Big Mouth Billy Fish

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Elizabeth Daily, Diane Lane and Rick Moranis

In 2011, a 45-year-old director completed a long-gestating project which was viewed with confusion as a vanity project, an inchoate mash-up of his childhood obsessions, his adult obsessions, and his lust for micromanaging every aesthetic detail. Suckerpunch will be a fascinating time capsule in 20 years, but will never inspire romantic reveries, and in its own time it was a failure, bringing to life the latent fantasy landscape of very few people other than Zack Snyder.

27 years earlier, another maker of populist masculine films, slightly younger than 45, was met with similar public indifference for his own labor of love. Writer/director/producer Walter Hill used the power he had assembled from The DriverThe GetawayThe Warriors, Alien, 48 Hrs. et al. to expand his world beyond “tough little stories” into a whole fantasy landscape, a seamless intermingling of greaser/sock-hop and New Wave fashions, a world of young-forever romance and nighttime and rainstorms and neon and highway underpasses but no highways. A world where you’re never more than a block from someone who owes you a favor, or vice versa. I’m not going off on creative-writing flights of fancy here, this is exactly how Hill describes his inspiration.

Streets Of Fire, is, by design, comic book in orientation, mock-epic in structure, movie-heroic in acting style, operatic in visual style and cowboy-cliche in dialogue. I tried to make what I would have thought was a perfect movie when I was in my teens – I put in all the things I thought were great then and which I still have great affection for, custom cars, kissing in the rain, neon, trains in the night, high-speed pursuit, rumbles, rock stars, motorcycles, jokes in tough situations, leather jackets and questions of honor.”

No protestations here of intricate allegories tackling tough issues, like we got from Snyder when he was challenged by accusations of masturbatoriousness.

Streets of Fire features a hero with two qualities: tough-guyness, and honesty, played by Michael Paré [evoking a young Peter Weller, or a Travolta unable to smile]. A dream girl who talks tough but is fated to be kidnapped and fought over [Diane Lane as Ellen Aim, rock singer whose onstage apparel looks like something Sarah Vaughan would wear, except made out of spandex]. A variety of non-dream girls who actually are tough [Amy Madigan as a soldier, in a brave performance written for a man much taller than her; Elizabeth Daily as a plucky superfan; Deborah van Valkenburgh, the tough girl from The Warriors, here as your typical soulful waitress and Paré’s sister]. A bad guy who wears by far the most outlandish outfit in the movie. Gang wars in which what matters is ritualized combat between leader and leader, in which the loser doesn’t necessarily even get hurt, he just… loses, and leaves town, in a form of fairy-tale logic which would soon be labeled video-game logic. A world where people pay for everything in coins.

Amy Madigan and Michael Paré

Amy Madigan and Michael Paré

The plot of Streets of Fire: Gang leader Raven [Willem Dafoe] kidnaps Ellen Aim, not to make any particular point, just because he wants her. Her lover/manager Billy Fish [Rick Moranis] recruits her ex-lover Tom Cody [Paré] to assemble a small posse to get her back. Billy Fish himself is enlisted to tag along for the ordeal because he knows the territory. Cops [1950s-style, but racially diverse] get in their way. Gangsters get in their way. She is returned to safety, and then Raven challenges Tom to ritualized combat. That’s about it.

Did you notice the phrase “tag along”? That’s a red flag. The movie moves fast and is full of memorable images and moments. But Billy Fish is the most annoying character in any movie of the 1980s.

One of the most notoriously annoying characters of the decade is Willie Scott [Kate Capshaw], who tags along in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, who whines steadily, diminishes the adventure by giving persuasive arguments for turning around and avoiding all risks, and seemingly doesn’t need to be tagging along anyway. Billy Fish combines all these attributes with the other annoying aspects of Rick Moranis characters, being a socially awkward nerd who is also an impulsive loudmouth who gets others in trouble by never shutting up. And not only that, he’s also the rich guy who bosses everyone around, calls people “pal” or “sweetheart”, and lauds himself for being smart enough to escape his childhood neighborhood and eclipse the losers he grew up with. And he’s constantly asking what’s going on, because there can’t be a moment of peace.

The following, unless I missed something [surely did], comprises all of Billy Fish’s lines from Streets of Fire. I watched it after reading that Moranis left acting because his strengths were in improvising and writing, and he had no interest in the roles that fit his persona in if there was no room for creativity in the dialogue. Nothing is unplanned about Streets of Fire. Some actors are comfortable playing a one-note role. Moranis got bored early when filming this one.

