Blazing Saddles (1974)

Blazing_saddles_movie_posterThough it’s easy to be a proponent of Support your Local Sheriff for its sheer scatterbrained zaniness, Blazing Saddles has that and something more to offer, making it arguably the greatest western satire of all time. Brooks took part in all facets of the film as was his normal prerogative and he sets up the introduction with Frankie Laine belting out the main theme with a tremendous gusto that evokes the grandeur of the West. It makes it ten times funnier when the film actually begins to hit its stride. Because it sounds like a western in the beginning, it even looks like a western, and it goes through many of the plot cycles that we’ve grown used to, but in other ways, it’s so fundamentally different.

The most obvious demarcation Blazing Saddles takes in telling its tale of the Old West involves the very fact that Bart (Cleavon Little) is made acting sheriff of the quaint frontier town of  Rock Ridge. In actuality, it’s all part of a nefarious scheme by the local man in black Hedley Lamarr and his right-hand thug Taggart (the iconic Slim Pickens). Hedley Lamarr uses the incompetent, womanizing governor as his pawn to get the new sheriff installed so the town will be sent in an uproar and he can swoop in and buy off all their land. After all, none of the white folk could possibly hope to live in a town with a black sheriff.

So that is the main conflict at the center of Blazing Saddles and it’s absolutely ludicrous and at the same time still somewhat unnerving and telling about American society. Mainstream white society did not really know how to cope with African-Americans and other racial minorities in some ways and even more so they didn’t know what to do with their own amount of messy history. Because it’s true that even in film, the mythic Old West was not very good to Native Americans or Asians and African-Americans were all but nonexistent. And in his film, Brooks takes all of that on thumbing his nose at every archetype as well as political correctness (although that term undoubtedly did not exist as prevalently as it now does throughout our culture).

Supposedly the writer’s room was utter mayhem for this film with Brooks certainly at the center of the mix with the likes of Richard Pryor and Andrew Bergman also heavily involved. No matter the amount of chaos, however, the film does come off fairly well. It’s laden with purposely absurd anachronisms like Count Basie’s orchestra, for instance, a medieval hangman’s noose complete with a medieval hangman, and of course, droves and droves of Nazis and other baddies who answer Hedley Lamarr’s call for criminal types of all descriptions.

There’s a local dance hall singer (Madeline Kahn) who does her best Marlena Dietrich knockoff from Destry Rides Again, while Mel Brooks even manages to portray a Yiddish-speaking Native American who allows the segregated black wagon train to pass as the whites get attacked.

Gene Wilder takes on a typically understated role as the town drunk and deputy who shares some traces of Dean Martin’s role in Rio Bravo. Meanwhile, the locals (all named Johnson) gather at their place of worship to have a plaintive dialogue about what they are to do to protect their good names a la High Noon. So there you have it. That’s the film in a very small nutshell as Bart must try to calm the townsfolks fears and quell his enemy all the while trying to not go crazy with all the racist white folk.

Be warned that this film does have funny segments but it also happens to be fairly crude which is not necessarily a surprise. Still, it’s obviously something to consider before watching. But it does seem that sometimes comedy such as this is able to enter territory that we’re squeamish to go in our everyday conversations and more serious moments. Because in some sense maybe comedy can poke fun at all the things we take so seriously — the things we need to lighten up about and connect over by the very fact that we’re all human beings.

However, it can also be pointed, ribbing its audience as it highlights the very things problematic not only in our past but in our present too. And that’s one of the most redeeming things that can be taken out of Blazing Saddles. Sure, you can take it simply as a raucous, inane, often vulgar western comedy from the estimable nut Mel Brooks, but it also speaks a little bit to film’s ability to enter into areas that we as a society still need to address.

The use of the “N” word throughout the film personally makes me tense as that word has so much history and a racial charge going through it. But when Brooks used it, apparently with the vehement backing of Cleavon Little and Richard Pryor, you could even argue that its very use takes some of the power away from those who wish to use it perniciously. But that’s necessary dialogue to have.

The best scene in the film has to be near the end, at the studio, as the camera pulls back and we realize we’re only on a film set. An absolute doozie of a pie fight ensues at the commissary to punctuate the utter tumult that is going down thus far and Hedley is pursued by Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid to the film’s premiere. In the end, they get their man and ride, err, are driven off into the sunset. The fitting ending to arguably Mel Brooks greatest cinematic achievement.  If John Wayne’s any litmus test, Duke famously told Brooks being in the film didn’t fit his image, but he would be the first in line to see it. That gives you a good idea of what you’re in for.

