Rock's Cheapo Theatre of the Damned

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Gonna get the ball rolling by dropping in a few recent reviews I hammered out. (For the record, I am not above digging up old write-ups I've done on Letterboxd or my blog. If you happen to follow either of those, there will be a lot of overlap, haha.)



War and Peace (Bondarchuk, 1967)



For all the possibilities opened by computer-generated imagery, itís hard not to feel as if weíve lost something along the way. When blockbuster cinema regularly conjures images of world-or-universe defining stakes, scale starts to lose all meaning. I think back to seeing Avengers: Endgame in theatres and, despite enjoying most of the film preceding the climax, finding myself totally unmoved when it produced that splash page image of all the heroes joining forces, as flat and shapeless composition as Iíve seen in these things. (Rarely have I felt so out of step with the reaction of the surrounding audience, so I realize Iím in the minority on this one.) Thereís a certain thrill in seeing something physically real on a giant scale that a CG facsimile just canít replicate. For recent movies I can think of that feel truly grandiose, Iíd have to go back to Peter Jacksonís Lord of the Rings trilogy, and even then shortcuts were used in the way of special effects and stand-ins.

In this respect, Sergey Bondarchukís War and Peace represents some kind of pinnacle of this lost art, a work that feels truly colossal in ways few films have approached. One way to grasp the filmís scale is in terms of hard numbers. It runs a total of seven hours (released initially in four different parts). At the time of production, it cost reportedly $100 million, estimated by the New York Times to be $700 million in modern times when adjusted for inflation. The cast totaled approximately 120,000, many of whom were extras supplied by the Soviet Army. Thousands of costumes, sixty cannons and 120 wagons were made, and over forty museums donated artifacts to the production. This would all be moot were the movie a mess, but the production is a masterwork of controlled chaos. The sheer scale of the battles is captured with clarity by the expected crane and helicopter shots, but Bondarchukís style is spontaneous and constantly evolving. Handheld camerawork hurtles us through the combat, while the liberal use of filters, splitscreens, superimpositions and jagged editing give the proceedings a heightened, hallucinatory quality. Thereís an exhilarating documentary quality to seeing anything of this scale, but the stylistic abandon with which the proceedings are captured render them almost a fever dream. Thereís a tendency to treat important novels like homework (Iím sure everyone has at least one example from their high school English class), and truth be told, I havenít actually read War and Peace (because itís like 1200 pages, c'mon), but Bondarchuk injects a spontaneity into his adaptation that should lay those fears to rest.

Bondarchuk produces some truly remarkable images, like a sequence where the composition of shot of a battlefield full of soldiers morphs real time as clouds of gunsmoke erupt with orchestral precision. Given the scale and scope of the movie, itís hard not to compare it with that famous American epic Gone with the Wind, and War and Peace contains certain moments that feel like direct responses to some of the formerís most memorable images and scenes, outdoing the burning of Atlanta and the landscape full of wounded soldiers with even more vivid, forceful images. In the face of the sheer size of the spectacle, the human element can seem underwhelming at first, and that seems intentional in the first part, Andrei Bolkonsky, where a joke about an illiterate messenger seems completely limp after a horrific battle. Itís in the second part, Natasha Rostova, where the human element comes into focus, carried by a trio of lead characters, a fallible but good hearted noble played by Bondarchuk himself, an innocent young woman played by ballerina Ludmila Savelyeva, who is lit and shot to look as achingly beautiful as possible, and a prince played by Vyacheslav Tikhonov who goes off to war against the invading Napoleonic army. (On a side note, the actors resemble Thomas Mitchell, Anna Karina and Christopher Plummer, respectively. Should your attention happen to drift, as is possible during a great yet somewhat unwieldy seven-hour epic, you can amuse yourself by pretending theyíre in the movie.)

Bondarchukís character is deployed as an audience surrogate during the third part, The Year 1812 (where he views the excitement and madness of the truly astounding battle scene firsthand), and develops a capacity for every day heroism in the fourth and final part, Pierre Bezukhov. As such, his arc is most closely tied to the filmís nationalist viewpoint, but because Bondarchuk understands human weakness (in this character and others, like the half-blind general who mistakes his pyrrhic victory for a real one), itís also the most moving in the film. If anything, Bondarchuk, despite allegedly being an enthusiastic party supporter, renders the nationalistic fervour transparent, like when he slaps on a patriotic coda to the carnage at Borodino and immediately follows it with a retreat from Moscow. This moment is further subverted when he applied Napoleonís stentorian narration over the sight of a weakened French army retreating in the thick of winter. Napoleon himself is more of a figurehead in this movie than a real character, and is denied any real interiority, yet I suspect Bondarchuk identified with him at least a little. Near the end of the battle at Borodino, thereís an image of Napoleon sitting down on a chair not unlike one used by a director during filming as he observes a vast formation of his men moving across the landscape, and in this moment he comes as much a stand-in for Bondarchuk as the character the director actually played.




