Monday, May 5, 2014

"Tunes Of Glory" (1960) Dir: Ronald Neame

What I remember:

Not a lot, for sure. It's got to be 40 years at least since I watched this on WNET with my Step-Father. We typically didn't do a ton of male bonding; he was often at work in one of his restaurants when I was home from school. Football was huge in our family, and he would often chuck the pigskin around in the apartment, much to my Mom's chagrin. Once in a while, though, he'd be home, and we would catch a game or a movie together. I definitely remember "Tunes of Glory" playing pretty regularly on WNET's classic film showcase, and I know we watched it together, and then butchered Scottish accents for a good while after. 

This, along with "The Lavender Hill Mob", "Kind Hearts and Coronets" and, of course, "Bridge on the River Kwai" were my reference points for Sir Alec Guiness. He had yet to debut his most famous character, Obe-won Kenobi. This was an entirely different role for the great actor; not comic, and not stiff-upper lip British. Jock Sinclair was a tough, heroic military man, who's wild behavior suited the battlefield far better than it suited the halls of Commissioned Officers, halls that were populated by the upper crust of British society. 

What's a warrior to do during peacetime? How does he deal with petty bureaucracy and backstabbing colleagues? How does he cope with upper class attitudes and prejudices?

If he's a Scot, then he drinks and causes trouble. And if he's played by Sir Alec, then he's damn entertaining doing it!

After re-watching:

"Did ye hear what he said about whiskey, Charlie? Doesn't drink it, says he!"

"We're on a first name basis in this regiment. Your first name is Eric; my first name is Major."

- Jock Sinclair

The night before a Scottish Regiment is to receive a new Commanding Officer, a Colonel Barrows (John Mills), their acting C.O., Major Sinclair (Alec Guiness) throws a party for the Officers with drinking and dancing. The new Colonel surprises them by arriving early, and puts a damper on things. The next day Barrows implements a lot of changes that affect the regiment's decorum. The time is shortly after the end of WWII, and in the war Sinclair was a desert war hero, while Barrows was a tortured P.O.W. Sinclair is popular with the men, and unhappy about being replaced. He puts Barrows in a tough situation by publicly striking a Corporal in uniform, a offense that is worthy of a court martial.


Back in the day, I had an idea for a restaurant called "Dinner & A Movie". This is way before that TBS show of the same name that ran in the '90's. 

The idea was that a place would run a classic and/or foreign movie, and serve a menu that related to the time and place of said film. For example- you could show "Amarcord" and serve a rustic Italian menu, or "Smiles of a Summer Night" and serve Smorgasbord. Having been brought up in the restaurant biz, I realized how difficult it would be to develop a new menu every week, retooling the kitchen and buying from different purveyors. Plus it usually takes a week or two to hone a new menu to acceptability. Of course, nowadays we have pop-up restaurants as a craze, so maybe the idea was just before its time. 

I think if my restaurant had shown "Tunes of Glory", you'd have had a problem with attendance,  with our menu of Haggis and Blood Pudding.
Rather than do that, I decided to watch this film with a tumbler of Laphroaig Single Malt in my hand (and eventually me belly). This accomplished 2 things:

  1. I got drunk.
  2. I identified stronger with those who drank. "Whiskey all around!", I shouted from my basement couch. It was the cheapest round I'd ever bought. My Bichon did not even finish her glass.

Now you are probably thinking that my inebriation might make me somewhat of an inauthentic voice; that my critique might be a bit one-sided or simply skewed. Not so, says I, not so! I believe it attuned me all the better to the goings on in the film. 

Scotsman James Kennaway, who had fought with this regiment in WWII, wrote the original novel and the screenplay adaptation. The story seems very real and the PTSD issues that Barrows exhibits are obviously based on some personal experiences or observations. I guess in those days they called it "shell-shocked". He also seems quite well informed on the everyday activities of the regiment during peacetime. Sadly, Kennaway died young from a heart attack at just 40 years old. 

There is a correlation to "Breaking Bad" here. In that superb series, you begin by identifying with Walter White, the cancer stricken chemistry professor who can't afford treatment, and decides to cook crystal meth to raise money. But as the series develops, you begin disliking him and identifying more and more with his brother-in-law Hank, the DEA agent assigned to his case. 
In "Tunes of Glory", you totally identify with Sinclair to start; he has been passed over for leadership by the higher ups simply because of his lower class roots, and the job has been handed to an officer who is obsessed with decorum and detail.  As the film unfolds, you begin to realize that the ruddy Sinclair is self-serving, and wholly devious, while the stick-up-the-ass Barrows is a man whose entire life has been aimed towards running this regiment, a place wherein he grew up having been a legacy. 

When you realize that Barrows is a former P.O.W. who was tortured, then you see why his veneer is so thin. He becomes increasingly disturbed as the story progresses, and you start feeling for him. When Sinclair hits the young Corporal whom he has caught at a pub with his daughter, he becomes a despicable drunk, out of control without any limiter. When the Colonel agrees not to pursue a court martial, and Sinclair states that he won't regret it (even though he obviously WILL regret it),  your allegiance has switched completely. 

Both characters are warriors who have been damaged by war, and who need a battle to feel like they are living. There is a great scene, when Sinclair's old flame comes by to rev up his engines in the face of the possibility of a court martial, and she reminds him of what a fierce man he can be. The flames are fanned, and you know he will fight for his status, and try and disarm Barrows. 


Ronald Neame, veteran actor's director, shot the film with a static camera, not letting any tricky film style interrupt the proceedings or the performances. The result is very much like watching a play. The castle where the regiment is housed was shot for establishing shots only. Everything else was at Shepperton Studios. There is no cutting on action, only after camera movement has ceased. 
Is this a detriment, or a smart move on the filmmakers' parts? Truly you are seldom distracted from the story and dialogue, and you do get very drawn in.  But there are times when it would be nice to have something interesting to look at besides men in kilts. One great shot early on of Susannah York as Morag Sinclair, has her slip from shadows in to light as she spies from outside the proceedings of Jock's last night as C.O. party. What kind of a name is Morag, anyway? Did they play Scramble with Margo?

More often it is sound, not image that makes it's way into the proceedings as a director's device. When the guilt of what Sinclair has done to Barrows begins to unravel him, he hears a horrible whining hum in his ears. This guilt takes on a MacBethian touch when he begins to wash the blood off of his hands, and states that "it's not the body that worries me, it's the ghost". 

Later, when he is organizing the parade he will commission to honor Barrows, the Pipes he describes are heard hollowly in his head (and ours).
Ahh yes. The pipes. Those nasty, nasty instruments of whining, droning atonality.
My all-time favorite music joke goes like this:
Q: What's the difference between an onion and a bagpipe?
A: Nobody cries when you chop up a bagpipe.

If there is a drawback to the film, it is those damn pipes. Yes, it helps provide a sense of place and history. But really! Through the whole damn film? Enough!!! 


Guiness was at first offered the role of Colonel Barrows, which is not surprising, since you know he can play the nervous upper crust type so well. His slit-eyed, bellowing version of Sinclair is spot on...he's got the accent and demeanor down. Nobody disappears into a role like Sir Alec, unless it's maybe Dustin Hoffman or Meryl Streep.  I was wholly correct in thinking that his work in this film is the main reason to watch it. 
The choice to cast John Mills as Barrows was a bit off the beaten path. He usually played lower class types ( see my OSL on "The Rocking Horse Winner"). If not wholly believable as a man with an early version of PTSD, he is certainly true to the image of a high born scion of a military family. 

The supporting cast runs the gamut of brilliant to meh. On the brilliant side is Duncan Macrae as the Pipe Major. I find it difficult to explain what makes "Pipey" such a unique and memorable character. I am certain, that if you see the film, you will be in total agreement. Suffice to say that Macrae gives his role an excess of realism and humanity. Also exemplary, and for the same reasons,  is Gordon Jackson as Captain Cairns, the officer assigned to Colonel Barrows. Jackson later had a major role in Neames' most famous film, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie". 

