ARCHIVES PRE-1990

Reviews by Mary Gent and Steven Lewis
Reviews in alphabetical order

BLUE VELVET

“The candy-colored clown they call the Sandman.”

I have many memories attached to “Blue Velvet”. I was a freshman in high school when it opened to shocked audiences all over the world. I remember the poster and being intrigued even at a young age. Need I remind my readers that I have been connected to the darker side of life since birth? Anyways, my parents had gone to see it, being the independent-minded persons that they are. I don’t recall conversations about the film but I do know it caused quite a stir at that time. Now, “Blue Velvet” seems almost benign in our over stimulated, shock value society, but let me tell you it still holds its own where depravity is concerned.

I have seen this film more times than I can count. It is the one film of Lynch’s that I run to if I’m feeling melancholy, artistically challenged, spiritually bankrupt or isolated from what we call humanity. I find comfort in its imagery. The quiet neighborhood where Jeffrey and Sandy live feels like home. The pretty houses and tree-lined streets with the feeling of security and safeness are open arms to my psyche. Leave it to David Lynch to create an alternate reality that anyone born before the mid 80’s can relate to. Kids still played outside. People took walks at night. Families had dinner together, and most importantly, neighborhoods were community. But underneath the Boy Scout, goody two-shoes surface of this, lives the uglier side of humans. Such is the case in most of his films. The over-dramatized and a-bit-too-bright goodness can’t gloss over the murky underbelly of suburbia.

This film plays a bit like noir. At heart, it is a detective story. It’s just that the detective is a 19-year old boy who stumbles upon a human ear in an open field. We all know the story (and like I said in my previous column, if you haven’t seen this film then you won’t be reading my column!). Once again the performances in the film are perfection. Laura Dern’s first film with Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan’s second: “Dune” being the first. Also Lynch virgins Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper as the unforgettable Dorothy Valens and Frank Booth. And, of course, Dean Stockwell’s unforgettable performance as Ben. It’s always amazing to me as I’ve said before, Lynch’s uncanny ability not only to find incredibly gifted actors but then the blossoming of their own careers after. Most of his actors are unknowns in his films who go on to be A-listers. Of course, he uses veteran actors in all his films as well. I’ve seen many interviews and documentaries on his films and his actors are always gushing about working with him. They seem to have all shared a very similarly special experience that they can’t ever quite forget or describe.

“Blue Velvet” really set the tone for how David Lynch would make films. “Eraserhead” was his baby and also an incredible piece of art leaving behind its legacy as a cult film. It also got him his first “real” job in the industry. Studio genius Mel Brooks chose David to direct “The Elephant Man” after seeing “Eraserhead”. But it is “Blue Velvet” that introduces us to Lynch-ville and every movie to follow will continue along a similar path. Although all his films are very different from each other, they all share similar qualities of human nature. It seems thematic in his films, and almost overstated, the dark verses the light. His women are either brunettes or blondes and either color can represent dark or light. There also seems to be elements of denial in all his films. Whether displayed by the protagonist or antagonist is neither her nor there. But most important is the beautiful web of surrealism he wraps around his viewers, trapping them gently in his world for a few hours.
-MG

INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE

Ford and Connery are outstanding together

I remember when I saw the previews for this movie I was not encouraged: seeing Harrison Ford and Sean Connery as Father and Son bickering like a standup comedy duo in the midst of dangerous situations did not look like a very good idea to me – it seemed too “cute” for the normally gritty Indiana Jones series. Well, how wrong I was. Last Crusade is a GREAT movie! I go back and forth in my mind whether this or Raiders is the best of the series. I’d probably have to give Raiders the edge, just for the originality and the action sequences are slightly better, have more punch. But by even forcing me into a comparison, Last Crusade shows the kind of staying power it has. (Just to put my biases right on the table, I thought Temple of Doom was not only the weakest in the series but one of the worst movies ever made – it shares a place on the Lucas/Spielberg scrap heap along side such stinkers as 1941 and Howard the Duck.)

And what makes this film so great IS the relationship between Ford and Connery as father and son. Without that relationship at the center, then yes, this movie would have played too much like a slavish imitation of Raiders. It otherwise has all the same elements: Nazis, quest for Biblical artifact, Sallah and Brody, an Indy fight/chase on a moving vehicle (a truck in Raiders, a tank in Last Crusade), climactic pseudo-religious “power of God” sequence, etc. But the presence of Connery, and his interaction with Ford throughout, just changes the entire complexion of the movie. It becomes less about the action (though certainly not skimping on it) and more about Indy’s attempts to please his father and build a relationship with him. This may seem, on the surface of it, too precious or “touchy-feely” a concept; all I can say is, you need to see the way Ford and Connery handle it. Each performs with subtlety and gruff good humor, not allowing their encounters to sink in dross or sentiment; but equally, not simply tossing them off or treating the whole thing like a joke. Each of them finds an absolutely perfect balance. Ford is especially touching in the way he shows us Indy’s barely repressed hostility toward his father, yet at the same time the aching need he has to be validated in his father’s eyes – all without once begging for audience sympathy, or losing the sly humor and sense of fun which made us all love Indiana Jones in the first place. In the end, and primarily through the talents of Ford and Connery, the film achieves a poignance which I never would have believed possible – or even advisable – for such a comic book styled action movie.
-SL

THE SHINING

Conde Nast gives The Overlook Hotel 5 stars and calls it “the most horrific hotel experience” of 1980.

