We Can Dance If You Want To, We Can Leave Your Friends Behind (The Dance of Reality, 2014, Alejandro Jodorowsky)

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We live in the era of the comeback. The internet has consolidated and concentrated the interest in things that were once niche cult artifacts and provided a chance for artists who may have found little commercial success at the time to come back and capitalize on the growth in that cult appreciation over time. And for Alejandro Jodorowsky, the mad cinematic wizard behind El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, the man who the term “cult film” may as well have been invented for and who hasn’t directed a feature in over twenty years, the time for a comeback is perhaps past due.

The film opens with a clear attempt to dispel the thought that this particular artistic comeback is just a cash-in; gold coins rain down in front of the camera to the tune of Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” as Jodorowsky gives a monologue on greed as a societal motivator and a still image of the 85 year old director fades in over the coins in a somewhat chintzy effect of the kind you might see on an old episode of Unsolved Mysteries.

I’m sure a spiritual dude like Jodorowsky would not appreciate my snark or my cynicism, so I’m going to get it all out of the way early, for I really only have one big complaint to level at the film. And it’s not even a complaint I feel great about making! I understand that it has indeed been 23 years since Jodorowsky has directed a movie, and I understand that this is in large part a financial issue. Jodorowsky has expressed a severe distaste for what he sees as the money-grubbing nature of the film industry, and film financiers get understandably nervous about sinking money into the kind of truly bizarre, who-even-is-the-target-audience-for-this movies Jodorowsky makes; we’re long past the days when John Lennon and George Harrison tossed Jodorowsky a million bucks to make The Holy Mountain just because. And far be it for me to bag on an artist who refuses to compromise his vision, BUT… The Dance of Reality kinda looks like shit.

Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Jodorowsky’s knack for impressively hallucinatory set design and striking, confrontational framing is as strong as it ever was, even if The Dance Of Reality wears its budget on its sleeve more than his past movies. The problem lies with the cinematography; I’m about to reveal how little I know about shooting on digital, but let’s just say that this movie looks like it was shot on very cheap digital, and everything has that kind of compressed, plasticky look of daytime television. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the movie looks like a soap opera, but it looks enough like one that I had to frame this sentence that way. This would be something of a stumbling block for any movie, but given how beautifully shot Jodorowksy’s past movies were – particularly El Topo and The Holy Mountain, whose sumptuous cinematography by Rafael Cordiki is still somewhat underappreciated – it hits like a punch in the stomach, and combined with some mercifully brief but no less embarrassing use of CG effects near the beginning, it pains me to say that this is Jodorowksy’s worst-looking movie.*

Ah, but I did say I was going to get the bitching out of the way early, so let me reiterate: the digital cinematography is my only complaint about the movie, which is, in all other aspects, one of the most exciting and fun times I’ve had at an art-house film in quite a while. It pleases me to say that age has not softened Jodorowksy one bit; between the explicit sex and violence, the occult weirdness, the multiple graphic onscreen depictions of urination, the carnival atmosphere, and the twisted psychological material involving parentage, we’re very firmly in old-school Jodorowksy territory. Maybe moreso than ever before, in fact, for the story concerns young Alejandro himself (Jeremias Herskovits) growing up in the seaside Chilean town of Tocopilla, cared for by his mother Sara (Pamela Flores), who solely communicates through operatic singing, and his father Jaime (Brontis Jodorowsky, very much the spitting-image of his pop, and giving one of the best performances in any Jodorowksy film), a stern violent brute who takes a very specifically Stalinesque approach to running his family. The film has a weird two-act structure (which is actually kind of common to Jodorowksy – El Topo and Santa Sangre are similarly structured), whereby we follow young Alejandro’s tumultuous upbringing for the first half before abruptly switching focus to Jaime, who in a fit of Marxist fervor leaves his family on a suicidal bid to assassinate General Carlos Ibáñez (Bastián Bodenhöfer) that goes very differently than planned.

