Written by / 9/28/2016 / No comments / , , , ,

JACK NICHOLSON & BOB RAFELSON NEO-NOIR TRIPLE FEATURE

Jack Nicholson lighting up
In the late 60's, Jack Nicholson and director Bob Rarelson, when both were relatively unknown, a cinematic partnership was born, and of their five total we'll center on three Neo Noir vehicles, one per decade, ending in the later-1990's and starting in the early-1970's...

THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS: Who knows, maybe directors never really outgrow their primal, rudimentary, symbolic, allegorical, idealistically pretentious, metaphysical, narcissistic, nostalgic mindset of film school: And in that, following what would forever remain their collaborative pinnacle, FIVE EASY PIECES director Bob Rafelson gave his close friend and future multi-collaborator Jack Nicholson a break from the (possible) stereotype of being the discontented, blunt, feisty rebel type, which he's proven... even in early Roger Corman vehicles and Richard Rush biker flicks... which he was perfectly suited for...

Ellyn Burstyn, a Roof Pigeon and Bruce Dern
Then again, maybe he should have played Bruce Dern's conniving con-man older brother Jason Staebler, on the stumbling verge of an Atlantic City land deal with a few obstacles including a potentially dangerous kingpin (Nicholson's three picture co-star, Scatman Crothers) and especially his women...

Sick in Atlantic City
Dern, though, is nicely suited for the part, and while stretching as an actor is a good thing, Jack's bookish underdog comes across as awkward, and in holding back what we know of his limitless range, somewhat frustrating to witness... Then again, MARVIN GARDENS is really, truly about the combination of the Alpha Male and Beta, so it simply takes time getting used to Nicholson as a complete pushover in the little brother part of David, who Dern's Jason controls and manipulates, and uses. But the struggling Philadelphian has only in philosophically what he lacks financially...

The film opens with a relatively long pre-credit one-shot take of Nicholson's David, spinning a long yarn (without his usual vocal styling that he'd be accused of lazily falling back on in years to come) centering on his father and grandfather. The camera pans back slowly from an Extreme Close Up (ECU for scriptwriters) to reveal his artistic trade as a radio disc jockey – not the kind that introduces songs but some kind of storyteller; an occupation suited for a low budget, avant garde film: a quirky job given to characters who have time to go on a journey, with no timecards hindering them.

Bruce Dern hatches another plan in GARDEN
During his mid-early prime years, this opening monologue – in an obscure film wedged between FIVE EASY PIECES and (arguably) his best performance in Hal Ashby's THE LAST DETAIL – seems like a dream come true for Nicholson fans, but winds up more of a bedtime story for wayward beatniks (the grandfather of hipster's)...

A pallid vibe that dogs the rest of an otherwise beautiful looking canvas where, in real life, behind the scenes, Rafelson's crew had to lug heavy equipment to the upper floors of the main location's New Jersey/Atlantic City hotel room just so flying birds could be visible in the background – indeed a labor-of-house motion picture with a slowly moving landscape: Which can and should be all Dern's to own. He's the kind of unapologetic wheeler-dealer able to keep two ladies intact; a subtle hooker team-up that has Ellen Burstyn's intense and determined Sally with her tag-along, younger and (arguably) prettier step-daughter, Jessica, played by a little known actress, Sally Ann Robinson, who, in a way, fits the era more than anyone else –  while Burstyn attempts to fill the "real deal dame" ala Karen Black of FIVE EASY PIECES, Robinson provides the Susan Anspach with sun-drawn, long-haired, natural beauty – who Bruce (as this film's Jack) is really after...

Jack Nicholson and Julia Anne Robinson
Experiencing Burstyn somewhat wasting her talent on a seemingly non-scripted actor's workshop is like Nicholson's role as the vehicle's blown-out front tire – stuck on the passenger's side since Dern is left to (symbolically speaking since you can walk through Atlantic City) drive the piece, and he's fun to watch as more a sociopath than his usual psychopath...

But KING OF MARVIN GARDENS, in which everything, down to the very title, is so ambiguously lacking in plot and overall structure, no one character's able to shine beyond the washed-out aesthetic of a town resembling colorful learning blocks leftover from a ambitious night's work. In that, what Dern's really after is told to us up front, but he never seems to really want anything but time with his brother – hell, maybe that's the hidden depth and meaning of the entire picture...

Nicholson and Dern
Because there's an addictive, laid-back aura throughout, making the exterior-set arthouse independent film one to re-watch if you want to get anywhere at all, and so not to waste two-hours of Nicholson in his edgy youth taking another path entirely...

