Reflections of the Third Eye
22 May 2013
Black Rain (1989)
Now Playing: The Untouchables

It's easy to forget these days, but there was a long period, perhaps as long as 15 years, where Ridley Scott's standing as an A-list director was shakey at best. He did manage to pull one commercial and critical success out of the hat with Thelma & Louise, but this may have been a case of fortunate timing more than anything else. It certainly wasn't no Alien, anyway. Scott's return to the big league didn't really happen until the 2000s with Gladiator. In the vast doldrums between that movie and Blade Runner almost 20 years earlier floats a string of unmemorable films, some of which are not very good at all. The reason for this crisis of both creativity and productivity will have to be discussed elsewhere, but it's clearly an unusual trajectory that Scott's directing career has followed.

Revisiting BLACK RAIN now I am primarily reminded of how disappointed I was with it during its original run, not least since Scott's name still rang with a certain appeal at the time (1989). Conceptually it mixes two popular 1980s Hollywood themes; crooked cops on one hand, and Japan and the Japanese on the other. The story is unexceptional and full of clichés, making one wonder how Scott stomached working on what is B-movie material and nothing else. Some money was allocated for shooting in Japan, which offers a little eye candy, but Scott's occasional winks at magical Blade Runner visuals (light coming sideways or mixed with smoke, rainy inner city streets, foreign neon signs) seem almost offensive given the dreariness of the repetitive, predictable script and jargon-filled and at times silly dialogue.

Casting an overaged Michael Douglas as the archetypal loner renegade cop hunted by Internal Affairs was a bad idea which raises a new round of problems beside the writing. Douglas does not convince as a streetwise tough guy, and his voluminous mullet haircut looks pretty awful. The whole presentation is like a clumsy copy job of Mel Gibson's much better developed character in Lethal Weapon. Andy Garcia, who was a rising star at the time, plays his usual sincere and warmhearted Latino, leaving few footprints behind except for a spectacular death scene (the single thing I remembered from my first viewing of this movie). Some of the Japanese actors fare a little better and it's nice to see Kate Capshaw in one of relatively few Hollywood roles post-Spielberg, but none of this changes the fact that Black Rain is a highly unoriginal, surprisingly unintelligent, and at times quite irritating film. One of Ridley Scott's worst. 5/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:29 AM MEST
Updated: 22 May 2013 12:31 AM MEST
16 May 2013
Child's Play (1972)
Now Playing: Icehockey World Cup

One of the greats among post-WWII Hollywood directors, Sidney Lumet put his name on a very long list of movies with a half-dozen must-see peaks evenly distributed, from 12 Angry Men (1957) through Network (1976) all the way up to Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) released just 2 years before his death.

CHILD'S PLAY from 1972 is undoubtedly one of his least known works, and as far as I can tell has never appeared on DVD*. The fact that the makers of the 1990s horror cult series about the evil Chucky doll didn't think twice about using the same title should indicate the earlier film's obscurity. The two works are completely unrelated, even if they share an occult theme and a creepy undertone.

Based on a Broadway play, Lumet's movie is set at a Catholic boarding school not unlike the one seen in Dead Poet's Society, and the viewer will observe a few, probably coincindental, similarities between the two. The exposition is both promising and effective and shows the presence of a skilled director. When the viewer is introduced to the new young gym teacher (Beau Bridges) it has already been made clear that something mysterious and unpleasant is going on at the school. Hints of evil forces affecting the young students are recurringly planted, as a parallel plot of a power struggle between two senior teachers (James Mason and Robert Preston) is unfolded in a somewhat over-stated manner. The two parallel stories seem to be linked, but the causal relationships remain hidden and disentangling it provokes a certain viewer involvement. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the transition from play to movie script is far from seamless, creating a movie that works haltingly, in fits and starts, with overlong monologues giving way to moments of brilliance, followed by lots of shots of people running up and down stairs and banging doors. Interesting characters are introduced with fanfare, then given nothing to do. Most problematic is the way Beau Bridges' presumed main character almost disappears about half-way into the movie, only to recur as the final act is set into motion. Some may see this as an improvement as Bridges simply isn't a very good actor, and is given a couple of difficult, rhetoric scenes that he cannot handle well. As Bridges fades out, James Mason takes the center stage with a performance that is on a whole other level than Child's Play in general. In a fully committed effort Mason portrays a stern, traditional Latin teacher who insists on his classic values, both in teaching and in life in general, but is step by step driven towards a breakdown by the harassing 'forces' at the school; forces whose origin he seems to be alone to identify. Unfortunately his part is written too far into melodrama and overstays its welcome towards the end, but this is no fault of Mason's. The lesser known Robert Preston does a good job as a presumed straight-man to Mason's conservative eccentric.

The movie progresses along its uneven trajectory, but does not quite succeed in connecting the mysterious evil that drives the pupils to outbursts of violence with the power struggle between the two teachers. Lumet seems more interested in the letter, and it's possible that Mason's outstanding performance caused a re-balancing of the narrative during the editing. Bridges protagonist is given so little of value to do that he becomes almost superfluous, and there is also a violation of the 'show-not-tell' principle as various side characters discuss the strange goings on. The children are reduced to spooky props, brought out every 20 minutes to enforce the theme of evil in different, sacrilegous ways. One might suggest that the movie had been much more effective if Bridges' character had been replaced with a new student in the class which stands at the center of the goings-on.

The final revelation is hardly a surprise to the viewer as the number of alternative scenarios were few, but thanks mainly to Robert Preston's consistent interpretation of his part, there is still a certain pay-off when the truth is laid bare. The final scenes show that Lumet understands what certain horror directors know to be true: groups of children without adults can be scary. But Child's Play could have made much better use of this asset, instead of sacrificing its initial tone of occult mystery for what is basically a power struggle between two academics. If it had been made the year after The Exorcist instead of the year before, it would probably have been re-written into a more interesting and truly supernatural story.

