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Jack Nicholson

Review: The Last Detail

[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]

One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from The Last Detail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But The Last Detail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.

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The bars on the window: Antonioni’s ‘The Passenger’ makes an overdue return voyage

[Originally published in Queen Anne News, Nov. 16, 2005]

[The Passenger screens at the Seattle Art Museum on Tuesday, March 24; details here]

My wife and I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger at a matinee in 1975 and went straight to the studios of KRAB-FM to talk about it. There we discovered—on the air—that one of us thought it was pretentious hooey and the other thought it was a brilliant, radical, and probably great film. We still cherish memories of that argument, although after revisiting the picture a couple of years later there was no daylight between us: we both knew we’d seen a masterpiece.

Antonioni’s oeuvre was distinctive from the outset, though never easy or comfortable. In the Fifties, in films such as The Story of a Love Affair and The Girlfriends (films that wouldn’t be seen in the States till decades later), he showed himself to be the cinema’s closest equivalent to a modern novelist, exploring nuances of behavior and (mostly) alienation as his characters moved through an increasingly chilly, inorganic world. L’avventura in 1960 was one of the movies that set benchmarks for modern film artistry and set the tone for a decade of increased seriousness about filmgoing on the part of American audiences—at least, of those that frequented the arthouses. With Blowup in 1966 Antonioni crossed over into English-language filmmaking and regular moviehouses; his work remained as enigmatic—and as essentially nonverbal—as ever, but now he had Hollywood patronage (MGM) going for him, and the more or less coincidental whiffs of sensationalism deriving from a Swinging London milieu and a little envelope-pushing nudity. Zabriskie Point (1970), his first (and only) film set in America and a dubious contribution to “the Revolution” much bruited about at the time, proved to be a fiasco with critics and public alike. But in The Passenger, or Profession: Reporter, as the Italian version was titled, he had the star of the zeitgeist, Jack Nicholson, as a key collaborator. And he had what L’avventura and Blowup had also had: enough of a story—a mystery—to suck an audience in for whatever other itinerary the director might care to lead them on.

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Review: The Passenger

[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]

Long after any sane deadline for MTN 41—with half the pages already slapped down, in fact—Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, formerly Profession: Reporter, formerly either The Final Exit or The Fatal Exit, I can’t remember which, was sneak-previewed in Seattle. Within a few days—just before this magazine comes out—it will have opened at the Music Box Theatre for what may well be a short run—short because people who grooved on Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and The Last Detail and maybe even Easy Rider may be frustrated by Nicholson’s low-key incarnation of a character with so little edge that he keeps sliding right out of the frame. It merits longer, more seasoned consideration; but for the moment, something ought to be said about it.

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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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Videophiled: Mike Nichols’ ‘The Fortune’

FortuneThe timing wasn’t planned but it is fortuitous. The Fortune (Twilight Time, Blu-ray), a screwball comedy directed by Mike Nichols, debuts on Blu-ray a month after Nichols passed away. The 1975 production is set in the 1920s and stars Warren Beatty as a con man trying to get his hands on the fortune of a madcap heiress (a bubbly Stockard Channing in her first major film role) and Jack Nicholson as his dim-witted stooge who slowly figures out he’s really a partner in crime. Beatty plays it like a second-rate con man’s idea of what a cool customer acts like and Nicholson is a greedy, lazy idiot with a maniacal grin who thinks he’s clever but panics at every disaster, and truly every attempt to knock her off is a disaster.

The film was major flop, quite a surprise given the talent at work here, including screenwriter Carole Eastman (under the psuednym Adrian Joyce, which she also used on The Shooting) and production designer Richard Sylbert, who gives the west coast settings a low-rent, sun-baked handsomeness. Maybe it was the odd sensibility and collision of old Hollywood screwball and contemporary sensibilities; the jazz age was all the rage apparently after the successes of Bonnie and Clyde (with Warren Beatty), Chinatown (with Jack Nicholson) and The Sting. This isn’t really a black comedy, as Channing’s dizzy dame seems all too willing to fall into every scheme and the not-so-wise guyes are too incompetent to pull any of them off, and the timing doesn’t match the screwball situations, though all three are game to play their parts with all the screwy idiosyncrasies and big character flourishes of thirties movie stars and that is a pleasure to see.

