One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

2016 #100
Miloš Forman | 134 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestBy many accounts this is the greatest film I’d never seen (hence it being this year’s pick for #100). How are you meant to go about approaching something like that? Probably by not thinking about it too much. I mean, something will always be “the greatest you’ve never seen”, even if you dedicate yourself to watching great movies and the “greatest you’ve never seen” is something pretty low on the list… at which point I guess it stops mattering.

Anyway, this acclaimed drama — one of only three films to win the “Big Five” Oscars — follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a prisoner who’s claiming to be mentally ill in order to avoid hard labour, as he’s sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His ward is run by the firm hand of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who subtly controls and oppresses the other inmates (who include early appearances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif). With his antiauthoritarian nature, McMurphy sets out to usurp her control… with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Cuckoo’s Nest is very ’70s in its bleakness; also in being about someone sticking it to The Man, and The Man winning. We often conflate such qualities with realism — “it’s not all happy, it must be more like real life” — but I wonder if Cuckoo’s Nest is actually too on the nose as an indictment of the system. McMurphy is a highly disruptive influence, which in reality would surely be a problem, but he’s seen to bring the other inmates a joy they previously hadn’t known. His actions give one, Billy Bibbit, confidence and cure him of his stutter — until Ratched reasserts control, his stutter returns, and… worse happens.

Wretched RatchedHollywood is notorious for adapting novels by grafting on happier endings, but here they did the opposite, removing even the glimmers of justice that the novel offers. In the book (according to Wikipedia), when McMurphy strangles Ratched he also exposes her breasts, humiliating her in front of the inmates; when she returns to work, her voice — her main instrument of control — is gone, and many of the inmates have either chosen to leave or have been transferred away. Conversely, in the film there is no humiliation, and we explicitly see that she still has her voice and that all the men are still there. Of course, McMurphy’s ultimate end isn’t cheery in either version. It’s almost like the anti-Shawshank in its hope-less ending. While the cynical part of me thinks this is more realistic, I do like a bit of optimism, a bit of victory, a bit of justice for the real perpetrators.

Even aside from the ending, I don’t think the film is as focused as it could or should be. I’m not asking to be handheld through it all, but at times it meanders. The best qualities lie in the acting. Nicholson and Fletcher won the Oscars, and both are very good — Nicholson with his familiar crooked charm, Fletcher despicable as the everyday megalomaniac — but for me the best performance is Brad Dourif, making his screen debut as the stuttering, sweet, ultimately tragic Billy Bibbit. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to George Burns in Only sane one hereThe Sunshine Boys (anyone remember that? No, didn’t think so); though he did win the BAFTA, once again proving that we have all the taste.

I’m not quite on board with all the praise Cuckoo’s Nest has received — I think it might be improved by a streamlining of purpose. Either way, it is not an enjoyable movie, though it is perhaps a significant one.

4 out of 5

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Batman Returns (1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #9

The Bat
The Cat
The Penguin

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1992) | 15 (cut, 1992) | 15 (uncut, 2009)
MPAA: PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence”

Original Release: 19th June 1992 (USA)
UK Release: 10th July 1992
First Seen: VHS, c,1993

Stars
Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman)
Danny DeVito (Twins, The Rainmaker)
Michelle Pfeiffer (Ladyhawke, Hairspray)
Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone, Seven Psychopaths)

Director
Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Dark Shadows)

Screenwriters
Daniel Waters (Heathers, Demolition Man)

Story by
Daniel Waters (see above)
Sam Hamm (Batman, Monkeybone)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

The Story
Batman has a lot on his hands when abandoned Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, emerges from the shadows seeking acceptance by running for mayor, backed by corrupt businessman Max Shreck. Meanwhile, a newly-created Catwoman has an axe to grind with Shreck, and won’t let Batman stand in her way…

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, with a kind of ’30s Gothic edge.

Our Villains
A triumvirate of terror! Danny DeVito is the Penguin, deformed, abandoned as a child, and out for revenge against the city. Michelle Pfeiffer is Catwoman, PVC-clad, kinky, and also out for revenge. Christopher Walken is Max Shreck, a morally corrupt businessman with political needs, who clashes with Bruce Wayne as much as Batman.

Best Supporting Character
The one significant constant through the four ’80s/’90s Bat-movies, Michael Gough is a near-peerless Alfred.

Memorable Quote
Batman: “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”
Catwoman: “But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”

Memorable Scene
Batman and the Penguin are having an argument. Suddenly, a figure comes backflipping towards them — Catwoman. They stare. “Meow.” The building behind her explodes. It’s not actually her first appearance, but it’s quite an introduction.

Technical Wizardry
The whole design of the film, and Gotham City in particular, is fantastic; a kind of ’30s-but-also-modern art deco style. It’s all quite Burtonesque too, though not too much so for my taste.

Truly Special Effect
The Penguin’s army of penguins, an effective mix of real birds, animatronics, and actors in suits.

Making of
The first draft of the screenplay was intended to be more of a direct sequel to Batman: subplots included gift shops selling fragments of the destroyed Bat-Wing, revelations about the past of the Joker, and Bruce Wayne proposing to Vicki Vale by the end of the film. However, Tim Burton was uncomfortable with making a direct sequel, so the script was rewritten. Ah, the days when people wanted sequels to be less connected…

Previously on…
Tim Burton’s first Batman film brought the dark ‘n’ gritty ’70s/’80s evolution of the character from the comic books to the big screen for the first time. It was a huge success, though I think it feels notably more dated today than Returns does.

Next time…
Two semi-direct sequels — though with Burton and Keaton both abandoning the series, they took a distinct downward turn in quality. The 2005 reboot has so far led to three more Bat-movies, and now another new series dawns starring Ben Affleck.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Visual Effects, Makeup)
2 BAFTA nominations (Special Effects, Make Up Artist)
1 Saturn Award (Make-Up)
4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito), Director, Costumes)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito))
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Most Desirable Female (Michelle Pfeiffer))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“Burton couldn’t play it safe if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to. Entrusted with one of the most valuable franchises in movie history, he’s made a moody, grotesque, perversely funny $50 million art film. […] Something about the filmmaker’s eccentric, surreal, childlike images seems to strike a deep chord in the mass psyche: he makes nightmares that taste like candy.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“unmissable in Batman Returns, Burton tends to employ the film noir style in his movies. […] a visual sensation from start to finish, nearly all to the credit of Tim Burton, and all of the other elements of the film noir style come together quite brilliantly to reintroduce Batman, as flawed antihero, back into popular culture.” — Kate Bellmore, Reel Club

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’. Of Returns, I wrote that “Tim Burton’s first Batman film is great, no doubt, but Returns is a much better film in so many ways. The direction, writing, acting, action and effects are all slicker. They spent over twice as much money on it and it really shows.”

Verdict

Controversial on release — and since — but for me, Batman Returns holds up best out of the four ’80s/’90s Batman movies. Tim Burton brings his own stamp to the Bat-universe, crafting a darkly Gothic fantasy world that’s both striking and effective, populated by grotesques (in different senses) like the Penguin, Catwoman, Shreck, and perhaps even Batman himself. There’s chemistry between the entire cast, memorable scenes and set pieces, and the sense of an entire artistic vision that the Bat-series wouldn’t have again for over a decade.

#10 will be… a tale as old as time.