Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) Review

4 06 2012

Copyright 1972 Universal Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors.  I absolutely adore his style, wittiness and straightforwardness in his prose, and like many others, the novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” was my introduction to him.  With the novel being held to such high regard for me personally, I was a bit nervous going into this film.  However, though slow to begin, the movie was actually quite well done.

Directed by George Roy Hill, this film sat nicely between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and his phenomenally huge success with The Sting the following year.  Michael Sacks stars as the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who becomes, famously, unstuck in time.  Like the novel, the narrative of Billy’s life jumps back and forth through his timeline with heavy emphasis on his time in Germany during World War II.  Vonnegut, himself a POW during World War II in Dresden when it was bombed, tells his autobiographical tale of the feelings he encountered and the time there vicariously through the fictitious Pilgrim.  Through Pilgrim’s turmoil during the war, his average subsequent life and, ultimately bizarre encounters in the world of Tralfamadore, we see the portrait of a man who was forever changed by the moments he experienced during the brief part of his life he lived as a soldier.

Sacks, who went on to be a top executive in the financial sector with such companies as Morgan Stanley after leaving his acting career in the mid 1980s, does a reputable job in the lead role.  His nuances playing the older Pilgrim were quite well timed in contrast to the young Pilgrim, this being especially impressive considering that Sacks was only 24-years-old at the time of filming.  George Roy Hill as a director has never wooed me to any speakable degree, but he is a solid director, and for that I laud his talents more than someone who tries to thrill you with each and every shot like Terrence Malick.  A director’s job is to select the shots and direct the actors to performances that best suit the story; Roy Hill seems to pass this test with flying colors in each and every one of the films of his I have seen.  Some of the best magic is that which tricks, but doesn’t overwhelm the eye.  The cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek was very pleasant.  Tinged with the grittiness of early 1970s experiments in faster film stock, the naturalness and softness of the light were provocative of this era, one of my favorites in the evolution of the motion picture.

If you loved the book, you will like the movie.  As far as adaptations go, it’s probably one of the better ones.  If you’ve never read the book and plan on never doing so, then well, shame on you, but you’ll probably like the movie too.


Scarecrow (1973) Review

30 07 2011

Copyright 1973 Warner Brothers Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Since Doctor Who has been on hiatus for the summer after their mid season break, we’ve been watching the spin-off series Torchwood to bridge the gap.  With the new job, it’s a bit difficult to watch features in addition to a series, so I’m going to pull a little known film that I am very fond of from the back log to review: Scarecrow.

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen this film, so I’m not sure how hard the film is to find these days.  However, about 10 years ago when I first viewed this movie, it was almost impossible to locate.  In one of my cinema history books I saw a picture from the film with a young Al Pacino and Gene Hackman.  Being a huge fan of both of these incredible actors, I was immediately interested in finding a copy of this film.  This was before Netflix, so I had to make the rounds to all the local video stores; none of the stores had the film.  Months went on with no success until I came to a Movie Gallery a few towns away.  This was around the time that VHS was being fully phased out to DVDs, so they were having a huge sale on VHS movies.  The store literally had hundreds of movies for sale for about $3 a piece.  I bought properly 500 movies that summer that were hard to find, rare or foreign, of course all VHS, but still it was some way to view these films at the time.  Deep within the droves of cassette stacks, I found a lone copy of Scarecrow.  I still have it in my collection today and feel it is one of the most underrated films of the 1970s.

Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, Hackman plays an ex-convict named Max Milian and Al Pacino plays Francis Lionel “Lion” Delbuchi, an ex-sailor.  They meet on a path in California near the beginning of the film and form a partnership as friends, with plans to go into business together when they get to Pittsburgh.  Hackman’s character has a plan to open a car wash which he is sure will be a success.  Francis agrees to be his partner in business, but first wants to stop by Detroit and make well with his wife, Annie, and the child he left behind and never saw.  Essentially, the film is a road movie between these two opposite personalities and their weird friendship that develops in their travels from California to Pittsburgh.  Max is quick tempered and aggressive in many situations; whereas, Francis is calm, conservative and child-like.  Along the way, they visit several different places, get put in a work camp for awhile and go through both personal injury and triumph.

What really works with this film is the true-to-life dichotomy between the characters of Max and Francis’s relationship.  They are complete opposites, but in some strange way need each other to survive.  They learn from the other and find the only support they have ever known in life in their friendship.  The story is shot in a gritty, realist nature which only adds to the believability of the characters and their complex relationship.  Needless to say, Pacino and Hackman are absolutely brilliant in this film.  It was at the height of both of their professional abilities and the casting choices for their respective roles couldn’t have been better.

The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 and has been generally well-regarded by critics since it came out.  In looking on Netflix, it seems this film is still hard to locate all these years later.  However, if you can find a copy, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with this 1970s gem.

