Steven S. Drachman Reviews the Reviewers: What to Do during the Pandemic

Watching critics today, trying to write recommendations during the pandemic, is a very interesting phenomenon.

They’ve got to do something, and so do all the artists, so everything has moved online.

Night clubs like Blue Note are opening up their archives, art museums have gone virtual, and critics (like the New Yorker’s Goings on About Town” are following suit, and reviewing streaming performances both live and taped.

This week’s offerings

This week offers sometimes a little of both; Martha Graham’s dance company presents a filmed performance of “Appalachian Spring” from 1944 (with music imposed over the silent film) along with live introduction and discussion, while violinist Jennifer Koh performs live Saturday nights at 7, then uploads the performance on YouTube.

I’ve gotten into this game a little bit myself. I recently reviewed a from-home performance by Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift, a really great duo; watching a Kishi Bashi from-home performance reminded me what makes him great.

And this is my birthday weekend, so the family and I are going to pretend we’re actually going out and doing something, maybe a trip to the Met followed by dinner out (delivered from whatever restaurant is still in business) and an evening at the Blue Note, or a Broadway show.

Saturday night, we’re having a few celebratory drinks with friends, over Zoom of course. If VR gets better, maybe human beings can live this way.

Something for cinephiles

Movie critics are a different story, of course. Without new movies screening at the local cinema, there can’t really be movie critics. If they review the new movies that skip theaters and premiere on streaming platforms, they’re TV critics, after all. So they have been reviewing old movies that are currently streaming.

Their choices are idiosyncratic!

David Sims suggests a few “masterpieces”

In The Atlantic, David Sims highlights some “unexpected movie masterpieces” to watch while we are quarantined, and they are indeed “unexpected.”

The most notable, to me, are

  • Babe: Pig in the City (“strange and beguiling,” writes Sims. “[T]he film’s closest thematic companion is Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut”)
  • Down with Love (“a fabulous, entertaining, and singular creation”)
  • Solaris (“some of the most compelling world-building in [Steven] Soderbergh’s career”)
  • Josie and the Pussycats (“a pitch-perfect parody of the manufactured pop pipeline in the early 2000s”)

A couple of thoughts here.

The Amazing Babe

The Babe sequel is indeed an amazing movie. What was so extraordinary about it was the director’s refusal to give audiences more of the same. The first film, set on a family farm in the countryside, was wistful and gentle (if occasionally violent), while the second was an action-packed movie set in a fictional, stylized cityscape. Of course, that jarring change in tone was a huge disappointment to audiences who loved the first Babe, and the poor pig bombed; a planned final film in the pig-trilogy was scrapped. But I love this movie. Life is never really just more of the same. If your parents leave you at home when they go on vacation, they are unlikely to do it again; if you get rid of your poltergeists once, they probably won’t come back again. People (and pigs) go on to do other things.

Down with Love returns to the 1960s

Down with Love attempted the amazing feat of bringing back 1960s-style romantic comedies. The new film is set in the ‘60s and filmed in the same sort of colorful style.

A Solaris remake

Solaris from George Clooney was both a remake of a classic Russian sci-fi film and the second filming of a classic Russian novel (which was very racist but otherwise good), which really stood on its own as an exciting, exhilarating and deeply sad experience, though almost everyone else disagrees with me.

A Pussycats masterpiece?

Finally, Josie and the Pussycats: I have never seen it, and I never hope to see it … but I admire Sims’ bravery in including it in a list of “masterpieces.”

Richard Brody’s choices

Over at The New Yorker, Richard Brody — who once claimed that the Star Wars prequels were better than episodes 4 through 6 — has two iconoclastic lists, for Netflix and Amazon Prime Video streamers.