* * *

  • How we doing here, we all set?
  • Yeah, not one of them’s got a pot to piss in. I never should’ve let myself get talked into this dumb benefit, I could’ve been making some real money tonight. All right, let’s get this thing started.
  • Yeah. So what gives? And make it fast, my time is valuable.
  • You and what army?
  • Easy. All you gotta do is earn it.
  • I started out there. It’s the shits. I wouldn’t go back to that dump if you paid me.
  • I don’t think so. It’s not my scene.
  • Look, Cody, you sound pretty dumb. But nobody’s that dumb. I’m the one paying you. That means you go get her, I wait here, and you bring her back to me.
  • Can you really get her back?
  • Alright, I’ll go. She’s real important to me.
  • That’s right, Cody.
  • Hey, what’s your problem? We’re not takin’ no skirt along.
  • Listen, skirt, lemme make it simple for ya. Take a hike.
  • Hey, what is this? Get serious. I’m not paying you any extra to take some sweetie pie along for company.
  • Look, I’ll take you through the Battery and where the Bombers hang out, but I’m not taking any risks. I’m not paying you to add any thrills to my life, that’s not how it works.
  • Look, Butch, I buy and sell people more valuable than you every day.
  • Let me tell you something. These clothes are worth more than you make in a year.
  • If they got her anywhere, they got her at Torchie’s. It’s a real knockdown joint, no class. I used to book bands in there. It’s right in the middle of a big factory, it’s the shits. You’ll love it, McCoy, it’s just your style. Okay, Cody, what’s the plan? How do you figure on handling all these guys and their motorcycles? You start killing Bombers, we’re gonna be in worse shape than we’re already in.
  • Just keep going straight ahead, then make a left under the bridge.
  • Look, I know my way around. That’s why you brought me along, remember?
  • Walk? I’m not gonna walk around here, I’d get killed!
  • What are we talking to this creep for? Let’s get out of here.
  • Just trying to get away from you. We’ve got some business here.
  • I’m not gonna pay this jerk!
  • Don’t call me shithead.
  • Go buy some soap.
  • I don’t need this guy to tell me she’s at Torchie’s, I said they have her at Torchie’s.
  • Are you crazy? They’ll notice me in a second down there!
  • What about her? I thought she’s supposed to do the driving.
  • Jesus, Ellen, am I glad to see ya! I thought you were gone forever!
  • You’re not going with him, you stay in the car!
  • McCoy, can’t you drive this car any faster? I don’t want any Bombers sneaking up on us. Let’s get our asses outta here real quick. And where’s this Grant Street anyway, I never heard of it before, are you sure you know where you’re going?
  • Listen, I say we give it a couple minutes, then get outta here, okay?
  • I’m talking about saving our ass. We’ve got a lot to live for, Ellen!
  • Don’t worry about him, he’s getting paid a lot of money to look after Raven.
  • What, do you think he’s doing this for love? You think he’s doing this ’cause he’s your biggest fan? He’s getting paid, dear. He takes his chances.
  • What’s this old flame stuff?
  • What, is she kidding?
  • Well, Cody, we’ve had our differences, but it looks like we’ve got it made now, huh? We just zoom along here for a couple hours, then we’re home and dry.
  • Bury the car? What are you talking about, bury the car?
  • Gonna get rid of the car? What’s wrong with the car? Is this what I’m paying you all this money for, to come up with these brilliant ideas? Why don’t we just hand ourselves back over to Raven and ask him to shoot us?
  • What are you talking about? What are you going with him for? Hey, I don’t like the way this looks, Ellen. I’m paying the bills around here, how about some respect?
  • Wonder what they’re talking about.
  • Cute.
  • How big a thing do you think they had, anyway?
  • Yeah, well, she’s with me now.
  • I hope you two got everything straightened out.
  • What’s he mean, he hurt your feelings? What’d he say? Did he say anything about me? What’d he say?
  • We’re nobody. We’re going nowhere.
  • Look, knock it off. We’re not interested in conversation, okay, moron?
  • Great. We just got rid of the old wheels. Wonderful leadership, Cody.
  • This is great. Just great.
  • Changing flat tires isn’t exactly my line of work, dear.
  • The famous Sorels sure put a lot of money into that bus, huh?
  • Listen, Cody, I didn’t know you had a thing with Ellen in the old days. You better get some smarts. Learn to adjust to the fact that you’re out of the picture now. See, Cody, I do things for her. Things that a guy like you could never do. Things that matter in the real world.
  • Keep your hands off the suit, buddy.
  • Come on, hurry the hell up with that flat tire! It’s time to go.
  • Way ahead of you, Cody. Whaddya think, I gotta be a genius to know what you’re going for?
  • I’ll handle this. I’ll talk us through.
  • Aw, knock off the crap, will ya? As far as I’m concerned anybody that goes into the Battery and does some damage deserves a medal.
  • Look, cut the shit, okay? You guys got a big job to do, we’re trying to get where we’re going, now let us through. Or do you want to come to some kind of financial arrangement?
  • You guys talk my language.
  • Glad to see there’s some integrity left in the force.
  • First he dumps the car, and now he’s dumping the bus!
  • Don’t worry, babe. Everything’s gonna be okay from now on.
  • It’ll be great.
  • No, she’s not. She’s tired. She’s been roughed up. I’m gonna take her back to the hotel so she can get some rest. This whole thing started ’cause I had to do a gig in this shithole. I shoulda stayed the hell away from this dump.
  • Now you’re talking, kiddo. C’mon, let’s get out of here.
  • I’ve been expecting you. I know what you want. Ten grand. As good as my word. I pay on time.
  • You know, you play rough, Cody, but you do a good job. You should do a little more work for me when you get a taste of what that money’ll bring you. Then you’ll realize I’m the one with the brains around here and you’ll start treating me a bit nicer.
  • Where do you get off talking to her like that? She’s way out of your league, musclehead.
  • You know what’s wrong with that guy? He’s stupid.
  • What’re you sorry about? Where are you going? Where are you going?
  • What is this? You can’t get away with this! You think you can ride into any town and kidnap anybody you want? Now get the hell out of town and leave these people alone.
  • You know something, Waldo? We’re gonna be rich.
  • Great, huh? New discovery. I’ll take them right up the ladder.
  • But don’t worry, Cody, I’m not going to stand in your way with Ellen. I know how it is between you two.
  • She needs me, but she loves you.
  • Is that what I’m supposed to tell her?
  • Take it easy, Cody. Thanks.

