Thirty-Day Movie Challenge: Day Thirty

Well, I guess it’s nice to know I can finish a project once in a while.

When I decided to expand the Facebook 30 Day Movie Challenge to what would essentially become thirty essays on film, I didn’t think it was going to be a very big deal. I saw it as a nice way to get this blog rolling along with original material. Not just an orphanage for short stories and poems that couldn’t find a home. I guessed it would take a month, maybe two, to finish, give me the chance to write movie reviews again, keep the blog awash in material and perhaps set off a spark or two for other ideas.

The other ideas are indeed playing ping-pong in the arena of potential, and no one’s going to argue I didn’t get to write movie reviews again. What I completely underestimated was how much of a self-inflicted (the worst kind) chore this would be at times, or how long it was going to take to expand on thirty movie reviews, most of which are only three or four hundred words on my Facebook page, and turn them into something I could be relatively pleased with.

That’s okay. I love a good learning experience sometimes. I’m pleased I saw this through to the end.

It seems as though people dug these. I hope so. Writing for pleasure comes first, but that only carries a person but so far. Eventually, you want to hopefully find an audience of some kind. I’m doing okay with that, I think, but I can always do better.

That will probably never change, the fact that I should be doing better, working harder, and that’s as disheartening as it is enthralling. To have both of those things at once is at least guaranteed to keep me awake.

No idea if it’s actually going to lead me down some kind of positive road.

Well, nothing else to do at this point but say thanks to those who hung in there through all thirty reviews, and to ask anyone reading this to hang around for whatever’s coming next. Look for more poetry, more short fiction, some experiments, some, yes, reviews and more.

I can’t promise anything. Except that I’ll do my best to make it worth your time.

**********
30 Day Movie Challenge

Day Thirty: The Last Movie You Saw

Sorcerer (1977)
Directed by: William Friedkin
Starring: Roy Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal

A recent, rare interview with Gene Hackman left me wanting to watch The French Connection again. Hackman is one of my favorite actors in general, and William Friedkin, who directed the film, is one of my favorite directors. The French Connection might well be the best film either one of them has ever done. It’s a wonderful tour of vintage New York, and it’s a ferociously-paced, brilliantly shot and well-acted film (with my favorite car chase of all time). Watching it again was a pleasure, and it sent me over to Netflix to see which William Friedkin movies I still hadn’t gotten around to seeing. There’s a few. I’ve seen and loved The Exorcist, Blue Chips, To Live and Die in L.A. I thought Rules of Engagement was shockingly stupid for the talent involved. I still need to see Bug one of these days, and I’m eager to see Friedkin’s latest, Killer Joe whenever it makes its way over to a wider release.

I noticed Sorcerer as one of his films that I had never seen, and I was surprised. It looks like something I would have snatched up and seen ages ago. The cast looked great, it was Friedkin’s follow-up to monstrous back-to-back successes The French Connection and The Exorcist, and the story, a remake of the classic The Wages of Fear, all came together as something I just didn’t imagine was going to steer me wrong. The film was a notorious critical and commercial flop in its time (and that wouldn’t be the first time for Friedkin), grossing something like twelve-million against a then-substantial budget of twenty-million, but it’s in recent years come to be appreciated as a beautifully-suspenseful film, and something of a minor cult classic.


All the *really* good cult classics make sure to include fire.

It’s a mixed blessing that by now, Netflix is pretty good at predicting how I’m going to rate a movie. Their guess was that I would give Sorcerer a 4.1 out of five.

Between that, and people like Roger Ebert and Stephen King counting the film amongst their favorites (Ebert was one of the few major critics to give the film a good review during its original release), I imagined I was in pretty good shape for a pretty good movie.

I was right, too. Sort-of.

