Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Jones, Gilliam, 1975)

Not Coming to a Theater Near You is currently running a superb feature called “Blind Spots” where each writer reviews a canonical film that, for whatever reason, the individual has unforgivably never seen.

For a multitude of reasons, I chose Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the end result is part confessional, part analytical essay dealing with the ubiquity of film “quoting”.

Also, the daisy chain publishing structure is really something special, with each review prefaced by a short piece from a different writer who has already seen the film, kind of a personalized introduction to contextualize the work’s iconic status. In a strange twist of fate, my introduction to Chinatown leads the way for one of my good friendo’s, Michael Nordine, whose wonderfully honest and meaty examination of Polanski’s masterpiece represents the themes of this feature perfectly. Make sure to read them all.

The Missouri Breaks (Penn, 1976)

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What begins as a dirty and schizophrenic revisionist Western akin to Benton’s Bad Company, gradually turns into a fractured and disturbing requiem for the frontier and certainly one of the strangest genre films ever made.  It’s impossible to discuss the oddness of Arthur Penn’s The Missouri Breaks without first mentioning Marlon Brando’s out-of-this-world performance as bounty hunter Robert E. Lee Clayton, a stunning jumble of cunning, flamboyance, cruelty, and professionalism. When Clayton shows up half-way through the film as a hired gun, Penn’s narrative almost spins off its axis under the pressure of such a force. Traditional Western archetypes become confused, impotent, and disposable as Clayton overwhelms scene after scene with a personality too big for his environment.

Jack Nicholson’s Tom Logan, a horse thief and the object of Clayton’s gaze, is the only character able to see past his opponent’s ridiculous facade and recognize the incredible danger of such a man. But what exactly makes Brando’s character so threatening to both his prey and the cattle baron who’s hired him? Is it his inferred homosexuality or his disavowal of honorable rules? Could it be both intertwined together? These are all questions that make The Missouri Breaks a near impenetrable but fascinating work. The film seems on the brink of saying something about the complexity and falseness of Western iconography and social codes, but like Clayton’s phantasmic ability to hop around the open terrain, the film morphs so often it becomes overly jarring, even experimental in certain usages of sound and image.  By the time Logan gets revenge, his Western world is already turned upside down – friendless, womanless. and homeless – and Clayton’s imprint has been left forever.

The Shining (Kubrick, 1980)

Kubrick’s vision of isolation and madness remains remarkably potent, a horrific gaze at brooding guilt and hatred amidst a snow storm of ideas, memories, and nightmares. Because of this push pull between stirring creativity and relentless doubt, The Shining is an unquestioned masterpiece, a horror film consumed by harsh angles, deep spaces, and disintegrating minds. It unravels methodically, like all of Kubrick’s films, but there’s also a painful intimacy hiding underneath the quotable lines and grandiose stylistics, an ax of putrified resentment that potentially infects us all in some way or another.

Jack Torrance’s psychology grows more ambiguous as his actions become more violent, creating a monster both familiar and foreign, someone whose simmering outbursts resemble a collective deja-vu of rage too disturbing to acknowledge fully.

The Departed (Scorsese, 2006)

Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, a brutal and exhausting American remake of the Hong Kong crime drama Infernal Affairs (2002), uses pitch-perfect rock music cues and unnerving, relentless violence to create a hypnotic tone and speed all it’s own. Set in Boston, the story follows the rise of two moles, one (DiCaprio) a cop infiltrating the mob, the other (Damon) a worm for the mob (led by the maniacal Jack Nicholson) infiltrating the Special Investigations Unit of the MA State Police. As each ascends, they work to uncover the other’s identity, creating endless problems for all involved. There’s also a love interest thrown in the middle, a psychiatrist (Verma Farmiga) who’s involved in one way or another with both Damon and DiCaprio’s characters.

The story has plenty of holes, but you can’t keep your eyes off the screen due to the dynamic performances by the leads, especially Damon, whose ambition and weak morality sit side by side with the ultimate themes of the film. The final image speaks volumes about his character’s need to succeed, no matter how much institutional deception and needless death stare him in the face. The Departed seems to be playing by it’s own rules, defying traditional narrative and editing techniques that make the experience exhilarating and frustrating.

Scorsese owes much of the success of this film to his life-long editor Thelma Schoonmaker, whose rhythm and finesse enable a sometimes overcomplicated story to remain based in character and consequence. The film shifts into a higher gear with each scene, the story finally morphing into something that transcends genre. Scorsese and his cast and crew have created a template/critique of American power, revealing the hidden impotency behind the aggression and weakness that makes these characters deceive and destroy. The Departed stands as an unsettling and conflicted masterpiece, a bloodletting of corruption and ambition that paints the town red more than once, but never without rhyme or reason.