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John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Ronin) handles this thriller with crisp professionalism. Proof? My wife, who loathes 70s films, came in for the last 25 minutes and was riveted. I even had to pause to get her up to speed on who was who and what was going on.

Granted, Frankenheimer has some pretty ingenious material to work with – Palestinian terrorists intend to fly the Goodyear blimp into the Super Bowl where they will detonate a massive bomb that will disperse shards of metal for maximum carnage (the film is adapted from Thomas Harris’ only non-Hannibal Lecter book).

The driven mastermind is Martha Keller (so driven because the Israelis have destroyed her entire family) and the psychologically impaired stooge is Bruce Dern (a former POW flyer in Vietnam, stripped of rank for “breaking”, now working for Goodyear flying the blimp). Robert Shaw is the relentless Mossad agent hot on their heels, guilt-ridden because he had a shot at Keller but let emotions engender mercy.

There is a little too much Dern and Keller relationship stuff, and in particular, Dern and his mental breakdowns/quirks, and the film could’ve been cut easily by 20 minutes.  But there is much to like here, and in particular, Frankenheimer does the madness of public violence great justice.  His insistence in showing just how many innocent people actually get killed if criminals and cops decide they’re gonna’ shoot it out in the streets is welcome, as evidenced by a thrilling Miami Beach sequence.

But the coolest facet is the fact that the NFL let them film the movie at the actual 1977 Super Bowl between the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the Goodyear people let them use the actual blimps, almost otherworldly in these days of image consciousness, risk-aversion, and fear of offense. Frankenheimer may have had Goodyear over a barrell. In one of his biographies, Frankenheimer recounted that he helped persuade Goodyear to let him use its blimps because if not, the production would rent a large blimp, paint it silver-and-black, and people would think it was the Goodyear blimp anyway.

The impact truly heightens the tension when we see Shaw and FBI Man Fritz Weaver running around the Orange Bowl past Tom Landry, Franco Harris and even this guy…

Okay, not the real Jimmy Carter, but this is the only shot of him in the film, and though it’s very quick, it is a testament to Frankenheimer’s desire for verisimilitude.

Solid. On a subset of Prime, MGM+.

There is no rhyme or reason to William Friedken’s (The French Connection, The Exorcist) serial killer flick, which plays clumsily with both timeline and identity. While the killings are unique, in that gay men in New York City’s S&M scene are the prey, Friedken’s execution is non-existent and the picture is a tiresome. muddled mess. 

The year is 1980. Foot patrolman Al Pacino, who we know absolutely nothing about, is brought in by Police Captain Edelson (Paul Sorvino) to go undercover and smoke out a serial killer plaguing the BDSM community in the Meatpacking District. Pacino is chosen solely because he bears a physical  resemblance to other victims. That’s it, and when he’s told where he’ll be working, he shows little reticence. You see, he’s bucking for detective. 

Pacino is clearly too long in the tooth for the role.  In 1980, he was 40, not a very convincing ambitious beat cop. Hell, Pacino was pushing it a bit in 1973, when he was a 33-year-old rookie in Serpico. Friedken would have done better with Richard Gere, his first choice and 10 years younger.  

After his perfunctory selection and acceptance, Pacino just goes from club to club, bar to bar, pick up spot to pick up spot, cruising. Pacino is less acting the role of a man than being a worm on a hook. Not a lot of heavy lifting and given no motivation or backstory, Pacino seems particularly disinterested. It is clear the actor has no idea how to convey whatever is happening to him internally. 

With barely a story and zero character development, Friedken focuses on the grimy, fetishistic world of leather and sweat, so much so that when word of the picture got around, many in the gay community were outraged to the point of protest against what they thought was a demeaning and offensive portrait of their community. Indeed, the picture had to have its audio almost totally redubbed due to protestors on scene screaming to screw up the sound production.

They need not have worried so much. The movie is a bore and rather than being misled, most audiences likely shrugged.
Not that the bones of a good flick aren’t there. There’s a promising subplot of two police officers who are forcing hustlers to dole out sexual favors. Unexplored. There’s a nice friendship that a develops between Pacino and his gay neighbor. Dropped. And there is little done with the pressure on Pacino and girlfriend Karen Allen (the whole of it is that the more he becomes immersed in the lifestyle, if only as a voyeur, the less he wants to be intimate with her).

Is he gay? Is he curious? Shockingly, you don’t care, and neither does the director.  Friedken just wants to get to the next dank cellar where the testosterone-soaked steam is rising.

Sure, there is some obligatory, “I’m in too deep” dialogue. But nothing more. Fleshing out the relationship between Pacino and the gay neighbor would have been the smart way to explore whatever was happening internally, allowing Pacino to search and inquire, maybe even to test.

No dice.

The film is also hobbled by a pretty elemental impediment. Pacino is, seemingly, straight.  So, it seems less and less possible that he’s ever gonna’ get close to the killer, who murders all of his victims in the process of or after sex. 

The whole thing is draggy and confused and more than a little gutless. 

If you sally forth, look for a very a young James Remar, Ed O’Neill, and Powers Boothe. 

On HBOMax.

