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A technical advance in both sound and movement, and a caustic, first-of-its-kind black comedy, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H was once deemed a masterpiece. Alas, now, it is as culturally atonal and offensive as Gone With the Wind.

The women in the film are nothing but sexual playthings, constantly subject to the predations of Trapper John, Hawkeye and all the rest of the misogynists who inhabit the camp. The nurses are first and foremost flesh to be pawed at, conquests to be made. Add an indelible strain of homophobia, a black character named “Spearchucker” and Trapper John and Hawkeye in Japan yukking it up with racist Charlie Chan imitations, and you end up with the transformation of what used to be an iconic, anti-establishment, anti-Vietnam (Korea just plays the part) film into a vessel for the most retrograde and debilitating of social views, a moral blight as offensive as blackface.

Mind you, I do not come to this conclusion lightly or happily. Before my own reeducation, I would have found this a clever, funny and brash film. The characters possess incredible medical gifts and live in an untenable situation, surrounded by gore and death, and they resort to sophomoric gags and easy sex because that’s what some people under stress do, especially in dark comedies. The old me would view this film as cruelly hilarious. I might have also found the treatment of the women tempered by their corresponding consent, agency and obvious value to the camp.

But that was before I understood the power of patriarchal constructs. My God, at one point, Hawkeye brings a female nurse to a depressed colleague as if she were a comfort girl to a marauding victor. And she is dreamily driven off, her lust was so sated.

The brutal ouster of the pious Frank Burns and the ritual humiliation of Hot Lips Hoolihan aren’t the mere comeuppance of villains. Watch again as she is unbared in the shower. The leering men settle a bet as to whether she is, in fact, a true blond; she writhes, naked, abused, on the shower floor while they hoot and holler and jeer.  Despicable.

God help the campus movie house that accidentally runs this baby.

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I caught this a few rainy days ago.  There are very few films that deal with contemporary hot button issues well. Most of the time, the inclination of the writer and director is so patently obvious that the art is robbed of plausibility and force.

This movie is an exception.  The issue is subordinate to the human story, and while that story is primarily told from the viewpoint of an anti-death penalty character (Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean) ministering to convicted murderer and rapist Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), that in no way colors the message, which is admirably equivocal, even, to my mind, shockingly, a hair pro-capital punishment. That is probably just me, given the hackneyed uniformity of most such films, but that the picture provides an emotional and almost ethical argument for the practice is astonishing.

Sarandon is restrained and effective as a woman of faith called to provide spiritual comfort to a man who has committed a monstrous crime, and as that man, Penn exhibits all the bravado, self-pity, cruelty and narcissism of a thug.  Eventually, she learns she is not there to redeem him in any way, and shucks off her self-comforting fantasies that he was just a good boy led astray,  and focuses on simply leading him to confession.

Director Tim Robbins takes meticulous pains to display the brutal toll on the victims’ families and has the balls to juxtapose the execution with an unforgiving flashback of the crime, and unlike what Poncelet has been selling Prejean up until the last moments before he is executed (he is innocent, he was stoned, his accomplice did the killing and raping and things just got out of hand), those flashbacks show him as a vile, entirely in control piece of shit.

Nobody is caricatured. No easy rhetorical gotcha’ lines are delivered.  The employees of the prison, the medical professionals involved in the process, the families, they are treated with rare grace and equanimity.  An example: Sarandon has dinner with her wealthy family, some of whom question her service to Poncelet.  In the wrong hands, they would have been portrayed as the aristocratic, privileged rich, more concerned with their name and espousing small, likely bigoted views.  Robbins, however, shows them as loving and concerned, with questions (“Why spend so much time on this cretin when you could be helping young children not to grow up into becoming this cretin?”) similar to that of the audience.

Similarly, Poncelet is never a beatific victim.  Near the end, he praises Hitler, he spews racist invective, he even makes a sexual come on to Sarandon.  But she works with him, to help him find a dignity within himself through the sole act of the admission of his guilt and contrition.

Great film.

 

 

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I just finished Blood in the Water, an exhaustive history on the Attica uprising and its aftermath.  And lo and behold, Brubaker hits the cable movie rotation.  I remember it being overly preachy but engaging, but times have changed, and now, Stuart Rosenberg’s (Cool Hand Luke) film seems rather reserved and even-handed.  It isn’t but that’s how it feels today.

