Reflections of the Third Eye
20 August 2013
Elia Kazan's "The Visitors"
Now Playing: Drifters "Fools Fall In Love"
Topic: V

At some early point in his career, James Woods decided to have a substantial nose job. The surgery was a success, retaining Woods' memorable features while trimming the snout down from a radical Karl Malden-like appearance to a less conspicuous Dustin Hoffman dimension. The reason I know this is because I just watched Woods' very first movie, THE VISITORS (1972), in which the profile shots in particular reveal a different face than the one that became famous in the '80s.

A more obvious starting point for The Visitors might be the observation that this is one of very few post-'50s movies directed by the great Elia Kazan, once prince of Hollywood and maker of stars like Marlon Brando and James Dean. I'm not entirely sure, but I would guess that the empty hole that Kazan's filmography turns into from 1958 onwards is fallout from his notorious disclosure of commie names in the McCarthy hearings. It is said that Hollywood has short memory, but in the matter of HUAC the shadow from Kazan's testimony would grow to cover several decades, not allowing him back into the fold until an honorary Oscar in the late '90s.

That this was a great loss for American movies is a given, and even a minor work like The Visitors demonstrates what Kazan could have done in the '70s, a period when many of his disciples were revolutionizing studio films in both directing and acting, and where he likely would have found himself right at home. The synopsis and script are quite good and give strong indications of being adopted from a stage play or even a novella, but reportedly was the creation of Kazan's oldest son. True or not, it is a psychological drama that delivers a slowly mounting tension around five people during a couple of days and nights in a rural house.

For those familiar with Casualties Of War (later filmed by Brian de Palma with Michael J Fox), The Visitors examines the interesting notion of a sequel to that story, asking what might happen if two army buddies paid their whistle-blower colleague a visit a few years after the events in Vietnam, when they're all back in the US. This backdrop is not revealed until halfway into the movie, and two differing accounts are given with no obvious priority for the viewer, which is another indication of the mature intelligence behind The Visitors. Inevitably the mood grows darker and more threatening, and a fascinating power struggle between the leading visitor (Steve Railsback) and the young mother in the rural household (Patricia Joyce) brings the viewer through several complex scenes, as the woman struggles to understand the brutal actions in the past while also trying to offer a forgiveness of sorts. Meanwhile her defensive husband (Woods) tries to keep his mind off the events of the past and his possible guilt as a 'snitch' on his plutoon comrades. But the relentless plot machinery of The Visitors brings these threads to an inevitable confrontation and resolution much in line with the realistic-nihilistic perspective often expressed in New Hollywood movies.

Indeed, one of several noteworthy things about The Visitors is how modern it feels--in some ways it's actually more like an indie 1990s movie such as Sean Penn's Indian Runner than the often eccentric auteur works of the '70s. Undoubtedly a deliberate choice, there is none of the hippie or counterculture stylings usually found in early '70s films, which contributes to its timeless feel. Shot on a low budget with a small crew, Kazan manages to make terrific use of lighting inside the rural house, where Steve Railback's eerie, unpredictable character is frequently shown with his eyes cast entirely in darkness, while James Woods' pock-marked, skinny face is presented brightly for the viewer to illustrate his relative naivetë. The movie's shoestring production is evident in a couple of scenes where the lighting is completely wrong, for which there apparently weren't enough resources to re-shoot.

Mention must be made of a sub-plot involving the young woman's father, a middle-aged writer who lives on the property, and is smitten to relive his own violent army past in the company of the two visitors. Even if a minor thread in the storyline, it's very skilfully handled in both writing and acting, as the obscure TV actor Patrick McVey delivers a naturalistic performance that would have made Gene Hackman proud. The father's instinctive attraction towards the 'evil' side of the visitors precludes the dark but logical turn of events during the final act, giving further support to a view of the world that is fatalistic and cynical and, again, quite modern.

Kazan always preferred to work with unknown actors, and The Visitors marks the screen debut not only for James Woods (who is OK, but lacking full commitment) but also for Steve Railsback, who delivers the most memorable performance of the four main parts. Known mostly for his part as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter (1976), Railsback has a natural eeriness and charisma that is not unlike Jeremy Sisto, and it's a shame that he has done mostly B and C-movies after a decent run during the 1970s. Further proof of Kazan's skill in casting was Patricia Joyce, who essentially both came and went with her admirable performance in a complex role that is arguably the core wheel of the entire film.

It may be due to a poor digital transfer rather than cheap film stock, but my DVD of The Visitors was both grainy and washed out color-wise, making it look almost like a blown-up 8mm film at times. It was easy to adjust to however, as the storyline and acting demanded attention from the very start and never once broke its trajectory. There are a few minor objections to be made with reference to the undeveloped character of the second ex-army visitor, a tendency towards grimness over precision, and of course the question how this would have come across with a full Hollywood budget (e.g. the sound is clearly below par), but ultimately The Visitors is an experience that is fully satisfactory as it is. 7 of 10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:06 PM MEST
Updated: 20 August 2013 11:29 PM MEST
18 August 2013

Now Playing: The Satans c1965 LP
Topic: *Memorabilia & such

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 11:04 PM MEST
12 August 2013
Eyes Wide Shut lament
Now Playing: Grateful Dead 2/11/69 Fillmore East
Topic: E

Much like the 'Gomer Pyle' problem (see Full Metal Jacket comment) I've been waiting for the coin to drop regarding the master's last cinematic offering, EYES WIDE SHUT (1999). On first viewing it seemed kind of slow-moving and with a curious insistence upon certain elements which didn't seem particularly eyebrow-raising, such as the main couple's potential infidelity, or the extreme secrecy of the VIP sex mansion. It also featured a number of marvellous scenes, not least the opening ballroom with its unearthly lighting and flawless direction. And while the mansion swinger party seemed off-target, the best scenes in there (primarily when Tom Cruise's protagonist is exposed) had the Kubrickian magic that sticks in your memory forever even after just one viewing. All in all, I assumed that these high points hinted of the potential power of the entire movie, once I had fully integrated it... because this is how Kubrick films tend to operate for me.

But after catching Eyes Wide Shut on late night TV the other day, I'm afraid the verdict must be the same as on 'Gomer Pyle': it just doesn't work. And here we're talking about a whole movie, not just certain scenes with a non-protagonist character. I actually felt embarrassed on Kubrick's behalf as I watched the "so what" sequences of infidelity and open sex that he makes such a fuss over, as though he was some old man out of touch with the modern era. I don't think that was the true problem, but rather something connected with his literary inspiration (Arthur Schnitzler's 1926 novella) for the movie, and how he personally viewed the themes he dealt with. Happily married for 40 years, and not one likely to deal in casting couches and Charlie Sheen style whore binges, one must wonder just how much Kubrick understood of the material he dealt with in Eyes Wide Shut.

With a rising amount of pain I watched the scene where Sydney Pollack passes on a warning to Cruise's confused doctor to stop his inquisitions about the mansion. The scene is inexplicably drawn out, with long pauses between the lines, even as the dialogue is quite ordinary film noir fodder. Pollack's character displays a completely overstated embarrassment for the whole affair, which jars strangely with the opening of the movie which finds him revealing to Dr Harford (Cruise) that he was having sex with a drugged out young prostitute. Given such a lifestyle, why should this wealthy New Yorker feel any hesitation whatsoever in telling a young doctor to stop snooping where he doesn't belong. The scene just doesn't make sense, and the dialogue is bland and predictable, and the pace grinds to a complete halt. It's ironic that the room has been equipped with a very Kubrickian red pool table instead of the customary green, creating a red rectangle which almost seems to float by itself and adds a grim tone to the scene... which fails in almost any other way.

