Tag Archives: Classics

The Great Escape (1963)

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For top-notch wartime action and intrigue, look no further. Even if the ending is a bit of a bummer.

250 men, one elaborate plan; to get the hell out of dodge. The Great Escape is set in a P.O.W. camp in 1943, where hundreds of American and English soldiers are being held indefinitely in the clutch of the  Luftwaffe, a organization originating from Nazi Germany. The men are restless; they are surviving under passable conditions, with livable (if meager) accommodations, but they want to see their families, their wives, their children. moreover, they want to raise some Hell and their refusal to live the servile existence of cattle costs them dearly in the long run.

When a RAF Squadron Leader by the name of Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) with a staggering number of escape attempts under his belt arrives in Stalag Luft III, the P.O.W. camp to end all P.O.W. Camps (guaranteed to contain even the most uncontainable prisoners,) he and stoic resident troublemaker Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) set about quick to forming an escape plan. They and a mass percentage of the prisoners begin to dig a massive hole that will hopefully bring them into the forest outside the camp, and then, hopefully, to freedom. But escape turns out to be harder than they had anticipated. And then there’s that one guy Danny (Charles Bronson) who’s Kryptonite is enclosed spaces; a really inconvenient affliction for a man who’s going to crawl through a long, impossibly tight tunnel to escape captivity to have. On the up side, he’s got his right-hand man and inseparable bosom friend Willie (John Leyton) (though they appear to be more than friends, if you ask me, but that’s just me picking up on subtext *wink*) to help out.

   The Great Escape is almost three hours but it’s still worth watching, just pick a time to view it when you don’t have any other engagements for a good while. What makes it such a good movie is partly that they find important jobs to do even for people who seem initially useless. Take Colin Blythe (Donald Pleasence) a adorably British birdwatcher and tea drinker whose vision is quickly failing. Turns out mild-mannered Blythe is a pretty good forger and when his sight completely fails, leaving him blind and helpless in a wartime situation, his good friend Hendley (James Garner) takes up the reigns for him and helps smuggle him out of the camp. But even as Hendley leads the virtually sightless Blythe around German towns and landscapes, Blythe is not a burden, because no one would have gotten past square one without his clever forgeries. Everyone, even the men with challenges or who seemingly have nothing going for them, become an asset to the collective.

The movie also has an excellent ensemble cast and seems relatively short at about two hours forty minutes. It’s not as good as Pulp Fiction in that regard (… Fiction being the only movie over two hours I can sit and watch again and again and that will seemingly be over in no time at all). In a world where some eighty minute movies feel like they’re going on for interminable hours, The Great Escape just zips by due to it’s great writing and compelling plot. There is also some actual thought put into the characters (a rarity in adventure films) and they come off as distinct and fresh. The Nazi characters aren’t cartoon villains; there was even one (Robert Graf) who I felt quite sorry for at times (!)

The majority of them are doing their best with the roles given to them in a long, bloody war, they just happen to be fighting for the wrong side. There’s a moment when Graf’s character, Werner, says regretfully that he was taken out of the boy scouts, which he thoroughly enjoyed, to join the Hitler Youth and you are reminded that not every person fighting on one side of a war is a crazy extremist. Think the Confederates in the Civil War were a bunch of slave-owning racists and the union soldiers were saints? Think again! It’s emotionally dishonest to claim any one ‘side’ in a war is the devil incarnate. The Great Escape respects that in that for every evil Nazi in this movie there is another dude who wants to go home almost as much as the P.O.W.’s do.

Although The Great Escape is an old movie, it hasn’t aged a bit since it’s release in 1963. Some films start feeling old or irrelevant in their handling of themes (Hitchcock’s films are a great example, for me anyway) but The Great Escape kept people on the edge of their seat then and it will still keep people on the edge of their seat now wondering how these guys will turn out. There’s that harrowing iconic scene with Steve McQueen riding a motorcycle over a barbed wire fence and lots of suspenseful moments (like Pleasence and Garner attempting to escape from the soldiers by airplane.)

The only reason I can think of that people really wouldn’t like this movie is that society has very short attention span nowadays. It’s quite a long movie. Don’t watch it if your in a rush to just pop the DVD in, see the movie, and then pull it out in ninety minutes flat. It’s got a big, multi layered story with a ton of characters (I couldn’t even identify some of the main characters by the end of the movie,) it’s meant to be absorbed, taken seriously. Apparently this is based on a true story; I can’t think of a better way to honor the men who participated in this elaborate escape than the making of this movie. And considering all the biopics that exploit their subject matter, that is saying something.

