Lisa Reviews An Oscar Winner: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (dir by Milos Forman)


Technically, the 1975 film One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is not a horror film.

Though it may take place in a creepy mental hospital, there are no ghosts or zombies.  There’s no masked killer wandering the halls.  The shadows do not leap off the walls and there are no ghostly voice in the night, unless you count the rarely heard voice of Will Sampson’s Chief Bromden.

Admittedly, the cast is full of horror and paranormal veterans.  Michael Berryman, of the original Hills Have Eyes, plays a patient.  Louise Fletcher, who won an Oscar for playing the role of Nurse Ratched, went on to play intimidating matriarchs in any number of low-budget horror movies.  Vincent Schiavelli, a patient in this film, played the angry subway ghost in Ghost.  Another patient, Sidney Lassick, played Carrie’s condescending English teacher in Carrie.  Brad Dourif, who received an Oscar nomination for playing the meek Billy Bibbit, has become a horror mainstay.  Will Sampson appeared in the Poltergeist sequel.  Both Scatman Crothers and Jack Nicholson would go on to appear in The Shining.

Nicholson plays Randle Patrick McMurphy, a career criminal who, hoping to get out of prison early, pretends to be mentally ill.  He ends up getting sent to an Oregon mental institution, where his rebellious ways upset the administrators while, at the same time, inspiring the patients to actually try to take some control over their lives.  The film is, in many ways, a celebration of personal freedom and rebellion.  The only catch here is that, in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, being a little bit too rebellious can lead to not only electroshock treatment but also a lobotomy.  Those in charge have a way of making you permanently compliant.

And really, to me, that’s what makes One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest a horror film.  It’s about the horror of conformity and bureaucracy.  The film may start out as something of a comedy and Nicholson brings a devil-may-care attitude to the role of McMurphy but then, eventually, you reach the scene where McMurphy is tied down and given electrical shocks to make him compliant.  You reach the scene where Ratched coldly informs Billy Bibbit that she will be telling his mother that Billy lost his virginity to a prostitute and Billy reacts by slicing open his wrists.  Finally, you reach the scene where McMurphy returns to the ward having had a bit of his brain removed.  In those scenes, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest becomes a horror movie.  The monster is not a ghost or a demon or a serial killer.  Instead, it’s a system that is determined to squash out any bit of rebellion or free thought.

What makes Nurse Ratched such a great villain is the fact that, as opposed to being some sort of a maniacal force of evil, she’s really just someone doing her job and refusing to question her methods.  She’s the ultimate symbol of bland authoritarianism.  Her job is to keep the patients from getting out of control and, if that means lobotomizing them and driving one of them to suicide …. well, that’s what she’s going to do.  For all the time that Ratched spends talking about therapy, her concern is not “curing” the patients or even helping them reach a point where they can leave the hospital and go one with their lives.  Ratched’s concern is keeping everyone in their place.  As played by Fletcher, Ratched epitomizes the banality of evil.  (That’s one reason why it was so silly for Ryan Murphy to devote his most recent Netflix series to giving her an over-the-top origin story.  Ratched is a great villain because she doesn’t have any complex motivations.  She’s just doing whatever she has to do to keep control of the people are on her ward.  Part of keeping control is not to allow anyone to question her methods.  Everyone has had to deal with a Nurse Ratched at some point in the life.  With the elections coming up, we’re about to be introduced to whole new collection of Nurse Ratcheds.)

I like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, even though it’s an undeniably dated film.  That said, it’s not as dated as the novel on which it’s based, nor is it as appallingly misogynistic.  Jack Nicholson’s rough but charismatic performance holds up wonderfully well.  (I don’t know if an actor has ever matched a character as perfectly as Nicholson does with McMurphy.)  Louise Fletcher brings a steely resolve to the role of Nurse Ratched.  Fans of spotting character actors in early roles will probably get a kick out of spotting both Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd as patients.  The movie skillfully combines drama with comedy and the ending manages to be both melancholy and hopeful.