On the meh side, sadly, is Dennis Price as Sinclair's best friend and drinking buddy Charlie Scott. He plays the role without even a hint of Scottish accent, and this could be on purpose. He had always been cast as the privileged person he was, and this seems incongruous with the part. Regardless, he plays what is a pivotal role in the story with about as much emotion as a Buckingham Palace Guardsman. He does say the Brit upper crust familiarity "Old boy" about 200 times.

Susannah York's first feature role is also a bit underwhelming. This may not be her's not a terrible layered character, and she completely disappears from the proceedings after her father strikes her suitor. 


There are obviously critics who revere this film; it is in the Criterion Collection, after all. I don't hear it referred to as a highly respected and imitated Military film, but there are obvious influences on later movies, particularly "A Soldier's Story" and "A Few Good Men". It is wholly worth watching for the phenomenal work of Sir Alec Guiness, and the very real and continuing issues of PTSD and "Old Boy" favoritism. It is a fun watch, but maybe not as great as I remember. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭

Friday, April 11, 2014

"The Brother from Another Planet" (1984) Dir- John Sayles

Here's the pitch: Starman meets The Fugitive. Whaddya think? No? 

How about E.T. goes to the ghetto? Tagline: "I'll be right here, muthafucka!"

Sayles is an Auteur with whom I've had a very up and down experience, and some of those ups and downs were in the same film. In case you've forgotten, it was my revisiting "Baby It's You" that inspired this blog. I am a big fan of "Eight Men Out", and of "Lone Star", "Passion Fish", "Sunshine State" and "City of Hope". I'm not so high on "Lianna", "Honeydripper" and "Casa de los Babys". 

I did very much enjoy "Brother from Another Planet" when I saw it during it's first run in the theaters. I felt it was original and powerful, and that its star, Joe Morton in his first lead role, was phenomenal. I was certain that he was on his way to becoming a marquee actor. Well, THAT didn't happen. He has had a long and varied career, but pretty much always in supporting roles.

The film's immigrant allegory appealed greatly to me, and Sayles' wry sense of humor coupled with the emotional and stressful situation that The Brother is in gave the film a lot of depth. The decision to make him mute helped give the character some additional purity and innocence. You do strongly identify with this alien almost as much as you do with E.T. and Klaatu; aliens who turn a sharp mirror on us and our society. We need to be better, dammit!

I'm expecting to not be disappointed when I watch this film again. I think its subject matter is even more appropos of today, with all of the debates in this country and all over the world about immigrants and their rights. 

After re-watching:

"I'd rather be a cockroach on a baseboard up here (Harlem) then the Emperor of Mississippi." -Fly


An alien ship crash lands in the New York City harbor, near Ellis Island. The surviving alien (Joe Morton) looks like an African American, with the exception that he has three large toes on each foot. It turns out that he is a fugitive, who is being pursued by two other aliens, caucasians dressed in black (John Sayles, David Straithairn). The alien has powers to heal both organic and electronic entities. This, along with a very strong empathic streak, helps him survive and elude his pursuers.


"The Brother From Another Planet" works on a lot of different levels. It is primarily an allegory, although maybe not the allegory I recalled. It is more reflective of the story of the escaped slave, the Underground Railway utilizer. In case you missed this analogy, Sayles takes us into a Harlem museum, wherein there is a drawing of a runaway slave being pursued by dogs. The Brother points to the slave, and then to himself; wordlessly explaining to the child he is with (and to us) that this is his plight.

Imagine how difficult it must have been for a person raised in captivity to find themselves a free man in the North, having to make their own way and find employment, a place to live, skills that would help them survive off the plantation. He/she can't read, never handled money, has zero education. All the while, this freeman must deal with the constant fear of being sent back into slavery by Blackbirders. This is terrifying. What's even more profound, is that this situation is far preferable to remaining a slave. 

"The Brother..." is also a story of how an outsider can have the perspective to see the roots of a problem. The Brother's empathy helps him to understand that the drug situation is a major cause for the iniquities of the ghetto. He feels that sharing that empathy with the wealthy drug purveyors will help stem the flow, and takes it upon himself to do so. 

Heavy stuff, right? Especially for a flick named "The Brother From Another Planet". With a name like that, you'd think that the movie would be a soulful version of "Earth Girls are Easy", not an allegorical exposition on the state of racism in the latter part of the 20th Century.

 And yet even with all this gravitas, "The Brother..." is a great comedy. It made me laugh out loud multiple times. And it wasn't  just "fish out of water" fact, that is the least of it. 

Here's an example:
When the Men in Black, the two white aliens chasing The Brother, track him down to a New York City Social Services office, their attempts to get information is deluged in a sea of red tape. They are inundated by forms and requests, and their response is to run out of the office immediately and dump all of the forms in the trash.

I also adored the scene when the Brother lands in a bar, and the bartender and his patrons try and figure out what and who he is. Smokey, the inveterate drunk, runs a test to see if The Brother is "deaf, a wino, or crazy". The Brother reacts to a loud pop of a paper bag. Next, he spits out a sip of whiskey. Smokey walks back to the bar and says simply, "Definitely crazy."

Sayles and Straithairn doing the Men in Black are reminiscent of the Red Lectroids from "Buckaroo Banzai". which also came out in 1984, so I'm not sure if this was intentional. Maybe it was just the comic ethos of the period to represent aliens as stiff legged, super powerful nerds. AHHHHH...that's right. This is all from The Coneheads! 


Nobody is going to mistake Sayles for Terrence Malick, or Stan the Man Kubrick for that matter. He is no visual stylist, yet his films always correctly reflect the story. "Passion Fish" was a bit soft-focused to give that southern air feeling. "City of Hope" had a dingy urban edge to the imagery, as did this film. The film was shot by Ernest Dickerson, who has since become a fine director in his own right, having done many episodes of some of the top series on TV; The Wire, Treme, Dexter and Walking Dead. As Cinematographer, he has been Spike Lee's main camera guy since Lee's debut. 

There are some striking images, and some very haunting ones too. The opening scenes in an empty Ellis Island Museum are beautifully shot. Every time the Brother comes in contact with a column or a bench, he hears the voices of immigrants past speaking in some vague Eastern European language. The camera shows the cavernous hall, and the reverb heavy voices echo through the expanse. 

An inventive visual is utilized by having The Brother pop his eye out, and leave it someplace as a kind of video recorder. When he is attempting to find out the root of the drug supply, he leaves it across the street from where the dealers hang out. When he pops the eye back in, it plays in a filtered and processed manner the events that occurred.  
This leads one to wonder, what other parts of his body can he leave to do stuff for him while he's off working? 

I loved the use of sound in this movie. With our hero being mute, the sounds of other voices and the city and video games take over. As for those video games, we are talking classic '80's. I believe the word used is "vintage". What probably seemed cutting edge at the time, seems so corny and dated now. And those sounds! Wow. What counteracts this archaic theme, is the very cool steel drum centered score by Mason Daring. Sadly, the original songs are not quite of the quality of the incidental music. The Brother's love interest, Malverne (Dee Dee Bridgewater) sings an absolutely TERRIBLE song that sounds like it was written in 5 minutes. It's almost as bad as that piece of garbage by U2 that they sang at this year's Academy Awards. No reflection, by the way, on Ms. Bridgewater, who is a fantastic vocalist, and who made the crappy song sound much better than it deserved.  


As I said before I re-watched, Morton's pantomime job as The Brother is one for the ages. He conveys so much meaning and emotion with just gestures and expressions. His timing is immaculate, and that is true for both comedy and pathos. He conveys an air of innocence at the same time as a great sense of maturity. I see now why I thought he was going to be huge. One of the great comic moments comes when two midwestern white guys get lost in Harlem, they stumble into our bar, and sit next to The Brother. Trying to make small talk, they ask him where he's from, and he gives them the same answer he gives to everyone; he shrugs and points up. Like everyone, they don't get that, so they follow by getting to ask what they really want to know, where the Subway is. He pauses, then points down. Timing!

