Rasputin and Beyond Obsession

February 5, 2013

rasputinThe Russian historical film Rasputin has been sitting on the Commissar of Cinema’s shelf for the better part of 10 years, having been, until recently, considered unfit for consumption.

The ban probably stems from the film’s surprisingly tame view of Czar Nicholas II. According to the film, the czar is less the evil tyrant of Bolshevik tradition than a fretful wimp held captive by his wife’s obsession with Grigori Rasputin, the mad monk who eased the suffering of her hemophiliac son.

During World War I and through his death in 1916, Rasputin held hypnotic sway over the royal family and indulged his own obsessions. In the film, he’s the evil one—swaggering, fornicating, threatening, and strangling live chickens—and the czar and czarina merely dupes.

It’s a great story, filmed often before, with Conrad Veidt, Lionel Barrymore, and Christopher Lee among those essaying the meaty role. This Rasputin, potently played by Alexei Petrenko, is surely the most disgusting of all, with his limbs frequently jittering into freaky motion and his beard stringy with yesterday’s lunch.

The palace life is a bit like Disneyland, complete with theme rooms (hot springs, walls painted to resemble a seascape), Rasputin’s harem (some of his women wear false beards to resemble him), and mannequins standing guard. In such an arena, Rasputin’s madness seems almost at home.

Naturally, since Rasputin died one of the weirdest deaths of the 20th century, the film has a built-in big finish. In short order, Rasputin ate poisoned cakes and wine, was shot and beaten repeatedly, and finally was dumped into a river, where he took the hint and expired.

Oddly enough, director Elem Klimov doesn’t play the death scene to the hilt; he even leaves out the river-dumping. His direction overall is lumpy and stuttering; the film doesn’t have much grace, but it’s vivid and entertaining in individual scenes. It may be unfair to judge Klimov’s overriding scheme, since the film has been cut by 40 minutes for export.

A different kind of obsession is portrayed in Beyond Obsession, an Italian-made film from the director of the once-notorious The Night Porter, Liliana Cavani.

An American oilman (Tom Berenger) becomes obsessed with a gorgeous Italian floozy (Eleonora Giorgi) in Morocco. She’ll have nothing to do with him, however, because she is obsessed with her father (Marcello Mastroianni), who is currently in jail for killing her mother. He, in turn, is obsessed with her. Pretty soon he becomes obsessed with Berenger for hanging around her.

That’s a lot of obsession for one movie. Too much, probably. And a lot of business is none too clear at first—including the odd nature of the Giorgi-Mastroianni relationship, and her pupose in walking the streets at night.

In another film, these mysteries might tantalize the viewer. In Beyond Obsession, they’re pretty irritating, especially given the obvious discomfort of the multilingual cast in just talking to each other. In particular, Berenger (the TV star in The Big Chill) clearly has no idea how to play his character. It’s the kind of performance that can take you beyond embarrassment.

First published in the Herald, 1985 (?)

Klimov’s film, originally titled Agony, was withheld for a while, but apparently released around the time he did Come and See. The longer version of Rasputin is seeable, these days. Beyond Obsession is also known as Beyond the Door.



May 22, 2012

Betrayed is constructed like a nightmare; the farther into it we go, the more distorted and surrealistic the images become.

That’s also the experience of the protagonist, a young FBI agent (Debra Winger) who’s investigating the murder of a colorful Chicago talk-show host.

When she travels undercover into a farming community in Nebraska, she’s immediately taken by the wholesomeness of the environment, the Norman Rockwell appearance of waving wheatfields and cherry pies cooling on the window sill. She’s also taken by the presence of a widower farmer (Tom Berenger), whose strength and sense of family seem to fill in the spaces of her own empty existence. But the longer she stays on the case, and the more personally involved she becomes, the more ugliness she uncovers.

At this point, the reviewer becomes honor-bound not to reveal too much of the film’s plot. When I saw Betrayed at an early screening, I didn’t know anything about it, and the surprises of the story came as real shocks. (I’ve already given away the fact that Winger plays an FBI agent, which isn’t clear in the film until 15 minutes have gone by.)

Suffice it to say that the particular rock that gets overturned in Betrayed reveals an organization of white supremacists, who seek to overthrow the government and install an all-white society.

When Winger infiltrates this group, she sees the duality of their existence: On the outside, they’re a warm group of homey family folks, who on camping trips just happen to take target practice with automatic weapons and burn crosses in meadows on cool summer evenings.