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The Changeling (1980)

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Old houses are evil. But if I owned a mansion as nice as the one George C. Scott has in this movie, I’d take a chance on the vengeful child spirit. Scott plays John Russell, an unflappable musical composer coping with the unexpected death of his daughter (Michelle Martin) and wife (Jean Marsh.) Russell moves into a gorgeous old house intent on doing some work on his music and attempting to move on from his loss, but before you can say “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts” strange and eerie things start happening in the mansion. Largely unperturbed, and aided by lady friend and love interest Claire Norman (Scott’s real-life wife, Trish Van Devere,) John decides to investigate.

I won’t go into who haunts the house or why, because it would cheat you out of the experience of seeing the movie and finding out for yourself, but I will say The Changeling is an eerie (a bit too dated to be truly frightening) horror classic with a great deal of mystery. The best part was when John Russell finds a secret passage behind a wooden shelf in his closet that leads to a hidden room. That meant a great deal to me, because when I was a youngster I used to spend vast expanses of time searching for hidden panels and doors in my a hundred-year-old but strangely unexceptional home (I might have also been looking for a wormhole to Narnia, but let’s not focus on my childhood obsessions.)

The characters were a bit underdeveloped (John being weirdly nonreactive to the supernatural mayhem around him while Claire plays the role of the typical classic heroine, shrieking and fretting constantly until you want to tell her if she can’t deal with a little ghostly hi jinks, she needn’t get involved at all.) John’s motivations actually make a lot of sense; as a recently bereaved husband and father a suggestion of life after death should be a relief to him. He’s already experienced so much grief, more than he lets on, why should the spooky antics of a spirit not at rest break him? However, although George C. Scott does an amazing job balancing stoicism and unfathomable grief, his character left me a little cold. And I had no use for Van Devere’s shrieking woman in peril, who falls in little flat from the perspective of someone who has seen so many bad-ass women portrayed in movies, or at least women with something to do in the script except wail and tremble in abject terror.

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That said, I really do like The Changeling. It’s a classical ghost story with a lot of atmosphere; no gore or lurid shocks to be seen. If you like movies like The Others with Nicole Kidman (one of my favorites, and superior in many ways to the much-hyped The Sixth Sense,) you’ll like this.  I love that The Others in all likelihood borrowed the character idea of a elderly caretaker named Mr. Tuttle, a homage that none but the most perceptive horror fans will probably  catch. Although I feel sorry in a way for the wronged spirit, just a boy at the time of his death, I thought he acted a little harshly in punishing the senator (Melvyn Douglas,) indirectly related to his murder but still the only remaining opportunity to get revenge on a living person.

I really felt for Melvyn Douglas’ character, who discovers something no one should have to learn about their much-loved father. While Douglas is the ‘changeling’ of the title, he’s not as much a perpetrator as a fellow unfortunate who was nevertheless lucky enough to live to a ripe old age and achieve success, while the spirit languished and limbo and allowed his hate to grow.

  The Changeling isn’t really a horror movie of a keep-you-up-all-night variety, it’s low-key and dated and in  all actuality not terribly scary. On the other hand, if you like murder mysteries that will keep you guessing and that incorporate a creepy supernatural element, this movie is for you. It takes a somewhat old soul or fan of older horror to appreciate this; it isn’t for those that crave instant gratification or get impatient easily. It’s a mood piece, graced by the formidable presence of George C. Scott. But it will survive when the majority of modern fright flicks are forgotten in junkyards somewhere.

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Au revoir les enfants (1987)

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A single look can change everything.

Louis Malle’s heartbreaking autobiographical film is set in 1944 at Catholic school in Nazi-occupied France, and chronicles a naive preteen’s wrenching coming-of-age. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse,) a well-to-do adolescent mama’s boy, thinks he knows everything there is to know about the real world, but things are about to get a whole lot realer, and life a lot more harrowing, during a seemingly uneventful stint in boarding school.

A pixyish, somewhat androgynous child already contending with impending puberty, a harrowing experience in it’s own right, Julien is first seen bawling out his doting mother (Francine Racette) at the train station, where she prepares to send him on the train to school. “I don’t give a damn about dad, and I hate you,” he sniffles, caught in the throes of typical adolescent self-absorption and angst.

But Julien finds unexpected pleasure and enjoyment at the academy, where he roughhouses and plays with the other boys in his age group, sells black market jam to the crippled kitchen hand and school outcast Joseph (François Négret,) and strikes up a tentative friendship with a low-key, musically gifted boy named Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö.)