But it's not individual scenes, some of which are in fact brilliant, that weigh Eyes Wide Shut down--it is the treatment of the material, and the emphasis on what seems to be the wrong elements. It is, in the 2000s, hard to understand why Cruise's doctor reacts so strongly when his wife (Nicole Kidman) reveals an old sexual fantasy for him. It simply isn't very shocking, and since the viewer does not understand the young doctor's reaction, it becomes hard to empathize with him. Similarly, why would a secluded mansion where VIPs meet to have free sex be such a big deal that people get killed for it, and that others are threatened to their lives? The only thing we see in there are a bunch of cool masks and people performing completely normal sex acts. So what? While one can't say for sure that these things occur in precisely this way, I doubt many would be surprised if it was revealed in this day and age.

As the movie neared the end I kept thinking that it would have been much more credible and effective if the mansion orgies had been harsh S & M stuff, where people bled and wept, and others acted out sick fantasies, and call girls died not because of some mysterious omerta, but as an effect of the violent sexual practices. This would also have formed a more impressive nadir for the protagonist's night journey into himself, and contrasted sharply with the cozy Manhattan family residence of the doctor and his wife. The final misstep occurs when Mrs Harford unexpectedly has found the costume mask that her husband just had stashed away in a safe, and in a dramatic gesture places on his pillow. Again, why is this mask such a big deal--and why would she suspect that it is? Maybe it was a gift he was planning to give her? Instead he breaks down and promises to tell 'everything' about his night on town, and again the whole thing seems bizarrely overstated and, I hate to say this, old-fashioned. 6 of 10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 11:26 PM MEST
Updated: 12 August 2013 11:32 PM MEST
9 August 2013
Figures In A Landscape (1970)
Now Playing: Fox on RD Records
Topic: F

Although a very strong period for cinema, the early 1970s had its share of smaller movies that time has allowed to fall through the cracks of public amnesia. Despite its forgotten status today, FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE (1970) displays no shortage of strong 'names', directed as it was by the renowned Joseph Losey and with the powerful screen presences of Robert Shaw and Malcom McDowell in a double protagonist set-up.

The movie could be construed as an action feature with certain parallels to Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958) and Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971), as the swiftly moving camera follows the two men on a seemingly endless escape through an unidentified country in what looks like Northwestern South America. People are killed, including an entire army garrison and some unlucky passers-by, as 'Mac' (Shaw) and 'Ansell' (McDowell) fight their way towards survival on the other side of a snowy mountain range. Always on their heels is an ominous black helicopter, and soon also a large army posse. The two leads walk, run, crawl, limp, swim and climb their way towards freedom, while eating canned food and bickering about their next move. The ending needn't be revealed here as it's a movie worth seeing, which can be discussed without this knowledge.

However, I believe better milage is drawn from Figures In A Landscape if one approaches it as a character study of two strong-willed individuals in duress rather than a thriller. There is a certain undertone of experimental '60s theatre in the script (written by Shaw from a novel, incidentally), even with the abundance of beautiful, sweeping location shots of equatorial valleys, prairies and mountains*. Unlike a conventional thriller the viewer is never informed of the background for the opening premise of the two men on the run, and their individual stories remain opaque for the bulk of the movie. Shaw's older and slightly eccentric character slowly begins to reveal his past marriage in the form of well-rounded anecdotes which point forward to his unforgettable appearance in Jaws. There are some interesting similarities between 'Mac' and Jaws' 'Quint', which raises the question if maybe Spielberg had this movie in mind when he perfectly cast Shaw as his shark-hating sea captain.

McDowell's 'Ansell' remains more enigmatic simply because he has much fewer lines to work with, but the impression of an upper middle class boy from Swinging London comes across; clearly closer to his role in the preceding If... than the succeeding A Clockwork Orange. Losey makes good use of McDowell's cat-like appearance and gives his body language a smooth grace completely lacking from Shaw's rural rough-neck. The two leads never really 'click' on the screen in the way familiar from modern buddy movies, but each delivers a fine performance under shooting conditions which must have been quite harsh at times.

While not quite an action movie, Figures In A Landscape does not take its symbolic and archetypal potential very far; as an example it's not like the Darwinistic survival showcase found in The Edge (1997; script by David Mamet), nor does it invoke Beckett-ish problems of communication and identity otherwise in vogue in European '60s drama. Unfortunately, the dialogue and psychological interplay is not sharp enough to work as pure '70s naturalism, and except for the excellent helicopter shots the action scenes aren't impressive if using a pure thriller label. Ultimately it becomes a rare case where the viewer might wish for a more pretentious undertone; either that, or a purification of the dual fugitives theme, which undoubtedly is how the material would have been handled in modern Hollywood.

This odd bird in Losey's oeuvre was nevertheless enjoyable; good casting, plenty of outstanding panorama shots of a uniquely varied landscape, and a backbone of experienced movie crafting made for 90 minutes well spent. 7 of 10

*This must have been a fairly early movie to employ the front-mounted helicopter camera technique used in almost every action movie today; these shots look like fully modern cinematography.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:45 PM MEST
Updated: 9 August 2013 10:20 PM MEST
A few grumpy remarks on Midnight Cowboy
Now Playing: Van De Graaf Generator
Topic: M

Like The Graduate, Easy Rider and to some extent Bonnie & Clyde, it seems to me that MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) has received an exaggerated standing in modern movie history, in comparison to its intrinsic qualities as a film. These four works all contained elements not previously seen on the silver screen, and for that reason and their timely arrival, they are often perceived as vital stepping stones towards the golden era of New Hollywood. Each one of them deserves thorough scrutiny from the vantage point of today. 

Seeing Midnight Cowboy for the first time in many years, I find its position as a bridge between eras one of the more interesting aspects. The urban naturalism, the eccentric personalities, the psychological sub-texts and the focus on character and moments instead of plot and pacing, are all things typical of the auteur-driven 1970s cinema. But what is less commonly observed in the movie is the substantial residuals from early-mid '60s aesthetics, which inform it as much as the gritty realism.

This is not a smooth blend, as the more creative Anglo-American '60s movies stood in almost complete stylistic contrast to what would follow in the next decade; they were flashy, pretentious, experimental for their own sake, star-struck with divas and VIP's, obsessed with themselves and with their own time. It is, to my mind, not a creative period that has aged very gracefully, as a revisit to Antonioni's Blow-Up might demonstrate. Director John Schlesinger had his briefcase full of Swinging London aesthetics when he arrived to take the reins on Midnight Cowboy, the content and themes of which MGM doubted any American studio veteran could handle.

The end result is a stylistic pendulum that swings from the down-and-out reality of 'Ratso' Rizzo's (Dustin Hoffman) roach-infested apartment to the unexpected insertions of dreams, memories and fantasy montages, creating a badly jumbled artistic presence that offers us everything and nothing. Some of these segments border on the laughable with their unimpressive look and poorly motivated presence. Curiously, the one scene in which a 'fantasy' excursion might have been justified, the obligatory '60s drug hallucination of protagonist Joe Buck (Jon Voight), is restrained and brief. Other such scenes are longer and sometimes repeated, and hint of some dark events in Joe Buck's past, but the psychological link to the present-day 'hustler' is so vague that it's basically left dangling. I wouldn't want to spend too many words on this aspect of Midnight Cowboy, but the fact is that the vision sequences are both highly dated, poorly directed, and in conflict with the other main tone of the movie.

