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Cinema: Some Sideshows of Summer

5 minute read
Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss

RETURN TO OZ

“If this is Oz, Dorothy,” says Billina, the talking chicken, “I’d rather take my chances back in Kansas.” A wise bird. Any movie in which a Midwestern prairie actually looks more attractive and more interesting than the enchanted land over the rainbow is in big trouble.

The Emerald City as Dorothy (Fairuza Balk) rediscovers it is about as wondrous as East Berlin in a brownout. Seems that the Nome King, who is a talking rock (stonily played by Nicol Williamson), has trashed the place and turned its inhabitants into boulders for good measure. Presiding over the ruins is, of course, a wicked witch (Jean Marsh), who lacks a broomstick but has several dozen changes of head in her closet. Her transformations are certain to fill young children with puzzled horror rather than with the delicious mirth that Margaret Hamilton generated with her over-the-top parody of evil.

These characters are, alas, entirely typical of Director Walter Murch’s gloomily recharted Oz. Even Billina, the feathered critic manque, is part of the problem. She is a substitute for Toto, Dorothy’s beloved dog, unaccountably left behind this trip. But though she can talk, she has less animation, and character, than the mutt. The same lack of enchantment afflicts the new friends Dorothy makes on the journey. Instead of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion of blessed memory, she encounters a pumpkin with stick limbs, a tin soldier and something called a Gump, which looks suspiciously like your basic moosehead. They are all mechanical marvels, not actors, which means they can do anything except win an audience’s heart. Still, it would defy the gifts of an Olivier to find interesting, amusing life in a context as charmless and joyless (and songless) as the one Murch and his design team have concocted. -By Richard Schickel

ST. ELMO’S FIRE

Two of them are living together and want to get married, not necessarily to each other. One wants to get unmarried, go off to New York City and make a living with his saxophone. Two more are obsessed with women who cannot return their seriousness. Another one — imagine this in 1985 — is a virgin and in genuine conflict over whether the pleasure of ending her suspense is worth the emotional trouble.

Meet the Not-Quite-Ready-for-Yup-piedom Players. They are friends from college days who hang out at St. Elmo’s Bar, which provides the movie with a title and a metaphor. Do the flashes of feeling they experience carry genuine heat or are they as meaningless as the flashes of light that sometimes play about ships and planes in the night?

The answer, of course, is a little of both. The virtue and the defect of this essentially good-natured movie is that its script, by Joel Schumacher and Carl Kurlander, does not play a steady light on any of its several stories, but bounces erratically from one to another like — well, like St. Elmo’s fire. The shifting prevents the movie from getting bogged in the banal, but it also prevents it from achieving much emotional resonance.

In what may turn out to be a marketing masterstroke, Director Schumacher has gathered a talented group of young actors who have populated several of the teen-targeted movies of recent years. The likes of Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy all prove themselves agreeably capable of acting their age. Each of them has a following, which, taken together, could amount to a large audience. That’s all right. One can think of adolescent fads a lot less cute than Lowe and his friends. -R.S.

PALE RIDER

Stardom gets to people. Seeing themselves bigger than life onscreen, actors figure their characters’ next step is toward deity. So Sly Stallone rewrites history and wins the Viet Nam War in retrospect. Robert Redford turns the gifted loser of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural into a legend inscribed in fireworks. As for Clint Eastwood, cited in a recent Roper poll as the nation’s No. 1 hero, impersonating mere humans is no longer a challenge. So in Pale Rider, Hollywood’s first big-time, straight-faced western since Heaven’s Gate, Eastwood plays God, or maybe Death. With his gritty stare and stubble, he looks like both, warmed over.

He is literally the answer to a maiden’s prayer. With Carter Crick laid waste by evil strip miners, young Megan (Sydney Penny) kneels over her martyred pooch and begs God for “a miracle” to save her mother (Carrie Snodgress), her mom’s suitor (Michael Moriarty) and what is left of the settlement. Dissolve to Clint on horseback. He saves the good folks, kills the bad folks, dodges a mother-daughter rivalry for his affections and ends up in a showdown ^ with a gunslinger (John Russell) who is even gaunter than Clint. You could hibernate in Russell’s cheek hollows.

When Eastwood, who also directed the picture (from a Michael Butler-Dennis Shryack script), faces off against Russell’s Maleficent Seven, viewers may get an old-fashioned western tingle. But Pale Rider does nothing to disprove the wisdom that this genre is best left to the revival houses. A double feature of Shane and Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter will do just fine, thanks. -R.C.

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