The least sentimental coming of age film I’ve ever seen, James Gray’s (Ad Astra) autobiographical reflection of a middle-class Queens family at the advent of Reagan is evocative, unstinting and spare. Paul (Repeta Banks) is an artistic, unfocused, silly, and obnoxious sixth grader, doted on by his mother Esther (Anne Hathaway), cherished by his wise grandfather Aaron (Anthony Hopkins) and in terror of his father Irving (Jeremy Strong), who can be silly too, but who also sports a volcanic temper.

Paul is a dreamer. He falls in with rebellious black kid Johnny (Jaylin Webb) at the public-school they attend and soon, he is in with this wrong crowd of one. Paul’s rebellion runs smack dab into the instincts and hopes of his extended family, which include elderly immigrant grandparents and an uncle and an aunt. 

This is a film about many things, but family is paramount.  When Irving beats Paul for getting in trouble at school, the scene is disturbing, but when Paul mutters, “I hate you… [I] hate this family…”, Irving returns and in Strong’s face, registers that there is no greater calumny (I thought for a split second an already brutal strapping was going to escalate). The family is the vehicle for all success and support.  They changed their distinct name of “Greizerstein” to “Graff,” and they want Paul out of public school, Esther being the last resistance. Per the aunt, “The class sizes are out of control, and the kids that they have coming in from the neighborhoods from all over.  The Blacks, coming in…” eliciting a gasp and rebuke from Esther.  These are, after all, traditional liberals (early on, Irving watches Reagan being interviewed, and comments “Sounds like a Class-A schmuck” and the film near-closes with the glum family watching Reagan’s victory and predicting nuclear war). But the facial response to Esther’s objection is a weary capitulation, an “it is what it is.”

They reminisce about their familial, generational struggles and focus on their shared goal of success. Sure, art is great, but an “artist”?

Paul’s behavior lands him in the private school attended by his older brother. The school’s most influential patron is none other than Fred Trump, and soon, Paul is in a new world.  When Johnny visits, he is on the other side of the playground fence, as we see Paul awkwardly shying away from his former partner in crime.

Went I went to private Catholic school in ’78, I came with a crew of over a dozen boys from grade school, every one of them white, into a feeder for Catholic parishes all over D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Until that time, the black kids I knew were the children of diplomats, literally and figuratively, from another country.  All of a sudden, there were a lot of black compatriots, kids probably just as scared as I was, but seemingly, not.  And in those years, there was casual racism where I (and many others, I am sure) was Paul, keeping my head low, negotiating the moment with assuredly too much regard for my own skin, smirking an endorsement or pretending I didn’t hear.  For every decent moment or objection, there were three of cowardice.

Gray does a wonderful job of depicting just how mundane and routinized these negotiations really are. As Irving tells Paul, “When you get older you can change the world.  Right now, you just need to get past this and become a mensch. Your friend got the shaft, you feel bad.  I understand that.” Modern dramatizations take such vignettes and make them seminal, even momentous. As Gray shows, they are more often than not pedestrian and disposable (“You just need to get past this”) or, in Gray’s most optimistic declaration, per Aaron:

GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ

It’s hard to fight.  Isn’t it.

PAUL GRAFF (beat)

I tried.

GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ

How do you think you did?

TEARS FORM in PAUL’S EYES.  He starts to shake his head.

GRANDPA AARON RABINOWITZ (CONT’D)

You’ll have a lot more chances.  And it will happen, again and again.  It won’t be easy.

It’s hard to overstate Gray’s deftness and restraint (another reviewer nailed it with, “At its most muted, it leaves a respectful distance for the audience to think”).  An example.  In the hands of a lesser writer, Paul’s matriculation at the Trump school would have been an ordeal through and through.  And it is not without its blots.  The casually racist kid, the strictures, the cliques.  But there is also attention to Paul, the kind that money brings, that every parent wants for their child, the kind where a troublesome kid isn’t immediately discarded as “slow” (the determination of Paul’s public-school principal). At public school, Paul’s “art” is doodling, dummy stuff. At his new private school, it is encouraged, even celebrated.  

And the Trumps, in the form of Fred (John Diehl) and Maryanne (cameo by Jessica Chastain), could have been lampooned.  In Gray’s hands, they are utilized. Both characters, in talks to the students, revere America in the vein of a zealot. As Fred Trump tells the kids, “Because we have a new president, a new beginning, a return to America’s rightful place in the world. I know speaking for myself personally I couldn’t have more hope than I do at this very moment in our future. So. When I look out, and I see all these beautiful, handsome kids, clean-cut… You’re ready to face the world–you’re being taught all the right things. And you’ll be the leaders. Leaders in business, finance, politics, all aiming to keep our country good and strong.”

Take the reference to “Class-A schmuck” Reagan out, and you can see Paul’s family nodding in reverential assent.

Similarly, Hopkins, as Paul’s soulmate, exhibits the lessons of his past, lovingly supporting Paul’s artistic ambitions while shocking Paul by admitting he was the key vote for the school change (“Because the game is rigged.  And we have to do everything we can for you and your brother”).

The rigging of the game and the fate of Johnny coalesce to end the picture, and like everything that came before, there’s no easy lesson or dawning.

The performances are pitch perfect. As Irving, Strong is noteworthy, a man who doesn’t really have control of his house or the respect he thinks he should be afforded, alternating between explosion and understanding.  The child actors are natural and Webb in particular evinces an affecting blend of the cynical, the world-weary, and the aspirational.

One of the best of the year.