Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Sweet Bird of Youth/ The Verdict/ Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/ Somebody Up There Likes Me

November 23, 2008

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) ****

Directed by Richard Brooks

The Verdict (1982) **1/2

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) ****

Directed by George Roy Hill

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) ****1/2

Directed by Robert Wise

As I think about these four films, maybe with the exception of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the best aspect by far in each is Paul Newman’s performance. Without it, I doubt any of them would have the stature and respect they have today, and that includes Butch Cassidy. The Verdict has nothing worthwhile in it except Newman’s acting. Sweet Bird of Youth and Somebody Up There Likes Me are both fine films, but they’re certainly not “must sees” in themselves. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is an important film that is almost universally revered. For that reason, more than for the quality of the film itself, everyone who loves cinema must see Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid at least once in their lives.

My Paul Newman Marathon was just about through when I decided that I wanted to expand it. With the exception of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which I believe Newman was miscast, I’ve been wowed by the power of his performances in film after film. After watching so many movies from 2007, most of which didn’t affect me in any emotional way, I felt like I ought to continue watching this screen legend do what he does best—act. Perhaps I will continue to be wowed. Hopefully so, considering that’s what makes all this film watching worth something.

Newman’s performance in Sweet Bird of Youth is his most overtly sexual that I’ve seen so far. After all, he is playing a boytoy to Geraldine Page’s Alexandra del Lago, a fading starlet whose life has become ravaged by addiction. Newman is shirtless and sweaty in one scene doing situps that go beyond a 90 degree angle. In another, he’s laying down on a bed while Alexandra unbuttons his shirt and neatly exposes the right side of his chest. Yet, the story isn’t ultimately about their relationship, which is great because if it was, then Newman might not have had the chance to shine in the way that he did. Geraldine Page is a truly glorious actress giving the film’s best performance, even better than Newman’s. Yet, she’s a supporting character which allows Newman’s Chance Wayne many scenes without her. Therefore, Newman’s brilliant performance is the most important. He carries this odd but fascinating movie on his shoulders in most scenes.

What I’m starting to see in Newman’s performances is a refreshing sense of humility that follows him from film to film. In his scenes with Page, I’m sure Newman could have been bigger in order to steal the scenes for himself. Instead, he allows Alexandra’s larger than life persona to take center stage. That was a smart decision on Newman’s part because I don’t think anyone could have successfully overshadowed Page as Del Lago. Newman doesn’t even try to match her presence. He’s understated during these scenes which presents the perfect balance between the two. The sequences with the two of them together are the very best in Sweet Bird of Youth.

The rest of the film is fine overall. Chance returns to his hometown after gaining and losing noterity as a stage dancer with Alexandra del Lago who is passed out from the alcohol and drugs that are in her system. Chance learns that his mother has died since he’s been away. That’s not the most shocking news. Newman’s childhood sweetheart Heavenly Finley (Shirley Knight) procured an abortion shortly after he left. Things are made more complicated by the fact that Heavenly’s father is a famous conservative senator named Boss Finley. He’s played terribly by Ed Begley. Sweet Bird of Youth is a Tennessee Williams play, so Boss is very similar to Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I couldn’t help compare the two performances, and Burt Ives’ tremendous acting makes Ed Begley’s Boss Finley seem like a French poodle. Boss Finley, with the help of his pathetic menacing son Tom Finley Jr. (Rip Torn), makes it very clear to Chance that he is to stay away from Heavenly and leave town or else he will face serious consequences.

There’s not a whole lot more to say about Sweet Bird of Youth besides the fact that the film is very good, containing Williams’ signature Southern dialogue, and that Newman and especially Page are superb. Williams is unarguably adept at telling stories showcasing how much life can suck This one’s no different.

I’m going to dismiss The Verdict fairly quickly. Newman is great, if not perhaps a bit miscast, as a down on his luck lawyer named Frank Galvin. Galvin attempts to get an out of settlement court deal in a medical malpractice lawsuit against a Catholic hospital. Ultimately, he decides that taking the case to court is the just thing to do. Yes, I realize that Law and Order didn’t debut on television for almost another decade; however, a good episode of that show is a more fulfilling watch than The Verdict. I’d even go so far as to say a great episode of Matlock is better than this tired, predictable film.

One of the first films I watched after I decided to tackle all of the films on the American Film Insititute’s List of the 100 Greatest was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. There were scenes I enjoyed quite a lot, including the sequence that looks like we are witnessing sexual abuse when in reality it’s a twisted consentual sex game, and the hilarious bank representative who refuses two times to let Butch and Sundance pilfer his boss’ money only to receive massive injuries when dynamite is used. Otherwise, upon first viewing, I found the film to be downright boring.