The supporting roles are all pretty solid, with the exception of the white collar drug lord, who is totally unbelievable. The best of the acting is by the barroom ensemble, especially the two older guys, Smokey (Leonard Jackson) and Walter (Bill Cobbs).  Cobbs you've seen a million times; he is one of the great "that guys". Jackson, too, is someone you know; I remember him as Basquiat's father. Dee Dee Bridgewater does a nice job in her love interest role, playing a Mary Wilson type on the downslope of a once great career. There are also early cameos by Fisher Stevens and Josh Mostel, two Showbiz legacies. Stevens' little turn as the card trick artist on the subway is fantastic. 


Sayles' films can become dated, no question. I was really afraid that would be the case with "The Brother From Another Planet". In some ways it was true, particularly all the video game stuff, and also some of the jive talk. But the main theme, the lead performance and the comedy seemed to have enough freshness and clerverness to withstand the decades (30 years!). Let's also not forget how gentrified Harlem is now. It's hard to recall the neighborhood it was in the '70's and '80's. Trust me, I remember it well!

On First Look: ✭✭✭ 1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

“THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT” (1945) Dir- Raoul Walsh

A Special New Year’s Edition of On Second Look!

What I remember:

When I was a kid, this movie used to show on one of the local New York channels every New Year’s Eve. Right after the ball would drop, I remember flipping through the stations, and this movie would come on. Most of the time I would watch the first 15 minutes or so, and then go to bed or watch something else. However, one year I decided to watch the whole thing, and I liked it. I was probably 11 or something.

Back then, my New Year’s Eve routine would be to go over to my cousin’s apartment, blow up water balloons and drop them on the best-dressed people we could find from his window. I am still amazed we never went to jail. OK, maybe that’s not true. But I am amazed that we weren’t made to go to bed without supper, or whatever punishment was in vogue back in the Mesolithic era. By the way, this was never my idea….I didn’t do things like that. I was way too much of a coward. My cousin was a year older than me, much smarter, richer, bigger and stronger. If he said do something, I did it. I admit that this criminal activity was hysterically fun, so I cannot act like I was the little angel in this scenario.
Anyway, after terrorizing and occasionally drenching Manhattan’s well-to-do, I would amble the few blocks back to my place (carefully avoiding the area under my cousin’s window), and watch the last few minutes of the year tick away. When I finally had enough energy to watch the entire movie, it was kind of the perfect brainless comedy for my state of mind. As I got older, the only thing I ever heard about the movie was that its star, Jack Benny, never made another feature film afterwards, and that it was such a huge box-office failure that it became fodder for his self-deprecating routines for years.

I’ve had this on DVR waiting for the right time to watch for over a year. I finally got around to it today, New Year’s 2014. 48 or so years later. What do I remember? He plays the trumpet. He has to blow it at midnight. It’s all a dream.

After re-watching:

“Are you diggin’ this cat? He’s gonna ‘manage’! So your boots are laced, Junior? All reet, all reet, all reet!” Trumpeter in the “Slippy Tompkins and His Twelve Tom-Cats” band.


A trumpeter (Jack Benny) in a radio show big band falls asleep during the lengthy ad for Paradise Coffee (“The Coffee That Makes You Sleep”), and has an extended dream. In the dream he is an angel named Athanael who is charged with blowing the special horn that will destroy the Earth. He must blow it exactly at midnight. Upon arriving at Earth he encounters two fallen angels who try and derail the plan, since they are enjoying the material goods available, aka living the high life. Athanael fails in his first attempt, but gets another chance. A different angel, Elizabeth (Alexis Smith) comes down to help, but things get a little mixed up when a jewel thief is hired by the fallen angels to steal the horn.


I guess if there’s a moral here, it’s don’t fall asleep on the gig.

A quick personal story:

The weekend after my daughter was born, I had probably had a sum total of 5 hours sleep in 4 days. I had a lunchtime wedding gig, and at one point in the 2nd set we started the song “Sea Of Love”, which is a standard 12/8 moldy oldie. The 1st measure is G, and my part, the keyboard part, has me hitting that G chord 12 times in the measure. Then the next measure changes to B7. I fell asleep about halfway through measure 1. When the band switched chords, I continued to play the 8th notes, but didn’t switch chords. OUT COLD, but still playing. The guitarist subtly smacked me in the head with the neck of his Telecaster.
I did not dream that I was an angel.

Jack Benny was born Benjamin Kubelsky in Chicago, but really grew up in suburban Waukegan, Ill. I can only imagine how sleepy Waukegan was in the early 20th Century. He did get his start in Vaudeville, but it was as a violinist. The story goes that Minnie Marx, mother of the greatest comedy team the film world has ever known, discovered him. He began doing comedy when he was playing for the troops in WW1, and they started heckling him. His defensive ad-libs showed a talent for comedy, and this led him to add it into his act. Eventually his comic routines pushed the musical part of his act to the side. I really credit Benny with the popularization of self-deprecating humor. He certainly was a master of it.
His character in “The Horn Blows at Midnight” is pretty bad at trumpeting, that’s made clear. Somehow, he’s gotten the gorgeous harpist to like him. Once in the dream, he continues to be incompetent, and yet even in the dream, the harpist, now an angelic secretary, still likes him.

The dream borrows from “The Wizard of Oz”, in that all the characters from the radio show appear in different roles in the dream. The producer/director is the angel chief, the composer is the jewel thief, the two other trumpeters are the fallen angels, the bassist is the tough guy, etc.
Speaking of borrowing, it’s a good thing Benny and the Marxes stayed good friends, since he outright steals a line from Groucho: “If I held you any closer, I’d be behind you”. The film also borrows longtime Marx player Margaret Dumont, in her typical dowager role.

There’s not a lot of originality in the script. Most of the laugh-out-loud moments are physical. There’s a ton of fish out of water jokes, especially when Athanael does an on-the-job audition with a jump band. He has no idea what’s going on, and when he takes his solo, it’s about as square as you can imagine. While kids are Jitterbugging away, he begins his solo, and they stop dancing and start booing.
This would be in contrast to today, wherein the squarest guys are the most successful. For God’s sake, don’t swing or play an extended harmony. I thought we were supposed to get more and more sophisticated with each generation.
OK, sorry. I’m off my soapbox.


I covered Mr. Walsh back when I did the OSL on “The Strawberry Blonde”, so I'll get right to his style in this film.
 He really pulls out the stops in the final sequence, when Athanael is drowning in the cup of the giant Paradise Coffee Billboard. There are also some great matte shots in heaven with the humongous orchestra Athanael is in. It's fun to compare this vision of heaven with the one proffered in "A Matter of Life and Death". Both are major accomplishments for the special effects and set designers of the '40's. 

Walsh is not quite as successful in the many scenes wherein someone is hanging from the edge of the hotel roof. These shots are neither believable or particularly funny. Compared to Harold Lloyd stunts, these scenes are pathetic. Benny is simply not that kind of physical comedian. His strength is from the neck up...and his legendary timing. This set of skills is so much better suited for the small screen. 

The best physical comedy comes in the scene where sexpot Delores Moran and World class tough guy Mike Mazurki are trying to wrest the horn from Athanael. The timing and almost balletic movements of the three combined with the camera are nearly Keatonian. Moran is unsuccessfully seducing Benny, while Mazurki keeps reaching around the couch to try and grab the horn. It's been explained to all that violence against an angel will have the direst consequences, so Mazurki knows he can't just slug Benny. 

Mostly the movie swings and misses, depending on tired old jokes and situations. It's probably a combination of a weak script and a formulaic approach. 


I've already pretty much covered Jack Benny, so let's concentrate on the role players. Beautiful co-star Alexis Smith is strikingly gorgeous, and isn't given a lot to do but be the only character who doesn't think Athanael is a total loser. Moran is given a much meatier part, and from the first time you see her, you can't take your eyes off of her. She is sexy in a way that Smith is not, not just in costume, but in demeanor. Apparently she was well known for her scandalous behavior in Hollywood, much more so than for her acting. It's true that she is no Kate Hepburn, but she does just right by this part.