* * *

Despite the presence of Billy Fish, and the fact that the kids of 1984 were more in tune with musicals starring Prince or Kevin Bacon, Streets of Fire has inspired love from many hard-bitten romantic teenagers in the following decades, particularly apparent in the form of fan art.

Read a more fair assessment of Streets of Fire here, from Robert C. Cumbow.

Tonight is what it means to be young.

Tonight is what it means to be young.

18 Titles That Might Introduce Fresh New Ideas Into The DIE HARD Franchise

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18. A Kiss Before Dying Hard

17. To Die Hard, To Sleep Hard, Perchance To Dream Hard

16. Dying Hard, Or Hardly Dying?

15. A Day No Pigs Would Die Hard

14. Whom The Gods Love Die Hard

13. Prop Me Up Beside The Jukebox If I Die Hard

12. Die Hard Stay Prettysamuel-jackson-bruce-willis-phone

11. Die Hard Stay Pretty II: Die Hard! Die Hard! My Darling!

10. Die Hard Star Pretty III: What Can You Say About A 25-Year-Old Girl Who Died Hard?

9. Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying Hard

8. (I Just) Died Hard In Your Arms

7. Hope I Die Hard Before I Get Old

6. Dracula: Dead, Hard, And Loving It

5. Skate Or Die Hard

4. Skate Or Die Hard II: Surf Nazis Must Die Hard

3. The Young May Die Hard, But The Old Must

2. Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori Durum

1. He Dies Hard For The Money, So You Better Treat Him Right

MAGFest 11: Arcade game assessment

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Space Invaders

Space Encounters

Space Encounters

Classic, of course. Perfectly calibrated. You wonder, should I eliminate the enemies row by row? Clearly I should, because that gives me more time long-term. Or should I go column by column? After I shoot one guy, it’s easiest to shoot the guy right behind him, so this makes sense practically if not in an ideal world. Which of these is best if we are concerned about minimizing the amount of damage to our shields? We need our shields. Like Centipede, this combines mutually unmaximizable objectives with a milieu that rewards patience rather than frantic reflexes.

Space Encounters
Like its near-namesake, there’s a colored overlay on the screen which helps define the zones of the game. But the important part of this game is the controller. It’s fantastic! You actually lean forward to push your ship forward, and pull back to pull it back. It’s also a steering wheel and of course you shoot with it. The controller is so heavy, requiring physical effort to manipulate, that it gives a better feeling of being within the space of the game than any other game I’ve played. And the other interesting feature is the lack of enemies. There really aren’t many things to shoot. Which is good because to shoot them you have to get really close, or at least I did since there seems to be no way to aim. The haptic controller and realistic-in-a-way randomness make this a unique experience.

This is a space shooter with a huge map. Your ship stays in the same place, and the background scrolls behind you. This was revolutionary at the time – before Sinistar! There’s a mini-map next to the background, telling you where you are, and where the ships you need to blow up are. It’s quite optional whether you blow up the smaller things – they aren’t that much of a risk, though it helps if there’s fewer of them. In addition to the free scrolling and the mini-map, this game pioneered having a computer voice, and pioneered the continue screen! Players must have been infuriated that a continue screen had been possible all these years. But how is the gameplay? Excellent. The ships you need to blow up have one spot in the middle you need to hit. If you approach from the right angle you can destroy the ship right away – otherwise its 8 projectiles (which you can also destroy, rendering it helpless, if you want to do things gradually) shoot at you. Some need to be approached from above/below, and some from left/right.

