Judgment days


Criticism and prophecy are two distinct sciences. A selection of Times film reviews, written on tight deadlines, underscores the challenges — and the joys — of the popular form. Read these excerpts and consider which is more pleasurable — a fulsome rave or a wicked pan?


Magnificent Film Spectacle Holds Thousands Entranced
Oct. 18, 1916
By Harry Carr

With "Intolerance," David Wark Griffith has made his place secure as one of the towering geniuses of the world.

As a medium for expressing art, moving pictures may not stand the test of time, but "Intolerance" is greater than any medium. It is one of the mileposts on the long road of art, where painting and sculpture and literature and music go jostling eagerly along together.

["Intolerance" makes "The Birth of a Nation"] look like a fishing smack when a dreadnaught sweeps into a harbor….


Charlie Again Is Champion
Feb. 13, 1921
By Harry Carr

To my mind "The Kid" is by long odds the best motion picture comedy ever made. It has more than humor; it has tenderness and literary charm.

Incidentally it is the first child picture I ever saw that did not give me an acute pain to the bowels.


Epic Comedy on the Screen
Jan. 27, 1925
By Edwin Schallert

The first comedy of epic proportions has reached the screen. Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" sets a pace for length … in the lighter sort of entertainment, and though it is not all gay by any means, its premier appeal is for merriment.


Comedy Is Lost in War Incidents
May 12, 1927
By Katherine Lipke

It is evident that Buster Keaton started out to make a very funny comedy based on the Civil War. However, "The General," which opened yesterday … would indicate that he became sidetracked by the drama of that memorable conflict and made instead a picture which is neither straight comedy nor is it thrilling drama. It seems to fall between the two.


Hoodlum Epic Unique Film
May 18, 1931
By Edwin Schallert

If there are to be gangster pictures, let them be like "The Public Enemy," hard-boiled and vindictive almost to the point of burlesque.

There is the scene, for instance, where irked by his sweetheart, [James Cagney's gangster character] crushes a cantaloupe in her face. An odd variation this of the old pie-throwing gag.


Star Held Miscast in Goofy Farce
March 21, 1938
By Norbert Lusk

RKO's mistake in casting Katharine Hepburn in goofy comedy is proved by the poor, single week of "Bringing Up Baby." It seems that almost any star, including Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard and Myrna Loy, may attempt antic comedy and make a go of it, but that medium is not for Miss Hepburn in the theater where she is accepted as an important dramatic actress.


'Philadelphia Story' Smart Entertainment Conquest
Dec. 5, 1940
By Edwin Schallert

Miss Hepburn, as a comedienne, is perhaps a greater star than she ever was at any prior cinema period, as a serious actress. This comes near being her champion achievement.


'Lost Weekend' Violent Stark Study of Alcoholic
Nov. 30, 1945
By Edwin Schallert

The "curse of the drink" was never more vividly dealt with than in "The Lost Weekend." It is a modern version of an old-time thriller type of melodrama about the evils of over-imbibing, more streamlined and scientific than its predecessors, but still replete with "the horrors."

It will probably either make you take a drink to forget it, or else quit altogether…. And wow, the shudders that the final all-too-vivid scene with the bat and mouse are likely to induce!


'Some Like It Hot' Not as Hot as Expected
April 9, 1959
By Philip K. Scheuer

It is [Jack] Lemmon and [Joe E.] Brown who, in their individual comic styles, provide the best laughs.

But Joe E.'s final tag is a startler from one who for years eschewed anything blue.

[Tony] Curtis is good enough but a couple of paces behind them. His Cary Grant accent as the playboy (not his doing) annoyed the hell out of me.


'Psycho' as Brilliant as It Is Disagreeable
Aug. 11, 1960
By Philip K. Scheuer

Alfred Hitchcock, who I understand felt piqued when H.G. Clouzot beat him to "Diabolique," has had his revenge. His "Psycho" is even more diabolique.

It is one of his most brilliantly directed shockers and also his most disagreeable…. In "Psycho," when the blood is supposed to spurt it really spurts, and on two occasions it forces sickened gasps from the spectator.


Strangelove Drops Controversial Bomb
Feb. 20, 1964
By Philip K. Scheuer

This will be a minority report — critically speaking, at any rate. Before I was served up "Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," a publicist at Columbia, which is distributing the picture, assured me it would be my "cup of tea." After suffering through two screenings of "Dr. Strangelove," I would sooner drink hemlock…. To me, "Dr. Strangelove" is an evil thing about an evil thing; you will have to make up your own mind about it.


Presley Has a Clambake
Nov. 1, 1967
By Kevin Thomas

In "Clambake" Elvis Presley has this problem: He's the son of a Texas zillionaire and afraid the girls won't like him for himself …

The production numbers are more elaborate than usual, but Elvis' songs are as forgettable as ever, and the whole picture has a garish, cluttered look. The cast ... is largely likable and competent. The story, let's face it, could happen only in a movie.


'Chinatown' Tour de Force
June 21, 1974
By Charles Champlin

The name of Raymond Chandler does not appear in the credits of the Robert Evans-Robert Towne-Roman Polanski "Chinatown," but if ever a film were a homage to one man's vision of a time, a place and a lifestyle, "Chinatown" is it.

