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Watch This! #5: Desperation – The World’s Worst Cologne

August 23, 2010

What happens to people when they have nothing left to lose? That’s the theme of this week’s installment of Watch This! You’ll need a box of tissue and moral ambiguity handy.

Dead Presidents (1995)
Cast: Larenz Tate, Keith David, Chris Tucker, N’Bushe Wright, Bokeem Woodbine, Freddy Rodriguez, James Pickens Jr.
Director: The Hughes Brothers

Dead Presidents should have had a larger impact both commercially and critically. It was the much anticipated sophomore effort by the sublimely talented Hughes Brothers and boasted a cast of strong upstarts and seasoned vets. Unfortunately, positioning the film as a “heist thriller” was a terrible mistake. While the film does contain a heist, – like Set it Off – this is a film about marginalized folks whose options are limited and whose hopes are obliterated. There’s a compelling story in the first two acts of the film – young black male does everything he’s told to do, goes to war (Vietnam) and comes home to few options. This alone demands nuanced exploration. Yet, the heist takes center stage and overshadows the very raw, devastating story of dreams deferred and opportunities erased. Beautiful performances by Larenz Tate and Chris Tucker. And let’s not forget the phenomenal soundtrack filled with 70s R&B gems of the – No my brother, you’ve got to buy your own variety. It’s unfair to judge the film by its ambitious yet ultimately unsuccessful (from a cinematic standpoint) third act. This is film about the complex and conflicting passions of marginalized folks in a way that’s rarely depicted on screen. It is beautifully rendered with heartbreaking poignancy.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969)
Cast: Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Gig Young, Red Buttons, Bonnie Bedelia, Bruce Dern
Director: Sydney Pollack

The late great Sydney Pollack is underrated in my book. This isn’t to say that he’s not well known or even appreciated. He is to a certain degree, based largely on his wonderful persona, rather than his expertise at making utterly unwatchable fare, completely riveting. Critics might have been correct to tear apart his remake of Sabrina, though I challenge ANYONE to sit down on a Saturday afternoon and not find themselves entertained with its fine performances and serviceable update of the story. That’s what Pollack does. He made the “okay” much, much better than it should be. (see also: The Firm, The Way We Were, The Electric Horseman). He was also very gracious and not a braggart, which is probably why many don’t realize how incredible his talents were. I’m talking Absence of Malice, Jeremiah Johnson, Toostie and, of course, Three Days of the Condor. I am not ashamed to say, for consistently satisfying grown up movies my three Sids (Lumet, Pollack and Poitier) are the go-to directors (with the latter two, of course being brilliant actors as well). Of his own strengths, Pollack stated (quite humbly, I might add):

“I am not a visual innovator,” Pollack told me shortly before the release of his “Out of Africa,” (1985), which won seven Oscars, including best picture and best director, and was nominated for four more. “I haven’t broken any new ground in the form of a film. My strength is with actors. I think I’m good at working with them to get the best performances, at seeing what it is that they have and that the story needs.”

(via Roger Ebert)

I’ve stated before, this is a man who can draw out the BEST out of ANY actor. Again, The Firm the best example. When we lost Pollack we lost the ultimate actor’s director. While not being a visual innovator – though I respectfully disagree with Mr. Pollack, I love how he uses light, shadows and muted color palettes, particularly in the otherwise forgettable Random Hearts and the gorgeous The Yakuza – Pollack was the master at cinematic elegance and creating timeless films that transcend the era in which they were created.

Like Lumet, Pollack can draw refreshing and interesting performances from his actors and Absence of Malice [Paul Newman’s performance] is a spectacular example of this. Pollack is also great at getting the more – how do you say, um – wooden of our acting populace to be a bit more complex. I count three different facial expressions on Harrison Ford in Sabrina and two of them are in the same FUCKING SCENE!!!

This is really a lot of chow chow, but it’s important, because They Shoot Horses, Don’t They is one helluva film. Released in 1969, this thing is chillingly relevant today, as it must have been over thirty years ago. Fonda and Serrazin are really freaking good in this depression era story of a dance marathon. I won’t say more that that, because to do so is to spoil the viewing experience (that’s the point of this series; to steer you toward films, not to review them for you). They Shoot Horses, Don’t They needs to be seen. It’s a film that effective explores the human tendency to revel in the exploitation of the desperate and then serve up that exploitation as entertainment.

