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Bruce Dern

East Egg, West Egg, Rotten Egg: ‘The Great Gatsby’

[Originally published in Movietone News 31, April 1974]

A film made from a novel sets itself a double task. First, like all movies, it must strive to be good cinema; second, it must try to fulfill the expectations of those who have read the book. When the book is an acknowledged classic, the second becomes more important than the first. It is then incumbent upon the critic to deal fairly with the film on both levels, for many a film has succeeded as cinema despite (or even because of) its failure as an interpretation of literature. The Great Gatsby is, alas, not one of those films.

Not that it is necessarily disappointing or dissatisfying (although what film could be fully satisfying after such a supersaturating promotion campaign?). The way to approach The Great Gatsby is to prepare to be disappointed. If you have no illusion that the film is going to be an effective representation of the novel, then far from being disappointed, you may be pleasantly surprised. But few who love the novel will be capable of such detachment.

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Review: The Hateful Eight

Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Bruce Dern

What’s he done this time? As a filmmaker who creates experiences that aren’t remotely like anything else out there, Quentin Tarantino has earned the curiosity. Like ’em or loathe ’em, Tarantino’s movies exist in their own distinctive, vacuum-packed world, strange missives from an unfettered imagination. He’s unfettered because his movies keep making money, but I wonder what the faithful will think of The Hateful Eight, a typically outrageous but even-chattier-than-usual extravaganza. Most of the film’s 187 minutes (with an intermission) take place inside a snowed-in frontier trading post, although the scenes outside Minnie’s Haberdashery are just as talkative and—despite the Western vistas in the background—claustrophobic.

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Videophiled: ‘The Wild Angels’ and ‘Psych-Out’

WildAngelsBefore Easy Rider there was The Wild Angels (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Roger Corman and starring Peter Fonda as Heavenly Blues, the leader of a California chapter of Hell’s Angles. This is a gang of disaffected drop-outs and scruffy road rats who live to ride in packs and parade their colors (black leather, mostly, adorned with swastikas and Iron Crosses) as a show of defiance to the establishment.

The 1966 film branded Fonda as a counterculture icon, but his lanky aloofness and arrogant disdain for the establishment masks an alienated, empty soul flailing at every authority figure just to provoke some sort of sensation. Nancy Sinatra’s thigh-boots were made for straddling a chopper and she is all hipster attitude as Blues’ chick, Mike. Sinatra is a wooden actress but there’s a nervousness and fear of abandonment behind her vague expression which puts Fonda’s cool posturing into perspective.

They are truly rebels without a cause but Corman takes their outlaw culture into nervy, nihilistic territory. They’re not a club, they’re a tribe and they devolve into primitive savagery after the death of their beloved brother, the Loser (Bruce Dern in a swaggering performance of breezy disobedience). It’s not malevolence that makes them dangerous, but apathy and amorality. They just don’t care who gets hurt in their search for the next thrill. “We wanna be free!,” demands Blues in a rambling eulogy turned incoherent (anti-)statement of purpose. “We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man! And we wanna get loaded!”

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Videophiled: Twilight Time’s bloody ‘Valentine’

StValentines

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) gave Roger Corman the biggest budget of his career to date. After more than 40 films, most of them for the budget-challenged AIP, he was hired by 20th Century Fox and given the resources of their studio, casting department, and backlot for his recreation of 1929 Chicago and the most famous gangland slaying in American history.

Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as the stocky Al Capone—he was originally cast as rival mob boss “Bugs” Moran but Corman’s first choice for Capone, Orson Welles, was nixed by the studio as being “too difficult” and Robards simply promoted to the leading role—but he certainly captures the savagery, the emotional explosiveness, and the media-savvy persona that Capone puts on when talking to reporters. His tit-for-tat battles with Northside gangster Moran (Ralph Meeker) turn into a full-scale war when Chicago’s Mafia Don (and Capone’s boss) is knocked off in a power play. Corman directs from a script by Howard Browne, who was a reporter in Chicago when the real event occurred, that takes in the big picture and charts the stories and trajectories of over a dozen characters tangled in the plot to kill Moran. George Segal gets the biggest role as Peter Gusenberg, a ruthless Moran gunman in a tempestuous affair with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and Clint Ritchie is Capone’s favored lieutenant Jack McGurn, a young, ambitious guy with matinee idol looks and an initiative that earns him the job of planning and executing the Moran hit. The whole thing is structured with documentary-like narration by Paul Frees (which also echoes the TV series The Untouchables) that identifies the players and keeps the timeline of the complicated plan straight.

