come home for appearance' sake to help him win the election. It's a shallow but generally entertaining show, with lots of devious characters (such as Angela Lansbury and Adolphe Menjou) doing dirty deeds. Hepburn is wasted in her pillar-of-rectitude role, but she's still a dervish of a performer, and more fun to watch than just about anybody else who might have played it. Van Johnson, Lewis Stone, Raymond Walburn, and Charles Dingle are in the cast, along with such troupers as Marion Martin and Tom Pedi. The ending has the Capra sentimentality familiar from the 30s: the little people always know the truth--they can spot a phony or a sellout, and they know when a man is on the level. If you care to see what Arthur O'Connell looked like when he was younger, watch for the reporter who turns up. Adapted by Anthony Veiller and Myles Connolly. MGM.

Stavisky

France-Italy (1974): Political/Biography
117 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

Alain Resnais's death song for 30s elegance, featuring a silver Hispano-Suiza, an Art Deco diamond necklace, baskets of white hothouse flowers, a white plane with a red-circle nose, a white-on-white animal in the snow. Even the buildings and the skies are silvery white, and the slightly acrid neo-Gershwin score, by Stephen Sondheim, enhances the design. The film seems to be a reverie on facades and contrasts, in which the international king of crooks, the swindler-charmer Stavisky (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who hides his origins and his past, who lives as if he had no memories, is paired with his friend Baron Raoul (Charles Boyer), who lives secure in the protection that class provides. Stavisky's adventurism, which weakened France and helped to destroy her in the Second World War, is also balanced against the revolutionary hopes of Leon Trotsky, exiled by Stalin, who was living near Fontainebleau. But Resnais directs as if vitality would be a sin against art, and the characters are no more than emblems. Each shot, each camera movement, is thought out in design terms; Resnais has a beautiful technique, but it's not an expressive technique. This is an icy, high-minded, white-telephone movie. The script is by Jorge Semprun, the cinematography by Sacha Vierny. With Anny Duperey, François Périer, Michel Lonsdale, Claude Rich, and Gérard Depardieu as a young inventor. In French.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

Staying Alive

US (1983): Drama
96 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Ludicrous. As producer-writer-director, Sylvester Stallone turns everything into a fight, and this sequel to John Badham's SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, with John Travolta once again playing the dancer Tony Manero from Brooklyn's Bay Ridge, is a weirdly stripped-down-for-action musical. The whole movie seems designed to pound the audience into submission. Stallone doesn't bother much with characters, scenes, or dialogue. He just puts the newly muscle-plated Travolta in front of the cameras, covers him with what looks like oil slick, and goes for the whambams. Travolta still has his star presence; he holds the screen more strongly than ever--but too flagrantly. The film gives the audience such a pounding that if it weren't for the final two minutes of Travolta on the street, moving to the theme music from SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, people might not have the strength to crawl out of the theatre. With Cynthia Rhodes, Finola Hughes, and Julie Bovasso, who has a couple of remarkable scenes as Tony's mother. Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

Steamboat 'Round the Bend

US (1935): Drama
96 min, No rating, Black & White

There's a romantic story in this pleasant John Ford comedy, but the picture is carried by Will Rogers (just before his death), as a patent-medicine peddler along the Mississippi; Irvin S. Cobb, as a steamboat captain; Eugene Pallette, as a sheriff; and Berton Churchill, as a stray evangelist. These four character actors get an assist now and then from Stepin Fetchit. With Anne Shirley as the girl in love with John McGuire, who has to be saved from hanging; Will Rogers--his uncle--goes up and down the river, searching for the witness who can clear him. Ford felt that Darryl F. Zanuck, who had just taken over as studio chief and who high-handedly recut this picture, picking up the pace, had ruined it. (It was popular, though.) Also with Raymond Hatton, Roger Imhof, Francis Ford, and Hobart Bosworth. The script, by Dudley Nichols and Lamar Trotti, is adapted from a novel by Ben Lucien Burman; music by Samuel Kaylin; cinematography by George Schneiderman. 20th Century-Fox.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