That’s really all the plot summary the movie requires, for while it has perhaps a more solid narrative through-line than the director’s past works, it’s still very much about letting the sensory and emotional experience wash over you (the movie is significantly aided in both respects by the quite beautiful score by Adan Jodorowksy – pops likes to keep it in the family, as you can see). The movie carries us through ugly beauty and beautiful ugliness and every permutation of those things you can name. While there’s a lot of past-Jodorowsky here (a less charitable reviewer might call the opening half a retread of Santa Sangre, although to me it’s reframed enough to feel fresh – and hey, it’s not as if we’ve been swamped with Santa Sangre knockoffs these past twenty years), a lot of it is new, as well. It feels like his most overtly political film, for one, with the nature of Jaime’s tyrannical exploitation of socialist ideas to suit his own inner violence being given a hefty workout, complete with a quite brutal portrayal of the torture of dissidents under Ibáñez’s regime. And at the same time, it may well be his most personal film, with the elder Jodorowksy appearing as a kind of phantom observer at key moments – the last of these, in the closing shots of the movie, is a surprisingly tender and sentimental moment, and though he has since insisted that The Dance of Reality will not be his last movie, it makes for as appropriate a farewell as anything ever could.

I was going to close this much the same way as I closed my last entry on X-Men: Days of Future Past: by stating that this is a movie where you almost certainly know whether or not you fall into its target audience, and you will probably act accordingly no matter what I say. But on second thought, if you’ve made it to the end of this review and you don’t know whether or not this movie appeals to you, I urge you: give it a shot. Jodorowksy movies are a precious commodity – we don’t get them often, and we may never get another again. Being afraid of them is like being afraid of dancing. Try it. You might like it.

*Disclaimer: I have not seen Tusk or The Rainbow Thief, but neither has anybody else.

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Time Enough at Last (X-Men: Days of Future Past, 2014, Bryan Singer)

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The X-Men film franchise started with success and high hopes in the early 2000s, where it managed to flourish for a few years in the early stages of the superhero movie boom before descending into sheer inanity. This makes the franchise a sturdy supporter for an entry where, on both a textual and subtextual level, the returning cast and crew of the original X-Men has to travel back in time to stop the worst from happening – the worst, of course, being X-Men: The Last Stand.

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Opening title card.

We open in the near future of 2023, where the world has become a very grim place for human and mutant alike. The shape-shifting, mutant hunting robots known as Sentinels have herded those mutants and mutant sympathizers that they haven’t already destroyed into death camps (the Holocaust imagery here feels a bit tasteless and unearned, much as it did in many of the comics this film draws from) and they’ve been giving the last remaining X-Men a particularly rough go of it lately, mounting a series of attacks that they’ve only escaped by the skin of their teeth via some last-second time travel.

I’m not going to spend any time explaining the time travel, being that the movie stops dead in its tracks about ten minutes in to do so through a particularly ungainly slab of exposition. Long story short, the team has decided that their last, best hope is to send the consciousness of ageless mutant Wolverine (ageless Australian Hugh Jackman) back into his body circa 1973, the year when mutant radical Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinated the Sentinels’ creator, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), igniting a firestorm of anti-mutant sentiment. There (then), he can find disillusioned mutant headmaster Professor Xavier (James Macavoy) and imprisoned mutant demagogue Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and together try to stop Mystique and steer humankind into a less extermination-happy future.

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Screenshot from X-Men: First Class.

Being that this is a movie about traveling back into the past, I’d like to take a minute to talk superhero movie history: in the ’90s, Batman was pretty much the only game in town (having taken the torch from the Superman films after they plummeted into Golan-Globus lunacy). 1989’s Batman was a stunningly massive success, making back its $48 million budget almost ten times over, plus a staggering $750 million in merchandise sales. It was also, notably, the darkest piece of superhero media non-comic readers in 1989 were likely to encounter, something many viewers were uncomfortable with, even moreso after Tim Burton’s violent, bondage-tinged sequel Batman Returns. The franchise was then handed off to Joel Schumacher with the directive to make it more family-friendly. Skip ahead to 1997’s Batman & Robin, a gaudy vomitorium of camp excess and dopey one-liners that, despite turning a profit, was still considered a disaster big enough to nuke not just the Batman franchise, but possibly the entire superhero genre.

Marvel Comics, whose previous (and only) theatrical release had been the megaflop Howard the Duck, perhaps saw an opportunity in the death throes of DC’s big cinematic cash cow. After first testing the waters in 1998 with an adaptation of C-list property Blade, which became a surprise success, Marvel gave Usual Suspects wunderkind Bryan Singer directorial duties on X-Men, which became one of the highest grossing movies of 2000. Like the Burton Batman films, the double-whammy of Blade and X-Men was dark, violent, and clad all-over in black leather. Flash-forward to 2008, when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight came out and put the 1989 Batman to shame, both in terms of a truly staggering billion-dollar box-office take and a tone of such overwhelming bleakness as to make the darkest of Tim Burton’s visions look like something out of an episode of Sesame Street.