Exceeded my high expectations. You’ve got the ordinary mushrooms you have to destroy. Then more appear from the fragments of any unkilled centipedes. Then more are dropped by these snake guys that go sideways, and by these other guys that just fall accompanied by a loud BLOOP. With the interplay of these various sources of trouble you need to be reactive, while still focusing on eliminating the mushrooms at the bottom of the screen first. Then in carrying OUT this challenging combination of tasks, you use a trackball and a fire button. You generally move left to right only, which seems odd for a trackball, but it’s great because you can fine-tune your speed to catch up with or overtake your foes. And whacking the ball to go as fast as possible, unlike in most games where it’s a sign of desperation or a cocky flourish, is actually a strategy when you want to overtake the centipede before it makes a U-turn. Finally, the ball’s 3D capabilities soon become essential, when the creatures reach the bottom of the screen and you need to shift paradigms and go above them. A real game of skill.

Donkey Kong
Frankly it is amazing that this is where the empire started. The enemies move slowly. Mario moves slower. The enemies follow rules that are frustratingly unclear. It’s unclear whether it’s safe or deadly to be in a certain pixel. There are no surprises except death. The action once you reach the top of the screen is a little different from the action you take to get there, but not different enough. Even among single-screen platformers, which I never spend much time on, this is lacking.

Donkey Kong 3: Where Donkey Kong becomes King Hippo

Donkey Kong 3: Where Donkey Kong becomes King Hippo

Donkey Kong Jr.
An improvement over the original. I like how you climb slowly on one vine, but if you grab two vines you climb quickly. That adds a little complexity. The enemies don’t follow clear rules again, which is now more “caution-inducing” than “maddening” despite increased speed and difficulty. And right off the bat, Mario has gone from good guy to bad guy! Maybe there’s a reveal at the end showing Mario was framed or impersonated, as has become so popular in later decades of the franchise?

Donkey Kong 3
Where’s Mario? Instead, there’s some Fix-It Felix looking guy. Where’s Donkey Kong? He’s just sitting there taunting me. This isn’t a platformer? I just shoot these bugs? Wasn’t this a Game & Watch game? It was! I call shenanigans on Donkey Kong 3 and deny its existence.  The progression of the franchise has a lacuna here.

A “best of” of various shooters. Slick and enjoyable. If it was less predictable or had any mash-up qualities this would be a great one to own at home.

I played this for a while without reading the instructions. All I perceived was a NICE use of inertia. Inertia is satisfying. Upon finally learning the rules it became an exhilarating experience, somehow enhanced by my inability to figure out why I was sometimes zooming super-speedily [horizontally speaking] and sometimes couldn’t build up the slightest head of steam. The basic premise is you crash into the enemies and whoever is higher, vertically speaking, wins, that being the rule of the lance. An epiphany hit after a while: This is almost the same as the paradigm of “jump on your enemies, otherwise any contact with them is fatal.” Nice new perspective. I just wish the look of the enemies or other graphics would change between levels. Maybe it does after a while.


Here’s something I could play for hours. Why aren’t there more classic games where you walk from room to room? The Guardian Legend‘s indoor segments owe a debt to Berzerk. The “walk from room to room” function allows you to ease into difficulty levels. If there are too many robots to shoot, you can bail out, leave the room and come back. If the bouncy smiley face pens you in, run away and leave the room and come back. You can play this game evasively And the robots talk! And they make fun of you! The only problem is, you can’t touch the walls. I think it would be just as hard to shoot the robots if you COULD touch the walls, so dying as a result of wall contact is a constant source of frustration. The robots are challenging enough despite their slow pace. No need for even slower, even deadlier enemies in the form of load-bearing constructional elements.

Berzerk: "Intruder Alert. Stop the Humanoid"

Berzerk: “Intruder Alert. Stop the Humanoid”

This is the one game that let me get a high score. So right off the bat, it’s recommended. That being said, it would be nice if the stages were somewhat randomized. In theory. It would be nice for me if the game were EXACTLY LIKE IT IS because this is the game I have mastered, relatively speaking. This game was lodged in a Mario Bros. cabinet so I don’t know what the instructions look like, but it’s probably hard to explain what the buttons do. You can push one button to accelerate, but don’t push it for too long or you overheat. You can push the other button to maintain speed, or to accelerate but less effectively but with no risk of overheation. Also, on my 298749823948th play, my little bikey fella suddenly turned yellow and black, and the rules regarding overheating SIMPLY DID NOT APPLY. That was awesome. According to a YouTube comment and no other sources, this happens if you unbrokenly wreck five other guys without wrecking yourself. I couldn’t do it again, but it was awesome. All this game needs is well-known Nintendo characters to be the racers. I would have played 23974239842398742 times instead of merely 298749823948 if I could race as Kirby or A Boy’s Blob or Alex from River City Ransom. Has any chapter of the Mario Party saga EVER included an Excitebike level?

Marble Madness
One of my favorite NES games so I can’t quite judge this one except to say the joystick makes a lot more sense than the D-pad for a diagonally oriented game. Much like Excitebike, the gameplay is a few discrete stages and it would be nice if you could start at a later stage instead of wasting time in lower stages again and again. And this is such a good idea for a game that it’s a missed opportunity. Make longer stages. Randomize the geography a bit (for NES at least). Why not have 3-minute-long stages? You get more margin for error and more gameplay.