The Clearing (2004)
Cast: Robert Redford, Willem Dafoe, Helen Mirren, Matt Craven, Alessandro Nivola, Melissa Sagemiller
Director: Pieter Jan Brugge

The Clearing is a wonderful gem of a film I found during, “My Summer of Bob and Paul”, where I watched pretty much the entire film roster of Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Having never heard of this film, I entered it with limited expectations and was rewarded with a stunning piece of character drama, complete with the Mirren in a subtle Oscar worthy performance. The kind of restrained, suburban wife character usually associated with Julianne Moore. Mirren holds the viewer’s attention as the devoted, but not passive wife of a wealthy executive, played with surprising vulnerability by Robert Redford. Defoe is his usual simmering disturbing self. One is easily reminded of any number of Gary Oldman’s performances, though Defoe lacks Oldman’s ability to evoke the audience’s sympathy while playing these disturbing characters. Again, this is a movie positioned as something it isn’t – a paint-by-numbers kidnapping thriller – rather than what it truly is – a portrait of a marriage and exploration of the interior lives and external duplicities of these married people. Roger Ebert said, “A movie that begins with a pleasant morning in an ordinary marriage is never about mornings or marriages.” The Clearing is about choices, regrets, longing and intimacy. It’s a quiet film filled with desperate characters whose paths cross and who become uncomfortable mirrors for each other.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. Kia permalink
    August 23, 2010 9:55 am

    I’ve been meaning to catch The Clearing, thanks for the reminder.

    Despite its numerous flaws, Nancy Marchand’s scene chewing and fantastic wardrobe in Sabrina make it a favorite of mine.

    As for The Hughes Brothers, they are very hit or miss for me.I hated From Hell but might give Book of Eli a chance based on Oldman love alone.

  2. August 23, 2010 10:35 am

    The Clearing has now been added to my list of must-views.

    Kia: I wasn’t a fan of From Hell, either (which people don’t believe, based on my love for Johnny Depp and a fascination with Jack The Ripper…but it’s a crap movie that not even those things can save). I enjoyed The Book of Eli, and thought that it had an interesting premise and the post-movie conversations about “what does it all meeeeaaaan?” were good. And Gary Oldman was just…delightful.

  3. hsofia permalink
    August 23, 2010 11:55 am

    Dead Presidents is one of those movies that I can’t bear myself to watch the last third of because it causes too much heart-ache. The dread is real strong. I agree with you on everything you said about it. It’s also a crime that N’Bushe Wright is not more famous. I mean, it’s not as criminal as Debbie Morgan not being a big screen star, but it’s still a real WTF scenario in my eyes.

    The Clearing is pretty good but I didn’t find it memorable. It felt a bit paint by numbers, although I did appreciate the “mature” age of the cast.

  4. Alyx Vesey permalink
    August 23, 2010 9:15 pm

    I recently saw Dead Presidents after much anticipation and it broke my heart (especially the final third — seconded, hsofia). I definitely agree that it needed a much bigger commercial push than it received. Frankly, I don’t think Hollywood could handle so nihilistic an ending as the one in Dead Presidents. Breathtaking employment of Isaac Hayes’s masterful “Walk On By” as well.

  5. August 24, 2010 6:24 am

    The Clearing is pretty good but I didn’t find it memorable. It felt a bit paint by numbers, although I did appreciate the “mature” age of the cast.

    It’s probably the least paint by numbers mostly because of the ending. Nobody does that. people won’t go to a theater for that, which is why it’s a movie that opened and closed in a minute.

    Think Ransom vs. The Clearing. The former is an example of a paint-by-numbers kidnapping thriller, not the latter.

  6. hsofia permalink
    August 24, 2010 10:43 am

    Ransom was typical fare, but The Clearing just didn’t stick with me (despite liking all the performances). I had to look it up to verify that I’d seen it. It’s true the ending bucks the trend in Hollywood kidnapping movies, but it didn’t feel much different than a lot of other sad family dramas.

  7. evmaroon permalink
    August 24, 2010 11:53 am

    I will go rent They Shoot Horses, Don’t They right now. How did I miss ever watching this, anyway? Thank you, Snarky!

  8. August 24, 2010 1:48 pm

    That’s true, @hsofia. I was expecting Ransom, which was decent on its own terms and even a little edgy for Opie Cunningham, but still kind of formulaic in an uninspired way.

    @Everett – it’s a great film, but it’s definitely a film you want to screen on an otherwise great day because it’s really depressing.

  9. August 27, 2010 2:24 pm

    The Dead Presidents soundtrack is such an overlooked gem! It was on heavy rotation in the kitchen CD player for several years.

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