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Review: ‘Smile’

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

The bilious purple lettering of the credits prepares us for Conrad Hall’s photographic style through the first half or so of Smile: motion aside, everything appears as it might in a drugstore-developed roll of Kodacolor snapped on a picnic. Smile takes us to Santa Rosa, California—cinematically immortalized as the iconographically ideal American smalltown in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943)—and plunges us eyeball-deep into American camp, several strata below kitsch. The Young American Miss beauty pageant, or rather the sub-pageant designed to yield a contender to represent the state of California, is tooling up. Bruce Dern, as a used-car and trailer dealer known to one and all by the loaded moniker “Big Bob” Freedlander, is deeply touched to learn that Barbara Feldon, a one-time Young American Miss now in charge of marshalling the girls, has provided a special gold nametag for him as head judge. His ole buddy—and Feldon’s hubby Nicholas Pryor—is less than enchanted with her nonstop pageant trip, which condemns him to evenings of TV dinners and booze, and with the initiatory ordeal approaching him: on the eve of turning 35, he must kiss a dead chicken’s ass while his brother, over-the-hill business pals cheer.

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Review: ‘Posse’

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]

All right. Posse is an unusual Western. But not that unusual. And it doesn’t end like nothing I’ve ever seen. In fact, it ends very much like a number of other films I’ve seen (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was only the first of several to come to mind). The sociopolitical message of the confrontation between a brilliant outlaw and a self-serving politician offers little that Abe Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here didn’t provide with greater subtlety—and few people have ever accused Polonsky of understatement. Posse really doesn’t have much to say, old or new, yet it does keep insisting. The grizzled typesetter’s comment that “All politicians are full of shit” might as well have Author’s Message flashed over it. A flagrant anachronism, neither appropriate nor cute, is the remark of a newspaper editor—a double amputee whom we are forced to think of in terms of Vietnam—that “This is the age of New Journalism.” And it’s not clear whether the highly visible eagle logo at the beginning and end of the film—”To the Polls, Ye Sons of Freedom”—is intended to exhort (we should all go out and vote to keep Howard Nightingales out of office) or to ring ironically (why vote at all when “all politicians are, etc.”?). This has less to do with ambiguity than with sloppiness, a sloppiness that carries over to the film’s style.

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‘Nebraska’ filled with funny, bittersweet moments

Bruce Dern

No spoiler alert necessary here, but I will say that the final 20 minutes or so of Alexander Payne’s Nebraska are glorious in a way that might just make you remember why you go to movies. Simple and bittersweet, this film builds to something very nice indeed.

How did we get there? Road trip. A black-and-white character study from a screenplay by former Almost Live comedian Bob Nelson, Nebraska is arranged around that classic American storytelling form, the car ride. The trip only lasts a few days, but a lot of ground is covered.

Despite the title, we begin in Billings, Montana, where an elderly man named Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is driving his wife, Kate (June Squibb), and younger son, David (Will Forte), crazy. He’s convinced of the authenticity of a bogus sweepstakes come-on letter. It tells him that if Woody presents the letter to the company headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska, he’ll claim a million-dollar prize.

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Blu-ray: ‘The Driver’

Walter Hill made the jump from literate screenwriter of tough-minded crime films to director of elegantly-made bare-knuckle thrillers and action dramas with Hard Times (1975), a depression-era tale of underground fights with Charles Bronson and James Coburn as business partners in who aren’t quite friends but become the first of Hill’s guarded buddy teams.

