Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Last Detail **** (1973)

Months ago I reviewed the Bill Murray service comedy Stripes, a fun loving ready made for 80s propaganda piece for the Reagan era.  Don't get me wrong, Stripes is a fun movie with  great gags, despite the old fashioned set up of misfits finding their way in the army.

Therein lies a decisive difference between the 70s and 80s, reality gave way to fantasy. As evidence, compare The Last Detail to Stripes.

The Last Detail written by Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby stars Jack Nicholson as career navy man "Bad Ass" Buddusky who is ordered to transfer a young sailor named Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a naval prison for a petty theft he committed.  Along with Mulansky (Otis Taylor), they show Meadows a good time before going to the brig.  Unlike the typical formulaic films of this type, The Last Detail revels in a grim sense of fate.

Nicholson's performance remains one of his best ever.  In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest he took the alienated tough guy persona further.  In The Last Detail he displayed a subtle vulnerability.  Behind all his bravado lies a building frustration with himself and society. 

The film's also a snapshot of America in the early 1970s. The counterculture's in full swing and public faith in the military at its lowest ebb.  In many ways the servicemen in the story are the new American outsiders, often misunderstood and relegated to the fringes. Nicholson, the ultimate individualist in America cinema, turns a Navy lifer into something of an iconoclast.

Supporting performances are memorable as well.  Otis Taylor's exudes toughness, stoicism, and a quiet compassion as Buddusky's fellow lifer.  Quaid displayed a painful innocence, a melancholy symbol of many young men caught up in a complicated system.  Appearances from Carol Kane, Gilda Radner, Michael Moriarty, and Clifton James are all memorable. Johnny Mandel's faux patriotic music adds a perfect touch.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Clockwork Orange ***1/2 (1971)

Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange remains potent and essential cinema. Made as a follow up to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the two films make for a perfect double bill.  If 2001 asked how humanity will survive as technology comes to dominate it, A Clockwork Orange asks how far governments should go in "curing" those it deems evil.  Kubrick's acidic satire leaves a bitter taste, contemporary reviews attest that the movie left some critics angry. Roger Ebert dismissed the film as "a paranoid right wing fantasy." Pauline Kael called Kubrick "a thick skulled German professor" who enjoyed shocking good and decent people.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell) may very well be the most unorthodox protagonist in movie history.  He narrates his story in a joyful, ironic tone.  We witness him commit atrocities in the first third of the movie, including rapes, assaults, and joyfully ingest hard drugs. Alex leads a gang of teenage "Droogs" who terrorize residents of a vaguely futuristic London. Law and order appears to have broken down and young men amuse themselves through nights of "ultraviolence." When his crimes catch up with him, Alex finds himself in prison.

While in prison Alex agrees to undergo the "Ludovico Treatmeant" to cure him of his violent nature.  In an iconic image his is strapped to a chair and forced to watch one violent movie after another until the mere thought of getting violent makes him physically sick.  The state releases him, but Alex becomes a victim  of violence since he can no longer defend himself, often at the hands of people he victimized earlier in the film.
Alex undergoes the Ludovico Treatmeant

2001: A Space Odyssey famously began with a tribe of primates who discover tools and use them to create civilization. The tools bring out their aggressive sides, but also foster creativity.  Several shots of Alex and the Droogs resemble the primates in their behavior and facial expressions.  They act on their desires without regard for the consequences.  Alex also loves Beethoven.  When he listens to the "Ludwig Van" he transcends his existence. A walking contradiction, lives like a beast and yet appreciates beauty.

Kubrick's films always deal with the dualism of humanity: to live for the betterment of the future or to live strictly to satisfy ego.  There's a deep anti-establishment theme in A Clockwork Orange, appropriate for its time as well.  What is true evil? The society that creates it, or the perpetrator of the evil.  Kubrick suggests power structures limit human potential.

Critics at the time saw a "Fascist" message in the film, the argument being Alex's rediscovery of his true self symbolized his victory over the state, thus perversely maneuvering audiences to cheer for a violent criminal. 