L'Eclisse (Antonioni, 1962)



I needed an Antonioni for the Criterion Challenge (original link; my list), and as Iíd recently filled two other categories with Alain Delon films, I figured Iíd give this a rewatch. My original thoughts still hold, but with two other Delons in my recent viewing history (Purple Noon with his marvelously sexy vacation wear and The Leopard with his terrible mustache) and the fact that one of my pandemic copes has been reading menswear blogs (and making the occasional questionable purchase accordingly), I couldnít help but pay more attention to his wardrobe this time around. As his profession is that of a stockbroker, his suits are expectedly conservative and business-like, mostly in dark colours and flattering cuts that are trim but not restrictive. (Given the influence of Mad Men on recent menís fashion, itís not surprising that the suits he wears wouldnít be at all incongruous with modern office wear.)

This was before finance held the flashy, sinister stature in the public sphere that it does today (which can be traced back to financial innovations in the Ď70s and the subsequent market boom in the '80s) and the suits Delon wears are a far cry from the broad-shouldered power suits of Gordon Gekko and the like, although Iíd hesitate to call them bland. (Close-ups reveal subtle stripes and cross-hatching on his suits as well as a herringbone texture on some of his shirts.) Yet even when he wears more approachable outfits in lighter colours, thereís something undeniably cold and business-like about them, suggesting perhaps that he carries some reservations about his amorous intentions and that his relationship with Monica Vitti holds limited promise as a result. Other actors have looked comparatively good in tailoring onscreen, but Iíd argue none have looked better than Delon, nor have they been better vehicles than him for storytelling via wardrobe. (I maintain that the fashions in Purple Noon are integral to the filmís dramatic arc, as itís suggested that one of the reasons Tom Ripley commits his crimes is to get his grubby, disreputable hands on Greenleafís sweet boating blazer. This film also shareís that oneís casting strategy, placing the transcendently attractive Delon and Vitti against the significantly less cool and handsome Francisco Rabal.)

It also might be hard to discuss things people wear in this movie without bringing up the scene of Vitti in blackface. Antonioni presents the scene with a certain matter-of-fact quality, but even with the arguable stylistic ambivalence, it would be hard to read the scene as anything other than an across the board indictment. Vittiís character is glib enough to find the act anything other than ill-advised, and her friend, aside from her unapologetic racism, fails to interrogate her own colonialist mentality when remarking on her privileged upbringing. The fact that the movie was released during the Congo Crisis (which is briefly and dismissively referred to in the dialogue) only sharpens the indictment. I read a piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum that suggests that the movie presents this scene without judgment, but Iíd argue that the very presentation of this material is the judgment. Antonioni trusts that viewers can reach the appropriate conclusion.

And of course, as Iím musing on the filmís visuals, I must comment on the overall style, where I still stand by my original take. The reason this clicked for me while L'Avventura and La Notte did not (although I do owe those movies a rewatch, in fairness) is how this one plays with its experiential and visceral qualities. I think not just of the stock exchange and plane scenes, but even brief moments where Vitti follows a stockbroker to a drug store and cafe and where she contemplates going into a bar. These are moments where the movie almost plays in the first person, although in the exchange scene, Antonioni contrasts that with an overarching view of the strange, insane dance that transpires during a market crash. And of course, he builds that tension as he juxtaposes the characters against wider and wider shots of cold, unfeeling architecture and negative space (in a way that reminded me of Jean Rollinís Night of the Hunted, of all things) until the striking final minutes (foolishly excised by some American distributors when initially released) when theyíve disintegrated into nothing.




White of the Eye (Cammell, 1987)




This review contains spoilers

This movie has so many elements that I should love, but the end product left me inexplicably cold. Ostensibly an American-set giallo, White of the Eye opens with a brilliant murder sequence where a combination of bracing camera moves, high class decor and everyday objects are used to suggest the horrific violence that's barely past the edges of the screen. You see, there's a serial killer loose, but rather than the gritty urban or backwoods milieus we associate with such characters on film, the action is set in a small mining town in the Arizona desert. Our protagonist is David Keith, a sound system technician of Native American descent who becomes the chief suspect thanks to his unusual tire tracks and his inability to keep it in his pants. The movie attempts some kind of comment on Native American identity, but I'm not sure I found it entirely coherent and it probably went over my head. In an case, making literal sense is not the movie's priority.

At this point the movie becomes an unwieldy soap opera about the hero cheating on his wife and the strain on his marriage. The movie remains as visually aggressive and hallucinatory as before, yet in ways that feel entirely out of sync with the story. Perhaps this is my fault for not being as attentive as I should have been, but the combination was so disorienting that I mistook a flashback explaining how he met his wife as a "present day" scene with a character who just happened to resemble his wife. When the movie seems this drug-addled with its roving camera moves, dissolves and whatever other flourishes cross its mind, the latter felt entirely plausible. This flashback scene also shows him bonding (sort of) with another male character and hinting ever so slightly at his capacity for violence. And of course, in the third act we learn its true extent, snapping the movie back into overly horrific territory, using certain imagery that seems to subvert Cannon Films' more popular output. (Yes, this was a Cannon release.)

