Saturday, April 22, 2017

Classics Revisited: Five Easy Pieces

(1970) Directed by Bob Rafelson; Written by Adrien Joyce (aka: Carole Eastman); Story by Bob Rafelson and Carole Eastman; Starring: Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Billy Green Bush, Toni Basil, Lois Smith and Susan Anspach; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: *****

“…I felt that the character that I was trying to write the movie about should be about a man who’s condemned to search for the meaning of his life, and it’s not a very happy search at that.” – Bob Rafelson (from Criterion DVD commentary)

“I move around a lot. Not because I’m looking for anything really, but because I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.” – Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson)

A great big thanks to Gill Jacob of Realweegiemidget Reviews for inviting me to participate in the Here’s Jack Blogathon 2017, honoring Mr. Nicholson’s 80th birthday. The word “iconic” is thrown around so often these days, it’s almost ceased to have meaning. In Jack Nicholson’s case, however, calling his cinematic presence iconic isn’t mere hyperbole, it’s the truth. Among the many great Nicholson performances to choose from, the one that’s resonated with me the most is Bobby Dupea from Five Easy Pieces. Director Bob Rafelson and screenwriter Carole Eastman construct a character study that’s simply told, naturalistic and personal.

Jack Nicholson paints a complex portrait as Bobby Dupea. Bobby drifts through an aimless existence as an oil rigger in a desolate California town,* where he lives with Rayette Dipesto (Karen Black), his girlfriend of the moment and hangs around with his ne’er do well pal Elton (Billy Green Bush). He’s groundless, without a moral compass or discernible purpose. Propelled by his id, he says what he likes, does what he wants, and acts on sheer impulse, with little regard for the consequences. But as we soon discover, Bobby is much more than he appears. His lifestyle is by choice, not out of necessity. He resides in self-imposed exile from a comfortable upbringing, where he showed boundless promise as a classical pianist. He’s a man who’s no wiser by the film’s conclusion, fated to repeat the same maladaptive behavior ad infinitum. It’s a testament to Nicholson’s acting skills that he portrays such an amoral, self-centered, callous individual, yet still manages to hold our attention, and yes, gain our sympathies.

* Fun fact: The first half of the film was shot in Taft, California. The second half was filmed on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.

Eastman’s script takes some detours, which don’t necessarily contribute to the plot but provide some much-needed humor and color to Bobby Dupea’s universe. When Bobby and Elton become stuck in a traffic jam, Bobby suddenly engages in an impromptu piano recital on the back of on open truck. On the road to see his family in the northwest, he picks up a pair of Alaska-bound hitchhikers (Toni Basil and Helena Kallianiotes). Basil is hilarious in her deadpan role, spouting a diatribe on man’s penchant for “crap” and “filth.” In the film’s most famous scene (much to Rafelson’s chagrin), Bobby deals with a surly waitress, attempting to talk his way around the restaurant’s “no substitutions” policy, and failing in spectacular fasion.* But in my favorite scene, which always makes me cheer, Bobby puts a pedantic intellectual and her pretentious cronies in their place (something most of us would never have the chutzpah to do, but wish we could).

* Another fun fact: In the DVD commentary, Rafelson explained that the genesis of the scene came from his tendency to make substitutions when he dines out, and the subsequent friction from restaurant servers. Additionally, Eastman incorporated a volatile real-life incident involving Nicholson, when he swept a table’s contents onto the floor at a Hollywood-area restaurant.

Compared to the blue collar world of the oil fields, Bobby’s family might as well be from another planet. We glimpse the seeds of his discord in the family house, and panned shot of portraits, a sterile environment where music – the family trade – is valued over individuality. He’s stifled by the prospect of being yet another classical musician in a long line of professional musicians. The film’s most poignant moment occurs when Bobby speaks with his mute, wheelchair-bound father (William Challee). As the result of a massive stroke, the once powerful family patriarch is a shadow of his former self, and a captive audience to his estranged son. The scene packs an emotional wallop because it’s one of the few moments when Bobby lets down his guard, and permits himself to reflect on the empty shell he’s become. At once, we see his self-reflection on a wasted life and unwillingness to change. We get the impression Bobby could still pick up where he left off, with his budding music career, but he’s a victim of his hubris, unable to stop this pointless, self-destructive trajectory.