This was clearly not an important project for Sidney Lumet, who directs it by the numbers for the most part, and actually manages to botch a couple of dramatic scenes that could have been high-points. As often in his movies he seems most at ease in a clearly defined, recurring space, in this case the faculty quarters, where the camera moves elegantly among the tea trays and essays while the overly talky script is acted out. Neither an occult movie nor a particularly rewarding addition to the long line of boarding school dramas, Child's Play is of interest mainly for James Mason's terrific, soul-baring performance, which deserved a more ambitious and better constructed environment. 6/10

*Apparently it's been released on DVD recently.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:49 PM MEST
Updated: 19 May 2013 1:24 AM MEST
15 May 2013
Coming Home (1978)
Topic: C
I checked another item on my Hal Ashby score card by viewing COMING HOME (1978). Arriving timely with its post-Vietnam concerns and realistic tone, this used to be one of his most widely respected works, though I'm not sure what its standing is today. In any event it is appropriate that I didn't get to see this until now, as it's not a movie for a popcorn teenage mindset. My expectations were pretty high, and basically I thought it was a very good and engaging movie. It wasn't entirely successful however, and my main reservation is with Bruce Dern's part, which seemed poorly outlined compared to the two main characters (Jon Voight and Jane Fonda). Dern delivers his usual overly expressive, silent movie-like acting, which works in some films (like Black Sunday) but hardly so in the delicately balanced world of Hal Ashby.
A sensitive director like Ashby ought to have felt that Dern was the wrong actor to solve the problem with the poorly outlined character, and it's also a curious casting choice in terms of screen presence. The production team would have been wise to pick someone that looks like a marine officer, like Powers Boothe, or Scott Glenn, or Stacy Keach ,or someone like that. Bruce Dern looks like a liberal arts college teacher and lacks the efficient rationality that officers, especially ones with combat experience, would be assumed to display. This might all work better on a re-watch, but it felt to me like a certain magic seeped out the back door due to the Dern factor.
Jon Voight on the other hand is pretty awesome, a reminder of how good he was when his star was still rising. Much of his more recent work tends to have a certain laziness or lack of commitment to it. And it was a nice, possibly deliberate irony to cast 'Hanoi Jane' Fonda in a movie like this. The triangle Voight-Fonda-Dern is the engine of Coming Home, and as you would expect from Ashby, the scenes are painful and powerful with understated precision. The one scene that didn't convince me was where a supposedly psychotic Dern threatens his estranged wife Fonda while addressing her like a Vietnamese enemy. This looked very awkward and broke the spell, and I doubt any actor could have pulled that off. The movie ends on an effective note with a semi-improvised monologue by Voight about the horrors of war that must have looked dubious on paper, but works thanks to Voight's precise performane and the thematic backdrop that Ashby has created. There's also a terrific music score that includes two Buffalo Springfield songs. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:20 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:46 AM MEST
King Of Marvin Gardens (1972)
Now Playing: High Tide "Sea Shanties"
Topic: K

One of the more extreme cases of the New Hollywood's downbeat 1970s realism, KING OF MARVIN GARDENS was the movie Bob Rafelson made after scoring big with Five Easy Pieces. Rafelson's running mate Jack Nicholson handles the main part in the movie, which is mostly set in the superbly desolate atmosphere of old, pre-Trump Atlantic City in the Winter. However, the movie (named after the Monopoly board game) fell far behind its predecessor in terms of success, and today a lot of people don't even know that it exists. In view of the similarities, an interesting question is why Marvin Gardens didn't communicate with the audience, while Five Easy Pieces did. The plot details have been changed so that we're on the East Coast instead of West Coast, the central relationship is brother and brother rather than father and son, and the protagonist is an introvert writer instead of an extrovert musician, but the fundamental Rafelson tone and pacing are easily recognizable.

Both movies are very much character studies with an eye for unusual settings, and in terms of plot one might argue that Marvin Gardens is actually superior, or at least clearer defined, than its predecessor. Nicholson helps his brother (Bruce Dern) with some legal trouble and in the process is brought on board for a holiday resort project on Hawaii, apparently with some local mafia involvement. The brothers and two girlfriends linger in Atlantic City while trying to lay their hands on a bundle of money that would help finance the Hawaii dream, and all the while their vastly different personalities are played off against one another. It's a fairly solid foundation for the type of quirky psychological drama that Rafelson had helped bring into vogue, and his direction skilfully offsets the storyline with incisive looks at the four main characters, both tracks leading forward in unpredictable starts and stops. Outside, the near-empty streets, boardwalks and hotels of old Atlantic City remain present to mirror the sense of homelessness, or lack of belonging in a deeper sense, that the protagonists project. The many exterior shots may stay in the viewer's memory longer than anything else in the movie, and represent a great documentary value in addition to the powerful atmosphere.

Most likely, what kept Marvin Gardens from becoming a classic resides in the handling of the two main characters. People loved, and still love, to watch Nicholson as the sarcastic yet obviously suffering Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces; the combination of strength and resignation was new at the time, and it obviously hit a spot with the post-psychedelic generation. Of course, it was also an extraordinary acting achievement by Nicholson, still today one of the highlights of his career, even if he was just three years out of biker movies and AIP hippie-ploitation flicks. Now, Nicholson does a very good job in Marvin Gardens too, and he accepts the challenge of bringing his first-ever introvert, low-key character to the screen. He would continue to insert this 'other', cast-against-type face of Jack into his acting repertoire now and then, as seen in The Border and About Schmidt, for example.

The problem with Nicholson's role is that it doesn't offer much space to communicate with the viewer, whether to evoke sympathy or as a psychological riddle. He simply is there, impenetrable and closed for others; on one hand very believable, on the other hand not enough engaging. This is a given risk when putting an introvert, stone-faced character at the center of the work, and the opening up of some type of channel for closer familiarization can easily look like a cheap psychological shot. Rafelson and Nicholson put their trust in the credibility of the character to connect with a mature audience, but in my view it isn't quite enough.

Opposite Nicholson's silent enigma we have Bruce Dern's extrovert, eternally optimistic screw-up, a part that could very well have been handled by Nicholson (this reversal of casting may indeed have been deliberate). Unlike Coming Home a few years later (see review) Dern's jittery presence is appopriate to the part, and I believe this is one of his better performances. The casting of him as a presumed biological brother to the not very lookalike Nicholson is a bit awkward. The most important problem, however, is the same once more: his character does not evoke a useful response with the viewer. There are both lovable and despicable scoundrels, and neither script nor Dern go enough of a distance to make this a person whose fate one wants to care about. Given his failed business plans and interaction with mobsters the deck is stacked against Dern's protagonist from the start, and there isn't enough benevolence to compensate for it.

So ultimately, the King Of Marvin Gardens sets two very different and not overly likable brothers against each other, with the expected bursts of animosity, nostalgia and blood-tie responsibilities. We learn a little more about them from their interplay, but it's nothing that changes the fundamental impression given from early on. Nicholson remains a loner, Dern remains an irresponsible screw-up, and their ways will part again after this brief reunion. The female companions get plenty of screen-time to work as dialogue sparring partners for the two brothers. Ellen Burstyn, much in demand at the time, is solid as usual as a former beauty queen in a love/hate relationship with Dern's unreliable hustler. The couple have sort of adopted a young woman with a striking, slightly eerie presence which seems perfect for the movie and its setting. Apparently an amateur actress named Julia Anne Robinson, this casting gamble pays off, and the sub-plot showing the competition between the ageing, former beauty pageant girl and the younger, future one offers a variant on a mother/daughter conflict that is both inspired and touching; clearly one of the film's assets. Burstyn is also involved in a plot twist towards the end that should surprise any first-time viewer, and may seem to jar with the dominating tone of status quo.