Granted, this is before I watched great Westerns like Stagecoach, The Searchers, High Noon and Shane. The dialogue free horse chases in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which are a staple element in most Westerns, took me by surprise and not in a good way. Watching this film over a year ago felt more like a homework assignment than entertainment. Therefore, I concluded that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a good film, but it certainly wasn’t as good as I thought it was going to be.

After watching it a second time with a more informed eye, I still conclude that it’s a good film, but it certainly isn’t as great as many people say it is. Yet, I enjoyed it a great deal this time. Both Newman and Redford seem to be having the best times, and few on screen duos in history have more chemisty than these two. Redford, as the quick shooting Sundance, has the more complicated role, often times having to act and look serious while still maintaining a playful demeanor. Newman’s Butch is simply happy-go-lucky, always willing to crack a joke or a smile even in the direst circumstances.

Personally, I felt like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was trying to be another Bonnie and Clyde, which is a superior film by far, not only because it’s more entertaining, but also because it is a milestone regarding film violence. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is about two robbers who reach celebrity status as they try and outrun the law. That same description is also accurate for Bonnie and Clyde, which I will state again is a better film in every way possible.

I found it somewhat interesting but ultimately unfulfilling that the law was represented as a Wyoming policeman wearing a white hat that almost has a supernatural ability of pursuit—always knowing where to find out where Butch and Sundance are hiding. It felt almost manipulative that his character was never really shown on screen. Further, The Graduate’s Katherine Ross is about as bland as plain yogurt from beginning to end. I can only imagine feminists cringing when Ross’ Etta Place agrees to give up everything to escape with Butch and Sundance to Bolivia and be their unquestioning servant as long as they promise that she won’t have to watch them die. I think John Wayne riding in on a horse and saying, “Well, hello there, little lady,” would have made that moment complete.

For some reason, I recalled this film’s running time to be over two and a half hours. Maybe it just felt that long. Therefore, I was surprised to find out that it’s only a bit over one hundred minutes. Time absolutely flew during this viewing. It felt crisp and fast moving, which is ironic considering that I felt the complete opposite only a year ago. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid feels like a good film trying to be great that happened to stumble upon a perceived greatness that it doesn’t deserve.

After Hud, I think Newman’s second best performance comes from his breakout film Somebody Up There Likes Me as Rocky Graziano. His performance injects an incredible amount of energy into this poignant melodrama. Though this isn’t Newman’s first film role, it’s the one that got him noticed, and you can see why. He adopts this aggressive New York accent that’s hard to take at first, but after listening to it a while, it’s almost impossible not to admire it.

Interestingly enough, this is the very role James Dean was supposed to tackle next when he died in a car crash. I can only imagine Dean thrusting himself into this role and riding this film right off the rails with his overacting. In no universe anywhere can I see Dean doing a better job than Newman.

There’s a feel to Somebody Up There Likes Me which at first comes across as if it might have been made in the late 1930’s. There’s an almost over the top, manic pacing that belongs in a James Cagney gangster pic. Literally, it took me about an hour to settle into its momentum and then from there, I found the experience exhilirating. Rocky Graziano, whose memoirs are showcased, was a good man at heart, even though he spent time in prison and was dishonorably discharged from the army. Newman does not hold back in making Rocky extremely unlikable at first.

Then things change for Rocky as he focuses on his natural boxing abilities. Refreshingly, his progression from hopeless street kid to local celebrity and family man unfolds organically with a great deal of believability. Also, there was more than one instance when I felt sure that I knew what was going to happen next, only to be proven wrong. In such a formulaic picture, that’s quite a feat. Ultimately, Somebody Up There Likes Me is a heartwarming, inspirational film that clearly inspired Stallone when he wrote Rocky almost two decades later.

With a career as long as Newman’s, not every film is going to be great. None of these four are masterpieces by any stretch of the imagination; however, it seems that Newman’s acting remained consistently excellent throughout his career. The producers of all four films better have thanked God for the fact that Newman agreed to appear in them. Not only did he make all four better than they should have been, but his legacy sustains the legacy of many of the lesser films in which he’s appeared. Another example of Paul Newman’s greatness.