This game is super hard and the enemies are grotesque and off-putting. Nonetheless, I like the unified color scheme, and the game advances slow enough that you can memorize what to do pretty well.

Zaxxon: Maybe the 8-way joystick that comes with the handheld game works better.

Zaxxon: Maybe the 8-way joystick that comes with the handheld version works better.

Kind of like R-Type in that you advance slowly and need to memorize what to do. This one has an even steeper learning curve because of its use of 3D space (traversed diagonally) combined with a controller that doesn’t move diagonally. You move it one way for horizontal, another way for vertical [northwest/southeast[, as you advance toward the northeast. It’s quite hard to know where you are vis-a-vis the other things on the screen (missiles mostly). But it looks great, with walls and fences and buildings that almost compare to the original SimCity. I would have hated this one if I had to pay a quarter per turn.

Robotron 2084
Man, does THIS one look lovely. For a game where each level is a single room it is so nice. So many colors. Each robot enemy is multi-hued. The game has another punishing learning curve and I would detest it if I was paying per death. But it seems like I should be able to figure it out, since you can run in one direction but shoot in another. Two joysticks! The first two levels are simple, and the third lets you get situated, and it’s such a relief to see those brighter-than-bright colors that you don’t need to spend much time in it. On a darker note, there are so many enemies that it sticks with you. It’s a tough world, especially when humans have been enslaved by robots. And in terms of basic logistics, having played Berzerk for so long before this one, it was hard not to wish I could back out of a room and reenter when the robots were proliferating uncontrollably.

So many robots

So many robots

This is a platformer that is easier to figure out than Donkey Kong and less frustrating because it scrolls a bit. The artwork is pretty bad, but I like the door-based combat, and far prefer trampolines to ladders when it comes to inter-platform travel. The doors look pretty terrible, though. In terms of graphics this is the cartoon mouse game equivalent of The Langoliers. If made one year later it would just look like it was done on a budget instead of looking eye-bleedingly cheap.

Total classic. And it’s all about inertia. Your ship has inertia, and so do your enemies. So you can tell what they’re going to do, you can tell they aren’t going to suddenly switch directions unfairly, the whole thing is perfectly calibrated. The button you just pushed combines with your existing trajectory to make smooth curves. Another good thing about the inertia is you don’t necessarily have to shoot in the same direction you’re moving. It would take a while for this to get old.

For a game generally recognized as the first side-scroller, it’s impressive that it already contains the “rescue your allies” motif as well as the shooting motif, and it’s even more impressive that the rescuing mechanism works and is often more fun than shooting at enemies. Who are these enemies anyway? I have to avoid the terrain, I have to rescue people, violence is a low priority.

Eyes: Look, they're eyes

Eyes: Look, they’re eyes

This is just a version of Snake / Rattler Race. Being limited to the Pac-Man style map is not ideal for this kind of game, and the cabinet had a joystick that couldn’t make two turns in quick succession.

Another weird game in Pac-Man maps, this one hit a chord with me. Imagine Pac-Man as a shooter. Yep. You have to shoot the pellets to accumulate them – running over them has no effect. You can run right through the enemies, because what matters is whether you shoot them or they shoot you. [Although by the time you run through one, he’s probably had enough time to shoot you.] The requirement to shoot the dots, and the fact that you can’t shoot THROUGH the dots but your enemies can, makes it challenging despite the enemies’ slow pace. As for why it’s called Eyes, you control an eye. Your looking part is at the front, and the back is red. Your enemies are alien eyes [yellow, green]. Yes, all the characters are Eyes. This game [like Nibbler] was made by a company called Rock-Ola that didn’t really have any hits. I want a copy.

I was a fan of Alleyway on the Game Boy, despite the lack of power-ups. I love the circular version called Vortex on the iPod Classic. In the original [so to speak] Arkanoid, there are power-ups, but they barely improve it because they don’t last long. You should be powered up until you slip up and lose a ball — it’s only fair. Also it would be nice if brick color meant something, but all we get is that the gray ones don’t break.

Sixteen bitchy comments from John Simon’s “Movies Into Film: Criticism 1967-1970”



“There are several so-called critics—reviewers—who really hate my guts. There is one who slams a door in my face if he happens to pass through it ahead of me. But who cares? It’s wonderful to be hated by idiots.”