After this long litany about why and how King Of Marvin Gardens doesn't live up to Five Easy Pieces, I still have to say that I like this movie very much, and I believe those with a faiblesse for the radical '70s style of cinema will agree. There isn't enough rebellion and extroversion here to make a classic, but there is nevertheless a brilliant setting and an intriguing, original quartet of people. Bob Rafelson was one of the more adventurous directors of New Hollywood, and this neglected work offers up a rich catalog of aesthetic issues and cinematic questions that the post-Easy Riders era raised. To modern viewers with no particular interest or experience with this style the movie might look weird and possibly disjointed, but I do believe the Atlantic City milieu and Nicholson's understated performance will continue to fascinate. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:17 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:45 AM MEST
14 May 2013
Full Metal Jacket's Gomer Pyle reconsidered
Now Playing: Paul Page "The Reef Is Calling"
Topic: F

This is it. After years of self-deception, I'm finally throwing in the towel. It just doesn't work, or doesn't make sense, no matter how  much I would like it to.

What am I talking about? Well, in short, this:

I have gone on record many times calling Full Metal Jacket one of my favorite movies from one of my favorite directors. Unlike most of Kubrick's works it is very realistic in tone and look, which is one reason I've rated it so highly. I was there when the Usenet Kubrick forum carved out the standard 101 analysis of the movie, chipping in with a thought or two but generally remaining on the sidelines while the expertise flowed back and forth. This high-brow group had earlier improved my understanding of The Shining in several useful ways.

For example: It is not true that Jack Nicholson makes a poor portrayal of a drunk in the bar scene with 'Lloyd', because he is not actually drunk; he is a man going insane who imitates a drunk, as part of the ghostly drama evolving inside and around him. In other words, Jack plays a nutcase pretending to be drunk. I admired the ingeniousness of this viewpoint, but after a while I realized that it was probably true. I had erred in not fully understanding the context of the scene, mistaken multilayered personas for weak acting.

Following this crash course in Kubrickiana, I became rather cautious in voicing any detailed opinions on his movies except on a general note of (usually) appreciation. The fact that these works seemed to get better with each repeat viewing confirmed the soundness of this approach. Applying this on Full Metal Jacket, I concluded that it was one of Kubrick's very best; flawlessly executed as always, but also gaining an edge from its strong anchoring in actual events, i e: US marines in Vietnam.

Now, every once in a while during the half-dozen times I've watched it, a little voice of dissent would clear its throat and question whether Vincent d'Onofrios characterization of Leonard aka 'Gomer Pyle' really needed to be so radically broad, given the realistic tone and look of the rest of the movie. But the lesson I had learned from debating Nicholson's performance in The Shining would bear down on this polite little dissident, and insist that d'Onofrio's performance was right on the money, it was simply a case of me failing to understand how the larger bolts of the narrative machine came together. Besides, with time the whole thing would surely look appropriate and maybe even prophetic. This was, after all, Kubrick.

So I went with this self-editing and professed my love for Full Metal Jacket and how its three parts were brilliantly juxtaposed etc etc & blah-blah. The case of Gomer Pyle was simply above suspicion, but there was always a nagging feeling that I wasn't done with the movie. So when recently Full Metal Jacket came on TV, I figured I'd take another round with it as I had nothing better to do. This improvised screening meant eschewing the ritual of selecting the DVD from the shelf and placing it in the player, which may have contributed to the more critical mindset I brought to this viewing. Or maybe the time had simply come for a new perspective.

Rather than sort of blanking out the scenes where it looked like d'Onofrio's performance was way off the wall, I watched them closely to try and figure out the motivation behind them. Because it's not Vincent d'Onofrio (a very good actor in my opinion) we are watching, but rather Stanley Kubrick's instructions to Vincent d'Onofrio. Any Kubrickian knows that the Master wouldn't commit a single shrug or nosepick to celluloid without thinking it through, and so whatever d'Onofrio had his character do, it was what the omniscient director wanted. And given my general respect/awe for Kubrick, I figured there was some justification or logic in there that I simply didn't understand, just like in The Shining. Right.

Except that this time, the rationalization didn't work. I saw nothing but an actor doing a decent job 90% of the time, then skid off the road during the remaining 10%. After being portrayed as a slightly dimwitted and undisciplined grunt among others not much superior, Leonard unexpectedly goes 'full retard' in a scene where Matthew Modine's 'Joker' shows him how to tie his shoelaces. Not only is the basic scene questionable, but the exaggerated look of childlike adoration on Leonard's face jars badly with the apathetic loser we've seen so far, and with the brutal world of adult men that is the world of Full Metal Jacket's first act. It's an embarrassing, cringeworthy scene, not so much because of the acting but because it doesn't make sense in the context of the movie. What does the movie gain from this? If anything, our sympathy for the underdog is diminished rather than heightened, and, most of all, the harsh naturalism that is one of the strongest assets is suddenly undermined.

Towards the end of the Parris Island sequence, we are told that Leonard aka Gomer Pyle 'can't hack it anymore'. It is an unnecessary piece of dialogue because d'Onofrio portrays Leonard's breakdown by going over the top in a way that leaves little room for misinterpretation. Instead of being Joker's starry-eyed protagonist he has turned into a psychotic war machine living in symbiosis with his rifle. As the freshly baked marines gather to receive their combat assignments, Leonard gives off a blank psycho gaze while his fellow soldiers cheer and laugh. What he shows is in fact the Kubrick Stare, familiar from earlier movies such as 2001, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. In the Kubrick Stare, the protagonist is looking straight into the camera from beneath a prominent forehead and eyebrows, giving off an arresting look of predatory concentration. If this was the peak of d'Onofrio's 'psychotic' interpretation of Leonard it would have been a fitting signal as well as a thought-provoking reference to Kubrick's earlier fims.

But of course, this is not the case, because the grand finale of Act 1 takes place in the Head (so branded with a sign on the door) and finds a Leonard more psychotic than anything psychotic you've ever seen before, except maybe in bad Psychotronic features. The Kubrick Stare has been augmented with a crazy smile to create a truly unsettling appearance which, unfortunately, looks quite incredulous and, once more, clashes badly with the realistic tone of the preceding scenes and indeed the entire work. Not only does he look like something from a comic book, but his voice has become completely altered as well, from mild-mannered sad-sack to a devilish sneer. The inevitable logic of the actual events that transpire in the Head needn't be dwelled upon, and the interesting question here is again: what does this scene, and the whole Parris Island segment, gain from the highly theatrical performance delivered by d'Onofrio during the climactic scenes? As pointed out above, there is nothing random or unplanned in a Kubrick movie: d'Onofrio portrays Leonard this way because Kubrick has encouraged him to do so. But why did the director want this?

25 years have passed since Full Metal Jacket premiered. The idea that time would reveal the meaning of elements that seemed dubious on early viewings may apply to some aspects of the work, but as far as I can tell, d'Onofrio's overacting still looks like overacting in 2013, and these scenes stick out like a handful of clumsy, inexplicable brush strokes on an otherwise beautifully realized painting.