The fallen angels have a moment or two, especially when they get the "twinges", every half hour. Dumont has a very small part, and is unremarkable. The part of the deli waiter is stand-out funny played by John Brown, and there is also a bit part for child actor Robert Blake as his son. 

The dual role as Hotel detective and radio engineer is given a nice turn by one of my favorites from the period, Franklin Pangborn. Ubiquitous is an understatement when describing Pangborn's supporting career in comedies. Nobody plays "officious prick" better, and he is also great in befuddlement. Mike Mazurki is typical, his range is what it is. Don't cast him as an Indian, like they did in "Comanche". You don't want to hear that Bronx accent deliver the "White man speak with forked tongue" line. It comes out "White man speak wit fawk tung." Moose Malloy ("Murder, My Sweet") is much more his speed, as is this role. 


Like I said, I didn't really love or hate this movie when I watched it almost 50 New Years Eve's ago. I just wanted to recapture that time and period, you know, the way a song or a particular smell can. It didn't work. I spent 90 minutes basically wishing I had watched something new instead, or something old that had some originality about it. "The Horn Blows at Midnight" should not be considered a bomb, it's far better than that. But it is pretty unmemorable, and sadly not too funny.

On First Look: ✭✭✭      On Second Look: ✭✭

Monday, December 30, 2013

"Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1978) Dir- Philip Kaufman

Let's talk about remakes, shall we? They are rampant. They have taken over modern day cinema in a way that is almost incomprehensible. Doesn't anybody have a fresh idea? Is there any reason to expect anything in any form of art that isn't recycled in one way or another?
What's at the Cinema now? "Delivery Man" is a remake of "Starbuck". "Last Vegas" is a boomer version of "The Hangover". Many of our favorites from the past 30 years are remakes of foreign, or older films. Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hitchcock, Dickens, Phillip K. Dick, Heinlein, Kurosawa, Joyce.....these masters are constantly having their original visions rehashed and reshaped.

Obviously I have a problem with this. Recycled, retold stories bore the crap out of me. Unless, of course, you can deconstruct a story and retell it in a way that surpasses the original. Sometimes an artist retells his own tale, surpassing what he has already created. Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" far surpasses the original "The 39 Steps". Sometimes an artist adapts someone else's masterpiece, and fails. Gus Van Sant remaking "Psycho" shot by shot would be the obvious choice. Seldom, does an artist remake a classic and improve upon it. 

Yet this is exactly what happened in 1978, when Philip Kaufman decided to remake the classic sci-fi allegory "Invasion of the Body Snatchers". The original was a creepy, thinly veiled attack on Communism. Of the many films of the '50's that took on this specter, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was the one that took on the issue of individualism, or the lack thereof under a Communist regime. As free capitalists, we could all be who we wanted to be, choosing our own courses, wearing the clothes we wanted, eating where we wanted, loving whom we wanted. Unless we were black, of course. 

The fact that the original film took place in the brand new milieu of suburbia undercut this theme.  All those new, look-alike houses, driveways and cul-de-sacs screamed uniformity. This was a place where everybody could suddenly become devoid of personality, and yet you might not notice it. You know, like a Sofia Coppola movie. 

It's that confusion that the original  "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" assails. Would Communism rob us of our individuality, or would incipient Captalist planning eventually do the exact same thing? Well, my friends, look around, and you tell me! Anyone seen Times Square lately? And how exactly does it differ from your average Midwestern mall? Ok, so maybe there's better pizza.

Back to Kaufman's remake. Why do I think it surpassed the original? Truly, I have no idea why. I just remember the great performances by Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. It wasn't just the updating of the settings that rang more horrifyingly true to me, although Nimoy's EST-type cultish leader was frightening in turtlenecks and bangs. There was something about Kaufman's take on this subject matter that really got to the core of why we Americans love our freedom and individuality so much. Let's see if I still feel that way now that it is no longer contemporary.

"I just gave her something so she can sleep. Tomorrow she'll be good as new." Dr. David Kibner


Solar Wind-borne spores from outer space find their way to Earth, and form a new kind of hybrid flora which can assimilate the form of any living thing. In this way, these "spore-aliens" colonize new worlds. When humans are replaced, however, the behaviors which make them uniquely human are not replicated. As Department of Health officials Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) and Matthew Bonnell (Donald Surtherland)  recognize their friends, lovers and colleagues to be replacements, they begin to suspect the "invasion". They now must try to find a way to warn the rest of the planet while they avoid being taken over themselves.


Remember this? "Just because I'm paranoid, doesn't mean that they're not out to get me."

That '70's slogan kept popping into my head as I watched this film. I think the flag-waving of individuality and freedom we saw in the original has been replaced in this update by the fear of conspiracy, that feeling that the world is going mad, and is in the hands of madmen or worse, and that no matter how much we point fingers and scream, nobody can do anything about it. Just listen to that late night radio show "Coast to Coast" with Art Bell.  You'll hear any number of nutjobs pontificating about all sorts of drivel. Yet, if you are in the right mood, it hits you nice and hard. We all have that feeling that shit is going on all around us and that we are powerless to stop it.

This was an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" for our generation. We were never really afraid of communism, even though  our parents made such a big deal out of it. We liked the idea of "communes" and sharing.  Most of us grew up in the suburbs, so that wasn't scary at all. Just boring. 

We also grew up with JFK's assassination, Roswell, Watergate, the Cambodian Incursion, and various other lies and cover-ups. Yes, a paranoid outlook and conspiracy theories spoke to us, and depicted in this manner scared the crap out of us. 

But how did we feel about being dehumanized? About becoming a giant ant colony? I mean, this is exactly how the pod-people behave. It's not just that we lose our individuality, it's that we lose the capacity to feel any kind of emotion. No joy without pain, right?  This is interesting, for sure, but not exactly the stuff of nightmares. What is scary is the feeling that if you go to sleep, you will wake up and no longer be the person you have always been. Or worse...those that love you will no longer be themselves. This feeling pervades both films.


So is this indeed a scary flick? Damn skippy. Philip Kaufman does his best to give you gross out moments, startle moments, disoriented moments, and good old fashioned Hitchcock tension. It's quite a ride, and you feel that you are in good hands throughout. The incredibly cinematic locale of San Francisco is almost as much a character in the film as it was in "Vertigo". When our heroes are trying to avoid capture, they wander through the SF streets with the camera darting about, focusing on their legs only at times, interspersed with shots of the Tenderloin district and people on the street acting like zombies. There's a lot of convex lens usage to help with the feeling of paranoia, especially when Matthew is trying to get through the bureacratic mess and red tape to reach authorities.  Additionally the soundtrack substitutes a strange melange of sounds for music, one of which must be the sound of a beating fetus heart on know, that "whoosh whoosh" sound. 

Speaking of In Utero, the grossing out reaches its peak when Matthew falls asleep and we see the nearby pod develop his replacement body, in a reenacting birth charade that can only be described as EWWWWW! It's an extended scene that really has no letup until Matthew is woken. Like the dog-thing in "The Thing" (see my OSL on that) and the werewolf transformation in "An American Werewolf in London", it is the height of seat-squirming discomfort. The pods in the original movie aren't half as scary or repellant. 

Then, there's "the scream". The horrible, inhuman sound the pod people make when pointing out someone who has yet to be snatched. You don't hear it until almost 1 1/2 hours into the film, but it is terrifying, and, thanks to the last shot, unforgettable. 

"Alien" had a huge effect on this film and many more horror films that came after. Part of what makes a horror film so believable is how normal and real the characters seem. The writing has a lot to do with that. In "Alien" the way Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton relate to each other and their bosses is very real. This is true for later films like "Poltergeist", "The Thing" and "American Werewolf." In "Body Snatchers", the pay off is even better, since we get to see some of our players act dumb, emotional, goofy....only to be transformed into automatons. 


