By Kyle | May 24, 2011
“Papillon,” one of the signature films of the 1970s, appears on Blu-Ray today . When I was a kid I was mesmerized by the movie, which always seemed to be on CBS on Wednesday nights, though it ran 3 hours with commercials and I would always fall asleep before the end, which I don’t think I saw until I was in my 30s. I’d always assumed it got all the major Oscar nominations but it was virtually shut out, despite containing Steve McQueen’s finest and grittiest performance and a superb turn from Dustin Hoffman, each of them playing resourceful prisoners held at France’s Devil’s Island in the 1930s. The long, intense sequence of McQueen in solitary confinement is one of the finest prison scenes ever, and McQueen was among the first actors to really wreck himself before our eyes. (Paul Newman, in “Cool Hand Luke,” didn’t compare.) Even the famous Newman-caliber blue eyes seem dimmed after the character’s agony in solitary, and the prison guards are more terrifying than the (slightly camp) ones in “Luke.” As a kid, I was haunted by the repeated images of the guillotine in use, and here I must thank my parents for never denying me this valuable nightmare fodder. Give it up, everybody, for the virtues of lax parenting.
What nails “Papillon,” directed by Frank Schaffner (who also did “Planet of the Apes” and “Patton”) a quintessential 70s work is the use of two brief, startling dream sequences when McQueen’s Papillon loses touch with reality. One shows Papillon wandering through an open desert, in stylish period clothes instead of his prison rags, and encountering an en banc set of judges, the leader of whom pronounces him “Guilty — of a wasted life.” Papillon agrees that he has indeed wasted his life, which adds a shivery additional level to his suffering, and it’s the acknowledgment of failure and complicity in one’s dire fate that is very 70s, almost Kafka-esque. (In literal terms, Papillon is actually innocent of the crimes of which he has been convicted.) A few minutes later, in another fantasy, Papillon happily welcomes a couple of former companions but Schaffner chillingly rotates the camera as the image becomes fraught and poisoned and Papillon calls out, in mechanically slowed tones, “You’re dead.” I think both of these surreal moments are as weirdly haunting as anything Stanley Kubrick ever did, and the sense of man against an immensely powerful and cruel machine is also Kubrickian. Schaffner didn’t get enough respect, and this dark adventure is a must on Blu-Ray.
By Kyle | November 17, 2009
“Fight Club” flopped when it came out ten years ago but became an underground sensation after that. In today’s Post I talk to Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the novel on which David Fincher’s film was based, to sort out what is and isn’t satire in the movie. There is an updated regular DVD with new features, and the Blu-Ray disc hits the streets today.
By Kyle | October 14, 2009
Over at the Post’s blog, I chat with Oliver Stone about the 15th anniversary director’s cut DVD of “Natural Born Killers.” I enjoyed the movie when it came out, on a gonzo, crazoid level if not a thematic one (the blame-the-media-theme I found jejune). I haven’t watched the director’s cut yet, but the 2-DVD set also contains deleted scenes (including one with Denis Leary) and a documentary.
By Kyle | October 7, 2009
Even my liberal colleague Lou Lumenick calls the FDR-commissioned USSR propaganda piece “Mission to Moscow” “jaw-dropping.” Now it’ll be available on DVD. Lou has led a noble crusade to get the film more attention for its historical importance. FDR (who is portrayed in godlike fashion, as the Great Man who calls a humble reporter in for some fact-finding about Stalinland) ordered up the movie to get America on board with the idea that Joe Stalin was our buddy, at least until the war was over. So what was Walter Duranty’s excuse? More news on this coming soon, Lou promises.
By Kyle | August 24, 2009
My senior colleague Lou Lumenick has withdrawn to the great northwest for the week, so I’ve mounted a coup on his blog, where I’ve posted a couple of items. As I say over there, I’m pleased that Criterion is bringing out a deluxe DVD of “The Last Days of Disco” tomorrow. Also don’t miss “Duplicity” on DVD. I’m surprised that it’s available for an initial price of only $15.99. Not bad at all.
By Kyle | May 28, 2009
A funny story from Lou on the notoriously disastrous Michelangelo Antonioni anti-American film “Zabriskie Point,” an attempt to cash in on the success of “Easy Rider” that lost more than $6 million for MGM back in 1970. (It originally ended with an airplane flying over with a banner reading, “F–K America”). “Zabriskie Point” has finally arrived on DVD. And I think all of our lives are enriched a little, don’t you?
By Kyle | April 29, 2009
If it weren’t such a downer, I think “Irreconcilable Differences,” which Lionsgate has just issued on DVD, would have been remembered as one of the great romantic comedies of the 1980s. The film came out in 1984, just five years before “When Harry Met Sally,” but it still bears the gloomy stamp of 1970s cinema. Imagine if Harry and Sally had gotten married at the end of their cross-country car trip, moved to LA in act II and become fabulously rich and successful in showbiz.