What I’m trying to get at (in an overly wordy, roundabout way) is that the big tone-setters across multiple phases of the superhero movie – a genre that, in its original medium, is more often bright, colorful escapism – have been dark, ultraserious affairs indeed. And many of the recent films that have tried to copy this po-faced seriousness have fallen flat on their faces in doing so – see Mark Webb’s dull, navy-blue tinted The Amazing Spider-Man or Zack Snyder’s ludicrous cacophony of disaster porn Man of Steel. And while I’ve already harped on the grimness of the future scenes in DOFP, the overall impression I had walking away from it was glee that a superhero movie had the courage to be wacky and out-there again, ground that hasn’t really been tilled since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.

And like Raimi at his best, Singer has a real knack for combining these wacky superhero concepts with genuine pathos without losing his footing. I’m thinking specifically of a scene where the young Xavier and the old Xavier (the always game Patrick Stewart) use the unstuck-in-time Wolverine’s brain as a kind of time-traveling Skype to allow the two Professor X’s to have a face-to-face chat – a scene that, against all odds, has a genuine emotional impact.

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Dinklage and Jackman share a tense moment.

Then there are the moments that are just plain fun, the most instant-classic of which being the mid-film mini-arc dedicated to petulant speedster Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and his breaking-into-and-then-back-out-of the Pentagon, one of the most purely entertaining sequences in a tentpole action film in some time. Really, all of the action sequences are top-notch, including a multi-mutant confrontation at the Paris Peace Accord and a final confrontation involving a football stadium crashing into the White House lawn (editor/composer John Ottman is in particularly fine form here, with some nifty splicing in of imitation Super 8 footage in the former and some impressive cross-cutting between the film’s past and future timelines in the latter). And the film’s laissez-faire attitude towards the mechanics of time-travel combined with its gleeful use of ’70s signifiers (the film does an altogether much better job of evoking the ’70s, from the costuming and set design to the cinematography and soundtrack choices, than X-Men: First Class did of evoking the ’60s) are altogether welcome.

Overall, while this is probably not the best of the X-Men films (I’d still hand that one to Singer’s last crack at bat, 2004’s X2: X-Men United), it feels like the most well-balanced. Singer’s always had a knack for creating well-etched, standout supporting characters – this is as evident in The Usual Suspects as it is in his first two X-films – but at times this has come at the expense of giving his leading characters things to do (remember how stranded Cyclops was in X2?). Not so here, where everyone gets their time to shine. It’s a huge-ass cast, so I’ll just give a few quick highlights: As mentioned earlier, Evan Peters steals the show with his amusingly impatient portrayal of Quicksilver, and if they haven’t locked him in for a bigger role in the upcoming sequel, someone messed up. Peter Dinklage gives a great villainous turn as Boliver Trask, an unusually layered take on the mad scientist figure, the type of guy who can profess genuine admiration for mutants and a burning desire to harvest their spinal fluid and brain tissue in the same breath without seeming to realize the contradiction (there’s a bit of Peter Cushing’s classic take on Baron Frankenstein here). The “most-improved” award goes to Jennifer Lawrence, who is much more comfortable in the role of Mystique than she was in her last go at the character, possibly because she’s given much more interesting things to do. And James Macavoy and Michael Fassbender maintain the level of excellence they brought to the otherwise middling X-Men: First Class.

As for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, while he’s still the nominal protagonist here, as he was in five of the six previous X-Men films, he’s given a somewhat scaled back role here, both in terms of his screen time and his importance as a plot-mover, that allows the rest of the cast room to breathe and helps keep this movie feeling like same-old-same-old. The time travel conceit even allows the movie to use a pre-metal-skeleton Wolverine for the majority of the running time, which works much better as a way to raise the stakes than the ill-defined healing factor loss in last year’s The Wolverine – seeing the character genuinely struggle to take down one medium-sized plastic robot is a bit bracing.

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Deleted scene featuring Josh Brolin as Thanos.