Everyone Bobby touches seems to get hurt in one way or another. The most pathetic of the bunch is Rayette,* who hopes to tame his wilder tendencies and settle down. She can’t seem to grasp that he’s incapable of reciprocating her affection, or that, in Bobby’s mind, she’s reaching her expiration date. Their oil and water relationship is brought to the surface when she unexpectedly drops in on Bobby and his family. He enjoys a brief tryst with his brother’s wife Catherine (Susan Anspach), who sees Bobby for what he is – good for a few laughs, but incapable of establishing or sustaining a meaningful relationship. She agrees to be complicit in Bobby’s sexual conquest because he’s everything her husband Carl (Ralph Waite) isn’t – impish, playful and unstable. By far, the most functional relationship is the one Bobby shares with his sister Partita (Lois Smith). They share an unspoken bond, free from judgment or disdain.

* (SPOILER ALERT) According to Rafelson, screenwriter Eastman originally had a very different ending in mind for Bobby and Rayette. When they have their final squabble in the car, their vehicle veers off the road and sinks into a body of water, with Rayette the sole survivor.

Five Easy Pieces is one of the rare films that rewards with subsequent re-viewings, to reveal different layers of meaning. The film resonates on a personal level, as well. Having once occupied the role of black sheep in the family I can identify with Bobby’s dissociation from his family of origin. Unlike my personal narrative, however, there’s no respite or redemption for Bobby; we can only presume he’ll continue to alienate his family and make the same mistakes, leaving a trail of fractured relationships and a life without direction or purpose. We’ve all probably known someone like Bobby Dupea at one point or another, and can understand the damage he’s inflicted. A serious character study with surprising moments of levity, Five Easy Pieces is a great American tragedy.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

April Quick Picks and Pans

Gimme Danger (2016) Jim Jarmusch’s no frills documentary chronicles the rise and fall of seminal proto-punk band The Stooges, featuring archival footage and interviews with Iggy Pop and the surviving band members. The film traces Iggy’s humble beginnings in a Michigan trailer park, and covers his early days as a drummer for a high school rock band in the mid-60s. Gimme Danger allots equal time to his other bandmates, as we learn about the formation of The Stooges. Jarmusch’s film avoids the pitfalls of lesser rock documentaries, by focusing on the root of The Stooges’ music, and what made their songs unique. Instead of dwelling on the band’s downside, we get a three-dimensional portrait of the musicians and a group that was under-appreciated in its time, but now considered one of the most influential. Some favorite moments are a summation of Iggy’s songwriting ethos, adopted (believe it or not) from the Howdy Doody show (“25 words or less”), and an anecdote recounting when one of the band members allegedly called ‘The Three Stooges’ founding member Moe Howard seeking approval for their group’s name. It’s a must-watch for punk fans of all generations.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

City of Ember (2008) This blatant attempt to be the Next Big Thing in the wake of the Harry Potter franchise shows much promise, but ultimately fizzles. Director Gil Kenan and writer Caroline Thompson (based on Jeanne Duprau’s novel) set up a fascinating premise. After an unspecified worldwide cataclysm, an underground city is constructed and sealed, along with its occupants, for 200 years. Something goes wrong after two centuries, and the city begins to fall apart. It’s up to two young Ember residents, Lina and Doon (Saoirse Ronan     and Harry Treadaway) to uncover the city’s secrets, and find a way to save everyone before the generator and pipes fail. The best part of the film is its depiction of an imaginative subterranean city and its culture, which hasn’t exactly thrived as much as survived. Bill Murray is good as Mayor Cole, the self-centered leader of the dying underground metropolis. Unfortunately, many of the characters, especially the leads, are underdeveloped. The talents of other veteran actors (Tim Robbins, Mary Kay Place and Martin Landau) are mostly wasted. Atmosphere and setting go a long way to carry the picture, but it runs out of steam by the derivative, effects-laden third act.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Nightmare Castle (aka: The Faceless Monster) (1965) Barbara Steele is the main draw in this low budget Italian production, playing a dual role. Steele appears as Muriel Arrowsmith, a woman married to a cruel nobleman (Paul Muller). They live in her family castle, where he conducts a series of evil experiments. After Muriel and her lover are tortured to death by her sadistic husband, he plots to take the castle away from Muriel’s mentally unstable sister Jenny (also played by Steele). Muriel exacts her revenge from beyond the grave, using Jenny as a medium. The film suffers from corny dialogue and sub-par production values, as well as a sloth-like pace. Things pick up somewhat for the vengeful ghost-filled ending, but it’s not enough to entirely redeem the movie.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