I am not sure why Midnight Cowboy has remained so relatively immune to criticism. It's not a great movie; there are flaws easy to spot and difficult to defend, unless one chooses to laud it for its 'historical' vitality. Like The Graduate I believe that its treatment of previously untouched themes, along with a good match for the zeitgeist, caused people to mistake thematic boldness for cinematic quality. Movies like these, and there are many, tend to age badly.

Another parallel to The Graduate is the presence of Dustin Hoffman, and again I suspect that his naturalistic performance, which pushes method acting into near-parody, was seen as a revelation at the time, since it was so completely different from his earlier role in Mike Nichols' film. During the '70s these thespian reinventions became commonplace, but in the late '60s Hoffman was ahead of the pack. Method or not, his performance doesn't cover very much range, and the make-up and endlessly ailing body removes any chance for this unattractive street survivor to evoke sympathy with the viewer, who may feel as if watching less a person than a persona, in the theatrical fixed-expression sense.

Not that it's much easier to come to terms with the main character, a half-stupid Texan who arrives to New York City with plans to become a male prostitute, a situation most people will find hard to identify with. Jon Voight, who would become a very good actor later on (see Coming Home review below) probably portrays the character as intended, but much like Hoffman there is a sense of watching a distinct set of prepared faces and gestures, rather than truly immersive acting. The rest of the cast is forgettable, though it's nice to see an early role for Brenda Vaccaro, who in her 10 minutes on the screen delivers what passes for a female lead part in this very male-centric work.

More could be said about Midnight Cowboy, but as it doesn't belong to the creative wave of New Hollywood in either style nor quality, I'm cutting the reel here. A final thought: both Schlesinger and Mike Nichols got very lucky by making the right movie at the right time. This single instance of timing and theme helped them build long A-list careers that more gifted directors only could dream of. 6/10  

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:50 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:18 AM MEST
5 August 2013
Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome
Now Playing: Xebec LP
Topic: M

After the guys over at Cinefiles suggested that MAD MAX 3: BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985) is in fact a really good '80s action movie, I became quite interested in seeing it again. My memories of the original run were disappointing enough that I had basically filed it away in the 'never revisit' drawer, but 25 years on the possibility that things had changed with time has to be considered.

Except for Mel Gibson's giant '80s poseur metal hairdo and the tragic loss of his trusted V8 car, Mad Max 3 begins strongly enough. Heading ever deeper into the wasteland, the story is set in what's partly a real sand desert where Max comes upon a trading post large enough to be called a town, built from the debris of the apocalypse. The sets and characters are full of oddball ideas while still continuing the edgy, cynical tone of the earlier movies. Action-wise the steel-cage fight with 'Master-Blaster' is what everyone remembers from the film, but the entire Bartertown segment is solid dystopic action. Apparently George Miller half-abandoned the movie project due to the death of a friend involved, but his hand is clearly present in this promising opening act, which may also recall Paul Verhoeven's satirical sci-fi movies from the same era.

But with Bartertown's resources exhausted in both concrete and thematic terms, Mad Max is on the road again, and here the problems begin. The rest of the movie deals with a colony of children who survived a plane crash during the apocalypse and found a paradisiacal valley in the wilderness, where they lived ever since. It's sort of like Lord Of The Flies meets Peter Pan, and few people, now or back in 1985, seem to like it. The problem to me isn't so much the content or execution of the idea, which has a few neat moments such as the confused tribal mythology the kids have created, but the idea itself as placed inside a Mad Max feature. The Max movies are basically action pieces set in a near future, but the Children's Colony segment is real science fiction, complete with Messianic parallels and philosophical brooding. It's simply not in the same genre as the franchise that gave us the Road Warrior, and so the second half of Beyond Thunderdome was pretty much dead on arrival the moment it went beyond thunderdome. The movie ties the two stories together in the most flippant, uncaring manner (i e: Mel and the kids go back to dangerous Bartertown to seek out the 'Master' for the reason of... what, precisely?) which does demonstrate Miller's absence from the creative chair in a rather painful way.

The closing car/train chase is also poorly motivated by the script (in stark contrast to Mad Max 2) and seems to be there mainly to please the audience. It's not bad, but really just a half-assed retread of the magnificent final reel of Road Warrior. The bad guys too are a pale shadow of Lord Humungus and Wez, and while Tina Turner does a fairly good job and seems to enjoy herself as the local Queen, her casting is somewhat distracting, not least since the rest of the new cast is unmemorable. He got lucky with picking a near-unknown Mel Gibson for the franchise lead but otherwise, casting is clearly not one of George Miller's strengths.

Sorry to disagree with the Cinefiles but Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome isn't a very good movie; worth seeing but not more. 6/10

Seeing Road Warrior and Mad Max 3 in rapid succession served as amusing reminders of what a xerox copy job Kevin Costner's Waterworld is of Miller's creation.


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 11:26 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:19 AM MEST
29 July 2013
Brief praise for Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Now Playing: Canadian garage comp
Topic: M

Not only was the ROAD WARRIOR (1981) one of the truly great action movies of the 1980s, but it has also aged extremely well. The basic dystopic future vision seems as possible or maybe even more possible now than when I saw this during its original run, and the action sequences haven't dated one iota. The relentless 20 minutes that close the movie are still the greatest road battle sequence ever committed to film, and may in fact never be topped. The closest I can think of is the freeway chase in Matrix 2, but they got to cheat with both super-powers and CGI tricks, and still couldn't match George Miller's intense precision. In addition to the rare cinematic skill on display, the final road chase is fully motivated and in fact necessitated by the logics of the script, which adds to the nail-biting attention it commands. Everything rides on that trailer rig breaking through, without it the whole movie falls to pieces.

Of course, everyone knows this already, and I don't really have much to add regarding the second Mad Max instalment, except to testify on its lingering greatness. One thing I hadn't really reflected on earlier is how consistent the movie is in its presentation of the lone survivalist as reluctant hero. Mel Gibson is in every scene in the movie, yet he rarely says a word and hardly ever changes his expression of contained torment. According to IMDB he only has 16 lines of dialogue in the entire 90-minute movie, which sounds extraordinary but may be true. This is not style for style's sake but a reflection of a story so thoroughly trimmed down to the raw essentials that there isn't a wasted moment in it. Literally everything you see in The Road Warrior, every line and event, is there for a discernible reason.

This is how action movies were made once upon a time*; no useless padding out of the playtime with unwarranted subplots (see Looper review), but a tight roller coaster ride that grabs you by the neck from the start and doesn't let you go until you got your money's worth. Let's bring it back. 8/10

NOTE: after writing the above I see that an 'independent variation' on the Mad Max trilogy is in post-production, directed by Miller and with Tom Hardy replacing Mel Gibson as Max Rockatansky.