Shelley Long gave probably her finest performance as Lucy, a high-strung Sally type who picks up Albert, a hippie cinema professor (Ryan O’Neal) who is trying to romantically hitchhike across the country in 1973. By the end of the trip, they’re enjoying a slow dance in a roadside bar. Albert is always blathering about film history, being fascinated by the Lubitsch touch, and this heartwarming but otherwise unremarkable slow dance scene deploys a bit of Lubitsch magic when the rug is pulled out: Lucy’s car is suddenly stolen. This moment of stress at first threatens to rip the couple apart, but the anger gets transmuted to lust, deftly and plausibly.
I like the way the spaces open up around the two characters — at first they’re stuck in her crappy car together, then they’re in a small bar and a dingy motel room, but pretty soon, after a chance encounter with a mogul (Sam Wanamaker) wins both of them entree into the movie industry, they’re in vast, breathtaking, overdecorated spaces like a Bel Air mansion. The two of them gradually lose their focus on each other. The world gets to them, amplifies and projects their flaws. As if on a big screen.
The two of them lose each other when a young siren (Sharon Stone, in her first substantial part, doing a superb and sexy enfant sauvage act) literally moves in with them. And moves in on him.
The story is narrated by the couple’s daughter, Drew Barrymore, who is telling us their background (though she wasn’t present for much of it) as part of a court case in which she seeks to become a liberated minor, divorcing her parents in favor of their maid, the only person who has been attentive and kind to her. The bookending of the movie by the kid has the effect of reminding us that we know how it’s going to end, and yet that we really don’t. Perhaps the most Lubitsch-ian moment is when one spouse, bankrupt, moves out of an elaborate mansion, which comes decorated with twin white Rolls-Royces. Pan over to the other spouse, who is now moving into the same place.
There is a marvelous balance to the film in that we have an equal rooting interest in each of the flawed lead characters. Though Lucy could easily become a sort of billboard for feminist grievance–she gets dumped for a much younger woman, a typical plot point in many a liberated 70s movie–she isn’t innocent. Even before she finds herself cast aside, she has grown haggard, tired, work-obsessed. Director Charles Shyer tells us all we need to know in a scene in which Long, who looks like a vampire, sits in a restaurant with the radiant Stone. As Albert (O’Neal) lights her cigarette with infinite care, it becomes clear that the two are sharing much more than a few smokes. After being dumped she becomes shrewish, porky, and obsessive.
Albert, though a paragon of 70s Hollywood soullessness–there are scenes reminiscent of the ones in which Steve Martin becomes a spoiled millionaire in “The Jerk” — never quite manages to lose our sympathy. We can still see the movie lover, the intensely dedicated artist, even as he directs a single disastrous (and very funny) scene of a musical version of “Gone With the Wind.” That Shyer co-wrote the movie with his then-partner Nancy Meyers (the two subsquently split) may be the reason why the film never picks a side. It isn’t a mere satire that picks no side at all and invites us to simply revel in our superiority.
If the film had managed to choose a brighter path in the end, I think the audience would have annointed it as a classic, but it’s determined to wrap up the 70s way. The ending isn’t tragic, but it is exhausted. When Lucy and Albert watch their little girl give a heartbreaking little speech in court about how two people should be kind and respectful to each other, even if they don’t love each other anymore, the moment seems to reach past the idea of entertaining the audience. Instead it wants to change the audience, to instruct it a little after a decade in which people telling each other they could have it all –free love, cocaine, whatever — led to skyrocketing divorce, shattered emotional lives and healthy business for psychoanalysts. That the film seems inspired by the true-life love triangle of egghead film historian Peter Bogdanovich, his producing partner on “The Last Picture Show” and wife Polly Platt, and his star and muse Cybill Shepherd gives it a painful grounding in reality. The subsequent history of Bogdanovich, who refers to “Irreconcilable Differences” as “a terrible movie,” indicates that if anything the film is too kind to him.
By Kyle | March 30, 2009
HBO’s film “Taking Chance,” which stars Kevin Bacon in a finely restrained performance as a Marine Corps colonel escorting the remains of a fallen Marine home for burial, is the best Iraq War movie yet produced by the film industry. Simply by taking a neutral position on the rightness or wrongness of the Iraq War, the film has a throwback feel, one of deep respect for our fighting men and women. It’s a feeling that ought to transcend politics but rarely does. My column on the film drew dozens of e-mails, many of them from those who served or who continue to serve, and everyone I heard from agrees that the movie is a fitting tribute to those who wear the uniform of this country.
Having completed a run on HBO, “Taking Chance” is coming to DVD on May 12. Press release below. Read the rest of this entry »
By Kyle | January 16, 2009
My thoughts on the six-hour PBS miniseries on the history of comedy, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” are here.
By Kyle | January 15, 2009
Marie (Julianne Moore) and Bruce (Matthew Broderick), an unemployed married couple whose relationship has long since fallen apart, go through a typical day of bickering, verbal abuse, deep-seeded loathing and emotional neuroses.
–From the press release accompanying the long-unawaited March 10, 2009 DVD release of “Marie and Bruce,” a movie that showed at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and was never released in theaters.