My first memory of Donald Sutherland was in "The Dirty Dozen", that great scene where his dopey, insane character has to impersonate the inspecting brass, and pulls off one of my favorite moments: 
"Where are you from soldier ?"
"Madison City, Missouri, sir!"
"Nehhhhh-ver heard of it."

And of course the classic: "Very pretty, Colonel, very pretty. But can they fight?"

This set the stage for his breakout role as Hawkeye Pierce, opposite Elliot Gould's Trapper John in "M*A*S*H". Sutherland was now squarely in the center of the cultural revolution, in fact, he became an icon. When he took on the title role in "Klute", he showed us that he was more than just a good comic actor, he had real chops. He solidified this reputation with roles for Fellini (Casanova) and Roeg (Don't Look Now). The latter is a film I consider my favorite horror film, and I think Sutherland might have won this role on the basis of that performance. 
Yet it is a very different character that Sutherland plays in this film. He's kind of a bureaucratic shit, bullying restaurants as an inspector for the Health Department. He has a crush on a co-worker, Elizabeth, who is herself cohabiting with a pod person. We've all been there; you know this person of the opposite sex that you dig is in a toxic relationship, but you also know that you might ruin your friendship by making advances. 
As the situation thrusts them together, his love for her can emerge, but there is only one scene that it is acted upon, while they are in close quarters hiding from the pods. It's awkward and brief, this kiss, but it works because they are acting upon urges that make them human. It's a way of reassuring each other that the ability to feel is still there.
Brooke Adams is not going to make anyone forget about Meryl Streep, but she is just fine in this role. The perpetual frown God gave her is always startling when she turns it into a smile.

But the great, satirical, scary performance comes from Spock. Leonard Nimoy was so thoroughly associated with the Star Trek role, I don't think any of us had ever seen him with rounded ears before this film. This part of David, the self-help guru, cultish and narcissistic, was a perfect chance for him to shed his Spockiness, and man, does it click! Somehow, he is the only pod who can effectively hide his pod nature, but the send up that he does of this kind of person is so effective that you don't care. You spend the entire film wanting to punch his lights out, even when you're not sure that he's a pod. 

The other two supporting roles of note come from Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum. Cartwright is a veteran role player, and this part suited her well. She has subtle comic timing, and did a great job getting freaked out. Goldblum turns in a typical self-loving/self-loathing turn, with his usual frenetic paranoia paying off perfectly to both comic and tragic effect. His exclamation of "Screw you, pods" became a household phrase for me at the time. 

Of note are two cameos from the original film: star Kevin McCarthy revisits his famous last lines from the '50's version by pounding on the windshield of a car and yelling "They're here!" Also, original film director Don Siegel shows up and plays a cabbie who identifies our heroes as human.


Philip Kaufman's take on a classic sci-fi drive-in scare fest turned up the scare a notch, and shed a bit of the allegorical claptrap just enough to make a fun thrill ride exactly what it should be. Fun! Thrilling! No, it's not a contender for the AFI top 100 list, but when it comes to MY list of best horror, it's near the top.

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2      On Second Look: ✭✭✭1/2

Monday, November 25, 2013

RIVER'S EDGE (1986)- Dir:-Tim Hunter

What I Remember:

I guess if you had to put this film in a genre, you'd call it Neo-Neo Realism. And with Keanu Reeves in a starring role, Neo-Neo-Neo Realism. GROAN.

When I was a kid, Channel 5 in New York City used to run this sounder right before the late night news that went thusly: "It's 10:00. Do you know where your children are?" I often wondered what kind of parents didn't know where their kids were that late at night. Well, of course, I grew up and found out that many times, it was MY parents. Don't get me wrong, I was never out doing anything more nefarious than hanging out with my friends and smoking a J or listening to music. I had friends who did much more wild stuff, like scoring heroin, or tripping their balls off, or other "bad kid" activities. This was the early '70's. At this point, I think Channel 5 had given up. If they could have run the sounder, it would have been; "It's 10:00. We know you don't know where your children are." Or, "It's 10:00. Do you know how high your children are?" "It's 10:00. Time to stop giving a fuck where your children are."

I remember very little adult supervision or presence at all in this film. In fact, the main adult presence was a certified pervert, played by the man who seemed to have cornered the market in this type of character portrayal, Dennis Hopper.

"River's Edge" seemed to be about a generation of kids that had no moral compass whatsoever. Don't forget, this was the first "Sesame Street" generation. They were reared with a doctrine of love, tolerance and understanding--only to see it ripped apart by reality. Their fall from innocence was much harder than it was for us Baby Boomers, whose childhood during the turmoils of the '60's prepared us well for life's iniquities. Coming of age in the '80's, they took to heart what American suburban society was showing them....self-interested greedy adults and their hypocrisies. No wonder they rejected the "Pretty World" image so forcibly.

But the kids in "River's Edge" did indeed care about something...each other. They cared so much, that when one of them kills another, they try to protect the killer. But what of the victim?  That was the conflict presented in our movie, personified by the over-the-top Crispin Glover and the under-the-bottom Keanu Reeves. I seem to remember that this was a great antidote to all the "Brat Pack" cutesiness that we were being force-fed at the time. The film was based on a real story, and despite it's indulgences, had the feel of being a real story. The film came out three years before "Drugstore Cowboy", and, I think, was a direct antecedent to that great movie and all those other fantastic Gus Van Sant works about growing up wrong; "To Die For", "Elephant", "Paranoid Park".

 "River's Edge" basically started a genre. No....that was "Rebel Without a Cause". I guess "River's Edge" resuscitated a genre.

After re-watching:

"My leg was right out in the middle of the street. I remember lying in the gutter and bleeding and shit, staring at my leg, right next to a beer can. And I remember thinking, that's my leg... I wonder if there's any beer in that can."- Feck


A High School girl is strangled by her boyfriend John (Daniel Roebuck). When John tells members of his clique, Layne (Crispin Glover), their leader, proceeds to try and help him cover up the murder. Even though the victim was also a friend, John's friends all seem ambivalent about whether they should help him, or turn him in. They turn to a reclusive pot dealer named Feck (Dennis Hopper) to help out, yet his presence only complicates the situation. It turns out that the murderer himself is also ambivalent about his plight. When Matt (Keanu Reeves) finally alerts the authorities, his delinquent younger brother (Joshua Miller) decides to exact revenge.


Disaffection. Distopia. Disillusionment. Disgust. Disdain. Despair. But most of all, dysfunction. Absolute dysfunction.

"River's Edge" is a portrait of dysfunction, from the top down. Parents, kids, schools, country. The kids have almost no supervision, and seem to come and go with total impunity. They buy beer, listen to Death Metal, smoke weed in their homes right in front of their parents ( who are also potheads), they drive around at 12 years old.
The most troubled of all the kids is the youngest, Tim. He always wants to ride with the older kids, score some pot, and generally be as delinquent as possible. His prepubescent, androgynous visage comes in huge contrast to this personality. The film begins with some ridiculously heavy-handed symbolism.Tim throws his little sister's doll from a bridge and into the river. Right afterwards, he hears the howl of John and can see the naked corpse of Jamie right behind him on the riverbank. Leaden as this may be, the idea that the girl's human life means as much to these boys as the doll is central to the film's ethos. This is a generation devoid of emotional connection. 

Screenwriter Neal Jimenez had heard about a murder in Northern California that inspired this story, and based many of the characters on his high school friends from Sacramento. The leader of this group, Layne, is a mixed up, volatile sort, who presents the arguable logic that the victim, Jamie, is dead and nothing can be done about her. But the killer is someone they need to protect. At one point he goes on an anti-communist rant, full of moral platitudes, unaware of how immoral his role is in sheltering a murderer. Other than Layne and Tim, both full of hypocritical righteousness, all the other players are ambivalent or simply detached. This puts the film at a distance from the viewer, on the one hand, but on the other provides a very nice change of pace from the typical teen fare, especially those brat-pack vehicles of the '80's.