Joe (Jagged Edge) Eszterhas’s original screenplay examines this milieu with some admirable attempts at treating not just the political issues but also the personal trauma within Winger’s character. She’s appalled at the activities of the group, which include hunting down black men in the forest (where she is encouraged to participate), but she’s also feeling abused by the FBI; her boss (John Heard), who is also an ex-boyfriend, seems to be pushing her back into the field with insensitive fervor.

The natural director for this sort of piece is Costa-Gavras, who cornered the market on the political thriller with Z and State of Siege. As in those films, Costa-Gavras builds a spider web of fear surrounding his characters. But, also like his Missing of a few years ago, Costa-Gavras stays somewhat on the surface of events; as good as this movie is, it lacks a kind of lived-in quality, an authenticity of place and time.

It undoubtedly will stir up some potent emotions. Debra Winger wondered in an interview in “American Film” magazine whether the racist sentiments spoken by some of the character might be received approvingly by some.

Betrayed does have some very disturbing moments, none creepier than a scene in which two small children, being tucked into bed at night, begin spouting repulsive racist attitudes with which their parents have brainwashed them. That’s when this film really makes the skin crawl.

First published in the Herald, August 25, 1988

Debra Winger’s film credits are so few and far between that you can’t help wondering about the films she decided to do. Why this one? Heavy subject matter? Director? As for Eszterhas, he was a few years shy of launching Basic Instinct and making a famous name for himself.

Rustlers’ Rhapsody

March 20, 2012

Even if it were a good movie, Rustlers’ Rhapsody would still have an air of superfluousness about it. Just how many spoofs of Western movies do we need?

Certainly Mel Brooks’s Blazing Saddles seemed sufficient. Nearly every handy Western cliché took a roasting over the campfire there. Still, there may be room for the occasional camp item such as the recent Lust in the Dust.

But Rustlers’ Rhapsody goes over much the same ground—and, of course, with similar targets—as Brooks’s film. And it keep the anachronistic tone of Blazing Saddles, too; characters in this 1885 plot are likely to break out into some strictly 1985 phrase-making (example: The hero turns to his loyal sidekick and announces he wants to be alone by saying, “Hey, I’ve got to have some me-time”).

Which means that there are a few funny bits. Tom Berenger (the TV star in The Big Chill) plays the squeaky-clean Rex O’Herlihan, hero to millions of movie fans. O’Herlihan always does good, and he can draw his gun faster than any bad guy could ever hope.

He’s suffering from a touch of weariness, though. He’s noticed that his life is cyclical: with each new plot, he goes into another small town, gets menaced by another power-hungry rancher, is aided by another town drunk, is befriended by another saloon girl.

When he meets the saloon girl (Marilu Henner) in Oakwood Estates, he guesses that, underneath that flashy exterior, she has a heart of gold. “How’d you know that?” asks the town drunk (G.W. Bailey). “Oh, I just knew,” says Rex, mysteriously.

It goes like that. The power-hungry cattle baron (Andy Griffith) tells his mean bunch of outlaws to kill Rex. When they return unsuccessful, he invites them in “for a gab” anyway. They edge away nervously. “Gee, I don’t know,” says one. “It’s a weeknight.”

These are the good jokes. Most of the film relies on O’Herlihan’s ornate costumes or trick riding to induce some chuckles. Actually, some of the funniest scenes involve Patrick Wayne, the son of the Duke, who turns up late as a fellow good guy hired away by Griffith. This puts both heroes in a quandary: since they’re both white knights, they both have to win at the end.

Rustlers’ Rhapsody is written and directed by Hugh Wilson. At one time, as the main force behind “WKRP in Cincinnati,” he may have seemed like a promising talent. But his directing debut last year, the wildly popular Police Academy, displayed nothing but bad taste. With the success of that film, he had the chance to do whatever he wanted—and Rustlers’ Rhapsody is it. Okay, he’s got one more chance to make good—then we throw in the towel.

First published in the Herald, May 14, 1985

I think this movie is probably funnier than I make it sound, but maybe I’m conveniently forgetting the most obvious jokes. The thread with Andy Griffith is pretty hilarious, and for some strange reason I have thought of that “It’s a weeknight” line a number of times in the years since I saw the picture. Wilson forged ahead with his career, which delivered some okay items but also the occasional complete stiff, such as the shockingly inept Dudley Do-Right.