When it comes to the 1975 Oscar race …. well, I don’t know if I would argue that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest deserved to win Best Picture over Nashville, Dog Day Afternoon, or Barry Lyndon or Jaws.  Dog Day Afternoon and Nashville feel as if they were ahead of their time, with their examination of the media and politics.  Jaws set the template for almost every blockbuster that would follow and it’s certainly one of the most influential horror films ever made.  Barry Lyndon is a stunning technical achievement.  Compared to those films, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest seems rather simplistic.  Watching it today, you’re very much aware of how much of the film’s power is due to Jack Nicholson’s magnetic screen presence.  Nicholson definitely deserved his Oscar but it’s debatable whether or not the same can be said of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as a whole.

So no, I wouldn’t necessary say that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was the best of the films nominated that year.  Still, it’s an entertaining film and a helluva ride.  It’s a great film to watch whenever you’re sick of faceless bureaucrats trying to tell you what to do.  And, in its own odd way, it’s a great film for Halloween season.

Horror on TV: One Step Beyond 2.7 “The Open Window” (dir by John Newland)


If tonight’s episode of One Step Beyond seems familiar, that’s because it’s a remake of a story that was originally filmed as an episode of The Veil. 

This time, instead of witnessing a murder occurring in another apartment, it’s a suicide that is witnessed by artist Anthony March (Michael Higgins).  Of course, when he investigates, he discovers that the apartment in empty.  Is Anthony hallucinating or has he gone one step beyond and is he seeing the future?  Watch to find out!

By the way, that’s future Oscar winner Louise Fletcher playing Anthony’s model.

This originally aired on November 3rd, 1959.

Enjoy!

Horror Film Review: Firestarter (dir by Mark L. Lester)


Adapted from Stephen King novel, 1984’s Firestarter is a film about a girl with a very special power.

Back in the day, a bunch of college students needed weed money so they took part in a government experiment.  Half of them were told that they were being given a placebo.  The other half were told that we would be given a low-grade hallucinogen.

Surprise!  The government lied!  It turns out that everyone was given the experimental drug!  Some of the students ended up going crazy.  One unfortunate hippie clawed his eyes out.  Meanwhile, Vicky (Heather Locklear) gained the ability to read minds.  She also fell in love with Andy McGee (David Keith), a goofy fellow who gained the ability to mentally control people’s actions.  They married and had a daughter named Charlie (played by a very young Drew Barrymore).  Charlie, it turns out, can set things on fire!  She’s a firestarter!

Well, of course, the government can’t just leave the McGees out there, controlling minds and setting things on fire.  Soon, the McGees are being pursued by the standard collection of men in dark suits.  Vicky is killed off-screen, leaving Charlie and Andy to try to find some place where they’ll be safe.

Good luck with that!  This is the government that we’re talking about.  The thing with films like this is that the government can do practically anything but it never occurs to them to not all dress in dark suits.  I mean, it just seems like it would be easier for all of these secret agents to operate if they weren’t automatically identifiable as being secret agents.  Anyway, Andy and Charlie are eventually captured and taken to The Farm, a really nice country estate where Andy and Charlie are kept separate from each other and everyone keeps talking about national security.

Running the Farm is Capt. Hollister and we know that he’s a bad guy because he wears a suit and he’s played by Martin Sheen.  Working with Hollister is John Rainbird (George C. Scott), a CIA assassin who kills people with a karate chop across the nose.  When Charlie refuses to show off her firemaking abilities unless she’s allowed to talk to her father, Rainbird disguises himself as a custodial engineer and proceeds to befriend Charlie.  Of course, Rainbird’s plan is to kill Charlie once she’s displayed the extent of her powers….

Stephen King has written that he considers this film to be one of the worst adaptations of one of his novels but, to be honest, I think the movie is actually a bit of an improvement on the source material.  Firestarter is probably the least interesting of Stephen King’s early novels.  Supposedly, Charlie was based on King’s youngest daughter and, reading the book, it’s obvious that everyone’s fear of Charlie is mostly a metaphor for a father trying to figure out how to raise a daughter.  Unfortunately, instead of concentrating on those primal fears, the book gets bogged down in boomer paranoia about MK-ULTRA experiments.

