Untimely Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the third film in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection that revolves around a central struggle of the individual against institutionalization.

Like Cool Hand Luke and A Clockwork OrangeOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest centers around an anti-hero, R. P. McMurphy, played by the incomparable Jack Nicholson in an Oscar-winning performance.  McMurphy’s moral alignment is somewhere between that of the roguish Luke Jackson and the sociopathic Alex DeLarge, but his immense charisma is every bit as potent as theirs.

One of the most important elements of this film is that some of the early scenes are intentionally dull, in order to highlight the soul-destroying drudgery of the mental hospital.  As McMurphy becomes more vocal, the scenes get far more lively, but his energy contrasts with the void of the defeated, morose, long-term patients.

Gradually, we get some of the Christ-like themes that were so prominent in Cool Hand Luke, as McMurphy pushes back against a system that robs the patients of their humanity.  The difference is Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, who is a much more nuanced character than the one-dimensional “Man with No Eyes” from Cool Hand Luke.

Nurse Ratched genuinely believes that she’s doing what’s best for these patients, and it’s only when she begins to lose control of them in the presence of new alpha McMurphy that her own fragility and human weaknesses become obvious.

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Untimely Movie Review: The Exorcist

The Exorcist provides another example of a cultural touchstone film that, somehow, I’ve never seen.

That’s right—despite owning about 500 movies on disc, and seeing perhaps hundreds more over the years, this one escaped my view.  This is the next in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, and, based on the title screen, it’s the extended director’s cut.  Not that I would know the difference.

One of the benefits of coming in fresh is being surprised by things, such as the film beginning in Iraq!  I had also forgotten it takes place in Georgetown, right up the road from me.  I was totally unaware that Regan’s (Linda Blair’s) mother, Chris (played by Ellen Burstyn), is an actress in a film-within-the-film.

I also didn’t realize that doctors were prescribing Ritalin back in ’73, but the movie nails the “we’re not sure what it is—here’s some mind-altering drugs, I guess?” mentality.  The doctors continue to fumble through diagnoses, even when coming face-to-face with Regan’s bizarre behavior.

Anyway, it wouldn’t be exactly correct to say that this film “hasn’t aged well.”  It’s fine.  It doesn’t seem all that dated in most respects.

However, there is one key problem related to its age.

This film still has some shock value viewed with the perspective of a first-time viewer in 2020.  But, first, shock value doesn’t do much for me, and, secondly, even if it did, the potency of it has dissipated considerably since 1973.

Seeing a little girl’s head turn all the way around, or hearing her speaking in strange voices, or seeing her projectile vomit is certainly creepy.  But, to the jaded, cynical, world-weary contemporary audience (i.e. me) it isn’t particularly scary or compelling.

The only parts that are a little gut-wrenching are the arteriogram (genuinely the most uncomfortable scene) and the, uh, cross insertion scene (mostly thinking about the awkward conversation that must have preceded the filming of it).

Otherwise, it’s just a pretty taut thriller with an excellent Max von Sydow performance (playing 30 years older than he was due to some excellent makeup), a jaw-dropping Linda Blair performance, a few weird edits, a minor loose end or two, and a couple of decent jump scares.  And it ends with the lesson that the exorcism doesn’t actually work until you just beat the demon out of the person!

It’s solid overall, but not among the best in this collection.

However, the behind-the-scenes documentary is downright fascinating.  The Exorcist would be worth a watch in any case, but it’s absolutely must viewing purely as a preamble to the bonkers doc, which features, among other things, Friedkin talking with (disturbing) glee about how he got then-twelve-year-old Linda Blair to do some of the more gross or adult scenes using techniques like tickling her until she agreed.  Yikes all around!

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Untimely Movie Review: A Clockwork Orange

The next entry in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection is the second Stanley Kubrick offering in the set: A Clockwork Orange.  Yet, despite the unmistakably ambitious nature of the film, I found it had more in common thematically with the non-Kubrick Cool Hand Luke than it did 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Cool Hand Luke is, on one level, a backward-looking but contemporary analysis of the nature of prisons and rehabilitation—posing the question of whether penal institutions do more harm than good from the perspective of that rehabilitation.

Likewise, A Clockwork Orange is, among other things, a commentary on rehabilitation, and whether a cure can be worse than the “disease” of inherent sociopathy.  In particular, it ponders whether aversion therapy of the kind depicted in the film (even when—no, especially when—effective) is moral.  The story mulls this question both in terms of a denial of free will (the prison clergyman makes this part abundantly clear), but also from the perspective of whether the government can be trusted to wield this power in the first place.

We get hints of this idea throughout, with throwaway lines about political prisoners and so forth serving to underscore that the dystopian nature of A Clockwork Orange’s setting extends beyond violence and chaos and into the well-worn ground of soul-crushing totalitarianism.

