Capsule Reviews: May 23 – 26

The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson, 1972) – 4/5

Trading the situational naturalism of Five Easy Pieces (1970) for a more abstract, even allegorical, approach, Marvin Gardens (named for a piece of real estate on a Monopoly board, and thus a metonym for the film’s delineation of a wintry, largely vacant Atlantic City) zeroes in on the virtuoso, verbose megalomania essential to the American Dream of get-rich-quick hucksterism, as embodied by the brothers Staebler (as it turns out, a deeply ironic cognomen): buttoned-down radio-show host David (Jack Nicholson) and frenetic “entrepreneur” Jason (Bruce Dern). Personifying opposite ends of the spectrum, David’s disingenuous monologues (hilariously undermined in perhaps the film’s best scene) resonate with Jason’s unrelenting spiel about an assuredly fictitious South Seas island paradise (masking the simple fact that, all his wheeling-and-dealing aside, he’s little more than a bagman for the mob). Ellen Burstyn and newcomer Julia Ann Robinson epitomize the manipulation and exploitation underlying the culture’s “rage for surfaces,” and, given the Boardwalk setting, it comes as no surprise when the foursome indulge in a mock Miss America pageant, their figures dwarfed by the amphitheater’s resounding emptiness.

Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven, 1992) – 4/5

Flaunting their affinity for vulgarity, kinky sex and ultraviolence, Verhoeven and scriptwriter Joe Eszterhas (vide that subterranean satirical masterpiece, Showgirls) concoct an ingenious neo-noir – down to the by-now-obligatory nods to Hitchcock (Vertigo, in this instance) – employing lighting schemes characteristic of classic noir (blinds often cast slivers of shadow across scenes) while amplifying its aesthetic resonance with an ultramodern color palette: neon-bright hues flood the nightclub scene, ice-cold blues saturate the interrogation room, warm reds dominate the bedroom and sex scenes. Superficially, the plot resembles other sexed-up contemporary thrillers (the Eszterhas-scripted Jagged Edge, for one) and indulges in twist-and-turn laden, trendy ambiguity…but that’s precisely the point: In a Verhoeven film, glittery surfaces often operate as looking glasses, casting viewers’ superficiality right back in their faces.

Heart of Glass (Werner Herzog, 1976) – 4/5

Mesmerizing in the literal sense: Every day before shooting began, Herzog had the majority of the cast hypnotized, lending an atmosphere of otherworldly preoccupation to their offbeat gestures and counterintuitive line delivery. Drawing heavily from Romantic-oracular models (the 19th century landscape paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, 18th century Bavarian peasant prophecies), the core of the story concerns the frantic scramble after the secret to an “occult” technique for blowing a rare variety of ruby-red glass when its custodian dies suddenly, prompted by shepherd-turned-visionary Hias’ dire predictions of impending social and natural disintegration. Needless to say, according to Herzog’s despairing vision, madness and chaos may well reign. Posterity’s only hope resides in its capacity to doubt any claim to eternal verities, alongside its willingness to engage in an enduring quest into the unknown that stands every chance of ending in catastrophe.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2010) – 3.5/5

Pros: archeological and ethnographic splendor, provocative philosophical musings, Herzogian quirkiness. Cons: murky and inconsistent 3D effects, grating soundtrack. Full-length review pending.

Death in the Garden (Luis Buñuel, 1956) – 3.5/5

Disguised as a rousing adventure film, shot in striking Eastmancolor, this lesser-known (and, admittedly, just plain lesser) Buñuel melodrama portrays political repression and agitation among exploited diamond miners in some nameless South American banana republic. The film’s first half, apart from affording him the opportunity to take a few swipes at missionary Catholicism and its colonialist bedfellows, mainly shows Buñuel marking time until he can strand his rag-tag band of outsiders – the cruel and manipulative Djin (Simone Signoret), mercenary Shark (Georges Marchal), pious M. Castin and his deaf-mute daughter Maria, along with proselytizing priest Father Lizzardi (a young Michel Piccoli) – in the middle of a tropical jungle. At that point, Death really comes alive. Buñuel’s interest in strategies of survival, the impact of a harsh and indifferent Nature on human solidarity (or its lack), reveals Death in the Garden to be an unofficial companion piece to his earlier Defoe adaptation, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1954), and offers the opportunity to indulge in the film’s best Surrealist gag, concerning the evocative power of a picture postcard.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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