  1. Susannah York is unconvincing at everything: lesbianism, childishness, acting…
  2. Paul Simon’s lyrics alternate between nauseating poeticism (“Hello darkness, my old friend … Silence like a cancer grows … The words of the prophet are written on the subway wall … The sound of silence:) and trashy folksiness (“Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson: Jesus loves you more than you can know”), and are set to his and Garfunkel’s music that is not so much rock as rock bottom. Nichols keeps reprising these decompositions, until the soundtrack resembles the streets of New York during the garbage collectors’ strike.
  3. The kids themselves, with the exception of Cathy Burns (Rhoda), are not particularly good actors, and Barbara Hershey (Sandy, and not a kid anymore) looks, regrettably, much better with her bikini top on than off. Miss Burns, on the other hand, is an extremely accomplished little actress, but also insuperably homely — she looks, in fact, like a pink beach ball with a few limbs and features painted on it. There is no excuse for Rhoda’s being a positive freak, and making us feel she is damned lucky to have been raped at all.
  4. Even more unpleasant, though, is Mimsy Farmer’s breathy Marilyn Monroe-Jackie Kennedy English, in which “charcoal,” for instance, is pronounced “chuhkuh,” the uh’s representing gusts of breath. An altogether dispensable girl, this Mimsy, looking and acting like a cross between Sandy Dennis and a young Lizabeth Scott, with added suggestions of Jean Seberg and a death’s-head.
  5. Paul McCartney, a chubbily handsome young man, appears quite pleasant with, or despite, his generation-shaping look. But the others! Particularly grubby are John Lennon and his worse half, Yoko Ono, who sits, smug and possessive, almost always within touching distance of him. Flouting, it would seem, even minimal sanitary measures, their hair looks like a Disneyland for the insect world, and their complexions appear to be portable bacterial cultures.
  6. God only knows where the notion that Miss Lansbury has class originated; perhaps her vestigial lower-middle-class English accent passes for that in our informed show-biz circles. She is, in fact, common; and her mugging, rattling-off or steam-rollering across her lines, and camping around merely make her into that most degraded thing an outré actress can decline into: a fag hag.
  7. Mlle Deneuve can portray a cool clotheshorse with a schoolgirl emotion or two very nicely, as in La Chamade; beyond that her histrionic pittance will not stretch.
  8. Stéphane Audran (Mme Chabrol — which explains a thing or two, though not everything) combines the vacuous, far-off gaze of a blind explorer with a surly, pinched delivery of lines as if they were shoes several sizes too small.
  9. Joanna is played by Geneviève Waite, a piece of fluff with a thinnish sound piped into it (for all our advances in electronics, automata have not yet acquired fully human voices), and sliding whichever way the ground underneath inclines. As her ebony lover, Calvin Lockhart is like beautiful; as her lordly but moribund mentor, Donald Sutherland is nauseating: Toad of Toad Hall’s conception of Oscar Wilde.
  10. The only absolute liability, in fact, is Irina Demick. When she was Darryl Zanuck’s special protegée, no further question was necessary; now that Zanuck’s attention has moved on, one must emphatically ask why Miss Demick remains.
  11. It is regrettable to have both leading ladies in such a dashing film seemingly vie with each other for this year’s Homeliness Award, just as it is misguided to entrust the gallantly swashbuckling lead to David Hemmings, who, besides being a mediocre actor, looks in long shots like something out of Planet of the Apes.
  12. Huston has directed in a bored and lackluster fashion, and his performing of a minor role is deplorably leprechaunish. The ending of the picture is an absolute botch, and there is a perfectly blank, supremely inept performance by Huston’s daughter, Anjelica, who has the face of an exhausted gnu, the voice of an unstrung tennis racket, and a figure of no describable shape.
  13. Jean-Marie Patte seems miscast as Louis; he would have been much better as the protagonist of The Blob.
  14. Meyer was equipped with a co-scenarist, the aforementioned Mr. Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and, by all accounts, a rather fey put-on artist.
  15. Miss Hepburn’s quality was and will be that of an offbeat, madcap debutante, and she has now simply entered the emerita division of the same category. Her Aurelia is all huskily doddering sexiness and girlish flutters, senior division. When you think of the great Marguerite Moreno, who created the role, and then look at this performance, exact replicas of which have already earned Miss Hepburn two ill-deserved Oscars, you may wish to forsake the auditorium for the vomitorium.
  16. But just how garish her commonplace accent, squeakily shrill voice, and the childish petulance with which she delivers her lines are, my pen is neither scratchy nor leaky enough to convey. The once pretty face has become coarse, though from a distance it can still look good — but only if it avoids any attempt at expression, as, to be sure, it not infrequently does. Only the bosom keeps implacably marching on — or down, as the case may be — but I do not feel qualified to be the Xenophon of this reverse anabasis.

1 – The Killing of Sister George [Robert Aldrich], December 1968
2 – The Graduate [Mike Nichols], February 1968
3 – Last Summer [Frank Perry], July 1969
4 – More [Barbet Schroeder], September 1969
5 – Let It Be [Michael Lindsay-Hogg], June 1970
6 – Something for Everyone [Hal Prince], August 1970
7 – Mississippi Mermaid [François Truffaut], April 1970
8 – Les Biches [Claude Chabrol], December 1968
9 – Joanna [Michael Sarne], February 1969
10 – The Sicilian Clan [Henri Verneuil], April 1970
11 – The Charge of the Light Brigade [Tony Richardson], November 1968
12 – A Walk With Love and Death [John Huston], October 1969
13 – The Rise of Louis XIV [Roberto Rossellini], October-November 1967
14 – Beyond the Valley of the Dolls [Russ Meyer], July 1970
15 – The Madwoman of Chaillot [Bryan Forbes], November 1969
16 – Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew [Franco Zeffirelli], April 1967

John Simon’s blog

Two decadent monarchs, two distinct outcomes

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I had Vatel make it for you, my dear lady.

