Fun Fact! The main orderly in this is played by Scatman Crothers, aka the voice of Hong Kong Phooey. Didn’t that just blow your mind?
Cuckoo’s Nest is frequently cited as the greatest film of all time. Frequently. Short of upping Shawshank Redemption, Godfathers I and II, Casablanca, The Wild Thornberries Movie and Star Wars, if anything else. Upon watching it, it was initially kind of hard for me to get why. But I’ll come to my thoughts after the obligatory synopsis-sans-spoilers (to which you’re accustomed – if not, welcome!)…
Jack Nicholson is R.P. MacMurphy (aka Mac), a lazy but rebellious convict who’s been moved over from a prison farm to a mental institute after he showed symptoms of psychological disorder. From the start, we know he’s pulling a fast one. As Mac settles into what he assumes will be a cushier life amongst a host of colourful characters (a very young cast of Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito and Brad Dourif amongst them), he comes across the fearsome Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who rules the roost with an understated, but oppressive, fist.
Mac’s urge to cause mayhem for Ratched and to inspire similar rebellion in his fellow inmates takes up the focus of the story, as his methods of pushing Ratched to the brink fail to take off as brilliantly as he’d hoped. The road to revolution is a hard one, and there’s some truly brilliant moments in the last twenty-thirty minutes.
As plots go, it’s fairly standard. A newcomer to an old and battered-around regime comes along and is inspired to make changes, only to find it an uphill struggle. With a likeable and charismatic leading man in Nicholson, we’re behind him every step of the way. This is even taking into account that he is doing labour as punishment for the rape of a fifteen-year-old. This is established early on, though it really doesn’t impede on his protagonist status. We know he’s a bad’un, and we accept it. This is far more a story about the existing roll call of characters at the institute, and what will become if them.
Which is where I’ll come back to that thread I left dangling at the start of this entry. I really found it hard to pigeonhole Cuckoo’s Nest. Is it a thriller? Is it a black comedy? Is it a satire? And that’s when it dawned on me – it can’t be labelled. This film transcends so many themes, emotions and techniques that it simply refuses to be pigeonholed. Without being massively gushing, I think that’s bloody brilliant. There are moments of suspense, humour, despair and glory in equal measure. And I think it’s rare to get such a balance. Of the films I’ve watched so far this year, I’ve not seen anything that fires squarely on all cylinders.
Tying it up, it’s a great cast – basic characters, but even the background film have clear personalities – and Fletcher is quietly and modestly menacing enough to get you on side. There’s some great twists thrown about that mess with Mac’s grand scheme, and the ending marches right up out of nowhere. I’m not sure I totally enjoyed the last scene, but I guess it was necessary. It’s bittersweet, like much of the film.
PRO: Great characters, great performances, and as mentioned, a real genre-hopper.
CON: As the plot is nowhere complex enough to fill every second of running time (see The Prestige), it feels as if it’s stretched a bit thinly over the latter half.
OVERALL: 9/10. It’s clear to see why Cuckoo is so revered as it is once you’ve mulled it over. It’s very unique, and the performances are absolutely brilliant. It didn’t quite tick every box for me, somehow – while the climax, as I’ve said, is probably necessary – it does cultivate a massive downer. I can’t really downgrade a film because the ending wasn’t to my taste (and it’s based on a book, so they’re adapting after all).. but I think Mac is missing one last oomph at the end of his character arc. Plus, I do still prefer watching John Candy burning out a car, and Jeff Goldblum going ape-poopy.
Erm. Abra… cadabra? I know, I know. I’ll get me coat.
Christopher Nolan. If you recognise the name, he’s very quickly become quite the cult director in the past ten years, having helmed the Batman reboot Batman Begins and its sequels The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises (out July as far as I remember), and everybody’s favourite kaleidoscopic-dream-hopping-adventure Inception (it’s on the list). He also directed The Prestige, which is full of his trademark confuddling plot twists and closed-book characters (and Michael Caine).
Nolan films aren’t everybody’s cup of tea. They require a lot of attention, and, surprisingly, quite a bit of coherence. If you miss one or two slight touches or turns in the entire movie, you’ve blown your chance of appreciating it to its fullest. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Batman reboots have been lavish and multi-layered as a result, and Inception was in IMDB’s top 5 movies ever for an extended period. But, digressing.
The Prestige is essentially the continued one-upmanship between two rival magicians (or illusionists, though ‘real magic’ as opposed to ‘illusion’ is discussed several times here – whether you like it or not), played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. It all takes place in Victorian England, where the hats are lofty, and the accents are either plummy or missing their ‘H’s. The dominoes start to fall when Jackman’s wife is killed in a trick where it’s unclear if Bale was responsible – but consumed by grief, Jackman chooses to make it his life’s work to outdo Bale, while Bale similarly gives as much as he receives.
That’s pretty much your plot. There’s not much to it other than that, and that’s probably a good thing. There is an intense amount of detail added into the tricks, the scheming and both the politics and ‘religion’ of what it means to be a practicing magician that fill up the plot, and Nolan’s trademark twisting and turning about all over the place work really well here. Sometimes, such depth and such convolution comes off as smug or conceited – and in some places, Prestige is very conceited – but as we’re dealing with tricksters, we as the audience surely don’t mind being tricked ourselves. Do we? I didn’t.
This is a very angry, brooding film with very little in the way of joy for its characters, but I guess that’s not really the point here. It’s all about the spectacle, watching the two magicians play off against each other, and wondering who will win right through to the climax. As a movie, it’s a brilliant mental spectacle, and there’s an absolute bumload of clever surprises. None so grand as the finale, where, if you didn’t see it coming from the clues (and they’re there, believe me – right from the beginning), you’ll either find it maddening or marvellous.