The problem is, the movie never really builds in a way to give that last section an appropriate tension. We supposedly get a sense of the main characters' domestic situation, but the psychedelic style has already undermined it to such an extent that the third act's reveal doesn't really feel like subversion. Perhaps I am more amenable to this kind of material in actual giallo as those movies tend to run shorter (this is nearly two hours) and manage to find the right rhythms for their kooky narratives. In contrast, this never builds the necessary momentum in its pacing and feels both too feverish and too languid at the same time. I will concede that this is perhaps intentional on the movie's part, and I did find it got good mileage out of its Arizona setting.

The desert feels almost primeval and utterly incongruous with the ultra-modern nouveau riche mansions that jut out of the landscape, and one character's reference to hunting with handguns mines a similar contrast. (Of Donald Cammell's work I'd previously seen Performance, the Mick Jagger film he co-directed with Nicolas Roeg, which has similar druggy vibes and echoes of this kind of tension in juxtaposing decadent rock star life with ruthless criminals.) The film's visual character feels at war with itself, and produces no shortage of great images. Maybe the problem is I'm too hopelessly square, but I just wish they accumulated to something more enjoyable.




China De Sade (Webb, 1977)




This review contains spoilers

With a title like China De Sade, you can expect at least two things. Based on the first part of the title, you can guess the movie won't be all that culturally sensitive. Hollywood does not have the greatest track record in depicting Asian characters (or onscreen representation for that matter), and this is even without getting into pornography's relationship with race. So if you're planning to watch a movie with this title, you better brace yourself for a lotta yikes content. Based on the second half of the title, you can guess that the movie will probably will be pretty kinky. For you see, the Marquis de Sade....*regurgitates Wikipedia article on the subject* So if you're planning to watch a movie with this title, you better brace yourself for a lot of not so vanilla content. What you likely won't expect from a title like China De Sade however, is a pornographic riff on Apocalypse Now, which is exactly what the movie is.

Now if you're wondering how the hell a movie can rip off another movie which came after, there are two possible explanations. One, it pulled from Conrad's source novel and happened to also update it to a Vietnam setting and in extremely similar (if lower rent) ways. The other, the correct answer, is similar to how Missing in Action ripped off Rambo: First Blood Part II despite coming out a year earlier. Director Charles Webb (credited here and elsewhere as Charles DeSantos) admits he got ahold of an early draft of Apocalypse Now's screenplay and lifted a number of story elements, and a lot of the fun comes from seeing it's lower rent renditions of scenes from the better known movie. Like in Apocalypse Now, the hero's mission here is to assassinate an insane special forces officer who was operating on his own authority. Unlike that movie, the colonel was captured by the army, brought back to the US, institutionalized and busted out, residing in a secluded compound not beyond the Cambodian border but in sunny California, home of many a porn production. Indeed, aside from a prologue ("Saigon, 1968") with footage of a boat going upriver and a darkly intriguing sex scene (which features a snake and fake blood), this movie is set entirely in the US. And unlike that movie, the hero here has an additional mission of extracting a Chinese intelligence agent played by Linda Wong. (The movie basically splits the Kurtz figure here into two, and Wong's charisma makes up for having to look at the weird looking creepy balding dude who plays the main villain.)

That movie offers a briefing scene where the hero's hungover discomfort from the humidity and exotic looking food is palpable. This one finds a different kind of visceral reaction in cutting to a sex scene between the villain's neighbours upon which he spies. China De Sade trades the horrors of war for the horrors of coerced sex, which places it firmly in the roughie genre. One of the challenges with rape scenes in porn is that they're there for titillation, and unless they're directed with the necessary edge (and even then in a lot of cases), that's essentially the effect they'll have. (I think of the moral challenge posed by the one in Gerard Damiano's Skin Flicks and the ugly integrity of Phil Prince's movies, where the rape scenes are genuinely upsetting.) This is a roundabout way of shamefully admitting that I found a decent chunk of what transpires in this movie pretty hot. Webb assembles the sex scenes with a nice rhythm, pairing the relatively stylish cinematography and editing with drumbeats on the soundtrack. It also helps that Wong, who features in the dialogue-free prologue but makes her entrance proper with a frighteningly large marital aid dangling between her legs, is a fairly magnetic performer and throws herself into these scenes quite nicely. Between how Martin Sheen is taunted by Marlon Brando and annoyed by a drug-addled Dennis Hopper in his cage in the Coppola film and how Wong taunts the hero in his cage here, I won't deny the latter scene has its, uh, cinematic qualities.