*The same applies to another dystopic action classic from the same year, John Carpenter's Escape From New York, whose first hour or so displays a supremely tight flow.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:10 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:19 AM MEST
27 July 2013
Mad Max Arises
Now Playing: Zombieland
Topic: M

Because of the season, or because someone who actually thinks that movies are fun is in charge, but local TV has pulled out a surprising string of cult movies and unjustly forgotten nuggets the last few months. The other day we were treated to George Miller's MAD MAX (1979), a local Australian production which to my knowledge never has been broadcast here before. And it was a very good print too, obviously a recent digital transfer.

Although Miller and the Mad Max franchise would go on to Hollywood success in the 1980s, this first instalment carries its low-budget origins with pride. Taking a page or three from the Roger Corman school of production, Miller shrewdly makes his finances go along way, squeezing out tension and valuable minutes of screen-time from sequences of smartly staged shots of cars and bikes zooming across the empty Australian prairie. In fact, already here you can see that Miller had a unique talent for shooting road action, something which became dazzlingly clear with the ROAD WARRIOR. A few different camera positions are utilized, some which clearly required special built side-cars and contraptions, and with a nicely paced editing the result is a more concentrated variant on the late '60s biker movies. Australians are known for their obsession with cars, something which colors Mad Max throughout--the only thing Mel Gibson's main character seems to be interested in except his young family is cars, and their advantages and problems. The bad guys all ride motorcycles, naturally.

The future Australia of Mad Max isn't quite as dystopic as that of the sequel, but you can see it getting there. In a sense the Road Warrior is as if Mad Max has left the coastal grassland of the first part and gone into the wilderness of the desert inland, where he finds a more primitive and deeper expression of the on-going collapse.

Mad Max is impressive in most respects, even without the Gibson and Miller aura, and its particular form of dystopia was ahead of its time in the late '70s. In addition to Corman there are traces of Straw Dogs and revenge movies in the Death Wish tradition, and there is clearly an exploitative aspect. Yet Miller takes care to deal with needed scenes of romance and hanging out, and gracefully handles the peripeti (turning point) scene that could have ruined the whole movie. Gibson's acting is somewhat unsteady and he also has to handle some bad dialogue (a persistent weakness of the script), but it's interesting to note some of the trademark expressions and body language that he later would use to define his acting style (in Lethal Weapon more than the Road Warrior).

Unfortunately Miller chose to present the evil opponents as a bunch of crazy hippies which strips the movie from some of it emotional charge, even more so since the acting among these thugs is fairly weak across the board. It's possible that the Manson Family spectre still loomed over the murder gang image at this point (along the lines of the Dirty Harry The Enforcer movie), but alas these bikers lack the Family's sinister presence. This, along with the uninspired dialogue, betrays Mad Max' B-movie origins and keeps it from being a full-blown indie classic, but it's still a skilfully done and fairly original work. 6/10 

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:23 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:20 AM MEST
25 July 2013
Looper up and down
Now Playing: Michael Angelo on Guinn
Topic: L

One of the more recent movies to be featured here, LOOPER (2012) had enough pros and cons to foster a livelier response than the 'it's OK, I guess' that's become standard in the current creative  doldrums. Like Prometheus, a lot of people think it sucks and will tell you why, most frequently citing the dubious sci-fi set-up for the movie and the fact that it's actually two unrelated stories forced together. And like Prometheus there is a smaller yet clearly devoted fan-base who find the vibe of the movie and its characters so cool that they cannot be bothered to listen to various objections.

As the end credits rolled I was in a rare state of cinematic confusion. The alarm inside my head that goes off whenever a movie plot takes a wrong turn, or a character makes an illogical move, or similar defects related to hands-on movie-making, had fired so many times  that it barely registered anymore. I didn't have time to keep count, as I watched with fascination how the storyline built an ever-growing pile of parts stolen from other movies. I haven't seen such a multi-derivative film since The Fifth Element, which, incidentally also features Bruce Willis. Two thirds into Looper I had picked up Twelve Monkeys (Willis again!), Terminator, The Boys From Brazil, The Matrix, Carrie, Twilight Zone (the TV series), Signs, Firestarter, Blade Runner, Robocop... you get the idea.

The script isn't a copy or exploitation job but a patchwork of concepts and plot twists from a dozen earlier sources. As a patchwork, it is unavoidably messy, and it gets messier by retaining an unnecessary sub-plot about a colleague of the main character and his fate, which presumably is there for pedagogic reasons, so that the less brilliant viewer can surmise the possible fate for the main 'Looper' protagonist. The movie felt overlong at 2 hours, and losing that bit, and perhaps the wasted parts about a clumsy, comic-relief assassin (yep), would have allowed the viewer to focus on the main story.

Which, unfortunately, is two different stories with a rather stretched link between them. Neither one is strong enough to carry a movie on its own, not least since so much has been borrowed from elsewhere, and so Looper keeps jumping back and forth much like the time-travelling 'senior' version of the protagonist, who after looking like Joseph Gordon-Levitt with weird make-up all his life, suddenly transforms to look like Bruce Willis around age 45. It's ludicruous enough that I simply didn't understand that it was supposed to be the same person for a few minutes.

Meanwhile, the 'other' part of Looper that deals with a child with super-powers and a possibly dystopic future is nicely done, except that again it's all quite familiar, and seems more like an episode of a TV series like the X-Files or Twilight Zone than part of a contemporary big-budget movie. Towards the end, some of the loose ends are tied together as young and old time-traveller battle it out, and there's a nice twist at the very end which makes the movie seem better and more profound than it is. This feeling only lingers until you begin retracking the plot and various scenes in your head, and then all the iffy things suspended in the air come crashing down to the ground, because this movie does not have super-telekinetic powers and can only fake it for so long.

In addition to recalling The Fifth Element for the wrong reasons, I was going to say that Looper has the greatest span between its good elements (for one thing, I was never bored) and its bad elements in any movie I've seen in a long time, but that is not true--precisely the same thing applied to Prometheus. Two high-profile movies with recycled ideas, laughable details and overall sloppy execution... I'd say we're looking at the worst creative slump for Hollywood since the late 1980s, eh? 6/10

The director and lead actor collaborated on Brick (2005) which I recently saw and which is clearly a better and more original movie than Looper; well worth seeing.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:38 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:20 AM MEST
19 July 2013
Last Picture Show timewarp
Now Playing: Summer afternoon ambience

A good 12 or 15 years have passed since I last saw Peter Bogdanovich's classic THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971), during which time I had forgotten substantial chunks of the plot and cast. So when Randy Quaid pops up on the screen about halfway through I go, "Hey, this must have been a really early part for him", which is true. But then I think "No, wait--he can't be that old--no way was he a teenager in the early '50s!".

Do you see? While watching the movie I actually forgot that it was made in the 1970s and assumed it was a contemporary work from the early '50s. Such a timewarp effect is no small achievement for a film. In his retrospective review Roger Ebert addressed this specific issue, noting how the director incorporated cinematic elements from the earlier era in his style, elegantly summing it up as 'the best movie made in 1951'. Except for shooting in black and white, the cues are subtle, and lie not in what is shown on the screen, but how it is shown (one example is the use of illustrative close-ups). It's not at all like the drive for meaningless authenticity that made James Cameron spend zillions on custom-made 1910 cutlery and china that no one's ever going to see in Titanic, but a way to enhance the psychological realism of words and images that are already profoundly touched by realism. The Texas boys in The Last Picture Show wear bluejeans, boots and shirts much like Texas boys in the early '70s, but the look and feel of the movie they're in is that of a bygone era. The cumulative impression grabs the viewer, and Bogdanovich skillfully maintains a steady, unwavering charge to the force field he creates between two poles standing 20 years apart.