His second directorial effort, The Driver (1978), couldn’t be more different — a contemporary drama of cops and crooks in the modern city locked in a struggle that has become (for no explicable reason) personal, all loners with temporary alliances at best — yet we’re in the same Hill universe of tough, terse professionals who define themselves by their abilities and express themselves in action. Hill has always had a penchant for dropping pulp fiction ideals of gangster code and loyalty under fire in a gritty existence, shaped and stylized into a rarified, at times insular world where the rest of the population is either backdrop to their story or simply absent from the frame. The Driver is more stylized than most, right down to characters who have no names. According to the credits, they are identified simply by title, or by profession, if you will.

Ryan O’Neal is The Driver, a professional getaway jockey who hires himself out to independent crews on a job-by-job basis. Isabelle Adjani is The Player, an elegant croupier at a gambling club with business on the side. Bruce Dern is The Detective, a drawling cop eavesdropping on police calls until he hears The Driver’s signature driving on a robbery call. Garrulous and cocky in contrast to the terse Driver and Player, he’s also driven by ego rather than professional pride: “I’m gonna catch the cowboy that’s never been caught.” That’s the extent of his motivation as provided by the film. It’s enough in this sleek, stripped-down culture of dares and challenges played out in a world of life and death stakes.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

‘Family Plot’: A Diamond in the Rough

by Evan Morgan

Alfred Hitchcock’s career proper begins with a blonde girl’s dying scream and ends on a similarly coiffed woman’s knowing wink. These bookends aren’t indicative of some tonal change over the course of the master’s work; Hitchcock the tragedian and Hitchcock the jester have been here all along, harmoniously sharing the same stage from the start. But it matters that Hitch closes his final film with a sparkle in his—and Blanche’s—eye. For a cinematic genius whose greatest masterpieces plumb the dark depths of primal obsession, chronic guilt, and abhorrent violence, the last shot of Family Plot glitters with a surprising whimsy. And while it’s hardly the crown jewel of his career, Hitchcock bids adieu with a film appropriately studded in gleaming diamonds.

Barbara Harris in ‘Family Plot’

But contra Hitch himself, Family Plot is no simple slice of cake. It oozes with corrosive greed, sadistic sex, and casual death, all festering under the blisteringly omnipresent California sunshine. It slowly peels back the shiny baubles to reveal a world built upon deceit in all its forms: financial, personal, and cinematic. In other words, Family Plot takes place in Hollywood.

The vaguely defined San Fernando setting—a handful of scenes appear to take place in San Francisco—connects the film to Hitchcock’s other California films: Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds. And like those films, Family Plot places a clear emphasis on acting. Everyone must, in some way or another, perform a lie to get what he or she wants. Many of Hitchcock’s previous characters were forced to act, as a means to save their skin or hide their sick desires. But something about the Golden State—with its relentless demand for optimism and association with Tinseltown—brings performance to the foreground in the California films. No surprise, then, that Family Plot opens with a spurious, sarcastic séance.

Hitchcock drops us into the middle of one of Blanche Taylor’s (Barbara Harris) psychic experiences. The hints of the supernatural in Shadow of a Doubt, Vertigo, and The Birds might lead us to assume something genuinely paranormal is going on. But Hitchcock quickly reveals how normal this situation is. As Blanche quickly peeks her eye out from behind her hands—subtly hinting at the film’s final wink—we realize how often she has performed this little masquerade. It’s an amusing moment that sets up the film’s comic tone. But it also cues us to the role acting, and its connection to deceit and money making, will play as the story unfolds.