The movie, however, is just silly enough to be kind of charming.  For example, consider the way that Andy grabs his forehead and bugs out his eyes whenever he uses his powers.  Andy’s powers may be slowly killing him but he just looks so goofy whenever he uses them that you just can’t help but be entertained.  And then you’ve got Drew Barrymore sobbing while setting people on fire and George C. Scott growling through all of his dialogue and even Martin Sheen gets a scene where he gets excited and starts jumping up and down.  (And don’t even get me started on Art Carney and Louise Fletcher as the salt-of-the-Earth farmers who try to protect Andy and Charlie….)  Some of the special effects are a bit hokey, as you might expect from a film made in 1984 but occasionally, there’s a good shot of something (or someone) burning up.  It’s all so over-the-top and relentlessly dumb that you can’t help but be entertained.  You can even forgive the fact that basically nothing happens between the first 10 and the last 15 minutes of the movie.

Firestarter‘s silly but I liked it.

Horror Film Review: Strange Invaders (dir by Michael Laughlin)


In 1983, two years after the release of Strange Behavior, director Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon teamed up for another “strange” film.  Like their previous collaboration, this film was a combination of horror, science fiction, and satire.

The title of their latest collaboration?

Strange Invaders.

Strange Invaders opens in the 1950s, in a small, all-American town in Illinois.  Innocent children play in the street.  Clean-cut men stop off at the local diner and talk to the waitress (Fiona Lewis, the scientist from Strange Behavior).  Two teenagers (played by the stars of Strange Behavior, Dan Shor and Dey Young) sit in a car and listen to forbidden rock’n’roll music.  A lengthy title crawl informs us that, in the 1950s, Americans were happy and they were only worried about three things: communists, Elvis, and UFOs.  On schedule, a gigantic UFO suddenly appears over the town.

Twenty-five years later, mild-mannered Prof. Charles Bigelow (Paul Le Mat) teaches at a university and wonders just what exactly is going on with his ex-wife, Margaret (Diana Scarwid).  In order to attend her mother’s funeral, Margaret returned to the small Illinois town where she grew up.  When she doesn’t return, Charles decides to go to the town himself.  However, once he arrives, he discovers that the town appears to still be stuck in the 50s.  The townspeople are all polite but strangely unemotional and secretive.  Charles immediately suspects that something strange is happening.  When the towns people suddenly start shooting laser beams from their eyes, Charles realizes that they must be aliens!

Fleeing from the town, Charles checks all the newspapers for any reports of an alien invasion.  The only story he finds is in a cheap tabloid, The National Informer.  The author of the story, Betty Walker (Nancy Allen), claims that she just made the story up but Charles is convinced that she may have accidentally told the truth.  At first, Betty dismisses Charles as being crazy.  But then she’s visited by an Avon lady who looks just like the waitress from the small town and who can shoot laser beams.

Teaming up, Charles and Betty investigate the aliens and try to figure out just what exactly they’re doing on Earth.  It’s an investigation that leads them to not only a shadowy government operative (Louise Fletcher) but also a man (Michael Lerner) who claims that, years ago, he helplessly watched as his family was destroyed by aliens.

Like Strange Behavior, Strange Invaders is a … well, a strange film.  I have to admit that I prefer Behavior to Invaders.  The satire in Strange Invaders is a bit too heavy-handed and Paul Le Mat is not as strong a lead as Michael Murphy was in the first film.  I was a lot more impressed with Nancy Allen’s performance, if just because I related to both her skepticism and her sudden excitement to discover that her fake news might actually be real news.  I also liked Micheal Lerner, so much so that I almost wish that he and Le Mat had switched roles.  Finally, I have to say that Diana Scarwid’s performance was so bizarre that I’m not sure if she was brilliant or if she was terrible.  For her character, that worked well.

Strange Invaders gets better as it goes along.  At the start of the film, there are some parts that drag but the finale is genuinely exciting and clever.  If the film starts as a parody of 1950s alien invasion films, it ends as a satire of Spielbergian positivity.  It’s an uneven film but, ultimately, worth the time to watch.

 

Horror Film Review: Strange Behavior (a.k.a. Dead Kids) (dir by Michael Laughlin)


I want to tell you about one of my favorite horror films.  It’s a strange one and I think you might like it.