That is, until the very end, when the sub-plots dissolve and the main characters drop off one by one, and the moving images somehow seem to get older and more distant before your eyes, like a fading photograph. You can literally see 'Sonny Crawford' (Timothy Bottoms) and his small town ageing into history, the empty main street and boarded up shopfronts turning into a nostalgic postcard, Bottoms perhaps lingering as a slightly pathetic heir to local father figure 'Sam The Lion', with fewer customers and duller tall-tales. I can't say for sure if Bogdanovich did something in post-production that creates this effect, or if it's all in my own perception.

The other main impression I gather from The Last Picture Show on this viewing is Cloris Leachman's performance as 'Ruth Popper', the depressive woman who is rejuvenated by a love affair with young Sonny. Their story is simple, but also the most powerful of the sub-plots, as we see Leachman go from middle-aged housewife into a radiant, still young woman from Sonny's presence, and then tragically turn into a bitter old spinster as Sonny's interest wanes. Leachman's performance is archetypal, a benchmark for actresses, with inspired support from lighting and wardrobe--observe how her hair changes with the different phases she's in; not just the look of it but also how she carries and handles it. The tour de force is her meltdown when Sonny unashamedly comes crawling back to her. Facial expression, body language, words and voice integrate into a rhythmic organism pushed to the extreme--a human heart at its most naked. You can actually see the emotions rising up from within to wash over her features, different, conflicting, tormenting.* Apparently Bogdanovich felt this was possible, as he asked her not to rehearse the scene in question, but try and nail it on the first take. Which they did. The Academy Award was unavoidable.

All this said, The Last Picture Show isn't what you would call a 'desert island' movie for me. It is very impressive as a cinematic achievement and has aged well, like most 'New Hollywood' films. The themes of the storyline do not grab me as much as the visual look and the specific elements recounted above. This is probably a limitation of the original novel, as I doubt it's possible to do a better cinematization than what Bogdanovich delivered. Taking the story on its own, what exactly does it say? That housewives are bored? That teenagers are horny? That ageing men are nostalgic? That small towns are dull and need to be gotten away from? That the glory days are always in the past? These are not exactly original sentiments, but rather what you see dealt with in the average TV drama. While the movie as a movie still holds up extremely well, I think time has both caught up with and strolled past McMurtry's story as a story. 8/10

NOTE: Bogdanovich reinstated some 15 minutes into the Director's Cut; except for unsuccessfully prolonging the Clu Gulager/Cybill Shepherd pool-table scene, I think all the additions were welcome.

*some of these reflections may be slightly colored by the fact that the movie screening took place on the afterburn of an ayahuasca trip

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 5:58 PM MEST
Updated: 19 July 2013 8:30 PM MEST
17 July 2013
Joel McCrea, Jason Bourne & The Foreign Correspondent
Now Playing: Intolerable Cruelty

As one gets older it seems it gets easier to enjoy movies from eras older than oneself. Perhaps it's simply a case of having seen so much film that one looks past the outer, timebound attributes such as narrative conventions and acting styles, and enjoys the timeless qualities of effective storytelling via moving pictures. Of course, no director made it easier for later audiences to enjoy his works than Alfred Hitchcock, who knew exactly where the keys to movie-making lay, and made sure to use them. Evidence: FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940). This was like a Jason Bourne movie of its time; an intense, complicated rollercoaster ride of a thriller, moving across Europe as the protagonist reveals friends as enemies and even manages a bit of romance on the side. It's also a surprisingly funny movie, perhaps a deliberate wink at the fast-talking screwball comedies of the era from a Hitch who had recently arrived in Hollywood.

Twenty years ago I would have been bugged by things like how a car "disappears" when anyone can guess where it went, or how the death of a main character is overshadowed by the comedy of a lost hat. My long-running admiration of Joel McCrea (dating back to seeing Dead End Street on TV in the '70s) may have taken a hit from his performance here, while the back projection car rides would have caused repeated annoyance ("why didn't they just shoot it in a real car?").

Today--I don't really care about those things. I see them, but they don't really register, except as expressions of a contract between movie producer and audience that was different than from what it is now. Hitchcock certainly knew what a contemporary movie should look like, that's what made him Hitchcock. And instead of wasting time being irritated over things that were perfectly alright when they were made, I find myself thinking of the similarities between the Foreign Correspondent and Jason Bourne.

This is not a masterpiece from the Hitch, but it's one of his most action-packed and fastest-moving stories, which must have had people pinned to their seats in the grand old movie theatres. Comparisons have been made to North By Northwest, but that is a whole different era, and I would probably look more to The Thirtynine Steps for a sibling in the oeuvre. As for McCrea's performance, he's almost too adept at his part as the anti-intellectual man of action, and Hitchcock undermines his standing as main character by giving a British counterpart almost equal screen time during the second half, taking control of the plot with his ideas and analysis. Apparently Gary Cooper had been offered McCrea's part, which would have been interesting to see, but the most obvious choice to me is Cary Grant, as later Hitchcock movies demonstrate.

With McCrea somewhat off the bulls-eye and a fairly mundane cast for the rest, the Foreign Correspondent lacks a bit of the special Golden Era magic, a fact which again directs attention back to the swift direction, engaging script, and a brilliantly executed plane crash that must have been groundbreaking for its time. Special effects barely existed at the time, but the director managed to stage and shoot the long scene of the plane going down, crashing in the ocean, and surviving passengers clamoring on to a broken-off wing, in a way that is nail-biting still in 2013. Probably will be in 2113 as well. For those who want to "get into Hitchcock" there are better choices with an intellectual depth lacking here, but anyone with a moderate interest in old movies is likely to enjoy this proto-Jason Bourne action thriller. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 11:08 PM MEST
Updated: 17 July 2013 11:23 PM MEST
27 June 2013
A tribute to John Cazale

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 11:10 PM MEST
24 June 2013
Three Days Of The Condor revisited
Now Playing: High All The Time vol 1

Everyone loves THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975). It's the kind of movie you could recommend to a co-worker who wants something un-seen that doesn't offend her. With 100% certainty she'll report back that it was 'really good' with a tone of slight surprise in her voice. And she'll be right.

Or will she? I loaded up the DVD last night for what I think is my fourth viewing of the 'Condor'. The storyline, which may have the viewer almost as puzzled as Robert Redford's protagonist on the first round, is completely familiar to me, as are a number of crucial scenes. What is not retained in my skull is the special mood of this movie, something we unfortunately can't retain in our cortical memory banks, but need to experience directly for full appreciation, much like the flavor of a favorite ice cream. I remember distinctly that the Condor hit a special mood which I suspect is the reason people like it, but since I cannot summon its presence at will, it is with a certain expectation that I press <Play> and lean back in the chair, lights dimmed and speakers hooked up.

The exposition deals with a rather substantial problem, which is to introduce us to a work-place and its employees in a way that makes the viewer respond properly to the shocking mass murder that occurs just a few minutes into the film. We know from the very start that something is going to happen due to classic thriller signals of people secretly staking out the building. Sydney Pollack uses Robert Redford's arrival to introduce us to all, literally, people who are soon to be hit by the murder squad. The mood inside is a pleasant mix of intellectual conservatism and high tech, into which 'Turner' (Redford) injects some friendly, ironic banter.