4/5 Stars

Slap Shot (1977)

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The question is, what to do with Slap Shot? It’s grungy, dirty, and foul-mouthed. Bloody and violent. Did I mention profane and boisterous? Loud and obnoxious? Yet somehow there’s still something idiosyncratically lovable about this board busting hockey film. Is it wrong to call it an adult version of The Bad News Bears? After all, the men that the film follows are actually real professional hockey players. Not some kid looking to play at their local gymnasium. Except hockey’s still not the biggest sport (not even today) and the Charleston Chiefs are a minor league club if I’ve ever seen one.

But it’s precisely that quality that keeps us around. Because we all gravitate towards the rejects and the bottom dwellers. The people we can easily feel sorry for and who simultaneously make us feel a little bit better about ourselves.

In bringing George Roy Hill back with Paul Newman and surrounding him with quite the cast of lug heads, epitomized by the gloriously violent Hanson Brothers, Slap Shot somehow became a cult classic.

Player-manager Reggie Dunlop is in the twilight of his career. It’s hardly a secret that the Chiefs aren’t doing so hot and it looks like this might be their last season. It’s a fairly abysmal existence for all involved then Dunlop has the bright idea to let go of any inhibitions. Soon he has his boys brawling with everyone imaginable. Opposing players, fans, referees, anyone who is living and breathing. The funny thing is that this new style of play actually elicits winning results and the public loves them for their brutality.

One perfect illustration of this chaotic pandemonium occurs when the opposing goalkeeper goes diving over the boards to continue his showdown with Paul Newman. They shared a few choice words beforehand. That’s putting it lightly.

But these are also the same group of guys who leave every battle bloodied and bruised. The same group of guys who wind up playing cards on the bus or get mesmerized by the latest corny soap opera on television at the local watering hole. They’re a sorry lot who also happen to be ridiculously funny at times.

It’s the rowdiest of films with at least a couple screws loose. If we were to be pretentious I guess who would chock it up to Slap Shot having “Character.” But I’m not sure if it would be too far from the truth to blame this film for leading the charge in legions of awful R-Rated comedies with no merit whatsoever.

Even with Slap Shot, there are some rather interesting tonal shifts. It’s as if Nancy Dowd’s script looks to get sincere once or twice. Or there were thoughts of getting dramatic. But then the gloves came off and the sticks were thrown aside and there was a collective “Nawww!” from all involved. Not surprisingly this was one of Paul Newman’s favorite roles because he’s not just a ne’er do well or an old crotchety wise guy, he’s a legitimate scuzzball.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that Slap Shot’s soundtrack is now synonymous with the bouncy infectious notes of Maxine Nightingale’s 1975 classic “Right Back Where We Started From.”  The added addition of Fleetwood Mac doesn’t hurt it either. So, yes, I would hardly call this one a revered classic, and I’m still digging around for some redeeming qualities. I’ll let you know. But Slap Shot never claimed to be anything of those things.

It’s unashamedly crude. Gratuitously violent but so over the top as to be comic and there’s not even the slightest attempt to cover any of this up. It could be that Slap Shot is one of the more honest portrayals of human nature. Humanity loves sports. We’re often losers and outcasts with few redeeming qualities when you really get to know us. That’s by no means a promotion of Slap Shot but more of a qualification.

3/5 Stars

Solaris (1972)

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Now I can finally say that I have entered the cinematic world of Andrei Tarkovsky and I am better for it. Solaris somehow traces the lines of a paradox rather remarkably. It’s a sprawling epic of nearly 3 hours and yet hardly ever feels overlong. It moves through its rhythms contemplatively but never feels too slow. And though it’s a sci-fi story, it never loses sight of its human components which remain its guiding light to the end.

To Tarkovsky’s credit, he’s able to retain the film’s continual ability to mesmerize again and again and he never lets up. I know for certain viewers this will be dull monotony–even for me at times–but for others, it’s pure magic. Repeatably fascinating for both its enigmatic mysteries and revelations. Because it delivers both up willingly to the engaged viewer.