This most recent viewing of Full Metal Jacket also helped clarify a couple of aspects to the middle act that have troubled me somewhat. Again, I was helped by the excellent critical 'walk-throughs' compiled by the Kubrick fans on the internet.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:46 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:45 AM MEST
30 April 2013
What are you doing, Dave?
Now Playing: Real Madrid-Dortmund
Topic: *Memorabilia & such

After three disappointing movies in a row, here's an original promo photo from a movie which rarely appears in the same sentence as 'disappointing'.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:19 PM MEST
29 April 2013
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Now Playing: Can "Monster Movie"
Topic: C

German-born director Mike Nichols saw an early break-through with The Graduate in 1967, a movie which may appear almost incomprehensible to teenagers today but was a huge critical and commercial success at its time. Only Nichols' second feature movie, it dealt with the woes of coming of age in an upper middle-class '60s far from the sociocultural street theatre of Merry Pranksters and Mario Savios alike. Four years later Nichols took on a work that was wholly adult in both subject and tone; you may have to be 25 just to understand the title.

Carnal Knowledge is a character study that follows two young college friends through their friendship, relationships, and the occasional intertwining of the two. It's talky, seemingly ad libbed at times, moderately psychological, depressing but sometimes fun, and would, in 10 years time, have been directed by Woody Allen rather than Mike Nichols. Allen had undoubtedly made much better use of the New York City setting than Nichols, who wastes his opportunities by using generic back projection shots instead of filming on location. This drawback, along with a near complete lack of extras and complex mise-en-scene* shots, contributes to the feeling of a theatre play adapted for TV. Written by noted (well, he was noted in the '60s) cartoonist/writer Jules Feiffer it had in fact started out as a stage project, and maybe it should have stayed that way too.

The first thing that may strike a modern viewer is how good an actor Art Garfunkel is. He goes up against a Jack Nicholson fresh out of Five Easy Pieces and holds his own ground, particularly in the opening half of the movie where his role is given most screen time. As the story and characters age, Nicholson's seemingly more troubled protagonist gradually takes over, and in a sense Carnal Knowledge betrays its initial promise of a chamber play and becomes another 'Jack' vehicle instead. And Nicholson is quite good, of course, particularly in the increasingly despairing scenes he shares with Ann-Margret, who does a very good acting job in addition to her Swedish bomb-shell looks. The talented couple basically hijack the last reel and turns Carnal Knowledge into a watchable relationship movie that finds Nichols revisiting the razorsharp domestic scenes of his debut Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

However, this household purgatory makes for a different movie than the one which began with two young college friends who secretly dated the same girl, an interesting premise that is never mentioned or referenced in the later parts of the film. It's unclear whether Nichols, and maybe Feiffer too, knew exactly what the point was with the storyline as it unfolds over some 20 years; a feeling you never get with Five Easy Pieces, as an example. The viewer may be tempted to think that director and producer observed that most of the substance of the third reel was in the domestic Woolf dialogue and Nicholson's performance, and let that take over while sacrificing the dual or even quadruple balance indicated in the exposition.

I don't particularly care about the 'message' or 'politics' of a movie as these things are subjective between different persons and also bound to change over time, but Carnal Knowledge, despite its seemingly liberated and self-assured female characters, has a rather unpleasant tone of patriarchal smugness about it. All the women, and ultimately Garfunkel's loyal friend, are reduced to mirrors for Nicholson's increasingly pathetic womanizer. The script tries to work around its inability to show his falling apart by invoking a theme of impotency, a cliché as tired as there is, and one which also brings sympathy to the character and reduces the chances for credible psychological demasking even more. It's all rather clumsily done, and I suspect the editing made it worse.

Nichols seems influenced by the gritty realism of the New Hollywood yet misses two vital ingredients from the style, which is a sense of memorable cinema (not filmed theatre) in images and sets, and a striving towards originality and unpredictability in the storyline. The end result is simply a pretty dull affair, a mediocre made-for-TV drama with an unpleasant aftertaste, memorable mostly for a performance from Jack Nicholson which oddly both improves and damages the movie.

The guys over at Cinefiles referred to Mike Nichols as a director who made a couple of good movies long ago which carried his entire career. Seeing Carnal Knowledge in 2013 seems to validate the remark. 5/10

*'Mise en scene', as used here at the Reflections, refers specifically to complex, choreographed shots that involve several people, a heterogenous setting (such as a plaza), and movements. The term is notoriously vague, but this narrow definition is how I was taught it long ago, and I find it useful.


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:33 PM MEST
Updated: 7 October 2013 10:11 PM MEST
Across The Universe (2007)
Now Playing: tinnitus
Topic: A

I do my best to keep track of all movies related some way or other to psychedelic culture, but it may be a while before I get around to actually watching them. I recall Across The Universe getting some enthusiastic support in mainstream media, but as often with recent films, I have a hard time seeing where that praise is coming from, unless cute charm and good music satisfies your cineast demands.

As the very familiar storyline took yet another predictable turn, I found myself thinking "this is pretty lame but I bet the original stage version was enjoyable". Uh-huh. Except that there is no "original stage version"! Of course, this adds more weight to my brooding over why someone felt this Broadway musical material could and should be turned into a movie.

 Across The Universe presents a by-the-numbers version of "the sixties" that is completely shallow and lacking in critical perspective. The most important event of the decade, the Moon Landing, isn't even mentioned. Instead it's the same tired baby-boomer nostalgia cliches found in another sanitized no-depth retro view, Forrest Gump, except missing the one thing in Gump that felt like it actually meant something, Gary Sinise's character. Across The Universe offers something else, which is the great music of the Beatles. Some 30 Beatles songs (licenced for the bizarre sum of $10 million) are heard and seen, sung by the actors and choreographed in a very Broadway way by the director.

The unoriginal love and friendship story has been augmented with various subplots in order to justify the insertion of various Beatles songs. Turning "I Want To Hold Your Hand" into a song about secret lesbian love is inspired, as were a couple other numbers that brought out novel meanings from very familiar lyrics. Others are too obvious, a few are misguided or meaningless (Eddie Izzard's atonal Mr Kite routine probably survived in the cutting room simply because a lot of masks and props had gone into it).

The "psychedelic" scenes, then, are wildly uneven. It kicks off with a Kool-Aid party in NYC (oddly for a "sixties" film, there is nothing west coast) where a drug ringleader called Dr Robert takes command. After forcing myself to accept that this character for some reason looks like Lemmy in Motorhead, I progress head first into a brick wall for which there is no accepting. Dr Robert is Bono. It's fucking Bono pretending to be a Merry Prankster looking like Lemmy. But Bono isn't psychedelic, he's like the antidote to LSD. No one likes Bono except maybe Jann Wenner. Where did this idiot casting idea come from?