As glimpses are offered of their activities, the mystery of what work actually goes on in this office demands attention. Is it some kind of upscale book store? The faculty building for a nearby private college? Nothing seems quite to fit. This subtly but shrewdly presented riddle requires the viewer to activate yet another brain circuit, in addition to registering the threat from the outside and enjoying the relaxed, bookish atmosphere inside. Rather than giving away the answer, Pollack turns on the ignition of his thriller engine and sets its big wheels in motion by having 'Turner' leave the office to pick up lunch. The half-dozen murders that follow have an appropriately shocking effect in the realm of the peaceful office and likable staff, and Pollack rightly stages the sequence in much the same way as we see Hollywood killings today: striving for realism*, neither excessive nor polite.

The spectacular mass murder is also surprisingly void of information for either the victims or the viewer--no demands or requests are made, nothing is asked for, and the killers do not communicate anything except operational dialogue. We do catch a personal glimpse of their leader, whose almost considerate behavior towards one victim plants another enigma for the viewer. As 'Turner' returns to find his colleagues massacred, Redford and Pollack face another artistic challenge, as common sense dictates that Turner should search the entire 2-story office to look for survivors or even perpetrators, finding instead murdered friends over and over, with little variation. Pollack chose to shoot this 'verbatim', turning it into an acting challenge rather than an editing challenge, and while Redford begins the sequence well, he handles the rest mainly by underplaying it, which was probably the wisest move. I'm not sure even a 1970s model Robert De Niro could have pulled those scenes of repetetive horror off in a convincing manner.

Unfortunately, Redford does not offer the proper horrified reaction when finding his girlfriend killed, instead treating it with much the same detached disbelief as with his colleagues. If she really was his girlfriend, and it certainly seems that way, why doesn't the main character react more strongly to her death? The issue lingers during the movie as a question-mark, which is not straightened out when Redford later refers to her as a 'friend' with a sad voice. The murdered girlfriend (or not) may be a remnant from the novel the script is based on, and the main character's questionable response to this personal tragedy may not have appeared as a problem until after the editing. Rather than removing her completely (by making her simply another co-worker of Turner), or allowing Redford a scene or two of grief to properly balance the emotional see-saw, Pollack ends up in a problematic space in-between. It's not a major glitch, and Redford's convincing display of terrified confusion following the murders, along with the rich array of questions and the rapid tempo, help take the viewer's mind off it. But at the fourth screening it still bothers me.

Oddly, I found the rapidly blossoming love affair with Faye Dunaway's 'Katherine' fairly convincing. As you remember from Out Of Sight, Jennifer Lopez complains that the 'Condor' couple fall in love too fast, but I don't see it that way. A certain amount of time passes, and it is also clear from the beginning that 'Katherine' is not just an ordinary female kidnapping victim, but an unusual woman with something of a hidden darkness about her. As a role she reminds me a bit of Cybill Sheperd's 'Betsy' in Taxi Driver; another interesting female character who quickly emerges as more than just what the protagonist sees. There is also a 'Stockholm Syndrome' aspect to consider. Pollack does not offer any strong pointers towards this phenomena, which became famous shortly before the movie was made, but the interpretation could be made. In short, I do not agree with JLo, although I may object to the realism of some of 'Katherine's' spy games later in the movie.

Three Days Of The Condor is almost certainly the coziest mass-murder movie ever made. Its lingering mood is not one of paranoia, but almost the opposite. We see the killings, Hank Garrett's frightening henchman, Max von Sydow's calculating assassin, the power of the corrupt CIA, and so forth, but it does not register enough to upset the atmosphere that was instilled in the opening scenes. This is a curious, uncommon effect, and almost certainly the reason why so many people like it. The scenes with Redford and Dunaway in 'Katherine's' home are clearly vital to maintain the feeling of warmth and safety: not just for the fleeing 'Turner' but also for the introvert 'Katherine' who, one feels, has never met a man who understands her. She comes into their strange relationship with a different kind of baggage than Turner, yet both of them are looking for the same thing; his quest is of the moment and open to see, her quest is long-term and more abstract, but ultimately it turns out to be the same thing from different perspectives; safety, trust, warmth. The latter aspect is cleverly enforced by the script, which puts the couple wrapped tight in bed after they just met, as Turner needs to sleep and must keep her from calling the police. After some turns of the storyline they end up in bed a second time, now with the more familiar motivation. In another, very well-written scene, Turner describes Katherine's photos of November imagery in what sounds like negative terms, then ends his critique by stating simply that he 'likes them'. Katherine for her part describes how she sometimes takes accidental pictures that does not look like what she intended at all, and those are the ones she likes the most. These exchanges, which are reminiscent of some of Woody Allen's better moments, provide solid nutrition for the idea of their rapidly emerging relationship; it happens through strange circumstances and all via chance, but so do any number of successful real-life affairs.

The cozy feeling, the 'November mood' if you will, is carefully nurtured by Pollack throughout. Von Sydow's assassin is charming, polite, helpful, and just. The CIA director, played with marvellous authority by John Houseman, is educated, wise and thoughtful, while his underling (Cliff Robertson) is charming, straight-forward, concerned. In other words, three classic bad guy archetypes are loaded with positive attributes, and portrayed by actors whose simple presence will lend weight to these assets. The rogue CIA agents that emerge as the real bad guys are not given much in terms of personality at all, and they are cast using fairly unknown actors whose outward appearance confirm the idea of a corrupt government agent.

Pollack obviously wanted to create a realistic spy movie in which the natural paranoia was to be resolved and give way towards feelings of trust and safety, rather than the nihilism that we take almost for granted in political thrillers. It would seem a difficult task to turn the table on a genre which very essence is paranoia and cynicism, but Pollack demonstrates how it can be done with familiar, effective tools. The scenography (Turner's office, Katherine's apartment) and weather (rain showers recur and are discussed) and even the wardrobe are geared towards the cozy and familiar, as seen in John Houseman's gentlemanly bow tie and dinner jacket, or the extravagant furlined coat worn by Robertson in one scene. In addition, the fundamental raison d'etre for the whole plot, Turner's frightening theory of a CIA inside the CIA, is given so little attention that it becomes almost a McGuffin, and once this theory is accepted by Houseman's CIA director, the rogue group is effectively terminated.