Aside from its more prurient scenes, the movie holds together quite nicely, as Webb seems to actually care about the story. (I suspect a morally queasy tale about a clandestine intelligence operation appealed to his leftist politics. There's also a scene where a villainous character wears a riding uniform and helmet, which I suspect is a dig at the upper class.) San Francisco is no Saigon, but there are enough plants and interesting decor to make the villain's compound a credibly atmospheric setting, even if the effect is sometimes more decadent than truly ominous. And true to its roughie subgenre, the movie has an effectively violent and upsetting climax that follows through on its premise, finding an appropriately sleazy equivalent to the bloodletting that caps Coppola's movie and even echoing its themes. Now, there's a really dumb twist ending that upends the interpretation of the preceding movie, as if to comfort the raincoat brigade who just wanted to jerk off to a Linda Wong porno in peace and didn't need it to go full-on morally ambiguous exploitation at the end. Hey look, if you watched it only for those reasons, I'm not here to judge, the movie is good at that stuff, but for the rest of us, if you can tune out the last two minutes or so, this comes recommended.




Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001)




This review contains spoilers.

David Lynch's Mulholland Drive was released in recent years by the Criterion Collection, that great home video company that's probably the OG of boutique labels, known for putting out acclaimed, significant or otherwise interesting films in really nice packages. (For some reason I had been thinking they put this out only last year until I actually looked it up. I guess my sense of time has been a little warped as of late, and as much as I'd like to tie this review into pandemic-era life, the fact is other labels have captured my attention lately, as can be evidenced by my embarrassingly large and extremely shameful Vinegar Syndrome haul from their Halfway to Black Friday sale from a few months ago.) Now, nobody in 2021 is going into this movie truly blind, but if I happened to pick up the Criterion cover and perused the back, aside from the list of special features and disc specs, you'd see the below (which I grabbed off their website):

Blonde Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) has only just arrived in Hollywood to become a movie star when she meets an enigmatic brunette with amnesia (Laura Harring). Meanwhile, as the two set off to solve the second womanís identity, filmmaker Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) runs into ominous trouble while casting his latest project. David Lynchís seductive and scary vision of Los Angelesís dream factory is one of the true masterpieces of the new millennium, a tale of love, jealousy, and revenge like no other.
Now, this is a tough movie to evoke with only a blurb, but I'd say that does a pretty respectable job. I however do not own this release. What I do own is the barebones Universal DVD that was released a few months after the movie, back when going into the movie blind would have been far more likely. This is the description on the back:

This sexy thriller has been acclaimed as one of the year's best films. Two beautiful women are caught up in a lethally twisted mystery - and ensnared in an equally dangerous web of erotic passion. "There's nothing like this baby anywhere! This sinful pleasure is a fresh triumph for Lynch, and one of the best films of the year. Visionary daring, swooning eroticism and colors that pop like a whore's lip gloss!" says Rolling Stone's Peter Travers. "See itÖ then see it again!" (Time Out New York)
Now, the previous description probably couldn't fully capture the movie's essence, but this one makes it sound like an erotic thriller. (Could you imagine somebody going into this thinking this was like a Gregory Dark joint? I say this having seen none of his thrillers and only his hardcore movies, although I must admit an MTV-influenced Mulholland Drive starring, say, Lois Ayres is something I find extremely intriguing.) But you know what? Good for them. Among other things, this movie, with its two all-timer sex scenes, feels like one of the last hurrahs from an era when mainstream American movies could be unabashedly horny, before we were sentenced to an endless barrage of immaculately muscular bodies in spandex (stupid sexy Flanders) somehow drained of all sex appeal (god forbid somebody pop a boner...or ladyboner, let's be egalitarian here). I apologize if I'm coming off as a little gross, but having been able to barely leave the house for practically a year and a half, watching sexy movies like this is one of the few remaining thrills at my disposal. Please, this is all I have.

Now I suppose I should say something about the movie itself, but it might be a challenge given how elusive it is in certain respects (Lynch is notoriously cagey about offering interpretations of his movies) and, as a result, how heavily it's been scrutinized over the years. No doubt any analysis I offer as to the movie's overarching meaning will come off extremely dumbassed. What I will note however, is that for whatever reason, the scene I remembered most vividly is where Justin Theroux walks in on his wife with Billy Ray Cyrus, particularly the candy pink paint he dumps on her jewellery as revenge. We've been following Theroux, a movie director, as he's been having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, having had control over casting his lead actress taken from him, which he proceeds to process by taking a golf club to a windshield of his producers' car and then reacting as above when he finds his wife with the singer of "Achy Breaky Heart".