  • Hugo (“the very essence of cinematic innovation”)
  • The Other Side of the Wind (“about a reckless filmmaker burning through the tail end of his career”)
  • Harlem Nights (“a rollicking yet grimly earnest tale of gangsters in Harlem in the nineteen-thirties”)
  • Hudson Hawk (“Michael Lehmann’s wrongly maligned action-film spoof, starring Bruce Willis and Andie MacDowell, is a feast of visual imagination and whimsical style”)
  • Ishtar (“Like you need me to tell you how great it is”)
  • Just Another Girl on the IRT (“Leslie Harris’s first feature film—and, shockingly, her only one to date”)
  • Parker and the Vicious Circle (“glitteringly literary historical romance”)
  • Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (“Michael Cimino’s first feature”)
  • Me and My Gal (“One of the snappiest of New York street tales, from 1932, directed by Raoul Walsh”)

Scorsese, Welles and Eddie Murphy

Hugo from Martin Scorsese was a really atypical Scorsese movie, a movie kids really loved when it came out (and which taught them something about the history of movies), as well as an incredible recreation of yesterday’s Paris; The Other Side of the Wind is Orson Welles final film, which was tied up in litigation for decades, finally completed just a few years ago; Harlem Nights was Eddie Murphy’s directorial debut, and such a reviled critical and popular flop that he never tried again; Hudson Hawk had no defenders at all upon its original release, and to champion it now is incredibly brave.

Ishtar’s renaissance, Dorothy Parker biopic and the IRT

In 1990, I wrote a piece about everything I thought was underrated and overrated; Jackie Chan’s movies (he was obscure in America at the time) were underrated, and so was the hilarious Ishtar. It’s really nice to see Ishtar winning the war. I saw a rough cut of Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Alan Rudolph’s biopic about Dorothy Parker; it was hilarious, with an inevitable tinge of sadness. The much shorter final version left in the plot points, and cut out much of the humor, which changes the tone. It’s still a good movie, but the message changed. I remember well the release of Just Another Girl on the IRT, and it is indeed shocking that the director has not made another film since then.

Brody is one of my favorite film critics ever, and I agree with him about Star Wars.

Cimino and Walsh: Two Obscurities

Finally, since we are on the topic of Michael Cimino and Raoul Walsh, may I humbly suggest the following:

The Big Trail

Walsh, who had made his name with visual feasts like the original Thief of Baghdad, filmed this movie in a widescreen 70-millimeter format in 1929, when the economy was booming, and released it in 1930, as the Great Depression cratered America. The widescreen version of this John Wayne film, about a wagon train crossing America in the 19th century, is sweeping and beautiful, and as big as the American frontier.

Unfortunately, theaters in 1930 could not afford the new equipment, and the square, 35-millimeter version showed everywhere instead, and flopped. Film scholars restored the widescreen version a few years ago; it’s not streaming, and it’s not available for rent on, but it’s available for purchase on DVD, and Amazon can send it to you. Ignore “comic relief” El (Yumpin’ Yimminy!) Brendel and focus on the astonishingly beautiful cinematography and a great, very likable performance by an extremely young John Wayne in his first starring role. (Pictured to the left.)

Incidentally, he went by “Duke Morrison” when Walsh hired him, and Walsh came up with the name “John Wayne,” changing the history of cinema and America forever.

Other than the jarring El Brendel, this movie holds up magnificently in every way.

The Sicilian

This Italian gangster flick, set in Sicily, and based on a Mario Puzo novel and a screenplay written in part by Gore Vidal, was Cimino’s chance at a big comeback, after his Heaven’s Gate. The story of a true-life bandit in Sicily during the 1930s, this movie, like Heaven’s Gate, hit theaters before the director had a chance to finish it.

He submitted a rough cut by deadline that, again like Heaven’s Gate, all involved deemed too wretchedly awful to release. (Allegedly, Cimino made it worse than it had to be, to convince the studio to give him more time.) The studio released it anyway, tanking Cimino’s career forever. But, as with Heaven’s Gate, he kept working on The Sicilian after its commercial failure, and the final director’s cut is … well, it’s very good, like The Big Trail, a groundbreaking visual feast, with a sweeping, epic musical score and good performances all around from John Turturro, Terence Stamp and Barbara Sukowa.

Christopher Lambert, as the bandit Salvatore Giuliano, is also very good; critics panned his accent when the film was released, but the accents of the international cast are a European mishmash anyway. Like The Big Trail, the director’s cut is not available to stream or to rent on, but Amazon can send you the Blu-Ray, so why not take a look?

What the hell else are you doing?


Steven S. Drachman is the author of The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.

Photo: Ronny Coste / Unsplash