The political message of Three Days Of The Condor is that the CIA is run by decent people who can basically be trusted to do the right thing, and will strike down on corruption or anti-democratic activity. This is not precisely the view we are used to see of the Agency (or NSA), whether in 2013 or 1975, and the benign nature of this message corresponds with the benign, cozy atmosphere of the entire movie. In fact, this encouraging picture of a government agency may have been an impetus for the idea of making a spy thriller where the lasting moods are safety and trust instead paranoia and nihilism, even when several innocent people are killed during the first few minutes. Pollack may also have sensed a need for positive vibes in the wake of Watergate. Either way, some minor quibbles** aside, he pulled it off. 8/10




*by realism I mean what a movie audience has come to consider a 'realistic' gunshot murder scene, not how it actually looks in the real world, which few people thankfully have seen 
**one might feel that Redford's protagonist is awfully adept at close-range fighting for a book-worm, as seen in the long and well-directed rumble with the 'Mailman'. However, to Pollack's credit, 'Turner' does lose the fight and is only saved at the last second by 'Katherine'.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 11:32 PM MEST
Updated: 26 June 2013 12:10 AM MEST
14 June 2013
A critical look at Once Upon A Time In America

by Patrick Lundborg

There are many reasons to be grateful for the existence of Sergio Leone's epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984). Not only was it a suitably grand finale to a great director's career, but it also found the director leaping boldly into a genre and culture that he hadn't dealt with before. It was a bold enterprise, and it worked. Furthermore, it features one of the last truly committed performances by Robert De Niro who, as we know, could go a long way towards carrying a movie on his own. The script, which went through several overhauls, features an engaging storyline and sharp dialogue, while the scenography recreates a pre-Depression Jewish Lower East Side which looks near organic with its brickwalled mix of factories, tenement buildings and dozens of small corner shops. That the camera work, lighting and color palettes show a master in charge goes almost without saying, but even if it is expected from Leone it nevertheless is a visual delight, not least since the milieu differs so much from his grand Westerns. 

Revisiting the movie now, I enter with a vague memory of being dissatisfied from the last viewing, a notion which seems curious given the long list of accolades I rattle off above. And for the first hour or so, I have absolutely no idea how I could have had objections to Once Upon A Time In America; I am in fact spellbound by the beautifully balanced narrative and dozens of terrific little details. It's the kind of flawless moviemaking you only get from masters: it is precisely what makes them masters rather than 'good directors'. Leone was obviously inspired by Coppola's Godfather movies, the second one in particular, yet it is the cinematic skill that links the two classics, more than the actual contents. The editing process was infamously troubled as Leone had shot something like 6 hours of film from the script, and breaking it up into two parts was not an option at the time (Bertolucci's 1900 had faded away into box office loss despite an initial enthusiasm over the first part). The studio cut it down to about 2 hours, which reportedly made it near incomprehensible due to three different periods of time and the direct and implicit links between them. Furthermore, Leone left some key moments happening off-screen to be presented via dialogue instead, a choice which maintained the mature, reflective tone of the later eras, but also made scissor incisions problematic. Leone himself came up with a version which ran 3.5 hours, and this 'director's cut' is what most cineasts know, and what is discussed here.

The reason the editing and specific problems are brought up here is because I feel that Leone did not quite manage to present an ideally structured epic from his material. The first 90 minutes, circa, are flawless and every bit as good as the movie's reputation has it. As we meet the main characters in their adult appearances (DeNiro and James Woods replacing the excellent child actors), which is the middle of the three ‘arcs’ of time, I register a minor discomfort almost from the start. In musical terms it's not a false note as much as a lost theme. No sooner have we met the grown-up 'Noodles' and 'Max' than we find them engaged in a brutal massacre triggered only by greed. This sequence also introduces the movie's greatest misstep, which is the nymphomaniac blonde played by Tuesday Weld. The acting is fine, but what is the artistic motivation for her encouraging Noodles to rape her during a staged robbery, and for Noodles to go along? This is dark, troubling material, like from a David Lynch film, and there was of course nothing in the opening, adolescent timeframe that prefigured it. Weld returns again for an equally jarring scene which ends with her taking on three of the gangsters at once, an overly long and inexplicably sleazy segment which fills no function in the storyline. It may in fact derive from Bertolucci's aforementioned 1900, which had some very frank sex scenes--but these were integral to the story being told. Finally, this unfortunate thread in Leone's film makes another questionable move by having Max repeatedly display near-psychotic outbursts, none of which had been hinted of before. In order to drive this point home he reacts violently to any insinuation of him being 'crazy', a clichéd scene which is acted out three times without adding anything to the work.

Leone has always asked questions about 'good' and 'evil' and how these seemingly absolute terms are in fact strongly dependent on our relative position in the drama. Is a bounty hunter good or evil? Is a man who helps two rivalling gangster clans kill each other good or evil? The seemingly amoral Man With No Name is a brilliantly conceived canvas for the depiction of these complicated questions. Once Upon A Time In America continues with this examination of human nature, and it is perhaps deliberate in its emphasis on evil, by almost any standards, in the second narrative arc. Perhaps the error lies in one of Leone's relatively few vices as a director; a tendency for overstatement, for not knowing when to stop. In his earlier films this came forth as a burlesque element in an Italian stage tradition, where the bandits are so sneering and ugly and the women so voluptuous and erotic that their function becomes primarily symbolic.

After introducing us to four realistically portrayed adolescents and having us take part in their adventures in a way that evokes sympathy even as they're a bunch of street punks, there shouldn't be room for a move towards burlesque exaggeration, yet it seems to me that this is precisely what happens as the violence and sex of the second arc plays out. The careful investment in viewer sympathies is ignored and largely lost as the up and coming gangsters are portrayed as rapists, murderers, borderline psychos, but also liars, backstabbers, and misogynists. There is simply very little to like. Leone was presumably showing how the perception of good (or at least likable) and evil is a sliding scale and not a dichotomy, but the lack of subtlety in making his point strips the movie of a most vital asset, the viewer's faith which he had previously earned so brilliantly. The same point could have been made in an elegant, understated way that did not negate the tone of the opening narrative arc, but Leone apparently did not believe in a subtle solution, and so fell back on a cruder and unambiguous form of communication seen in his 60s Westerns.

For comparison, consider Scorsese's Goodfellas, which in certain ways is close to Leone's film. In it we see the protagonists commit various heinous crimes, yet as audience we accept them as 'heroes' (or antiheroes) of this particular saga, and we remain concerned about their fate until the end. Exactly how Scorsese achieves this is a different analysis, but largely it is a question of getting several context details just right, and knowing precisely when to push and when to hold back. This is something Leone did not master, and judging by the way he prioritized the second arc in his editing, he was not aware of the problem. After Noodles becomes a rapist (and the rape scene is very painful, very strongly directed, to make things worse) and Max becomes a vicious megalomaniac, it is very hard to care for the characters anymore. And this is a problem, for the movie still has 1.5 hours left to go.

James Woods is something of a cult actor, and has created some memorable characters in the edgy, restless, sarcastic style for which he is often type cast. This character has served him well in both drama (Salvador) and comedy (The Tough Way), yet it's hard to point to major roles displaying any wider register than the 'James Woods' archetype. His performance in Once Upon A Time In America is not bad in terms of presence and dialogue, but he fails to contribute anything to the movie. The adult Max does not seem like a convincing development of the adolescent Max, which is perhaps not Woods' fault, but the odd fact that the young Max comes across as emotionally richer and more nuanced indicates that there is a problem with both character and its portrayal.

It's a one-note performance where the note is engaging enough not to ruin its context, yet it is not hard to imagine a superior interpretation of the Max role, an upgrade which would also include rewriting it to link back to the first arc and (again) make Max less heartless. As it is, he goes from this devilish, selfserving but also loyal and boyishly likable teenager into an unpleasant psycho gangster with basically no redeeming qualities. When we see Max again during the third arc (set in 1968), his character has gone through yet another metamorphosis, and one gets the feeling that these are more like chess pieces in a moral play than character studies. Woods is allowed a more subtle performance here, but unfortunately the viewer stopped caring about this unsympathetic man and his fate long ago.