Who is this Tim Hunter of which you speak? Is he Tab's brother? Should we worry that he shares a name with the fratricidal tween in our movie? A quick (and I mean QUICK) foray into the IMDB cave shows that he directed just a handful of features, but has been a prolific TV director on some of the best shows in the last 20 years, including Mad Men, Nip/Tuck, Dexter, and yes.....that most hallowed of hallowed: Breaking Bad
So, does "River's Edge" resemble top-drawer TV, or a nightmare After-School Special? Actually, both. From a visual standpoint, Hunter captures the squalor of small town America, and some of the natural beauty. There are lots of shots of the naked corpse, clouded eyes and all, and some almost lustrous shots of a young and striking Ione Skye as Clarissa. Visually, the tone is right. Sadly, a director's job also entails getting the best from his actors, and that really doesn't happen here. 
The film is devoid of those huge, memorable moments. There is a scene where John and Feck are back at the scene of the crime, discussing the relative merits of their respective killings. You see, Feck also killed a girlfriend, but not out of anger. (In your best Dennis Hopper, people) Because he loved her, man! They are obviously both very disturbed, and the exchange helps you understand why they are connected, and what makes them different. John begins fiddling around with Feck's gun, and worse yet, with Feck's inflatable doll girlfriend, and you think there will be this huge confrontation.  It happens, but off camera. You hear the gunshot from Matt and Clarissa's vantage point, sleeping bags in the park. I think that they probably thought that would be effective when writing the script, but it really takes the most dramatic moment of the film besides the climax and deadens it.


Aye, there's the rub, lads. There's the rub. Daniel Roebuck is fine as the psychopathic John, and Hopper does his best to keep his run of nutjobs and addicts going. Other than that, the acting in this movie is atrocious. I mean really, really bad. Leonard Pinth-Garnell should introduce this baby on SNL.

Let's start with our two main characters, portrayed by Reeves and Glover. In my "Before" section I mentioned that they were respectively under-the-bottom and over-the-top. Good call, Wayne. More like River Deep Mountain High. More like Marianas Trench and Mt. Everest. 
Good Lord, just a touch of subtlety on either end would have done so much good for the film. Even in his fight with Tim, Reeves' Matt stays reserved and quiet. When it's over, he says a few choice words, but it's still pretty dead. Conversely, Glover chews so much scenery they should have scored his scenes with Pac Man noises. His speech and movement affectations are almost like he was dubbed and hanging on marionette strings. There are literally cringeworthy moments. Also pretty terrible is Miller as Tim, who really is way out of his depth. His performance makes a character that is already a bit of a stretch into something so unbelievable as to be satire. 
The girls are a bit less egregious. Although their reactions to the murder are a bit hard to digest, they at least have the remnants of believability. Clarissa flirting with the home room ex-Hippie teacher is unconvincing, and has no relevance to the story. Skye was never really great, but she had some memorable roles, in particular her iconic Diane in "Say Anything". She is quite beautiful, but as we have seen with Keanu, looks can only get you so far.


This one has got to go down as one of my biggest letdowns of the series. I found it at times very difficult to watch, and at other times, just laughable. Like "Where's Poppa" the thing that really appealed was the freshness, the edginess of the movie. In both cases, compared to films in their genres from the last 20 years, they seem just plain stale and dull. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭1/2        On Second Look: ✭✭

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

“Mon Oncle D’Amerique” (1980) Dir- Alain Resnais

What I Remember:

Hoo boy. Here I go, babbling on about psychology again. This time it’s Behaviorism, the psychological principle that conditioning is the cause of much of our behavior, both normal and aberrant. This theory comes in handy if you want to blame your parents for everything, as many in my generation are wont to do.
Our parents were maybe the most traumatized generation in the past few centuries, thanks to the double childhood/teen whammy of the Great Depression and World War 2 to deal with as they grew up. This conditioning caused them to overreact and try and make everything wholesome and wonderful in the ‘50’s for us Baby Boomers. It turned out that this was a big mistake. When we realized how hypocritical that was, we spit out the pacifier.
So yes, behaviorism made sense to our generation. Yet it is not cultural behaviorism that this film represents, but individual. Or is it? Honestly, I can't remember what was the theoretical basis of “Mon Oncle D’Amerique”. I recall that we follow three different people, all of whom are facing a crisis, and that the film intercuts their actions and reactions with a scientist and laboratory rats who represent the same kind of behavior. This would seem contrived, but in the hands of a genius like Resnais, I remember it as both riveting and very moving.
Alain Resnais is perhaps the most oblique auteur this side of Michael Haneke. “Inscrutable” would be the first word that comes to mind when watching “Last Year at Marienbad” or “Hiroshima Mon Amour”.  I recall that “Mon Oncle D’Amerique”, while not exactly being “Rambo”, was also a bit more intelligible than some of Resnais’ earlier work.
This film also marked my introduction to the great French actor Gerard Depardieu, who had previously been in International hits “Get Out Your Handkerchiefs” and “1900”, neither of which I had seen yet. Subsequently he appeared in Truffaut’s “The Last Metro:, and famously in “The Return of Martin Guerre” on route to being a world-famous star.
I waited patiently for this film to show up in Netflix either streaming or DVD, but to no avail. I finally broke down and bought a copy. Just for you, my fair readers! Good move.

After re-watching:

“I thought happiness was something I had coming to me, like an inheritance from an uncle in America”--Janine
“America doesn’t exist. I know, I lived there.”—Jean


Three people from very different backgrounds find their life stories intertwined, and all face a crisis regarding either their love lives or their careers. These stories are also intercut with the theories of Dr. Henri Laborit, who posits that societal and individual conditioning causes unhealthy response to these types of crises. Wealthy, privileged Jean (Roger Pierre) is a successful Radio producer with political aspirations, which get sidetracked when he meets a young actress named Janine (Nicole Garcia). They start an affair which breaks up his marriage. Meanwhile Rene (Gerard Depardieu) is asked to change jobs which pits him under much pressure and causes him to be separated from his family.


I was right to be confused about whether the target of Laborit and Resnais was individual or societal malady. It is both, we find out, as the film wraps up. Laborit and his theories are the focal point of this film. I am not as versed in behaviorist psychology as I probably need to be to fully understand him, but that’s not necessary to be moved and informed by "Mon Oncle d'Amerique".
All three stories are familiar to an audience: a loveless marriage, a wayward career, parental disapproval, societal and personal stress. Indeed, though we are constantly getting the science treatment, we are also very caught up in the stories. It is a sugar coated pill that Resnais presents to us. He gives us plot and character development, beautifully acted and scripted. What we don’t realize is that it’s all part of the experiment; the scientific study. If you had to watch two hours of Laborit babbling on about conditioning, you would tune out 20 minutes in. The genius of Resnais is to give us these universal stories to illustrate, and Laborit shows us how certain situations cause aberrant behavior.
As you watch, you start to think, “now hold on a minute! We are not all rats in a cage! We have more than our basest instincts to rely on. We have reason! We have free will!” Of course, that’s what they want you to think. This movie convinces you that you are still acting and reacting based on childhood training and trauma. Only the most enlightened of us is able to transcend this. Being aware of it is the first step. 

But what of Nature vs. Nurture? Separated twins with completely different parents grow up to both be firemen, or both be horse trainers. And apparently, it doesn’t matter if you smoke three packs a day or eat only organic food. If your Dad had pancreatic cancer, you’re doomed. If your Mom was Bipolar, then you are probably not going to be a stable person. The answer is probably a combination of these things. The point that Laborit and his lab rats make, is that certain highly stressful situations are of our doing, thanks to our conditioning. These situations cause a lasting and deep harm to not just the psyche, but also to the body, thanks to illnesses brought on by the stress. Common knowledge now, but back in the 80's it was anything but. 
Look, if a film gets me to think on subjects as important and deep as these, then it’s very special indeed.

 What is facinating is the turn it makes at the end, when Laborit goes from micro to macro, explaining that these same conditioning influences are what cause a society to malfunction. War, genocide etc. can all be blamed on actions that we are not aware of, that our societal unconscious can be as easily polluted as our individual unconscious.
Go watch this, then follow with Haneke’s “The White Ribbon”.  That film posits the idea that a strict upbringing enforced by morally corrupt adults will turn a young generation into.....well, into Nazis! Societal conditioning indeed!


