Home Video Round-Up 10/23/2020 – Halloween Edition

The Wretched (10/9/2020)

The Wretched is a movie that has the slightly dubious distinction of having been the first movie since Black Panther to have been number one at the box office for five straight weeks… which it achieved at the height of the pandemic when 99% of theaters were closed.  It made less than $250,000 in each of those weeks and it’s cannily promoted drive-in theater run ultimately earned the movie all of $1.8 million for its trouble, but hey, the thing probably would have gone straight to VOD otherwise and had it not been for that stunt it probably never would have caught my attention in the first place so maybe they were on to something.  It’s on Hulu now and probably worth a look if you have your expectations in check.  The movie concerns a teenage boy who travels to a small seaside town to live with his father and comes to have some suspicions that a woman living next door might be a witch.  The movie mostly looks pretty good, not great, but it’s certainly professionally composed and is working on a serviceable budget for the kind of movie it is and the cast is mostly decent as well.  Where the movie started to lose me was in the middle section where I actually started to get a bit lost in the over-abundance of poorly introduced characters and sub-plots and the rules of witchcraft its working with never quite made sense to me or particularly interested me.  But the movie did start to win me back over in the third act when the witch in question started to manifest itself in some appropriately grotesque ways and we do get some imagery that probably deserved a better movie.  It was made by a duo called the Pierce Brothers, and they might be worth keeping an eye on.

*** out of Five

#Alive (10/11/2020)

There are certain things about movies that I tend to view as a bit of a red flag and having a damn hashtag in front of your title is probably one of them, so I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I started this Korean zombie flick but I was pleasantly surprised with what I got.  The film was actually written by an American and a version based on his script called Alone is due out later this year, but this Korean version apparently got finished sooner and will probably be a bit of a tough act to follow.  It looks at a guy in his twenties who finds himself in the middle of a zombie outbreak and barricades himself in his apartment in hopes of waiting out the disaster.  So, we’ve got a movie made in the year of our lord 2020 about how the smart thing to do in a public health outbreak is to stay inside… how interesting.  There’s a lot else about the movie that one could call “very 2020” as its very interested in looking at how the latest trends and technologies could come into play in a situation like this.  The main character is actually a Twitch streamer during less tumultuous times (which isn’t a huge part of the film since the internet shuts down pretty early) and he also uses a consumer grade drone to scope out the building for zombies.  The film does not stick to the single lonely protagonist setup for its entire running time and when he does find himself fighting zombies the movie doesn’t exactly re-write the rules for depicting the walking dead (turns out aiming for the head is still a good idea, and man remains the true enemy), but the film makes that protagonist pretty likeable and you really do find yourself rooting for his survival at the end and director Cho Il-hyung proves himself to be pretty solid commercial filmmaker, especially given that this is his debut film.

***1/2 out of Five

Shirley (10/13/2020)

Shirley is ostensibly a movie about Shirley Jackson, the author of “The Haunting of Hill House,” but I wouldn’t call it a biopic and it’s only “about” Jackson in the most idiosyncratic of ways.  The film is not based on a non-fiction biography but instead on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell which uses Jackson as a character in order to tell the story about a fictional couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), who are young academics who are invited to move in with Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) and help around the house while Jackson is ailing and this becomes something of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe-like experience as the Jacksons play all sorts of mind games with them.  I’m only moderately familiar with the life of Shirley Jackson and while it seems like the movie is very interested and copying Jackson’s mannerisms and exploring her lot in life at this point I don’t believe any of the stuff with Rose and Fred actually happened and the portrait that fictional story paints is deeply unflattering. It’s the rare biopic that embellishes and fictionalizes in order to make its subject significantly less sympathetic rather than more sympathetic.  The explanation I’ve heard is that the film is more of a tribute of Jackson’s writing than to Jackson, and I’m going to have to take their word for it because I don’t know a lot about her writing beyond various film adaptations of “The Haunting.”  So when watching it you’re better off forgetting that it’s supposed to be about a real author and instead watch it as the newest film from Madeline’s Madeline Josephine Decker and when watched that way the film works out a little better.  Decker has a somewhat unique style that’s built around forming a close psychological bond with her protagonists and kind of depicting them while they freak out and being in the midst of this fictional Jackson’s craziness is definitely conductive to that.  Elisabeth Moss is also great as the title character and the film really comes alive when she’s on screen.  I’m not entirely sure I can get behind what this movie is doing, but if Madeline’s Madeline intrigued you or you’re a Shirley Jackson super fan this is worth a look.

*** out of Five

The Platform (10/18/2020)

This Spanish film has been on Netflix for a little while and has been building a bit of a following.  It’s sort of a horror movie, but sort of not.  In essence it’s a bit of a variation on the 1997 movie Cube, which saw people navigating some sort of experimental government prison filled with death traps.  Here we’re also looking at a sort of strange futuristic prison/experiment from some kind of dystopia and begins with our protagonist waking up in a cell with another more seasoned prisoner.  The cells all appear to be stacked on top of each other like a tower and there’s a big hole in the center of all these cells that has a sort of dumbwaiter going down between them all with food on it.  The catch is that the dumbwaiter always goes from the top to the bottom and people can eat as much food from it as they want (and can’t keep any once the dumbwaiter leaves) so inevitably the people at the top chow down a whole lot of the food and by the time it gets to the lower levels there’s nothing left and people literally starve to death as a result.  Also, people are randomly swapped into different floors every month so you never know if you’re going to be one of the fat cats on top or one of the desperately starving people at the bottom month to month.  So you look at all that and it becomes pretty obvious that this whole setup is meant to be a sort of metaphor for capitalism and wealth inequality what with the prisoners getting pitted against one another and the people on the upper strata getting fat at the expense of the people below… it’s really not very subtle, and there are some holes in the metaphor too (actual class levels tend not to randomly shuffle).  It’s all a bit on the nose and Snowpiercery, but does work reasonably well as just a small scale high concept thriller if you’re willing to go along with the rather outlandish setup.

*** out of Five

Bad Hair (10/23/2020)

There’s a lot about the black experience that has been talked about more widely in recent years that many white people (myself included) were rather oblivious about.  One of those things is the amount of anxiety that African Americans, especially African American women, have about had about their hair compared to traditional Western standards of beauty.  This was first brought to my attention in Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair and with the proliferation of social media it came to my attention that white women asking to touch black women’s hair was a widespread micro-aggression.  This was also a prominent topic of discussion in the 2014 film Dear White People, which was directed by Justin Simien and is a central theme in his follow-up, a satirical horror film called Bad Hair.  The film is set in 1989 and focuses on a woman working at a fictional music video channel that is most likely based on BET but she finds herself feeling marginalized and disrespected by her boss white boss until a co-worker tells her to buy a weave.  Long story short, the weave she ends up with is evil and has a life of its own and starts killing people.  The basic high concept is not dissimilar from a Treehouse of Horror segment of “The Simpsons” where homer gets an evil toupee, which was itself a parody of an Amazing Stories segment, but obviously there’s more of a political edge to this version.  Unfortunately I’m not sure that Simien was ever quite able to dig too deep beneath the rather obvious surface of his rather outlandish concept.  I don’t think the movie has much to say about the effects of Eurocentric beauty standards beyond the fact that they bring black women stress and are a tool of inequality and the movie is never particularly scare or suspenseful.  Also this “music video channel in 1989” milieu should be a lot more fun than it is.  The film doesn’t seem to have had the budget to obtain much of the actual music from the era and never makes the behind the scenes goings on seem rather uninteresting.  Things do pick up a little in the film’s last twenty minutes or so and it does eventually get to some slightly interesting visuals with the hair taking on a life of its own, but the movie had pretty well lost me already by then.  I will grant that unlike Dear White People (which, as the title suggests was at least partly meant to me a message to outsiders) this was probably meant to be more of a furtherance of an internal dialogue within the black community and was not really made for me and that there may well be things here I’m not picking up on, but I can’t really judge the movie based on how others will receive it and from my perspective it never really worked.

** out of Five



Crash Course: Ozploitation Horror

I’ve been going on something of a trip around the world the last couple of Halloween seasons having looked at some horror films from Japan, Italy, and the UK the last couple of years and this year I’ve decided to take a trip down under and look at some horror (and hard genre) flicks that were made in Australia during the height of the “Ozploitation era” of the 1970s and early 1980s.  Some of these movies are closer to being true horror movies than others but all of them were made with a certain down under extremity and with that special DIY charm that that country’s filmmaking output tended to embody.

Wake in Fright (1971)

Wake in Fright is a movie that’s gained a certain notoriety over the years by simply being hard to find in certain forms.  The original negative was apparently lost for a while and they couldn’t make any kind of home video release as a result, but the print was finally found in the mid-2000s and after some extensive restoration the film finally re-emerged in 2009 and felt like something of a missing link for the Australian New Wave.  The title makes it sound like a horror film but is probably better labeled as a psychological thriller and even that genre label may be a bit misleading.  Really this is a touch too highbrow to truly be called “ozploitation” and is closer to something like Walkabout or The Last Wave than Mad Max.  The film is set in the Australian Outback and focuses on a young school teacher a backwoods town called Tiboonda (which I think is fictional) and apparently isn’t there by choice and was in fact given the assignment as part of some sort of government project where he accepts assignment in exchange for a student loan.  He plans to return to Sydney for the holidays but first needs to take a train stop in an even smaller backwoods town called Bundanyabba, which the locals call “The Yabba.”  Spending the night there he finds himself getting drinks with some locals and is introduced to a local gambling game called two-up which basically involves betting on coin flips (and is apparently a real activity that Australians find fun for some reason).  With this game he potentially sees a way of escaping his loan but instead it ends up sending him into something of a tailspin trapping him in this infernal little town.