Ryan’s Daughter (1970) Review

7 05 2011

Copyright 1970 Faraway Productions

★ ★ ★ 1/2

This was the final of David Lean’s epics made after 1955 that I had yet to see.  The accompanying films in the bunch were Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zchivago and A Passage to India.  A huge Lean fan, I had always heard that this was his least impressive effort.  Actually, because of Pauline Kael’s scathing review of this film upon its release, Lean would wait 14 years to direct another motion picture.  The film itself, however, though very long, is not a bad movie by any means.  In relation to David Lean films it might not stand out, but in relation to other movies in general, it’s actually a pretty good movie.

The story takes place in a small town in Ireland in 1916, as British troops are just beginning to occupy the Irish countryside.  On a grand scale, the film tackles plot points of the rebel’s fight towards arming themselves under the lead of Tim O’Leary (Barry Foster).  Yet, the real crux of the story as the title suggests is focused on the bar keep’s, Thomas Ryan ‘s (Leo McKern), daughter (Sarah Miles).  A spoiled young girl, constantly referred to as “princess” by her father, falls in love with the kind, mild-mannered school teacher, Charles Shaughnessy (Robert Mitchum).  Though he is much older than she, they eventually marry and settle into the schoolhouse quarters on the edge of town.  At first a happy marriage, she soon starts to look for more in life.  When a crippled British officer (Christopher Jones) comes to the local British camp, she immediately falls for him.  Their torrid affair dominates the middle portion of the film.  So, essentially, you have a love affair set to the back drop of political turmoil in 1910s Ireland.  In the end, the affair proves a terrible mistake for everyone invovled.

As usual with a late Lean film, everything about this movie is epic.  The production design, the locations and the sweeping camera movements are amazingly well put together.  To top it all off is the beautiful, Academy award-winning cinematography by Freddie Young.  I could go on for paragraphs about Young’s work; every shot in this three hour film is just absolutely breathtaking.  I can only hope one day to possess the creative and technical brilliance that he exuded behind the camera.  But, I must say, that this type of film does lend itself quite well to cinematography with its locations and period setting.

The acting, on a whole is very well-handled.  Sarah Miles and Robert Mitchum both did incredible jobs in their leading roles.  Christopher Jones, who played the British officer, I had heard was very hard to deal with on set and they had to dub his lines over in post.  All in all, they must have done a good job cutting around his performance because I didn’t really notice it being that bad.  John Mills, who played the village idiot, as Tropic Thunder would suggest actually went pretty much full retard, and won Best Supporting Actor for it.  He plays the part with such childlike wonder though, that I can easily see how he pulled off such an award even though his character never spoke a word in the film.  Another fine turn was made by British actor Trevor Howard as the patriarchal preist who brought equality to the small town with an iron fist.

All in all, I don’t see why people give this film such bad reviews.  Yes, I agree that it could have probably been 30 minutes or so shorter than its three hour and fifteen minute running time.  Yet, for such a long running time, the movie carries interest and entertains surprisingly well.  To me, this was definitely as good as  A Passage to India.  Sure, it wasn’t Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge on the River Kwai, but you can’t strike brilliance too many times in a row in one lifetime.

My Perception of Violence in “Straw Dogs”

6 04 2011

Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner in "Straw Dogs." Copyright 1971 ABC Pictures

* Some spoilers within.

I reviewed this film recently for my place of work’s monthly newsletter after seeing it for a third time.  This, coupled with the fact that a remake from director Rod Lurie will be coming out this year, has propelled me to delve a little deeper into this wonderful character study.  Each time you see a movie like this again, you find things that you didn’t see the first time or with other previous viewings.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, it was directed by Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) in 1971 and stars Dustin Hoffman and Susan George.  Narratively, it centers on the character of David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), a mild-mannered American mathematician, who has come to rural England to live with his newly wedded English wife, Amy (Susan George), while he works on a book with grant money.  From the beginning, David stands out as an anomaly in his newfound living environment.  He hires several locals who grew up with his wife to help rebuild his garage, which is in a state of disrepair; they laze about, stalk his wife and taunt him with jokes and cruel pranks.

As the story progresses, David and Amy’s relationship becomes more constrained due to David’s research and the pressures that ensue from the vicious taunting of the local townspeople.  Restrained frustration in David’s character builds along with that of the audience who omnisciently see further torture in a controversial scene where Amy is brutally raped by several of the men working on the garage.

The tension and frustration build at a steady pace from the very opening frames of the film and culminate in one of the most shocking, character reversals in film history in which violence is unleashed in David as he defends his home from the townspeople.  The cathartic effect of the final climatic scenes offer an interesting question as to whether the violence was fueled and born in David from his frustrations or if it was always within him from the beginning.

The complexities of character in this film are very deep on many different levels.  The first time I saw the film, I focused more on the fact that David was defending his happy home from these intruders and didn’t pick up on many of the minor nuances in his and Amy’s relationship.  In re-watching the last two times, it’s evident that David and Amy’s relationship itself is quite strained by the climax.  Rather than solely seeing David as this mild-mannered American stereotype, I picked up on many instances where there was a deep passive-agression in his demeanor and reactions.