The Greasy Strangler (2016) If nothing else, director/co-writer Jim Hosking’s The Greasy Strangler lives up to its lurid title – a guy covered in a thick coating of grease strangles people. Hosking goes out of his way to disgust audiences in every scene, featuring repulsive characters doing repulsive things. You have to admire it on some basic level for achieving its modest goals so well, but that doesn’t make the film any easier to endure. The nominal story concerns the contentious relationship between Big Ronnie, an elderly man (and greasy food enthusiast), and Big Brayden, his middle-aged son (played by Michael St. Michaels and Sky Elobar, respectively). They run a daytime tour, taking people around the city to view some sites alleged to be connected with disco celebrities. By night, Big Ronnie roams the streets, searching for his next victim. If you’re looking for something to test your gag reflexes, you’ve come to the right place. All others might want to steer clear. Hosking and crew were obviously gunning for the late-night gross out crowd with this one, but you’re better off seeing an early John Waters or Herschell Gordon Lewis movie instead.

Rating: **. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne

(1958) Directed by Karel Zeman; Written by: Frantisek Hrubín and Karel Zeman; Based on the works of Jules Verne; Starring: Lubor Tokos, Arnost Navrátil, Miroslav Holub and Jana Zatloukalová; Available on Blu-ray (import) and DVD (Opt for the PAL version, if you can)

Rating: ****

“Jules Verne was a dreamer. He was a dedicated follower of technology, but he saw through his own eyes and the eyes of his time. But with his vast imagination, he created a whole world of magical things imbued with a delightful naiveté, which charms us even today.” – Karel Zeman (from DVD featurette, “Why Zeman Made the Film)

Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman is largely unknown to modern western audiences, and that’s unfortunate. If it weren’t for my trusty Psychotronic Film Guide, Zeman would probably have remained unknown to me as well. Chances are, when we think of the film adaptations of Jules Verne’s stories, Disney’s superb version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954),* and to a lesser extent, Mysterious Island (1961) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) spring to mind. Zeman, working with a much smaller budget than his American and British contemporaries, managed to create eye-popping visuals that rivaled anything seen in those films.

* For my money, this remains the gold standard for Jules Verne adaptations.

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (aka: Vynález zkázy, or The Deadly Invention), is commonly credited to the eponymous author’s novel Facing the Flag, but it would be more honest to view the film as Jules Verne’s greatest hits. You don’t have to look very hard to find equal measures of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mysterious Island, and Master of the World. Fabulous World relies on that most venerable of narrative tools, told in flashback from the journal of Simon Hart (Lubor Tokos), a professor’s assistant, who also narrates the tale. Hart, along with his mentor, Professor Roch (Arnost Navrátil) are kidnapped by pirates and taken to a secret island base belonging to Count Artigas. The brilliant but dense Roch goes to work developing a new power source for his abductor/benefactor, thinking he’s doing a service to mankind. But he’s nothing more than Artigas’ pawn, creating a devastating weapon that can destroy anything in its path.

Story and dialogue take a back seat to spectacle, but viewers won’t likely notice the film’s deficits, with so many visual treats to behold. Zeman makes it clear that it’s the eye candy that should be front and center, not the actors. And what glorious eye candy it is. Using his black and white canvas, Zeman and crew created the look of turn-of-the-century engravings. Seeing the results on screen is to see a labor of love, meticulously hand crafted to simulate vintage book illustrations come to life. The filmmakers employed everything at their disposal,* combining live action performers with detailed miniatures, matte shots, puppetry, stop-motion animation and paper animation. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne stands apart from its western counterparts because it embraces the artificiality of the film medium. The scenes are packed with visual wonders at every turn, that never existed, but you wish they did.  

* According to Zeman, “To get my visions to the big screen, I use everything film can use, drawings, models, live action, mixed together to create a new cinematic language.” (from DVD featurette “The Birth of a Film Legend”)

The Fabulous World of Jules Verne belongs within a continuum of more than a century of filmmaking, beginning with the work of George Melies, and continuing with the German expressionists of the teens and ‘20s. Zeman owes much to the old masters, but in turn, it’s not too difficult to spot how he influenced the filmmakers who followed in his footsteps. Whether it was unconscious or by design, Zeman inhabited the DNA of many others, such as the animations of Terry Gilliam (nearly three decades before Gilliam’s version, Zeman graced the world with his own version of Baron Munchausen). It’s not too much of a stretch to see Zeman’s film in Hayao Miyazaki’s (particularly Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service and Howl’s Moving Castle) efforts, with regard to fantastic land, sea and air vehicles. The underwater scenes in Fabulous World also seem to be the spiritual ancestor of Henry Selick’s animated sequences in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). The integration of live action actors with an artificial environment serve as a template for many of the genre films that followed decades later, especially Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982) and the CGI-rendered landscapes in Kerry Conran’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004).