Anyway, I’ve rambled more than a little, so to be brief: this is clearly one for the fans. Much as with the comics, the labyrinthine convolutions of the plot are probably more than intimidating to the X-Men virgin (that is to say, virgin to all things X-Men; not virgins who like the X-Men, which is a very different demographic). Still, if you’ve enjoyed any one X-Men movie, chances are very high you’ll enjoy this one. It has a just about perfectly developed sense of what to keep and what to discard from previous entries, and the result is a superhero movie that feels lean and mean despite a nearly 2.5 hour running time. At this point, you know whether you’re in or not, and if you fall in the first category, you’re unlikely to be disappointed.

Godz and Monsters (Godzilla, 2014, Gareth Edwards)

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(mild spoilers follow)

Godzilla – the big, greenish-gray irradiated lizard that became Toho Studios’ biggest cash cow in 1954 – means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And as is so often the case these days with nerdy formerly-niche properties being given the hundred million dollar Hollywood treatment, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla has stirred up some strong feelings on both sides of the fence. So it falls to this longtime Godzilla fan to come as a peacemaker and reveal the truth that the blockbuster reimagining of the King of the Monsters is, in fact… okay. Not great, but not terrible. An appropriately satisfying time at the movies. Sorry, these are the most controversial opinions I can muster up.

The film, after the opening credits spool out over grainy atomic bomb test footage (careful, movie, this is how Godzilla 1998 started), opens in Japan in 1999 with nuclear technician Joe Brody (everyone’s favorite TV dad Bryan Cranston) losing his wife Sandra (everyone’s favorite French lady Juliette Binoche) in a catastrophic earthquake that levels the entire nuclear plant, in full traumatic view of his son Ford’s elementary school. Skip ahead to present day, where grown up Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, nobody’s favorite anything) has to return to Japan to bail out his crazy old dad, who is convinced that it wasn’t a natural disaster that killed his wife and turned a wide swath of Japan into a quarantine zone, but something more sinister – something alive. And, being that we as viewers, presumably of our own volition, walked into a movie called Godzilla in 2014, we can probably all guess that he was right.

Godzilla’s handlers claim “food poisoning” to avoid embarrassment.

BUT, maybe he’s not right in the way that we assumed, because before we get to the G-man himself, we meet the MUTOs, a couple of spindly, insectoid monsters that actually caused the destruction of the plant, and once awakened get right back to destroying, because this film is not just an attempt to get back to the awe and gravity of the 1954 original, it’s an attempt to reconcile that gravity with the fun, wacky matinee sequels featuring Godzilla wailing on other monsters. Once we watch the MUTOs wreck up Japan and then Hawaii, only then, nearly an hour into the movie, does Godzilla rear his scaly head. And it is not until nearly an hour later that we get to see Godzilla and the MUTOs duke it out.

The relative paucity of Godzilla in this Godzilla movie has become the big talking point, but before I get to that, I’d like to examine this film’s place within its titanic, 30-film franchise. The particular films Godzilla 2014 is being held up against are Ishiro Honda’s stunning 1954 original Gojira and Roland Emmerich’s stunning-in-an-entirely-different-way 1998 Godzilla; the first Godzilla film and the first American Godzilla film respectively, and boy does that put Godzilla 2014 in an awkward position, sandwiched in the collective pop-culture mindset between what is almost certainly the best Godzilla movie and what is with absolute certainty the worst. But the film Godzilla 2014 ends up resembling most of all is actually the less noteworthy Godzilla 2000. Both were films put out to celebrate some sort of milestone (the first Godzilla film of the new millennium; the 60th anniversary of Godzilla), both served as damage control by Toho after a disastrous previous installment (Godzilla 1998; Godzilla: Final Wars), and both sought to reintroduce the idea of Godzilla stomping on shit to a fresh audience while also pitting him against a new original monster with a 4-letter name (remember Orga? anyone?). So instead of holding the new film to the impossibly high standards of Gojira or the embarrassingly low standards of Godzilla 1998, maybe we should be comparing it to Godzilla 2000, that is to say, just another movie about Godzilla engaging in monster-on-monster combat.

Godzilla & choreographer.

Godzilla & choreographer.