With his Dune having been notoriously tampered with by producers, I suspect there's a bit of Lynch's own experience in the scene with the producers, which plays like an entirely arbitrary set of rituals deciding the fate of his movie with no regard for his opinion or even basic logic. While I don't know how particular Dino DeLaurentiis was about his espresso, I did laugh. Now, taking the reading that the first two acts of the movie are a fantasy of Naomi Watts' character, who is revealed to be miserable and ridden with jealousy in the third act, the amount of time we spend with Theroux is maybe hard to justify. Is this perhaps her "revenge" on him, his romantic and professional success having been flushed away while he flounders in search of greater meaning to his arc? Aside from possible autobiographical interest, these scenes do play like a riff on the idea that everyone is the main character in their own story, and if the Watts and Laura Harring characters can be thought of as having merged or swap identities, then perhaps Theroux's arc is the remainder of that quotient. (Now, it's worth noting that aside from being insecure and arrogant, Theroux in this movie is a less stylish than the real Lynch. If Watts conjures the best version of herself in her dream, Lynch maybe doesn't want his dream avatar outshining him.)

Now why did the Cyrus scene stick with me all these years when other details had slipped? Mostly because I'd found it amusing, partly because of the extra specific image Lynch produces, and somewhat because of the casting of Billy Ray Cyrus. Now, I don't have any special relationship to the Cyrus' body of work, but Lynch's casting of him, with his distinct mix of bozo, dudebro and hunk, results in a very specific comedic effect. This is something Lynch does elsewhere in the movie, like when he has Robert Forster show up as a detective for a single scene. The Forster role is likely in part a leftover from the movie's origins as a TV pilot, but the effect is similar (albeit less comedic). Melissa George appears as a woman who may or may not be a replacement for Watts in some realm of reality. Other directors obviously cast actors for their screen presence and the audience's relationship to their career, but the way Lynch does it feels particularly pointed, as if he's reshaping them entirely into iconography. The effect is particularly sinister with the presence of Michael J. Anderson, with whom he worked previously on Twin Peaks, and Monty Montgomery as a mysterious cowboy who dangles the secret of the movie over Theroux's character.

Cowboys in movies are frequently heroic presences (see any number of westerns) and are otherwise innocuously stylish (I confess I've come dangerously close to ordering a Stetson hat and a pair of cowboy boots), but the presence of one here feels like a ripple in the movie's reality. A dreamy, brightly lit mystery set in Los Angeles should have no place for a cowboy. It ain't right. (It's worth noting that Lynch at one point copped to admiring Ronald Reagan for reminding him of a cowboy. Is this his expression of a changed opinion? I have no idea, but Lynch has never struck me as all that politically minded.) Neither is the hobo that appears behind the diner. Certainly hobos have made their homes behind diners, but this one's presence and the way Lynch produces him feel again like a ripple in the the movie's narrative. Jump scares are frequently knocked for being lazy and cheap devices to generate shocks, but the one here gets under your skin.

Now about the movie's look. This starts off like a noir, and the mystery plot on paper would lead you to think that's how the whole movie plays, but the cinematography is a lot brighter, with almost confection-like colours, than that would lead you to believe, at least during the daytime scenes. This is another element that likely comes from its TV origins, but it does give the movie a distinctly dreamlike, fantastical quality that a more overtly cinematic look, like the one Lynch used in Lost Highway a few years earlier, might not capture. This is one of the reasons I think this movie works better than that one, and there's also the fact that the amateur sleuthing that drives the bulk of the plot here serves as a more pleasing audience vantage point than the male anxieties that fuel the other film. I also would much rather hang out with Naomi Watts and Laura Harring than a charisma void like Balthazar Getty.

The manufactured warmth of the daytime scenes also results, like in Blue Velvet, in the nighttime scenes feeling like they're in a completely different setting, one which perhaps offers the key to unlocking the mystery, or at least revealing the phoniness of the movie's surfaces. I think of the evocative Club Silencio sequence, which comes as close as anything in the movie to laying its illusions bare. ("No hay banda.") But at times Lynch will throw in disarmingly childlike, inexplicable imagery, like the dancing couples against a purple screen in the opening, something that would seem tacky and amateurish elsewhere but feels oddly cohesive here. There are a number of directors whose work I admire for being "dreamlike", and putting them side by side they all feel quite distinct (you would never mistake a Lucio Fulci film for a Lynch), but they have the unifying idea of imbuing the tactile qualities of film with the truly irrational to really burrow into your subconscious. Other directors have made movies with some of the same elements as Mulholland Drive, but none have put them together in quite the same way.




The Aviator (Scorsese, 2004)



I think when you're portraying a famous public figure, you already have your work cut out for you in making the character your own rather than just dressing up as them. And the challenge is especially great when you're playing someone like Katharine Hepburn, one of cinema's most instantly recognizable screen presences, the challenge is even more pronounced, even if you're an actress the calibre of Cate Blanchett. Credit to her, she makes this tension essential to her performance, particularly in her breakup scene, which is the movie's best moment. ("Ha. I'm not acting.") For all the (extremely wrongheaded) criticism Martin Scorsese gets for the lack of female perspective in his movies, scenes like this prove he gets women, even if he's directing from a male vantage point.