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Review: Won Ton Ton, The Dog Who Saved Hollywood

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Death-wish mechanic Michael Winner first made his name as a director of comedies (You Must Be Joking, The Jokers, I’ll Never Forget Whats’isname)—a fact one remembers only with some straining, and without the assistance of his latest film. James Agee once suggested that really bad movies should go about tinkling a bell and crying “Unclean! Unclean!”; it’s getting so that the bell these days is the cutesypoo title (cf. The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday). Won Ton Ton, played engagingly but not brilliantly by Augustus Von Schumacher, is intended as a surrogate of Rin Tin Tin, no matter what the lawyers say, and his rise to superstardom is the pretext for a crassly comic view of the Film Capital in the Twenties. An index of Winner & co.’s sense of film history: at the world premiere of the new Rudy Montague (Rudolph Valentino by way of Ron Leibman) picture, the image on the screen is blocked-up, ultracontrasty, and scratchy (“Gee, didn’t old movies always look like that?”). Their notion of film comedy is scarcely more astute—as lowbrow as a dachshund and as funny as a dead rat. One of the better lines: landlady Joan Blondell to nude, sunbathing three-year-old after a talent scout has left: “All right, Norma Jean, you can put your clothes on again!”

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“Breaking new ground has always been in the medium itself” – An Interview With Douglas Trumbull

On Saturday, February 11, Douglas Trumbull will receive the Gordon E. Sawyer Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the technology of the industry. Trumbull has over a dozen patents in his name, and developed or improved upon many of the filmmaking techniques that are standard in today’s industry, among them miniature compositing, high frame rate photography and motion control photography. This is his second special Oscar—though nominated for his special effects work on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner, his only previous Oscar a Scientific and Engineering Award from 1993, for his work developing the 65mm Showscan Camera System.

To mark the occasion, I have revived and expanded an interview I conducted with Douglas Trumbull in 2005, originally published in shorter form on Greencine in January, 2006.

Douglas Trumbull at the Science Fiction Museum in 2005

Douglas Trumbull is unique among American filmmakers. At age 23, he was part of the team that pioneered the next generation of cinema special effects in Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was education you couldn’t get in film school and he continued to expand his skills and techniques in such films as The Andromeda Strain, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He made his debut as a director on the ecologically minded Silent Running, where his special effects crew included John Dyksra (who went on to become the Oscar-winning special effects supervisor of Star Wars and many other films) and Richard Yuricich (who partnered with Trumbull on many subsequent projects).

Trumbull’s second feature as a director, Brainstorm, was all but orphaned by MGM and his directorial efforts since have been outside the Hollywood system, including short films in his own high-definition Showscan process (a large-frame film format that runs at 60 frames a second) and Back to the Future… The Ride,” a multi-media mix of film, sound, and simulator ride. More recently, Trumbull worked with Terrence Malick (another maverick director who commands complete control over this films) to create the birth of life sequences for The Tree of Life. Yet to this day, Trumbull’s name is still most closely linked with 2001 and his special effects work on the cult science fiction classic Blade Runner.

Trumbull continues to explore the boundaries of what he calls “immersive media”–3-D, interactive media, virtual reality–and has been partnering with Professor Tom Furness of University of Washington’s HITLab (the Human Interface Technology Lab) with some of his projects.

In November 2005, while in Seattle to meet with Furness, he made an appearance at the Science Fiction Museum for a special showing of Silent Running. In the midst of his multi-media presentation – using still and video footage launched from his lap-top to accompany his talk – he brought some of the working props form the film and donated a drone arm: his gift to the Science Fiction Museum.

At the end of the very long day (after his exhaustive presentation, Trumbull gamely spent over an hour answering questions from the audience), he agreed to sit down for an interview over a late dinner, where we talked about his work with Stanley Kubrick, his own films as a director, and why he hasn’t directed a Hollywood film in over 20 years.

Sean Axmaker: You had trained as an illustrator. How did you wind up in filmmaking and special effects?