One does find an anti-liberal and anti-academic tone in films of the early 70s.  The onslaught of vigilante films such as Dirty Harry and Death Wish as screeds against liberal minded sociologists remain popular.  But Kubrick poses questions that went beyond politics.  How can humanity resolve its contradictions?  How do we handle the problem of evil?  What does it mean to be free?  

Whatever the politics, and they are ambiguous, the shifting tone of the film also stands out.  The first act is very exciting, violent, and provocative. The pace slows down in the second act when Alex adjusts to prison life. The third act's an intriguing remix of the first as the tone grows more satirical. The odd symmetry to the movie adds to its power.

Malcolm McDowell's performance continues to resonate.  In an age of anti-heroes, I think McDowell's acting looms above them all for its virtuosity, compensating for some of Kubrick's more self-indulgent moments.

Masked and Anonymous **1/2 (out of 4)

Larry Charles, director and co-writer of Masked and Anonymous, stated in the commentary track he envisioned a film that evokes the feel of a Bob Dylan song.  That's a worthy goal. But the final result is a mixed bag of allusions that unfortunately never gels into a coherent narrative. But there are memorable moments and great music. 

The "plot" takes place in an alternative reality where America's split into separate countries.  A complicated and bloody civil war is raging.  To rally support for the government, a "benefit" concert is to be held with jailed singer "Jack Fate" as the headliner, played by no less than Dylan himself. 

Jack is a way past his prime rocker who at one time wrote music that once resonated with people, but his words evolved into pointless artifacts of a bygone age.  There's a deep cynicism in the movie on whether "rock" music can ever change anything.  Is it all pointless nostalgia.  Does Dylan feel that way about his music?  Or just other people's music?  Who knows?

Supporting characters are symbols and motifs from Dylan's career.  Jeff Bridges (Tom Friend) is the nefarious "rock critic" trying to reveal Jack Fate as a fraud (only in Dylan's universe would a rock critic be the arch-villain). John Goodman (Uncle Sweetheart) symbolizes show business schmaltz.  Luke Wilson plays a disciple of Jack's with little to say in his own right.  Some of the scenes work and some don't.  My favorite features the characters musing on the meaning of Jack's music, a nice meditation on the subjectivity of interpretation.

Dylan's remote performance prevents the film from going beyond mere symbols and fragments. Some have suggested the movie originated from Dylan's "Desolation Row" or "Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts." Possibly.  

Like Dylan's 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, the characters are distant and meandering. Music proves a saving grace.  Watch it at least once. Non-Dylan fans beware.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Revenant ***1/2 (2015)

The Revenant is visceral on all levels.  Watching the film I swear I could feel the heat from the flames coming off the screen.  The common motifs are Earth, Air, Wind, and Fire. Just pure, brutal, cinematic story telling. Starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hardy as 1820s frontiersmen in the Rockies who come into conflict, The Revenant totally immerses you in the environment like the writing of Jack London.  Alejandro Inarritu's, who took the Oscar for Birdman last year, directed a far more superior film with amazing locations, special effects, and a heightened realism. DiCaprio, who excels at playing verbose characters who talk their way in and out of situations in movies like Catch Me If You Can and The Aviator, speaks minimal dialogue and relies on physical expression, almost like a silent performance.  He continues to boaden his range.  Hardy matches him in a performance reminiscent of Daniel Day Lewis. The beauty and ferocity of nature are present on every frame.  Yet another must see film from 2015.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Planet of the Apes: Franchise Review

From 1968-1973 20th Century Fox released five Planet of the Apes movies, all telling a continuous story spanning centuries.  The premise, from Pierre Boulle's novel. imagines an Earth where Apes have become the dominant species and and humans are reduced to servile roles.  The blend of social commentary, stirring action, time travel and other Sci-Fi elements made Planet of the Apes a groundbreaking franchise, a precursor to Star Wars and Star Trek.  Recently, I watched the originals, and while they are obviously dated and uneven, they remain relevant and well worth revisiting.