Unfortunately, I think she's mostly an exception in this movie, which suffers from the flaws that seem to plague biopics. I've read about the amount of research that Leonardo DiCaprio did to prepare for his role as Howard Hughes, and while I think in later movies he's disappeared into distinct, magnetic characters (The Wolf of Wall Street, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), the level of calculation that goes into all his choices is a bit too obvious here. There are times when his work rises above that level, usually depending on the strength of his co-star. One particularly good scene has him spar with a rival airline mogul played by Alec Baldwin, who uses his smugness to goad DiCaprio into spilling his secrets in an almost parodic display of dick-measuring (that their business is airplanes makes the metaphor that much more appropriate). But elsewhere, as when he argues with Kate Beckinsale's Ava Gardner, the movie devolves into two actors shouting under period-appropriate make-up, costumes and accents. As with many period movies of this scope, there are a great many cameos, and a number of them here are by actors who look distractingly modern, for lack of a better word.

To be honest, I'm no great fan of biopics (I struggle to think of many recent ones I've had any serious fondness for) and I think this movie's need to fit its material into that template hurts it significantly. I suspect Scorsese identified more than a little with Hughes as a creator and filmmaker (and like Hughes, he apparently sank his own money into the project to finish it), but based on a few of his movies, I suspect he has no great love for free enterprise, and the senate committee hearing scene in the third act, a sort of last hurrah to appease the genre's demands, comes off as a little obvious, as does the way Hughes' growing OCD lines up with the overall arc of the plot. (I'm sure many have pointed out how the pandemic has made Hughes much easier to empathize with in the latter respect, but I'm not sure that helped me enjoy this much more.) I understand Scorsese battled with producers heavily on this film and I wonder to what extent these narrative decisions were forced on him. Compare this to The Irishman and you can see how a sense of sprawl and langour in the narrative helped that movie immeasurably. Perhaps a less neat structure would have helped this one better evoke its subject's idiosyncrasies. (As to what kind of structure would be a thematically appropriate match for Hughes' OCD, I think you can argue in either direction.)

Scorsese's cinephilia manifests in the technical choices, some of which I struggled with. Visually the movie is supposed to evoke early Technicolor, with the first act in particular having the gaudy red and cyan look of the two-strip Technicolor process. I can't fault him for making use of technical innovations (perhaps in the spirit of the cinematic era he's evoking), but the CGI-enhanced colour scheme has an ugly digital veneer that I found extremely unpleasant to look at. Perhaps if this were achieved through more traditional methods, it might have had the tactility necessary to ground its artificiality. His cinematographic choices also make the CGI in the flight sequences look a little too obvious, although the scene where Hughes' plane crashes looks appropriately bruising, and otherwise look like something out of retro science fiction. I hate to come down too hard on this as it moves along quite nicely despite running almost three hours and usually has something halfway interesting going on in the meantime, but this is also close to my least favourite thing I've seen from Scorsese. But because he's a master filmmaker (and likely incapable of turning out something truly boring), this still muscles its way into a slight recommendation.




Carlito's Way (De Palma, 1993)




This review contains spoilers for this film and Scarface.

If Martin Scorsese's The Irishman offers a corrective of sorts to audience misreadings of Goodfellas and Casino, Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way serves a similar function in relation to Scarface. The earlier film, with its decadent surfaces and fever pitch, was embraced or derided (depending on who you talk to) for endorsing the very excesses it was meant to indict. I happen to love that movie and think that it would be pretty useless satirically if it didn't go all the way in that respect. But here comes De Palma, reuniting with an older, wiser Al Pacino, clearing the air and assuring us that no, crime actually does not pay (a lesson which should have been clear to anyone who paid attention to the other movie's ending.) Pacino plays Carlito Brigante, a former drug dealer with a formidable reputation who vows to go straight after being released from prison five years into a thirty-year sentence. You see, he's got a plan to go to the Bahamas and manage a car rental business for a friend he met in prison. Problem is, nobody around him can believe it.

Had Scarface ended a little differently, you could argue this would have been Tony Montana a few years down the line. Tony burned too brightly and flamed out before he became capable of reflecting on his ways. Carlito is haunted by the spectre of past violence, suggesting that he was at one time was capable of similar savagery, and the movie offers John Leguizamo's upstart gangster ("Benny Blanco from the Bronx") as an avatar of his worst qualities. Yet when Tony managed to look himself in the mirror, he found that he was a lowlife to the core with nary any principles to speak of. Carlito in contrast seems a bit more grounded and human, which makes his inevitable downfall all the more tragic. Here's a man who can see all the mistakes he's making, and makes them anyway. Carlito's Way is a portrait of men trapped by a culture of machismo, forced into bad decisions and cycles of violence because they can't comprehend any other way. (A scene where Carlito spares Benny after being disrespected in his club leaves his henchmen baffled.)