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The nosy Julien does some prying and discovers that his new friend is actually a Jew, named Jean Kippelstein, and smuggled into the school by the altruistic and rebellious Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud.) A hell of a priest and a hell of a good guy, Father Jean quietly defies the Nazi Occupation and does what he thinks is right regardless of what society expects of him.

You might think that 20th-century upper-class French kids are somehow less rambunctious than the modern American preteen, but this movie will inform you otherwise. The boys in this movie, are rowdy, wild, combative, and often rude and mean. They just don’t have an Xbox to lull them into complacency. Most of them are more or less completely unaware that their country is in discord, preferring to roughhouse, haze the new guy, and read each other the dirtiest book they know (The Arabian Nights, the veritable Fifty Shades of Grey of their time.)

Filmmaker Louis Malle chooses wisely not to make the boy characters too worldly or introspective, instead deciding to stick to a more realistic approach to adolescence. And the movie is not without it’s humor- when Jean and Julien wander off during a treasure hunt and get lost in the woods, they run into a scared wild boar and are charitably wrapped in a blanket in the back of a German military vehicle and returned to school.

When they return home to their peers, however, Julien elevates the story to legendary heights- now there was not one, but one hundred mad boars and the soldiers shot at them as they ran through the woods. Why, they barely escaped with their lives. This provides some comic relief, but it also has a lot of truth to it- stories all seem to get bigger in the minds of young boys.

Au revoir les enfants is tender, true-to-life, and achingly sad. The children behave as children will, ignorant of the impending storm, and the adults talk worriedly among themselves. The matter of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a series of decisions and choices, and morality doesn’t always triumph over doing the cowardly and ultimately shitty thing.

There is at least one main character who does a terrible thing (not Julien, whose ultimate act is comprised of folly. not malice) This person screws the others over and is presumably rewarded for it. The movie teaches a sad but true lesson- Happily ever After can occur for the most undeserving people. The righteous man is not always the one who gets a good outcome. And doing the right thing should be because it’s the moral thing to do, not because you’ll be rewarded for it.

The child actors do an admirable job in a foreign film that almost everyone with a taste for a rich narrative should find accessible. At the end of the movie, Julien says he’ll remember that last morning in January til the day he dies. You should remember this movie as such;  not because it is traumatic, but because it is moving and beautiful, without a hint of bitterness for a carefree childhood torn asunder by life’s cruel ironies.

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The Wild Child (1970)

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During a short period in my late teen years, I had a offbeat interest in feral children and the behavior of kids forced to sink or swim in scenarios of extreme neglect. A strange obsession for a much loved, protected, and comfortably middle class white kid, but I’ve always been fascinated by abnormal psychology; how the mind works, or doesn’t work, depending on the situation. So I had had Francois Truffaut’s “The Wild Child” for several years, bought during the peak of my feral child phase, when I impulsively picked it up and popped it into my DVD player.

I don’t know much about Truffaut, having only seen The 400 Blows years ago, and I always get him mixed up with Au Revoir Les Enfants and Murmur of the Heart director Louis Malle. I was bored for the first few minutes of The Wild Child, but I quickly got into it’s modest but psychologically intriguing narrative. The Wild Child is not a sentimental film (certainly less so than The Miracle Worker, which it mirrors in many respects.) In some ways it has a clinical feel, but at the same time is empathetic to the characters and their motivations.

In the 18th Century, dedicated scientist Jean Itard (writer/director Francois Truffaut) takes on his hardest challenge yet: a dirty, wild, malnourished boy (Jean-Pierre Cargol) found in the woods of rural France. The boy, eventually named Victor, is taken to the School for the Deaf and Dumb where he is eyed and prodded by curious onlookers, actually becoming a spectacle for visiting Parisians.  Finally, when the people at the school tire of their dancing monkey and contemplate dropping the boy off at a institution for the incurably retarded, Itard takes charge and brings Victor to his home on the outskirts of Paris.

There Itard and his housekeeper, Madame Guerin (Francoise Seigner) set out to train the child to be a proper human being. But Itard becomes increasingly obsessed with indoctrinating Victor into civilization, taking his failures incredibly hard and busying himself with instructing his young charge with rewards, punishment, and earnest attempts to give  the kid a normal life. However determined Itard is, he still fails at the most rudimentary aspect of the boy’s education- treating him like a human child and not a science experiment. He becomes increasingly frustrated at his inability to teach Victor language, and considers surrendering him to a potentially dreadful institution.