No matter the prevalence of a particular bent, the picture juggles its message and a gripping mystery within the prison adeptly, the feel is right, and it is never dull.

Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford) is a reform warden incarcerated incognito as an inmate in the Arkansas prison he will soon be running.  From the outset, he witnesses abuses by trustees (prisoners given the right and authority to be armed and act as corrections officers) that include brutal beatings, theft of food for resale, and extortion for basic necessities.  As for the conduct of the governmental officials of the prison, it is no better.  The doctor charges for services, the cooks charge for edible food, and the warden hires out men to local businesses for free.  Rape is rampant and problem inmates (including a young Morgan Freeman) are shut in dark, airless cells in a separate area of the prison.

Brubaker soon reveals himself, and in his attempts to change the prison, he is met with stiff resistance from the local community, the trustees, and soon, even the governor who appointed him.  His liberality is thrown in his face by the conservative elements, who see him in league with the prisoners, while the liberal faction sees only the damage done by his upending the system and his refusal to take half a loaf.

There are problems.  Redford is plagued by his good looks.  His embedding into the prison population without notice is a stretch.  He is also so self-righteous and literal, it grates, and the end is just piling on. Also, a potential sexual chemistry between Burbaker and assistant to the governor Jane Alexander is needlessly left unexplored.  And Roger Ebert, per usual, hits the nail on the head:  “The movie (refuses) to permit its characters more human dimensions. We want to know these people better, but the screenplay throws up a wall; they act according to the ideological positions assigned to them in the screenplay, and that’s that. … Half of Redford’s speeches could have come out of newspaper editorials, but we never find out much about him.”

Still, the film melds political tract and thriller pretty effortlessly, and it is extremely well-acted, featuring strong performances by David Keith and Yaphet Kotto in early roles.

Image result for The ChangelingOne of my favorite ghost stories, it has all the elements: a believable tortured performance by George C. Scott, a recent widower with whom an old house begins to communicate; absolutely chilling, hair-standing on the back of your neck moments; an engrossing mystery that seamlessly ties into the increasingly disturbing hauntings; and, a unhurried pace which heightens the terror.  Trust me. Or trust Martin Scorsese. It’s on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time.

Also, scariest wheelchair ever.

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Terrible, excessive, a yawning blot of a movie. I can’t get enough. From the opening scene, where our protagonist is shown as a boy, watching his father fight a fire, and his father blows up, in slo-mo, before his eyes, and the old man’s fire chief hat rattles at his feet, to the sobering realization that this boy has grown up to be a firefighter himself.   Verklempt.

Better, the boy grows up to be a male model firefighter (in the guise of Billy Baldwin, straight out of Zoolander) who gets the rookie treatment (“wash my socks, cook my food, hey, stand in front of this thingie I call a firehouse . . . rook”) and his greatest tormentor is Kurt Russell, his older brother, who says things like “The only problem is that in this job is there’s just no place to hide. It’s not like having a bad day selling log cabins. You have a bad day here and somebody dies… and that’s just not fucking good enough.”

Which is an awesome line and can be replicated in all professions every day.

Of course, Baldwin looks like he couldn’t lift an IPhone much lest hoist a hose, but he does have a few humdingers himself.  Like “you did it man. You did it all the way Steven, you were really a hero today.”  Allowing Russell to retort, ” Brian… its not about being a hero. I went in because there was a kid up there. You know, I just, I do what I do because that’s my way. And it was Dad’s way. Maybe it’s not everybody’s way. ”

Which can also be replicated in all professions every day, but it helps if you’re talking to your brother.

It’s not all sweet, sweet perfection.  Baldwin’s love scene with a Jennifer Jason Leigh is, uh, unconvincing. But it is on top of a fire truck and has the feel of a Whitesnake video.

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Basically, this is a two hour fellating of the brawn, brio and body odor of American firefighters, scored by whoever did Triumph of the Will (okay, too much, but I was close – it’s Hans Zimmer).  There is also a mystery stitched in this cupcake, and when solved, it is not just preposterous, it defies the laws of physics.

