Film Review: Joe (dir. by John G. Avildsen)


(Warning: This review contains some spoilers.)

On Monday night, my movie before bedtime was an old one from 1970, John G. Avildsen’s Joe.  Though Joe is an occasionally uneven and rather heavy-handed film, it’s also a brutally effective one that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind since watching it.

Joe opens with Melissa Compton (played by Susan Sarandon, in her film debut) and her boyfriend, Frank Russo (Patrick McDermott).  It is quickly established that Melissa is a “rich girl” who has dropped out of society while Frank is a drug dealer.  Frank, incidentally, is probably one of the least likable characters in the history of cinema.  When we first meet Frank, he’s taking a bath but it makes no difference as the character just seems to covered in a permanent layer of grime.  Both Frank and Melissa are also drug addicts.

Patrick McDermott (left) and Susan Sarandon

When Melissa has a drug overdose and ends up in the hospital, Frank doesn’t really care but her father, advertising executive Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick) does.  He promptly goes over to Frank’s apartment and after Frank taunts him by saying that Melissa “had a real hang-up about you,” Bill beats Frank to death in a fit of rage.  Shaken by his actions, Bill goes to a neighborhood bar where he runs into a factory worker named Joe Curran (Peter Boyle).   A drunken Joe rants about how much he would like to kill a hippie.  Bill replies, “I just did.”

This leads to an odd relationship between the two men.  While Bill originally fears that Joe wants to blackmail him, Joe appears to just want to be his friend.  Soon, Joe is introducing Bill to his bowling league and Bill introduces Joe to his colleagues at the advertising firm.  Bill and his wife even have a memorably awkward dinner with Joe and his wife.  Bill’s wife worries that Joe might be dangerous but Bill smugly assures her that he is Joe’s hero.

Meanwhile, Melissa is released from the hospital and moves back in with her parents.  One night, she hears them talking about how Bill killed Frank.  Melissa flees from the apartment and when Bill chases after her, she shouts at him, “Are you going to kill me too!?” before disappearing into the New York night.

Searching for Melissa, Bill and Joe go to various hippie hangouts in Manhattan.  Every hippie they meet tends to be dismissive of the suit-wearing Bill and the uneducated Joe.  However, once Bill reveals that his car is full of drugs that he stole from Frank, the hippies are suddenly a lot more friendly.  A group of hippies take Joe and Bill back to their apartment.  At Bill’s insistence, both of the men smoke weed for the first time and then have sex with two of the hippie girls.  While they’re busy doing it, the rest of the hippies steal their money and all of the drugs.

Suddenly, Joe takes charge of the situation, leaving Bill to watch helplessly as Joe repeatedly slaps one of the girls until she tells them where her friends have gone.  (I’ve seen a lot of movies and I like to think that there’s little I can’t handle watching but the scene where Joe interrogates the girl was genuinely disturbing and I actually had a hard time watching it.  This was largely due to the intensity of Boyle’s performance.)  Joe drags Bill to the commune where the hippies live.  Standing outside the house, as snow falls around them, Joe gets two hunting rifles out of his car and tosses one to Bill before the film reaches its inetivable conclusion. 

Joe With Friend

Like many films released in the early 70s, Joe is distinguished by a continually shifting tone. The film’s opening (which feature Susan Sarandon getting naked and then watching her disturbingly unhygienic boyfriend shooting up) feels almost like it’s composed of outtakes from some lost Andy Warhol Factory film while the scenes immediately following Melissa’s drug overdose feel like a melodramatic Lifetime special.  After Bill kills Frank, the film briefly becomes a Hitchcockian thriller just to then segue into heavy-handed social satire as we watch the development of Joe and Bill’s unlikely, hate-fueled friendship.  The awkward comedy continues for a while until, somewhat jarringly, Joe suddenly becomes a violent revenge film.  While many films have been doomed by the lack of a consistent tone, it actually works here.  Joe‘s odd mishmash of comedy, tragedy, and exploitation actually perfectly reflects the uncertain worldview and hidden fears of Bill Compton.  Much as the audience is often times left uncertain whether they’re watching a comedy or a tragedy, Bill is a man who is no longer sure how to react to the world around him.

