Tag Archives: Bruce Dern

The King of Marvin Gardens (1972, Bob Rafelson)

The King of Marvin Gardens is an extremely quiet film. Jack Nicholson’s protagonist is a radio monologist, which suggests the viewer should listen to the content of his dialogue, but the secret of Marvin Gardens is that content’s unimportance. After a brief introduction to Nicholson’s job and life, the film immediately moves him into an unknown circumstance. He goes to Atlantic City to meet up with his older brother, played by Bruce Dern.

Dern and Nicholson’s characters are completely dissimilar–Nicholson’s a monk, Dern travels with two ladies (Ellen Burstyn and Julia Anne Robinson), Nicholson’s an introvert, Dern’s an obnoxious talker–and director Rafelson, Nicholson and Dern are very careful to show their relationship. Rafelson and photographer László Kovács shoot a lot of Marvin Gardens in long shot (or at least medium long shot). It seemingly exaggerates the viewer’s distance from the characters, but it’s actually just how far away from one another everyone is situated, viewers and characters alike. Marvin Gardens presents this intriguing situation–Dern’s shady, but big money, business dealings, his relationship with the two women, the oddness of Atlantic City in off-season–and positions the viewer to ascribe certain reactions to Nicholson. After all, Nicholson is the audience’s entry into this weird setting, isn’t he?

Not really is the answer. And, as the film moves on, Nicholson, Rafelson and screenwriter Jacob Brackman have these occasional callbacks to remind the audience maybe they should have been paying more attention. Dern’s got a showy role, Burstyn has the film’s showiest, even Robinson is more shocking than Nicholson–but it’s all about Nicholson. It’s all about what his performance does and how Rafelson uses it in the film.

There aren’t really any set pieces–the most excitement comes at the beginning, with Nicholson arriving in Atlantic City; Rafelson’s vision of Atlantic City is empty, hollow, cold. There’s no music in Marvin Gardens, no score, I don’t even think any soundtrack music, just the wind. The cold wind battering these palatial, empty hotels.

Nicholson’s performance is the film’s initial hook–Rafelson opens on Nicholson performing a monologue in extreme close-up, no cuts, just this insight into the character. Only, Nicholson’s not the most reliable monologist (something the film goes out of its way to warn the audience not to expect). But in such weirdness, such grey quirkiness, such utter sadness, he’s a reference point.

It’s a breathtakingly constructed film. It’s not a character study. Rafelson and Brackman aren’t exactly deceptive about the film–there are the warnings, there are their attempts to remind the audience of important reveals–but they don’t want to fully engage how devastating it can get. Even when there’s danger, it always appears controllable, manageable.

One of the most awkward–and wonderful–things in the film is how little chemistry Nicholson and Robinson have with one another. Their scenes, even though the characters aren’t hostile, have this dreadful discomfort about them. Rafelson’s got a lot of trust in Nicholson, Nicholson’s got a lot of trust in Rafelson. It works out.

The King of Marvin Gardens is an exceptional film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Bob Rafelson; screenplay by Jacob Brackman, based on a story by Rafelson and Brackman; director of photography, László Kovács; edited by John F. Link; production designer, Toby Carr Rafelson; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Jack Nicholson (David Staebler), Bruce Dern (Jason Staebler), Ellen Burstyn (Sally), Julia Anne Robinson (Jessica), Scatman Crothers (Lewis) and Charles LaVine (Grandfather).


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Smile (1975, Michael Ritchie)

Smile is the story of the week of a regional beauty pageant in a northern California town. It’s not exactly the story of the pageant, though it does look at some of the contestants, but it also looks at how the event affects the locals.

Bruce Dern gets top billing and he does tie most of the story threads together. He’s a car salesman and the lead pageant judge. His son (Eric Shea) gets in trouble related to the pageant contestants, his best friend (Nicholas Pryor) is married to the pageant organizer (Barbara Feldon). Through Feldon, there’s a lot more with the pageant itself, but no real direct ties. The film’s two salient character relationships are between Dern and Pryor and how they experience their lives and then between Joan Prather (the film’s closest thing to a protagonist) and Annette O’Toole as two contestants who are rooming together for the week.

While director Ritchie is fantastic and Richard A. Harris’s editing is amazing, Jerry Belson’s script is the thing to Smile. He’s got a lot of great jokes, these sad, little realistic jokes. There are a couple moments–usually with the direction and editing helping a lot–of uproarious humor. But Smile is usually very real and very depressing.

Excellent performances from the entire cast, particularly Dern, Pryor, Prather and O’Toole. Feldon’s good too, as is Michael Kidd as the down-on-his-luck Hollywood choreographer.

Smile is wonderful; Belson and Ritchie create a magnificent clash of hope and reality.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Michael Ritchie; written by Jerry Belson; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Richard A. Harris; released by United Artists.