The obligatory "trip" sequence that follows is cheaply done, mainly by inverting and fiddling with colors, just like Bob Rafelson did in Head... 40 years ago. This goes on for a few minutes and at least we are spared any moralizing. An utterly silly scene has Prankster Bono (aargh!) trying to visit "Professor Geary" at a Millbrook-like place but getting rejected--restating Tom Wolfe's old Baby-boomer myth. That this never happened, that Kesey and Leary hung out, and that there are photos of Leary aboard the Further bus, apparently wasn't known to the writers. Of course, since we never see Leary or Geary the whole scene is meaningless and could have been cut, saving us 20 seconds of Bono. Better yet, the editorial scissors could have made a long jump forward and removed the aforementioned Mr Kite scene, which comes right after. That would have brought us quick to the one stoned scene that works, a beautiful montage of bodies entwined in a pasture, where "Because" is heard while the wind runs back and forth in the tallgrass.

And so ends the psychedelic part of Across The Universe, and the rest of it is some more shit about SDS demonstrations and betrayed idealism right out of Forrest Gump, and also a sub-plot about Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in the same band... or something. Don't watch this if you're interested in the 1960s. Watch this if you loved Mama Mia, the musical made from ABBA songs. 5/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 2:16 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:43 AM MEST
25 April 2013
The Boat That Rocked (2009) capsule
Now Playing: New Expression "Good Clean Rock'n'Roll"
Topic: B

Hard to imagine how the producters decided to go with this one, unless they relied on director Richard Curtis to create something out of almost nothing, as he arguably did with Notting Hill. Some highly respected actors lent their services to what is essentially a feel good-movie set in the swinging '60s. Not exactly an original concept, and The Boat That Rocked (aka Pirate Radio) stacks the deck further in its disfavor by having no meaningful storyline whatsoever--unless the recurring threats from politicians to shut the pirate radio boat down is supposed to be the main plot.

The ensemble is a bewildering mix of Oscar winners and near-unknowns, but they line up fairly well for Curtis' patented English coziness (even if he's a Kiwi). Unfortunately, once we know them all, and know that political forces are conspiring, and that rock music is a valuable form of rebellion, the movie discovers it has nothing more to say. The third reel is just a drawn-out closure that goes on for half an hour instead of ten minutes, and the moderate suspense inserted removes most of the viewer's direct connection to the various characters, which had been the work's primary strength. The movie means well and is unlikely to be hated by anyone; what it leaves behind is mainly the question why someone approved a script thinner than an LP record to go into production.

Speaking of LP records, fans of '60s music are likely to get some mileage out of The Boat That Rocked, which has a nice attention to period (c1968) detail, several shocking scenes of rare originals (second Love, second Incredible String Band, first Grateful Dead) falling victim to the cold Nordic Sea, and a good but not great soundtrack that uses Kinks and Small Faces tunes (no Creation or Tomorrow) for good effect but unfortunately can't keep its hands away from "Whiter Shade Of Pale", despite it popping up in dozens of movies over the years. 5/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:01 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:43 AM MEST
22 April 2013
Snake Eyes (1998)
Now Playing: Creedence
Topic: S

Popcorn quiz: Brian De Palma made Snake Eyes because he (A) Wanted to do a single-take sequence that surpassed the one Scorsese had in Goodfellas; (B) Was curious about how Carla Gugino would look in tight silk clothes; (C) Figured he could use some of Nicholas Cage's hyper intense cocaine buzz presence while the guy was still A-list material?

These are all valid reasons for making a movie, especially if you've paid your dues three times over like BDP had. Whatever his intentions, the end result is wholly and uniquely identifiable as his creation, which means that I enjoy it. In fact, I enjoyed it more on the second viewing than the first, and this is not due to some dubious theoretical insight like the intellectualized film student snobbery frequently hung around the director's neck.

Au contraire, ma freres, I actually took greater note of the storyline and characterization this time. Not that it's particularly outstanding, but it's there for the viewer's attention, and I believe the dazzling single-take exposition offsets the balance of the entire movie on the first viewing. This extremely complex and magically realized tracking shot will probably be the only aspect of Snake Eyes to linger in the cinema annals, even if De Palma allowed himself a few loopholes (four or five camouflaged cuts during the 20-minute sequence) to make his mad enterprise work.

Film students and movie-lovers alike enjoy the virtuosity and sheer fun of this grand opening, and unlike some of BDP's earlier showcases it is both appropriate to the theme and context of the movie (a big night with lots of tension in the air) and a very effective exposition which introduces the major characters and a number of details relevant to the mystery conspiracy that is the main plot element. The only problem, then, is that the viewer may still be digesting De Palma's tour de force and maybe hope for even more, while the storyline is rapidly evolving into new intricacies.

The movie carries its comic book exaggerations with pride, and the sense of aesthetic playfulness is brought home by a dazzling use of bright colors in basically every shot, until the appropriately dark and murky ending. More movies should look like this, a true feast for the eyes on a level of pure, non-intellectual perception that makes it almost psychedelic, in the sense that hallucinogens can make each color look a little brighter than usual. Equally appropriate is the obvious use of studio sets for the entire movie, making everything look shiny new and slightly unreal. The casino where the action takes place is basically one gigantic set piece, and it's easy to imagine the fun De Palma and his assicoates had in designing the sets in combination with the fluid camera-work.

In accordance with the title there is a strong focus on eyes, in various symbolic and physical representations. Gary Sinise's sinister military officer turns the metaphorical 'snake eyes' of the title into an actual facial aspect, becoming less human and more cold and deviously reptile as the movie progresses. Perhaps this ocular theme justified use of POV flashback sequences (some which are actually 'false') that occur three times, but they are largely unsuccessful and distracts the viewer by inserting new dimensions to little effect. In typical BDP fashion the inspired creativity goes one step too far, but its more of an annoyance than truly damaging.

Nicholas Cage was at the peak of his career around this time, and his hyper-active police detective seems determined to outdo the egocentric cocaine excesses seen in Face/Off. Unfortunately we are never told why his character behaves like a race horse on steroids. One might argue that Cage's performance is in line with the general larger-than-life tone of the movie, but it fails to add or expand on that tone, and makes for an awkward transition to the weary, disenchanted person he becomes towards the end. Gary Sinise on the other hand acts like he understands the movie completely, and while his performance also becomes weighed down by the exaggerated demands of the script towards the final scenes, the convincing military persona and gradually demasked 'snake' of the title is a major asset. Carla Gugino is very comic book-like as a reluctant heroine, actually more comic book-like than in Sin City, and while charming in presence her character isn't given enough respect by script or direction. The rest of the cast isn't bad but strangely forgettable, in view of how De Palma on occasion loads his movies with good casting and quirky minor parts.