The problem isn’t in the story. It’s a good one, in which four men, (Scheider, Bruno Cremer, Francisco Rabal and Amidou) from four different parts of the world find themselves, for different reasons, living as exiles in a remote Nicaraguan village. The village almost functions as a character unto itself. It’s a filthy, desperate place. One doesn’t go there by choice. One goes there because they have no choice. The horrors of the circumstances that brought the four men there quickly becomes small, in comparison to what caused them to flee their original lives in the first place. Friedkin’s best films capture the chaos, danger and earthly Hell of where they occur. Sorcerer is no different. These four men might be running away from something, but they don’t want to die in that village.  That proves to be their collective motivation for taking on the assignment of driving two trucks full of volatile nitroglycerin to an oil well that has caught fire, and can only be repaired with explosives. The money might be good, it might make their doomed dreams come true, but only the truly hopeless would take on such a job. Hopeless is a good word for not only the tone of the movie, but for the four protagonists themselves. We may or may not want them to succeed, but we’re in constant doubt from beginning to end, if they can make it through the job and find the redemption that drives them, like a very specific, intoxicating kind of madness.

That madness and drive is realized through great performances by all four leads. Scheider stands out in particular. It’s a shame his career slowed somewhat. He always brought a tired-and-yet-somewhat-manic humor to his characters. They were either good-naturedly enduring their circumstances, or they were doggedly pursuing an obsession that almost never resulted in a happy ending. Cremer, Rabal and Amidou all turn in wonderful performances that dually stand on their own and contribute countless miles of humanity to the story, but the star here is definitely Scheider. His transformation over the course of the film is nothing short of haunting. This isn’t a horror film, but the depths Scheider sinks to, in order to get what he wants, are truly frightening at times. All of them achieve this startling, tragic change, but Scheider is the one we barely recognize by the conclusion of their unforgiving journey.


All in all it’s a pretty rough weekend for the guy.

The last hour of the film reflects that frightening aspect in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. There’s no question that Friedkin knows how to pile on the severity of each moment in his best films. Sorcerer suffers greatly from a painfully slow first half. It’s not that a slow build to something as violent as the second half was a bad idea. It just doesn’t work as well as it should have, given the people involved, and it can make getting to that pitch-perfect second half a bit of a chore. The sin is not in taking time and care in establishing four back-stories, bringing their dire situations to a boiling point until the task of driving those trucks becomes a silver-lining. The problem is that it just didn’t need to take that long. Sometimes, moving this slow works, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Some may disagree, but Sorcerer probably could have benefited from a slightly shorter running time. It wouldn’t have hurt the white-hot intensity of the second-half or damaged the range and force of the acting. These things would have come through regardless. Of those four back-stories none of them made much of an impact on my ability to be invested in that second half.

It’s worth noting that the European cut of the film was along these lines. Twenty-eight minutes in all were removed. This includes everything that shows us what brought the four men to Nicaragua to begin with. It would be interesting to compare that version (which would knock the movie down to something like ninety minutes), cut and released without Friedkin’s consent, to the one I saw. I’m not sure eliminating all four background stories entirely would have been the way to go. I still wonder if even a few minutes left on the cutting room floor would have made the difference for me.

Some say you have to watch a movie twice to really get what the movie is trying to show you, and that might be the case here. For now I can only say that Sorcerer didn’t truly get my attention, until Scheider and company begin their trek. That’s when God, the universe, bad luck or whatever you want to call it holds up both fists and begins swinging with a vicious attention to the details of pain. It’s expected that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, but that doesn’t make it any less riveting. The weather turns ugly at one point and assaults the two trucks with a hurricane season’s worth of rain and wind. It gets worse from there very quickly, becoming an element of a possible suicide when one of the trucks attempts to cross what might be the most rickety, perilous bridge in film history. That the truck fell of the bridge several times during filming shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Being relatively certain of the truck barely making it across doesn’t mean a thing when the scene unfolds before us. The tension becomes something thick, almost tangible. Our attention on the disasters that appear legion, descending upon the truck as struggles along, is absolute.


It’s not as bad when you later learn that the local post office goes through this every single day.

I hate to keep dividing the film in terms of the first and second halves, but it’s difficult not to when one is so distinctly more enjoyable than the other. As a whole Sorcerer is pretty good, somewhere in the neighborhood of a 3 ½ out of 5, if we’re going to use Netflix’s rating system (may as well). Most of that rating comes from the second hour, but Scheider, Cremer, Rabal and Amidou are collectively what make the difference between the first hour being sluggish, and the kind of thing that’s so dismal, you have no interest in sticking around for the rest. If you feel like Sorcerer is taking a little while to really get out of the gate, stick around. The best of Sorcerer is able to stand alongside the best of William Friedkin’s career. That’s not too shabby, considering his filmography.

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