So, now that I’ve alienated half the people reading this, how does the movie stack up as just another entry in one of cinema’s longest running junk food franchises? The answer, again, is “okay,” although I’d certainly say it’s closer to the top half of the list than the bottom half. But as for the most persistent complaint that’s popped up in just about every review, you have indeed heard right: Aaron Taylor Johnson is boring as shit. One could easily blame the script, which does him no favors, except that Juliette Binoche and Elizabeth Olsen (as his wife, who I haven’t mentioned because the movie gives me little reason to) manage to give far better performances with even more underwritten roles and maybe one-fifth of his screentime combined (although Johnson is far from the only actor hobbled by the material; it pains me to say this about David Straithairn, but you could cut every single one of his scenes and lose nothing of value). Once a delightfully off-kilter Bryan Cranston exits the film far too early, it’s left entirely without a human anchor.

But hey, it’s even more boring to talk about these puny humans than it is to watch them, so lets get to what we’re all here for anyway: the monsters. It pleases me to say that the design of Godzilla in this film is absolutely top-notch; some have complained about how it makes Godzilla look less reptilian, with an expressive face and stubby snout that makes him alternately look like a bear or a dog and rarely like a lizard, but to me that embodies the concept of Godzilla as some unholy melange of beasts that has always been one of my favorite parts of the character. As for the MUTOs, well, they embody not much except that Gareth Edwards really liked Cloverfield, and it’s a little disappointing how much more eager the movie is to show them off as opposed to Godzilla.

Which brings us back to that big talking point I mentioned earlier: is it true that this Godzilla movie does not have enough Godzilla in it? Maybe. Although a better way to phrase it would be that it has too much of everything else. At 123 minutes, Godzilla 2014 is roughly tied with Godzilla: Final Wars as the second-longest movie in the franchise (behind the truly punishing 142 minute length of Godzilla 1998 – God, what a piece of shit that movie was), and there’s no way it has more than 10 minutes of Godzilla in it. “A ha,” you might say, “but Jaws is 124 minutes, and it too keeps its beastie offscreen for the majority of that running time.” And you would not be wrong, and Gareth Edwards surely knows that too, what with all the Spielberg references he jams into his movie (the most obvious being the name of his lead character, and the weirdest being not one, not two, but three setpieces lifted wholesale from War of the Worlds). But simply having seen a lot of Spielberg movies does not actually make you Spielberg – just ask J.J. Abrams. Edwards does manage to wring some tension out of the way he parcels out glimpses of the big guy, Alien-style – the moment we first see Godzilla’s foot enter the frame is an instant-classic – but the hour of flabby deadweight before Godzilla shows up and the tedious war room exposition scenes do a lot to kill the momentum. And let’s not forget, while we might not see the shark a whole lot in Jaws, it’s already eaten a woman and child by the fifteen-minute mark.

The photo that landed Godzilla in all the tabloids.

The photo that landed Godzilla in all the tabloids.

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh, so let me reiterate that I did enjoy this movie, for its rewards are not inconsiderable. In the absence of any standout acting performances, the clear best-in-show honors go to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, whose exquisite framing of the wide shots makes the film’s big “wow” moments really sing, and whose bouncy energy is frequently all that keeps the scenes of dull human drama afloat. I haven’t seen enough of his work to say if this is career-best material, but it’s certainly a fuck of a lot better looking than The Avengers.

And I’m very glad to say that my biggest apprehension for the film based on the marketing campaign – that it would be entirely grim and joyless – is pretty much unfounded. Sure, the humor in the film is of a fairly morbid variety (I’m thinking primarily of a scene where Elizabeth Olsen tries to put on a cheerful face for her son and say everything’s fine while an extra in a black vest reading “MORGUE ATTENDANT” takes up the entire frame behind her), but it’s definitely there, and the movie knows how to squeeze some fun out of Ken Watanabe’s impossibly grave pronouncements and the completely whackadoo pseudoscience of the MUTOs; you know you’re in good hands when you get actors trying to explain how a monster eats radiation with a straight face. And the final twenty-or-so minutes are when the movie finally comes into its own with an extended sequence of rock ’em sock ’em monster action that delivers on every expectation one could have of an American megabudget kaiju flick (if Pacific Rim weren’t so forgettable, I’d tell it to eat its heart out), complete with an absurdly ironic ending that is sure to plaster a grin across the faces of any fan of giant lizards and/or destruction of property.

Godzilla, moments before eating three children.