Zeman and his team deserve a rightful place alongside his western counterparts for changing the face of effects in films. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne is a fitting counterpoint to Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which sits on the opposite pole of the aesthetic spectrum. If the Disney film was the ideal realization of the Jules Verne universe made real, then The Fabulous World of Jules Verne is the perfect visualization of the abstract. While American films attempt to push special effects to the limit, simulating reality as much as possible, Zeman achieved the converse. The limitations of the effects in Zeman’s film are not a liability, but an asset, exploiting the surreal potential of cinema, making everything as unreal as possible.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Road Trip Month Picks and Pans

Vanishing Point (1971) Barry Newman stars as Kowalski, a former race car driver charged with transporting a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in record time. From this simple premise sprouts a kinetic, introspective film that uncovers more layers as facets of his checkered past are revealed. Kowalski blazes across the desert highway, narrowly missing the cops at every turn. Cleavon Little co-stars as DJ Super Soul, a radio personality who regards the driver as some sort of people’s hero, taking on the establishment.

Amidst the hot pursuit, Kowalski encounters strange little surprises along the way (including a clothing-impaired woman on a motorcycle). Although the film rarely stops to take a breath, the relative quiet moments remind us about the power of being in the moment. Vanishing Point is very much a product of its time, with its hippie/counter-culture undercurrent, but it reminds us how thumbing your nose at authority never goes out of fashion. Depending on how you look at it, the sobering conclusion could be construed as a rejection or confirmation of those hippie ideals.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) What is it about 1971 and road movies? The same year that ushered in Vanishing Point and Duel also saw this fine Monte Hellman-directed character study. Singer/musicians James Taylor and Dennis Wilson (in his only film role) star as a driver/mechanic team who roam from town to town in their souped-up ’55 Chevy, living off winnings from street racing. Their life takes a novel detour when they challenge a fast-talking drifter (Warren Oates) in a Pontiac GTO to a winner-take-all race to Washington D.C. for the pink slips of their respective vehicles. Laurie Bird is excellent as a young woman who vies for the men’s affections, and Harry Dean Stanton appears in a small, but memorable role as a lonely hitchhiker. It’s no coincidence that none of the characters have names (the characters are simply known as The Driver, G.T.O, The Girl, etc…). Each, in his or her way, is a sad archetype, living an aimless existence, wandering the highways, but never finding home.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Sightseers (2012) Director Ben Wheatley’s pitch black comedy is full of unexpected turns and surprises. Just when you think the film is going one way, it shifts into a completely different direction. Alice Lowe and Steve Oram (who also co-wrote the screenplay) play 30-somethings Tina and Chris, who embark on a blood-soaked caravan holiday in the English countryside. Calling their relationship an unconventional romance is a gross understatement. Tina takes co-dependency to new lengths, while Chris lives by his own dysfunctional code. Sightseers is a unique creation with a twisted sense of humor that will make you laugh and squirm in equal measures.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Dirty Mary Crazy Larry (1974) If you want to get technical, this road chase movie should have been called Dirty Mary Crazy Larry and Laconic Deke, but I suppose that doesn’t have much of a ring to it. Peter Fonda, Susan George and Adam Roarke star as Larry, Mary and Deke, respectively, who pull off a heist at a grocery store (with an uncredited Roddy McDowall as the manager) and hit the road to parts unknown. Kenneth Tobey and Vic Morrow play a feuding sheriff and police captain determined to bring them to justice. It’s all fun and games for most of the film’s running time, typified by exciting car chases and insane stunts, until the abrupt, senseless ending.  Dirty Mary Crazy Larry vainly attempts to copy Vanishing Point’s conclusion, but without the emotional resonance; as if the writers, much like the characters, had nowhere else to go.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) Here’s a real oddity – a Finnish road trip comedy, shot documentary style on the highways and byways of America. The Leningrad Cowboys, sporting huge pointed pompadours and pointy shoes, are a less than competent Russian band seeking fame and fortune. They hit the road, crammed into an old Cadillac, with their dead mate in a coffin on the roof. They play their weird mix of Russian folk, ‘50s rock and country to unenthused crowds, while their unscrupulous manager skims their meager earnings at every turn. Considering the material’s potential, Leningrad Cowboys wasn’t as laugh out loud funny as I expected (the gags are hit and miss). Even though the dialogue is mostly English, I suspect something was missed in translation. On the other hand, the film is hard to dislike, thanks to its amiable charm and skewed characters. In the end, I was glad to have come along for the ride.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (as part of a 3-disc Criterion Eclipse set)