The film’s protagonist is played by an English actor named Gary Bond, who had exactly three film roles: a small part in Zulu, another small part in Anne of a Thousand Days, and then this one starring role.  After that he abandoned film entirely and successfully focused his efforts on the London stage and most notably originated the title role in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”  He was also openly gay and was reportedly in a relationship with Ian McKellen at one point in the 70s.  But the more famous actor here is Donald Pleasence, who plays a local in “The Yabba” who sort of takes the protagonist in and shows him some of the more “authentic” aspects of life in this town, namely an extended kangaroo hunt scene which includes some kind of disturbing actual animal killings that some may find ethically questionable.  This is one of those movies like After Hours or U-Turn where someone is desperately trying to escape a location but fate never quite lets them leave and the place starts to seem almost like a sort of purgatory for them.  Here there isn’t quite anything to indicate that there’s literally a supernatural force causing this there are definitely moments when you suspect there is and toward the end of the movie you’re really with the character as he starts to sort of break down from the circumstances.

I’m pretty sure that all of this is meant to be something of a metaphor for the disconnect between Australia’s predominantly urban population and its attitude towards the “bogans” who live out in its vast rural areas.  The main character begins the movie with a rather snobby view of “The Yabba” and even makes remark about the place feeling like hell at the beginning.  And the movie doesn’t necessarily ignore the fact that there are aspects of this place that really do seem positively barbaric with the drunken kangaroo hunt being a pretty vivid example of this.  However the main character tends to sway between being disgusted by all this and being a gleeful participant of it, mirroring a similar mixture of repulsion and invigoration that wider society feels about this side of Australian culture.  In its initial release the movie was actually more popular in Europe than it was in Australia with a lot of that domestic market possibly feeling it was a bit too close to home for comfort.   There’s a story out there of an actor from the film attending a local screening and seeing someone stand up in the theater and shout “That’s not us!,” to which he responded “Sit down, mate. It is us.”  I’m not in much of a position to say which of those guys was right, but I’m not sure the movie’s message is entirely confined to Australia and could be similarly applied to most countries with a clear urban and rural divide… which is most countries.
**** out of Five

The Cars That Ate Paris (1974)

The Cars That Ate Paris has a kind of strange title that evokes cheesy B-movies and that title is probably misleading.  The “Paris” it refers to is not Paris France but is instead a (fictional) small town in New South Wales Australia, and the cars don’t literally eat it, if anything it might be more accurate to say that the town eats the cars.  In essence what the movie is about is this remote town that has been murdering visitors by orchestrating car crashes and then stealing the victims’ luggage, lobotomizing survivors and using them for medical experiments, and salvaging the wrecked cars and turning them into these weird looking Mad Max-like vehicles.  It’s a pretty strange concept that kind of reminded me of the plot of the 1991 Dan Aykroyd bomb Nothing But Trouble.  This was notable for being the first film from Peter Weir and predated his international breakthrough The Picnic at Hanging Rock, which sent him down a less genre-tinged path for most of the rest of the career.  This movie isn’t completely easy to classify either.  The general ghoulishness of the concept points it toward horror, but it isn’t always going for suspense and at times plays more like a satire but it’s not exactly going for laughs either.  There’s also touch of the western here with the isolated rural town dynamic and then there’s also the element of cars and car crashes that have shades of the Vanishing Point “carsploitation” genre.

The movie is pretty slow paced and it also kind of struggles to find a center.  Weir said that he came up with the idea while driving through Europe and finding the road signs funneling him into strange small towns and he sort of fantasized about a sort of worst case scenario of what one of these towns might be up to.  He seems to have put a lot of thought into what the dynamics in such a town would be but perhaps struggles in coming up with a way to introduce the audience to such a place and coming up with a three act arc to actually build a movie around.  Our eventual protagonist Arthur is a guy who was a victim of one of the town’s traps but who survived but with memory loss and is sort of taken in by the town’s mayor.  This guy is more of a point of view character than a true protagonist though and he doesn’t directly influence the story that much.  The ultimate conflict in the movie wasn’t between him and the town but rather between the town’s younger generation (the main car enthusiasts) and the older generation and this eventually results in this wild destruction derby that serves as the film’s finale.

I’m pretty sure there’s supposed to be a political allegory to be found in there somewhere.  This is a movie that ends with the town’s elders having a costume ball in which everyone is dressed in outfits highly evocative of colonialism getting their party crashed by a bunch of young punks.  There’s got to be something there, perhaps a message about the counter-culture crashing in on the establishment despite both parties having prospered through corrupt means?  It’s not the clearest message but there’s definitely something there.  The problem is that a lot of this inter-generation tension isn’t sold terribly well in the movie and in a lot of ways we’re just seeing the boiling point from years of off screen tension.  The movie reminds me a lot of that first Mad Max movie, not just because of the crazy cars, but because it’s a movie you have to be kind of in tune with the rhythms of weird 70s genre films to get into.  If you’re a genre aficionado who is looking for a new “find,” then definitely watch this, but it’s not a movie I’d recommend to people more casually because it is kind of an odd movie that won’t be for everyone.
*** out of Five

Patrick (1978)

Patrick is probably one of the more famous movies I’m watching for this retrospective on Australian horror, in part because it’s a movie that Quentin Tarantino has long expressed fondness for and drew upon for some of the coma scenes in Kill Bill.  It’s also probably one of the least overtly Australian of them simply by virtue of not being set in the outback and not having anything particularly Aussie inherent to its plot but it’s still seen as a major film in the Ozploitation era.  The film is set in a hospital in Melbourne and centers on a woman who has just gotten a job there.  The title refers to a patient at this hospital who has been in a coma for three years since a traumatic incident that left his parents dead.  He’s alive but the doctors believe him to be completely unconscious despite his eyes being wide open at all times and his occasional spitting, supposedly as an involuntary reflexive twitch.  As the woman finds herself working there strange things start to happen around her and Patrick seems to respond to stimuli different when she’s alone with him.  Could he perhaps be using some kind of psychic powers to manipulate things in the world?  Yes, it would be a rather boring movie if he wasn’t.

I’m not sure when the script was written but the film it would almost certainly bear the closest comparison to is almost certainly Carrie, which is another horror movie about a telekinetically powered person causing some chaos (plus a jump scare at the end).  The difference of course is Patrick’s catatonic state which is a fairly creepy visual in and of itself what with his eyes wide open unblinking stare (something that’s plainly medically inaccurate and which the film has some kind of one line explanation for).  It also call to memory that Twilight Zone episode where the kid has psychic powers and hoards it over people insomuch as Patrick, despite being in his twenties, is a similarly impetuous shit.  Dude gives off some serious incel energy with the way he treats his nurse and lashes out at anyone who becomes an inconvenience to him.  It is of course interesting that the film allows you to get all this about a character who does not speak a word out loud for the entire film and only communicates through occasionally spitting to signal “yes” or “no” and a couple of moments where he possesses a typewriter with his mind.  Still you get the feeling that he’s this intensely intelligent but highly immature young man who views the rest of humanity as his plaything.

If there’s a problem with Patrick it’s that it’s a bit longer than it needs to be and could have used a few trims as it takes a while to really get going.  Also the movie never quite takes Patrick’s powers to the next level or really sees him mounting a particularly large body count.  One can imagine a version of this where he really mounts more of a widespread threat from his hospital bed like the criminal mastermind in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse or something.  There could have been room for this idea to have been expanded in a sequel if its makers had wanted to, but the only follow-up to this was an unauthorized Zombi 2 style Italian sequel called Patrick Still Lives which doesn’t really exist in the same continuity despite the stolen premise and title.  So, ultimately I do feel like the movie doesn’t fully live up to its premise, but still, it’s a neat little horror movie and deserves at least some small level of recognition within the genre.
***1/2 out of Five

Long Weekend (1978)

With Long Weekend we return to a more rural milieu in Australia for a movie that’s an early example of a horror film with a pretty overt environmentalist message.  This was the first screenplay by Everett De Roche, who also wrote Patrick but the two movies ended up being produced around the same time.  He would go on to have a pretty long and prolific career in Australian film and TV including one more film I’ll be looking at in this retrospective.  Patrick was probably the more refined and accessible screenplay but Long Weekend is probably the more creative piece of work.  The film follows a young couple named Peter and Marcia who are city people who got out into the wilderness (it’s a semi-wooded area and I don’t think it technically qualifies as “the outback”).  The man is more into camping than the woman but neither seem to be overly dedicated naturalists because they act like the worst kind of intrusive city slickers while out there.  They litter, kill animals, pointlessly cut down trees, and dangerously toss cigarette butts in such a way as to almost certainly be a wildfire hazard.  They finally go too far when Peter shoots a dugong (a sort of manatee creature) and at that point nature starts fighting back.