Godzilla, moments before devouring three children.

So, is this a perfect Godzilla movie? Absolutely not. But then, there hasn’t been a perfect Godzilla movie since Godzilla Vs. Mothra came out 50 years ago. And what we have at the very least is an entertaining Godzilla movie – and beyond that, a promising Godzilla movie. As much as I hate the modern trend of summer blockbusters to write for the sequel, the Godzilla franchise is far more conducive to sequels than most, and if Edwards et al are now comfortable enough with the property to deliver a more concentrated dose of the things they got right here, then I’d say everyone’s favorite irradiated dinosaur is in good hands.

But seriously, would it kill you to bring back the Akira Ifukube theme song next time? Godzilla without that is like Superman without the cape.

How Tall is King Kong? (The Stunt Man, 1980, Richard Rush)

The Stunt Man is a movie about – among other things – how human beings experience the passage of time. Within it, moments blend into one another in a way that is not like real life – this is one of those movies that is very emphatically A MOVIE in ten foot high letters – but reflects real life in a way that is more real than realism.

It is also one of the most interesting and clever movies about making movies that I’ve ever seen. Director/Screenwriter/dedicated son of a bitch Richard Rush combines the playfulness and magical realism of 8 1/2 with the creeping tension and acerbic satire of The Player (and incidentally, The Stunt Man is a movie that basically does everything for me that I wish The Player did). And between three very different but all wildly effective performances from Peter O’Toole, Barbara Hershey and Steve Railsback, the film gives us a wholly unique look at filmmaking – and specifically, historical epic filmmaking, that classic province of lies – from all the angles

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We have a ways to go before the film gets into the dirty business of moviemaking. First, we get a dog licking his balls.

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Pictured, L to R: Car, dog’s balls, dog.

After that somewhat ignominious opening, we meet Cameron (Railsback), a scruffy denim-jacket wearing dude with “weird loner” written all over him, on the run from the cops for reasons unknown. After an energetically shot foot chase, Cameron tries to hitch a ride from a conspicuously fancy vintage car that then careens off a bridge into the water below. This turns out to be the latest stunt in the shooting of a big budget World War I epic, and Cameron – a Viet Nam vet – finds himself where he last wants to be, strafed by a helicopter and surrounded by people with cameras. And this is where enigmatic director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) first catches his eye.

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“The trick, Steve Railsback, is not minding that it hurts.”

As it happens, the stunt didn’t go so well, in about the worst way a stunt can fail to go well. Confronted by angry policemen, with one fewer stuntman and one more weird loner on hand, Cross sees an easy out. As does Cameron. The two defuse the situation and enter into a mutually beneficial arrangement: Cameron will assume the identity of deceased stuntman Burt and be the new stunt double for pretty boy leading man Raymond Bailey (Adam Roarke), and Cross won’t tell the police he’s here. And if that isn’t a sweet enough deal, Cameron/Burt will also get $650 (1970s dollars) per stunt, as well as getting a chance to cozy up with chameleonic leading lady Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey).

And now we get into the real meat of the movie. Because it turns out the deal may not be as sweet as it seems; Eli Cross’ megalomania goes beyond typical Hollywood director levels. He’s soon shoving the, for his part, very game Cameron/Burt into more and more dangerous stunts, and throwing him curveballs even as they film. Cameron/Burt, now made up in a blonde shag that calls to mind O’Toole in his younger years, starts to wonder if the original Burt’s death wasn’t so much a tragic accident as the logical end result of Cross’ filming style, which may be as much an expression of sociopathic and even murderous desires as it is dedication to his craft. And the more Burt (I’m just gonna follow Cross and the movie’s lead on this one and call him Burt from here on out) slips into his double- no, triple- no, quadruple-role, the less he can be sure of anything.

So yes, this is one of those “what is reality?” movies. But don’t worry, we’re not talking the Baudrillard-aping pseudophilosophy of The Matrix here. Rush never stoops to literally sitting his lead down in a chair and asking him “what is reality?” Its all expressed in the filmmaking itself. I’m thinking particularly of the first big mid-film stunt sequence, which is extraordinary:

We start with a self-contained bit where chief stunt coordinator Chuck Barton (actual stunt man and therefore perhaps impressively good actor Charles Bail) takes Burt through all the motions of a particularly complicated stunt sequence, from a footchase on expressionistic angled rooftops to hand-to-hand fighting and dodging tracer bullets on the same, to a death-defying leap and a crash-landing on a “perfectly safe” stunt awning.