Like any master painter, Tarkovsky begins the film by laying down his base coats. We’re introduced to enigmatic psychologist Kris Kelvin while simultaneously accustoming ourselves to the director’s naturalistic imagery — glossy and distinct. It’s in these opening moments at the home of his father back on earth where the audience gains more insight and Kris prepares himself to mount a journey to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Only three crew members still survive there and the psychologist is being sent to check in on them and continue to expand the reaches of human knowledge. That’s the idea at least.

However, when Kris gets to the space station it’s far from welcoming, austere and dilapidated thanks to poor upkeep. Now only two crew members remain, the curiously odd Dr. Snaut and the cold cynic Dr. Sartorious. Both men will give Kris very little information about the general state of affairs. And he only learns later that his colleague Gibarian committed suicide for some inexplicable reason.

But the film enters its most perplexing stages when Kris receives a visit from a mysterious woman — her name is Hari and for reasons unknown to us, Kris is very close to her. And his emotional state from that time forth is constantly being manipulated by the presence of this special visitor. He’s frightened of her. Then in love and completely devoted to her well-being. And despite the adamant insistence of his colleagues, he will not believe her to be an apparition. He holds onto the fact that this woman in front of him who is constantly self-destructive and in the same instance totally devoted to him, is the woman he knows and loves. But the question is not so much whether or not that is true, but what Kelvin will do with all that has been thrust upon him as a result.

On the whole, Solaris is a visual treat but not due to grandiose visions of space.  Instead, Tarkovsky blends color and sepia footage into a patchwork while juxtaposing the environmental beauty of underwater vegetation with the dour interiors of the space station. And the suspension of disbelief is maintained through the use of simple special effects and the underlying fact that this film is not really reliant on pyrotechnics of any kind. It’s about people. An equally remarkable observation is the fact that Tarkovsky seems to be self-assured enough to have his characters play their roles with relative restraint. Numerous times they face away from the camera. In other films, directors would be afraid of such a tactic, but here it only works to heighten the amount of intrigue.

It’s a philosophical and psychological study that happens to take place on a space station. And that’s really like any of the great sci-fi movies of our times. They’re not really about science-fiction or technology or robots or any of that. They’re only another mode to tell the most human of narratives even in the outer reaches of the galaxy or in futuristic worlds.

It’s also highly reductive to call this Tarkovsky’s 2001. In deference to both films really. In fact, the director did not see Kubrick’s film until well afterward and I think I too would side with his conclusion that 2001 is a little bit too “sterile.” While 2001 is a decidedly grand narrative of exploration and technological advancement, you can easily make the case that Solaris is a film most precisely about the incredibly human emotion of love. Although it’s also about the human search for some kind of truth much in the same way as its predecessor, it’s also far more personal. Solaris feels more intimate and true — perhaps even more closely tied to some of Ridley Scott’s themes in Blade Runner. Particularly his examination on what exactly separates man and machine when they share striking similarities.

As far as sound goes, there is a score to Solaris, but Tarkovsky only utilizes it at the precise moments, more often than not foregoing typical music for either electronic distortions or perhaps even more boldly complete silence. He also gives nods to the great Flemish master Pieter Bruegel using his work in the set designs inside the space station.

Truthfully, it’s easy to peg Solaris as a pessimistic movie but it’s as preoccupied with morality as it is with the pursuit of knowledge. It’s as much about the innate human desire for love as it is psychological torment. And its ending strikes a note of poignancy and bitter despair in the same instance.  But if you want profound cinema that stays with you and marinates in your mind then look no further. I will certainly be returning to Tarkovsky sooner rather than later.

5/5 Stars

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

 

a-clockwork-orange-1“He will be your true Christian: ready to turn the other cheek, ready to be crucified rather than crucify” ~ Minister of the Interior

Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange began as a troubling book and it becomes perhaps an even more troubling film full of volatility placed in the hands of Stanely Kubrick.

At its core are many deep-rooted issues of violence, morality, and free will all coming to the fore because of one teenage hoodlum and his rehabilitation from a life of savage juvenile delinquency. Whereas Burgess created this parable in all sincerity to consider these very issues of morality, it’s easy to get the sense that Kubrick simply found this moral conundrum a fascinating exercise in itself. You only have to look at Dr. Strangelove to see his proclivity towards wicked wit or only to venture with 2001 to observe his penchant for deep philosophical paradigms wrapped up in the science fiction.  A Clockwork Orange has all of that and it’s a perturbing practice in both satire and science fiction. It hums with classical music and synths, shot with distorting wide-angle lenses, while also modeling Kubrick’s perfectionist tendencies.