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  The Wild Child is based on the true story of the ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron,’ and from what I understand it is fairly faithful to the facts. What the scientists, the townspeople, even Itard fail to realize is that Victor’s behavior isn’t that of a incurable crazy or an imbecile. The way Victor acts, emotes, and relates to people is quite normal for someone of his unusual upbringing. He doesn’t like wearing clothes; he never had to wear them in the wild. He doesn’t understand stairs. He abhors the idea of eating with a fork. Are these the traits of a moron? Of course not, he’s never had to do things differently. In truth, Victor’s ability to survive in the wild and hunt and gather from a very young age requires much more ingenuity than being a proper 18th Century Dandy, but the ‘normal’ upstanding citizens don’t see it that way. They just think he’s defective and stupid.

The boy who played Victor was an adolescent gypsy boy and nonprofessional actor; in truth, he often doesn’t appear to be acting. The child on which this movie is based is speculated to have been Autistic, it would explain why his parents rejected him  at a young age and tried to kill him (as evidenced by the scar on his throat) before driving him into the woods. Whether or not Victor has an Autism Spectrum Disorder or has just been deprived of a normal childhood and developmental milestones, Jean-Pierre Cargol displays one of the most natural, unshowy portrayals of severe Autistic-like behavior I’ve ever seen. It’s impossible not to sympathize with Victor watching this movie; it’s the obsessed, chilly Itard that comes off as weirdly alien. However, Itard’s sometimes harsh methods of behavioral modification is preferable to the alternative of being shackled up in a mental ward. It is Guerin who approaches Victor’s challenges with  the unconditional love of a mother. She is a catalyst to the unfeeling, judgmental Frenchmen who treat Victor like an animal and an outcast.

There aren’t a lot of close-ups or expressions of sentiment in The Wild Child, but it’s a great film for people with any interest in psychology whatsoever. Despite the lack of earth-shaking events, there’s a lot going on under the surface, in contrast to loud, big-budget movies that are ultimately hollow.  The main conflict involves Itard struggling to discover if Victor has a innate understanding of empathy and fairness, or if he only reacts as such because he’s been conditioned to. Whether what he finds out ultimately satisfies him is anyone’s guess. The Wild Child is a slow-moving film but those interested in sociology and the inner workings of the human mind should find a treasure trove of intriguing thoughts and ideas.

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The Princess Bride (1987)

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Rob Reiner’s perennial classic, based on William Golding’s novel of the same name, has the power to make you believe in true love. And perfect movies. Is it cheesy? Hell yeah. The backdrops look like sets in a stage play, the special effects are ludicrous by today’s jaded standards, and the female lead, in classic fairy tale fashion, is suitably helpless and pathetic. It’s corny, and could by considered dated compared to recent blockbusters, but it’s also terrific. Because this fairy tale classic has all the great storytelling and timeless quotability of ten average box-office smashes.

“The Princess Bride” ought to be a part of everyone’s childhood. If you didn’t watch it at least once as a child or tween, I find your youth to be a little… lacking. I mean no offense, there’s certainly a lot more to having a great childhood than watching one movie, but there you go.

In a nondescript American home, the preteen and otherwise-unnamed Grandson (Fred Savage) is sick with the fever when his Grandfather (Peter Fonda) comes over with a special present for him. The kid is thrilled until he discovers the contents of the gift- a old book passed from generation to generation, ‘The Princess Bride.’ In meta fashion, this story-within-a-story follows Buttercup (Robin Wright,) a spoiled princess who soon discovers her condescension toward handsome  stable boy Wesley (Cary Elwes) turn to love. When she realizes their mutual devotion for each other, she yearns to spend her life with him, but circumstance forces them apart when Wesley seeks his fortune at sea and is kidnapped by the infamous Dread Pirate Roberts.

Buttercup presumes Wesley to be dead and swears never to love again, but is forced into a sham marriage with the arrogant and heartless Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon.) Shortly before they are to be wed, Buttercup is abducted by a gentle giant with a gift for wordplay (Andre the Giant), an alcoholic sword-fighting Spaniard (Mandy Patinkin,) and their squat, corpulent Sicilian boss (Wallace Shawn.) Upon learning that the swordsman and the giant are not as bad as they seem, it becomes a matter of getting the Sicilian out of the picture, and Buttercup is taken on the adventure of a lifetime which just might spell out a reunion between her and the long-disappeared Wesley.