The Big Chill

December 19, 2011

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” asked the Beach Boys, in words that seem to sum up the great yearning of rock ‘n roll music. How great to be different from adults, but wouldn’t it be nice to get some of the privileges. How great to get the fringe benefits without the side effects. Man, that’d be the day. For many people, this day of freedom with limited responsibilities really happens—some of us call it college, although it can assume other guises. The sun is out, dreams take flight, and companionship is constant and crucial—at least, that’s the way it takes shape through the filter of memory. Two things are certain about the endless summer: 1) It will end, and 2) It will be romanticized.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” pops up in the course of Lawrence (Body Heat) Kasdan’s new movie, The Big Chill, and it’s a pretty appropriate choice. The Big Chill is about a group of people, a decade or so past their college chumminess, who reunite for a weekend. They’ve been drawn together by the suicide—and subsequent funeral—of one of the old gang. His suicide haunts their rosy memories, as does the fact that none of them has lived up to the uncompromising ideals of the good old days. Many-tentacled adulthood has grasped them all, and the weekend looms as a chance to recapture some of the old warmth. Is the fire still there? God only knows. But few moviegoers will be able to resist that delicious feeling of settling back and awaiting the various sexual, emotional, chemical, geographical combinations that tend to erupt on such an occasion.

That brings us up against the fact that we’ve seen this kind of movie before—recently and beautifully in John Sayles’ Return of the Secaucus Seven, which also presented a weekend of ex-radicals discovering a sheepish mellowness as well as certain ties that bind. Some people may be bothered by similarities between the two films. Frankly, I found it easy to look at the first five minutes of The Big Chill and say, “Oh, it’s going to be something like Secaucus Seven. Okay. Let’s go.” It was very easy, and Kasdan and his co-screenwriter Barbara Benedek have their own path to chart across this tried-and-true territory.

The on-screen people Kasdan has gathered together to make this weekend interesting are some of the most exciting young actors around right now. Kevin Kline and Glenn Close host the reunion in their fine old Southern mansion; their marriage, made comfortable by the profits from their burgeoning shoe company (and despite Close’s past affair with the dear departed) seems to be going all right. Maybe that’s what’s bugging them. Mary Kay Place plays an executive who is sick of men but desirous of a child, a situation that is, shall we say, pregnant with possibilities. Tom Berenger plays the pretty star of one of those beefcake private-eye TV shoes; he may not be as savagely bright as the rest of the gang, but he’s very well-meaning (that’s a good piece of casting; Berenger has been a male-model type for a while now, and you can almost sense his excitement at being in something good. The fact that he’s not as sharp an actor as Glenn Close or William Hurt simply serves his character). Hurt plays a seriously burned-out (and impotent) Vietnam vet whose drug-dealing has turned into something more than a sideline. Jeff Goldblum is the former crusading college-newspaper reporter who now spends his time rationalizing his job at People magazine. JoBeth Williams wanted to be a writer, but finds herself deeply into housewifery these days; she is looking for something—specifically a long-delayed something with Berenger—to happen, and it’s now or never.

That’s a terrific bunch, and there’s not an off-key performance in the lot. Two others, outsiders, figure into the proceedings: Williams’ unbearably straight-arrow husband is played by Don Galloway (yes, of TV’s “Ironside”—another fine casting stroke), and the air-headed young girlfriend of the deceased is played by Meg Tilly. In a bad movie, Tilly’s character might be meant to represent the purity of the instinctual nature as opposed to the overly analytical attitudes of the main group of friends. In The Big Chill, she’s something less—and more—than that. Her silliness plays against that sort of symbolic interpretation, and her fascination with the morbid Hurt leads the film towards a sense of revitalization. Kasdan seems interested in facing clichés and lashing back at them, and her character is no exception.

There’s a delight in turning things on their head here that springs less from cruelty than honesty. Some of the heated dialogue exchanges are choice, particularly when a character will spout something sensible and platitudinous—the kind of thing that usually passes for wisdom—whereupon someone else may pause a beat before saying, “That is such a crock of shit, I can’t believe it.” (JoBeth Williams’ unexpectedly fiery reaction to Berenger’s gentlemanly thanks-but-no-thanks retreat from her sexual gambit is the greatest of these moments.)

The Big Chill is full of good dialogue, but some of the things I’ll remember most about it have nothing to do with words: the look on JoBeth Williams’ face when she turns to look out her car window (and toward the camera) as a way of taking her mind—or, at least her eyes—off her husband as they drive away from the funeral; the lovely group dynamic as an after-dinner clean-up is transformed into a dance; the camera movement that captures the moment Glenn Close gets an idea about Mary Kay Place’s desire for a partner in progeny.

These people speak with grown-up mouths and move with grown-up bodies, but we get the idea they’re more confused than they were in college. They could sing, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older,” for years, and still wonder when the state of adulthood will really happen. The Big Chill gives a benevolent blessing to this state of mind. “The good old days” may well be a crock of shit, but it matters, as we learn by the end of this weekend, that some of that time remains alive, even after the big chill.