Malcolm McDowell’s voice-overs as the main hoodlum Alex DeLarge are a major component of the film’s structure, recalling the phraseology and world developed in Burgesses original source material. For instance, Beethoven becomes Ludwig Van. Droogs are friends. Horrorshow is good or well. Then, Ultraviolence and the old in-out don’t need much explanation.

In fact, during the course of this film, Alex takes part in equal measures of both, causing havoc with his friends and bedding a pair of girls. There is seemingly no end to his depravity and the fascinating part is that he seems to enjoy it all.

That is, until, the government steps in to reform him. Alex is sent from prison to the Ludovico Medical Facility where he is to be issued a new variation of aversion therapy. And this is where, rather ironically, the famed sequence of Malcolm McDowell eyes wide screaming at the images passed in front of him entered the public consciousness. His corneas actually getting scratched in the process and the images forever ingrained in our society from that point forward.

But all of this early depravity, followed by his rehabilitation are only the beginning.  And it’s in these interludes that Kubrick tries to impress upon us the idea of Alex being our hero. It’s a difficult thought to deal with. But that’s of little consequence compared to the moral issues that hang in the balance here.

You cannot watch this film and not only feel somewhat dirtied but also saddened at what man is capable of doing. And it’s not only in the case of one man to another, or a small group to another. But, in this case, an entire bureaucracy of people systematically ridding their streets of crime. It’s a strange question maybe, but the question must still be asked, at what cost is all of this? It deserves our attention.

And to try and tease out some answers it seems crucial to look back to Burgess because although these are questions that undoubtedly intrigued Kubrick as well, but it was Burgess who first brought them to the fore. In this case, the author’s own religious background seems to have telling implications for this moral tale that he wove. He intended A Clockwork Orange to be a parable of what defines free will and forgiveness from a Christian perspective in particular.

What is goodness or forgiveness if we lose our free will — if we are only machines — functioning without beating hearts and all that is human within us. What kind of good would the greatest act of love in the universe be if it was done out of compulsion — not genuine love and charity?

In the case of Alex DeLarge, he no longers craves ultraviolence or his former lustful desires for women, but it has nothing to do with a change of heart. He’s simply learned to be repulsed by them. Kubrick’s picture is darkly perverse and the film ends not with the promise of the novel but a thoroughly downbeat ending that rings hollow.  It becomes obvious that Alex’s core desires have hardly changed. He’s simply been conditioned to know what is “good” and “bad.” That’s perhaps an even more terrifying reality than one of violence and evil.

The story goes that when Gene Kelly crossed paths with Malcolm McDowell he coldly walked away because it was in this film that his iconic tune “Singin’ in the Rain” was notoriously tarnished. But really this entire film is a dark blot and it’s truly horribly dismal to watch at times.  I cannot even manage to watch it in its entirety. Not simply for its graphic nature, but the tone that it endows. While Alex DeLarge is far from a sympathetic protagonist, it’s hard not to pity him — poor fool that he is.

3.5/5 Stars

Trafic (1971)

TraficWatching films with French treasure Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati) is a wonderful experience because, in some respects, it feels like he brings out the child in me. And if history is any indication — I’m not the only one — others feel this sensation too.

It’s not sophisticated humor. The laughs are not dependent on any amount wit or mature understanding, but it’s universal. Everyone, whatever age, language or temperament, can laugh along with Monsieur Hulot.

Once more it’s easy to see his debt to the great silent stars and his use of sound is always impeccable yet still outrageous in the same breath. It accentuates anything on the screen with auditory hyperbole that is absolutely brilliant. Any sound imaginable is amplified in Tati’s memorable everyday comedic symphony of noise.

If you wanted a plot Trafic, as expected, has very little. Mr. Hulot, for a reason not explained to us, is now working for an automobile company named Altra that is preparing for a big car show in Amsterdam. He along with a truck driver named Marcel and Ms. “Public Relations” (American model Maria Kimberly) must weather the roads and every hiccup imaginable to make it to the show on time. She streaking in her bright yellow convertible and they riding in their truck cursed with flat tires and an empty gas tank among other ailments. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that they don’t quite make it there on schedule.

Jacques Tati was always one to playfully nudge at our modern culture obsessed with technology, expedience and, of course, automobiles. However, there’s nothing terribly vindictive about the way he goes about it. In contrast to the images of hustle and bustle and “progress,” there are also a great many that take comfort in the tranquility of farm life or quaint cottages. Everyday people and their mundane lives that, while idiosyncratic, are in no way inconsequential. He is a director who makes us appreciate people more. Mechanics, old couples, even cats, and dogs.