Douglas Trumbull: The story goes something like this. I was going to school at this community college in L.A., kind of learning illustration. I started out studying architecture and this was the pre-architecture curriculum, which was drawing, painting, water colors, graphic design. In that very first year I realized that I’m not specifically interested in architecture, I’m interested in this other thing. I started painting and illustrating and I had an air brush and I was trying to learn the skills of illustration, but I was a science fiction guy so I had my little portfolio that was full of sci-fi, Analog magazine cover kind of stuff, and I went into Hollywood looking for a job because I had no money, I couldn’t afford to stay in school. I took my portfolio around to animation studios, because that was my first inclination, animation and somehow making illustrations move,. I would talk to these really nice guys and they would look at my portfolio and say “You’re not in the right place. It’s great to have you here but you should try out this place across town called Graphic Films because they’re doing space films.” So I went over there and met Con Patterson, who worked on 2001, and Ben Jackson, and they were both mentors to me. They said “Yeah, we might could use somebody like you. We’ll give you a task. Paint this satellite and come back tomorrow morning,” which I did, and I got a job immediately and worked at Graphic Films for a couple years. I did some obscure films for the Air Force about the space program and then there was this one film about the Apollo program that was kind of interesting. I was painting lunar modules and lunar surfaces and the vertical assembly building on Saturn 5 rockets and animated this space stuff. And then Graphic Films got a couple of contracts to do films for the New York World’s Fair in ’64, it was a two year fair in 1964 and 65, and one of them was this dome thing called To The Moon And Beyond, which was kind of a Powers of Ten movie. It went from the big bang to inside an atom in ten minutes.

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Review: The Driver

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

The Driver is a study in dogged auteurism in which screenwriter-become-director Walter Hill seeks to reclaim his own. Anyone who has seen the Hill-scripted The Thief Who Came to Dinner (directed by Bud Yorkin) and The Getaway (Sam Peckinpah) will be hard-pressed to ignore that the new picture doubles back over much the same ground. In itself this would not necessarily amount to a bad thing; variations on themes, characters, and situations are, after all, very much a part of the auteur bag, and echoes, even repetitions, are key evidence in tracing an artist’s signature. If the auteur in question reduplicates his previous efforts too closely, hallmark may become cliché. If, on the other hand, he shuffles the deck thoroughly, turns old options on their heads, tests the assumptions and conditions in previous works, he continues to be worth watching, has room in which to grow and the courage to make use of it.

The Driver doesn’t exemplify either of these possibilities, exactly. As a director, Hill is neither a transplanted TV traffic manager like Yorkin nor a first-rank cineaste like Peckinpah, but a unique and still-formative talent; it’s entirely appropriate that he should recycle those Hill materials we initially met at second hand, and see whether he can give them fresh life, the precise form of life he may have wanted them to have in the first place. Yet the material fails to gain in freshness—indeed, it is very nearly wrung dry—and one reason for this seems to be that there’s nothing, no intervening sensibility, for it to push against.

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Review: Coming Home

[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]

Like Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby’s latest attempt at chronicling the moods of an era is an honest if ham-handed effort. As in Shampoo, a love triangle becomes emblematic of the political and social polarities of a nation at the crossroads (an idea that was old before Doctor Zhivago). Coming Home also shares with Shampoo a self-deluding sense of its own importance and originality; it says nothing about Vietnam and the Sixties that hasn’t been said for the past ten years, and speaks only to those who already know, and feel, more than Ashby’s film ever manages to express. Nevertheless, the powerfully acted love story between officer’s wife Sally Hyde (Fonda) and wounded vet Luke Martin (Voight) is tenderly felt, a welling-up of joy tinged with the guilt of infidelity that reflects the larger, less overt guilt of rebellion against Uncle Sam and all that he stands for. There’s an important truth here: Sally changes her whole lifestyle, and her convictions, not out of a moral or political commitment, but because she falls in love—just as opposition to the Vietnam War was initially grounded in personal attachment to the people whose lives were wasted there, while the sense of moral outrage came later, an extension and justification of the more concrete personal resistance. It’s something Ashby and scenarists seem to recognize in making Luke Martin someone Sally knows from high school; and the Fellini-esque airport sequence of the dead and wounded coming home together (Haskell Wexler’s finest moment in an uncharacteristically pedestrian job of cinematography) recognizes the basis of American opposition to the war in the searing intimacy of the suffering of friends and neighbors, lovers, husbands, sons.

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