It’s a movie from 1981.  It was filmed in New Zealand, even though it takes place in a small town in the American midwest.  It was directed by Michael Laughlin and the screenplay was written by Bill Condon, who has since become a director of some note.  This was Condon’s first screenplay.  In Australia and Europe, this movie is known as Dead Kids.  In America, the title was changed to Strange Behavior.

Here, watch the trailer:

It’s a pretty good trailer, actually.  That said, as good as the trailer may be, it doesn’t even come close to revealing just what an odd film Strange Behavior actually is.  If David Lynch had followed up The Elephant Man by directing a slasher movie, chances are the end result would have looked something like Strange Behavior.

Here’s another scene that I want you watch.  It’s kind of a long scene, clocking in at 7 minutes.  But I want you to watch it because, in many ways, this scene is the epitome of Strange Behavior:

Strange Behavior is perhaps the only 80s slasher film to feature a totally random and totally choreographed dance number.  It comes out of nowhere but, in the world that this film creates, it somehow feels totally appropriate.  Of course, the nun is going to announce that she’s not wearing any underwear and then pretend to stab a guy in the back.  Of course, the cowboy’s going to throw up and then want to go out to his car with his date.  And of course, a bunch of people in costume are going to end up dancing to Lightnin’ Strikes.  In Strange Behavior, the strangest behavior is the only behavior that makes sense.

As for the film itself, it’s a mix of small town melodrama, slasher horror, and gentle satire.  Teenagers are being murdered by other teenagers and no one is sure why.  The chief of police, John Brady (played by character actor Michael Murphy, who gives a quietly authoritative performance that counters some of the weirdness of the rest of the movie), is trying to solve the crimes while trying to cope with the mysterious death of his wife.  His son, Pete (Dan Shor), is going to the local college, where classes are taught by a professor (Arthur Dignam) who died years ago but who filmed a few lectures before passing.  To make extra money, Pete does what many of the local teenagers do — he volunteers for medical experiments.  Researcher Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) oversees the experiments, handing out pills and occasionally administering a hypodermic needle to the eyes of a test subject.  Gwen is always cool, calm, and collected.  When one irate father draws a gun on her, Gwen quips, “I can’t stop you.  I don’t have a gun.”

But there’s more to this movie than just medical experiments and murder.  Strange Behavior is full of wonderfully eccentric supporting characters.  Other than John, there’s really nobody normal to be found in either the town or the movie.  Pete’s best friend, Oliver (Marc McClure), is cute and dorky.   Barbara (Louise Fletcher) just wants to marry John and live in a town where dead bodies don’t turn up in the middle of corn fields, propped up like scarecrows.  John’s best friend and fellow cop, Donovan (Charles Lane), has been around forever and has a great, no-nonsense approach to even the strangest of things.  When it becomes obvious that John is not going to be able to solve the murders on his own, big city cop Shea (Scott Brady) shows up and wanders ineffectually through the movie, spitting out hard-boiled dialogue like a refugee from a 1930s gangster flick.  And finally, receptionist Caroline (Dey Young) sits at her desk in the clinic, gossiping about the patients and smoking cigarette after cigarette.  Caroline is probably the smartest person in the movie.  As an administrative assistant, I appreciated that.

It’s an odd little movie, which is why I love it.  Laughlin, Condon, and the entire cast created a world where everything is just a little off-center.  It makes for terrifically entertaining and weird movie, one that works as both satire and straight horror.

Strange Behavior is a film that deserves to much better known than it currently is so my advice is go watch it and then tell you friends to watch it too.

Dead Pigeons Make Easy Targets: THE CHEAP DETECTIVE (Columbia 1978)


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THE CHEAP DETECTIVE could easily be subtitled “Neil Simon Meets MAD Magazine”. The playwright and director Robert Moore had scored a hit with 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH, spoofing screen PI’s Charlie Chan, Sam Spade, and Nick & Nora Charles, and now went full throttle in sending up Humphrey Bogart movies. Subtle it ain’t, but film buffs will get a kick out of the all-star cast parodying THE MALTESE FALCON, CASABLANCA , TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, and THE BIG SLEEP .