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Meanwhile, we get a preteen boy’s feedback on the more romantic aspects of the story (kissing? eeeww!) and within the context of the fantasy tale we get the bigger context of the film- a grandfather’s love for his grandson, the kindling of a livelong love for stories and reading, and a fostering of the simpler, more old-fashioned things in life. In today’s society this is especially relevant- we need to slow the fuck down occasionally and experience the pleasures of a book, a favorite song, or a beloved old film. Nowadays the world is available at the click of a button; with vines, Youtube, selfies, Facebook, and Instagram, we are developing shorter and shorter attention spans. The internet is a gift, but is it also a curse,  and it is making ADD patients of all of us.

he Grandfather takes the kid, for a while at least, outside the world of instant gratification and into the world of Nostalgia and genuine feeling. Oh, and “The Princess Bride” has so many wonderful quotes. If this were a book (which it is, I just haven’t read it) I would be leaning over that sucker with a pen and highlighter. There’s so many memorable lines to share and quote at will; I would be working on this review all night if I decided to share them all. As I said, it’s an old-fashioned movie. There’s no in-jokes, fart gags, car chases, explosions, or CGI. But is not dated: There is a marked difference. To say something is dated is to imply it has less value then it did twenty-something years ago.

The actors are simply wonderful- talented Thespians at the height of their craft. If I could change one thing about this movie I would make Buttercup a little ballsier- she’s quite a wet sandwich and don’t even get me started with the scene where she fights the Rodent of Unusual Size that’s goring Wesley (that’s it, princess! Poke it to death!) Even if you’re sold on the supposed timidity of women as opposed to their masculine counterparts, let’s face it- a real woman (one who loved her beau) would have gone for the skull on that sucker.

If you’ve missed out on “The Princess Bride,” it is imperative that you watch it at least once before you die. It’s one of those classics that’s a must watch whether you’re young or old, and it won’t affect your enjoyment of the film whether you’re ten or a hundred, just out of the cradle or with one proverbial foot already in the grave. And if you like this movie, I recommend Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of the Neil Gaiman novel, “Stardust.” Ebert said it didn’t measure up to “The Princess Bride.” He’s wrong. They’re both wonderful, wonderful films, and I think every child deserves to have them as part of their childhood.

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The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

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Sheila Burnford’s animal saga is a nice little story that somehow doesn’t manage to achieve greatness at any point through it’s duration. Mind you. every child should read this charming novel once in their lives, and for the most part it has managed not to age since it’s first publication in the sixties; it’s a sweetly rendered love letter to house pets and the great Canadian wilderness as well as a suitable read aloud.

Still, The Incredible Journey’ fails to be truly riveting, and I’m trying to put my finger on the reason I feel this way. The story follows an irresistible bull terrier protagonist, Bodger, and his two animal friends (a Labrador and a Siamese cat) as they brave a arduous trek across Canadian soil to find their beloved masters. There are many challenges along the way, of course, presented in episodic fashion, and Carl Burger provides lovely illustrations portraying the animals’ daunting journey.

Two film adaptations came out after the books release, a 1963 version, the more realistic one by far. and a tame Walt Disney remake in 1993, a bastardization in many ways while still remaining a relatively charming family film. People who watch the 1993 film might get a confused notion about what the book itself is about. While “Homeward Bound” (as the remake is called) applies celebrity voice actors to the animal characters, there is barely any dialogue at all in the book. The animals certainly don’t talk.

Instead of giving the animals human voices, the novel concentrates one portraying the canines and their feline companion with their animal behavior intact while still making them likable and endearing. This book is a little darker and much more serious than “Homeward Bound,” and sometimes comes off as a little frosty and distant without the voices of the animals we 90’s kids have come to expect from childrens’ entertainment.

While the book is much more mature and artistically sound, there are times when one gets a chilly vibe from the brief volume, where individual events and supporting characters aren’t focused on for more than a few pages. The main thing that supplies this book with life is the exquisite charcoal drawings, cozy and warm additions to the text.

The real strength of ‘The Incredible Journey’ is Burnford’s obvious skill writing prose as well as her ability to make the animal characters sympathetic without having them say a single word. The old bull terrier, Bodger, will win your heart with his undying loyalty and steadfast sweetness as well as his adorable love of children and particularly the unlikely bond he shares with his feline friend, Tao.

Something about this book- maybe the slim size- makes it feel a bit unsubstantial, like a sweet that you savor before it all too quickly disappears down your throat and into your stomach, leaving you hungry for more. However, it’s a book that kids and adults should like just fine and it endearing, if like the metaphorical sweetie, not quite filling.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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If you are among the multitude of viewers who have seen Milo Forman’s 1975 film adaptation of this novel, you probably know how this story of a fun-loving rebel who bucks the system and butts heads with the tyrannical Nurse Ratched plays out. Upon reading the Ken Kesey novel, however, one comes upon deeper dimensions within the original source material; namely, the added perspective of Chief Bromden, the physically imposing, profoundly introspective, and perpetually silent American Indian.