Okay, I apologize for not posting last week. Work interfered! I have to admit that January 2006 has been a shitty start to a new year. So thank god it’s February. I’m back and ready to deliver.

I’m sure that “The Shining” has been discussed more times than a math wiz could calculate and I’m more than positive that it has been discussed somewhere on this website as well. But I don’t care. I find that it is the appropriate time of year to talk about this film again. For those of you who live in bitter, snow-ridden towns, I’m sure that you can relate to the old phrase “cabin fever”. Living in Los Angeles, more specifically Venice Beach, I do not suffer from said disorder. However, I grew up in Buffalo, NY and am MORE than familiar with unacceptable weather conditions. I myself many times found my mental health to be less than desirable in these bleak winter months, forcing me into seclusion and/or dark desperate drinking binges. Much like our unlikely protaganist, Jack Torrance. Yes I said it. Contrary to popular belief he is not the antagonist in the film. Just a pawn or puppet if you will, having his strings pulled by the real evil force: The Overlook Hotel.

What we don’t get from Kubrick’s menacing version of this film is that the Hotel is the supernatural entity that preys upon Jack’s weaknesses so it can get to the real target, Jack’s young son Danny. Danny as we all know (because if you haven’t seen this film or at least read the book I have zero patience for you!) has the ability to forsee events. ESP if you will. His gift is strong and allows him visions of not only the near future but much farther down the road as well. The hotel covets Danny’s innate abilities and will stop at nothing to possess them for it’s own purposes. What we also do not know from Kubrick’s film is that Jack falls victim to the hotel’s whims through old musty newspapers he finds in the boiler room chronicling the murderous events that took place at the hotel. This distraction from his own novel and recovery process is his ultimate demise.

But all that aside, Kubrick’s version is it’s own horrific masterpiece. This film was the cause of much distress in my household when I was a young gal. My morbid fascination with all things “horror” led me to beg my parents to allow me to watch it. They caved and I sat in front of the television frozen in terror and can still taste that fear to this day. The illusion of isolation that Kubrick creates is perhaps what terrifies me most of all. He sets the tone from the very beginning of the film with ariel shots of the Rocky mountains and maybe two cars driving down the spiraled road with the ominous soundtrack looming quietly in the background. He managed to remove the beauty of the Rocky Mountains and create a type of monstrous entity instead. This feeling of aloneness intensifies when the Torrances arive at their new digs and the staff is closing up shop for the winter and the knowledge that it will just be them for 6 months echoes loudly in the silence.

Jack Torrance is a brilliant character, born out of the beautifully demented mind of Stephen King. Again you don’t get a real sense of who he is in the film. Kubrick’s coldness resounds in Nicholson’s amazing performance right at the get go. You NEVER like him! Nicholson turns Jack Torrance into a monster right from the beginning. In Stephen King’s reality the character of Jack is one of human fallabillity. King’s gift to create complex characters is uncanny. Jack has been dealt some pretty shitty cards in his life. His profession as writer and teacher create great turmoil in his personal life. He is a raging alcoholic. He is abusive and he is a tender and loving father beneath it all. His determination to overcome his past and his addictions are what push him to accept the job at the Overlook, hoping it will restore his family unit and remove his writers block. You like Jack in the book. You relate to him and you secretly cheer him on through all his mistakes.

In the film there is nothing warm or loving about Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack. He is a madman. The lurking mental crack is apparent immediately. (I love that about the film, but Stephen King hated it. Oh well!) So as they settle in as the new inhabitants of the Overlook, things start to go wrong. Danny’s senses are heightened and he begins to have horrific visions that the hotel allows him to see. The knowledge that the previous winter caretaker went crazy and chopped his little girls up and killed his wife and himself begin to manifest as entities in the hotel.

Jack’s inability to cope as a normal human crumbles more and more everyday and his desperation leads him to the hotel bar where he encounters all the visions and people that the hotel has hoarded over the years (like the fictional bartender Lloyd who faithfully serves up Jack’s poison, further leading him into the abyss of insanity).

As his reality begins to blur, the hotel can gain strength through the meeting of the aforementioned caretaker Delbert Grady. Grady creates doubt in Jack’s head about the behavior of his family, in particular his son Danny. He convinces Jack that they need to be “corrected” just as he had “corrected” his family. Jack’s loss of rationale gets the best of him and he confronts his timid wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall) in one of the most disturbing scenes of the film. It is horrifying to me to watch a human act like a monster and lose all sense of reason. The taunting lilt of Nicholson’s voice as he walks Shelly Duvall backwards into the stairs is bone chilling.

