Friday, July 27, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Three Days of the Condor

Note #1: Throughout this retrospective I’ve referenced this interview with Pollack. I couldn’t find a place to reference it in this piece, so I figured I would put it up at the beginning. 

Note #2: Many, many thanks to Odie, whose fresh look at this piece helped trim a lot of the fat. This was one of the first pieces I actually started working on when I decided to do a retrospective on Pollack, and I was dreading the due date because I knew I was nowhere close to finishing it since I found myself adding more and more every week. If I were rich, I would hire an editor for this blog because god knows I often need one. Thanks, Odie!

In 1975, Sydney Pollack released two movies that were polar opposites in tone and style. His first release that year was the Paul Schrader-penned The Yakuza – a violent tale of a begrudging partnership that was new territory for Pollack – and the second release was yet another vehicle with his favorite star (to that point) Robert Redford that tackled a popular theme of the mid-‘70s (paranoia), Three Days of the Condor. The former is something of a cult classic now and thought fondly by those that like the divergence in style and tone Pollack took in directing that film; however, the latter is the more popular (and one of the most popular of Pollack’s oeuvre) and the film that stays with me much more so than the former. Three Days of the Condor is not Pollack’s best film, but it’s one of my favorites  in the way it sets up themes and tropes he would later tackle in films like The Firm (and in the films he acted in like Michael Clayton and Changing Lanes) and for what is probably my favorite performance that Redford gave Pollack.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Summer of Slash: Evilspeak

Like The Bogeyman and Superstition, Evilspeak was another example of the popular tendency around the early ‘80s to mix slasher elements with supernatural horror – thanks in part to the financial success of films like The Exorcist and Carrie as well as the advent of the commercially successful slasher template created by Halloween and taken to new heights by Friday the 13th. This was an interesting time to be a horror fan because you would get odd little hybrid movies like Evilspeak; yeah, it might be a bit of a cheat to feature this film in a series on the slasher film, but as I’ve stated numerous times: if I weren’t able play fast and loose with the format of this series, I’d probably go crazy. So it is with Evilspeak: a film that is mostly a knock-off of Carrie that has some of the clich├ęs made famous by the slasher subgenre.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer of Slash: Communion (AKA Alice, Sweet Alice)

More like a Hitchcock film or the British exploitation film Frightmare, Communion is nothing like what I’m sure those coming to the film late – with the idea in their head about what a slasher movie is supposed to be – think it is. In fact, the best way to describe Alfred Sole’s horror film (which is very good, by the way) is that it’s probably the closest thing America ever got to an honest-to-goodness giallo. The reason it feels more like giallo – which were essentially Italian slasher movies before we knew what slashers were (or, more specifically, before John Carpenter decided that it’s more effective – and more profitable – if teens are in peril instead of grown women) – is due to the tone and the pacing of the film which is very much of its time and perfectly encapsulates ‘70s, pre-Black Christmas/Halloween horror). Communion may not be as influential as Bob Clark’s film or John Carpenter’s film (or, if you want, Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but it’s one of the true hidden gems of 1970’s American horror and arguably (and it’s an argument I would be willing to make) deserves to have a spot at the table of those two giants of the subgenre.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Sydney Pollack: The Yakuza

Before I get started with The Yakuza, I should point out that two things have been very clear in the three films – They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Jeremiah Johnson, and The Way We Were – I’ve covered in this retrospective so far: one is that more than anything else, Sydney Pollack is a director that makes no bones about the fact that he is more interested in the performance of the actor than the art of the director; the second thing is that no matter what kind of story he is telling – be it Depression-era drama about dance marathons or Transcendentalist westerns or political thrillers (more on that next week) – he’ll always make time in his films for human relationships, specifically the relationships between men and women.

I bring this up because in 1975, Pollack released two genre films that seem like departures for the director and the very thing he values most in film; however, if you look closely at both The Yakuza and Three Days of the Condor, you’ll see that even amidst the action and chases and confusing screenplays, there’s always a languid moment here and there – despite what the film is really after – to connect lonely, singular individuals. There’s always a goal to connect the protagonist with something – women/men, nature, vocation – of meaning (so I guess it’s safe to call Pollack an Existential filmmaker of sorts). The reason for this is simple: Pollack claimed once in an interview that the relationship between humans (men and women especially) interests him more than anything else because “it’s a metaphor for everything else in life.” So even The Yakuza, a Sydney Pollack film that doesn’t really feel all that much like a Sydney Pollack film (it’s more of a genre film), there are quiet moments where the characters are allowed to talk and exist, however briefly, in a less chaotic world than the one they normally inhabit. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Summer of Slash: Further Thoughts on Friday the 13th Series