(Label notes: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Verdict were both Best Picture Oscar Nominees)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Exorcist/ The Shining

November 23, 2008

The Exorcist (1973) ****1/2

Directed by William Friedkin

The Shining (1980) *****

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

I’ve sort of shot myself in the foot this past month with this blog. Before last week, I kept watching film after film—so many that I couldn’t write reviews fast enough. Then it got to the point where I felt stressed out thinking of how behind I was, so for almost a week, I didn’t watch any new movies at all. Thankfully, this past Friday night, I was able to post reviews of four films, and after I post this, that number will have grown to six. Not counting any new films I see later today, I’ll still need to write and post seven more. That may sound like a lot, but hey, that’s what capsule reviews are for.

Appropriately, I watched both The Exorcist and The Shining over Halloween weekend—three weeks ago! This by far is the longest span of time I’ve gone between seeing a movie and writing a review. In general, I try not to wait too long because if I do, I’ll be reviewing my eroding recollection of a film rather than the film itself. However, with these two iconic horror staples, it’s ultimately okay to have waited this long in my opinion considering the fact that both are innately memorable and that the lasting impressions one takes away are just as important as the content within the films themselves.

I’ve written ad nauseum on my issue regarding extreme suspense (visit my review of Paranoid Park to read all about it), so I won’t open up that chestnut again. I’ll simply mention the fact that I knew that someday I’d have to sit down and watch The Exorcist. No one can call himself or herself a film buff without having seen it. Besides, I want to eventually watch every single Best Picture Oscar nominee that’s available, and believe it or not, The Exorcist was nominated in that category, losing to The Sting.

David Gilmour wrote a fantastic book called The Film Club about his high school dropout son and the way the two of them connect by watching three movies a week together. Gilmour structures their father-son film club around themes—everything from French New Wave to So Bad They’re Good. When writing about watching horror films together, Gilmour mentions that The Exorcist was by far the scariest movie he’s ever seen. He actually walked out of the theater two times before he was able to make it all the way through to the end.

So on a bright, sunny Saturday afternoon, I said a quick goodbye to my sanity (you know, just in case), and I began to watch. The Exorcist’s opening scene is effectively unsettling. Shot on location in Iraq, we see Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) examine some kind of disturbing relic found in an archaeological dig, and then the camera quickly cuts to a seemingly evil statue of some kind of demon. Immediately, I was impressed by the fact that a film that’s later going to terrify its audience within the prison-like walls of a bedroom first starts to unsettle in wide open, ancient grounds in the middle of the day.

The subsequent scenes build tension and fear until we are thrust head first into extreme, vulgar horror that in my opinion is more subconsciously daunting than anything. Sure, there are images so deranged that one can’t help but recoil from what’s being shown, and there are sentences uttered that would make an old church lady keel over in shock, but what makes The Exorcist great is how evil is manifested so mercilessly.

The Exorcist is more than just a freak show, and much of the credit for this belongs to its brilliant exposition, which contains moments that have stayed with me just as much as the sequences of all out horror—maybe even more so. There are scenes of sweet, genuine interplay between actress Chris MacNeil and her young teenage daughter Regan, played perfectly by Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair respectively, which help make the initial dark sequences disquieting in comparison. Putting aside a moment involving a Ouiji Board in a basement that comes off forced and predictable, the first real bonechilling moment occurs at a party packed with Chris’ friends that has Regan walking near a piano and urinating on the floor much to everyone’s shock. Doesn’t sound too bad, huh? Well, consider the fact that the urine’s color is this putrid mix between green and dark gray. Friedkin isn’t going to be satisfied with scaring his audience only on a surface level; he’s going to add details that will really get inside one’s psyche. We similarly experience this later with the way the voice of the demon is realized.

There’s another storyline involving Jesuit priest Father Karras, a skeptic of demonic possession, and the way evil touches his soul through the bizarre sickness and death of his traditional Greek mother. He’s played by Jason Miller, who gives an effectively low-key performance. Personally, I thought this subplot was unnecessary, but without the character of Father Karras, I don’t think The Exorcist would have worked at all. I love the fact that Karras at one point dismisses exorcisms as things that belong in the Middle Ages. He explains that psychology now debunks the possibility of demonic possession, which is what most people believe, including myself. Had William Peter Blatty, who wrote the novel and the screenplay, not addressed this cultural skepticism, then The Exorcist could easily have been seen as totally absurd, and it’s easy not to be afraid of the ridiculous. Instead, we see ourselves personified in Karras, and once he shifts from doubt to belief regarding Satan’s power over this girl, we skeptics are forced to believe right along with him in camaraderie.

The Exorcist must be that much more terrifying for those who watch it believing that demonic possession is possible and that Satan is real. For them, there is Father Merrin to connect with. Merrin’s the leading expert in exorcisms, and as such, he knows all too well the stakes involved in this situation. For him, it goes beyond this one little girl to the chilling possibility that the devil has found a way to physically enter this world.