There is only one explanation-Ron Howard fell in love with a firefighter and made him a valentine.

Unwatchable and yet, I cannot look away.

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This is a dinosaur, a sweeping, big budget 70s war flick loaded with A and B+ stars of the time, directed with an accomplished economy and flourish by Sir Richard Attenborough (Gandhi).

Imagine the equivalent of this cast in one movie today:

OSCAR WINNERS

Laurence Olivier

Anthony Hopkins

Robert Redford

Sean Connery

Gene Hackman

Michael Caine

Maximilian Schell

OSCAR NOMINEES

Elliot Gould

Ryan O’Neal

Liv Ullman

James Caan

BAFTA WINNERS

Edward Fox

Dirk Bogarde

The picture is appropriately cynical for the post-Vietnam era, as the movie depicts the tragic clusterfu** that was World War II’s Operation Market Garden, an ill-fated attempt to cripple Germany quickly post-D Day via a lightning paratroop strike into Holland.  Everything that can go wrong does go wrong, due in no small part to bureaucratic incompetence and the willful ignoring of intelligence.

This is a solid, meticulous picture that manages to let stars be stars while incorporating the performances seamlessly into a well-thought out and accomplished military drama.  William Goldman’s script is also very moving, empathetic to the plight of the foot soldier and bereft of a lot of hoo rah!  There is only one casting weakness.  I get that you wanted “young” for General James Gavin, who was 37 years old at the time of the operation, but O’Neal is just too pretty and soft for the role, and his attempt to overcome it (being stern) is unavailing.

Some fun tidbits:  The stars took a pay cut, agreeing to a $250,000 weekly fee.  Also, with two lines, and a spot right behind Redford on a collapsible boat in a brutal river crossing, it is none other than John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin from Cheers).  Spoiler – Cliff doesn’t make it

 

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What good can be said of this 1987 blockbuster that, along with The Untouchables, catapulted Kevin Costner to stardom?  Not a lot.  The film does not age well at all.  It is blocky, flat and some of the chase scenes are comically leaden.  Costner running from computer room to computer room is Hardcastle and McCormick fare, and waiting for the printer you had in college to deliver the coup de grace is pretty damn funny.  Director Roger Donaldson’s work (Cocktail, Thirteen Days, Dante’s Peak) is as pedestrian as it gets.

Then there is Will Patton.

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As the bad guy, he is so over-the-top, it’s hard to stifle a laugh.  His devotion to the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) is akin to that of a coked-up Moonie.  He almost looks hypnotized.  And is he trying to sneak in some homoerotic longing for Hackman?  Bob Duvall, sure.  But Hackman?  It’s crazy.

That said, this dinosaur can make you nostalgic for the days of actual sex appeal in pictures.  Costner and Sean Young didn’t have a story, but they sure had chemistry, and in the days before VCRs gave way to the internet, that kind of sizzle was both bankable, a treat and a minor staple.  Think Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Debra Winger and Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward in Against All Odds (1984), Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis in Witness (1985), Ellen Barkin and Dennis Quaid in The Big Easy (1986), Mimi Rogers and Tom Berenger in Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), Mel Gibson, Michelle Pfeiffer (and Kurt Russell) in Tequila Sunrise (1988), Pfeiffer and the Bridges brothers in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), even Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost (1990).

It didn’t always work (check out Al Pacino with Barkin in Sea of Love (1989), hoo boy, Barkin looks like she’s kissing a hobo),  Still, these were romantic and racy mainstream films that presented non-comedic stories but relied on the strong and compelling mutual sexual attraction of their leads.  We just grew out of these kinds of movies and “sexual chemistry” became quaint, jettisoned for talky, quippy, modern rom-com dreck.  1992’s overt Basic Instinct, where Sharon Stone had to give a glimpse of her hoo-ha (trademarked) to keep folks interested was the end, and now, we are in mannequins-in-bondage land (Fifty Shades of Dull).

Don’t believe me?   Take in 20 minutes of Passengers, a recent sci-fi flick that accidentally becomes reliant on real desire between Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.  It’s ugly.  These two couldn’t ignite enough heat to juice a GameBoy.

But I digress.  No Way Out is awful, but also, a little sad.