On one level Long Weekend operates as a slightly pat Twilight Zoney morality tale where people act like jerks and then receive karmic retribution in short order.  But that description is sort of shelling short the film’s ability to build a slow dread.  Were I to compare this to another horror movie it might actually be The Blair Witch Project, not that this has any of the same “found footage” technique which made that film famous but more because it is a movie about a couple of people in the outdoors who sort of slowly come to realize they fucked up.  When you watch the early parts of the film you can pretty easily see how the characters are screwing up, in part because of some camera angles that sort of subliminally suggest that that they’re being watched by the environment.  When nature does start to fight back against them it initially does it in ways that have a sort of plausible deniability and don’t immediately tip them off to the fact that they were in trouble.  Eventually the two also become their own worst enemies and their relationship begins to deteriorate.  Now, people looking for a more outlandish and violent bit of ozsploitation horror out of this may find themselves a bit disappointed that the animal attacks here are relatively tame and some horror fans aren’t going to have a ton of time for it.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it a lost masterpiece or but it was an innovative and interesting little horror film.
***1/2 out of Five

Thirst (1979)

Out of all the Ozploitation horror movies I’ve been watching lately this would seem to be one of the more definitively “horror” themed films on the list what with it being about vampires, and it is, but even when looking at one of the definitive horror monsters these movies find themselves once again coming at the genre in an unconventional and original way.  The film (which should not be confused with the unrelated Park Chan-wook vampire film) concerns a woman named Kate who is kidnapped by an organization called The Brotherhood, which is a sort of underground cult run by vampires.  They don’t necessarily want to hurt Kate though and instead want her to join them because they believe her to be a direct descendant of Elizabeth Báthory and thus had something of a birthright within their aristocratic worldview.  Vampirism in this movie follows different rules than the usual: the vampires aren’t hurt by daylight, can be killed by conventional means, and don’t have any outlandish powers like the ability to turn into a bat or something.  They do drink blood and believe this will give them eternal youth, but don’t have fangs and instead get most of their blood by hooking people up to machines and draining them and then drink said blood out of cups though they do occasionally use mouthpieces with fake fangs in order to do some more traditional bite based draining under certain ceremonial circumstances.

That idea with humans being hooked up to and drained by machines would eventually be borrowed by the 2009 (Australian produced) action-horror movie Daybreakers and this underground society of vampires certainly seems to have been drawn on a bit in the Blade series.  The Brotherhood’s compound seems to be drawing on the recent 70s history of both hippie communes and the Hare Krishnas.  The film came out the year after the Jonestown massacre and while the film was likely in production on some level before that happened they may well have drawn somewhat on the People’s Temple pre-mass suicide.  The film’s second half takes it into a slightly murkier psychological territory as the cult try to brainwash her into joining them and this can get a little hazy and the movie never quite seems like it knows how it wants to end.  There’s also something of a question of who exactly the movie is supposed to be for.  Financially it didn’t do great upon release and I think that might have been because it was a bit too arty for the exploitation crowd but a bit too exploitation for the artier horror crowd (insomuch as there was one at the time).  Whatever its flaws, the movie was plainly a smart and forward thinking take on a familiar trope which did create a handful of memorable scenes and I would consider it a clear win.
**** out of Five

Next of Kin (1982)

Most of the movies I’m looking at were made by people who went on to have fairly respectable Hollywood careers and most of the ones who didn’t at least managed to make a decent number of movies in the Australian b-movie world.  Tony Williams, director of the 1982 haunted house film Next of Kin is something of an exception to this as the film would be his second and final scripted film despite him being alive and well almost forty years later.  He did some TV documentary work early on and made a feature called Solo which has never been widely seen before making this.  He’s also come back to make three documentary features in the 2010s, but I have no idea what he was doing with his life between 1982 and 2013.  I’m not sure what exactly caused that because even if it wasn’t a financial success Next of Kin should have revealed enough promise to have inspired someone to give him another chance.  Granted this is probably the most obscure of all the film’s I’m watching for this retrospective and it is primarily known today because it’s another film that was championed by Quentin Tarantino despite it not really feeling all that much like any of his own movies.

The film is about a woman who inherits a large mansion called Montclare and tries to convert it into a retirement home but soon starts hearing suspicious things about the death of her mother and starts seeing strange unexplained things happening at Montclare.  So there you have the setup for a very run of the mill haunted house film and I generally wouldn’t say it breaks the mold on a story or plot level, what makes it interesting is the execution.  When endorsing it Tarantino suggested that this was one of the only horror movies to attempt to replicate the editing style from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which would have come out just a couple of years before this.  I’m not entirely sure if I would have made that connection as easily if Tarantino hadn’t primed me for it but, yeah, there’s certainly a kinship between the two movies.  Tony Williams is no Stanley Kubrick and this movie isn’t nearly as elegant as that but the ghosts here (if they are ghosts) seem to follow similar “rules” in the way they sort of emerge quietly and take on a certain ethereal aura.  This isn’t to suggest that the film is a pure ripoff as it is quite different from The Shining in many other ways, particularly the film’s ending which is kind of crazy and feels distinct form the movie that came before it.  Another hidden gem from out of Australia in the 70s and early 80s.
***1/2 out of Five

Turkey Shoot (1982)

A lot of the Ozploitation Horror movies I’ve been looking at for this retrospective have been surprisingly tasteful when all is said and done.  It was about time that I watched an Ozploitation movie that was a little more… exploitative.  Enter Turkey Shoot (released in America as Escape 2000), a trashy bit of business that was once called “the cheapest and nastiest piece of mainstream celluloid ever stitched together by our mad cinematic scientists.”  Honestly that description is a bit hyperbolic and the movie itself isn’t quite what some of its reputation suggests, but it’s definitely a film that is trying to appeal to many of its audience’s more base instincts.  Calling it a horror movie is also kind of borderline, in many ways it’s just as much of a full on action movie but there are certainly horrific undertones to its premise.  The film takes place in a dystopian future where the government is actively taking political prisoners and begins with a new set of arrivals at a gulag/re-education camp, one of whom is a Cool Hand Luke style free spirit who refuses to be “broken.”  That resolve will soon be tested though because the prison’s evil warden is going to force him and four other prisoners to run out into the wooded area outside the camp to be hunted by a handful of deranged rich people and if they’re still alive at sundown they’ll supposedly be released.

So we’ve got one of many variations on Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game,” a story that’s been turned into everything from The Running Man to Hard Target to Surviving the Game.  It was also the basis for a couple of movies this year including the Brazilian film Bacurau and the wretched “controversial” film The Hunt.  If anything those movies showed that there were limits to how well the story could work as political allegory as it presented too much of an extreme situation to really make sense as a critique of power structures.  Fortunately that’s not much of an issue here because this doesn’t have the slightest veneer of being a political allegory.  It takes place in a totalitarian future but it takes totalitarianism about as seriously as Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS and is basically just a means for an ends to get the human hunting scenario started.  The camp’s commandant is this effete Bond villain type and his commanders are these brutal thugs.  Meanwhile the “hunters” in the movie are these rich sadists, including a woman obsessed with a crossbow and another rich guy who has acquired the assistance of a “freak” who appears to be this half-ape man with yellow animalistic eyes (one of the film’s more out of place elements).  And the film’s heroes?  They’re pretty straightforward; the dude who can’t be “broken,” a blonde, a brunette, and a sniveling guy who will probably be a liability.

What does set the film apart from most are the kills, which get pretty gory.  The conditions at the camp are casually cruel, which seems slightly in bad taste given that this inspired by actual concentration camps used in real totalitarian governments.  Once the hunt is on the film is something of a parade of elaborate kills including not one but two scenarios where people are split in half, a dude getting a machete in the head.  The movie is not completely reckless in how it employs this violence though and makes some canny decisions like having the worst of the onscreen violence employed against the sadistic bad guys while more innocent people tend to meet their gruesome fates off screen rather than onscreen.  Would I say that this movie is good?  Kinda.  It’s a movie that operates on a very specific b-movie schlock wavelength and you have to go into it expecting a certain level of nutty tastelessness and some questionable acting.  But if you’re in the mood for that kind of early 80s exploitation sleaze this is not poorly made.  It delivers when it has to with the action and violence and does hit the tone it seems to be going for.  Not for everyone but for aficionados of cinematic wackiness it’s kind of a must.
*** out of Five

Razorback (1984)

If Steve Irwin taught us anything it was that the flora and fauna of Australia is freaking terrifying.  They’ve got all sorts of venomous snakes, giant crocodiles, spiders, jellyfish, and supposedly drop bears.  The filmmakers of that country have not been oblivious to this and have made all sorts of creature features like Dark Age, Rogue, Black Water, and The Reef but the granddaddy of all Australian creature films is almost certainly Razorback.  This film about a giant killer wild boar was made almost ten years after Jaws and comes a bit after that initial wave of ripoffs with various random animals attacking but even if it was late to the party it was still plainly one of the best of the Jaws-alikes.   The film opens with an old hunter being attacked in his shack by this giant boar which drags his grandson away.  The old man is tried for murder for this because no one believes his story (a twist likely inspired by the “dingoes ate by baby” case) but he’s eventually acquitted for lack of evidence.  Years later an American journalist arrives in the same outback town intending to do a story about kangaroo hunting in the area which she finds distasteful, and this does not endear her to the locals.  She ends up being attacked by local ruffians but this is broken up the razorback as well and she disappears.  Her husband arrives in Australia to find out what happened to her and meets up with the old hunter and embarks on a journey to find out who or what killed her.

On paper this story doesn’t have that much going for it.  That hunter is plainly the film’s Quint, the avenging husband is its Brody, and there’s a biologist lady who essentially serves as its Hooper.  But I don’t want to frame this too much in terms of its similarities to Jaws because there are clear differences, especially in terms of style.  Director Russell Mulcahy came from the world of music videos and was the filmmaker behind a bunch of the really famous early MTV videos like The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and he seems to have brought some of the visual ambition of that medium with him here but without getting too bogged down in the kind of fast editing and needless flash that’s normally associated with “music video direction.”  The outback here looks particularly impressionistic and dreamlike and the human bad guys feel particularly dingy and Mad Max like.