I had Vatel make it for you, my dear lady.

Vatel [Roland Joffé, 2000] came out at a time of Miramax backlash. One can understand the resistance to another shallow Miramax crowd-pleaser when watching the trailers on the VHS – advertisements for Serendipity, Chocolat, and Behind The Sun, followed by a triumphant montage of all Miramax’s contributions to the new dawning of cinema. Fragments of scenes from their true classics (Life Is Beautiful, My Left Foot, Like Water For Chocolate, Life Is Beautiful, Strictly Ballroom, Clerks, Smoke, Life Is Beautiful, building to a dizzying whirl of title cards ranging from Happy, Texas to Bounce to Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. The home video release followed a ludicrously extragavant Cannes premiere party seemingly designed to create backlash. [Why is the only source I can find for the details of this the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal? It was covered attentively by Travers, Gleiberman et al. at the time.]

The film’s unloved status is understandable, given how prepared everyone was to be annoyed. It is SO lush, opulent, lavish, whichever adjective you prefer, and SO unchallenging. The “bitter/sweet” dual mandate of the indie drama is entirely “sweet”. I enjoyed it tremendously. It just flew by. That is to say, there were no obvious points to stop the tape, because it’s one of those films that resembles a 100-minute montage. Scenes are all about the same length, a minute or shorter, then a cut to another place, then a cut to another place, then a cut back to the first place. Stretches of vibrantly lovely music [Ennio Morricone] carry through scene after scene after scene, which seem to be unified by consistent panning from left to right. Just about every shot has a crowd of people in it, making special the moments of quiet and solitude. I don’t know anything about the technical aspects of filmmaking, but hopefully this makes sense. Directing and editing orchestrated for a smooth ride.

This editing is characteristic of:
1) Movies about drugs and craziness [e.g. Performance]
2) Movies made by Steven Soderbergh and/or Tony Gilroy [not so dependent on music to stitch these together]
3) Movies about the pleasurable preparation for, and anticipation of, some sort of epochal event. These include Big Night, Rachel Getting Married, and Vatel. It may also be the pleasurable development of an unexpected phenomenon [e.g. Be Kind Rewind]. The stakes are nominally high, but throughout the film you realize that life isn’t about whatever is being built up to, it’s about what happens along the way.

Madame, I see these birds are caged. Rather like you, in a way. Do you see, Madame?

Madame, I see these birds are caged. Rather like you, in a way. Do you see, Madame?

Vatel is Gérard Depardieu. He’s the only man without a wig who ever interacts with the men in wigs. His boss is a prince who’s going to go bust unless he successfully sucks up to Louis Quatorze. Vatel is the head steward and comes up with wondrous spectacles on both small and large scale, surprisingly few of which involve cooking. Vatel is in charge of getting the local merchants to keep extending credit because they’ll all get paid back in spades when the prince becomes a royal favorite. The stakes are low, and they aren’t raised by the looming spectre of war with the Dutch, which is brought up in the form of the king making jokes about the Dutch and how silly it would be to go to war with them. Nor are they raised by the emotional turmoil undergone by the king’s mistress [Uma Thurman – this was also part of the post-Avengers Uma Thurman backlash], who occupies many of the quiet and still moments — with her caged bird, looking out the window, talking in the rare privacy of the woods. The only thing we care about is Vatel demonstrating to everyone in the castle, including the foppish Bourbon courtiers who view him with more sneering amusement than Psychlos view man-animals, that he deserves respect.

Depardieu is the ideal actor for an everyman with the magic touch. The odd thing is, though, is he an everyman, or does he have the magic touch? He seems like a man of hard work and hard-won knowledge. Basically a chef. If he can keep cracking the whip, everyone will do their jobs and everything will fall into place [see Big Night]. But the script is fascinated by the idea that Vatel will win the king’s favor with ingenious fripperies and awesome spectacles that frankly seem magical. When Vatel makes this his job, he seems like one of those wise fools who in some realms of life are simple and guileless, but in other realms operate on a level untouchable to the common human.

The viewer resists being told at first that Vatel is an average schmoe, and later being hinted that he’s a sort of savant or oddity, and later being told that the king’s mistress [cynical at first, like all these courtesans], is falling for him. The unknowability of the main character means we are more comfortable experiencing the movie as a simple parade of visual pleasures, and baubles of wit courtesy of Tom Stoppard.

Alas, monsieur. Ten o’clock, I have an even more attractive offer. Her Majesty has asked me to delouse her spaniel.

Another seemed apt, and also contained a great archaic word use.