In "Mon Oncle d'Amerique", Resnais mixes a lot of different narrative techniques together, yet it never feels jumpy or confusing. The film starts with a montage of the backgrounds of all three characters, described using voice-over, with cutaways to something that looks like a giant cork board filled with images of them. Not much later he introduces us to his main character, our real-life Dr. Laborit. This mixture of documentary and fiction is seamlessly presented. When Laborit describes his upbringing in an area of France that was victimized by the revolutionary government, it feels like another character backstory. (Yes! So THIS is why he wants to take the work of Pavlov and Skinner to a societal level). There is another point where our characters tell their stories as superimposed faces over the action, taking the voice over concept one step further. 

The film smoothly morphs into a typical multi-story narrative, kind of like the precursor to films like "Crash" and "21 Grams". It doesn't  seem typical, what with the fourth story being the good Doctor butting in with his commentary that usually reflects where the story is at. The other undercurrent that is highlighted by our story juxtaposition is the story of class struggle. One character is bourgeois, one a not-to-bright worker bee, the third a child of the Proletariat. Our Bourgeois leaves his Proletariat lover and returns to his wife, so his career can advance. Our disappointed Proletariat woman becomes a Fashionista and oversees our Worker Bee, making his life miserable. Again, our two authors show us the effects of societal trauma on the world at large.

My two favorite moments are cinematic, of course. The first is when our worker bee, Rene, is threatened by someone vying for his position at the textile company. Laborit describes a lab rat experiment that ends with two rats trapped in a cage and turning violent. He cuts to Rene and his competitor wrestling with each other wearing giant rat heads over their khaki suits. It is comic and whimsical, but at the same time, quite jarring. 

The other moment I love is the concluding series of shots. A city building in somewhat a state of decay has a large 10 story tall mural of a pastoral forest scene. The camera jump-zooms in until you only see the rotting bricks of the building, and of course the immediate connection is made that no matter the beauty and power of the individual or society, it is only as healthy and strong as its underlying foundation. 


I'm not going to say that any one of the three stars has a standout performance, but they are all equally suited and well cast. My only complaint is that I'm not entirely sure what the attraction is between Janine and Jean-- the chemistry is never really spelled out, and not very evident on screen. Depardieu is very convincing in his anguish. Also the frustration and depression that Nicole Garcia shows during her scene when she realizes that Jean's wife has duped her is very convincing. Roger Pierre as Jean is maybe the least impressive of the three, but that doesn't mean that it's a poorly acted role. He is just more reserved, and plays the love-torn rich guy with suitably Waspy undertones. 

One of the interesting sidebars by the filmmakers was the assigning to each character a fandom of a famous French actor. For Jean, it's Danielle Darrieux, famed for her portrayal of Madame de in the masterpiece "The Earrings of Madame de..". For Janine it's Jean Marais, a superstar of early French Cinema, famed for his role as the Beast in Cocteau's "La Belle et La Bete". For Rene, it's Jean Gabin, actor from the anti-war classic "Grande Illusion" and "Le Jour se Leve". These are the Hepburn, Gable and Grant of France. Resnais intersperses cutaways to the character's favorite actors in quick takes representing how our characters feel at a certain moment. When Janine feels like a hero for giving back Jean to his dying wife, we cut to Marais as Bete carrying a fainted Belle back to her boudois. Again...our reactions to life's situations are conditioned. We react as our cinematic heroes reacted. 

WAIT- my cinematic hero was Zero Mostel! Does that mean I react to everything by either yelling, cajoling or mincing around like a buffoon? Don't answer that.

The supporting cast is actually quite a standout collection- especially the two wives. Nelly Borgeaud as Arlette, Jean's wife, is very convincing. But even better is Rene's wife played by Marie Dubois, who I remember as Jim's girlfriend, Therese, from Truffaut's "Jules and Jim". She truly encapsulates the put upon wife, widow to her husband's job, but still very sympathetic.


When you see one of those lists with the 100 greatest films of all time, sadly "Mon Oncle D'Amerique" is never on it. I don't get it. It has all the right requirements. It was made by a respected auteur, it is a powerful thinking man's film, it works as drama and documentary, it is highly original, and very influential. At the Cannes Film Festival it won the FIPRESCI prize, and Resnais won the Grand Jury Prize. Richard Corliss of Time Magazine rated it his best film of 1980. Why is this a forgotten movie? When critics rank Resnais films, they always default to Marienbad or Hiroshima, or maybe even the weakest of the three, La Guerre est Finie. This is a beter film across the board than those, and it deals with a very serious subject. If there is a flaw, it's a bit preachy. Otherwise, I think it's a masterpiece.

On First Look: ✭✭✭✭        On Second Look: ✭✭✭

Monday, April 15, 2013

"The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" (1976) Dir. Herbert Ross

What I remember:

It was quite a conceit, and quite an inspiration for the people behind this film to have two iconic turn of the century characters, one real and one fictional, meet and interact. The fact they they are two of my most studied characters during my teen years, made the movie irresistible.
      The Sherlock Holmes stories were one of the few series that I read cover to cover; they were my Harry Potter. The Freud texts were far too difficult to wade through as a teenager, but I did read some books and articles bout psycho-analysis, and was fascinated with the detective connection. 

The similarities found in the Freud/Holmes pairing are unmistakeable. Both characters use logic, deduction and intellect to decipher the clues at hand. Both are usually in life and death scenarios. Both spent a good deal of time fighting superstitious colleagues and religious mumbo-jumbo. Both doggedly knew they were right at all times, in spite of much evidence to the contrary. And, both had a history of drug usage; cocaine, to be exact. 

The fact that they never inhabited the same world really shouldn't be a big deal, now, should it?

Well, with me, usually it would be a HUGE deal. One of my major pet peeves is when a film violates the "suspension of disbelief" line. It's my personal DMZ. Time travel movies do it to me all the time. I enjoyed Rian Johnson's "Looper", but as soon as I started thinking about it, all the gigantic holes in the plot began to open, and suddenly I was annoyed. If something seems just impossible, I hate it. I know "Compliance" is supposed to be a real story, but I am sorry, NOBODY IS THAT STUPID. And if they are, I have no desire to know they exist, much less spend two hours with them. My friends and I used to call this "The Stupid Factor" . Your protagonist can't be stupider than you. Unless, of course, it's a comedy (e.g. " A Fish Called Wanda", "Burn After Reading"). 

No problem with the Stupid Factor in "Seven Percent Solution". These were two of history's/fiction's smartest people. But what of the Suspension of Disbelief?
 It should have kept me from the theater. But it's so well done, so beautifully acted by Alan Arkin as Freud and Nicole Williamson as Holmes that I was never pulled out of the film for a second. I guess you have to go into this thing buying the concept.

Up until this film, there had been many renditions of Sherlock Holmes, with Basil Rathbone's take being the best. It was those Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies on Channel 9 that got me into the books to begin with. There had only been one major film representation of Freud, and that was the brilliant John Huston film that was marred by the poor casting of Montgomery Clift ( see my On Second Look on this one).
I recall that Williamson lived up to Rathbone in every way, and that Arkin was vastly superior to Clift. 

In my memory, this was an inventive, clever, funny and well-paced movie that has just within the last months or so finally received a DVD version. My only copy was a VHS off broadcast version with ads and parts chopped out. Because of this, I waited until it was released to rewatch it, but it was maybe one of the first films I wanted to write about. Why is it not considered one of the greats? It's in my top 25. Let's see if it stays up there!