Peter Falk  does his best Bogie imitation as Lou Peckinpaugh, as he did in the previous film. When Lou’s partner Floyd Merkle is killed, Lou finds himself in a FALCON-esque plot involving some rare Albanian Eggs worth a fortune. Madeline Kahn , John Houseman, Dom De Luise , and Paul Williams stand in for Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr, respectively, and they milk it for every…

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Horror Film Review: Exorcist II: The Heretic (dir by John Boorman)


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The Exorcist is one of the greatest horror films of all time and a personal favorite of mine.  But what about Exorcist II: The Heretic?  Well, it would be a bit of an understatement to say that The Heretic has not quite received the amount of critical acclaim as the first film.  Since it was first released in 1977, The Heretic has been widely considered to be one of the worst sequels of all time.  It’s a film that is often cited as evidence as to why not all successful films need a follow-up.

Myself, I have sat through The Heretic twice.  And yes, it is a pretty bad film but I have to admit that I enjoyed it each time that I saw it.  It’s not a scary film at all.  It’s not a successful horror film.  But, as an unintentional comedy, it’s hilarious.

The Heretic opens four years after the end of The Exorcist.  Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is dead, having had a heart attack during the first film while performing an exorcism on Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair).  In the years since, some in the Vatican have cast doubt on whether or not Merrin actually performed exorcisms.  It turns out that, contrary to everything that we saw in the first film, Father Merrin was actually something of a rebel.  His teachings are controversial.  For instance, he was convinced that everyone has latent psychic powers and that the demon Pazuzu possesses those who have the potential to be the strongest psychics.  Why?  Because those people have the ability to lead humanity into a shared global consciousness and…

Well, it gets a little bit complicated.  That’s one of the big differences between The Exorcist and Heretic.  The Exorcist kept things relatively simple.  The Heretic drags in a lot of metaphysical argle bargle.

The deceased Father Merrin has been brought up on charges of heresy.  The Cardinal (Paul Henreid, many, many years after Casablanca), assigns Father Lamont (Richard Burton) to investigate the circumstances surrounding Father Merrin’s final exorcism.

The presence of Richard Burton is what elevates Heretic from merely being bad to being so bad that it’s good.  As written, Father Lamont is supposed to be something of a naive idealist, someone who never met Father Merrin but who has been intrigued by his writings.  Reportedly, several youthful actors turned down the role and eventually, production decided to make Lamont an older man and they ended up casting Richard Burton.  Speaking in a shaky rasp and staring at the camera with bloodshot eyes, Burton appears to be at the height of his famous self-loathing in this film.  Burton is so miscast as an idealistic priest that the film becomes fascinating to watch.  Occasionally, the film tries to make us suspect that Lamont himself may be possessed but with Burton snarling his way through the role, how could anyone tell the difference?

Lamont tracks Regan down in New York.  Regan doesn’t remember a thing about the exorcism and appears to be an overly happy teenage actress.  (A good deal of the movie is devoted to her rehearsing a big dance number.)  She is under the care of psychiatrist Gene Tuskin (Louise Fletcher).  Tuskin has a device called the Synchronizer.  When two people are hooked up to it, they can literally see into each other’s minds.  They can share the same memories.  They can … wait a minute.  What the Hell?  The Synchronizer essentially appears to be little more than a blinking light but it can actually allow you to enter into someone else’s mind?  Doesn’t that seem like that should be a big deal?

Well, it’s not.  Everyone pretty much just shrugs and accepts it…

Through the use of the Synchronizer, Reagan, Lamont, and Tuskin get to watch a lot of scenes from the first Exoricst.  It also allows Father Lamont to have visions of Africa and another exorcism, this one involving a young boy named Kokumo.

This leads to one of my favorite parts of the film; Richard Burton wandering around a dusty African market and randomly telling people, “I am looking for Kokumo.”  It turns out that Kukomo has grown up to be a doctor and he’s now played by James Earl Jones, who appears to be amused by his dialogue.  Also showing up in the film’s Africa scenes is Ned Beatty.  Beatty plays a pilot who flies Lamont to Kokumo’s village.  “Have you come here before?” Beatty asks.  “Once … on the wings of a demon,” Lamont replies.