Several of those scenes that I sensed an underlying violence were with Amy when he was trying to work.  Being bored while he works, she pesters him to a degree, even going so far as to change some of his math problems on his blackboard.  Her reactions frustrate David in several scenes to becoming quite verbally agressive.  It’s through a series of these arguments between David and Amy that we see their relationship become more and more constrained and, in turn, David’s overall demeanor more passive-aggressive.  By the time the rape scene happens, well into the film, Amy and his relationship is almost a spiteful one.

Herein lies one of the biggest points of contentions about the film.  Did Amy welcome this rape?  Well, in my opinion, I would say yes and no.  In the original moments, it is very evident that she doesn’t want the sexual agression of her former boyfriend, Charlie.  Yet, upon insistance, it seems that she actually does welcome it and enjoy the act; largely this seems due to her constrained relationship with David.  The part of the rape sequence that I think brought the scene back into her not wanting the advances is when the second man, Riddaway, comes in to have his way.  This is where the trauma of the rape scene fully sets in and where it is quite evident that she is in distress.

David never finds out about the rape.  His violence that explodes in the final scenes is an internal happening.  It’s as if everyone is against him and the only thing he has is his “home” and the violence that has always lived in him slowly boiling over.  Amy refuses to help fend off the townspeople to the point of him slapping her and restraining her to the upstairs.  This is a man that has been pushed and inched forward slowly to the point of having to turn into an animal.

I think this is evident of us all and that’s what is so powerful about this film.  We all have a level of violence that lives within us as, in reality, we are all animals that work off primal instincts at the most basic level.  It’s our conviction, beliefs and upbringing that separate us from other animal species and give us decency.  Many times we don’t know that this fire lives within us and it’s clear from the final line of the movie when Henry Niles tells David, “I don’t know my way home.”  David responds, “I don’t either” and smiles.  David didn’t know he had that level of violence inside of him; it’s a primal reaction to torture, frustration and defense of what you believe is right.

I’m sure many people will disagree with me, but this is the way I perceive the violence in the film and the characters within.  No matter how you interpret this movie, you will have a strong reaction.  For some it is a violent, repulsive opus from Peckinpah; but to me, it’s a very human film.  It shows us at our worst, our most exposed, or most primal.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) Review

17 03 2011

Copyright Paramount Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

The Friends of Eddie Coyle revolves around the low-life underworld of Boston, Mass.  The protagonist, Eddie Coyle (Robert Mitchum), is a greying gun runner and small-time crook who is currently awaiting an indictment in New Hampshire that might put him away again for several years; time he doesn’t feel he can afford to let go at his age.  In an effort to help save face for his indictment, Eddie strikes up a relationship with a member of the Treasury Department, Dave Foley (Richard Jordan).  Eddie then has to decide whether to rat on accomplices and business partners to save his own or play it cool with Foley, all the while keeping money coming in for himself and his family the only ways he knows how.

The film is a perfect example of the nitty, gritty crime dramas that were becoming popular in the early 1970s.  The atmosphere, cinematography and locations exude a seediness that really makes the perfect setting for the tone of the story.  Directed by Peter Yates, of Bullitt and Breaking Away fame, the pacing and shot selections are impecable.  There are multiple moments in the film that keep you on the edge of your seat and evoke an overwhelming sense of tension.  The cinematography by Victor J. Kemper is equally fitting for the film.  Most shots are dominated by natural lighting as opposed to a stylized approach, and the graininess of the stock mixed with the unmistakable Technicolor  palette make it feel almost documentaryesque (without the “shaky cam”, thank goodness).

The cast all around is excellent, but I think special note should be made about Robert Mitchum’s performance as Eddie.  Mitchum, whom I consider one of the most underrated actors in Hollywood history, has a subtlety to his approach in playing this old time crook that makes his performance extremely natural and believable.  The character of Eddie is a storyteller and there are several drawn out stories he tells throughout the film.  Most of these stories stays on a static shot of Mitchum and the commanding presence during them is amazing.  If you are unfamiliar with Mitchum, make sure to watch this film, Cape Fear, The Yakuza and Night of the Hunter at the very least to experience some of the amazing performances by this grossly underrated actor.

Though the story seems pretty straight forward in a synopsis review, there are multiple mini-plots that are going on throughout the film.  Unlike some films, all of these mini-plots are intertwined and drive the story forward.  For some reviewers, the ending becomes problematic and detracts from their enjoyment of the film and I can understand to a degree and appreciate their opinions.  I don’t want to ruin it, but it’s not your standard Hollywood ending by any means.  You have to keep in mind the tone of the story; for me, the ending fits the type of story that is being told.  This is not the feel good movie of the year, but if you are looking for a deeply introspective look into the seedier circles of urban areas and a wonderful character study, then this is a film you need to see.

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