The China Syndrome (Bridges, 1979), Mike’s Murder (Bridges, 1984), and a few others

Being way behind on films is the new normal! Here’s a double-feature from James Bridges and a few other movies that I’ve seen recently and are worth a mention.

The China Syndrome

Pleasant surprise. I mean, I love Jack Lemmon, but 70s-80s disaster films aren’t really my bag. Luckily, this isn’t one. Jane Fonda is Kimberly Wells, a local reporter stuck on dead-end beats who runs into a harrowing story at the nuclear power plant with her hot-headed cameraman, Richard (Michael Douglas, who also produced). Lemmon is Jack Godell, one of the few guys in the building with a conscience.

Bridges’ film is well-paced and clicks along. It’s also got a good turn from Wilford Brimley as Ted Spindler. Here he is with Godell in my favorite blocking moment of the movie.

Things are going awry. We start in a 2-shot of the two. An alarm sounds. Godell moves swiftly to Ted’s opposite shoulder, and then back:

I like this for a lot of reasons. There’s a dolly hidden in there and it’s smooth. Just gets us a hair tighter at the end frame. It’s also that kind of logical-illogical blocking. I mean, Godell doesn’t have to move. He doesn’t really get closer. It’s totally for the drama, the synchronicity, the kineticism. It really works. It’s one of those pre-designed blocking moments. I doubt anyone landed on this in an improvised rehearsal. It follows two of the principles that I teach and follow (loose principles): block on the beats, and things tend to happen at the same time. You can see it at 3:55 in the clip below.

Here’s the full clip, which is one of the better scenes in the film:

The boom down at 0:26 is a nice way to get into this “new world.” That’s the thing of this scene – there’s upstairs and down on the floor and they’re separated by glass, by movement, and by this shot. The subsequent dolly out with Godell is a great fluid master, moving him across the room and then back to the center to fully establish the space. It also gives us a strong idea of who he is – we meet him in his office, also separated by glass. It’s a nice and clean way to say “this guy’s in charge here,” without belaboring the point.

You can see the master return at 1:14, now pushing and panning to the corner, and then back to Ted for the profile 2-shot. 1:30 and the subsequent shot are so careful. They’re not quite second masters, but they serve nearly the same function – moving Godell around the space on pretty wide lenses, giving us the whole floor. 1:30 is actually an odd cut. It’s just on the line of acceptable for this kind of a film (that is: no jump cuts). When Godell comes back around in 1:53 it completes a loop and re-orients us in terms of top and bottom floor. No confusion in a Michael Douglas production!

When Godell lands at the phone at 1:56 he gets two axises: one is to his guy upstairs, where Godell looks right, and then the other is to Richard and Kimberly, where Godell looks left. Bridges even gives him two different wide OTS’s! One at 1:56 over his right shoulder and then another at 2:06 over his left. That’s some great pain taken to compartmentalize.

The aftershock at 1:03 feels like Jurassic Park. What film first did this shot?

There are good decisions here about when to be on the floor, when to be up on the booth, when to shoot through glass, and when not to. I bet those were long conversations.

The China Syndrome exists somewhere between Network and Fail Safe. Like the more recent Chernobyl, it focuses simultaneously in on the relationships of the leads, and the mechanism and greed behind it all.

Mike’s Murder

I’d like to know more about the production of Mike’s Murder. It somehow feels incomplete – like Bridges had a different vision for the film, or scenes are cut. It’s not all there, I think.

At its best, Mike’s Murder is oh so 80s. It’s super-soft mise-en-scène-

-is contrasted with a dark-underbelly that’s surprising in its sleaze and is a nice sort of real-world intrusion:

Man, these dissolves:

I love them for how on-the-nose they are. Did I already mention the softness of this film? This is what I’m thinking of.

This scene…Mike (Mark Keyloun) superimposed in his tennis outfit over top of Betty (Debra Winger) in bed is so funny:

I love that that’s the lasting image of him. And there’s so much hair in these shots!

Entranced Earth (Rocha, 1967)

Glauber Rocha’s Third Cinema anarchy deserves a longer post. This feels like something William Klein would have admired and reminded me a bit of Hugo Santiago’s Invasión. It’s so angry and disorienting. A semi-fictional revolution in a semi-fictional location. You can feel the life getting squeezed out of people in here. The end, where our hero (both The Conformist and the ending of Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature seem relevant) crawls up the steps amidst an ugly display of hedonism and death is brutal.

Dead Pigs (Yan, 2018)

Cathy Yan’s film got shelved or delayed for some reason, but it’s worth the wait. I was happy to catch it on Mubi. It’s a darkly satirical look at modern Shanghai – or a modernizing Shanghai. That’s in terms of everything from media to construction to foreign influence. She so expertly navigates multiple characters. The karaoke scene is hilarious and spot-on. I really like the quick way that Sean (David Rysdahl – perfectly cast) is recruited by Angie (Zazie Beetz)…and suddenly he’s cutting ribbons and donning costumes as the token white guy. It’s so swift and Yan doesn’t need to belabor the point: give us their mysterious meeting and get on with it. Of course Vivian Wu is amazing. Great character introduction in her salon. Her Candy Wang is layered in such a way that that confident, nearly dance-number sequence fits right in with her atop a roof in her robe.

Chilly Scenes of Winter (Silver, 1980)

My second Joan Micklin-Silver film, Chilly Scenes of Winter brings John Heard back. Here he’s Charles. He’s totally obsessed with Laura (Mary Beth Hurt), which is well-established in a quick dream sequence in his parked car at the beginning of the film.

The film has a great cast – Heard and Hurt, alongside Peter Riegert, Gloria Grahame (nearly unrecognizable!), and Kenneth McMillan. Griffin Dunne has a hilarious cameo.

Chilly Scenes gets pretty dark. Charles is a bit of a misanthrope (Laura notwithstanding) and he’s got some dialogue about rape, daughters, and physical violence that are on the edge of sociopathic. Heard plays it though, and somehow unearths some charm in spite of his obsessions and penchant for sinking into easy, reclusive despair. He’s like a late-70s, middle-class anti-hero.

I love the end of this film. It’s so appropriate and another movie would’ve sweetened it up.

About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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