Well, okay then…

The first Exorcist worked largely because William Friedkin directed it as if he was making a documentary.  John Boorman takes the exact opposite approach here, trying to turn a cheap sequel into a metaphysical meditation on good, evil, and nature.  It’s amazingly pretentious and it would actually be rather annoying if not for the fact that Burton doesn’t make the slightest bit of effort to come across as being in any way emotionally or intellectually invested in his over-the-top dialogue.  When you combine Burton’s overwhelming cynicism with Linda Blair’s nearly insane perkiness, Louise Fletcher’s genial confusion, and James Earl Jones’s cheerful humor, the end result is something that simply has to be seen to be believed.

So, yes, The Heretic is as bad as you’ve heard.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it.

The Daily Horror Grindhouse: Mama Dracula (dir by Boris Szulzinger)


mamadraculaThis 1980 Belgian film is quite possibly the worst film that I’ve ever seen.

That’s something that I have to be careful about saying because there’s always a chance someone is going to say, “Oh my God!  If it’s really that bad, it must be a lot of fun to watch!  I have to track this movie down!”

Well, it’s not that hard to track down Mama Dracula.  It’s been included in countless Mill Creek box sets.  It’s in the public domain so you can probably find it on YouTube.  But seriously, when I say this movie is bad, I don’t mean that it’s so bad that it’s good.  This is not an Ed Wood film.  It’s not even a Herschell Gordon Lewis.  Instead, it’s just a really bad and tedious movie.  How bad is it?  It’s so bad that I originally suspected that maybe Bret Ratner had something to do with it.  That’s how bad it is.

Anyway, I guess I should tell you what the film is about so that way, I can at least say that I’ve reviewed this damn thing.  Professor Van Bloed (Jimmy Schuman) gets an invitation to attend a special conference on blood research.  The conference is being held in a small village in Transylvania and it’s being hosted by Countess Dracula.  And yes, she actually does sign the invitation “Countess Dracula” and no, Professor Van Bloed finds nothing strange about it.

Anyway, it turns out that Countess Dracula is played by Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher.  And yes, she’s a vampire.  But also, she’s the infamous Countess Bathory, who remains young by bathing in the blood of virgins.  But if she’s a vampire, wouldn’t she remain young regardless?  (And, add to that, Louise Fletcher doesn’t look particularly young in this film so you have to wonder how old she was when she first started bathing in blood.)  Countess Dracula also has twin sons and they are vampires with fangs and all that.  Apparently, they don’t have to bathe in blood to stay young.

Anyway (and you end up saying anyway a lot when you watch a film like Mama Dracula), the Dracula Twins run a clothing store called Vamp and, whenever a virgin steps into the changing room, she is promptly kidnapped and whisked away to the castle.  But everyone in the village seems to know what the twins are doing so you have to wonder why they don’t just stop going into the store.

Anyway, it turns out that there’s not many virgins left in the world and the villagers are encouraging their daughters to get laid as soon as possible.  So, Countess Dracula is willing to set Prof. Van Bloed with a special laboratory so that he can … do something.

ANYWAY, after about an hour, the film realizes that it’s going to have to end at some point so Prof. Van Bloed ends up falling in love with Nancy Hawaii (Maria Schneider), who I guess is supposed to be a virgin, though the film never seems to be quite sure…

But … yeah, this was an amazingly bad film.  Bleh on you, 1980 filmmakers!

Bleh.  On.  You.

Shattered Politics #50: Once Upon A Time In America (dir by Sergio Leone)


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Before I start this review of Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic, Once Upon A Time In America, I want to issue two warnings.

First off, this review is going to have spoilers.  I’ve thought long and hard about it.  Usually, I try to avoid giving out spoilers but, in this case, there’s no way I can write about this movie without giving away a few very important plot points.  So, for those of you who don’t want to deal with spoilers, I’ll just say now that Once Upon A Time In America is a great film and it’s one that anyone who is serious about film must see.

Secondly, I’m not going to be able to do justice to this film.  There’s too much to praise and too much going on in the film for one simple blog post to tell you everything that you need to know.  Once Upon A Time In America is the type of film that books should be written about, not just mere blog posts.  Any words that I type are not going to be able to match the experience of watching this film.

