Monday, December 30, 2013

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

What I remember:

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: ✭✭✭

Sunday, January 6, 2013

“Sorcerer”- (1977) Dir- William Friedkin

What I Remember:

This was a film that came out and closed before anybody got to see it in theaters. I mean, it was a huge bomb. I got to see this on HBO, and watched it with my Sister and Brother-In-Law. We were all astounded by how great the film was. For years afterwards, I wondered why nobody knew or talked about it.
Obviously it is poorly named, and I have a theory about this. “Sorcerer” is based on the French classic, “Wages of Fear”, by Henri-Georges Clouzot, which is itself a film adaptation of the novel by Georges Arnaud. So why the name change? This from IMDB:
“The film was originally to be titled "The Wages of Fear" from the original French film and novel. Friedkin has stated that the strange title of "Sorcerer" refers to the evil wizard of fate.”
 What the fuck? What “evil wizard of fate” is he talking about? This, to me, is total bullshit. The studio had to have talked him into the title. Friedkin was coming off two of the most famous films in recent memory, Best Picture winner “The French Connection”, and even more recently the blockbuster “The Exorcist”. Here was a film opening at Mann’s Chinese in Hollywood, that started with 15 minutes of subtitles. That’s no way to open a blockbuster! Plus, that 15-20 minute opening has zero exposition. You are thrown right into the middle of 3 stories, with no clue as to what their connection might be. No spoon-feeding here. I loved it!
I am guessing that the Studio, which had sunk 21 million (a huge budget for the time) into it, was scared of losing a fortune, and they figured if they named it something that sounded evil and mystical, people would think, “Wow, the guy who made “The Exorcist” with another scary thrill ride. Let’s go!” Then it’s 20 minutes of exposition-less subtitles, and no pea-soup vomit, and they are pissed off.
 Well, in my memory, this film was 10 times as tense and scary as “The Exorcist”, and in every way its superior. I have since seen “Wages of Fear”, which is a fine film, but I feel that “Sorcerer” is the better version.
 So if it’s that good, then why did “Sorcerer” get ignored at the time? Well, if you went to see a movie named “Sorcerer” directed by a guy famous for a horror film, and you ended up watching what resembled an art-house thriller, your word-of-mouth might be critical. Of course, there was one other factor. Maybe, just maybe, a little movie that opened the same week might have stolen its thunder. A little sci-fi joint named “Star Wars”.

After re-watching:

“Listen Pancho, I've been clocking you every second you've been in this town. If you wanna pick your nose in this truck, you better clear it with me first, otherwise I'm taking you and this nitro right into a ditch!”- Scanlon

Four men from different countries all find themselves in a South American backwater, running from the law or organized crime. The place they are in is so miserable, that they jump at the chance to earn enough money to get the hell out of there. The opportunity arrives when an oil well in the jungle gets blown up by terrorists, and the only way to cap it is with a large amount of nitro-glycerin. The explosives, it turns out, are far too volatile to be choppered in to the well, so the company hires a small detail of men to drive the material over rough terrain and deteriorating roads and bridges 200 miles to the well.

Wow. That really doesn’t sound like much of a film, does it? Oh, but it is. It is.
Let me begin at the opening of the film, which I addressed before re-watching. There are no opening credits. Big deal, right? Well it was a big deal in 1977! Shall I remind you of how “Star Wars” starts? “A long time ago, in a galaxy….”
That’s right. Music and a long expository crawl. This is the opposite of what we have here in “Sorcerer”. All we see is a Central American Indian carving, and graffiti-like letters saying the word “Sorcerer”. Then it’s “Vera Cruz”. A man gets shot in his office. Then the graphics say, “Jerusalem”. 4 PLO men posing as Israeli students bomb a bank. Only one, Kassem (Amidou) escapes. Then, the graphics say “Paris”. This story is more developed. We have a wealthy banker (Bruno Cremer) who is in deep poop for fraud, and his partner commits suicide, leaving him even further up the creek. Then it’s “Elizabeth, NJ”. WHOA! Sing along with Elmo everybody, “One of these things is not like the other”. I knew Elizabeth, and Paris is no Elizabeth, sir! I don’t even need to visit Jerusalem or Vera Cruz to know that the same applies there. More on this later. Scanlon, (finally, an actor we recognize, Roy Scheider) is one of 4 men (again!) who rob a Catholic Church, which happens to be presided over by the brother of a mob boss. They shoot the Priest, not killing him. As they get away, the car gets into an accident, and again, only one survives. At this point you are thinking, what the hell do these stories have to do with one another?