Planet of the Apes (1968)  


The saga opens with a crew of astronauts crash landing on a supposedly desolate planet over 2000 years into the future.  Led by the cynical Taylor (Charlton Heston) they quickly discover apes are the dominant species and humans can neither talk nor do any thinking for themselves.  Taylor is taken in by two kindly chimps who realize he is a gifted human.  While some of Heston's deliveries are comical, "It's a Madhouse", a Madhouse" his casting proved smart and subversive.  Known for playing heroic leaders such as Moses and Ben-Hur, and other staunch defenders of Western civilization against non-white savages, Heston found his world upside down because he is the one being hunted and exploited.  Ironically, Taylor is a misanthrope who finds himself in the position of defending humanity.  John Chambers innovative Ape makeup rightfully earned a special Oscar.  Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score plays well alongside the stunning cinematography of Leon Shamroy. Great Sci-Fi always works as allegory, and Planet of the Apes doesn't shy away on issues of cultural superiority and historical injustice.  And of course the ending remains one of the great shockers in movie history with the indelible image of fallen man before the Statue of Liberty, iconic before the word became fashionable.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes  (1970)

According to Eric Greene's book on the series, Planet of the Apes as American Myth, the early scripts for the sequel were much better than the final product.  Heston, reluctant to star in a sequel, agreed to only appear in a few scenes.  So we get a Heston lookalike James Franciscus as a replacement who is on a rescue mission to find Taylor and his crew. Beneath the Planet of the Apes lacks the focus of the original.  Human "mutants" are introduced as villains who worship a nuclear bomb.  Meanwhile a militaristic faction of Apes are determined to wage a war of extermination on the mutants.  Action scenes are shoddy with rear projection effects.  Nevertheless the final set piece in a mutant temple is strange and eerie.  Beneath ends on a nihilistic note with Taylor setting off a doomsday weapon, the logic being there is no hope so we might as well blow everything up. An odd cocktail of a sequel that works in spite of itself.

Escape From The Planet of the Apes (1971)


The third chapter traveled back to the present to provide the "backstory"of how apes took over the planet.  When Cornelius and Zira, the chimps who befriended Taylor, used his spaceship to travel back in time, they are at first greeted with kindness by the people of earth.  The first half of the film is rather light humored and satirical as Cornelius and Zira become media sensations.  In time, as they do in Apes movies, things take a grim turn.  When government officials learn apes will one day conquer they demonize Cornelius and Zira.  The production overcame budget constraints by emphasizing character development and ideas.

Conquest of The Planet of the Apes (1972)


By far the darkest film in the series and the most overt in its political commentary, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes bravely examined issues of rage and historical injustice. Set 20 years later, Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, realizes he is destined to lead an ape revolution. Humans keep apes in servile roles, obviously symbols of slavery and racism.  When Caesar's caretaker Armando (Ricardo Montalban) is murdered by the secret police (America is a quasi-Fascist state), he learns firsthand how the government brutalizes apes.  Caesar leads a revolt filmed in direct reference to the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles. The movie made a daring move by asking the audience to sympathize with rioters, their rage is completely understandable.  The questions raised in Conquest remain crucial for today's climate:  When times of change come, will people handle it with anger or acceptance?

Battle For the Planet of the Apes (1973)


The final chapter of the Apes film cycle attempted to bring the story full circle.  Set sometime after the Apes have established their dominance of the Earth after a nuclear war destroyed human civilization and the world has reverted to a primitive/non-technological existence. Caesar, still the leader of the apes, wants to live in coexistence with humans and move towards a brighter future to avoid generations of war and eventual apocalypse.  For the first and third acts there's thoughtful philosophical meditations on tolerance and how to live together in peace.  Unfortunately the middle of the movie is muddled with bloated action sequences involving the mutants and the militaristic gorillas.  Something in the script didn't quite gel. Nevertheless the last 10 minutes are moving and include a poignant final shot.  

Statue of Caesar, the final image from the original series.