Starring Bruce Dern (Big Bob Freelander), Barbara Feldon (Brenda DiCarlo), Joan Prather (Robin Hudson), Annette O’Toole (Doria), Nicholas Pryor (Andy DiCarlo), Michael Kidd (Tommy French), Geoffrey Lewis (Wilson Shears), Titos Vandis (Emile), Dennis Dugan (Logan), Melanie Griffith (Karen), Maria O’Brien (Maria), Colleen Camp (Connie), Paul Benedict (Orren Brooks), William Traylor (Ray Brandy), Dick McGarvin (Ted Farley), Eric Shea (Little Bob), Adam Reed (Freddy), Brad Thompson (Chuck), Denise Nickerson (Shirley), Caroline Williams (Helga), Kate Sarchet (Judy) and George Skaff (Dr. Malvert).


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The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967, Roger Corman)

Director Corman and–probably more so–writer Howard Browne construct The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as a docudrama. Paul Frees narrates the entire film, introducing characters, providing their backstories–Corman sometimes mutes the film’s dialogue (during boring parts) so Frees can explain a little about the person. Massacre might be mostly authentic in its portrayal of the titular event, but it doesn’t matter. Frees, Browne and Corman could sell anything.

The film’s layered. It opens after the massacre and quietly backs up to explain it. It uses flashbacks a couple more times, specifically to explain the hatred between gangsters Al Capone (Jason Robards) and Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker). Corman doesn’t open with either of them. Instead he opens with George Segal as a sociopathic gangster working for Meeker. It’s good Segal and Robards never have a scene together because they would have–and gloriously so–ripped the sets apart with their teeth.

Robards’s performance has a couple weak spots, but he still transfixes. As written, the character ranges from sorrow to anger immediately and Robards plays it beautifully. Segal has almost no quite moments; watching him is waiting for him to erupt. But he always remains somehow likable, probably because no one in Massacre is particularly likable. Segal just has the charisma to weather it.

Other excellent performances include Clint Ritchie and Frank Silvera (though the film loses track of Silvera).

Corman’s got some great shots; Milton R. Krasner’s an able photographer. Perfect score from Lionel Newman.

Massacre is fantastic.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Roger Corman; written by Howard Browne; director of photography, Milton R. Krasner; edited by William B. Murphy; music by Lionel Newman; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Jason Robards (Al Capone), George Segal (Peter Gusenberg), Ralph Meeker (Bugs Moran), Jean Hale (Myrtle), Clint Ritchie (Jack McGurn), Frank Silvera (Nick Sorello), Joseph Campanella (Albert Wienshank), Richard Bakalyan (John Scalise), David Canary (Frank Gusenberg), Bruce Dern (Johnny May), Harold J. Stone (Frank Nitti), Kurt Kreuger (James Clark), Paul Richards (Charles Fischetti), Joe Turkel (Jake Guzik), Milton Frome (Adam Heyer), Mickey Deems (Reinhold Schwimmer), John Agar (Dion O’Bannion), Celia Lovsky (Josephine Schwimmer), Tom Reese (Ted Newberry), Jan Merlin (Willie Marks), Alexander D’Arcy (Joe Aiello), Reed Hadley (Hymie Weiss), Gus Trikonis (Rio), Charles Dierkop (Salvanti), Tom Signorelli (Bobo Borotto), Rico Cattani (Albert Anselmi), Alex Rocco (Diamond), Leo Gordon (Heitler), Jonathan Haze (Boris Chapman), Dick Miller (Adolph Muller) and Jack Nicholson (Gino); narrated by Paul Frees.


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The ‘burbs (1989, Joe Dante)

Until The 'burbs gets around to actually having to pay off on its premise–the strange new neighbors are really serial killers–it’s quite good. There’s no way the third act pay off can deliver and the film’s quality takes a number of hits in the last half hour or so. Olsen’s script is, technically, at fault… but it’s hard to think of how the narrative could have unfolded and not had problems.

What the film does have, even with the last act problems, is some of Dante’s most enthusiastic work. The film’s perfectly casted–I counted three times the actors were trying not to laugh during a scene–and he gets these great performances. Olsen’s script sets up these fine characters, Dante and the cast are able to turn them into something even better… then the script abandons them. At one point, Carrie Fisher just disappears. Instead of figuring out how to incorporate her (or even just keep her around), Olsen sends her away. Coincidentally, Fisher disappears about the time the film hits the bumps.

Tom Hanks is very good in the lead. He manages not to get overshadowed by Bruce Dern and Rick Ducommun, who are a lot wackier. Wendy Schaal’s good as Dern’s wife (she too disappears though) and Brother Theodore is hilarious as one of the villains. Corey Feldman is a tad broad… and looks a little old for a teenager.

Amazing Jerry Goldsmith score.

With its marvelous Dante direction, The 'burbs is almost a success.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; written by Dana Olsen; director of photography, Robert M. Stevens; edited by Marshall Harvey; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, James H. Spencer; produced by Larry Brezner and Michael Finnell; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Tom Hanks (Ray Peterson), Bruce Dern (Lt. Mark Rumsfield), Carrie Fisher (Carol Peterson), Rick Ducommun (Art Weingartner), Corey Feldman (Ricky Butler), Wendy Schaal (Bonnie Rumsfield), Henry Gibson (Dr. Werner Klopek), Brother Theodore (Uncle Reuben Klopek), Courtney Gains (Hans Klopek) and Gale Gordon (Walter Seznick).


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