Archive | February, 2013

Altered States – Review

4 Feb

The mind is one of the most amazing things to really think about. It’s a complex, almost abstract, biological machine that is strong, yet can be destroyed very easily. Enter drugs.  To some, they are a demented tool used by disturbed individuals for their own sadistic pleasure, yet others see drugs as a way of tapping into areas of our mind that we may not even know exists. Altered States is a strange and intelligent movie that explores drugs and their effects in a way that I’ve never seen done before.

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Edward Jessup (William Hurt) is a professor with a unique interest in abnormal psychology. At first, he’s interested in how schizophrenics react, through drug research and sensory depravation, to supposed altered states of consciousness. It doesn’t take long for Jessup, himself, to begin experimenting using the sensory depravation combined with a strange, mind bending mushroom brought back from Mexico. After months of doing this research, and using the drug multiple times, Jessup begins to notice something strange about himself. He appears to be devolving.

As far as narratives go, Altered States is not a very easy movie to 100% understand what exactly is going on. The story itself isn’t very twisted, but it is, arguably, pretty convoluted. A strange Mexican drug that, when mixed with sensory depravation, makes you devolve? I dare you to find something remotely like this. While it may be a little hard to buy into at first, it is intriguing, and you begin to really get lost in the story and all of its impressive visual effects. The effects, however, are a whole different story all together.

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Released in 1980, I figured that the special effects would look really cool, but also pretty dated. I’m a fan of older special effects, like what is seen in John Carpenter’s The Thing, but there are instances where these kind of special effects are distracting due to their aged look. Luckily, Altered States looks fantastic. They do look a little aged in their own way, but it sort of works great with the movie. If this was remade, and all of the effects were CGI, I feel like the “trip scenes” wouldn’t have impacted me as much as they did. Speaking of CGI, this was one of the first movies to really implement it, even though it was just for a quick scene towards the end of the movie. This particular effect looks pretty primitive, but it is a pretty important step for special effects in the film world.

I don’t feel like Altered States really gets the recognition it deserves. It was recognized back then as a great exercise in film making with two Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Original Score. It lost Best Sound to The Empire Strikes Back, which I will admit, is pretty understandable. We are talking about one of the greatest sequels ever made. Still, I find it upsetting that it isn’t really remembered today. I hypothesize that if you were to try to bring Altered States back into pop culture, it wouldn’t be received very well because of how bizarre it is.

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Altered States is a really good science fiction/horror film. It can’t really be compared to a film of the same genre like Alien or its sequel, but it is definitely a lot better than I expected, and a really good movie in general. It’s quite a bizarre narrative with some of the weirdest scenes you will ever see in the movies. Unfortunately, the story can be a bit difficult to really buy into and the ending is a bit of a let down, but it’s still a trip worth taking if you think your mind can handle it.

Midnight Cowboy – Review

1 Feb

The history and stigma surrounding Midnight Cowboy should be enough to attract viewers to see it. When it was released in 1969, it was prompt rated X for it’s strong emphasis on sexual content and other themes that play throughout the movie. More importantly, it is the only X rated film to win an Academy Award, and for Best Picture no less. I recently reviewed another film from director John Schlesinger, Marathon Man. I only found Marathon Man slightly enjoyable, and hoped for more from Midnight Cowboy.

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Joe Buck (Jon Voight) is a naive Texan who travels to New York City with dreams of becoming a wealthy hustler. In other words, a well to do male prostitute. When he gets there, he soon realizes that NYC is a totally different world from the one he’s used to, and he quickly loses all of his money. Now down on his luck, he meets “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), a small time thief with a couple of cents to his name trying to survive the harsh conditions of the city while fighting polio. Together, these two form an unlikely bond and do their best to make some money to get to Florida, but as the winter draws closer, Rizzo’s condition worsens.

I was surprised with how much was actually in this movie. There’s so much subtext and thematic material to latch on to, and once you do, you’re more than ready to give it back. This is an intensely emotional film that may possibly leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. This isn’t something you want to watch when you’re in a great mood, because once it’s over, that good mood will have left about an hour and a half ago.

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The film does a great job at pacing itself. We start with Joe Buck in Texas, a place filled with bright sunshine and happy music. Once he gets to New York, we’re in a whole other world with him, but it’s still looking bright and hopeful. Then things start going wrong and winter begins approaching. At this point everything seems to get dirty, gray, and ugly along with the entire story. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, in fact, it’s remarkable. Much like Aronofsky’s Requiem for a DreamMidnight Cowboy uses a strange sense of realism to really immerse the viewer into the entire situation. There are stylistic elements that work very nicely too. Schlesinger relied heavily on the juxtaposition of flash backs to tell Joe’s story, but also juxtaposition everyday items to mean something else. There’s an interesting sex scene that plays out with an unusual use of a television and its various programs.

As for the performances, they belong on anyone’s Top 10 best. It’s impossible to choose between Voight and Hoffman. Both show tremendous talent with method acting (which Hoffman is known for) in this film, and seem to be fully into the minds of their respective characters. Hoffman even put pebbles in his shoe to help with the limp, and despite being almost hit by a car, he continues a scene still fully in character, resulting in one of the most famous lines in film history (I’M WALKIN’ HERE!)

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Midnight Cowboy explores so many different elements in its story. Human sexuality, both hetero- and homosexual. Loneliness and friendship play a key role in the story, and can arguably be the most important. It also exposes a strange period of time. The era of peace, love, and happiness was coming to an end, all the while America was in a bad state with the Vietnam War. Midnight Cowboy doesn’t overtly come out and say it, but it definitely shows a historic subtext that offers little hope for the future.

I could write an entire paper just on this movie. I can’t think of the last time I saw a movie that made me think so much about so many ideas. Midnight Cowboy may look a bit aged in both style and presentation, but the performances and themes are timeless. This film deserves its spot as one of the  best, important, and most controversial films ever made. Check it out and you may even accidentally learn something.