Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Wrong is Right (1982) & Horror Express (1973)

Two more movies programmed by Joe Dante at the New Beverly Theater. On Saturday I saw Richard Brooks's Wrong is Right, in which Sean Connery plays a globe-trotting reporter who gets wrapped up in a complicated plot involving the Middle East, spies, terrorist plots to blow up Jerusalem and New York with nuclear bombs, and a President mainly worried about getting reelected. In his program notes, Dante says that when it was released in 1982, "it was roundly dismissed as a confused jumble. From the hindsight of 2008, it looks like the Strangelove of its era." Now I hate to argue with Joe Dante, and I enjoyed the movie, but I've seen Strangelove and this movie, sir, is no Strangelove. There are good things in it - a White House freakshow of self-absorbed losers led by George Grizzard as the President; a bidding war over a pair of suitcase nukes that pits two Presidential candidates against each other (Leslie Nielsen is the other), a network news agency, and a major terrorist (Henry Silva); and a general looseness and sense of '70s-style mayhem.

The problem is that the movie as a whole lacks a coherent throughline. Dr. Strangelove triumphs because Kubrick builds all of his elements into a crashing, controlled joke, without a wasted scene, performance, or gag, all working harmoniously. Network is a closer fit, being a messier movie about a more similar target, but even Network maintains coherence through the force and anger of Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay. Wrong is Right was based on a novel and feels like it wasn't especially well-adapted to the screen, with too many characters and tangents and half-boiled ideas. If I had seen this movie in 1982 with the expectations of a big cast and a major marketing campaign, I'd probably be annoyed at it, but instead, seeing it as a mostly-forgotten cult film, I can appreciate it for what it does get right - the vision of the news media in a symbiotic relationship with political chaos-makers.

Horror Express, on the other hand, is blissfully free from the weight of being politically relevant or important - it's your standard monster movie on a train, elevated by good performances and a unique premise. Christopher Lee gets on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906 with a fossilized prehistoric man-ape; twenty minutes later, Peter Cushing is asking him, "Are you telling me that an ape that lived two million years ago got out of that crate, killed the baggage man and put him in there, then locked everything up neat and tidy and got away?" To which Lee responds, "That's exactly what I'm saying!" with the total commitment that only a trained British actor can provide in a movie that also includes an alien invader that can drain brains, a Rasputin-esque Russian monk, and Telly Savalas as a scenery-chewing Army captain. It's completely silly and completely entertaining, and it shows that while satire needs to be focussed and lean to work properly, movies that are essentially farcical can be overstuffed and still work just fine.

Wrong is Right: 5/10
Horror Express: 7/10

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