When we then see the filming of the stunt sequence itself, it is not presented as such. It is presented as we might see it in the finished product, with one expert stunt flowing into another expert stunt without pause (as is to be expected in a movie called The Stunt Man, the stunt work is fantastic, making the movie a great love letter to a type of filmmaking that has been almost totally eradicated by CGI), underscored by a jaunty Ragtime-influenced soundtrack – but also with quick behind-the-scenes asides that the viewers of the film-within-a-film would not be privy to.

The effect is indescribably disorienting. We know that this is not what the filming of a stunt sequence looks like, not just because we are canny filmgoers, but because the film that we are watching went out of its way to show us that. So when we see Steve Railsbeck playing Cameron playing Burt playing Bailey stopping to exchange coworker-banter with Barton in the middle of a complicated action scene, we’re not really sure what the hell it is we’re watching. It’s certainly not reality, and it’s not the film-within-a-film either. No, what we are watching is, after all, The Stunt Man itself. But I can think of no other movie that so pointedly asks the viewer to consider what the act of watching the film itself means (indeed, the closest comparison I can think of is not a film at all, but Italo Calvino’s labyrinthine novel If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler…).

I’ve surprised myself here by writing almost 1000 words without mentioned the ten-ton fucking elephant in the room that is Peter O’Toole’s performance. That might be because it’s hard to do justice to. Like in Lawrence of Arabia and The Ruling Class (as of yet the only other performances of his that I’ve seen), it’s an uncompromisingly dominating performance, one that casts a large shadow even over the scenes he doesn’t appear in (Railsback almost certainly has a lot more screen time). According to popular lore, O’Toole based his performance on David Lean, with a wardrobe cribbed from Richard Rush himself. It’s a pitch-perfect movie star turn, with O’Toole pushing his usual charisma into overload with plenty of Mick Jagger swagger and a scarily simmering sense of menace that more than justifies the nomination for a Best Actor Oscar he had no hope of winning (as with The Ruling Class in 1972, O’Toole had the bad luck of having a very bizarre performance nominated up against a mortal lock; Brando for The Godfather in 1972 and De Niro for Raging Bull in 1980).

As with a lot of cult films, particularly of this vintage, The Stunt Man is a bit of a boy’s club, but Barbara Hershey still manages to give a vibrant, scene-stealing turn as the unpredictable Nina Franklin. It’s a role that could easily play as pretty thankless – the one beautiful woman on the set that all the men are fighting over – but Hershey turns it on its head with a performance almost as volatile and off-kilter as O’Toole’s, keeping both Burt and the audience in the dark as to her motivations but still letting the audience in on her inner self at key moments, particularly her reaction at an especially cruel mid-film bit of manipulation by Cross. She also gets a great Ophelia reference in her last scene, complete with a final line that’s one of my favorite in the movie.

Between those two, Railsback is somewhat the weak link of the main cast; it’s not until he really settles into his role-within-a-role-within-a-role-etc. that he hits his stride, and I like the way he always hints but never confirms that Burt might – might – be smarter than he lets on. Still, I kept waiting for most of the movie for him to reveal the intensity of his frankly traumatizing take on Charlie Manson in Helter Skelter – and sure enough, when he finally does, it doesn’t disappoint, in a mesmerizing two-hander between him and Hershey late in the film that goes from romance to tragedy to psychological horror to comedy back to tragedy and then back to comedy again, all in the span of about five minutes.

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Into the spider’s web.

But still, this is the O’Toole & Cross show, as they both remind us in a tremendous “and don’t you fucking forget it” gesture in the film’s closing moments. It’s a role and a performance that would make The Stunt Man a must-see even if it didn’t have so much else to offer – and there’s still so much I haven’t mentioned! From the virtuosic, humorous editing by Caroline Biggerstaff and Jack Hofstra to Allen Garfield’s wonderful supporting turn as the weirdly endearing little creep of a screenwriter to how appropriate it seems that Rush got his start directing Korean War propaganda films to – you know what, I’ll just leave it off there. The Stunt Man is really all about the magic of the movies, and what better way to communicate that than by letting you experience it for yourself? Just don’t get too lost in it.