Many viewers undoubtedly will remember the crazy traffic jam with cars careening everywhere, hubcaps and tires rolling every which way and so on. It’s comedic madness. In fact, for numerous reasons, it’s easy to juxtapose Trafic with an earlier French film of a very different sort, Jean-Luc Godard’s political satire Weekend, which has some massive traffic of its own. And Tati creates comparable chaos, mischief and so on but I prefer his method of execution. Because he finds the charm and humor in every situation — even a car accident (with the multitudes simultaneously relieving the cricks in their joints). There’s no spite, cynicism or anything of that sort. He doesn’t feign pretentiousness, choosing instead to remain comically genuine right to the end.

That’s why there’s something so endearing and satisfying about Mr. Hulot. He remains unchanged and unmarred by the world around him. We can count on him to be the same as he ever was — the same hat, the same coat, the same pipe and the same hesitant gate. Maybe his adventures are not the most titillating. Some people admittedly will not like Trafic. It’s either too meandering like Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday or too jumbled compared to the exquisite patchwork ballet that makes up Tati’s earlier masterwork Playtime.

But, no matter, Tati is still a joy for what he brings to the screen, for those who are acquainted with his work and those who are willing to join an ambling adventure full of small nuggets of humor. Here is a film that through inconspicuous nose picking, windshield wipers, and road rage tells us more about humanity than many other more ostentatious films are able to manage. Trafic is certainly worthwhile.

4/5 Stars

Love on the Run (1979)

love on the run 2You can’t just do anything at all and then say ‘forgive me!’ You haven’t changed a bit.” ~ Colette

The prospect of watching Love on the Run saddened me and not for the reasons you might expect. Not because it’s noted as the weakest film in Truffaut’s famed Antoine Doinel series, although that it is. Not because it utilizes a clip show rather like a lazy sitcom as some will undoubtedly note (although this does actually give way to some rather entertaining reminisces as Antoine crosses paths with two old acquaintances). And it’s not even because this is the last film in the series and Truffaut never got around to any more installments before his death in 1983. Though that is sad.

The truly heartbreaking thing about this film is not even the fact that Antoine and Christine (Claude Jade) are getting a divorce although that is at the core of it. It’s that Antoine, who has long been the focal point of these films with his certain brand of charming charisma, really has not changed a great deal.

Time and time again, his superficial relationships with women are explored and time and time again his self-destructive habits hardly seem playfully entertaining but if you want the most honest answer, it’s all rather disheartening.

He has a new girl who we meet in the opening credits. Her name is Sabine. She’s young, radiant, very pretty and works in the local record shop. If we didn’t know any better we could easily make comparisons between her and Christine.

We see that little boy from 400 Blows and even that same young man looking to win the affection of a cute brunette named Collete. However, now a few years down the road, none of that panned out. He’s terribly selfish, undeniably a cad and always trying to say he’s sorry to save face. Sabine says it well when she calls him a pickup artist (You sure have a strange idea about relationships. You seem to only care about the first encounter. Once they’re together it’s all downhill).  

However, if we look again we remember that Doinel’s home life was hardly a prize, schoolmasters were unfeeling and his mother passed away — the only real family he had in the world.
Maybe, love on the run 1Antoine Doinel is a character who thinks only in the cinematic and it is true that he often functions in a bit of a faux-reality. He seems normal but never quite is. He seems charismatic but we are never won over by him completely. Still, we watch the unfoldings of his story rather attentively.

Like all the women who he tiptoed around with, as an audience, we have liked him but never truly loved him — an important distinction to make. And coincidentally, we also see right through him. Perhaps because he’s often too much like us or other times not enough like us. It’s hard to put a finger on which one it is exactly.

We leave the film essentially where it began. Antoine has once more been scolded by his girl and made up. It’s difficult to know quite precisely how to feel about that. Love on the Run is worth its nostalgia, woven in between the most recent moments of Doinel’s life. While his character is trying, he is still strangely compelling. But at this point, it’s hard to know what to do with him. Nevertheless, Francois Truffaut was unparalleled in the continuous narrative he was able to craft — flawed, personal and most certainly memorable.