It would have been easier on the audience if Friedkin would have started the movie at the beginning of the men’s time in the South American hellhole, and have flashbacks for each character. But I feel that the way he chose was much more effective. Each successive story reveals more of what’s going on, and at the end of Scheider’s time in NJ, you understand that all 4 of these characters need to go into hiding.
Truthfully, they are all pretty bad people. The Mexican hit man, the PLO terrorist, the French spoiled white collar criminal, the petty Jersey thief. It is hard to root for them, but this is exactly what you end up doing. There’s no real character development like you have in “Dog Day Afternoon”, for instance. You solely root for these guys because of the tension and film technique. You might think, “really? I’ve seen tense movies before. Why would that be enough for me to root for the ‘70’s version of Al Qaeda to survive?” Answer; this is a level of tension unlike anything I have seen in the movies before or since. It’s a special skill to make the audience squirm this much. The last 20 minutes of “The Birds” does it. “Alien” can also get to that point. But even while re-watching, fully knowing what’s going to happen, I white-knuckled the sequences where the trucks cross those bridges.
FYI- "Sorcerer" is the name of one of the two trucks. Why trucks need names, you know like WWII bombers, I have no idea.


Friedkin obviously wanted to give this film the realistic treatment that he used so successfully in “The French Connection”. Extras and small parts were cast using native Dominicans from the location. All of the other location shoots are viscerally real. The sequence in Jerusalem in particular has a contemporary feel, and you can see the influence Friedkin's original style has had on the genre of International Intrigue thrillers. The hell-hole where they are in hiding is pretty miserable, and he makes it as awful as possible, with trash everywhere, and lots of rooster close-ups, corrupt police, trash strewn everywhere, flophouses and dive bars, etc. So, how does this differ with Elizabeth, exactly? Scanlon should feel right at home!
The heart and soul of this film are the two spectacular bridge crossing scenes. Our anti-heroes manage to take these explosive-filled jalopies across two of the most decrepit looking crossings you can imagine. The use of angles and zoom settings, the stellar editing and acting make the tension and suspense nearly unbearable. The result is anxiety akin to the bottom of the 9th of a tied World Series Game 7, with some unforgettable images; the truck tipping on the rope bridge, the tire getting stuck in the rotted wood plank,  the deadfall rushing down the flooding river, the winch buckling under pressure. 
One of my favorite sequences is when they encounter a huge tree that blocks their only path. Faced with a lose/ lose situation, they are about to give up, but the terrorist figures out that with just the right amount of nitro, they can blow up the tree. How he rigs the thing up (with an improvised timer) makes you alternately really respectful of his ingenuity, and really afraid of how easy it is for these guys to figure out a path to destruction and mayhem.
The use of music is really strange and a bit wonderful, too. The score was by Electronic Music nut-jobs "Tangerine Dream", and really sounds dated. But you must remember how very modern it sounded at the time. It predates Giorgio Moroder's score for "Midnight Express" by a full year, and Vangelis' score for "Chariots of Fire" by 4. The droning of synths and the repetitive nature of the sequenced lines are very much in line with the tension of the film. Apparently they wrote and recorded the score without seeing a single second of footage!
Then, in total antithesis to this machine music, we hear a clip of some imitation of "So What" by Miles Davis as incidental music in one scene, and in the denouement there is a moment when one of our anti-heroes dances with an old Latina barmaid to the strains of "I'll Remember April" from the Charlie Parker and Strings recordings. In the credits, there is a huge mention of Bird, which, as a Jazz musician, I really appreciated, but I found somewhat head-scratching.
Re-watching "Sorcerer" did make me notice some other pretty strange goings on, and some pretty weak moments that I did not recall. Primarily, Nilo, the Mexican hit man, is a man of mystery, with zero backstory and very little personality. When the truck he and Scanlon are in gets stopped by Guerillas, he saves the day, getting shot in the process. Suddenly he goes from self-serving murderer to courageous savior, and develops a personality of sorts. So I'm supposed to feel for this guy? 
Another weak moment is at the climax, when Scheider is in the truck and negotiating some moonscape which would have no business in the jungle. You can't figure out if he is imagining this terrain , or he's just lost. There's a lot of voice-over flashback noise, and double exposure shots. Is Scanlon going nuts from the pressure? Is the truck breaking down or lost? It's just not worthy of the rest of the trip. 
This is not a film that acting will make or break. It's good that our cast did most of their own stunts, because the dialogue is not exactly Billy Wilder. IMDB says that Friedkin intended the role for Steve McQueen, probably the top action star of that era. Steve insisted that a part be written for his then wife, Ali MacGraw, and Friedkin and screenwriter Walon Green refused. Scheider was kind of a last option, after Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood also passed. Interestingly, the DVD I watched stated that there was never any question about Scheider's being cast as Scanlon. Hmmm.
Friedkin's other top choices for the 4 men were Marcello Mastroianni, Lino Ventura and Amidou. Only Amidou took his part, the other two stating that they didn't want second billing to anyone but McQueen.  Bruno Cremer was quite good, I thought. His part was probably the meatiest, and I wonder how Mastroianni would have fared in it. 

Maybe "Sorcerer" is a bit more flawed than I recalled. I had kind of put it up on a pedestal thanks to its almost invisible status in the annals of film. Yes, it's still quite a good film, and stylistically a trendsetter for sure. But the film has its problems, and is not something that you will cherish, watching again and again. It's damn good, though, and I recommend it, if you can find it somewhere. Make sure you have your Xanax handy!
1st Look-    2nd Look-