US (1928): Comedy
71 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

One of the least known of the Buster Keaton features, yet it possibly ranks right at the top. It is certainly the most bizarrely Freudian of his adventures, dealing with a tiny son's attempt to prove himself to his huge, burly, rejecting father. Ernest Torrence is the father--a tough Mississippi-steamboat captain, who does not conceal his disgust when Junior (Keaton) arrives to join him, nattily dressed in bell-bottoms, a polka-dot tie, and a beret. When the father is in jail, Keaton tries to hand him a gigantic loaf of bread containing tools for breaking out, but the father doesn't understand what's in it and refuses the bread; Keaton mutters, "My father is ashamed of my baking." The film features a memorable comic cyclone, and a peerless (and much imitated) sequence in which Keaton tries on hats and changes personality with each, becoming a series of movie stars of the period. Directed by Charles Riesner. Silent.

Steelyard Blues

US (1973): Crime/Comedy
93 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

Blithe exuberance turned into cant. Donald Sutherland, Jane Fonda, and Peter Boyle are among the band of friendly outlaws who are persecuted by the stupid, vindictive straights, and who fly away to a better world. With Alan Myerson's amateurish direction, the film never gets a rhythm going, and its adolescent anarchism just seems smug. Warners.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

Stella

Greece (1955): Drama
94 min, No rating, Black & White

Young men dance in a row in the sunlight and a solemn, solitary man dances in front of a high-pitched, almost metallic bouzoukia orchestra. The streets and bistros of Athens are much more memorable than the story of this crude, vigorous Greek film, written and directed by Michael Cacoyannis. The story is rather like Camille crossed with Carmen--an overcharged melodrama about a fiery young woman (the leonine Melina Mercouri) and her uncompromising determination to be emotionally independent of her lovers. She refuses to marry the weak, insomniac aristocrat (Aleko Alexandrakis), outrages his condescending relatives, and drives him to his death; she falls in love with a young peasant athlete (Georges Foundas), but she stands him up at the altar, and he kills her. This movie doesn't have the grace of Cacoyannis's later, more subdued A GIRL IN BLACK, but it's a triumph of temperament. Cinematography by Costa Theodorides. In Greek.

Stella Dallas

US (1937): Drama
106 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A celebrated tearjerker of the stage and screen, particularly effective in this version, starring Barbara Stanwyck and directed by King Vidor. Stanwyck plays the uncouth, down-to-earth young woman who can't live up to the socially prominent fellow (John Boles) she marries; they separate. Stella is loud and overdressed, but she's also sensitive, and when she realizes that she's an embarrassment to the daughter she loves (Anne Shirley), she gives her up to the husband. Tim Holt, Marjorie Main, Alan Hale, and Barbara O'Neil are also in the cast, but the picture is all Stanwyck's, and worth seeing for her brassy, touching, all-out performance (possibly her greatest), even if pictures about maternal love and self-sacrifice give you the heebie-jeebies. Also with Nella Walker, Ann Shoemaker, and in a bit at a soda fountain, Laraine Day. Adapted from the novel by Olive Higgins Prouty and also from a theatre version; screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman. Cinematography by Rudolph Maté. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn, who had also produced the 1925 silent version, with Belle Bennett. United Artists. (A remake, STELLA, starring Bette Midler, was released in 1990.)

Step Lively

US (1944): Musical/Comedy
88 min, No rating, Black & White, Available on videocassette

An RKO musical version of the John Murray and Allen Boretz stage farce Room Service, which had already been filmed (to generally dismal results) with the Marx Brothers in 1938. This time, instead of the gang of characters running back and forth in one hotel room, they run clockwise and counterclockwise, through many hotel rooms. The star is Frank Sinatra, so calmly self-possessed that whenever the pack closes in he lies down on a bed or a dance floor and the thundering feet pass over him. Between times, he sings some Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne songs, including "As Long As There's Music." His cool head saves him in a movie that would be enough to eclipse the career of an ordinary singing star. With Gloria De Haven, Adolphe Menjou, Anne Jeffreys, Walter Slezak, Eugene Pallette, and George Murphy, who, directed to be idiotically rambunctious, sinks in this morass. Tim Whelan directed.