The film has never been on DVD in the U.S. and it makes its disc debut on this Blu-ray-only release. It’s a great looking film, with cinematography by John Alonzo who even makes the California hills look like they cam from another era, and the disc preserves the period colors and tone of the film along with the crisp image. It includes Twilight Time’s trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

More new releases on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital formats at Cinephiled

Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

In just about every Jack Nicholson performance there is a moment (often more than one moment) when Nicholson’s face reflects something suddenly and deeply wrong with the universe. In Milos Forman’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest one of those moments of both recognition and profound confusion comes after Billy has been trundled off to bed with Mac’s girlfriend Candy and McMurphy has disposed himself near the open window to wait. He begins by sharing some rum with Chief Bromden and finally sinks to a sitting position on the floor. Closeup on Nicholson’s face. He smiles, glancing in the direction Billy and Candy have gone, and then without warning or apparent reason the grin drops from sight, McMurphy’s mouth opens slightly, and his brows pull a little closer together. The window is open behind him, but somehow you know (regardless of whether you’ve read the book or the play) that McMurphy will not be crawling through it, and you’re not really sure why. After a moment, the smile creeps back onto Nicholson’s face, but then his eyes close and we cut to the next morning, the window still open, McMurphy and the Chief passed out underneath it.

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Review: The Missouri Breaks

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

More than a fair share of iridescent, long-shadowed mornings and ghostly blue, otherworldly evenings mark the twilight of an era in The Missouri Breaks, Arthur Penn’s end-of-the-West Western. Penn’s Little Big Man was also an elegy of sorts, an iconoclastic and morally allegorical taking-apart of a corner of Western legend that has turned into (as in Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) an artifact consigned to a past made all the more poignant and irredeemable when contrasted to the poverty of a present trying to understand it. In Missouri Breaks, though, Penn and Thomas McGuane seem to be dealing their hands from within the form of the Western, letting the conventions subvert themselves, allowing a marked dissipation of generic coherence (a quality central to Penn’s Night Moves), to leave Penn’s world almost uninhabitable for the people left to muddle out the riddles of life within it. Missouri Breaks unfolds in a country that seems just at the peak of ripeness, ready to go to rot, thick with the flora of a virgin country and yet violated within minutes of its unveiling by a rather nasty hanging that seems a grim but nearly extraneous afterthought to a throng of onlookers gathered socially out in this green world, singing “Oh Susanna” and arguing politely about who ought to kick the horse out from underneath the condemned man. It’s a voracious landscape, even if Samuel Johnson does claim that a blade of grass is just a blade of grass.

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Review: The Missouri Breaks

[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]

I was prepared—by Tom McGuane’s insipid earlier scripts and by Brando’s increasingly self-indulgent performances in recent years—to dislike The Missouri Breaks, and so was considerably surprised to find myself enjoying it. Now I’m just as surprised to find that I am relatively alone in having liked the film. Even people who liked Rancho Deluxe don’t seem to have found much to redeem The Missouri Breaks, which is basically the same story minus the comic touch, the contemporary setting, and the intemperate amoralism of McGuane’s essentially adolescent fantasy. In The Missouri Breaks, McGuane is still in the pat-on-the-ass world of male friendships and lockerroom values; but director Arthur Penn appears to have provided a mitigating, steadying influence on McGuane’s unsure hand where Frank Perry—of an adolescent temperament himself—could not. Penn seems to me more and more not an auteur himself but a skilled craftsman whose strength lies in the intelligent direction of other people’s exceptional scripts. Gore Vidal’s The Left-Handed Gun, Horton Foote’s The Chase, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, Newman and Benton’s Bonnie and Clyde, and even Alan Sharp’s postproduction-altered Night Moves are all literate scripts by good, careful writers; and most of Penn’s movies seem to depend as much on the writing that preceded the film (add Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man to that) as on directorial influence and the cinematic process. But if Penn’s films tend to showcase their writing (and, incidentally, consistently fine acting), this does not minimize his personal skill as a creative director. For me, Penn is approaching the stature of William Wyler—a capable director whose personality and vision are subjugated by the dedication of the disciplined craftsman to make the idea at hand into the best film it can be. Sometimes, as with Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man, that’s none too good; but more often, the results have been more than satisfactory.