The performances are universally excellent, and Friedkin certainly took this project very seriously, directing it not so much as exploitative, which it arguably is, but as a gritty, dark reality. The world in The Exorcist looks just like my world, minus the girl’s head spinning, etc., and when I’m not taken out of a film, it’s that much easier to be scared about what is happening on screen—it’s happening in this world which is my world too! I don’t think The Exorcist is a masterpiece—it’s too aggressively unpleasant to be perfectly entertaining—but it’s certaintly a very good, very evil snake of a film.

The Shining on the other hand is aesthetically breathtaking, profoundly entertaining and compulsively watchable, and as such, it deserves to be called a masterpiece. I think I may have started a new tradition. I just might have to revisit The Shining every Halloween. This film scared me, but it more than earned my fear considering Kubrick’s obsessively grandiose direction, its deliciously evil narrative structure and performances that totally chew the paper right off the walls of the Overlook Hotel.

I had almost as much fun reading the backstory behind the making of The Shining as I did with the film itself. The very first trivia fact on reads, “During the making of the movie, Stanley Kubrick would call Stephen King at 3:00 am and ask him questions like, ‘Do you believe in God?’” King, who wrote the book The Shining, has since condemned this film as not in sync with his vision. Considering the kind of obsessive control freak Kubrick was as a director, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of King’s issues with this film are personal.

The plot involves a novelist named Jack Torrence (Jack Nicholson) who takes a job as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel high in the mountains of Colorado. The hotel is closed during the winter months, so Jack, his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and their six year old son Danny (Danny Lloyd) will be there all alone. Jack is warned that in the past, one of the caretakers went mad and brutally killed his family and himself.

Almost immediately, Danny begins to see horrific visions of ghosts and evil spirits that supposedly haunt this hotel. He learns from the hotel’s cook, named Dick (Scatman Crothers), that they both share this power in common, and it’s called “shining.” As time passes, Jack rapidly goes insane with rage, goaded on by the spirits of the dead. This ultimately leads to a brilliant, iconic chase which has Wendy and Danny running for their lives.

As usual, Jack Nicholson is so damn good and so much fun to watch. Duvall is perfectly cast considering the fact that few can look scared and cry better than she can. Another hilarious fact about The Shining is that Kubrick supposedly shot a scene with Duvall 137 times. She’s since said that she was crying so much that day that she literally ran out of tears. Also perfectly cast is Danny Lloyd who never made another movie after this. Apparently, young Danny was ignorant of the fact that he was making a horror film. So when he iconically speaks “REDRUM! REDRUM!” in that chilling voice, he didn’t know the implications of what he was saying.

Clearly, you can see the influence of The Exorcist’s Regan on The Shining’s Danny. I’m totally against using children as a cheap way to manipulate audiences. Yet, in both of these films, the kids are integral to the films’ overall effects. Had Regan and Danny been adults, then they would have had to be written as fully realized characters in themselves, which would have crowded both films. Instead, the children almost become simply set pieces in order to illicit horror. It’s the adults that do the heavy lifting in both films, though out of the two child actors, Linda Blair clearly had the more physically challenging role.

I can’t tell you how much I loved the atmosphere of The Shining. Again, this movie intends to get at its audience subconsciously more than anything else. Kubrick, who wrote the screenplay with Diane Johnson, concludes the film with more questions than answers. There’s a brilliant final image of a picture from six decades earlier showing Jack at a party. What’s that supposed to mean? Are the people Danny sees when he’s shining real? I think it can be argued that Jack wasn’t really seeing or talking to anything when he has his delusions, but then is Danny delusional too? Is it perhaps the case that these ghosts are real? If so, what is their motivation for communicating with Jack? Is it maybe possible that none of this is real and it’s all some kind of psychic purging? Maybe I’ll have more answers after I watch it again next Halloween.

All work and no play make Brian a dull boy. As such, I’m not going to beat myself up over reviewing these films weeks after viewing them. Overall, I’m so glad that I did watch these movies. First of all, I’m still sane—or at least as sane as I was before watching them—and second, I no longer dread the day I have to sit down and watch these two movies. The day came; it was great! Now, in order to find pictures to go along with this post, I am going to have to type The Exorcist and The Shining into I think I’m just as scared now as I was when I began to watch The Exorcist. Maybe I’ll say a quick goodbye to my sanity again—you know, just in case.

(Label notes: The Exorcist was a Best Picture Oscar Nominee and The Shining is one of Roger Ebert's Great Movies)