Demaury: More than half the eggs are addled. We can’t make the custard.
Vatel: Watch. (beating batter) The sugar will come out like beaten egg whites. If they ask you what it is, tell them it’s an old recipe from Chantilly.

A lot of this movie is confused as to its purpose, but it has too many great ingredients to be ignored.

Tim Roth is not impressed.

Tim Roth is not impressed.

* * *

Tim Roth plays the most human of the sneering fops in Vatel. He’s good in these period pieces. Never one-note. Never seems to be more knowledgeable than the character he’s playing, though he has the advantage of centuries of perspective.

To Kill A King [Mike Barker, 2003] is a more satisfying historical drama, with Roth in the fascinating role of Oliver Cromwell. In British history the Puritans are a sort of weird eruptive anarchic force. In American history they’re our inspirational forebears, seeking freedom, wanting to be left alone. The heart of this movie is its sympathy for four characters. Cromwell, Charles I [Rupert Everett], Thomas Fairfax [Dougray Scott], and Lady Anne Fairfax [Olivia Williams].

Fairfax is the military leader of the parliamentary revolution. The common people love him. The nobility is still okay with him. He has charisma. He’s a swashbuckler. That’s him on the horse in the highly misleading cover art. This is him bringing good news to the masses.


Fairfax is the only man Cromwell trusts who isn’t a Puritan. The other Puritans see him more as a tool than as a leader, a tool that fulfilled its duty when the king surrendered and now should be put back in the box. Will he continue to do what Cromwell wants? He’s not the Puritan leader, he’s the parliamentary leader. He’s not a political leader, he’s a military leader. Where are the other parliamentarians who will put together a post-royalist government? Only Cromwell has the imagination to start something new. Everyone else with nominal power is equivocating. This is obviously a simplification of history — Fairfax and Cromwell’s falling out was not over what to do with King Charles but over what to do with Scotland — but the goal is to show historical dynamics on a human scale.

Rupert Everett takes to the role of a fop like a duck to water. Here he’s the king. In a ridiculous wig. But he doesn’t sneer, he doesn’t act like he’s cleverer or handsomer than anyone else. He acts superior, by divine right. He gives orders, he demonstrates immense dignity, he makes it clear that although he has no claim to great leadership skills, his existence is impossible if he’s not in charge. With his posture, his voice, he conveys that there can be no compromise. Going down with the ship, as it were. Is he playing mind games with the hope that the Roundheads aren’t really convinced life is better with an empty throne? Is he hoping for an eleventh-hour rescue by the Scots? Everett doesn’t seem particularly smart, but he never wavers. He doesn’t seem brave, but doesn’t bargain with his captors. Very interesting performance.

Lame-duck king Rupert Everett ponders his options.

Lame-duck king Rupert Everett ponders his options.

Lady Fairfax is a royalist. The king enlists her to persuade her husband. All her friends are counting on her to preserve them from the mob, she hears. She wants to settle down on her family estate. This may be a stereotypical female role in that she doesn’t care who started the fussing and the fighting, she just doesn’t want to see more damage to life and limb, and certainly not more property damage. It’s all so senseless. One of the film’s inspired elements is that Lady Fairfax comes over to King Charles’s house arrest to brighten his days by playing music together. These sessions let her act as a go-between. Olivia Williams is great in the part. No matter who she’s talking to she’s serious in the same way. She’s preoccupied by the uncertainty and can’t relax.

Tim Roth’s Cromwell is the live wire. He’s basically a villain, which ruins the movie for some people. But it’s the sober, Michael Corleone sort of villain — with every decision he makes, you think “Given that he needs to adhere to basic principles of trust and loyalty, what else can he do?” Only Puritans trust him. He walks into parliament; sees people who look down on him as a simple-minded ideologue; and he resolves not to let them win, even though they have no particular goals. He goes back to his brethren; sees people who have spent their lives putting him in power and are on alert for signs that he’s being corrupted by that power; and he resolves to make them proud. Cromwell’s advisors show signs of group polarization, as every question boils down to “Is it what the King wants?”, which implies “Is it what the King wants, or what God wants?”, which means better be safe than sorry. No consensus will be reached with the parliament. And speaking of Michael Corleone, it helps that Roth is the smallest man in every room.


Lord Protector Tim Roth, flanked by enforcers

Aside from Sight & Sound‘s extensive assessment, most reviews seem to come out of Britain where the production was notoriously laden with semi-comical errors, none of which are evident in the resulting product. Unless you know the budget and compare it to what you see on screen, with a lot of low lighting, dependence on a few sets, a single character [Lord Denzil Holles, played by James Bolam] representing all the multifarious forms of political venality and corruption that required a dozen actors in a more sweeping film like Amazing Grace. To Kill a King starts with a battle scene, which in limited-budget style is really a post-battle scene, characters stepping over corpses, looking exhausted and having discussions in tents. There’s one action set piece later on, critical to the descent of Cromwell’s rationality, involving the pursuit and persecution of simple folk who are selling royal relics. And eventually, back to the historical record — for the scaffold scene.

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