For those who haven’t read this book or seen the movie, an overview- Bromden is a Schizophrenic inmate in a section of a mental institution lorded over by power junkie Nurse Ratched, who rules with an iron fist. Ratched controls the ward with quiet fear-mongering, politely menacing intimidation, and calm, calculated mind games. Her rule is much like that of a totalitarian state, a metaphor the novel seems all too aware of- everything is for the wretched men’s own good, of course and initially reasonable-sounding requests wheedle and nettle at the patient’s sanity while Ratched invariably comes out on top.

Hulking half-Indian Bromden knows all about Ratched’s power plays; he’s been there longer than almost anyone. He’s seen patients come and go, have their brains fried to a crisp during extended bouts of electroshock therapy or be rendered obsolete vegetables through sadistic and unnecessary lobotomies. But Bromden, who has been playing the role of a deaf-mute for years, and thus learning the darkest secrets of the clueless patients and staff, who are none the wiser, never counted on Randle P. McMurphy.

McMurphy, an amusing ne’er-do-well, a redheaded rapscallion who takes the ward by storm, is exactly what the institution needs to bring up their spirits and make them question their docile obedience of Nurse Ratched. A hellraiser from square one, he fights Nurse Ratched’s authority every chance he can get, and although at first his mad scramble at rebellion seems arbitrary to the meek patients, his free spirited independence is infectious, and begins to creep over the whole ward.

Chief Bromden seems more like a lawn decoration of a character in the movie, lingering in the background while Jack Nicholson  as McMurphy (suitably mischievous, but definitely not redheaded) takes the center stage. In the book, he is a fascinating and vital protagonist. I’ve always liked characters that were introspective and quiet, considered to be fools and reacting mildly to the insanity around them. Bromden is always thinking, always assessing. The joy of his character is that we get to see into this silent man’s thoughts. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ deals with a multitude of themes, including the fascism, gender roles, racism, industrialization, and the woes of a life half lived, ruled by sterility and quiet timidity.

Chief Bromden is Schizophrenic, so he often seems like a bit of an unreliable narrator, prone to sporadically ranting about thick waves of fog rolling over the ward, things shrinking and growing before his eyes, and the inexhaustible evils of the ‘combine,’ or society as a well-oiled, malevolent machine. Other times he seems sharp, bright-eyed, and impossibly wise. The supporting residents of the mental faciity presented in this novel are unique and arresting without seeming improbably quirky or kitschy, always a concern in books dealing with extreme mental illness.

If there’s one thing I would point out in this book that I wasn’t crazy about, it’s the portrayal of minorities and particularly women. While Chief Bromden is a strong, admirable, and likable character, Nurse Ratched’s ‘black boy’ minions are total fucking assholes who speak in jiving pigeon English. McMurphy repeatedly refers to the men as ‘coons’ and although his behavior isn’t exactly condoned, it isn’t treated as unacceptable either. He even refers to Turkel , the kindest of the ‘black boys,’ as an ‘old coon’ at one point. I know, I know, Kesey’s portrayal of bigotry is historically accurate, but it’s also discomforting for a modern person to read.

The fact that the racist language doesn’t get chided or sternly corrected by the author or any of the characters throughout the book is probably part of the reason it was banned and challenged multiple times since it’s publication. And censorship isn’t right. This book has many good qualities that overshadow it’s racially sensitive content. Many parents don’t like books that don’t spoonfeed their kids political correctness and pat moral lessons. My main issue was with the women in the book. The only remotely redeemable female characters were prostitutes for Chrissakes,come to relieve our poor stuttering Billy Bibbitt of his virginity. Ken Kesey seems to have some rather barbed things to say about women’s lib and us ladies in general beneath his story of the epic struggle between a gargantuan she-bitch and a rabble of cowed, frightened patients.

But never mind. Good writing is good writing, and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ got it. Often lyrical, sometimes beautiful, the book observes our complacency as a society as well as our habit of overlooking life’s outcasts. Powerlessness is a continuous theme- the black aides, given shitty jobs and generally crapped on by society, torment the patients, while Nurse Ratched bullies them all into quiet submission. Ironically, many of the patients are here by choice. If men would choose this hell, what awaits them in the outside world? What horrors have they escaped in their home lives, their jobs and their families? Anyone whose seen the film adaptation know that things don’t end well here. But the book is a worthy read even for those who already know the film’s story.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

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If you go into this movie expecting answers to your multitude of questions, you’ll only be disappointed and disillusioned by the lack of explanation provided here. “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is as beautiful and mysterious as the Australian Outback that serves as it’s backdrop. Lovely, virginal school girls in white. Four make the ill-fated climb up Hanging Rock one Valentine’s Day, 1900. But do four come back? After one stunned girl (Christine Schuler) descends the rock unaccompanied by her companions, a all-encompassing search is declared for the young ladies.