In the midst of that, there’s Malcolm McDowell’s Alex, a charismatic sociopath who slips easily from setting to setting, behaving in whatever manner has the greatest chance of producing the outcome that will service his depravity.  He maneuvers through a society steeped in hedonism and violent crime carried out by gangs of youth speaking in a bizarre type of future slang anchored in pigeon-Russian and Cockney rhymes, and McDowell plays him with transcendent precision every step of the way.

In Kubrick’s uniquely skilled hands, the movie becomes a visual and auditory masterpiece, akin to, but very different from, 2001.  His deft use of a classical score, paired with futuristic Moog synth music, is brilliant.  Also memorable is the use of slow-motion and fast-motion, the artistic value of which in Clockwork Orange is apparent even to a layman like myself.

Like many of the other films in this collection, Clockwork Orange is also based on a book.  One thing I loved about this movie, though, is that it avoids the pitfall into which so many other novel-to-film translations stumble: it feels neither rushed nor as if it’s “missing” critical elements.  Kubrick is able to manage the pace and density of the story perfectly.

The irony is that Kubrick, who also wrote the screenplay, based his script on the American edition of the Anthony Burgess book.  That meant that version Kubrick read omitted the final, redemptive chapter (and we don’t see it reflected onscreen).

Yet, that doesn’t seem to matter.  The strange, acrobatically stylized violence of the world Kubrick creates is perfectly illustrated, and Alex’s resilient and ultimately victorious trajectory soars and dips before the viewer’s eyes in a way that is as satisfying as it is, at times, disturbing.

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Untimely Movie Review: Dirty Harry

Going from Willy Wonka to Dirty Harry practically gave me the bends.

But Clint Eastwood’s signature performance was next up in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection.  Like Bullitt, this is a movie about police officers in San Francisco.  Unlike Bullitt, this is a much more in-your-face, blood-and-guts cop flick, complete with wildly unrealistic criminal and procedural scenarios.

If you’re looking for nuance, this isn’t the movie for you.

The movie pits Eastwood’s gruff, rogue Callahan up against Andy Robinson’s “Scorpio,” a wild-haired, wilder-eyed cartoon character of a serial killer.

This is one of those examples of a movie that works better if you turn your brain off.  Well, maybe not off, but at least down.

The film, and Eastwood’s character, serves as a counter-counter-culture piece, at a time (and in a place) in which things seemed to be swinging too far in one direction for much of the country’s tastes.  Debauchery, criminality, and a justice system that seemed to be realigning to help criminals combine to form the backdrop of Harry Callahan’s San Francisco, much darker and more dangerous even than Bullitt‘s San Francisco of just three years prior.

As I said, the plot doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.  The biggest issue is the notion that Scorpio would somehow get off scot free because Callahan beats a confession out of him while frantically searching for a girl who’s been buried alive.  The DA and an appellate judge(!) both conclude that Scorpio has to be set free, even though the girl has been found dead, with the DA admonishing Callahan and saying that he couldn’t even get a conviction “for spitting on the sidewalk” in light of the illegal search and interrogation.

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Untimely Movie Review: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

I was eager to dive into the next film in the Warner Brothers 50 Film CollectionWilly Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, because I hadn’t seen the movie in many years.  In fact, my first exposure to it was in a condensed, film-strip form in elementary school.

You remember those—still photos with audio clips from the film, plus additional narration to tie the summarized snippets together.

When I finally saw the full movie a few years later, I realized that I actually didn’t miss much in terms of major plot points, but that a film strip really drains a lot of the magic out of things like Gene Wilder’s performance as the (clearly insane) Willy Wonka.

This is a weird movie, but much of the weirdness stems from elements of Roald Dahl’s book (he also wrote the screenplay, although parts were rewritten when he missed deadlines, causing Dahl to disown the film).  Among the odd elements are: Continue reading

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Untimely Movie Review: Bullitt

Bullitt, the next film in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, is the perfect palate-cleanser after the fantastic but mystifying 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Rather than exploring existential questions of humanity and our place in the universe, Bullitt is quite simply an action-packed cop movie with superb editing, a little grit, and a tighter narrative.  It holds a 97 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which seems a tad high, but not absurdly so.

Bullitt stars Steve McQueen at his McQueen-est, along with Robert Vaughn and, in a small, but star-making turn, Jacqueline Bisset

One point it does share to some extent with 2001 is ambiguity.  While not aspiring to ask metaphysical questions of the sort that Kubrick’s masterpiece poses, Bullitt does leave viewers to ponder what the true motivations of some of the film’s characters were, particularly Robert Vaughn’s Senator Chalmers.