If you've only seen Snake Eyes once, see it again. I'm not so sure how it would hold up for a third viewing, though. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 2:08 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:42 AM MEST
20 April 2013

Topic: *Memorabilia & such

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:02 PM MEST
Spartacus (1960)
Now Playing: late night ambience
Topic: S

This is not a full-blown review of Spartacus, which you are likely to have seen and certainly owns no shortage of critique, from Kubrickians and others. Rather, I figured I'd post some random thoughts from my most recent viewing.

The background you know; Kirk Douglas commanded the project and fired the original director after shooting had begun, in his place Douglas recruited the up and coming Stanley Kubrick, who had impressed the Hollywood star when the two collaborated on the much-respected Paths Of Glory (1957). Both Douglas and Kubrick embarked on the Spartacus rescue mission with their own private agendas, which didn't prevent the film from becoming a commercial and critical success.

The first thing to observe is that the movie has aged fairly well. It looks and feels "old" in the sense of a classic Hollywood production, but only rarely does it seem dated. This era saw a number of ancient epics such as Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, El Cid et al. Of these, Spartacus is clearly the most relevant experience for a modern viewer. This is not due to some particularly brilliant directing from Kubrick, who does a skilful but fairly traditional job on the massive Cecil B DeMille type sequences, and lets the actors dominate the smaller scenes. One could say that if Kubrick's objective was to add a successful A-list movie to his resume', he did it just right. Thanks to the strength of the story, the frequently terrific acting, and a shrewd use of classic plot devices, the movie ages with dignity, like an old Bentley.

But it takes a few particular actors and scenes to make Spartacus a living experience rather than just a grand exhibition piece. Top honors must go to Charles Laughton who plays his scheming, powerful yet goodhearted Roman senator as though it had been custom-made for him. It is a wonderful display of a kind of larger than life performance that would fall out of fashion a few years later, and has never really returned. Laughton turns his Gracchus into a vividly alive and generous Falstaff kind of man, while on another level he is a survivor among the backstabbers in Rome and undoubtedly one with blood on his hands.

Yet this exquisite package isn't all that the viewer perceives, because Laughton's presence carries just enough of a hint of irony, like a quick wink of the eye, to remind you and the crew and probably himself too, that this is all theatre. This meta-comment is effective for several reasons, the simplest one being that it is true, it is all theatre and the audience is granted the intelligence to share this consensual hallucination with Laughton and Olivier and the other great actors.

Furthermore, the setting of the senate in Rome resembles a stage where political monologues and dialogues determine the nation's future, and the scenes in this milieu, strongly dominated by Laughton, emerge as a kind of play-within-play in Shakespeare's manner. This observation suggests another undercurrent to Laughton's multilayered presence; the enormous tradition of stage productions set in the classic Rome of Spartacus, leading by way of Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar all the way back to the playwrights and rhetoric masters of the ancient high culture. In addition to bringing to life his admirably vivacious Gracchus, Laughton's subtle meta-performance reminds us of the extraordinary context, even in a commercial Hollywood movie, of a Roman stage.

Of course, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov hold their own ground as thespians; Olivier's complex, ambivalent Crassus bringing much of the same Shakespearean nutrition to the table as Laughton, while the younger Ustinov represents a slightly more naturalistic and less formalized kind of acting. The scenes between Laughton and Ustinov are not only wondrously entertaining, but also make for a passing of the torch, to some extent.

The American actors can't help but suffering in the Anglofied tone of the movie, and there is an awkward clash between traditions at times, such as Olivier and his brother in law (Broadway actor John Dall) who seem to be in separate movies. Kirk Douglas, whose movie it after all is, does a good job in emphasizing the physical aspects of his Spartacus; a commanding example of the hero in his most visceral incarnation. With this choice comes a natural lack of insight behind the righteous warrior mask of Spartacus, whose entire emotional life is distilled down to his love for Varinia (a very beautiful Jean Simmons). The hero archetype rests comfortably on Douglas' broad shoulders, but it also shifts the thematic bias away from the notion of the 'rebel' to that of the 'warrior', and turns Spartacus into more of a war movie than it maybe should have been. Compared with Ridley Scott's Gladiator, Spartacus finds a presumed rebel becoming a field general, while Gladiator finds a field general becoming a rebel. The later movie gains in emotional pull from this characterization of the hero role.

Kubrick may not have left too strong a mark on this movie, except for its general excellence, but the memorable final scene stands out enough that it hints of the unique ideation of the great director. As the crucificed hero suffers on the cross, his wife and new-born child stand by and silently weep, unable to reveal their identity. It's a heavy, archetypal scene, if not outright psychedelic then certainly Jungian, and it is a fitting apex to a closing reel that also saw Olivier and Douglas finally meet in a scene which brilliantly contrasts two types of power--that of the office and law, with that of nature and the common man. While the overall bias towards a gung-ho war movie reduces the movie of its potential multi-layered quality, there are enough moments of depth and ambivalence to satisfy the psychedelic mind, and the closing scene in particular is almost Dali-esque.

A final thought: Kubrick does well in exploting the studio resources and huge number of extras at his hands, and creates a movie that truly looks expensive, even today. At the same time, many of the sets still look like studio back-lot creations in a manner typical of older Hollywood movies, and it's unfortunate that not more filming took place in actual outdoors settings. This effect is compounded by a curious presentation of Southern Italy as about the same size as your local neighborhood, so that slaves on the run keep bumping into one another in the most unlikely fashion. These two drawbacks are perhaps the strongest reminders that the movie belongs to a much earlier era and different audience attitude than Scott's Gladiator.

NOTE: the reinstated scenes featuring a subtle (or not so subtle) homosexual undertone between Olivier and young Tony Curtis are quite worthwhile and contribute to the modern and more ambiguous aspect of Spartacus. The sequence is slightly inferior technically and you can tell where it begins and ends, but it nevertheless is a vital addition to the film. Anthony Hopkins was apparently hired to imitate Olivier's voice as the original soundtrack had been lost, while Curtis was still around and redid himself.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:49 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:41 AM MEST
14 April 2013
Two-Minute Warning (1976)
Now Playing: Spirit "Family That Plays Together"
Topic: T

I actually picked this one up by accident as I was looking for Peter Bogdanovich's debut movie The Sniper, and the two movies have very similar titles when translated into our local language. That the actors didn't match up or that the year was off by 8 years apparently didn't register with me, but that's what late-night binge-shopping on the internet is all about.

As luck had it, Two-Minute Warning turned out to be highly enjoyable and I would surely have seen it sooner or later anyway. I have no memories of its original run back in 1976-77, but it clearly belongs to the genre of 'disaster movies' that were in vogue in the mid-70s, sometimes involving Mother Nature, sometimes terrorists, and sometimes both. Those familiar with John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday will recognize certain elements instantly, the most obvious being an assault taking place during a football game. However, Two-Minute Warning is the earlier of the two and holds its own ground well. I was particularly impressed with the pacing and scene transitions, and the editing received a well-earned Oscar nomination.