For instance, I can tell you that, much as he did with his classic Spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone uses the conventions of a familiar genre to tell an epic story about what it means to be poor and to be rich in America.  But you’ll never truly understand just how good a job Leone does until you actually see the film, with its haunting images of the poverty-stricken Jewish ghetto in 1920s New York and it’s surreal climax outside the mansion of a very rich and very corrupt man.

I can tell you that Ennio Morricone’s score is one of his best but you won’t truly know that until you hear it while gazing at Robert De Niro’s blissfully stoned face while the final credits roll up the screen.

I can tell you that the film’s cast is amazing but you probably already guessed that when you saw that it featured Robert De Niro, James Woods, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Elizabeth McGovern, and Jennifer Connelly.  But, again, it’s only after you’ve seen the film that you truly understand just how perfectly cast it actually is.  Given the politics of Hollywood and the fact that he’s unapologetically critical of Barack Obama, it’s entirely possible that James Woods might never appear in another major motion picture.  A film like Once Upon A Time in America makes you realize what a loss that truly is.

So, if you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to see it.  Order it off of Amazon.  Do the one day shipping thing.  Pay the extra money, the film is worth it.

Much like The Godfather, Part II (and Cloud Atlas, for that matter), Once Upon A Time In America tells several different stories at once, jumping back and forth from the past to the present and onto to the future.

The film’s “past” is 1920.  Noodles (Scott Tiler) is a street kid who lives in New York’s ghetto.  He makes a living by doing small jobs for a local gangster and occasionally mugging a drunk.  He’s also the head of his own gang, made up of Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curry), and Dominic (Noah Moazezi).  Despite his rough edges, Noodles has a crush on Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), a refined girl who practices ballet in the back of her family’s store.  When Nooldes meets Max (Rusty Jacobs), the two of them become quick friends.  However, their criminal activities are noticed by the demonic Bugsy (James Russo), who demands any money that they make.

The film’s “present” is 1932.  Noodles (Robert De Niro) has spent twelve years in prison and, when he’s released, he discovers that some things have changed but some have remained the same.  Max (James Woods), Cockeye (William Forsythe), and Patsy (James Hayden) are still criminals but they’ve prospered as bootleggers.  Occasionally, they do jobs for a local gangster named Frankie (Joe Pesci) and sometimes, they just rob banks on their own.  During one such robbery, they meet a sado-masochistic woman named Carol (Tuesday Weld), who quickly becomes Max’s girlfriend.

As for Noodles, he continues to love Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). But, when he discovers that she’s leaving New York to pursue a career as an actress, he reveals his true nature and rapes her.  It’s a devastating scene — both because all rape scenes are (or, at the very least, should be) devastating but also because it forces us to ask why we expected Noodles to somehow be better than the men who surround him.  After spending nearly two hours telling ourselves that Noodles is somehow better than his friends and his activities, the movie shows us that he’s even worse.  And, when we look back, we see that there was no reason for us to believe that Noodles was a good man.  It’s just what we, as an audience, wanted to believe.  After all, we all love the idea of the romanticized gangster, the dangerous man with a good heart who has been forced into a life of crime by his circumstances and who can be saved by love.  In that scene, Once Upon A Time In America asks us why audiences continue to romanticize men like Noodles and Max.

As for the gang, they’re hired to serve as unofficial bodyguards for labor leader Jimmy O’Donnell (Treat Williams) and, in their way, help to found the modern American labor movement.  (“I shed some blood for the cause,” Patsy says while showing off a huge bandage on his neck.) When fascistic police chief Aiello (Danny Aiello) needs to be taken down a notch, they kidnap his newborn son and hold him for ransom.  (While pulling off this crime, they also manages to switch around all the babies and, as a result, poor babies go home with rich families and vice versa, neatly highlighting both the power of class and the randomness of fate.)  However, the good times can’t last forever and, when prohibition is repealed, the increasingly unstable Max has to find a new way to make some money.