I'm taking the week off from Summer of Slash after too much Jason Voorhees. So, in lieu of my own horror content on the blog this week, I will gladly point you towards the gracious Michael Grover of the blog Filmiliarity who has taken it upon himself to finish the Friday the 13th series with more in-depth reviews. His first entry, A New Beginning, is up and can be found here. Enjoy. The Slash will continue next week.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Summer of Slash: Friday the 13th Wrap-up

Frequent commenter Michael Grover has graciously offered to write up more in-depth reviews at his blog Filmiliarity, so click on that link and check for updates on his blog if you’re interested in more than the pithy way I blitzed through these final six entries in the series.

In my last edition of this series on the Friday films, I mentioned that after The Final Chapter was released in 1984 the series took on a different gimmick with each subsequent film. The series would never be the same; it would never look like what we thought slashers were supposed to look like. After 1984, the slasher genre changed thanks to upstart New Line Cinema and the movie that revived horror maven Wes Craven’s career, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Because of this shift in the subgenre, the likes of Jason just didn’t seem to cut it anymore. Sure, people were still paying money to see these movies (they would always be profitable, even until the horrible tenth installment which just barely made its budget back, a first for a series that usually had no problem making three-to-six times what they put into it), but it seemed that the slasher landscape had changed. Part of this is due to New Line’s popularizing of Freddy Krueger by turning him from a scary boogeyman to a murderous quipster. Obviously Jason Voorhees couldn’t compete with this (nor could Michael Myers, probably the most inert of all slasher series), so the producers decided to try and keep with the times by placing him in wacky situations.

As I think about the subsequent films, only one stands out. The series devolved into an even more frustrating template and malaise than the first three sequels. Whereas the early sequels (2-4) seem somewhat of a piece (interestingly, Part 2 and Part 3 were the only sequels not assigned a subtitle) since they were rooted (or, they were supposed to be, but Part 3 seems to exist in a vacuum) in exploitation, the subsequent films adopt the feel of the more postmodern, detached slasher film of the post-1985 horror era – a slasher that is too self-reflexive and almost mocking the audience paying money to watch it. It was an interesting era for the slasher because so much nothing came from it; the only thing worthwhile being released that even resembled the early slashers were coming out of Italy. It was not the best time to be a horror fan, and I think that people tend to forget just how close the slasher subgenre was to being completely dead by the time Jason took Manhattan and Paramount sold the rights to their most profitable film series to New Line.

Here are my thoughts on the rest of the series (I will not be including the abomination that is Freddy vs. Jason or the 2009 remake of Friday):

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sydney Pollack: The Way We Were

The Way We Were is everything its title song suggests: capital “d” dramatic and capital “r” romantic. In other words, it’s not subtle at all. It’s not even close to my favorite of Pollack’s films (Pollack himself didn’t seem to care all that much for the film, stating that his biggest accomplishment was merely, “getting the thing made”), but there’s something classically deliberate and endearing about the tone of the first half of the film: an hour that knows exactly the kind of film it is and executes the romantic melodrama perfectly. It’s in the second half of the film that story becomes problematic as Pollack and his screenwriter Arthur Laurents try to cram too many topical, political subplots into the film. The effect is a film that starts off earnest in its romantic schmaltziness but devolves into a film totally unable to shift tones.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Summer of Slash: Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

1984 was probably the year most agree that the slasher died. It had an amazingly productive and successful (financially more than artistically) run for studios as they pumped out slasher after slasher with little to no budget. Despite these miniscule budgets, the films still made a good amount of money for the studios. As we’ve talked about already, Friday the 13th was the first film to really kick of the idea of the must-have sequel, and what followed was a torrent of films that adhered to the tested and true template laid out by the original Friday and its sequels (most specifically Part 2). Feeling that the subgenre was nearing its end, the producers of the Friday films felt they needed one last hook to bring in the waning audiences: in Part 3 it was the tired, old 3-D gimmick, and for the fourth entry in the series, the producers decided to name it The Final Chapter. Yep, they were going to kill Jason. That was their promise. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter isn’t as gimmicky as the Friday films that follow, but it’s the most apathetic of the first four films; a film so blatantly and lazily adhering to a template without a care for its characters or its audience. The filmmakers present the Meat, they present Jason, and then there’s a whole lot of killing, and then there is the most goddamn annoying ending that would be repeated ad nausea in subsequent Friday films.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Summer of Slash: Friday the 13th, Part 3