Watching these five films in order,  the sum is worth more than the parts.  They speak to the time they were made and still resonate today.  Roddy McDowell appears in four of the five and really is the heart and soul of these movies: always the voice of reason and tolerance.  The first entry works as a great stand alone film if you don't want to get into the further installments.  But if you do watch all five of them, be ready for some exciting and even cerebral entertainment at times.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Hateful Eight ***1/2 (2015)

Quentin Tarantino's 8th film is a twisted Valentine to movie audiences. While the hip humor of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are absent, we do get a radical bending of the Western genre.  

The Hateful Eight pushes the envelope of what a mainstream audience will accept at the current moment with frequent use of the n word and repulsive acts of violence cajoling the audience to either walk out or laugh.  

In saying that The Hateful Eight is compelling cinema.  Every performer chews up the scenery.  There's an extreme slow burn tension.  Most of the violence is confined to the second half.  But when the violence arrives, it's unrelenting.

Set at a remote general store in the mountains of Wyoming sometime after The Civil War where a motley group of people find themselves stranded, some of who know each other.

As in his two previous movies, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchanged, historical injustice and revenge are key themes. 

The Hateful Eight distills these issues into a micro universe being swallowed up by hatred. Entropy before our eyes.

Tarantino blends Western and Horror tropes. The first half seems inspired by old episodes of Bonanza or Gunsmoke.  The second half feels more like John Carpenter's The Thing (used parts of Morricone's original score) and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead.  French New Wave existentialism also gets thrown into the stew.

All the performances are great, but Samuel L. Jackson looms above all.  Tarantino taps into Jackson's maniacal side.  He's a version of Django, but a psychotic one.  Jackson's rage often takes poetic turns, he's a Grim Reaper with flashes of "The Judge" from Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian

Kurt Russell is gruff and creepy.

Jennifer Jason Leigh spends most of the movie covered in blood.

Bruce Dern is an old confederate general.

Tim Roth an English dandy.

Michael Madsen is shifty.

Walton Goggins is a good old boy with a dark streak.

They are a jury of the damned.

Many critics have complained Tarantino's "adolescent" movies are getting tiresome.  I agree up to a point, The Hateful Eight feels slightly derivative of his previous work.   

Perhaps The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's ode to Kubrick's The Shining.  As many have pointed out, the violence and past genocide of Western Civilization is in the subtext of The Shining, only Tarantino removes the subtext.  History is ugly.

Trumbo *** (2015)

During the late 1940s the Red Scare divided Hollywood between those who refused to cooperate with HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) and those who "named names." When writer Dalton Trumbo and others refused to cooperate with HUAC they were blacklisted by Hollywood and betrayed by their friends.

Trumbo starring Bryan Cranston tells his story with finesse and astute attention to period detail, a fine historical film with parallels to the present.*

As the Second World War came to a conclusion in 1945, a fear of Soviet Union and gripped the political sphere.  A new generation of conservative and liberal politicians, such as JFK and Richard Nixon, campaigned as tough anti-communists set on stopping the spread of communism.  Nixon led the prosecution against former FDR aide Alger Hiss, a State Department official accussed of passing information to the Soviets.  In time, HUAC turned their attention to Hollywood for implanting subversive ideas into American culture.

Trumbo was part of the "Hollywood 10", a group of screenwriters blacklisted for their affiliation with the American Communist Party.  Trumbo's refusal to name names placed him in contempt and he served hard time in a Kentucky prison.  After serving his sentence, nearly bankrupt with legal fees, Trumbo had no other option but to write screenplays under pseudonyms, winning two Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One.  In 1960, with the release of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus, the Blacklist ended and Trumbo finally received credit for his work.

Cranston's performance carries the film, playing the heroic writer refusing to compromise his art. Diane Lane is a bit too good to be true as Trumbo's wife who supported him and put up with his eccentricities.  First and foremost, Trumbo was a family man whpp pushed himself to the brink to support them.  He earned income by writing hack scripts for b-movie producer Frank King (John Goodman).  Goodman steals every scene he's in, a real joy to watch he and Cranston play off each other.