3.5/5 Stars

All the President’s Men (1976)

allthepresidentsmen1You couldn’t hope to come up with a better story than this. Pure movie fodder if there ever was and the most astounding thing is that it was essentially fact — spawned from a William Goldman script tirelessly culled from testimonials and the eponymous source material. All the President’s Men opens at the Watergate Hotel, where the most cataclysmic scandal of all time begins to split at the seams.

And Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) joined by Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) were right there ready to pursue the story when nobody else wanted to touch it. The Washington Post went out on a limb when no other paper would. Because if we look at the historical climate, such an event seemed absolutely ludicrous. Richard M. Nixon was the incumbent president. Detente had led to cooled tensions with the Soviets. And Democratic nominee George McGovern looked to be on a self-destructive path.

But the facts remained that these “burglars” had ties to the Republican Party and potentially the White House. It was tasked to Woodward and Bernstein to figure out how far up the trail led. And to their credit the old vets took stock in them — men made compelling by a trio of indelible character actors Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, and Jason Robards.

Woodward begins hitting the phones covering his notepad with shorthand and chicken scratch, a web of names and numbers. With every phone call, it feels like they’re stabbing in the dark, but the facts just don’t line up and their systematic gathering of leads churns up some interesting discoveries. Names like Howard Hunt, Charles Colson, Dardis, Kenneth H. Dahlberg all become pieces in this patchwork quilt of conspiracy. The credo of the film becoming the enigmatic Deep Throat’s advice to “Follow the money” and so they begin canvassing the streets encountering a lot of closed doors, in both the literal and metaphorical sense.

allthepresidentsmen3But it only takes a few breakthroughs to make the story stick. The first comes from a reticent bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) and like so many others she’s conflicted, but she’s finally willing to divulge a few valuable pieces of information. And as cryptic as everything is, Woodward and Bernstein use their investigative chops to pick up the pieces.

Treasurer Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins) stepped down from his post in the committee to re-elect the president based on his conscience, and his disclosures help the pair connect hundreds of thousands of dollars to the second most powerful man in the nation, John Mitchell. That’s the kicker.

It’s hard to forget the political intrigue the first time you see the film. What I didn’t remember was just how open-ended the story feels even with the final epilogue transcribed on the typewriter. The resolution that we expect is not given to us and there’s something innately powerful in that choice.

allthepresidentsmen4Gordon Willis’s work behind the camera adds a great amount of depth to crucial scenes most notably when Woodward enters his fateful phone conversation with Kenneth H. Dahlberg. All he’s doing is talking on the telephone, but in a shot rather like an inverse of his famed Godfather opening, Willis uses one long zoom shot — slow and methodical — to highlight the build-up of the sequence. It’s hardly noticeable, but it only helps to heighten the impact.

Furthermore, some dizzying aerial shots floating over the D.C. skyline are paired with Redford and Hoffman’s voice-over as they are canvassing the streets to convey the type of paranoia that we would expect from a Pakula film. Because, much like the Parallax View before it, All the President’s Men holds a wariness towards government, and rightfully so. However, there is a subtext to this story that can easily go unnoticed.

The name Charles Colson is thrown around several times as a special counselor to the president, and Colson like many of his compatriots served a prison sentence. That’s not altogether extraordinary. It’s the fact that Chuck Colson would become a true champion of prison reform in his subsequent years as a born-again Christian, who was completely transformed by his experience in incarceration. And he did something about it starting Prison Fellowship, now present in over 120 countries worldwide.

It reflects something about our nation. When the most corrupt and power-hungry from the highest echelons of society are brought low, there’s still hope for redemption. Yes, our country was forever scarred by the memory of Watergate, but one of the president’s men turned that dark blot into something worth rooting for. It’s exactly the type of ending we want.

4.5/5 Stars

The Candidate (1972)

CandidateposterTwo hallmarks of the political film genre are Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and All the President’s Men. The latter starred The Candidate’s lead, Robert Redford. However, in this case, the candidate, Billy McKay, is perhaps a more tempered version of Jefferson Smith. He’s a young lawyer, good looking and passionate about justice and doing right by the people.

But this is not a film about a monumental struggle between good versus evil. There are no blatant moments of scandal or obvious skeletons lurking in the closets (although there’s the suggestion that McKay has a slight fling). Still, both men, both the Democrat and the Republican seem like generally amiable individuals — not venomous monsters. If you were with them around a dinner table, no matter your political bent, it would probably be easy to strike up a conversation. But both men, the incumbent, Crocker Jarmon, and the young challenger are playing this game called politics to win the state of California. There’s no doubt about it.