The actual razorback in the movie is not exactly a triumph of visual effects: it’s an animatronic and you kind of get the sense that the model they got for full body shots was not very good because you only see it in the most fleeting of shots and any time you really see it’s head in motion it’s in extreme close-up.  You really don’t see the pig very much at all in the film and it probably has fewer minutes of actual screentime than the shark in Jaws does and most of its “kills” are completely off screen.  That having been said, the thing really does still look cool when you do see it given its sheer bulk and its mean looking long tusks that look like they could easily impale you in some uniquely painful ways.  But a big part of why this approach works is that the swine in question may well not be real so much as an almost symbolic representation of the dangers of the outback.  Every time it does show up the film treats it almost like a ghost as much as a monster and is perhaps meant to be some sort of reflection of the psychology of the various characters involved or maybe some primordial spirit of the outback wreaking vengeance though it never comes out and says any of that so much as it gives out a vibe.  Now, I don’t want to oversell the movie too much, it is still ultimately an elevated B-movie more than anything and while I make these grandiose comparisons to Jaws its certainly not as good as that movie, but as creature features go it’s a pretty good one.
**** out of Five

In Conclusion

And that’s where I’m going to end my look into Australian exploitation cinema.  I must say I liked this retrospective a lot more than I expected to.  I was expecting these movies to be these wild things filled with exploitation sex and violence, and there was some of that, but many of them were much more tasteful than the “ozploitation” label would suggest and they were much more unified by the fact that they simply had creative and original approaches to the various B-movie subject matters they were exploring.  Wake in Fright, The Cars That Ate Paris, Long Weekend, and Razorback were all unified in their interest in the divide between rural and urban Australia while Patrick, Thirst, and Next of Kin all found unique spins to put on established horror tropes.  The odd thing is, a lot of these movies actually weren’t all that popular in their native countries; while researching the movies I kept seeing things like “a disappointment at the Australian box office” for almost all of these movies which maybe explains why this “scene” didn’t really live much past the early 80s.

Also there was a bit of a brain drain as a lot of these filmmakers did end up going to Hollywood.  Peter Weir, director of The Cars That Ate Paris, of course became a major player with movies like The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World under his belt. The other directors who went to Hollywood usually ended up being something more akin to a journeyman often with one sizable hit to their name.  Wake in Fright director Ted Kotcheff made the original Rambo film First Blood and Weekend at Bernies, Patrick director Richard Franklin made Psycho II and Cloak and Dagger, and Razorback director Russell Mulcahy would make Highlander and The Shadow.  The exceptions were Long Weekend director Colin Eggleston, who stuck to making Australian genre films, Thirst director Ron Hardy, who did get to Hollywood but mostly worked on forgotten movies and television projects, and Turkey Shoot director Brian Trenchard-Smith made a long career making low budget schlock ranging from Leprechaun 4: In Space to Aztec Rex.  Then of course there was Tony Williams, who never made another scripted film after Next of Kin.  Some of these outcomes made sense to me, some of them didn’t, but clearly a lot of the Ozploitation directors of the 70s became the Hollywood foot-soldiers of the 80s, but aside from Weir I’m not sure if any of them really lived up to their potential.

Home Video Round-Up 10/9/2020

First Cow (9/15/2020)

Kelly Reichardt is one of those directors who I struggle with a little.  She’s certainly someone who never fails in my eyes, I wouldn’t say I “disliked” any movie she’s ever made, but I also don’t know that I’ve ever loved any of them especially not up to the wild praise they get from certain quarters.  Her latest film in particular has earned quite a bit of praise as it had to navigate a tricky release situation where it was just about to open in theaters before the lockdown.  Like most of Reichardt’s films this is set in the Pacific Northwest but like her 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff this one is a period piece, one that’s set in the early 1800s when the Oregon territory was only just being settled at all.  The first cow of the title is literally the first bovine to be exported into the area where it is being sparsely used for its milk by a rich guy and this inspires two enterprising men to try stealing some of the cow’s milk every night and use this dairy to sell some of the best cakes in the area to the desperate locals.  This seems to go well but eventually the two start to worry that the cow’s owner is catching on to them, which could be very dangerous.  Now, that plot description seems pretty straightforward, but less of the film’s running time is devoted to all that than it is to the odd little friendship between the two milk thieves which goes kind of slowly.  The movie in general takes a while to get going and ends on a bit of a whimper, but that middle section is pretty compelling.  The film also has some pretty nice cinematography but I should caution people that if you’re watching at home you should make sure you’re in a very dark room because some of these night scenes are close to pitch black and any glare on your screen is going to make these scenes look pretty bad.  Otherwise this is pretty much in line with what you’d expect from Reichardt’s other films; if you loved them you’ll love this and if you don’t like them you won’t.  I thought those other movies were “pretty good” and so is this.

***1/2 out of Five

Class Action Park (9/17/2020)

Class Action Park is a documentary about the rise and fall of Action Park, a waterpark that was located in Northern New Jersey which was infamous for its lax bordering on depraved safety standards and was the inspiration for a Johnny Knoxville movie not too long ago.  The park was started by a rather monstrous former penny stock millionaire named Eugene Mulvihill, who basically accepted no responsibility for anything that happened at his hellish attraction and engaged in all sorts of shady dealings to keep it open despite having caused at least seven easily preventable deaths through his laissez-faire attitude toward safety and countless injuries, most of them to kids and teenagers.  One would think that this would be the material for a dark expose but directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III instead opt for something of a tone of dark comedy mixed with odd nostalgia as most of the talking heads are former park guests or former teenage employees of the park who spend a lot of the film reminiscing about the “magical summers” this fucking place provided them and I’ve got to say I found a lot of that to be kind of repugnant given that people straight up died so that they could have “fun” getting injured on ratchet-ass waterslides.  I think this attitude is especially noxious given that we are now still living in an actively spreading pandemic as a result of dipshits getting people killed so they can go to bars and throw house parties at will.  To the film’s credit, it does seem to sober up and challenge this nostalgia a little in its third act, especially once it interviews the mother of one of the people killed in this place which I think was meant to be something of a gut punch to whoever found themselves caught up in all this.  However, the movie had kind of lost me already at that point and I felt rather icky watching a solid hour of people giggle about these safety breaches complete with fanciful animated reenactments.

** out of Five

Sorry We Missed You (9/23/2020)

The eighty-four year old filmmaker Ken Loach is at the stage in his career where every movie he makes could feel like his last, and yet in a lot of ways his voice feels more relevant than ever.  Loach is a dedicated socialist who has been a fixture in the British filmmaker world and has been making socially conscious dramas since the mid-60s and while he’s seemingly been retirement bound for a while he scored a bit of a coup with his last film I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme D’or at Cannes in 2016.  That success seemingly gave him the momentum to make this follow-up, which tackles the realities of the “gig economy” which you can probably guess he isn’t a fan of.  The film follows a fairly typical working class man who gets a job as an “independent contractor” for a delivery company that is likely a stand-in for Amazon.  He sees this as a great way for his family to get back on its feet and eventually own a home but soon he comes to find that this business structure largely allows the boss that he supposedly doesn’t really work for to be completely unaccommodating to any special circumstance or family emergency that comes up and give him all sorts of fines for various setbacks.  Meanwhile his wife is dealing with her own employment exploitation as a care-worker and both have to juggle their various challenges with dealing with their incredibly shitty teenage son.  The film is something of a polemic which perhaps orchestrates something of a worst case scenario for how this kind of employment to play out (dude seems to have some incredibly bad luck at times) but despite that the film still rings pretty true and I found the family and their challenges to overall be very well drawn and believable.  I think I might actually prefer it to I, Daniel Blake, in part because it feels like it’s advancing his style into the 21st century in a more pointed and relevant way.

**** out of Five

Tread (9/26/2020)

Tread is a movie that I didn’t hear a whole lot about on the festival circuit, and has apparently been on Netflix for a while despite not really getting a whole lot of press.  I’m a little surprised it’s been so under the radar because it’s a pretty heavily produced and well put together account of the incident in which fifty two year old metal worker Marvin Heemeyer constructed an armored bulldozer and went on a rampage where he leveled several buildings in Granby Colorado.  The documentary uses a series of after the fact interviews as well as some audio recordings Heemeyer left behind to get to try to put together what motivated this action given that, on the surface, it seemed to have been sparked by some incredibly petty municipal squabbles between him and the town’s government.  Then in the last act the film reconstructs the actual rampage using a lot of the wild footage that was shot of this incident and the various failed efforts that were done to try to stop the destruction machine he invented.  This rampage easily could have ended up killing several people but didn’t, he damaged a lot of property but when all was said and done no one died except for Heemeyer because of some quick evacuations.  Had he taken a more conventional mass shooter approach to his rage a lot of this true crime inquiry, complete with big budget re-enactments and slickly shot interviews, might have felt like it was in somewhat poor taste but this incident does hit something of a sweet spot that allows you to examine madness without really dancing on anyone’s grave and that makes the film work.  Still I can’t help but feel like the documentary is a tad over-produced and maybe could have benefited from a longer examination of the aftermath of the rampage and how the town reacted to their brief moment in the spotlight and what lingers about the incident.

*** out of Five

Corpus Christi (10/9/2020)

Corpus Christi was something of a surprise nominee in the Best International Feature category at the Academy Awards last year (meaning it had the privilege of losing to Parasite) and because it was a surprise nominee it was the only of those five films to not get American distribution before the Oscar ceremony.  By the time it was in theaters here the moment seemed to have passed for it, but I am glad to be catching up on it now.  The film is about a troubled young man who is released from prison and is supposed to report to a sawmill/halfway home in a rural town but he’s gone through something of a spiritual awakening while in prison and when he arrives in town he finds himself sort of falling into impersonating a priest and when the town’s real priest ends up having to skip town he ends up taking over the church fraudulently.  As the title and subject matter world suggest this is a pretty intensely steeped in Catholicism, which is a religious tradition in which this story would have particular resonance.  Unlike Protestantism, where anyone who can gain a following can theoretically become a reverend, impersonating a priest without actually being part of the hierarchy is rather blasphemous.  The film tries to question if this sinner might actually be able to conduct his job with more purity than the more diplomatic priests and also may be better positioned to address issues of forgiveness, but it never really comes to easy answers for these questions.  I quite liked Bartosz Bielenia in the lead role and thought the film was pretty well short and composed.  On the downside, a lot of the film involved this sub-plot about the town being angry at the “priest” for wanting to give a funeral to a drunk driver/manslaugherer which seemed like a bit of an over-reaction by the town and I might have liked a more interesting conflict in that section of the script.

