* England no longer produces high-quality films, right? Movies about sports always flop, right? Wrong on both counts. Chariots of Fire, a very British film with a very athletic theme, is the one of the most talked-about movies of the moment, having opened commercially after kicking off the current New York Film Festival.
What's more, its plot and characters are clean and conscientious, with little on their minds except the bliss of giving one's all for God, country, and compatriots. You'd think we had all plunged back to 1924, When -- according to the film, at least -- life was simpler, and values were unencumbered by shades of gray.
The story centers on two real-life runners in the 1924 Olympics, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. Each has strong reasons for excelling -- Abraham's to assert his dignity in the face of subtle anti-Semitism, Lidell to affirm and celebrate his fundamentalist Christian faith. Their paths are not always smooth , and some of the obstacles are surprising -- as when one is chided for "bad form" because he wants to outshine the other fellows in his college, and the other nearly sparks an international incident by refusing to run on Sunday. Yet everything comes clear in the end, and the finale is loaded with inspirational vigor.
As directed by Hugh Hudson and produced by David Puttnam, with photography by the great David Watkin, it's all very bracing. The story never seems quite focused, however, as it divides its time and energy among too many characters and incidents. The issues of the film seem rather scattered, too -- looming large when a touch of conflict is wanted, then resolving with magical speed so we can rush on to the next bit of business. It's an ingratiating movie, but more stimulating to the eye than to the mind. Compared with "Gallipoli" -- the current Australian drama about gallant young runners -- it finishes an enthuiastic but undernourished second.
* The only way to tolerate Mommie Dearest is to forget it's supposed to be rooted in the real-life misery of Joan Crawford's alleged mistreatment of her young daughter. With its hysterical sessions of psychological (and occasionally physical) torment, the movie is so wretchedly written and flatly constructed that it's easy to regard as a miguided horror flick -- a "Bride of Frankenstein" transplanted to the Hollywood suburbs, with Faye Dunaway as the shoulder-padded monster lumbering through an art-deco castle. In fairness to the film, directed by Frank Perry, it has a few virtues especially the marvelous portrayals of Christina as a child by Mara Hobel and as an adult by Diana Scarwid. But most of the way, this is the Trashiest kind of trash, to be consigned to the same cinematic slag heap where "Gable and Lombard" and "W. C. Fields and Me" now languish -- or to the Late Late Show, where dedicated camp followers can seek it out without bothering the rest of us. By the way, the rating is PG -- an affront the whole notion of "parental guidance," and a menace to young children who may be duly exposed to this traumatic trip into the darkest depths of familial tyranny.
* As if their subject matter didn't have enough grim aspects already, the makers of True Confessions have added some details so frankly disgusting that even the movie's street language pales by comparison. This is too bad, especially since the film's basic thrust is positive -- as a Roman Catholic priest gradually realizes that he has been seduced by the material concerns of his church, and eventually turns his energy to higher things. The usually brilliant Robert De Niro gives one of his weaker performances in this role, but Robert Duvall compensates with his fierce portrayal of the priest's brother, a thick-skinned policeman who sparks the plot by doggedly pursuing a murder investigation that leads to unexpectedly high circles in local society. Under the guidance of director Ulu Grosbard, the story unfolds at a deliberate pace, with too little energy and too much sensationalism around the edges of the tale. In all, a disappointing stab at the truly adult cinema we so desperately need in this largely childish Hollywood year.
* Look for two films by Polish director Kryztof Zanussi soon. The first, Contract, is due for its American theatrical premiere tomorrow. Taking its cue from "A Wedding" by Robert Altman, it satirizes the privileged classes of Poland with exhaustive and exhausting energy, losing no opportunity to dig beneath the trappings of hierarchy and expose the human weaknesses that lie beneath. The second, due on American screens in the near future, is The Constant Factor -- a fullfledged masterpiece that explores the physical, mental, and moral integrity of a young man struggling for a dignified foothold in a corrupt and potentially corrupting socioeconomic environment. Of the two, "The Constant Factor" is by far superior, though "Contract" also has its moments, especially when the characters run out of defensive maneuvers and come fact to face with the mysteries of their own existences. After screenings at the 1980 and '81 New York Film Festivals, both movies -- made before the recent union movement in Poland, but reflecting its spirit -- are being released in the United States by the enterprising New yorker Films, which deserves a hardy round of applause for making Zanussi's fascinating work more widely available to Western audiences.