Finally, the film’s third storyline (the “future” storyline) takes place in 1967.  Noodles has spent decades living under a false identity in Buffalo.  When he gets a letter addressed to his real name, Noodles realizes that someone knows who he is.  He returns to a much changed New York.  Carol now lives in a retirement home.  Deborah is an acclaimed Broadway actress.  Jimmy O’Donnell is the most powerful union boss in America.  Fat Moe’s Speakeasy is now Fat Moe’s Restaurant.

Once Noodles is back in town, he receives a briefcase full of money and a note that tells him that it’s an advanced payment for his next job.  He also receives an invitation to a party that’s being held at the home of Christopher Bailey, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Who is Secretary Bailey?  He’s a shadowy and powerful figure and he’s also a man who is at the center of a political scandal that has turned violent.  And, when Noodles eventually arrives at the party, he also discovers that Secretary Bailey is none other than his old friend Max.

How did a very Jewish gangster named Max transform himself into being the very WASPy U.S. Secretary of Commerce?  That’s a story that the film declines to answer and it’s all the better for it.  What doesn’t matter is how Max became Bailey.  All that matters is that he did.  And now, he has one final favor to ask Noodles.

(There’s a very popular theory that all of the 1967 scenes are actually meant to be a hallucination on Noodles’s part.  And the 1967 scenes are surreal enough that they very well could be.  Though you do have to wonder how Noodles in 1932 could hallucinate the Beatles song that is heard when he returns to New York in 1967.)

Once Upon A Time In America is an amazing film, an epic look at crime, business, and politics in America.  It’s a film that left me with tears in my eyes and questions in my mind.  The greatness of the film can not necessarily be put into words.  Instead, it’s a film that everyone needs to see.

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Embracing the Melodrama #47: Cruel Intentions (dir by Roger Kumble)


For the past 10 days, I’ve been reviewing some of the most and least memorable melodramas ever filmed.  Starting with 1916’s Where Are My Children?, we’ve been moving chronologically through film history.  We’re now coming to the end of the 90s and what better way to end that decade than by taking a look at 1999’s Cruel Intentions?

Cruel Intentions takes place in the upscale world of a New York private school.  Rich and popular Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is also a manipulative hypocrite who destroys reputations on a whim and carries cocaine in her ever-present cross necklace.  Kathryn is upset because her boyfriend has recently dumped her and is now dating the sweet and innocent Cecile (Selma Blair).  Kathryn asks her decadent cousin Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) to seduce Cecile.  However, Sebastian refuses, saying that the challenge would be too easy.  Instead, he plans to seduce Annette Hargrove (Reese Whitherspoon), who has recently written an acclaimed essay about the importance of chastity and who also happens to be the daughter of the school’s headmaster.  Kathryn is intrigued by Sebastian’s plan and makes a bet with him.  If Sebastian manages to take Annette’s virginity than Kathryn will have sex with him…

Now, if you’ve already read my previous review of Dangerous Liaisons, the plot of Cruel Intentions probably sounds a bit familiar.  That’s because both of these films are based on the same source material —  Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.  The main difference between the two films — beyond the fact that Dangerous Liaisons is set in pre-Revolutionary France and Cruel Intentions is set in 1990s New York — is that Dangerous Liaisons uses the material to comment on the excesses of the rich while Cruel Intentions is all about style.

And, to be honest, while Dangerous Liaisons is undoubtedly the better film, Cruel Intentions is a lot more fun.  I first saw Cruel Intentions shortly before I started my sophomore year of high school and I excitedly thought to myself, “So this is what high school is going to be like!”  Well, unfortunately, it turned out that I was wrong but oh well!  (Though, in all fairness to the film, I went to a public high school in the suburbs of Dallas as opposed to a rich private school in New York.)  The movie still a lot of fun, even if it didn’t quite match up with reality.  Everything from the costumes (I absolutely LOVED every single outfit that Sarah Michelle Gellar wore and, even before it was revealed to be full of cocaine, that cross necklace was to die for) to the ornate sets to the wonderfully melodramatic and self-aware performances — it all works towards creating a vivid and engrossing alternative universe.

So no, don’t take Cruel Intentions seriously.

Just enjoy the dance while it lasts.

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Tomorrow, embracing the melodrama enters the 21st Century!