Director Larry Peerce is not a major Hollywood name, and at the time of this movie he was a veteran of mainly TV work, and in the later part of his career he did more TV and a number of low-profile romantic dramas for the silver screen. Though unfamiliar with his oeuvre I suspect that Two-Minute Warning may be the best thing he put his name on. It's not a 'New Hollywood' movie per se, but like Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah there is a natural affinity with the grim realism that the new generation favored. Based on a novel the script is tightly written as it unfolds, minute by minute, the desperate hunt for a crazy sniper whose next move no one can predict. Charlton Heston is a less than ideal choice for the main part, and John Cassavetes seems overly intellectual for a SWAT team leader, but the two get a fairly enjoyable tougher-than-thou chemistry going. It's interesting to speculate what a truly progressive casting job, such as in Dog Day Afternoon, might have brought out from this movie. But this is not really an actor showpiece or a character study, but a straightforward action thriller, and should be judged as such. I do sense a bit of Don Siegel as general inspiration, and the surprisingly bleak plot twists towards the end recall the chilly moods of the first two Dirty Harry movies, as an example, as does the sniper theme and the extensive use of real, outdoor locations rather than studio sets.

The cast is wide enough to look almost like a multi-story ensemble piece, but all the cords are tied together towards the end in an effective manner. Beau Bridges appears as a blue collar family man who suspects something's wrong, while Gena Rowlands has an unexpected but funny part as an ageing Southern belle. We're also treated to TV heroes David Janssen (The Fugitive) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). Martin Balsam's presence brought Pelham 1-2-3 to mind, another quality disaster movie from the time. I deserve a moderate pat on the back for spotting Robert Ginty (of early video rental B-movie classic The Exterminator fame) in a 1-line part.

As a final note in praise of the direction, Two-Minute Warning features some of the best 'crowd hysteria' scenes I have seen in a movie this old. This is a very challenging task where just one extra not giving his all as the panic ensues can ruin a whole shot. But the scenes feel very real, near-documentary at their best. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:35 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:40 AM MEST
8 April 2013
Topic: *Memorabilia & such

"I just do eyes"

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:14 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:40 AM MEST
Thor vs Lucky Number Slevin - 100 mcg capsule reviews
Now Playing: Parameter "Galactic Ramble"
Topic: L

A couple of quick takes on things recently watched....

THOR (2011) turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable and amplifies the impression that Hollywood may have figured out, finally, how to handle these Marvel comic heroes. Iron Man was the first step in the right direction, Avengers was eminently entertaining, and Thor pretty much so too. I get the feeling that someone in charge realized that these movies should be a concern for a much wider audience than nostalgic ex-teenyboppers, and so they lost the lame, Disneyfying strain that made almost all the earlier instalments shallow and impersonal. Choosing Kenneth Branagh to direct certainly indicates a motion away from the by-the-numbers instalments in the Spiderman and X-Men series. That's not to say that Thor is a particularly brilliant movie, but you don't need to care one iota for the old comic book (which I always found silly) or even know that it exists in order to enjoy this dynamic, expressive and surprisingly funny popcorn movie. The main character comes across as a surfer more than a jock, and the casting is pretty solid (Loki is bulls-eye; Anthony Hopkins as Odin perhaps less so). A straightforward yet arresting storyline, an evil-looking enemy clan led by a superbly menacing Colm Feore, and tons of beautiful CGI panoramas. If there is a sequel I look forward to it. 7/10

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (2006) is something different altogether, basically a late addition to the very long -- perhaps too long -- lineage that goes back to the two-fisted mid-'90s impact of Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. British director McGuigan did the very violent and slightly disturbing Gangster No 1 prior to this, but the uncompromising tone of that flick isn't really on display here, until towards the end. Prior to that it bounces along nicely as an unfazed Josh Hartnett gets dragged into a gangster rivalry with the typical near-parody style of early Tarantino. However, the script pulls out an increasing flow of twists that should surprise even one familiar with the genre, and the resolution near the end is quite effective, not just for its intrinsic logic, but because it goes hand in hand with a sharpening of the overall tone of the movie. And just as you enjoyed that closure, another twist comes along. Credibility is stretched, of course, but the rules of the aesthetic universe are never violated, and so it works. The oft-maligned Hartnett is unusually well-cast in a role that looks back to his break-through as a cool, self-serving slacker in The Faculty, while Bruce Willis does one of the colder hit-men you've seen. Oddly, grand elders Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley are less successful, the former just going through his usual black patriarch motions, the latter seemingly at odds with his lines of dialogue. The producers could have saved a lot of money by hiring lesser name actors who would have brought more energy to these characters. Lucy Liu is as pretty as ever and gets a part with direct involvement in the plot, rather than just a love interest. Not a perfect movie or even a great one, but in this crowded genre a highly competent addition. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:59 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:39 AM MEST
7 April 2013
The Ninth Gate (1999)
Now Playing: Flashback vol 6 (Antar)
Topic: N
Roman Polanski making an occult movie seemed fairly intriguing to me, and for the first half or so I really enjoyed The Ninth Gate. The concept of the devil's engravings was spot on for the genre, and the use of various European locations added to the atmosphere. Unfortunately - like others have remarked - the last 10 minutes didn't really work, and this affected the impression of the entire movie which sort of fell apart in retrospect.

On the plus side, there were some striking images - like Frank Langella's fire scene, or the wheelchair/fire scene - that only a first-rate filmmaker like Polanski could come up with. Like other viewers I thought about Eyes Wide Shut during some scenes, but that was a much more serious and developed movie. I liked Johnny Depp's performance, though his character was unsympathetic and he didn't seem as focused as in Donnie Brasco for instance. Those who like me have dabbled in rare book or rare record dealing may take a special interest in The Ninth Gate as Polanski in passing gives a sardonic but believable peek into the mechanics of that trade.

Someone called this a 'lazy' movie by Polanski, and I guess that's a good description. You can see the talent and the fun he had, but there was no real commitment. 6.5 / 10.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:22 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:38 AM MEST
3 April 2013
Mission To Mars (1998)
Now Playing: Real Madrid-Galatasaray
Topic: M

I am not sure why Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars has provoked so much dislike. Most of the supposed flaws - the stiff, mannered 1950s style acting, the highly dramatic music score, the plot clichés - should be regarded as deliberate references to the cinematic history of science fiction, which is exactly what one would expect from an unrepentant film student like De Palma. My guess would be that the audience failed to understand the intentions behind this movie, not least those who were expecting another one-dimensional Armageddon-type blockbuster. Misapprehension has been a familiar refrain through much of De Palma's career and seems particularly unfortunate here, as this is a movie that is easy to like if you let it. Most importantly, it carries a generous portion of the key ingredient that sci-fi genre fans refer to as 'Sense of wonder'. At the same time, this is no 2001, as a closer scrutiny reveals.