***1/2 out of Five

I’m Thinking of Ending Things(9/28/2020)

            You would think that major movies premiering on platforms like Netflix would encourage me to see movies even quicker than I do when they’re in theaters but in a lot fo ways it’s had the opposite effect.  Partly that’s an absence of FOMO.  I know it’s always just going to be sitting there waiting for me to hit play at will so I don’t feel any kind of pressure to rush things or even to plan ahead as to what day I’m going to watch something.  But even more than that it’s just a matter of making sure I have an evening available when I’m going to be as free of distractions as possible.  That went double for the new Charlie Kaufman movie that premiered on Netflix almost a month ago, I’m Thinking of Ending Things.  I knew from how challenging Kaufman’s previous films were that they were not works to be taken on lightly, what’s more… the damn thing was called “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” which pretty clearly marks that this wasn’t exactly going to be a cheery piece of work and that it would need to be something I would need to watch with a certain clear mindset that the year 2020 has not necessarily been providing all the time.  Still, I knew this would be an interesting and challenging movie I should see and assess so I finally found the right evening and gave the film a watch.

            The film begins with a woman of about thirty (Jessie Buckley) in a car with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) driving in a snowy rural area somewhere in the Northeast or Midwest.  The two apparently haven’t been a couple for too long and seem to some from some kind of academic background as the woman seems to have some kind of grad school class to get back to and the two are prone to trade literary references and the like.  They are apparently going on an outing to visit Jake’s parents at their farm home, which we learn from a voiceover the woman is conflicted about because she’s come to be rather disillusioned by this relationship and as the title says she’s thinking of ending things with him.  Eventually they get to the farm and meet his mother (Toni Collette) and father (David Thewlis), who are somewhat awkward and embarrassing in their own parental sort of way.  But as the visit goes on people start behaving increasingly strange and what’s real in this situation becomes increasingly unclear.

            All of Charlie Kaufman’s films are a bit strange but they’ve only become more challenging over time.  Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were all sorts of weird but they were weird in ways that announced themselves pretty quickly and audiences were generally in on the game from the beginning and any other flights of fancy just felt like odd gravy on top.  Once Kaufman started directing his own film with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York his films started to grow more symbolic and harder to really grasp and that’s particularly true about this film, which abandon’s a lot of the comedy of Kaufman’s earlier films in favor of a certain sense of dread and confusion.  I’ve seen people describe it as a straight-up horror movie, which I don’t think is accurate but it is playing with certain film language that wouldn’t be completely out of place in one.  In fact the film in many ways reminded me a lot of the work of David Lynch in its willingness to be a sort of dive into the subconscious with no interest in explaining itself while being set against a modern American landscape. 

            This is not a movie that I can say I fully understand so this review is going to be less of an in depth analysis and more of just a reaction to what I watched and what I think about it.  Visually I certainly found a lot to like about the film.  That scene in the car at the beginning is like a masterclass in gloomy atmosphere and pretty accurately captures that feeling of driving through a light snowfall and uses the occasional swoosh of the wipers as a sort of slow metronome in the background.  Plemons and Buckley are well chosen as a rather non-glamourous couple to put at the center of this thing and putting them in heavy jackets for this car ride conversation is a good way to subtly suggest the distance between the two of them.  It’s a scene reminiscent of similar “car conversations” at the opening of Before Midnight and Certified Copy and it kind of suggests that this will primarily be a deep dive into this relationship but that is a bit of a fake out.  As the movie goes on it starts to seem like a movie about them and more like a movie specifically about her… until it stops being a movie about her and starts to be something else entirely. 

            In the third act things start to get really weird in a way that a lot of people are not going to have even a little bit of patience for and I must say it really weirded me out in a bad way at first but looking back on it I do think I know what was basically going on with most of that and with the movie in general though I won’t be going through it in spoilerific detail.  Put it all together and the movie is impressive though I must say that that doesn’t automatically make it a completely compelling viewing experience in retrospect and not every part completely works for me even if I sort of see how it fits.  Though there’s a lot I like about this I do wish that Charlie Kaufman could lighten up a bit because his last couple movies have been awfully depressive and cryptic and his movies as a director have felt less like brainy fun and more like difficult therapy sessions.  But difficult therapy is sometimes what you need and when it’s conducted with this much skill I think it’s worth it if you’re in the right mood.
***1/2 out of Five

Crash Course: Mike Nichols Deep Cuts – Part 2

This is Part 2 of a two part retrospective of the Mike Nichols films that I hadn’t seen.  You can see Part 1 here.

Regarding Henry (1991)

Out of most of the Mike Nichols movies I’ve looked at here Regarding Henry probably had the most clearly negative reputations.  Well, Day of the Dolphin probably has the worse reputation overall, but that is at least seen as something of a fun curio where this is just viewed as a highly basic drama of the kind people only really watched when forced to do so by airlines in the 90s.  The film stars Harrison Ford as the title character, a well-paid civil lawyer who gets shot in the head in a random act of violence but miraculously survives the shooting but has massive brain damage which basically erases most of his memories and in many ways his very identity.  From there he must wake up and become reacquainted with his own wife and daughter and find a new place in society as he increasingly learns the details of his former life and doesn’t exactly like what he learns.  A big part of the potential interest here is that Henry basically comes to learn that in his former life he was kind of an asshole.  His law practice was rather unethical and he was also cheating on his wife.  That latter fact was made to be a surprise for the audience… a very predictable and signposted surprise, but ostensibly a surprise, but the film basically reveals from the beginning that he was a pretty unlikable attorney as the very first scene shows him railroading an old man out of a malpractice ruling.  I feel like the movie might have been more interesting if it hadn’t shown anything of his old life upfront and instead let us find out about Henry’s past along with him. 

Mike Nichols had previously worked with Harrison Ford in his film Working Girl and this was likely seen as an opportunity to work with him again more extensively, which was almost certainly beneficial to the project as Ford was a major star at this point and when this was made star power was a huge part of the film industry.  The fact that so many celebrities wanted to work with him was probably a key part of why Nichols worked so consistently during this period, especially considering that he generally wasn’t generally working with huge budgets.  Ford’s performance is plainly the selling point here and he does do some interesting things here making his character something of a blank and essentially playing a mentally handicapped person without really encroaching on a real condition that many actual people suffer from.  The film was also an early starring vehicle for Annette Bening, who had primarily done impressive supporting roles before this, and she does pretty well despite having a not terribly well written part.  One thing that did jump out at me while looking through the credits was that the screenplay for this thing was written by, of all people, a twenty five year old J.J. Abrams.  Abrams didn’t really become a “name” until the 2000s when he became a prominent TV producer, but he spent most of the 90s writing mercenary dramas this and the Mel Gibson vehicle Forever Young and it frankly feels kind of like the product of one of those screenwriting seminars that were in vogue at the time which would teach people how to make marketable formulaic dramas with high concepts.  

Another name I wasn’t expecting to be associated with the movie was Hans Zimmer, who was a few years into his Hollywood career and wasn’t yet primarily working in action movies.  I must say that his work here is not helping as his score sounds dated and lame.  In fact I’d say the whole movie feels a bit like another era’s mediocrity.  This is exactly the kind of “mid-sized adult drama” that people lament that Hollywood doesn’t make anymore but also a good example of why Hollywood wasn’t always the best stewards of movies like this.  It takes a concept that has some potential but explores it in a way that’s rather devoid of creativity or wisdom, it’s a movie that kind of just goes through the motions while hoping its central performance will be interesting enough to carry it.  In a way it feels like a bit of a low point for Nichols, not so much because there’s anything overtly lousy about it or because it was particularly unsuccessful (it did fine) but because it feels like uninspired Hollywood product that does not need a real talent like him behind it.
** out of Five

The Birdcage (1996)

Regarding Henry had certainly been a critical disappointment and Mike Nichols spent much of the rest of the early 90s making a rather uncharacteristic film: a horror movie called Wolf starring Jack Nicholson.  That movie was a bit misbegotten and suffered from a troubled production and large budget overruns.  I’ve seen that movie, I don’t think it’s very good, but it is at least interesting and ambitious in a way that something like Regarding Henry or even a more successful if formulaic movie like Biloxi Blues isn’t and I think making that movie must have helped set him on the right course to some extent because starting in the late 90s he had a bit of a creative resurgence and the movie that kicked it off was one of his biggest commercial hits: 1996’s The BirdcageThe Birdcage was a remake of the popular 1978 French comedy La Cage aux Folles, itself an adaptation of a play of the same title and the inspiration for a Broadway musical in the 80s.  This particular adaptation was written by none other than Nichols’ old comedy partner Elaine May (herself needing a bit of a comeback after the failure of Ishtar and a decade spent largely doing uncredited script doctor work), and I’m not really sure that there was much of an impedes for remaking this particular movie at this particular time beyond the fact that May and Nichols thought it could be a hit if done right and considering that the movie made $124 million domestically they were probably right. 

Despite its French origins La Cage aux Folles was never really an “arthouse” movie and it actually made quite a lot of money in the United States.  In fact it’s to this day the eleventh highest grossing foreign language film of all time without even adjusting for inflation, so there was already a pretty commercial comedy to be found in the material.  There really aren’t a lot of major differences between La Cage aux Folles and The Birdcage; the story is basically identical and a lot of the comedic beats are brought over almost scene to scene.  In a way Mike Nichols was almost approaching this like he would one of his stage productions as a lot of the challenge was bringing in a new cast and making sure they work well in tandem and this is where The Birdcage does have something of an advantage over its predecessors: star power.  This is a film that managed to cast the genie from Aladdin and Timon from The Lion King as gay lovers and climaxed with Gene Hackman in drag, which is something that’s inherently going to have more impact as a sight gag than seeing the otherwise unknown French guy in the comparable role in the original. 