First published in The Informer, September 1983

This is one of those reviews where I have to chuckle about the worldly wisdom being doled out by a 24-year-old writer. But fine, that’s in the spirit of the movie, I guess. I haven’t seen the picture since it came out, but I infer that to the generation that was just coming up, The Big Chill is the epitome of Squaresville, which I guess I understand. By the way, I have always wondered exactly where the title came from; Kasdan has explained it as a reference to the cooling of youthful fires, which is clear, but it sounds like a quote from something. A couple of years after seeing the movie, I came across the phrase “big chill” in a Kerouac novel, I think The Subterraneans, and wondered whether it could be a source, but who the hell knows.


September 14, 2011

Dafoe and Berenger: Platoon's Homeric Gods

In the current issue of American Film magazine, writer-director Oliver Stone describes himself in Vietnam in 1967: “(A) solitary, wide-eyed youth standing under those raggedy Asiatic clouds, looking out at the sea with his fantasies of Lord Jim and Julie Christie, an anonymous infantryman…and I knew that someday, somehow, I would write my story and join the flow of time.”

Almost 20 years later, Stone’s time has come. His new film, Platoon, tells the straightest, truest Vietnam story of any film yet. He served 15 months as an infantryman in the war, was wounded a couple of times, and won the Bronze Star. The movie is about the kinds of men he served with, and covers a year’s service through the eyes of a raw recruit.

From the opening images of Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) arriving in the yellowish haze of Southeast Asia, the film tracks the relentless march of his platoon. Harrowing jungle attacks are alternated with rests at base, until the year is over. In its gritty, riveting action, Platoon is reminiscent of such classic war movies as Samuel Fuller’s The Steel Helmet and Anthony Mann’s Men in War.

Part of Stone’s intent, clearly, is to provide an immediate sense that this is the way it was. In this, he succeeds spectacularly; the movie has the authentic feel that qualifies it as a work of someone who’s been there. (Filming took place in the Philippines.)

But Stone has also provided a mythic backbone to Taylor’s coming-of-age story. It lies in the good vs. evil struggle between two sergeants in the platoon—”Homeric gods,” as Stone has described them. Barnes (Tom Berenger) is brutal and amoral; “Our Ahab” Taylor calls him at one point, when the platoon destroys a My Lai-like village in insane retribution for sabotage, the film’s most horrifying sequence.

The other sergeant, Elias (Willem Dafoe), is poetic, almost divine. Despite the differences between them, however, Stone draws no simple conclusions. Barnes may be a black presence, but he repeatedly proves himself a good soldier who saves the lives of his men.

The entire film sustains this ambiguity. Platoon is no easy anti-war screed; Stone knows the issue is too complex for that. There are no cheap shots here—even the generals, the apparently lily-livered lieutenant and the kill-happy grunts have their moments of self-realization. They are all at sea in this nightmare.

The actors who play them are magnificent. Even the small, fleeting roles are finely etched. Sheen is appropriately dazed as the unformed youth (he is the son of Martin Sheen, who played the lead in Francis Coppola’s Vietnam film Apocalypse Now). Berenger, who played the TV star in The Big Chill, is a limited actor, but he transcends himself as the scarred Barnes, especially in the scene where he confronts the angry soldiers: “You smoke this dope t’escape reality?…I am reality.”

Dafoe, previously stuck with playing villains (as in To Live and Die in L.A.) because of his stark features, is superb as the angelic Elias. He brings an odd mystery to the role, a hinting at past unspoken experiences that give shading to his heroic character.

With all Stone’s capacity for subtlety, he also has a tendency to go too far. This was more evident in last year’s vivid Salvador than here, although it might be said that the narration in Platoon, in the form of Taylor’s letters home, may state too much that has already been shown. But for the most part, the film is a personal triumph. Stone can use it; since winning the best screenplay Oscar in 1977 for Midnight Express (a movie directed by someone else), he’s wandered around the Hollywood fringes. Now, via the circuitous route of his own past, he seems to have finished his odyssey.

First published in the Herald, January 15, 1987

I haven’t seen the film in a long time, although I recall getting to see it twice before I wrote about it. Stone was never this on-point again, but I continue to have a soft spot for his excessive tendencies—the grandness suggested in the opening quote. When I interviewed him (he did a press tour in Seattle for World Trade Center), he was pleased that I appreciated The Hand, his pre-respectability horror film, which somehow did not surprise me. Platoonis small and big at the same time, a tricky act, passionately achieved.