The movie’s stress level is amped up at this point and nothing good can come anymore. What happens over the next hour is excruciating. Jack’s slipping down life is irreversible at this point. Danny’s preternatural gift is at a boiling point as he understands the immediate danger he and his mother are in. The writing is on the wall, literally, as Wendy awakes to find the fateful message written in red on her door.

There is a double climax of sorts at this point. As she reads the words of doom on the door the horrific sound of her axe-wielding husband’s taunts of “little pig, little pig let me in” begin. Thus leading to the famous “Here’s Johnny” moment. As Wendy runs through the hotel trying to escape, she begins to witness the hotel’s malevolence as the visions become more and more tangible.

We all know how the movie ends: the legendary maze sequence which honestly still makes me nervous, even though I know the outcome! The terror of this film is not the supernatural aspects that surround it but the truth behind the reality of human weakness and the mental breakdown that could ensue from complete isolation. I will forever love “The Shining” and it’s unique and brilliant imagery and I still consider it the best pyschological horror film ever made.

“We all go a little mad sometimes.” -Norman Bates
-MG

STRAIGHT TIME

Hoffman holds it all together – possibly his best performance ever

This film is inadequate on so many levels – not BAD, mind you, but inadequate; it posits a very strong and promising story – following ex-con Max Dembo (great name, that) from the moment of his release from prison and chronicling his attempts at re-integrating himself with the outside world, ending in the wasteful tragedy of him returning to a life of crime. A powerful premise, obviously, as it contains the possibility of exposing the prison system as caring solely about locking up, rather than rehabilitation; it would let a character like Max whither on the vine for years and years, then release him coldly into the world with no props, no survival skills, no real knowledge of anything but crime, violence, and institutional thinking. The indignity of the parolee’s existence, belonging neither to the jail nor really to the outside world, comes through here in several of the opening scenes – particularly those between Dembo and his imposing parole officer (underplayed superbly by M. Emmet Walsh – in a role which was directly responsible for the Coen Brothers casting him in “Blood Simple”), and they are striking. But there are just not enough of them before Max jumps back into the convict’s life: the latter two thirds of the movie involve his attempted scores with old buddies, leaving the examination of the whys and wherefores of his defection from the law-abiding life to simply drift into the wind. Indeed, I’d say the film throws away its true strength and uniqueness early, in order to settle into being a fairly routine and unspectacular caper thriller. It’s too bad because it’s such a great premise – that of the put upon ex-con – and one that’s been used as a thematic basis for such later classic movies as “Heat”, “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Carlito’s Way.” But “Straight Time” – probably one of the first films to ever deal with the subject head on – never really uses it to much benefit.

What makes the film something to see, though, in spite of itself, is the toweringly great performance by Dustin Hoffman as Max. This may very well be his single greatest performance – even taking such classics as “The Graduate”, “Tootsie” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” into account. For one thing, he eschews the mannered gestures and speaking patterns that tend to bring a stagey-ness to even his best performances; in “Straight Time” Hoffman is a model of stillness and calm – and yet, with a ferocious electricity in his eyes and a wiry tension in his body that at all moments practically scream, “Kill!” Though his character has relatively little dialogue (that is, for a leading role), you can’t take your eyes off of him, because you’re perpetually scared at what he might do. As it happens, the violence in the film is fairly minimal, but Hoffman sears the screen with such coiled intensity that you are kept afraid and off guard at every minute (and, of course, when the worst finally comes, it packs quite a punch – no pun intended). I truly believe this performance bears comparison to that other great mid-70s showcase of quiet angst and intensity – Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” (and, while we’re making comparisons, even to Pacino in “The Godfather Part II”).

Though he can’t make up for lackluster direction and a lazy script, Hoffman does as much as any actor could reasonably do to fill in the blanks of Max’s personality. His flat, deadened voice suggests a man who has been beaten down so long that all passion and animation have been removed from his larynx; his stony and expressionless face registers neither joy nor sorrow, letting us know all excitement and expectation have been drained from this man. Even his affair with the fresh-faced and pretty Theresa Russell (a hackneyed and unconvincing sub-plot, in any case) can arouse no great feeling in him; when he has to, he abandons her with no greater thought or regret than one would feel for a misplaced duffel bag.

Again I say, the first part of this film – which establishes Max’s desire to fit in on the outside and his frustrated attempts at doing so – is so strong and Hoffman’s performance so focused and intense (cementing our connection to him almost immediately) that it leaves you breathless for a great movie that, alas, never comes. In fact, the film gives up on its own greatness relatively early on. But, even after all the disappointment at the wasted opportunities, still there remains the memory of Dustin Hoffman’s fantastically controlled and harrowing performance. And you know what? That turns out to be – just barely – enough.
-SL

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