On the minus side, the exposition is very weak, especially by De Palma standards (recall the dazzling openings of Bonfires Of The Vanities or Snake Eyes). Furthermore, the stereotyped acting of Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins in particular, though humorous and appropriate from a genre history viewpoint, can't help but diminish the dramatic impact of the movie, especially as De Palma simultaneously asks us to care for these characters. The sets are uneven, with the makeshift Martian base failing to convince.

On the plus side is an interesting plot idea, presented in a backward fashion and revealed towards the end in a much more elegant way than the highly similar plot element in Prometheus; some stunning visual effects and camera-work that are trademark De Palma, several intense and dramatic scenes also typical of his self-confident direction, and the aforementioned 'sense of wonder' (not unlike Contact) which is something that cannot be nailed down but needs to be experienced. The logic-defying and sometimes ludicrous plot-twists and character inconsistencies that have been the largest recurring problem in De Palma's movies are almost (almost) entirely absent here; the story moves along on a steady, even keel, much like the old Hollywood movies it resembles.

To my mind this movie's merits by far outweighs it flaws, and it is unfortunate for Brian de Palma that he again had to suffer from the audience's misconceptions and ideas about genre movies, rather than being judged as the talented, serious filmmaker that he is. I loved this movie, and rate it among his best. 8/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:05 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:38 AM MEST
Single sentence review of Prometheus (2012)
Topic: P
Finally watched Ridley Scott's Prometheus after hearing very mixed opinions to it and, uh, it was that sinking experience where things start out looking really cool, and then there is something, after 10 minutes or so, just some little bit of poor acting or illogical behavior, that makes you go "hmm?", and then you keep watching hoping for it to pick up the trajectory towards the great movie it should be, but then there is another wrong detail, maybe a little bigger, and then comes something really fucked up that belongs in a B-movie, and you begin to realize that this isn't a great movie or even a pretty good movie but in fact a failure, a hack job, a grand gesture full of sloppy wrinkles* and when it's over you're in a strange mood because you still recall the great, imaginative, thought-provoking movie you thought it might be, and patiently waited for while irritation built steadily for two hours.

*I wrote the one-sentence review about two months ago, and have since found that images and scenes from the movie keep popping up in my head, so clearly it worked on some level. I can't think of any other movie with such a gap between the visual style (brilliantly memorable) and the story (poorly written, poorly handled). Finding Ridley Scott in the same fold as Dario Argento and Brian de Palma** is a bit surprising, but he actually outdoes these loose cannon-auteurs in both good and bad ways. Does this mean Prometheus will become a cult movie? Or will the cringeworthy idiocies of the script linger as its tombstone?
**Speaking of de Palma, Prometheus borrows several key ideas from de Palma's Mission To Mars, an underrated work which despite its modest resources is superior as a total film in my view.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 5:02 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:37 AM MEST
Drive, He Said (1970)
Now Playing: Tourniquet on RPC
Topic: D
For no obvious reason, local TV decided to show Jack Nicholson's half-forgotten and generally un-loved directorial debut Drive, He Said (1970) the other night. This one has been hard to find (not out on DVD until 2010) and I happily crossed another obscure New Hollywood title from my viewing list.

This joy over-shadows the actual watching experience, as this isn't a very good movie, even if it has all the vital bits present (BBS production, Bruce Dern, realistic settings, Karen Black, jump cuts, shakey-cam, context-less shots, the whole French '60s shit). The poor casting is a major problem, which seems curious with JACK directing, but the main guy is a pretty terrible actor, lacking both talent and experience. The actor portraying the increasingly psychotic best friend makes a scenery-chewing effort that doesn't really work but at least keeps you awake. The others range from annoying to OK, but except for Dern and Black basically no one went on to a real acting career... which confirms the poor casting. The only exception is Mike Warren who became a major TV name with Hill Street Blues, and he does well here.

Anyway, some scenes are terrible, some are confusing, and in a few rare cases things work. The story isn't a story as much as a mood, but that is basically what one expects with these early '70s New Hollywood outings. The main character is torn between following his counterculture buddies quest for freedom and revolution, and to pursue his basketball career and turn pro. The End. Well, almost, there's a jumbled love story involving Karen Black also. I predict that people who aren't used to watching these type of dated period movies will find Drive, He Said a boring chaos. Even with the spirit of anarchy at the time, the movie proved too untogether for both audiences and critics. Nicholson soon realized he'd made a mistake, and bought out the rights and all copies in order to bury it. 5/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 4:36 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:36 AM MEST
Timothy Leary's Last Trip (1997)
Topic: T

The first half of this 55-minute documentary is a recap of the early/mid-1960s LSD scene, when both Timothy Leary & Ken Kesey rose to prominence. There is lots of Merry Prankster '60s archive footage, some of which I didn't immediately recognize, and which may be unique to this feature. There's also some interesting old Leary footage, the bulk of it from the circa 1974 interview also seen in Timothy Leary's Dead. Some minor errors occur in the chronology and presentation of events, the most amusing (possibly a Prank?) assigning Wavy Gravy's name to a photo of Tiny Tim!

The second half of the movie concerns Leary's last 'trip', which turns out to be two trips -- one to a Hog Farm commune get-together in 1995, with some historically important footage of Kesey and Leary hanging out together. Contemporary interviews include original Pranksters George Walker and Wavy Gravy (looking great, like an old Polynesian tribe chief), and Kesey & Leary. Interspersed throughout is an interview with Leary from a studio (or his home), which I think is unique to this movie. There's some on-stage footage with Grateful Dead type music and Pranksters in costumes, and Leary giving the event his benediction.

Leary's 'second last trip' is a meeting on Internet between himself and Kesey, shortly before he died. It's pretty amusing to see the funky connection and very old-skool Netscape browsers this many years later. Not much of importance is said, it's mainly an exchange of greetings done in accordance with a technology shift that Leary, always the futurist, understood and embraced.

The director O B Babbs (Merry Prankster legend Ken Babbs' son) appears as a narrator here and there, and does a good job; and his handsome male-model looks are no drawback. There's a certain student film feel to this, but those familiar with what's been coming out of the revived Prankster nexus in Oregon will recognize and enjoy the home-made charm. Sentimentality is present, and may have been given a boost by the passing away of Jerry Garcia around this time, but considering who we are dealing with, there's certainly room for, and a need for, documentation.

Like Timothy Leary's Dead this movie has some specific, minor flaws, but combining these two fan-oriented DVD features you get a terrific view of Leary, the modern (post-1960) history of LSD, and a substantial dose of the equally important Merry Pranksters. A certain interest in the subject and personages is required, which I have no lack of. For those demanding a more refined cinematic coverage of some of the same topics, the more recent Magic Trip documentary should be the first stop. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:26 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:36 AM MEST

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