Carlito stands by his lawyer friend David Kleinfeld, played by Sean Penn, even when Kleinfeld's visibly coke-addled decision making and penchant for treachery actively undoes him, and the movie highlights how a seemingly noble trait can become downright stupid under these circumstances. I've found Penn's reliance on tics distracting elsewhere, but saddled with makeup this unflattering, he's forced to actually get into character and provides the movie with one of its most memorable lowlifes. (Interestingly, at one point Marlon Brando was considered for the Penn role, which would have been, uh, interesting, considering Brando's career and stature at this time. Viewers of a certain generation will also recognize the character as the inspiration for the hero's sleazy, incompetent lawyer in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.) The other central relationship is between Carlito and Gail, his dancer girlfriend played by Penelope Ann Miller. Like the Michelle Pfeiffer character in Scarface, she's white, conspicuously WASP-coded, and the movie is astute about how she represents a certain respectability to the ethnic hero. It's also aware of how loyalties and conflicts will form almost arbitrarily along racial lines, and the exceptions of Carlito's relationships with Kleinfeld and Gail and his past dealings with Italian gangsters stand out as a result.

The production design here isn't much less meticulous than in Scarface, but the flashy period fashions and glamorous coke-fueled parties aren't quite as intoxicating here, as Carlito no longer feels their allure. (He's also seen frequently in dark colours, looking austere, almost monk-like, in contrast to the colourful suits worn by his cohorts.) Perhaps due to the period setting, the appeal of these things lacks the present tense urgency of the symbols of wealth in Scarface, and with Carlito's relative wisdom they rarely feel divorced from the realities of the street, whereas the earlier film got more and more insular as its protagonist ascended the criminal ladder. Where De Palma does dial up the flash is with the set pieces, with his fluid camera moves, dancerly sense of movement, acute spatial awareness and hair-trigger timing evident in a pool hall ambush, an ill-advised prison escape scheme and the climactic pursuit through a train station. The sequence is less bloody but just as suspenseful as I'd remembered from my initial viewing years ago (funny how your memory fills in the gaps). Compared to Scarface's gun battle climax, this scene feels like the other half of De Palma's take on a John Woo shootout. Scarface brings the body count and firepower, Carlito's Way has the balletic motion. (John Woo's classics, released between the two films, are similarly concerned with the gangster lifestyle but exist in different, if no less compelling, emotional landscapes.)

Now, with all the Scarface talk, it's worth pondering which is the better film, and I think it really comes down to personal preference. This is a slower, more contemplative film, closer to superficial notions of quality and respectability. Yet, perhaps by design, it can't match the brute force impact and lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the other film. But really, these are movies in completely different registers and it's nice that they're as good as they are in their own way.




The Departed (Scorsese, 2006)




This review contains spoilers for this movie, and half-remembered ones for Infernal Affairs.

After my lukewarm reaction to The Aviator and the fact that I hadn't seen this in about a decade, I was a little worried about revisiting this after all these years. The fact that certain lines and images (*cough* the closing shot *cough*) had become something of a running joke in the internet circles I'd frequented and the fact that I hadn't seen it since maybe my high school days had me primed for an embarrassing relic of the 2000s. Thankfully, the movie held up extremely nicely when I revisited it this past weekend. (It's almost like teenage me had good taste, a quality I've managed to shed over the years.) Is it obvious at times? Of course, but I feel that's intentional on Scorsese's part. The way The Irishman seems intended to correct audience misreadings of his work, The Departed also seems to spell out his recurring concerns as bluntly as possible, possibly for the dum-dums in the audience. (It even flirts with self parody at times, dropping "Gimme Shelter" multiple times during the movie.) It's no surprise that this was the movie that finally won him Best Picture and Best Director Oscars.

Did you know that Scorsese is interested in how Catholicism burrows into its believers' psyches? Well, with the extremely on the nose closing shot and other moments (a certain character's arms splayed out in Christ-like formation, hellish red lighting, crude dialogue regarding sexual abuse), now you know. Did you know that loyalties founded on ethnic lines can actually be toxic? In switching perspectives from his usual Italian gangsters to Irish ones (and with Italians and Chinese criminals at the fringes), the meaninglessness of these alliances becomes more obvious. Did you know that a life of crime actually doesn't pay? With enough scenes of low level criminals performing demeaning work or otherwise sitting on their ass, you get the hint. He's also not blind to the economic motivations of the characters in their pursuit of a life of crime. Both main characters are born into seemingly destitute circumstances. One of them (Matt Damon) sees a local criminal as a rare exception to the squalor around him and immediately falls into his orbit, leveraging the support of his criminal benefactors into a genteel, almost white collar version of success. The other (Leonardo DiCaprio) keeps toiling away, his undercover work as a low level criminal proving just as his experience growing up. Modern technology figures into the plot in the form of stolen microprocessors and high-tech surveillance (a character excitedly shouts "Patriot Act! Patriot Act!" during a sting), something that might seem cool or flashy in another director's hands but highlights the fundamental banality of the enterprise here.