Dandyish youth Michael (Dominic Guard) finds himself sucked in by the girl’s disappearances and searches for them with the reluctant help of his working-class friend Albert (John Jarrett) But to no avail. The teens are quite purely and simply… gone. Meanwhile, bereaved outcast Sara (Margaret Nelson) mourns for her only friend (maybe something more? the film obliquely asks) Miranda (Anne Louise Lambert,) vanished on the now infamous Hanging Rock, while her coarse headmistress (Rachel Roberts) fights to break her spirit.

Visually “Picnic at Hanging Rock” is spectacular, featuring a sumptuous palate, gorgeous indoor sets, and breath-taking scenery showing the Australian Outback in all it’s starkly inhospitable splendor. It isn’t really a movie about characters and feelings as it is a eerie evocation of a time and place, plagued with locals who are more concerned about the young women’s virtue in the wake of such an event than their happiness or psychological health.

When a girl (the only one of three) is found stunned and catatonic, everyone is obsessed whether she is ‘intact’ (i.e. not ravaged by a ill-intentioned Aussie) to a not-quite-normal point. Yes, rape is a terrible thing, but the townspeople’s interest has less to do with genuine concern over Irma (the girl)’s sexual or physical well-being and more to do with their own long-buried repression and diseased small-town curiosity.

Peter Weir establishes an uncanny/unnerving vibe here, a portrayal of small-town Australia so deeply felt yet faraway and surreal that it begins to feel like a passing dream. Anyone who watches this movie is likely to wonder “What is this really about here?” Is it about sex, or frustrated lack of such? Is it about small-town ignorance to the point where the disappearance of young people is something to something to excitedly speak of over toast? Is it about lesbianism?

When the headmistress, Mrs. Appleyard, speaks of the middle-aged teacher (Vivean Gray) who vanished with the others while looking for her missing pupils, she specifically compliments her ‘masculine energy.’ Is Miss Appleyard a lesbian, so deeply mired in the throes of repression that she takes her frustration out on the similarly-inclined Sara? Maybe the Rock is a metaphor for something else, something that similarly can’t be contained or explained.

There’s really not much to directly say about this movie without doing some considerable reading between the lines, which might take multiple viewings and discussions. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the main plotline is left frustratingly open to interpretation. Those of you who love mysterious, dreamlike films will probably be all-too-willing to partake, while those who need an up-front explanation should run away from “Picnic at Hanging Rock” lest they be frustrated and exasperated to it’s focused ambiguity. “Picnic…” is a classic for a reason, but it’s not for everybody.

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Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred

Occasional bad luck is inevitable. Dana, the protagonist of ‘Kindred”s luck is cataclysmic. A strong willed and -minded black woman married happily to a white older man, she is transported through time and space without so much as a how-do-you-do to slavery-era Baltimore to save her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin, from an untimely death. Without Rufus’ inevitable union with a slave woman, little Dana will never come to be- or so she believes as she returns time and time again throughout Rufus’ life to save him, increasingly cognizant of what a sadistically self-obsessed monster he is gradually becoming.

“Kindred” is my first book by Octavia E. Butler, and I was struck by how well it delivers on it’s sumptuously creative premise. It is a speculative work of fiction, but is anything but fantastical when dealing with the hardships of the slaves on the Weylins’ plantation. Seeing Dana try to hide her education and her fierce independence in attempts to play the role of a ignorant, subservient slave held a kind of morbid fascination for me. In Rome, do as the Romans do. But in this case you pretty much have the equivalent of a red target painted against your cursedly brown flesh.

As it turns out, time travel works in this kind of like the wormhole to Narnia. Dana is summoned back to the past only to find that was hours for her, turns out to be years for the people left behind in the past. ‘Kindred’ never lets you forget the spiraling disorientation of living in such a changeable reality.

Dana is a well-developed character, weakened but not weak, strong but not infallible. Even Rufus himself, sniveling bastard that he grows up to be, is painted with nuance and ambiguity, rather than thick, derisive strokes. You can see that Rufus is a worthless chode, but you can comprehend how he came to be that way, and hopefully regard him at brief moments with pity, rather than with all-consuming (and for all intents and purposes, well deserved) hatred.