And make no doubt about it, Joe may be the title character but the film is truly about Bill Compton.  It’s Bill’s repressed anger (and desire for his own daughter) that fuels the plot.  As played by Dennis Patrick, Bill Compton is the type of smugly complacent figure whose outward confidence hides the fact that he’s been rendered impotent by the world changing around him.  For the majority of the film, Bill looks down on both sides of the cultural divide, looking down on both his daughter’s hippie friends and his new blue-collar acquaintance Joe.  (He assures his wife that Joe would never attempt to blackmail him because Joe “looks up” to him.)  It’s only at the film’s conclusion that Bill realizes just how powerless he is to control anything.  In those final scenes, Dennis Patrick’s face reveals what the audience has already figured out.  By trying to place himself above it all, he’s left himself with nowhere to go. 

Dennis Patrick (left) and Peter Boyle

That said, the film truly is dominated by Peter Boyle’s demonic performance as Joe.  For much of the movie, Joe is a buffoonish figure (he even gets his own mocking theme song “Hey Joe” which plays as he wanders around his house and scratches his navel) and it’s sometimes hard not to feel like you’re watching a long-lost episode of Everybody Loves Raymond where Frank Barone remembers the time that he killed a lot of hippies.  However, once Bill and Joe find themselves searching for Melissa among the hippies, Boyle slowly starts to pull back the layers and a new, far more threatening Joe emerges.  By the end of the film, Joe has become a nightmarish figure and we’re forced to reconsider everything that we’ve previously assumed.  By the film’s end, Joe almost seems to be a direct personification of Bill’s Id, a man who exists solely to force Bill to do what he’s always secretly wanted to do.*

When Joe was first released back in 1970, it apparently made a lot of money, generated a lot of controversy, and even managed to score an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.  Oscar nomination aside, Joe is the epitome of a well-made and effective exploitation film.  While Joe and Bill are basically counter-culture nightmares of a murderous American establishment, the film’s hippies are portrayed as being so smug and so scummy that I’m not surprised to read that apparently audiences cheered once Joe and Bill started gunning them down.  (Peter Boyle, however, was apparently so shocked that he swore he would never make another film that “glamorized violence.”)  By embracing the best traditions of the grindhouse and attempting to appeal to both sides of the cultural divide in the crudest way possible, the filmmakers ended up making a film that, over 40 years later, somehow feels more honest than most of the other “generation gap” films of the 60s and 70s. 

As any film lover knows, any film made between 1966 and 1978 tends to age terribly, to the extent that often times they’re impossible to take seriously when watched today.  (And anyone who doubts me on this should track down films like R.P.M, Thank God It’s Friday, Skatetown  U.S.A.,  Getting Straight, and Zabriskie Point.)  However, watched today in our present age of Occupiers and Tea Partiers, Joe still feels relevent and, at times, downright prophetic.

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* In many ways, Joe Curran is a cruder, balder version of Tyler Durden.

Mass Effect 3


I finished Mass Effect 3! The first video game I’ve ever finished! … Or, at least, for a long time.

Shall we talk about it?

Mass Effect 3 is (ostensibly, we know how sequels work these days) the conclusion to the story of one Commander Shepard, a human of exceptional skill, whose whole history is determined by the player. Shepard has journeyed long and hard to make people aware of the threat posed by the Reapers, synthetics bent on annihilating all organic life. From what I’ve seen, Mass Effect 3 is receiving decidedly mixed reviews. I think most of the negativity is oriented toward the ending, and we’ll talk about that later, but I’m going to start with a list of things that are ‘to like’ about this game. Even though if you have even the slightest interest in the franchise, you’ve already bought it.

Mass Effect 3 improves on the gameplay of Mass Effect 2.

Let that statement hang in the air for a moment. Why? Because I already thought Mass Effect 2’s gameplay was incredible; the game’s best feature, aside from its variety of characters and character interactions.