It’s fascinating that the film was actually penned by the real-life speechwriter of Senator Eugene J McCarthy, Jeremy Larner, so you get a sense that there is inherently some truth to the backroom conversations going on between campaign managers, newscasters, and the Senate hopeful. There’s an ethos being elicited and it helps that The Candidate gives off the aura of documentary more often than film.

But what we do see, is the progression of a man. McKay begins resolutely in his ambitions. He’s not at all a politician and he was not planning to become one until he is called upon by a veteran campaign manager. Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) thinks the lawyer has the pedigree (his father was a governor) and the genuine charm to win over votes. And finally, Bill agrees to it all as long as he gets to say what he wants. But as things continue to evolve, this beast that is the political machine begins to churn rather insidiously.

There’s not some dramatic moment of epiphany but there is a sense that McKay has started to allow himself to be sucked into this political popularity contest. His advisors are constantly setting up their next moves, putting together press junkets and public appearances to bring their candidate before the people. Meanwhile, his wife (Karen Carlson) is trying to support his cause and his famous father (Melvyn Douglas) eventually looks to get in on the publicity as well. And McKay is certainly candid and likable but he also soon learns what is expected of him. His answers become vague, he toes the line closer and ladles out the type of rhetoric the masses want to hear. The sad thing is that it’s this strategy which begins helping in the polls. Not astronomically but it’s a systematic shift giving him a good chance to win the contest.

But by election night, the votes are being cast, both sides are frantically preparing and Bill realizes he might be on the edge of a precipice he never foresaw. He’s being hoisted up as a champion of the people and yet he realizes he doesn’t want to be there but by this point, it’s too late. He can’t turn back. He can’t reimagine himself because he played the game already.

It’s hard to decipher where the film goes from here — what truly is next? His staff is happy. His wife is happy. His father is happy. Everyone else seems happy too. But the candidate is left to get whisked away by a mob — still wearing a glum face of bewilderment. In some ways, he’s a Jefferson Smith for the modern era. Duped by a system that he thought he could reform, only to find out he sold out. It’s somehow both comic and cynical — in a rather unnerving way — striking a tender nerve. Imagine if you have an election as volatile as the latest one. This film is no less true even over 40 years later. In some ways, everything still functions like a nefarious game. The question is, who is the joke really on?

3.5/5 Stars

Catch-22 (1970)

catch221It’s the bane of my literary existence, but I must admit that I have never read Joseph Heller’s seminal novel Catch-22. Please refrain from berating me right now, perhaps deservedly so, because at least I have acknowledged my ignorance. True, I can only take Mike Nichol’s adaptation at face value, but given this film, that still seems worthwhile. I’m not condoning my own failures, but this satirical anti-war film does have two feet to stand on.

It reads like a cast of millions: Alan Arkin, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Art Garfunkel, Jack Gilford, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Bob Balaban, Peter Bonerz, Felice Orlandi, Jack Riley, Marcel Dalio, and even Orson Welles. And in truth, no one character disappoints, because no one character has to carry the brunt of this narrative.

Certainly, Yossarian (Alan Arkin), the disillusioned WWII bombardier, is our protagonist, but he needs people to react to and bounce off of. It’s the likes of Colonel Cathcart (Balsam) and Lt. Colonel Korn (screenwriter Buck Henry) his neurotic superiors and the pragmatic wheeler-dealer Milo Minderbender (Jon Voight) who make him that way.

Their world of bombing missions, valor, medals, and “The Syndicate” are utterly absurd just as they are, but they don’t seem to recognize it. That’s where the satire stems from, the critique of war, and all the wit. It seems like no coincidence that Mike Nichols released this film during the Vietnam Era. Like its compatriot, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, it finds a wickedly dark sense of humor in war. Because what is there to do with death and violence, but laugh and try to find some way to grapple with it?

catch222The Chaplain (Anthony Perkins) doesn’t feel like a man of the cloth at all, but a nervously subservient trying to carry out his duties. An agitated laundry officer (Bob Newhart) gets arbitrarily promoted to Squadron Commander, and he ducks out whenever duty calls. Finally, the Chief Surgeon (Jack Gilford) has no power to get Yossarian sent home because as he explains, Yossarian “would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he’d have to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t, he was sane and had to.” This is the mind-bending logic at the core of Catch-22, and it continues to manifest itself over and over again until it is simply too much. It’s a vicious cycle you can never beat.