Of course it would sort of be overlooking the elephant in the room to not bring up the fact that this was a Hollywood movie about homosexuality released in the mid-90s, when such things were relative rarities.  It would be easy say that La Cage Aux Folles was the real groundbreaker and that this one was eighteen years late, but that’s being a bit willfully oblivious to the increased stakes of a piece of mainstream culture that will really reach into middle America.  But does this representation hold up?  Well, I’m probably not the most qualified person to say, but I’ve mostly heard positive things from gay critics who look back on it.  It was of course a movie that was almost entirely made by straight people; Nichols and May were both straight, as was Robin Williams, and as far as I can tell so were the writer of the original play and the makers of La Cage Aux Folles.  Nathan Lane seems to be the only actual homosexual involved, and he was closeted at the time.  That probably would have been frowned upon today, as would the decision to have Hank Azaria play a Guatemalan also probably hasn’t aged well.  All that aside I do think the basic message of “don’t let other people tell you how to live” does hold up.  Were this a wholly original film rather than a remake I’d probably be even more enthusiastic about it, but it does sort of live in La Cage Aux Folles’ shadow, still it’s clearly a riskier work for Nichols and one that he mostly pulled off.
***1/2 out of Five

Primary Colors (1998)

While The Birdcage was primarily a comedy of manners there was a political element in it from the Gene Hackman character, a socially conservative Republican senator dealing with the PR fallout from the death of one of his conservative colleague (a hypocrite who died in bed with an underage prostitute).  That film obviously had no sympathy with this guy and his politics but there was still something of a bipartisan critique of the phoniness and posturing of the political rat race.  Clearly Mike Nichols and Elaine May liked this taste of political satire and wanted to explore that further with their next project and to do that they opted to adapt a novel called “Primary Colors” which was written by the journalist Joe Klein but published anonymously in 1996, in part because it was plainly heavily inspired by Bill Clinton’s 1992 primary campaign with many of the characters being thinly veiled versions of people involved in that campaign.  Emphasis on “thinly” there; the primary candidate is a folksy Arkansas governor with a straight-laced northern wife who’s battling back rumors that he’s a womanizer involved in several extramarital affairs.  You’d really have to be unaware of the politics of the time to not see the parallels but it shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a work of nonfiction either.  The candidates that this “fictional” governor is running against don’t really mirror the ones Clinton ran against in real life and there are events in this primary do seem to be truly fictional. 

The film plays right into these real world parallels, at least when it comes to Governor Jack Stanton as played by John Travolta, who is made to look and sound as much like Clinton as possible to the point where you wonder why they even bothered to change the name.  It’s kind of the most work I think I’ve seen Travolta put into a performance as he’s usually not one to transform himself so much when he act so much as he plays variations on a usual screen persona.  The rest of the cast is a little more removed from their real life inspirations but not a whole lot.  Emma Thompson is clearly meant to be playing Hilary, but she’s not blonde and doesn’t necessarily speak like her.  Billy Bob Thornton is plainly playing James Carville, but with hair, and out protagonist and point of view character played by Adrian Lester is probably a take on George Stephanopoulos but here he’s African American and perhaps a bit less of an experienced authority.  The whole “peak behind the curtain” aspect of the movie is plainly a source of fascination but also a bit of a distraction especially considering that this was a sitting president it was more or less depicting.  The film kind of flopped at the box office in part because audiences weren’t really sure what to make of it: it was about the President but not about the president, it was a satire but not really a comedy, and it also wasn’t exactly clear if it was pro or anti-Clinton in its point. 

So what is the point the film is trying to make?  Well, in a lot of ways it was basically the first work to really try to reckon with the mixed feelings a lot of liberals had about Clinton and his moral issues.  Of course that is a bit prescient because infidelity was supposed to be a much smaller part of Clinton’s overall legacy.  When “anonymous” was writing the “Primary Colors” novel in 1995 and 1996 he based that plotline on the rumors about Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers but Monica Lewinsky had not become known to the public.  Three months before the film came out news of the Lewinsky affair went public and the film became a lot more relevant… maybe too relevant.  I think that in the book and movie the infidelity was meant less to be a critique of sexual mores and more of a stand-in for any number of compromises that people needed to make and things they needed to look the other way on in order to embrace a figure like him or any other politician for that matter.  For much of the movie I found myself kind of chuckling at how quaint some of the “moral failings” the movie was worried about seemed and feeling like it was a bit of a relic, but then right at the end of the movie there’s a scene where this Bill Clinton stand-in is finally challenged by the Adrian Lester character and he comes out with this little gem of a speech:

“This is the price you pay to lead. You don’t think that Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a president? He had to tell his little stories and smile his shit eating back country grin. And he did it just so that one day he’d have the opportunity to stand in front of the nation and appeal to the better angels of our nature. And that’s where the bullshit stops. That’s what it’s all about, so we have the opportunity to make the most of it, to do it the right way.  You know as well as I do, that plenty of people playing this game, they don’t think that way. They’re willing to sell their souls, crawl through sewers, lie to people, divide them, play on their worst fears for nothing! Just for the prize.”

Yeah, that hit me like a ton of bricks given the last four years and the new lows that you-know-who are putting us through this election season.  Yeah, say what you will about Bill Clinton, he was at least a class act in public and the compromises he made were made in good faith and we could have done so much worse.  Shame people couldn’t make the same pragmatic judgment about Hilary.
*** out of Five

What Planet Are You From? (2000)

Primary Colors did not do well at the box office.  People weren’t sure if it was about Bill Clinton, not about Bill Clinton, or if it was in favor of him or against him, and more importantly they weren’t quite sure if it was really supposed to be a comedy exactly.  So it seems that with his next movie Nichols wanted to make something that was unquestionably a farce and that project ended up being a sex comedy called What Planet Are You From?  This film was largely the brainchild of the comedian Garry Shandling, who was mainly known for his television shows “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” and “The Larry Sanders Show,” which are both shows that have rabid followings but which I’ve only seen a couple of episodes of and never really got into.  He would have several small and supporting roles over the course of his career but this was the only movie he ever really made where he was the top billed star and he also wrote the film along with veteran TV writer Michael Leeson, Bill and Ted creator Ed Solomon, and future frequent Denis Leary collaborator Peter Tolan.  Nichols also managed to enlist the talents of a pretty impressive cast to surround Shandling with including Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, Greg Kinnear, Linda Fiorentino, and John Goodman.  With all that talent how could this go wrong?

In a lot of ways What Planet Are You From? is a case study in what can happen when a lot of talented people get behind a very, very, very bad idea. The film is about an alien from an all male species that apparently reproduces through cloning.  For whatever reason this species is planning to take over Earth and rather than showing up with laser beams blasting they plan to infiltrate society by impregnating human females.  Sort of a poorly coordinated Village of the Damned kind of thing, I guess.  Anyway they decide to send the Garry Shandling character to be the first of their kind to impregnate a human and then return with the kid and the intel.  The joke of course is that this guy doesn’t actually know that much about humans, especially women, and he ends up trying to woo all these women based on the rather ludicrous advice he was given in “basic training” and ends up looking like a complete weirdo during a lot of these encounters.  Eventually though he comes to realize that the pickup-artist approach is not going to lead to procreation and he starts a rather odd and improbable relationship with a lady played by Annette Bening.

Being generous I think the goal here was to make something of a satire of modern dating and the misunderstandings that emerge between men and women (a sort of ad absurdum exaggeration of the “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” idea).  Also it’s a movie with jokes about an alien with a mechanical penis that hums when he’s aroused.  As straight comedy I don’t think the movie is very funny at all.  This is not the kind of material that Shandling seems terribly well suited for and his co-stars aren’t necessarily comedic voices who can just make this material funnier than it is.  I don’t think whatever satirical point it was trying to make really lands either as the scenario in question is a little too outlandish to really closely mirror actual sex and dating dynamics.  The fact that it’s a battle of the sexes movie of sorts that’s been written by four men and directed by one also probably doesn’t help, though I will say that this wasn’t as overtly sexist a work as I’d feared, but that’s largely because its makes its protagonist so unlikeable that it kind of hurts whatever enjoyment you’re going to get from the rest of the film.  Honestly they might have made a better project if they’d just gone all in on making a ribald bit of dirty comedy out of this premise because the movie they came up with satisfies nobody.  It’s the wrong movie, made by the wrong people, and it’s been rightfully forgotten.
* out of Five

Wit (2001)

What Planet Are You From? had been an obvious lowpoint for Mike Nichols but he bounced back from it very quickly but in a different way than many may have expected.  His next project was not a theatrical film but was instead a film that was made directly for HBO but could have easily been shown in theaters and was seen by many as one of the first “TV movies” to really feel like it could have competed at the Oscars if it had been eligible.  The movie was in fact for Mike Nichols a bit of a return to his stage roots.  The film was an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name by Margaret Edson, for whom this was her first and only play and who has opted to remain an elementary school teacher rather than continue her writing career despite that Pulitzer win.  The play was inspired by some work she did in a hospital early in life and is about 48 year old literature professor who finds herself stricken with stage four ovarian cancer and is largely set in her hospital room as she endures the various indignities of cancer treatment while having a very dim prognosis.  The story is largely about watching this brilliant woman be broken down by this disease while still managing to find a degree of dignity while enduring these hardships.

