Monday, February 10, 2014

Bedazzled and Marathon Man Reviews

This 1967 Stanley Donen comedy pulls off the feat of centering around a truly miserable character without ever feeling like a downer of a film. Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore) is a lonely short-order cook with a crush on a waitress at his diner who he's too shy to approach. The devil (or at least some vague devil incarnate) comes along, introduces himself (his name's George and he's played by Peter Cook) and grants him seven wishes in exchange for his soul.

Stanley promptly uses up one wish after another on Margaret and, because the devil is a trickster who can't be taken at face value, they all backfire. That's OK because Bedazzled isn't really a love story. Instead it's a meandering meditation of love, death, good and evil, and religious dogma that's imbued with an absurdist wry humor that only British comedy can do. In other words, the film feels a little aimless but that's part of the charm: Delving too deeply into romantic comedy territory would make the film feel hackneyed while delving entirely into religious politics would make the film feel preachy.

Marathon Man
Marathon Man is a Dustin Hoffman vehicle that stands as one of the best-known thrillers of the 1970's. Fitting into 1970's conventions to minimize on back story and to emphasize action (Brad Pitt, Bennett Miller, Ben Affleck, and George Clooney were all attracted to this style when they made Moneyball, Argo and Good Night and Good Luck respectively), the film is centered around the evolution of a relatively complex character but is primarily action-driven.
That relatively complex character is graduate student Thomas "Babe" Levy (Hoffman) whose remains haunted by his father's persecution and subsequent suicide as a result of the Red Scare. Seeking to enter into the same field of study as his father, Levy hopes to exonerate his father's work. The title of the film derives from the fact that "Babe" is a long-distance runner but if you assume that this is the "Prefontaine" or "Chariots of Fire" of the 1970's, be warned that this is not a running movie at all and a suspiciously minor plot point. The running scenes are reminiscent of the way French New Wave films juxtapose motifs (I'm thinking specifically of Breathless where the guy is shown looking at a picture and smoking a cigarette like the matinee idol he's trying to emulate) as an avant-garde way of providing characterization.

In the film's first hour, there's a twin narrative occurring alongside a love story between Babe and a fellow grad student that turns out to be nothing more than a red herring. In the other story, Roy Scheider plays "Doc" who turns out to be Babe's brother (apparently, the Levy clan had terrible taste in nicknames) and he's tracking an ex-Nazi dentist played by Laurence Olivier. Olivier's role and the presence he brings to that role (it was the final of his 10 Oscar nominations) provide the film with its most memorable moments. People might not know the plot details of Marathon Man but many are familiar with the dentist's torture scene as well as his "is it safe?" monologue.

Similarly, that's how I felt about the film: I'll remember the film's overall tone (very dark for a Dustin Hoffman film) and a handful of moments such as Olivier's torture scene, the sewer scene, the drag race, and the reveal that Doc is Babe's brother (Scheider's character is a very enigmatic figure and his involvement in the story goes without an explanation for what I'm guessing is an hour). The plot is highly dense and takes a couple of viewings to really grasp and even then there's a feeling of discomfort of blanks left unfilled. You might call them plot holes (i.e. how exactly did a traffic hold-up turn into a drag race filled with murderous rage and what are the odds that a tanker would be there?) but it seems like a certain story convention that's seemingly being emulated by the biggest names in Hollywood today. I felt a similar disconnect from The French Connection which is another film of great praise that I seem to be in the minority on.

Rather than end this review with a conclusive statement on what was wrong or right about the film, I'll ask other people who have seen it to explain the film's appeal.

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