Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Week in the Life of a Film Geek (May 24-30, 2010)

A Week in the Life of a Film Geek (May 24-30, 2010)

A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) **1/2
Directed by Sergio Leone

My tweet:

A Fistful of Dynamite (1971)- Kaboom!!! Then some crap about a revolution. Then more Kaboom!!! **1/2 out of 5

Other thoughts:

After watching A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West; and now A Fistful of Dynamite, I can almost see the inflation of Leone's ego over the span of a decade. The thing about confident people is that they usually have a reason to be so confident, and Leone's certainly an amazing director, which was evident in all four of his "Man with No Name" films. With A Fistful of Dynamite, also called Duck You Sucker, Leone takes everything too far in trying to one-up himself. The result is a loud, explosive train wreck of a film.

There are many problems with Fistful of Dynamite, but none more than the fact that Leone offers absolutely nothing new, but instead retreads the same heavy-on-style, short-on-story gimmicks that made The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in particular a success. John, who's pretty much the "Man with No Name with a Name," played by a terribly dull James Coburn, partners with a Mexican renegade named Juan, played by Rod Steiger. The two hate each other at first, but eventually they come together for lofty purposes. Sounds a bit like Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, huh? Pretty much, the only differences between that film and this one are the fact that both become part of a revolution against the government, and there's lots and lots of huge, ginormous explosions. The testosterone is sure to flow, but it does so in the service of a completely familiar movie.

At a God-awfully long running time of over two and a half hours, A Fistful of Dynamite forces us to coexist with two main characters that have no chemistry and no gravitas at all. Rod Steiger, presumably trying to one up Eli Wallach from GBU, gives one of the most miscalculated performances that I've seen. First of all, his portrayal of a Mexican is beyond racist, employing an accent that would offend Speedy Gonzales. Second, he's simply trying way too hard, and not one bit of his character development comes off genuine. Eli Wallach acts Steiger under the ground here, which is really a shame considering that Steiger's performance in In the Heat of the Night is perhaps one of the five best screen performances I've seen.

There's a handful of slow motion, strangely homoerotic flashback scenes involving Coburn and his wife/girlfriend(?) and his friend/boyfriend(?) which are stolen from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in both style and musical accompaniment. This further adds to the argument that Leone had nothing novel to show, and what's left is a slick but embarrassingly empty epic. Maybe he'll temper his ambitions with Once Upon a Time in America... or maybe he'll make a film that's almost four hours long!

Blue Velvet (1986) *****
Directed by David Lynch

My tweet:

Blue Velvet (1986)-It's important every once in a while to pull back the perfect facade of this world to find a rotting severed ear. *****/5

Other thoughts:

Back in 1986, David Lynch received both critical praise and scorn for his unapologetic, disturbing look at unspeakably evil people doing twisted, demented things to other people in a now notorious modern day classic called Blue Velvet. Roger Ebert, who's far from a puritanical prude when it comes to sex and nudity in film, wrote in his one star review about how he was offended that Lynch took advantage of Isabella Rossellini. He argued that Rossellini, whose scenes are admittedly alarming, did not realize that the rest of the film is meant as a tongue-in-cheek comedy with Leave it to Beaver dialogue along with constant winks at the camera regarding such depravity within a facade of fantastical innocence. Ebert states that a film must be substantial if it puts an actress through such an ordeal on screen.

I find it hard to believe that Rossellini didn't know what she was getting herself into, and considering that Blue Velvet is almost universally hailed as one of the great films of the 1980s, it's virtually impossible to feel sorry for Rossellini and angry at Lynch. Both were responsible for a singularly fascinating look at human vulgarity. The drastic tonal interchanges between gritty realism and innocent fantasy pulls the viewer aggressively in two different directions with the goal, I believe, to show the falsity of such a ludicrous conservative hope for a world based on unrealistic family values and apple pie morality. Does Lynch take us too far into a type of sinfulness which goes beyond the dark side of the human condition into clear psychosis? Is he perhaps weakening his own intentions? Maybe so, though personally, I was never pushed beyond my own limits witnessing the film's sexual violence and perverse manipulations.

Kyle MacLachlan, giving one of the most bland leading performances in recent memory, though I wonder whether this was intentional considering the eccentricities of those surrounding him, plays college student Jeffrey Beaumont who delves headfirst into a mystery after he discovers a severed human ear in a field. He uses the help of young Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) whose father is a detective working on a case involving a lounge singer named Dorothy Vallens, played by Rossellini. Jeffrey sneaks into Dorothy's apartment in order to find out more information, but after getting caught, he is forced to witness a sadistic sociopath named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) use the safety of Dorothy's kidnapped husband and son in order to force Dorothy to do unspeakably degrading things for Frank's own sick satisfaction. From these encounters, Dorothy learns of her own dark sexual demons, which in turn awakens Jeffrey to the devilish fire that burns within.

Ultimately, there's a mystery to be solved and people to save, but the film concludes in a very interesting way. We assume that there's no chance this town and its inhabitants could go back to a kind of 1950s innocence after these vulgarities are brought to light. Lynch makes the argument that the more the underbelly of society is exposed, the more people cling to a self-deluding cosmetic hope for a perfect world.

There is some sick stuff in Blue Velvet, and it's elevated to another level of viciousness due to the powerhouse performance by recently deceased Dennis Hopper. Here's a middle-aged Republican willing to pull from the blackest part of his own soul to make Frank Booth a monster unlike many in film history. Frank is a man of fetishism and deep-rooted psycho-sexual abnormalities, which is terrifying precisely because his existence is not outside of the realm of possibility. Lynch finds the fact that we all want to close our eyes to the antisocial realities of the world to be quite comical. Hopper's performance shoves our freshly-washed, blemish-free faces into piles of our own societal excrement.

Blue Velvet challenges us to take a few moments out of our lives and simply open our eyes wide enough to see everything we need to see in order to understand who we truly are as a species. Information breeds confidence. Ignorance breeds susceptibility to being ravaged by a demagogue who huffs paint.