After re-watching:

"Beyond the fact that you are a brilliant Jewish physician who was born in Hungary and studied for a while in Paris, and that certain radical theories of yours have alienated the respectable medical community so that you have severed your connections with various hospitals and branches of the medical fraternity, beyond this I can deduce little." --Sherlock Holmes

Dr. Watson (Robert Duvall) and Sherlock Holmes (Nicol Williamson) have been out of touch with each other for months. Holmes has been in seclusion, but the pursuit of his arch-enemy Dr. Moriarty (Sir Laurence Olivier) has caused Holmes to summon Watson. Upon seeing his old friend, Watson immediately surmises that Holmes is in the throes of a deep addiction to cocaine. Watson and Holmes' brother Mycroft enlist the services of Dr. Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) to help Sherlock overcome his addiction. They travel to Vienna, wherein Freud helps Holmes kick. In the process, Freud, Watson and Holmes become aware of a dastardly deed involving the abduction of world famous Soprano Lola Devereaux (Vanessa Redgrave). The solving of this case proves helpful in Holmes' rehabilitation.


Drugs are bad. Very, very bad. I find it fascinating that a film made in 1976 would be so obsessed with cocaine and its addictive qualities. The real spike in coke use was about 4 years later, when the Hippie generation started making money. 1976 was the beginning of the Disco era, and the drugs of choice were Marijuana, Quaaludes and pills. Not that I know anything about this type of recreational activity. I was a musician fresh out of college living in New York City. (Throat clearing sounds heard). 

That gifted people get involved in drug use is certainly no surprise. It is a theme found time and again in the creative arts. But in this story we have a fictional character who fights ennui with drugs, and a real person who also was addicted  thanks to his scientific curiosity. Both were gifted and creative people one might even refer to as geniuses. It seemed that in neither situation was their brilliance the cause of their addictions.

Whatever. They're users, you dig? This story hinges on the theory that Holmes' drug use, lack of interest in women, his OCD and his borderline paranoia all stem from a childhood trauma. 

Enter Dr. F! "Childhood trauma? Why, that's my BAG, baby!" With a lovely Viennese accent, of course. 

Truly, the concept is very high (like our protagonist), but the presentation is very much in the tradition of the Conan Doyle stories. Weirdly, Freud only hypnotizes Holmes throughout the film to help relieve the mental stress of withdrawal. Only near the very end does he actually attempt to discover the root of his mental imbalance, the traumatic occurrence with which he associates Moriarty. Well, duh! That had to be saved for the denouement, right? Or did it? Why couldn't this have been a more ongoing analysis, going hand in hand with the Devereaux case? Holmes solves the kidnapping, Freud solves the kid-snapping. I'd need to read the original book by screenwriter Nicholas Meyer to know if that was what the source material offered.


Herbert Ross was a curious choice to direct this film. He was known for his comedies, musicals and dance films. Actually, his dance films ("The Turning Point" and "Footloose") came after this picture, but he had done the horrendous musical version of "Goodbye Mr. Chips" and the equally nauseating "Funny Lady" beforehand. Ross had some fine comedies under his belt by 1976, in particular "Play It Again Sam", penned by Woody Allen, and "The Sunshine Boys", by Neil Simon. What a gift it must have been to direct films written by two of America's greatest comedy writers, both near or at their career peaks. Meyer's screenplay adaptation for "Seven-Per-Cent Solution" received an Oscar nomination. Plus, the cast was beyond stellar; in Duvall, Redgrave, Arkin, Olivier and Joel Grey, we have FIVE Oscar winners. Both Olivier and Williamson had played Hamlet in feature film versions, Olivier having won his only Lead Actor Oscar for that role (amazing, no?).  The film had a huge budget, and the sets and costumes were impressively accurate and stunning.

Ross---with all that going for you, you'd really have to be a talentless fool to mess it up. When I saw this in the theater, I was very impressed. Like I said, I was a fresh out of film school kid with an artsy fartsy chip on my shoulder, and I really loved this movie. I remember watching it once again on TV, and assumed that it was so chopped up and edited down to make 2 hours with commercial breaks, that the sketchiness of the plot seemed way too disjointed and flimsy.  

Now having finally re-watched the full unedited version I can report to you that....the sketchiness of the plot seems way too disjointed and flimsy. 

Just ONE of these stories would make an entire film. Holmes kicking drugs. Devereaux kidnapped. Freud analyzing Holmes' trauma. And yet it still works fairly well. The only problem for me is that most of the last 20 minutes are a wild train chase and sword fight that just doesn't do the rest of the film justice. It watches like a "Perils of Pauline" two-reeler. The only thing missing from the sequence is sped up camera work like a Keystone Cops short. Take that sequence down to 5 minutes (the way a Rathbone/Bruce film would have) and give us more mystery and solution, and the film becomes a classic, I think. Anyway, the image of Freud wielding a rifle rings ridiculous.

There are moments of sheer brilliance. The first time we see Holmes, it is through a crack of his door, outside of which Watson is awaiting entry. We see only Holmes' left eye, with a pupil that is clearly dilated almost to the rim of its iris. This is a beautiful touch. During Holmes' withdrawal delusions, we see brief glimpses of his most famous cases; the Red-Headed League, and of course, the Hound. 

The camera work reflected the style of the day in pop filmmaking. Soft focus and sepia tones were the norm, kind of the visual version of Phil Spector reverb. You can thank "The Sting", probably the biggest period piece of that era, for stylistically influencing a ton of films in the mid '70's. 

All of the sets, decor and location shots are on the highest level, not to mention the period costumes and makeup. The train chase, while tedious in length, is breathtaking to watch, particularly because of the aerial shots of the lush countryside and the antique locomotives. Sadly, the sword fight that takes place on top of the moving train between Holmes and the Viennese anti-Semitic prick who kidnapped Lola is poorly matted; the two stand out absurdly against the background. 

As for the music, it is appropriately melodramatic. There is a song, sung in the brothel wherein Lola is being held captive, entitled "I Never Do Anyhing Twice". Written by Steven Sondheim, it's racy lyrics and brashness have kept it in the cabaret singer songbooks throughout the years.


With a cast like this, it's hard to be critical. The temptation is to go overboard with praise, and I find it hard to resist. 

Williamson is phenomenal. He is the embodiment of freneticism throughout. The moment when Freud makes him own up to his addiction, is a miraculous representation of the manic retreating to the morose. I've never seen it done better. 

Duvall had yet to become the bombastic thespian we remember from "The Apostle" and "Apocalypse Now". He handles the Victorian accent pretty well, and does the narration with British restraint, Olivier has a small part, and since we know he absolutely KILLS as the heavy ("Marathon Man"), it's particularly ironic for him to play the evil Moriarty as a shy, pathetic school tutor. Redgrave has few moments, the part is quite small, but her presence is memorable. Joel Grey has a small weasel of a character to play, and does a fine job. 

The most interesting part and interpretation however is Arkin's take on Freud. The edgy, explosive comic presence we have come to love in "Little Murders", "The In-Laws", "Little Miss Sunshine" and most recently "Argo" is nowhere to be found. Instead we have a calm, intellectual and reflective take on Freud. Having also been the only Jewish actor of the three to portray Freud as a lead character in a major motion picture, (the other two being Montgomery Clift and Viggo Mortensen), he is the only one who gets that connection, and the importance of how it factored into Freud's personality, professional and personal life. It's a very different actor we watch here, one who has respect for the historical personage, but still plays him with humanity and pathos. 

The film is Williamson's, Arkin's and Duvall's to dominate, and they do a fantastic job. 


In trying to make an entertaining film, I feel that the filmmaker's Hollywood touch removes a lot of gravitas from the proceedings, leaving us with a movie that treats such serious considersations as kidnapping, drug addiction and childhood psychological trauma as bumps in the road towards a swashbuckling climax. Make no mistake, the film IS entertaining, and the performances and period trappings are first rate. Had I been in charge, I would have given Holmes and Freud more to do in the detective part, and much more analysis by Freud of Holmes' mental issues. Kudos for the great idea, and the successful casting. Too bad they felt it necessary to steal The Marx Brothers' chopping up a train for firewood stunt and some awful matte shots. Wasted footage, indeed, that would have been much better used on the personalities and mysteries. Top 25? Sorry, no. 

On First Look: ✭✭✭✭        On Second Look: ✭✭✭