While watching the movie you can definitely tell that it had some stage origins but rarely in a bad way and the film fully takes advantage of the cinematic tricks at its disposal.  The play was not a one-woman show, but it does appear to have extensively involve monologues from this character directed toward the audience.  Here that is largely achieved with voice-over, but there are other tricks here like placing the protagonist in her current form in various flashbacks.  At the center of the film is Emma Thompson, relatively fresh off of working with Nichols on Primary Colors.  She’s pretty perfectly cast here as she’s an actress who always exudes a sort of British pomp that you would expect from a John Donne scholar and in the film you can sense her trying to preserve that despite being bald and wearing a hospital gown for most of the movie.  She’s the focus but the doctors treating her are important secondary characters.  The main Oncologist is played by Christopher Lloyd and is something of a grizzled presence who lacks certain bedside manner, Jonathan M. Woodward plays a younger doctor attending to her who is a former student of hers and is generally awkward in his treatment, and then Audra McDonald plays a nurse who is a bit more in touch with the humane side of treatment and is the closest thing our protagonist has to a friend in this process. 

Now, obviously the film is not exactly covering cheery subject matter and is in many ways a reversal from the string of comedies that Nichols had been making.  That is probably a big part of why the film ended up getting its funding from HBO rather than a Hollywood studio with the studios probably assuming that getting people out to a theater to watch a lady slowly die was a bit of tough sell.  Still I hardly found the movie to be unwatchablely depressing.  The film is ultimately more of a character study than anything and you do come away from the movie with a special respect for this person and how much the world loses with her loss and the film even gains a certain power from the fact that she’s doesn’t really have a family and that her loss is focused specifically on her as an individual rather than the people she would theoretically leave behind.  It’s a great example of how to adapt material that feels inherently stagey and is definitely one of the best movies I looked at through this whole retrospective.
**** out of Five

In Conclusion

To many Wit is retrospectively viewed as something of a trial run for Nichols next project for HBO which was his most ambitious theater adaptation to date: an all-star six part miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s landmark play “Angels in America.”  That was another television triumph and that allowed him to make two last theatrical films: 2004’s Closer, which was another dark theater adaptation (and incidentally the only Mike Nichols film I saw theatrically on first run) and then he followed that up with the 2007 Aaron Sorkin penned Charlie Wilson’s War, which was something of a return to the political satire line he was developing with Primary Colors.  That was unfortunately his last movie.  He did some theater direction on Broadway in the 2010s but didn’t make another film or television project and died of a heart attack at 83 in 2014. 

So what have I learned from watching all of this?  Well the consensus around Nichols is that he was one of the few major talents to come out of the New Hollywood era who didn’t really aspire to be an auteur and was someone who fit his style to the material he was working with rather than the reverse.  In fact in an interview he once mocked the whole concept of auteurism saying “The [French] guys with the cigarette ashes on them ignored our greatest directors and humiliated George Stevens, Willie Wyler, Billy Wilder… these were great men, but they just weren’t part of the froggy conspiracy.”  Indeed, I did find myself talking about Nichols collaborators an awful lot while watching these movies and especially the various screenwriters he worked and how he often wasn’t able to transcend second rate material.  But looking at all of these movies I think there actually could be a case to be made for Mike Nichols as an auteur, or at the very least I started to see some distinct patterns.  Before watching all of these I used to think of Nichols’ theatrical career as something of a footnote but it’s actually something that pervades his film career: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Biloxi Blues, The Birdcage, Wit, Angels in America, and Closer were all straight-up stage adaptations but even the projects that weren’t like Carnal Knowledge, Silkwood, Postcards from the Edge, and Charlie Wilson’s War were often given the same reverence for writing and focus acting.  Among the films of his that didn’t work so well were the ones that either required a bit more comedic spontaneity (The Fortune, What Planet Are You From?), or more of a cinematic daring (The Day of the Dolphin, Wolf), or which just wasn’t working with very good material to begin with (Heartburn, Regarding Henry). 

The thing is, as hit and miss as his filmography could be he was rarely down for the count for too long.  He seemed to be a fairly reliable person who didn’t let productions get away from him (with a couple of exceptions like Wolf) and he seems to have been a very pleasant person to work with as top rate stars like Meryl Steep, Jack Nicholson, Emma Thompson, Harrison Ford and Annette Bening all kept on working with him even when some of the movies they made with him didn’t quite work out.  He wasn’t someone you heard disappointing stories about and could never count out and even though a vast majority of his work strikes me as being good rather than great it’s a shame we didn’t get another decade of work out of him because he really seemed to have been rejuvenated towards the end.

Crash Course: Mike Nichols Deep Cuts – Part 1


Two of my favorite film books in recent years are “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood” and “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” both by the journalist/author Mark Harris.  Harris is a fairly prominent freelance writer on the topic of film as well as award season and also an invaluable Twitter follow.  Anyway Harris has announced that his next book is going to be a comprehensive biography of the director Mike Nichols, which sounds pretty exciting.  I’ve seen most of Nichols’ biggest triumphs like The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but there are quite a few blind spots that I haven’t seen so with that book coming out in February this seemed like a good time to go back and take a look at as many of the Mike Nichols films I haven’t gotten around to before. 

The Day of the Dolphin (1973)

MNDayoftheDolphinMike Nichols famously began his career as half of the Nichols and May nightclub act with Elaine May before branching into theater direction which he instantly succeeded at, winning a Tony right out the gate by mounting the original staging of “Barefoot in the Park” and then winning another Tony for directing “Luv” and “The Odd Couple” in the same year.  From there he ventured into film and right out the gate directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and followed it up with The Graduate.  He then made an adaptation of Catch-22, which could be viewed as the first slight failure in his career, but it was still the kind of interesting and ambitious project that most would give him credit for even trying to mount and he followed it up with a big comeback in Carnal Knowledge.  The dude could have retired right there and claim to have one of the greatest careers in film history.  Then came 1973’s The Day of the Dolphin, which is earliest Nichols film I haven’t seen and in many ways an odd place to start an exploration of his career… in part because it’s just bizarre that he chose to make this… or that anyone tried to make it. 

The poster for The Day of the Dolphin has the following description written across it: “Unwittingly, he trained a dolphin to kill the president of the United States.”  This description is both accurate to the plot of this movie… and also makes the movie sound a lot more interesting than it actually is, somehow.  The thing is it seems like Mike Nichols and everyone else involved was kind of oblivious to how pulpy this premise seems to everyone else because this movie takes itself VERY seriously.  When you look into the project’s genesis you get a better idea of how this came to be.  It was based on a French novel called “Un animal doué de raison” (A Sentient Animal) and this book was taken fairly serious as literature and was trying to be a sort of proto Michael Crichton type of thing that explored the intelligence of dolphins, took that to the next level and added a bit of a thriller hook in to get people interested which was meant to be sort of a symbol for the dolphins being corrupted by humanity but when you actually describe it as a plot point it seems incredibly silly and it also seems awfully silly when put on the screen. 

George C. Scott stars and we get several scenes of him interacting with dolphins that have been trained to talk in a sort of high pitched dolphin-speak.  The filmmakers probably would have probably saved themselves some grief if they had trained these aquatic mammals some kind of sign language or something instead of trying to have them carry on conversations with Scott in broken high pitched English.  When the assassination thriller plot finally does come in it isn’t very exciting or interesting.  The dolphins are just being trained to plant a bomb on a boat, and this get resolved uninterestingly, it’s just kind of boring and so is the rest of the film. 

** out of Five


The Fortune (1975)

MNTheFortuneOf all the Nichols films I was planning to watch for this little marathon The Fortune was probably the one I was most excited about.  It was a 1920s con artist movie starring Warren Beatty, Jack Nicholson, and Stockard Channing released right at the height of New Hollywood’s ascendance… how had I not heard of it?  In fact by all accounts Nichols made the film in part because it sounded like such a slam dunk and he needed a financial success after Catch-22 and The Day of the Dolphin.  But the resultant movie was not a slam dunk critically or commercially.  As far as I can tell it wasn’t some kind of Heaven’s Gate style high profile flop or anything, but it was not well liked and it came and went at the box office.  So how did a film with such a pedigree underwhelm this much?  Well, I suspect that over-confidence had a lot to do with it.  There’s an old SNL sketch where Phil Hartman as Bill Clinton confesses to a bunch of ridiculous calamities and then says that another Warren Beatty bomb, Ishtar, was his fault and that he said “don’t worry about the script, just put Hoffman and Beatty out in the desert, put a sarape on them and trust me something funny will happen” and I think something similar happened here.  It was just assumed that chemistry would form between these two stars and that they would make the material come to life by default even though they are not really comedians and aren’t exactly going to be able to improvise their way through something.

The film is set in the 1920s and begins with Warren Beatty’s character planning to run away with an heiress who he’s really mostly interested in for her money.  Because of the antiquated Mann Act he could get in trouble for moving her across state lines for “immoral reason” and he can’t marry her to get around this because he is himself already married pending a divorce so he devises a plan where she instead marries her friend played by Jack Nicholson so they can go to California unencumbered and he can then continue the affair.  As high concepts go that’s kind of elaborate, which is trouble right out the gate.  Both men are playing rather broad goofballs with Nicholson playing a guy who generally seems to have a couple of screws loose and Beatty playing a dude who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is.  As for Stockard Channing, well she has kind of a thankless task because everything about this concept kind of reeks of misogyny despite this screenplay having been written by a woman (Carole Eastman under the pseudonyms Adrien Joyce).  The two protagonists basically barter this woman between each other before eventually deciding to discard her when it’s convenient.  The film doesn’t necessarily condone this behavior and they aren’t rewarded for it at the end but I’m not sure the film quite grasps the darkness of all this and the film’s attempt to make light comedy out of all of it just falls flat. 