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Liverpool and America Lost And Found: The BBS Story – DVDs/Blu-rays of the Week

Liverpool (Kino)

A journey through the bleak winter landscape of Tierra Del Fuego, Lisandro Alonso’s fourth feature Liverpool is part road movie and part enigmatic character piece. A sailor (Juan Fernández, a non-actor that Alonso met while scouting the area and developing the script) jumps ship when his freighter docks at the frozen port of the icy southern tip of Argentina and heads inland (to see, tells someone, if his mother is still alive). He hits a strip club, bums rides from truck stops and drinks himself into blackouts from a seemingly bottomless bottle. He wakes up one morning in an outhouse, almost dead from exposure, in a scene played for mordant humor, and takes stock of his town (less a village than a leftover community that remained behind after the collapse of a mill town) like a stranger who wandered in, without actually connecting with anyone.

Jumping ship in Liverpool

That’s pretty much the narrative movement of the film, but it’s not the story. Explanations are kept to a minimum (you have to wait for the final shot for any explanation of the title, and even then it’s no explanation, merely a suggestion of possibilities) and the motivations are vague, perhaps even to the protagonist (hero seems so inapt for this disconnected figure). The beauty is in the way Alonso observes his characters moving through space and time and measures the beats between the action. This sailor may not connect and Alonso’s removed vantage point may seem disconnected from the events, but he ends the film by leading into a new, more hopeful story family and community. He lets us connect.

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Kubrick’s Shining

[originally published in Film Comment, July-August 1980]

Camera comes in low over an immense Western lake, its destination apparently a small island at center that seems to consist of nothing but treetops. Draw nearer, then sweep over and pass the island, skewing slightly now in search of a central focus at the juncture of lake surface and the surrounding escarpment, glowing in J.M.W. Turner sunlight. Cut to God’s-eye view of a yellow Volkswagen far below, winding up a mountain road through an infinite stand of tall pines and long, early-morning shadows; climbing for the top of the frame and gaining no ground. Subsequent cuts, angling us down nearer the horizontal trajectory of the car as it moves along the face of the mountainside. Thrilling near-lineup of camera vector and roadway, then the shot sheers off on a course all its own and a valley drops away beneath us. More cuts, more views, miles of terrain; bleak magnificence. Aerial approach to a snow-covered mountain crest and, below it, a vast resort hotel, The Overlook. Screen goes black.

the-shining-family-moment
A country drive with the Torrance family

Did Stanley Kubrick really say that The Shining, his film of Stephen King’s novel, would be the scariest horror movie of all time? He shouldn’t have. On one very important level, the remark may be true. But that isn’t the first level people are going to consider (even though it’s right there in front of us on the movie screen). What people hear when somebody drops a catchphrase like “the scariest horror movie of all time” is: You joined the summer crowds flocking to The Amityville Horror, you writhed and jumped through Alien, you watched half of Halloween from behind your fingers, but you ain’t seen nothing yet! And a response: OK, zap me, make me flinch, gross me out. And they find that, mostly, Kubrick’s long, underpopulated, deliberately paced telling of an unremarkable story with a Twilight Zone twist at the end doesn’t do it for them—although it may do a lot of other things to them while they’re waiting.

So Kubrick, who is celebrated for controlling the publicity for his films as closely as the various aspects of their creation, is largely to blame for the initial, strongly negative feedback to his movie. Maybe he didn’t know, when The Shining started its way to the screen several years back, that the horror genre would be in full cry, the most marketable field in filmmaking, by the time his movie was ready for delivery. But he could have seen that, say, a year ago. And still he pressed on with the horror sales hook, counting on it—along with his own eminence—to fill theaters, and to pay off the $18 million cost of the most expensive Underground movie ever made.