Specifically, the politically craven senator’s seeming indifference to the closing events of the movie causes the viewer to reconsider what Chalmers’ angle was from the outset, and where his loyalties actually lie.

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Untimely Movie Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

For about 25 minutes, there’s not a single line of dialogue in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Yet, Kubrick, using only a phenomenal, classical score (WHOOOO!) and striking, brutal, beautiful, and sometimes alarming visuals produces a remarkably well-told story.

As a whole, 2001 is less a film than it is an experience.  Except for a couple of scenes in the middle of the film that lay out some exposition, the movie is devoid of much dialogue.  Instead, the score and the imagery (even when it’s incomprehensible) wash over the audience to evoke the desired effect.

In fact, the next selection in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection is one of the most visually-striking movie I’ve ever seen.

The story is simple enough for a modern audience to understand (although it would have been more challenging for a 1968 audience that hadn’t grown up with an almost limitless canon of serious, space-based science fiction movies): some higher intelligence has provided humanity with monoliths that serve as evolutionary touchstones.  The purpose is unknown, as are the designers.  But 2001 tracks humanity’s attempt to discover and understand these artifacts, and, in doing so, understand itself.

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Untimely Movie Review: Cool Hand Luke

With my renewed, pandemic-commitment to reviewing the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, I moved on to the next film in the collection, Cool Hand Luke.

Like Doctor Zhivago and numerous other titles in the set, Cool Hand Luke is based on a book I’ve never read.  Unlike most of the other book-based titles, Cool Hand Luke does a much better job of not seeming like a book.

Whereas most book-to-film translations are plagued by seeming at once too much and too little, this movie does not: through a customarily excellent Paul Newman performance, we come to understand who Luke Jackson is via just a handful of subtle but potent scenes.

What’s less subtle is the Christian imagery, which includes not one, but two on-the-nose pseudo-crucifixions.

In short, Luke Jackson is a Christ figure for the inmates of the Florida work camp that is the subject of the film.  He is first met with heavy skepticism, but, through his example, gradually attracts and inspires followers who ultimately remember him and his “works,” even after his death.  The film examines prison life, or at least as it is meant to have existed in early 1950s Florida.

Cool Hand Luke is a rare example of a film that holds a 100 percent positive rating on the movie-review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.  And deservedly so—the movie is quite good.

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Untimely Movie Review: Doctor Zhivago

I thought there could be no better time to resume my on-again, off-again relationship with the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection than during a global pandemic.

In fairness to me, the reason I hit pause after the most recent few entries was that the runtime for the next film, Doctor Zhivago, checked in at a daunting 300 minutes.

Now, with all the time in the world, I turn my attention to the 1965 sweeping epic.

The bulk of Part I is fairly dull, albeit with impressive costumes, sets, and visuals.  The film uses the conventional substitution of an English accent for a foreign tongue.  However, what’s somewhat curious is that this film goes even farther, with characters using quintessential British-isms like “old chap.”  What’s more, the aristocracy uses French terms (e.g. “Monsieur” Komarovsky), and the servants and attendants for the elites have French accents.

Outside of that, and the amazing sets and costumes, it was a fairly typical, big-budget, 1960s melodrama until a few minutes before the intermission.  That’s when the titular Zhivago, now returned to Moscow after World War I, is first introduced to the utter horrors of communism and the Russian Revolution.

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Timely Movie Review: The Rise of Skywalker


“The dead speak!”

The first line of The Rise of Skywalker‘s opening crawl was an immediate red flag.

In Episode IX, the dead don’t just speak.  They give speeches.

Much as I did with The Last Jedi, I made it to The Rise of Skywalker without any significant spoilers.  And, much like Episode VIII, the Rotten Tomatoes score seemed to be telling.

In case you don’t recall, The Last Jedi scored very well with critics, but fans rated it poorly.  The Rise of Skywalker was the reverse—the audience score stands at 84 percent, while critics rate it at just 55, which is about the same as the worst-reviewed live-action Star Wars film of all-time, The Phantom Menace.

In the case of The Last Jedi, I agreed with the audience.  In the case of The Rise of Skywalker, I agree with the critics.

My biggest issue with TLJ was its frustrating story structure, which was particularly puzzling, given that Rian Johnson had also written and directed the excellent Looper.  The enjoyable, recent whodunit Knives Out proved that Johnson’s pre-TLJ work was no fluke.  But, for whatever reason, he just didn’t “click” with Star Wars, at least not as far as the audience (myself included) was concerned.

I can say confidently that Episode IX didn’t suffer from the same flaw.  J.J. Abrams put together a competently structured story, especially considering that the actor playing one of the key characters was, in fact, deceased at the time of filming.

Unfortunately, the movie suffers from numerous other flaws, some small, others more significant.

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