By 1983, “the template” – that which the original Friday the 13th helped create and, more importantly, make profitable – had pretty much been sucked dry. We knew the score: psycho killer seeks revenge, group of sex-hungry teens meets somewhere remote for the weekend, and psycho killer finds group of sex-hungry teens and quickly dispatches of them in ways that in 1983 were beginning to feel rather ordinary. And that’s the thing with the third entry in the Friday series: it (being the producers) knows that simply offering up another tale of teenagers being slashed might not be enough (even though they would continue, familiarity be damned, for TEN more movies), so how do they try to make this already old chestnut seem like a fresh and new entry? 3-D, of course! In what has to be one of the most laughable of all 3-D films to be released during that weird era in the ‘80s, Friday the 13th, Part 3 (no I will not say Part 3-D, I have standards here) is one of the more laughably bad of the lot (and this is a lot that contains Jaws 3 and Freddy’s Dead). Friday the 13th, Part 3 is bad, bad, bad; however, it’s cheesy and harmless enough that if you watch the film with a group of friends, you can get yourself through it. But make no mistake, aside from Part 5 and maybe Part 8, Part 3 is arguably the worst of the series.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sydney Pollack: Jeremiah Johnson

“I was never what I would call a great shooter or visual stylist.”

That quote is from Sydney Pollack, referenced in Roger Ebert’s obituary for the director, and it’s an apt description of the director's style that he would more or less stick to throughout his career. We’re a ways from the end-point in this retrospective, and I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself; however, I couldn’t help but think of that quote as I watched Jeremiah Johnson, a film that so badly wants to be an epic western. The film is good, even great in certain moments, but it’s a little too strained in its approach to be an epic (the movie is not even two hours and it contains overture and an intermission complete with “entr’acte” title card) in the same vein as other anti-establishment, Vietnam era westerns like Little Big Man and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Each film is different in tone, sure, but they all share something similar in that modern society does not allow for man to peacefully enter into nature and try and not only understand it but become one with it – to get away from all of the violence and self-imposition; society is always seeping in to corrupt and impose its own will. Those are the moments that are brilliantly effective and play to Pollack’s strengths as a director. When Pollack isn’t meandering from one scenic view to another (struggling to make the film visually poetic), Jeremiah Johnson is a beautiful, introspective western akin to something felt while reading Thoreau (there’s even a line where the character says, “the Rockies are the marrow of the world,” echoing the famous line from Walden). It is in those small, and often quiet, moments that Jeremiah Johnson works. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Summer of Slash: Friday the 13th, Part 2

A few things right out of the gate: Friday the 13th, Part 2 is not only better than any other films in the series – including the much beloved but horribly dull original – but it’s one of the best slashers to come during the subgenre's peak period (1981-1984); the reason for that is because Steve Miner is a better director than Sean Cunningham, the villain is a lot more effective (duh, we’re introduced to Jason), and the film contains one of the very best Final Girl sequence I’ve seen in any slasher film. The film is not without its faults (what slasher film doesn’t have faults?), but I will gladly look over those faults and sing the praises of Part 2 because it is, in almost every conceivable way (with the exception of the missing Tom Savini), better than the first film.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Summer of Slash: Friday the 13th (1980)

Since we have a Friday the 13th coming up next week, I thought I would, gulp, look at the series for the Summer of Slash series. Here we go...

I don’t really want to be that guy, so let me just get this out of the way: Friday the 13th took everything from other, better, movies. Setting, kills, style, everything. It’s only as famous as it is because it was the first American film to make a shit-ton of money using such a low-budget, exploitation-y premise; it’s not famous because it’s a good horror movie. There. This way I don’t have to spend tons of time invoking Bava’s Bay of Blood or other films of its ilk that American audiences didn’t know about yet, but that Friday the 13th cribbed from. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s talk about these Friday movies, shall we. I’ve spent a lot of time this year and last talking about all of the films that were influenced by Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (primarily by the fact that thanks to all the money Friday made, more and more studios were willing to bankroll what would become known as the slasher film), but I haven’t taken the time to actually cover the film. Friday the 13th is probably the only film of its kind; meaning, it’s probably the only film ever to be this influential and spawn better movies of its ilk. Oh, don’t get me wrong, during the glut of slasher films (1981 – 1984) there were some doozies – some of the worst films ever made no matter the subgenre – but the good ones really showed what the subgenre was capable of stylistically and allowed for filmmakers to be creative with a subgenre of film where, all of a sudden (thanks to Cunningham’s film), all bets were off.