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Review: Making “The Shining”

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Time flies. The six-year-old brat in quest of an intergalactic bushbaby in 2001 is now all grown up and directing her own documentary film about what is only the third movie her father has directed since that 1968 masterwork. Televised by the BBC at a length of 35 minutes on October 4, 1980, just two days after The Shining‘s London opening, this documentary is utterly intriguing without being terribly substantial.

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Review: The Shining

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Stephen King’s The Shining is basically a novel of character: Isolated with his family for a winter at a snowed-in resort hotel, Jack Torrance faces the collapse of his own mind from an overload of alcoholism, suppressed violence, writer’s block, and personal failure. His son’s clairvoyance—the titular “shine”—is the mechanism whereby the boy is able to save himself and his mother, though not, alas, his father. Well, characterization and warmth have never been the hallmark of Stanley Kubrick’s work, so it’s no wonder that his film of The Shining is ultimately more Kubrick than King. No satisfactory relationship is ever established between the boy’s “shining” and the rest of the plot; and Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), far from fighting against a gradual crumbling of his reason, seems prone to it from the outset. The fatalism of the film’s approach to Jack—underscored by Kubrick’s relentless use of Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer variations on the Dies Irae—serves perfectly the Swiftian misanthropy of the creator of Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon. Kubrick’s view of man is as characteristically 18th-century as his devotion to stylistic formalism. No romantic Roderick Usher disintegration for Kubrick’s Jack Torrance: it’s strictly “Orders from the House.” Milieu, not character, is the basis of the madness and of the film itself. The Shining might be (like The Omen, The Exorcist, and their host of imitators) a “Devil made me do it” movie, where lack of responsibility for one’s actions is “explained” by supernatural intervention; but Kubrick is more concrete about the identity of his Devil.

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“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown”

[originally published in Movietone News 33, July 1974]

THE TITLES, shadow-masked to the old 1.33 format, roll up against a grey moderne background and give way to a series of black-and-white still photos. In the photos a man and a woman are making love, awkwardly, with their clothes on, in the woods. We hear groans—do they go with the pictures? Ecstasy? Agony? Just exertion? The camera pulls back; we see the photographs are being shuffled in a fat workman’s hands. Seated behind a desk nearby, tokenly commiserating but clearly exasperated, Jack Nicholson wears an expensive-looking cream-colored suit. The suit goes with the pre-smog daylight in the room; the light is itself like heavy cream; it looks as if it would feel like heavy cream to walk through. The fat man shoots shy, helpless glances at Nicholson, looking up from the pictures, looking back at the pictures. Then he throws the pictures away and begins to blunder around the walls. “All right, Curly, enough’s enough. You can’t eat the Venetian blinds, I just had ’em installed on Wednesday…. What can I tell you, kid? You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.”

Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes
Jack Nicholson as J.J. Gittes

Nicholson plays a private detective named J.J.—one of them’s for Jake—Gittes. Unlike Philip Marlowe, more like Sam Spade, he has not merely an office but a suite, and at least two operatives work for him. For, not with—he’s the boss. Unlike either Marlowe or Spade (at least as far as the movies tell us), he does “matrimonial work”; indeed, as he will declare later in the film, it’s his “meeteeyay.” He pushes Curly out the door fraternally—Curly is mumbling about not being able to pay until he makes another run on his fishing boat—and lets the creamy light carry him into another room where operatives Walsh and Duffy are waiting with the company’s next client, a Mrs. Mulwray. Mrs. Mulwray thinks her husband is seeing another woman. Gittes affects just enough disbelief to permit Mrs. Mulwray the consolation of knowing that that’s the last thing a man like him would expect the husband of a lady like her to be doing. “Mrs. Mulwray, have you ever heard the expression `Let sleeping dogs lie’? You’re better off not knowing.” But Mrs. Mulwray wants to know and she has the money to pay for Gittes’ services. Her husband—Gittes is genuinely surprised at this one—is the head of the Los Angeles water company.

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