Some of the talent involved in the making of the film is present on the screen.  The film’s visual style is mostly on point and there are a couple of comedic moments that work like a scene where the two guys cause a traffic jam on a bridge.  I also wouldn’t necessarily say the performances are “bad” so much as they aren’t able to carry a film that was otherwise a fairly botched attempt to bring back the screwball comedy that kind of lives in the shadow of what fellow future under-achiever Peter Bogdanovich was doing earlier in the decade.

** out of Five


Heartburn (1986)

MNHeartburnAfter his trilogy of 70s flops (Catch-22, The Day of the Dolphin, and The Fortune) Mike Nichols took the rest of that decade off from Hollywood and returned to his work in Broadway as well as mounting a filming of a Gilda Radner one-woman-show.  He did finally come back to film to make the movie Silkwood, which wasn’t exactly a return to the heights of The Graduate but it was a successful prestige movie which earned five Oscar nominations.  To my eyes that movie is average at best but a career comeback is a career comeback.  That movie starred Meryl Streep right as she was emerging as one of the biggest stars of the era and was also notable for being the first produced screenplay from Nora Ephron, who was already something of a celebrity in the world of newspaper columns and essay writing.  That movie, an expose of conditions at a plutonium plant, was not terribly representative of the kind of relationship focused comedy that she would become known for.  Her next screenplay would be a more personal piece of work adapted from her own auto-biographical novel “Heartburn.”  This project would also star Meryl Streep and it seemed logical that Mike Nichols would also sign on to direct this project given the success the trio had with Silkwood, though in many ways this would feel more like an Ephron project than a Nichols project.

The film is a very thinly fictionalized account of Ephron’s marriage to and divorce from the journalist Carl Bernstein (of “Woodward and” fame), which was derailed by Bernstein’s affair with the British journalist Margaret Jay.  Here the Ephron character is named Rachel Samstat and is played by Streep and the Bernstein character is named Mark Forman and is played by Jack Nicholson.  The poster and questionable title make this look like a rom-com but the two end up married within the first twenty minutes without a whole lot of explanation of what attracted them to each other in the first place or why the audience should particularly care about either of them to begin with.  We’re told that both are journalists but we’re given no indication that the Nicholson character is nearly eminent enough to have taken down a presidency and the Streep character never seems terribly dedicated to her career either.  This is a problem because when their marriage eventually falls apart the audience isn’t given much more insight into what drove them apart than they’re given about what attracted them in the first place.  Streep is basically considered blameless in all this and Nicholson just cheats offscreen and isn’t even really enough of asshole to even be interestingly over the top.  From there the movie basically just never picks up any kind of momentum and goes nowhere and any audience member not “in the know” about who these people are supposed to be based on would probably be particularly confused about why anyone wanted to make a movie about such a mundane marriage.

There are a couple of points of trivia here worth knowing about.  The fact that Miloš Forman has a small part in it is interesting and it was also interesting seeing a 27 year old Kevin Spacey pop in out of nowhere in a tiny role as a thief on a subway, but of course that’s only interesting in retrospect.  The film certainly never exudes incompetence.  Meryl Streep is over-qualified but generally perfectly solid here and while Jack Nicholson’s casting is a touch on the nose he isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong here either.  Nichols films the movie quite competently within the style of 80s Hollywood filmmaking and few elements of the movie stick out as being particularly wrong or “bad” exactly.  In fact the movie would probably be pretty good if not for the fact that it was deeply pointless and misguided.  Clearly it’s just an example of a writer being too close to a story to have real perspective on it and maybe being too navel gazing to do the work to make other people care and she was surrounded by talented people who didn’t really challenge her enough and whose clout got the movie made despite the fact that it basically has no real hook to get people interested.  It’s a movie that’s not so much awful as it is deeply forgettable.

** out of Five


Biloxi Blues (1988)

MNBiloxiBluesMike Nichols made two films in 1988.  One of those films, Working Girl, was something of a continuation of the more female based films he began the decade making and became a big hit that was nominated for several Oscars.  I watched that movie a while back while marathoning through a lot of Oscar nominees and I don’t think I got much out of it at the time, but I should probably revisit it someday.  Instead I’ll be looking at the other movie he made that year, Biloxi Blues, which most people thought was… fine.  It’s one of those titles you see all the time in TV guides and whatnot but otherwise rarely hear about or feel much need to look into what it’s about or what the word “Biloxi” even means.  As it turns out Biloxi is a town in Mississippi where an army base is located.  The film follows a guy named Eugene Morris Jerome (played by Matthew Broderick) who was sent to this base for basic training when he was drafted late in World War 2 (late to the point where the war would actually be over before he saw any action) and the film is essentially a coming of age film about his experiences at this camp and his dealings with a rather overbearing drill sergeant played by Christopher Walken and his friendship with a relatively meek film named Arnold Epstein played by Corey Parker.

Biloxi Blues was an adaptation of a play by Neil Simon, who had been rather intertwined with Nichols’ early stage career.  Nichols had directed Simon’s two biggest Broadway hits, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, so this project would have been something of a homecoming for both men.  Now I’m not terribly familiar with Simon or his stage work but I must say that from what little I’ve seen of his work through film adaptations and the like I haven’t been terribly impressed, or at least I don’t see what the big deal was, but again I’m not quite in a place to judge.  “Biloxi Blues” was a later work that had only debuted three years before the film was made and was the middle installment of an autobiographical “Eugene Trilogy” along with “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Broadway Bound,” both of which also had film adaptations albeit with completely different casts and crews and (to my knowledge) all three are standalone works which follow the same character who is a thinly fictionalized version of the playwright as a young man.  You can tell this has stage origins while watching this film adaptation when you know about its origins but I wouldn’t say it felt overly “stagey” in its feel when all is said and done.  It’s certainly less of a comedy than its dumb poster would suggest and feels more like a pretty sincere and slightly nostalgia prone memoir despite some occasional bits of darkness.

This film was probably a bit of a victim of bad timing as it came out the year after Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the first half of which is also a look at a group of enlisted people going through basic training and being broken down by an overbearing drill sergeant.  Christopher Walken’s drill sergeant here is a bit different from R. Lee Ermey’s as he’s generally less shouty and tends to control the enlistees more by exerting his authority on people and inciting reprisals against various people by their colleagues.   I suspect this depiction is a little more realistic in some ways and less realistic than others but the intentions are a bit different.  Full Metal Jacket was depicting a rather extreme situation that was ultimately going to end in tragedy while Biloxi Blues is simply trying to depict an unpleasant but ultimately character building situation.  Really the movie has more in common with something like Midnight Clear than that Kubrick movie, or maybe even with something like Dead Poet’s Society or even Stand By Me.  Hell the movie even ends with a voiceover about how fondly the main character looks back on all of this even though it kind of sucked at the time.  Really if there’s anything wrong with the movie it’s just that it’s kind of predictable and doesn’t really do anything all that new or interesting and that’s why it hasn’t really had that much of an impact when all is said and done, but it’s certainly a watchable and generally pleasant enough film.

*** out of Five


Postcards from the Edge (1990)

MNPostcardsFromTheEdgeWhen Carrie Fisher died in late 2016 and her mother Debbie Reynolds died just a day later one of the biggest topics in both women’s obituaries was the 1990 film Postcards from the Edge, which was written by Fisher from her own novel of the same name and which was almost certainly based on her own relationship with her mother.  I thought about watching it back then, but never got around to it.  Watching it in the context of this Mike Nichols marathon the film’s basic pedigree gave me some wary flashbacks: this is after all Nichols making a movie based on an autobiographical novel by a female show business figure starring Meryl Streep and featuring music by Carley Simon.  Sounds a lot like Heartburn doesn’t it?  But this was a better received movie than that and fit well within a trend of slightly weepy movies from that time about female friends and/or mother daughter relationships like Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, and Beaches

Meryl Streep plays the Carrie Fisher analogue in the film, an actress with an actress mother who struggles with drug addiction, and I’d say that it’s one of the better Meryl Streep performances to not involve an accent or a physical transformation or something.  She’s able to make this character a bit of a bubblehead at times while still mostly keeping her grounded and human.  The film deals with this actress’ drug addiction and opens with her essentially hitting rock bottom by over-dosing in a strange man’s bed, getting her stomach pumped, and not remembering what happened before being put into rehab.  That sounds like the opening of a movie that is decidedly heavier than the one we get.  I wouldn’t exactly call this a romantic comedy (it’s not romantic and not really a comedy) but it sort of has that tone.  This is a little weird as this is a movie that is at least partly about drug addiction, which is a topic that it handled rather lightly here.  The film spends about ten minutes with the character in rehab but after that the addiction becomes kind of a background element as she tries to re-establish her acting career.  Is that an inherently bad thing?  Not necessarily.  Not everyone with a drug problem is going to have a life straight out of Requiem for a Dream and there is room for stories about people who are able to get their life back together after a single rehab stint, but for a movie whose title claims to be about “the edge” the film isn’t exactly “edgy.”

When asked about the novel and screenplay Carrie Fisher has said that it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a memoir and has suggested that people shouldn’t view it as an account of her real life… but it’s certainly not a coincidence that the film is about an actress with an actress mother and a drug problem.  Of course she’s far from the only author to make a career off of writing about thinly fictionalized alter egos, but she is the one who was a celebrity before she started doing that.  No one’s ever seen Phillip Roth in a metallic bra while chained to a space slug, so it feels different when he does it.  The details here more than likely are fictional, like her aborted and messed up relationship with the Dennis Quaid character and her experiences on the one film set are likely a composite of several jobs and other moments are almost certainly exaggerated.  If there’s any issue with the movie it’s less in the details than in the overall arc, which kind of lacks a central motivation and which doesn’t really have a clear endpoint it’s working toward and I found the film’s final ending to be somewhat abrupt. 

*** out of Five


To be Continued in Part 2