I found the writing in “Kindred” both pragmatic (no frills to be found) and compelling. I was a little put off by how careless Dana, and later, her husband Kevin are at changing the timeline. Actions have consequences, every science fiction-slash- time travel buff knows that. But Dana and Kevin take no heed of the drastic ways they effect historical events.

Also, it was weirdly icky how Butler described Rufus’ continual sexual exploitation of the slave girl, Alice, as love, albeit, a ‘destructive love.’ It was old-fashioned and sometimes downright gross, and I thought that Butler , as a feminist and a woman , would no better than to call assault anything but what it is, assault. Love is wanting what’s best for someone. Rufus certainly didn’t want what was best for Alice, he wanted what was best for himself.

He was a sad little boy who grew into a nasty, pathetically small-minded man, having learned nothing but cruelty and hatred from his father. I liked how his relationship with Dana, his savior, stayed ambiguous throughout (until the end when thing went down in a big way.) It made the book so much more interesting than if she had just hated and been repulsed by him.

More than a science fiction novel, ‘Kindred’ goes beyond mere concept, delivering a pulse-pounding story with a compelling cast of characters. In a time and culture where slavery is a distant concept hidden away in history books, ‘Kindred’ takes it to the forefront of our attention as we watch history unfold with Dana. Like Dana, we are riveted and deeply moved. Unlike Dana, we experience it from the comfort of our own home. ‘Kindred’ isn’t just a must read for science fiction lovers. It’s a must read, period. Fin.

The Other by Thomas Tryon

the other tryon

Being an identical twin can be murder. Just ask Niles Perry, a well-mannered thirteen-year-old whose twin brother Holland possesses a sadistic streak and a penchant for causing deadly ‘accidents.’ Niles both loves, fears, and is in intense awe of his enigmatic brother, but all is not what it seems in Thomas Tryon’s Gothic psychological horror novel.

I had a rocky start with this novel, because I kept on wondering how Niles could not suspect his brother of wrongdoing. I was relieved to find, however, that the (cleverly wrought) twist midway through the book rendered these concerns obsolete. If Niles seems outrageously naïve, that just makes the revelation all the more effective.

Novelist Thomas Tryon evokes the homey mystique of a 30’s Connecticut farming town. Pequot Landing, as it so happens, is an idyllic place to grow up for children who are independent and reasonably well-adjusted, because of the freedom such a locale offers (kids can go wherever they want and do whatever they want, within reason,) but the stifling gossip of the town ladies also makes it important to tread carefully while within earshot of anyone who might decide they want your family problems as fodder for discussion.

For the Perry’s, for which insanity seems to  run in the family, the continual stream of hearsay is never-ending. If you can get by Tryon’s penchant for long, elaborate, needlessly wordy sentences, ‘The Other’ might prove to be your new favorite creepy-cool summer read. You might be surprised that despite the fact that it was published in 1971, it’s aged quite well and doesn’t seem watered-down in terms of horror by jaded modern standards.

There are deaths a-plenty in “The Other,” and the one that bothered me most (even more than the particularly taboo murder at the end) was the demise of elderly widow Mrs. Rowe. Damn it she just wanted to have some tea and lemonade with the local children! Why must the lonely old bird be treated so? :_(

“The Other” makes you think about what people do to keep their loved ones out of the mental health system, and how that initial act of mercy can prove to be destructive later on. Doesn’t the boys’ Russian grandmother, Ada, know her grandson is a raving lunatic? Of course she does. But she refuses to anticipate the consequences of keeping such a boy at home with her, and her naiveté is punished tenfold.

I’ve heard of people whose family members continually lashed out at them; people who’s loved ones had to be locked in their room at night. In the end, the decision lies with the caregiver, but sometimes it’s not only easier, but kinder just to let go. This is an extreme version of a situation many people deal with- the seemingly impossible challenge of loving and caring for a severely emotionally disturbed child.

Ultimately, I think Tryon is too hard on old Ada. Yes, it was her ‘game’ that led to much of the insanity in the first place. But she is only human. And If the game had never came to be? What? Tragedy may have been avoided, but sociopathy and madness still ran thick in the Perry’s blood. While Ada’s final act seemed somewhat out of character, it was a decision born of extreme desperation, not evil or cruelty.

Although I found Niles annoying throughout (though he seemed surprisingly less so after I found out the twist,) I thought ‘The Other’ was a chillingly rendered, deliciously Gothic read. I love those kind of Gothic stories involving family secrets and sequestered craziness, so this was right up my alley. Now I want to rent the movie.