"Chinatown" is also the finest American film of the year, which is not saying nearly enough because it has been an emaciated year for American films so far. But in its total recapturing of a past, in its plot, its vivid characterizations, its carefully calculated and accelerating pace, its whole demonstration of a medium mastered, "Chinatown" reminds you again — and thrillingly — that motion pictures are larger, not smaller than life; they are not processed at drugstores and they are not television. They are, at their best, events calculated to transport us out of ourselves, as "Chinatown" does.


Don't Go Near the Water
June 20, 1975
By Charles Champlin

The first and crucial thing to say about the movie Universal has made from Peter Benchley's bestseller "Jaws" ... is that the PG rating is grievously wrong and misleading. The studio has rightly added its own cautionary notices in the ads, and the fact is that "Jaws" is too gruesome for children, and likely to turn the stomach of the impressionable at any age.

While I have no doubt that "Jaws" will make a bloody fortune for Universal and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown, it is a coarse-grained and exploitive work which depends on excess for its impact. Ashore it is a bore, awkwardly staged and lumpily written."


Drollery in the Desert
May 15, 1987
By Sheila Benson

In the guise of a sort of liberal's rethinking of the Hope-Crosby "Road" movies, Elaine May has created a love letter to show-biz dreamers and called it "Ishtar." It is a smart, generous, genuinely funny affair. Sometimes, like the camel who almost ambles away with the picture, it's longish in the tooth, but it is based on an extremely astute vision of life.

It's merely an entirely intelligent, drolly funny comedy with something on its mind.


The Naked Truth About 'Showgirls'
Sept. 22, 1995
By Kenneth Turan

Small minds may say that "Showgirls," the first NC-17 film to get a wide studio release, is lacking in other accomplishments, but don't you believe it. Actually, it's hard to know which of this film's several attainments is the most surprising.

First, this nominally risqué story of naked ambition among Las Vegas showgirls has somehow managed to make extensive nudity exquisitely boring. Then it has bested some stiff competition to set new low standards for demeaning treatment of women on film. And, perhaps most boggling of all, it has made it possible for viewers to look longingly back on "Basic Instinct" as the golden age of the director Paul Verhoeven/screenwriter Joe Eszterhas collaboration.


Puritans Go Hollywood
Oct. 13, 1995
By Kenneth Turan

Nathaniel Hawthorne probably thought he knew something about writing, and through the years not a few people have agreed with him. But when the makers of "The Scarlet Letter" looked over his novel, it was more in pity than admiration.

Suffice it to say that while Hawthorne may have blown his chance, screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart and director Roland Joffe have seen theirs and taken it, adding … to their version of Hawthorne's undernourished story. When this film's opening titles read "freely adapted from," they are not being excessively modest.


'Titanic' Sinks Again (Spectacularly)
Dec. 19, 1997
By Kenneth Turan

To the question of the day — what does $200 million buy? — the 3-hour-and-14-minute "Titanic" unhesitatingly answers: not enough.

Note that despite the hopes of skeptics, aghast at the largest film budget of modern times, money enough to run a full-dress presidential campaign or put a serious dent in illiteracy, the answer is not nothing.

When you build a 775-foot, 90% scale model of the doomed ship and sink it in a 17-million-gallon tank specially constructed for the purpose, you are going to get a lot of production value for your money. Especially if your name is James Cameron.


Not-So-Nice Kitty (A review of "The Cat in the Hat")
Nov. 21, 2003
By Manohla Dargis

If directing bad movies were a sin to confess,
Bo Welch would say oops for making this mess.
Critics are paid to suffer bad art,
No matter how icky it is from the start.
"So all we could do was to
"Sit!
"Sit!
"Sit!
"Sit!
"And we did not like it.
"Not one little bit."
With apologies to Theodor Geisel.


'A Narrow Vision and Staggering Violence'
Feb. 24, 2004
By Kenneth Turan

Combining the built-in audience of the Bible, the incendiary potential of "The Birth of a Nation" and the marketing genius of "The Blair Witch Project," the arrival of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" feels like a milestone in modern culture. It's a nexus of religion, celebrity, cinema and mass communication that tells us more about the way our world works than we may want to know.

The film left me in the grip of a profound despair, and not for reasons I would have thought. It wasn't simply because of "The Passion's" overwhelming level of on-screen violence, a litany of tortures ending in a beyond-graphic crucifixion.


'Dukes' Hazard Is to the Audience
Aug. 5, 2005
By Kenneth Turan

"The Dukes of Hazzard" is a film that is not there. It can't really be reviewed because it doesn't really exist. It is not empty calories, which implies pleasure, but simply empty.


A troupe of failures for sale — or, 'Rent'
Nov. 23, 2005
By Carina Chocano

"Rent" is commodified faux bohemia on a platter, eliciting the same kind of numbing soul-sadness as children's beauty pageants, tiny dogs in expensive boots, Mahatma Gandhi in Apple ads. It's about art, activism and counterculture in the same way that a poster of a kitten hanging from a tree branch ("Hang in There!") is about commitment and heroic perseverance. It represents everything the people it pretends to stand for hate.

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