What bothers me most about Prestige is not the length, nor the persistent gloom – they’re both fine and necessary – it’s who we’re meant to be rooting for. Even after at the film’s end, I was still behind Jackman’s increasingly obsessed character, despite the film flip-flopping between him and Bale for role of heroic protagonist all the way through. Maybe, given both their stories (which I’m not spoiling, though this is making this particular entry a wee bit sparse), we have to take them on equal merit. They’re both as cunning and as sleazy as each other. Plus, I plain don’t like Christian Bale. I don’t know why. I think it’s the whole saga he had with that cameraman on the set of Terminator Salvation years back. Or, it could be that I find him immensely over-rated. I unwisely chose to publicly claim George Clooney and his nipples to be a better Batman (something I’ve since detracted for the sake of my own teeth).
For a film so amazingly over-the-top, and so desperately, gloomily serious all of the way through, I’m finding it hard to say much else. I think it’s a good one to see once. If you like twists and turns, it’s one to watch. If you like Nolan’s other stuff, it’s one to watch. If you like going away from a film content with what you’ve seen, feeling warm and fuzzy and without any further questions, avoid it. I don’t think I’ll watch it again, purely because I know its secrets (how ironic!).
PROS : Good acting, even for Bale. Great twists and moments of surprise. Great visuals. David Bowie suits a moustache.
CONS : If you lose concentration for ten seconds, you’ve lost the whole movie. Desperately intense and poetic. Not much joy.
OVERALL : 7/10. Erm, see above. I needed to cool my brain down afterwards. How will I cope with Inception? Find out in July. I’m taking a seven-month break from Nolan. I need it.
Since starting the ambitious task of setting myself 250 films to watch this year, there’s been plenty of suggestions I’ve simply been too short-sighted to include. Lethal Weapon. Mad Max. Anything with Mel Gibson, in fact. Seriously, I don’t recall there being a single Gibbo hit in the list. That aside, I’m game for watching most things. Hell. I managed to stomach The Thing and ended up loving it, and I even risked sanity and taste to bear 90 minutes of Paul Blart : Mall Cop, a film that seems to have come under as much critical derision as it frankly deserves. Watching terrible films is fun, I admit – and it’s something I can say I’ve done. Nothing ignites a conversation like ‘I sat through the entirety of Disaster Movie and lived’. Which, dear reader, I have. It’s as good as you’ve heard.
But everyone has their limits. Even yours truly. The films I’ve picked to see this year are either lauded as classics, cult classics, truly truly awful, or simply movies I’ve been wanting to see for years. There are some, however, I just won’t. I like to think I’m open-minded. How many people out there would willingly subject themselves to Human Centipede for the sake of a WordPress blog? More than I would think, probably. God, I’m digressing. Anyway. Here are a handful of films I won’t watch, nor review, and why I simply do_not_want_to.
- Titanic. I know how it ends. LOL. No, really… it just seems a bit insensitive, really. I could go into it. I don’t want to. I’ve avoided it for fifteen years, I’ll avoid it for fifteen more. It’s in 3D this year, too! No thanks.
- A Serbian Film. Oh, aye. I have reviewed 18+ movies, and I’ll continue to. But there are disturbing films, and then there are… just go read about it on Wikipedia. I would fear for the permanent departure of sanity should I ever hope to come anywhere near this. I’m surprised it got released. I’m no prude. But there’s a line. Several, it turns out.
- Anchorman. I don’t like Will Ferrell. At all. I don’t ‘get him’. But that’s me. I think my judgment would be clouded if I even came anywhere near Ron Burgundy, so I’m holding off until I find the secret to this man’s appeal.
- Epic Movie. And so forth. Disaster Movie was enough. I’ve been led to believe they’re all pretty similar, so… no thanks.
- Jurassic Park 3. I love Jurassic Park. I think it’s actually pretty under-rated. The sequel, The Lost World, was quite different. It dragged, it added little to the original, and I’d seen it all before. I can barely believe they tried it again, and for that reason, no thanks.
- The Twilight Saga. Because I’m worried if I end up liking the films, I’ll never live it down. And if I hate them, and blog about it, the fandom will send out the winged monkeys.
- The Wicker Man (the remake). The original is one of my all-time favourite movies. Imagine your favourite film getting remade with Nicholas Cage. He’s not as terrible as some people would have you believe, but… that is not a formula I particularly like.
- The Secret of NIMH 2. For similar reasons to Jurassic Park 3.
- Saw V / VI / VII / VIII / IX / X / XI / XII. Okay. It ends at VII. But still. Four is enough. And only two of them are any cop.
- The Wild Thornberries Movie. No thanks.
- Circuitry Man II : Plughead Rewired. Thanks to both some of the ugliest promo art I’ve ever seen, and the fact that the DVD generally goes for as little as 10p in British money at second-hand-shops. Neither bodes well.
- Transformers. Okay, here’s the clincher. I was never really into Transformers as a kid. I was born in 1987, so I guess I was old enough to catch the back-end of the intial wave of interest (and I got into Thundercats easily enough years after it finished… the first time around). But… my thing was Power Rangers. And Lego. And FM Radio. But enough of my utterly bizarre childhood. I know this kind of link doesn’t always follow, but what I’m trying to say is they didn’t interest me then, and they don’t really now. People have told me the films are worth it for the robots, but if they’re thegood part… I’m not really going to get much out of this trilogy. Sorry, folks. Not my bag.
And that’ll do for now. Any comments? Care to persuade me otherwise? Or maybe you have some bogey films you’re avoiding yourself – stick us a comment and I’ll pass judgment, if you dare me to.
The Prestige up next. When I say next, I mean twelve hours. Or less! You might get lucky.