In fact, each man involved must cope with their duties one way or another oftentimes through prostitution, jokes, or an obsessive almost numb commitment to duty. Yossarian tries all of the above rendezvousing with an Italian beauty and receiving a medal without any clothes on.

catch224But the tonal shift of Catch-22 is important to note because while it can remain absurdly funny for some time, there is a point of no return. Yossarian constantly relives the moments he watched his young comrade die, and Nately (Art Garfunkel) ends up being killed by his own side. It’s a haunting turn and by the second half, the film is almost hollow. But we are left with one giant aerial shot that quickly pulls away from a flailing Yossarian as he tries to feebly escape this insanity in a flimsy lifeboat headed for Sweden. It’s the final exclamation point in this farcical tale.

M*A*S*H  certainly deserves a reevaluation, but Catch-22 just might be the best, or at least one of the best, anti-war films of the 1970s. Mike Nichols delivers once more with a wickedly funny indictment of global conflict using a classic of American literature for inspiration.

4/5 Stars

Bed and Board (1970)

bedandboard1Arguably the greatest French comic was Jacques Tati and like Chaplin or Keaton he seemed to have an impeccable handle on physical comedy, combining the human body with the visual landscape to develop truly wonderful bits of humor. Bed and Board is a hardly a comparable film, but it pays some homage to the likes of Mon Oncle and Playtime. There’s a Hulot doppelganger at the train station, while Antoine also ends up getting hired by an American Hydraulics company led by a loud-mouthed American (Billy Kearns) who closely resembles one of Hulot’s pals from Playtime. Furthermore, there are supporting cast members with a plethora of comic quirks. The man who won’t leave his second story apartment until Petain is dead and buried at Verdun. No one seems to have told him that the old warhorse has been dead nearly 20 years. The couple next door that is constantly running late, the husband pacing in the hallway as his wife rushes to make it to his opera in time. There’s the local strangler who is kept at arm’s length until the locals learn something about him. The rest is a smattering of characters who pop up here and there at no particular moment. Their purpose is anyone’s guess, and yet they certainly do entertain.

In other ways, Francois Truffaut is a very different director than Tati when it comes to his filmmaking. His protagonist Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is a bit autobiographical, but he still seemingly functions outside of normal time and space as he continues to float easily in between jobs and doesn’t seem to worry much about anything. First, it’s a flower shop that doesn’t get much traffic and then the American company where Doniel hardly does anything but pilot remote control boats. But like before in Stolen Kisses (1968), it is Christine (Claude Jade) who still gives him the edge of humanity. Early on we notice that they go to the cellar — the same cellar he made advances on her two years prior — except now things are a little different. They are married now and happily so. He experiments with dying flowers while she takes on a violinist pupil. Soon enough follows a baby boy with his loving parents dueling on what to name him. They even have a dinner of baby food, because who wants to go to the store like a grown-up? At night they cuddle up and read together in bed.

bedandboard2But as Truffaut usually does, he digs into his character’s flaws that suspiciously look like they might be his own. Antoine easily gets swayed by the demure attractiveness of a Japanese beauty (Hiroko Berghauer), and he begins spending more time with her.  Thus the marital turbulence sets in thanks in part to Antoine’s needless infidelity –revealed to Christine through a troubling bouquet of flowers. It’s hard to keep up pretenses when the parent’s come over again and Doinel even ends up calling on a prostitute one more. It’s as if he always reverts back to the same self-destructive habits. He never quite learns.

Christine doesn’t deserve a cad such as him, but then again perhaps many people aren’t deserving of love, but we willingly give it to them anyways. The bottom line is that Antoine and Christine still love each other to the end, but that doesn’t make married life with a small child any less difficult. As is his proclivity, Truffaut gracefully touches on what it means to progress from adolescence to adulthood, singleness to married life. He does it with comedic touches that are forever underlined by searing romantic drama. It’s continually engaging just as Antoine Doinel continues to captivate us. Would I ever want to know him personally? Probably not, but I am intrigued by his character. If nothing else it’s a worthy continuation of Antoine and Christine’s life story. Antoine is not the only one smitten with Christine. She wins over the audience as well.

“I’m not like you. I don’t like things fuzzy and vague and ambiguous. I like things to be clear.” – Christine talking to Antoine

4/5 Stars