The Stepfather

US (1987): Thriller/Horror
98 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

A first-rate, cunning, shapely thriller, directed by Joseph Ruben (DREAMSCAPE), from a nifty screenplay by the crime novelist Donald E. Westlake. The blandly handsome perfectionist (Terry O'Quinn) wants to be the head of an ideal family; he's attracted to widows with children, in picture-postcard houses. Everything's going smoothly for him in his new marriage, except that his 16-year-old stepdaughter (Jill Schoelen) recoils from his touch. She knows right down to her toes that he's got some kind of fix on her and that he doesn't love her bamboozled mother (Shelley Hack). This movie has a deceptively placid surface: the horror is there waiting all the time. It's in what's missing from the man we see, and the skill of the picture is that it keeps us creepily conscious of what's missing. With the Vancouver area doubling for Seattle in the opening section, and then for the fictitious towns nearby, Ruben uses everyday settings, and the film's scariness is almost cruelly plausible; luckily, he and Westlake are entertainers. With Charles Lanyer, Stephen Shellen, and Jeff Schultz; cinematography by John W. Lindley. Story by Carolyn Lefcourt and Brian Garfield and Westlake, suggested by the John List case. An ITC Production.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Hooked.

The Stepford Wives

US (1975): Thriller/Drama
115 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette

The first women's-lib gothic--hardly the landmark the world had been waiting for. Besides, it's so tastefully tame that there's no suspense. Taken from an Ira Levin novel that might have been written by a computer, it's about the encroaching horror of suburban blandness; in this account, the responsibility for suburban women's becoming overgroomed deadheads, obsessed with waxed, antiseptic households, is placed totally on the men. Katharine Ross plays the young New Yorker who moves to Stepford and discovers that the wives have been robotized by their husbands. Written by William Goldman and directed by Bryan Forbes, the picture is literal in a way that seems a wasting disease. With Paula Prentiss, Nanette Newman, Peter Masterson, and Patrick O'Neal. A Palomar Production, released by Columbia.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Reeling.

The Sterile Cuckoo

US (1969): Romance/Drama/Comedy
107 min, Rated PG, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Liza Minnelli's sad, quizzical persona--the gangling body and the features that look too big for the face--are ideal equipment for the role of a desperate, funny, imaginative college girl in this surprisingly gentle, surprisingly good film, directed by Alan J. Pakula. The screenplay is by Alvin Sargent; adapted from John Nichols' novel. With Wendell Burton. Paramount.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book Deeper into Movies.

Stick

US (1985): Crime
109 min, Rated R, Color, Available on videocassette and laserdisc

Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, this picture about an ethical tough guy who returns to Miami after seven years in the slammer is a mess. It doesn't make sense and it shows its director and star, Burt Reynolds, at a low ebb. It has a wild stunt, though. Dar Robinson plays an albino killer who falls off the balcony of a high building; while plunging to his death he keeps firing his revolver all the long way down. And George Segal gives a rip-roaringly manic performance as a cigar-chomping millionaire who likes to pal around with hoods. Some of Segal's old joy in acting comes out, and each time he appears he gives the movie a shot of energy. The cast includes Richard Lawson, who, as the millionaire's houseman, has a good relaxed comedy touch, and Candice Bergen, Charles Durning, Tricia Leigh Fisher, Castulo Guerra, Alex Rocco, José Perez, and Sachi Parker. Shot in 1984, the film was put through some alterations and reshooting during post-production. Universal.
For a more extended discussion, see Pauline Kael's book State of the Art.

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