Jack Nicholson enters Atlantic City where Tanya waits
The only scenes really difficult to survive are whenever the dimensionless main cast suddenly alter personality traits – as Jack's necessary "moral conscience" turns into a sporadic b.s. artist while Dern sits silent and proud feels like on-the-spot improvisation, which is a good thing but only when it flows through the dialogue and not just with it. Then again, this sudden shift-of-mood winds up working in our favor when Burstyn's energetic yet melancholy Blanch Dubois version of a "gangster's moll" narrows her wry grin into what ultimately becomes an important element in this character-studied, grownup student film, reflecting the waning days of the counter-culture movement, done finding themselves and left to search for what's completely out of reach – while "lot's of money" is the easiest answer, it's really up to the audience to decide...

Main Poster Image SCORE: ***
Which ultimately seems like the entire purpose here: to look past the hands-on brilliance of FIVE EASY PIECES, a celebrated 1970 classic, unfortunately known more for "chicken between your knees" but that had evolved in depth, scope and characterization past the director-friendly Renaissance Era's Shot at Lexington and Concord, EASY RIDER...

For GARDENS, was it up to Rafelson and Nicholson to go one step past PIECES or two over RIDER (which had made Jack, a last-minute replacement for Rip Torn, a sudden star because it came out first while, years earlier, Rafelson wanted the credit for Jack's catapult from B-Movies to the A-List with PIECES, always intended for Jack in mind)?

Either way and overall, what's best learned from this flawed but intriguing, theme-driven venture was that there seemed to be nothing more to learn in taking the counter-culture route: And so, years later, spanning two decades, it would take the actor/director team to work backwards, using a bonafide Neo Noir template in each – the second a 1990's Florida-based "modern day" slow-burn, post-heist flick and beginning with what fans of 1940's Pure Noir never wanted, and still shake their fists at – and so, let us begin with...

YEAR: 1981
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE: Okay so the purists are right – what's most sexy remains implied, and the original Noir programmer remains a far more sensuous movie since Bob Rafelson's 1981 remake keeps little hidden as Jack Nicholson's otherwise useless drifter takes Jessica Lange right there in the steamy kitchen of a diner with living quarters on the second story, and where outside's a one-pump gas station proudly owned by... Alright, now for an important element further separating the old from the new...

While Jack Nicholson is no John Garfield (the Christ-Figure of Classic Crime Cinema), the Noir-friendly CHINATOWN actor doesn't have to be. And Jessica Lange, one of the most beautiful and talented actresses of all time, with a vulnerable damsel-in-distress old-film quality about her (KING KONG wasn't a fluke) – God knows she's not as voluptuous as Susan Hayward...

Michael Learner owns the third act
But making the real difference, and working in the remake's favor is the otherwise overacting BATTLESTAR GALACTICA traitor John Colicos...

He's perfectly suited as the culprit of the error that all wealthy (or in this case, comfortable) Noir husbands with trophy dames make – from the 1940's all the way to Tony Scott's Kevin Costner vs Anthony Quinn REVENGE...

The mind-blowing act of not only allowing a young wife to spend ample free-time with a young and energetic, handsome rogue but instigating and insisting upon their friendship to grow – only to be stunned how things inevitably (and predictably) pan out, which usually erupts in a furious maelstrom unless, like in either POSTMAN vehicle, the poor old dolt never sees the end coming, and that's when this version hits both a giant wall and a goldmine...

Lange lights up while Jack tosses his cards
The latter in a clever, manipulative, genius pivotal defense lawyer played by Michael Lerner, who, for a least twenty-minutes... through desperate pleading to the court and sneaky backroom deals where his true colors show... not only steals the picture but controls it, overriding complications and the first of two bulwark antagonists in the 1980's Brat Pack Generation's personal Stella Adler/Lee Strasberg...

What a poster, this one
Most know William Traylor from FLETCH as the uppity snob, Mr. Underhill, and here his cocky D.A. pitted against Lerner occurs on screen while Jack and Jessica – who had meant everything only minutes earlier during a physically involving exterior murder plot – both take a passive backseat, watching the verbal circus like the theater audience...

But Jack needs credit since the best, most genuine moments take place during the first act – before the inevitable affair and murder... Nicholson, in one of his last "lean and mean" looking roles, flanked between THE SHINING and REDS, before his thereafter stout and owlish, middle-aged comprise of TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, seems... with a sparse vocal tone more CHINATOWN than CUCKOO'S NEST... as gritty as the job given by the too-friendly, doomed husband, who, as somewhat mentioned earlier, is far more effective and realistic than the laughing clown in the original, more catered to a THREE... make that, FOUR STOOGES picture than a vicious crime melodrama that he's the prime target of...