Hollywood legends are also portayed: the right wing John Wayne, a troubled Edward G. Robinson, comically Germanic Otto Preminger, and a saintly Kirk Douglas.  

While a great film remains to be made about the Hollywood blacklist, Trumbo does an excellent job of telling Trumbo's story.  There's warm humor, but beneath the jokes looms a serious theme of what can happen when a supposedly free society reverts to censorship. 

I find it interesting so many films in the past year are revisiting the Fifties from Bridge of Spies to Carol.  Today we tend to look back at the decade as a time of stability and yet nothing could be further from the truth.  Today there's a super confidence in technology, evidenced by the lionization of Steve Jobs, and yet everyone's more uncertain than ever about the future.  It's easy to compare time periods and I think it's a way to feel better about the current moment.  Or maybe because the decade is so distant we can now look at it with sharper vision.

* How Trumbo got an "R" rating is completely beyond me.  It's an entertaining historical film families with older children (11+) can enjoy together.  Was it all the smoking? Some drinking?  A little profanity?  It's even more baffling The Hateful Eight managed to get an "R" rating and not an NC-17.  The fact these two movies get an "R" speaks to the ridiculous MPAA system.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Five Clunkers from 2015

These were the worse five movies I watched in 2015.

5) Black Mass - Hyped as Johnny Depp's major comeback as real life gangster Whitey Bulger, Black Mass lacks the energy of its sister film The Departed.  Depp's quiet intensity fell flat. The results were dull and forgettable.  

4) Blackhat - Chris Hemsworth is never believable as an ace hacker who gets caught up in international intrigue.  Michael Mann has directed some of the best films over the past 30 years including Manhunter and Collateral, but Blackhat is a slog.  The movie jumps from frantic typing on laptops to mechanical action sequences.

3) The Lazarus Effect - A ridiculous mash up of Frankenstein and a zombie genre among other things.  The Frankenstein genre keeps falling flat with I Frankenstein and Victor Frankenstein. Will they ever make a good Frankenstein movie?

2) Jurassic World - The latest reboot of the Jurassic Park franchise felt strained from start to finish, although it was a box office smash.  Chris Pratt lacks the wit he brought to Guardians of the Galaxy and Bryce Dallas Howard seems bored playing her character.  At least the original from Spielberg had a sense of menace and foreboding.  Jurassic World simply piled on CGI and hokey dialogue.

1) Poltergeist - The original from 1982 remains a horror masterpiece on every level.  The remake offers none of the depth I loved from the original.  The CGI effects inspired more laughs than scares. In fact the entire film has a thrown together feel.

There you have it - my five biggest disappointments of 2015.

Friday, January 1, 2016

My Top Five for 2015

Granted I saw only a small percentage of the films released in 2015, but these are the five I enjoyed the most.

5) Inside Out - Pixar packed an emotional wallop by telling a coming of age story in a truly original and moving way.  

4) Mad Max: Fury Road - Of all the films released in 2015, Fury Road most deserves to win the Best Picture Oscar.  George Miller's latest chapter in his post-apocalyptic story is pure movie making: Spellbinding action sequences blended with solid character development.  Visually stunning for every frame.

3) The End of the Tour - Based on a series of interviews David Lipsky conducted with the late David Foster Wallace in February of 1996, The End of the Tour features gripping performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel.

2) The Hateful Eight -  2015 ended with Tarantino dropping an A-bomb on unsuspecting audiences.  Bloody, profane, and pretentious, The Hateful Eight is also ridiculously watchable for anyone willing to go on the journey.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens - The most anticipated film of 2015 and for once a movie lived up to the hype.  JJ Abrams delivered the goods and got the formula just right.  The new characters are fantastic and the returning cast added a magical element. Don't get me wrong, there are flaws, but no movie entertained me more this year.

Honorable Mentions: Creed; It Follows; Bridge of Spies; Steve Jobs, SPECTRE