Woods’ character and performance is not the only problem with the second arc. It seems overlong and eats away screen time that the undernourished and fragmentary third arc could have put to better use. My impression is that Leone, having mastered the opening arc completely, was less sure of which the pivotal scenes and characters were as the script moved beyond the adolescent years. Faced with demands for substantial cuts he was forced into decisions that he wasn't entirely ready for, and unfortunately the surviving emphasis came to land on some of the weaker elements. Although strong in parts, this second arc emerges as the most clichéd and least psychologically interesting segment, showing Noodles and friends simply as successful, ruthless gangsters. As mentioned above, Leone has shown an understanding for the dependence on perspective when it comes to good and evil, but his interest seems to stop there. The crucial process of transition from one to the other, which Coppola displayed so brilliantly with Michael Corleone, is not explored by Leone. In Once Upon A Time In America the viewer is never shown the development (or downfall) of the street punks into mass-murdering gangsters; there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, but we are robbed of the how and why. 

The arrival of the adult Deborah, played by Elizabeth McGovern, is a mixed blessing for Leone’s movie. Something of a reverse positive to Woods' Max, she dominates the second arc alongside Max, and her character is as innocently wide-eyed as Max is unpleasant. As a viewer you wonder what happened with the street-smart and self-assured teenage Deborah from the first part, wonderfully portrayed by Jennifer Connelly. Again, it is not a credible development of the individual, but the parallels to Max extend further than that, as one could argue that Connelly (in her very first role) playing the girl does a better acting job than McGovern, playing the young adult. Rather than Woods' functional but flat performance, McGovern is uneven and seemingly lost, hitting the mark brilliantly in some scenes but being vague and defensive in others. Except for her striking looks, which have an air of Old Hollywood, her most memorable scene is the brutal rape by De Niro's Noodles, which as mentioned above is very effectively directed. The entire sequence leading up to the scene is the most powerful part of the second arc, which would have been much improved if the date-rape had become the organizing center and a lot of unoriginal 'gangster movie' subplots had been removed. Danny Aiello and Treat Williams are introduced with a lot of fanfare, then given almost nothing of value to do; presumably another example of the unsuccessful editing. Through this all De Niro's Noodles is a glue that holds everything together and makes the movie, on the first viewing, seem better and more genuinely epic than it in fact is.

The third story arc with middle-aged main characters is more interesting and original, and could have been a powerfully understated conclusion if Leone had awarded it another 10 minutes that were wasted on B-movie sex and violence in the preceding part. De Niro's confrontation with Woods is perhaps more anticlimactic than Leone intended, but various details (such as the terrific middle-age make-up) and good dialogue creates a sense of controlled artistry during the final scenes. But the afterglow of the viewing brings no real sense of closure, instead a number of questions and unresolved problems surface which slipped by at first, due to the strong direction and attractive melancholy of the third arc. An example is the reunion of Noodles and Deborah some 30 years after the date rape, where Leone's natural instinct for loaded scenes and the fine acting of De Niro and McGovern at first instills admiration in the viewer, but this impression is soon overtaken by questions as to the overall credibility of the characters' behavior. It is not made clear why Noodles wants to re-open this old wound, nor why Deborah chooses to see him. On one level it is all terrifically executed; on another level it doesn't quite make sense.

Much of the actual plot development of Once Upon A Time In America centers around a mysterious bag with 1 million dollars in a safety deposit box; as clichéd a McGuffin as one can imagine. Had this been a DePalma or Coen brothers movie the viewer might realize and hopefully accept this as deliberate, meta-level playfulness. Unfortunately Leone is quite serious about this bag as a major plot device--it figures at key junctures in the movie, almost like Kubrick's monolith, and appears to be the main motivation for Noodles' actions in the third arc. He even states outright that this million dollar bag has been puzzling him during the decades he was away. It is somewhat disconcerting to find that what started as a brilliant piece of neo-realism about bonding, streetwise teenagers evolves into a simple con man hunt for a bag full of money. If Leone meant something more vital with his McGuffin (such as a symbol for lost trust) he shouldn't have his characters talk and behave as if the physical aspect of it was extremely important. The epic is inexplicably trivialized by a B-movie prop.

The director also makes it difficult for himself by inserting this apparently crucial object at sideways angle across the three period arcs. The bag in the box pops up here and there, sometimes full of money, sometimes not. Its trajectory across the complex narrative structure is confusing for the viewer, who is asked to keep track of a fourth story arc, a trivial one at that. It is still possible to stay on the beat with the unfolding multiple timeframes, but it's a frustrating task when there are so many other issues related to the gangster quartet that are only dealt with in passing. As an example, when the movie re-aquaints us with.the middle-aged Noodles after some 30 years, an obvious question is what he's been doing in the interim. Leone acknowledges the question by raising it in dialogue, then dismisses it by offering nothing but vague, flippant answers. As the movie ends, the viewer still hasn't been told what its main character did almost his entire adult life, the same character one learned to know and befriend with utmost care in the opening arc. Noodles is the heart of the movie, then suddenly his actions are of no importance, leaving one to ask what precisely is important, if this is not? Annoyingly, Leone could have made the gap acceptable by 1-2 minutes of poignant dialogue with enough hints about his long absence for the viewer to fill out the rest.

There is a similar gap between arc one and two, where Noodles goes to juvenile prison for so many years that he's a grown man when he comes out. What happened inside jail? How did that boy turn into this man? The curious absence of 'sufficient data' is less glaring in this earlier instance, probably because the timeframe is after all shorter, and also since we do know one vital thing of his whereabouts, i e: he was in jail. The 30-year jump from arc two to arc three does not offer even that minimum of information. Instead the viewer, and Noodles too, is made to concentrate on the case of the mysterious million dollar suitcase. This is somewhat ludicrous, and while it is tempting to view these gaps in the storyline as yet another facet of the forced editing, the improper development of the supposedly epic story really falls back on the script. Other gaps, big and small, are strewn about in the second and third arcs. These are not "plot holes" as much as white spots on the canvas of the movie. Things that would seem vital are placed off-screen and briefly recalled in dialogue or, as shown above, not recapped at all. It is hard to discern any logic behind the choice to display scene X while scene Y is replaced by two lines of dialogue. At times you feel that what is not shown -- Noodles in jail and his 30 years in exile, Max' development into a psychopath, the investigation and high-level corruption of the middle-aged Max, the artistic ups and downs for young Deborah, whose dancing was a significant element in the first arc, etc -- would have made a much more interesting movie than the dull gangster shenanigans of the second arc and the mournful reunions of the third arc. In some cases, this less than ideal balance between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ might be explained by the awkward editing process, but overall the script should clearly take most of the blame.

Finally, in a way that seems typical for Once Upon A Time In America’s pattern of unfortunate decisions, the two actors that complete Noodles' and Max' hoodlum quartet are not very impressive. There is no need to examine these performances in detail, but one will observe that due to Leone's preference for the gangster activities and lifestyle in the second arc, the two actors get a maximum amount of screen-time in relation to their limited significance to the storyline. Typically, they are entirely missing in the third arc, and no one seems to miss them. A rotund restaurateur who figures prominently in the first half of the movie seems equally expendable. These parts could either have been reduced in the script to liberate several valuable minutes, or used to deepen and explicate the character developments of Noodles, Max and Deborah, rebalancing the movie and make it psychologically credible, without losing the epic sweep of the three arcs. 6/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:31 AM MEST
Updated: 14 June 2013 1:19 PM MEST
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

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