None of these elements are especially subtle, but what makes them resonate is their forceful assembly, in particular thanks to the aggressive cross-cutting. (The Scorsese-Schoonmaker team is one of the most formidable in cinema in this respect.) There's an appreciation for the harsh morality and rigid arcs of classic gangster films, the DNA of which mixes strikingly with grittier modern crime cinema. When the movie reaches its bloody denouement, the Rube-Goldberg-like intricacy with which it plays out gives it a thunderous impact. It's been a while since I've seen Infernal Affairs, of which this is a remake, but I don't remember it hitting quite as hard in this regard. And if I recall correctly, it has two love interests for the protagonists instead of the one major female character here, meaning there's no last minute realization by the villain that he's been cuckolded the whole time by the man whose funeral he's attending. Both characters struggle with their identities and the increasingly tense web they've spun throughout the film, but DiCaprio has the last laugh from beyond the grave.

The film is also a masterclass in casting, which lends it additional power. DiCaprio can sometimes be a bit obvious or strained, something I struggled with in The Aviator, but I think that quality serves him exceedingly well here as an undercover cop. If we can see the calculation in his performance, can the criminals around him see through him as well? Damon seems chosen in part for his slight resemblance to DiCaprio, but his natural pomposity is appropriate for his character's aspirations towards respectability, and is a great match by the smugness exuded by his colleague Alec Baldwin. (Here and in The Aviator, Scorsese makes great use of Baldwin's distinct mix of of genteel machismo. At different points in both movies, he practically whips it out.) Jack Nicholson's "Cool Jack" shtick has always struck me as a little sleazy, and he takes that to sickening extremes here, a man without a filter, shoving his appetites in your face relentlessly. (In one of his first scenes, he makes untoward comments towards an underage girl who he later grooms to be his girlfriend.) If this is supposed to be an aspirational figure, it only drives home how dismal a life of crime really is. (It's worth noting that one element likely intended to make him seem unctuous, his ownership of a porno house, makes him seem like a heroic proprietor of an independent theatre these days. I bet they don't play superhero movies at this joint. I also remember an amusing anecdote about Nicholson trying to ad lib setting another character on fire, only to realize his glass was filled with a soft drink.)

As DiCaprio's handlers, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg serve as each other's foils. The former is warm and paternal (perhaps the only such character in the movie, which perhaps telegraphs his fate), the latter is a source of unmitigated douchebaggery. Wahlberg is not someone I'd consider a great actor normally, but in the hands of the right director and placed (usually) out of his element, he can be extremely effective. (I'd cite Boogie Nights, Three Kings and Pain and Gain as the other high points of his career. And maybe The Happening, although unintentionally in that case.) Here, surrounded by obviously better actors, he channels that insecurity into foul-mouthed indignation, serving as a tenuous moral pillar in a world hellbent on doing away with them. (He's also the clearest source of comic relief in this grim movie. Every line, snarled in his nigh impenetrable Boston accent, is a howler.) Is Marky Mark the key to holding this movie together? Probably not, but he's an essential piece of the intricate, thrilling puzzle that is The Departed.




Wow, posting reviews here which are longer than one sentence? F#ck right off.

WARNING: spoilers below
Cool thread I'll try to post some thoughts on some of those films tomorrow.



minds his own damn business





Give me the tickets!!!!
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minds his own damn business
Donald Cammell's Demon Seed with Julie Christie is definitely worth checking out.


For me, Gangs of New York is Scorsese's studio-compromised disappointment of the aughts. Not sure the last time you caught that one, but it did take a few minutes in Aviator before I stopped seeing DiCaprio in a Howard Hughes costume and started seeing Howard Hughes. The film is messy, and historically all over the place, but I like the script's central arc ("quarantine" through the "way of the future") and, like in Departed, I like that Scorsese still seems like he's experimenting with his techniques.



Gangs of New York has been staring at me on Netflix lately, so I intend to get to it soon. I tried watching it a couple of years ago, found some of the slow motion off-putting (and the U2 didn't help) and never finished it.



minds his own damn business
Among other things, this movie, with its two all-timer sex scenes, feels like one of the last hurrahs from an era when mainstream American movies could be unabashedly horny, before we were sentenced to an endless barrage of immaculately muscular bodies in spandex (stupid sexy Flanders) somehow drained of all sex appeal (god forbid somebody pop a boner...or ladyboner, let's be egalitarian here). I apologize if I'm coming off as a little gross, but having been able to barely leave the house for practically a year and a half, watching sexy movies like this is one of the few remaining thrills at my disposal. Please, this is all I have.
You're probably familiar with some of the recent Paul Verhoeven interviews from Cannes where he was ridiculing what he sees as a neo-puritanism in the sexuality of recent films. I was amused that Shailene Woodley (of all people, not one I'd guess to speak out about this) agreed with him and pointed out the artificiality of actresses who have sex on screen while keeping their tops on.



minds his own damn business
I did rewatch Lost Highway somawhat recently (couple months ago), and while I think it fruitless to directly compare the two, I do like that film quite a bit as well.