"Open," get it? She thought he would... RINGScore: ***1/2
Yet with Colicos, it still makes zero sense that a bombshell like Lange would marry such a grotesque boob for money since, after all, he's no Hughes or Rockefeller – but Jessica, like Jack, is effective during the initial stages of being a weathered, world-weary and tough-as-nails rag-doll who gets sexier as the initial flirtation pans out before the rudimentary love scene that's almost as brazen as Nicholson's Triumph t-shirt, room-pounding romp with Sally Struthers in Rafelson's FIVE EASY PIECES, and that's saying something...

Jessica Lange
And, although much of the time's spent in the diner, and then the jail and courthouse, one sequence in-between exists as a nice break from the murky routine as the newly formed couple attempt to "run away," getting as far as a bus station till Jack's rogue personality comes to light, giving a sense of time and place... America's 1930's Depression... than any other part. And beware as a little piece of bizarre-retro Rafelson HEAD and MARVIN GARDENS arthouse creeps intrusively into the final act involving Jack with his former girlfriend Angelica Huston and her pet circus jungle cat – this while Lange's time by herself, after the fallout of the otherwise successful trail, is far more heartfelt and sympathetic, cluing us into who the movie's really been centered on, from beginning to end.

Cover Art for DVD
BLOOD AND WINE: Some truly inspired casting of two sly human bobcats, one young in this agile twenties and muscular from shark-hunting and shabby clothes, both looked-down upon. But what a letdown to realize, Jack Nicholson and Stephen Dorf aren't really related – he's the step-son of bitter wife (who knows, perhaps he was the milkman, or POSTMAN).

This primal Bob Rafelson Neo Noir is set in a humid locale suited just right for the pulpy, visual page-turning "Cerebral Crime" genre, also known as a Thriller – that being Florida, on and off the sea although Dorf's Jason isn't the type to get himself that deep into something he's not in complete control of, like a hooked and killable shark, conveniently using a lure attached to a pickup truck, so he's used to opening the usual Noir Pandora's Box – that being, Shortcuts, which are always fueled by Curiosity...

Michael Caine as Vic
Eventually, Alex, played by Nicholson in a classy and distinguished yet thoroughly crooked leading role, attempting to bring his rugged CHINATOWN handsomeness back where its maligned sequel, THE TWO JAKES, failed, might have what the precocious kid wants – at first, as is usual, this comes in the sultry female form...

Year: 1996
Enter an ambiguous yet idealistic, sassy and voluptuous Jennifer Lopez as a Cuban nanny, Gabriel aka Gabby, doing a good job visually despite overdoing a Cuban accent, especially speaking the word "Chhhharrrk" (shark); her character is eventually fired from a soft job for a rich, yacht-lazy couple where the best scene takes place involving Nicholson's Alex, who had cased the house and now his working partner for a job other than his wine shop comes into play: A smug, charming, cool-eyed safe-cracker named Vic, dying of emphysema and with a desire to retire in a nice enough place to suffocate – played by the GET CARTER, PULP and PEEPER English Neo Noir kingpin: none other than Michael Caine.

Jack gets bloodied up
Bob Rafelson's direction is topnotch, especially in the pivotal scene concerning the nail-biting heist of the aforementioned rich couple's million dollar diamond necklace. Through grainy ambience and a nicely-suited melodramatic score, the lean, effective pace continues as the tables turn, and the goods wind up in the hands of the son-in-law and wife of an injured and determined Nicholson, who still has a heart beating behind the viciousness, along with his heartless crony...

BLOODScore: ***1/2
At one point, the Heist sub-genre is replaced with an investigational Suspense, where the "bad guys" seek the protagonists – and to keep the movie rolling with the same kind of hard-edge,  it might not be the good people you'll end up "rooting" for. In that, Dorf's character, who's tempted to keep the prize, remains inches away from what can happen when the nice guy become too much in-the-right – they wind up completely uninteresting...

But, even through the somewhat lackluster midsection, when a few too many intrusive complications arise in a slow, unexciting manner, it's subtle moments that really count as Nicholson delivers lines with less of his usual, maligned signature Jack-drawl and, resembling those who've been known to resemble him, a manly combo of Fred Dryer and Michael Ironside, and with a character having everything to lose, BLOOD AND WINE provides the man a role slightly reminiscent of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and, when he really gets ticked-off and unlucky – and worst yet, one-upped and injured by a woman – more than a slight touch of THE SHINING.
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