It still pads its play time by giving you lots of relatively minor quests, and forcing you to scan systems for ‘War Assets’ which involve running from Reaper forces and wasting a bunch of time. This is nothing new. After all, we drove the Mako around identically featureless planets in ME1, and we scanned for resources in ME2. The difference to me is that while we’re running around the Citadel recovering missions in ME3, we’re also subjected to background conversations between the inhabitants of that great space station. Their lives are affected by the war, and overhearing snippets of conversation lets us understand how so. It drew me into the setting of a (seemingly) hopeless war more than any activity aboard the Normandy. After all, Commander Shepard runs a stealth vessel with the most deadly folks around aboard. We don’t have any reason to fear the Reaper forces for the most part, because we’re better than they are. But on the Citadel, the Everyman is on the run. The Everyman fears that they will never see loved ones again.

In a holding area for Refugees, there’s a teenage girl waiting for her parents who has a variety of conversations with a C-Sec officer about her parents, and their transport, and when it’s going to arrive. It’s kind of heartwrenching. But also extremely appropriate.

In the field I suspect players will find much to like. The variety of enemy types is vastly improved over Mass Effect 2, as you combat the forces of the Reapers (now with more than just Husks and minibosses!), the forces of Cerberus (who are varied and deadly, very appropriate) and the traditional Geth opponents as well. I often felt that ME2’s opposition was pretty vanilla, but the unique properties of the enemies in ME3 make them feel much more varied even if (as I suspect) the actual number of “different” enemy types is not much different. The variety of powers IS improved, and now re-implements the use of grenades (an odd omission from ME2!) while keeping the basic gameplay mechanics of the second game intact. The most tangible difference is that you can now see Shepard’s hit points reflected in a bar with five segments. Once a segment is totally depleted, it only replenishes with the use of Medi-Gel. This is a significant feature of the game, especially on the harder difficulties.

Weapon upgrades are back with a vengeance. They operate like they did in the original Mass Effect, only +1. Now, you can acquire more advanced versions of weapons, and install increasingly powerful upgrades, to customize weapons to fit your playstyle. All classes now wield any weapon you like, with the newly devised penalty of heavier weapons slowing the recharge time of your special powers. So, a Biotic Adept is fully free to carry a sniper rifle and assault rifle, but it may mean that their Singularity cools down three times slower. Is that trade-off worth it? The answer is no, but it’s still definitively up to the player.

I was favourably impressed with the character moments and interactions in this game. Your own mileage will vary based on choices in previous games (and yes, while I have heard complaints that your choices don’t have a significant enough impact on the ending, they certainly have a significant impact on the game at large) but I was treated to a number of unexpectedly poignant and emotional character moments from both new and old faces. To me, this is the best work BioWare has done yet in terms of the characters involved… perhaps even exceeding Dragon Age II (although that entire game is so character-based, it’s a tough comparison). Some may be disappointed that many of the discussions no longer involve choosing options on the conversation wheel, but rather just talking it out after the fashion of conversations with companions Zaeed Massani and Kasumi Goto in Mass Effect 2.

I hesitate to say more, because it’s a story game, and I won’t be the one to spoil things for those who haven’t completed it.

Multiplayer!

Yes, there is now a multiplayer mode. It feeds the single player in that you can use any multiplayer character of level 20 as a War Asset, and in that it improves your Galactic Readiness score. For anyone who is wondering why your Galactic Readiness sits at a mediocre 50%, this is why! The multiplayer mode is a horde-styled mode where you fight against any of the three enemy forces (Geth, Cerberus, or Reaper) on one of several small maps, over the course of 10 waves, and then a “bonus” wave in which your squad waits for extraction. Three difficulty levels are available, which mirror normal, hardcore, and insanity level enemies, and thereby force different tactics to be used by the players.

I’d heard rumours that the single player was also supposed to support the multiplyer, but I’ve seen no evidence of that.

If you’re into Horde modes, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the multi-player here. Just be aware that you’ll have to work your way through a lot of matches to earn weapons and characters if you want the full experience, and getting a character to level 20, while not hard per se, can be time consuming. If you’re only looking to supplement your single player experience, your mileage will vary with the multiplayer mode.

And that’s where I’ll stop. I’d be happy to answer any specific questions, but I certainly don’t want to spoil the game for you. Just know that it’s a good game, and I hope you like it.