Reflections of the Third Eye
18 September 2013
Costa-Gavras' "Missing" (1982)
Now Playing: High Tide "Sea Shanties"
Topic: M

The resurgence of realism in 1970s cinema spawned two interesting sub-genres that combined naturalistic story-telling with Watergate fallout and an increasingly paranoid counter-culture. The first batch included political paranoia movies such as "The Parallax View", "Three Days Of The Condor" and "All The President's Men". In the early 1980s, as the Golden Age naturalism was falling out of favor elsewhere, a second wave of intelligent political thrillers set on foreign ground emerged, usually with a journalist at the center. These include "The Year Of Living Dangerously", "Under Fire", "The Killing Fields" and, as the genre's arguable swansong, Oliver Stone's "Salvador" (1986).

It is fitting that one of the earliest movies that helped define this sub-genre was made by Greece's Costa-Gavras, who originally made a name for himself with the powerful "Z" back in 1969 and continued to make political movies in Europe through the 1970s. In 1981 he got to make his first Hollywood feature, based on his own script which in turn built on a book about actual events in Chile during Pinochet's military coup in '73. "MISSING", as the resulting movie was defensively titled, tells the story of a middle-aged American (Jack Lemmon) who travels to an un-named South American country to find out what happened with his son, a naive young writer who had begun to take an interest in an on-going military coup. The father is assisted by his daughter-in-law (Sissy Spacek) who has developed a substantial cynicism regarding both the local regime and the American embassy's futile efforts. The movie chronicles their search while details about the missing son's inquiries are presented partly in flashback.

What's great about this genre is that it provides both a setting, a storyline and a mood that are naturally engaging. 1970s aesthetics demanded that everything be shot on location or in totally convincing sets, and from there on it's mostly a question of the psychology and interplay of the protagonists. And "Missing" gets very strong in this department, once Jack Lemmon steps off the plane and begins to interact with unreliable US diplomats and Spacek's crass defaitism. Both of the main parts are strongly written, and it's a delight to see Lemmon and Spacek click like clockwork, despite their great difference in age, as they overcome their natural skepticism towards each others. The quest for the missing son is the engine of the storyline, but, as tends to be the case in these foreign policy thrillers, the characters of the protagonists is what makes the scenes work. It's fascinating to see Lemmon's brilliant old skool method acting connect seamlessly with the dark, late-phase realism of "Missing".

Costa-Gavras strove to create a fairly commercial movie that in theory could work as a straight-ahead crime story, as evident from the substantial efforts put into making the repetetive settings (hotel room, lounge, embassy) look a little different each time. An intellectualized work may have exploited this limitation to create a Kafka-esque milieu (think "Barton Fink") but with new camera settings and changed lighting, boredom from stasis is avoided. Like all movies in the style, there are grim images of dead bodies stapled high to fill an entire morgue basement or left to rot out in the streets, and live executions before the camera. These things, and much else in "Missing", can also be found in the small wave of similar movies that followed in 1983-86.

I would like to proclaim this a 'great' movie, but unfortunately I can't. I'm not one to fret over plot holes, especially not in sci-fi and fantasy movies which are all make-believe and illogical by their very nature. In more realistic cinema, the demands are naturally higher, but it would still have to be a fairly major plot hole for it to affect my overall opinion. This is going to be pretty spoiler-heavy, but I want to lay the entire thing out on the chance that someone can correct me and explain that it's not a plot hole at all!

As the movie progresses, attention moves more and more towards the research activities of the missing son Charles (a somewhat bland John Shea) prior to his disappearance. The narrative flow turns non-linear with flashbacks and even 'hypothetical' scenes, which jars with the fundamental realism convincingly established. Moving into the third act, the viewer unexpectedly learns that the young man's inquiries about the coup had been much more substantial than what was revealed earlier in the movie. In other words, the viewer is first shown a partial flashback, but the most important aspect of the flashback sequence is withheld until much later. This is not a very elegant way to emphasize the thriller aspect of the movie, and it indicates an indecisive compromise with commercial demands.

In order to justify this curious breaking up of a simple, linear storyline, Costa-Gavras lets the left-behind note book of Charles reveal these deeper and more dangerous inquiries he had made, as Lemmon and Spacek read them. The reasons for the military regime and its corrupt US supporters to get rid of the troublesome young American now become much clearer, and after this insight the final resolution to the quest comes as no surprise. The cause and effect link is thereby rescued, but the normal conventions of story-telling are violated in order to maintain a sense of mystery until the final reel. Any cineast will feel an unpleasant tingling in the back of the head from the director's tortured wrangling with plot, factual data, and studio expectations. Truth is, there isn't much of a thriller or detective story in the "Missing" story, and it's unfortunate that Costa-Gavras, after nailing the characters, dialogue and moods so very well, forces his hand to break not only dramatic logic, but also rules of the style. Without having checked, I believe that none of the 4-5 movies I mentioned above contain flashbacks and certainly not chopped up flashbacks.

But this is not the actual plot-hole, just its origin. Since the story was forced into the non-fitting mold of a mystery thriller, Charles' note book aquires a central role in revealing the full nature of the case. This, however, falls apart pretty fast, since the note book has been on hand throughout the movie--it's not like it was discovered in a hidden drawer or a bank vault. Spacek, as the missing Charles' wife, had the note book within reach all the time, and at least two early scenes refer to his detailed note-taking. So, logically, one of the first thing Spacek's character would do, is to go through his note book and see if there are any clues to what happened to him. But she doesn't do this until near the end of her and Lemmon's quest, which is particularly annoying since there are indeed clues in it to what happened to Charles (i e: his detailed coverage of American involvement in the coup), which she would have used to go to media or press the case harder with the US embassy. 

But the plot hole is actually even wider, because it is unlikely that Spacek needed to read Charles' notes to find out what was going on with the coup--their social circle were all young counterculturists and discussed things like this with great interest. It seems quite unlikely that Charles, and the female friend who accompanied him (Melanie Mayron) didn't tell Spacek and their liberal friends what he had found out from the US military personnel he chatted with. It was big news, and also excellent gossip. The third and final problem arising from this plot hole concerns the same female friend, who was present when Charles did his inquiries, and must have known just as much as he did about the foul play behind the coup. And unlike Charles, she wasn't dead or even arrested, and the Spacek-Lemmon investigative team could simply ask this female friend if Charles knew anything that might have been a risk for him. Which of course he did, and which the friend knew all about, and could have told them at any point. Instead, the friend is conveniently written out of the script about halfway through. "Missing" treats Charles' notes as though they alone held the mysterious data he elicited, even when the movie had already shown us that at least two more people undoubtedly knew it all.

Again, this wouldn't have been a big deal if it hadn't concerned the central axis of the storyline. As it is, it becomes a stumbling block for any attentive viewer familiar with genre conventions and plot devices. Once one starts pulling at the loose thread of this non-secret note book, other problematic strands emerge, and one is left sitting with a movie which was on its way to greatness, but sacrificed it for the sake of inserting a dramatic mystery where one wasn't needed. It's not necessarily the Hollywood studio's fault (after all, Costa-Gavras wrote the script) but the suspicions would seem to go in that direction. Ah, too bad. Still, a movie with many fine elements, most of them involving Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. 6 of 10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:08 PM MEST
Updated: 29 September 2013 12:01 AM MEST
9 August 2013
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
3 April 2013
Mission To Mars (1998)
Now Playing: Real Madrid-Galatasaray
Topic: M

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

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

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

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

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:05 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:38 AM MEST

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