Steven Berkoff

Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick)

The first half of Barry Lyndon, very nicely delineated on screen with a title card and then an intermission, is a black comedy. The second half is a tragedy. The epilogue explicitly reconciles the two, but there’s also Michael Hordern’s narration, which does the most expository work of anything in the picture. For the most part, Barry Lyndon’s characters are inscrutable. There are occasional exceptions, usually driven from ambiguity by rage—often directed at the titular protagonist, played by Ryan O’Neal—like first nemesis Leonard Rossiter and final nemesis Leon Vitali. Rossiter and Vitali’s souls lay bare. Most everyone else’s do not. Least of all O’Neal’s. O’Neal and his protagonist, subject of the narration but not the film, are forever a mystery. The narration often will describe O’Neal’s actions and reactions, even their motivations, but sometimes not. For example, in the first half of the film, when O’Neal deserts and assumes the identity of an officer, we never know why O’Neal doesn’t put more work into his disguise. In the second half, and far more consequentially for everyone, it’s never clear if O’Neal knocking off the drinking and carousing once he marries rich widow Marisa Berenson is sincere and, regardless, what made him knock it off.

Part one of the film follows O’Neal from poverty in Ireland to military success—albeit enlisted—in the Seven Years War on the continent, then his escape from the military into professional gambling, which leads him to Berenson. The scene where O’Neal seduces Berenson is exquisite and singular, a sublime mix of various movie magics—Kubrick’s direction, the actors silent looks exchanged over a card game, John Alcott’s glorious, gorgeous lighting, Tony Lawson’s editing, the music—the film’s main theme is a Handel piece, which Kubrick trains the audience throughout the first half to recognize for what it accompanies dramatically and then is able to use it later to amplify sequences—not to mention Ken Adam’s production design, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund’s costumes. Every frame of Barry Lyndon is resplendent in one way or another, often in many ways. Kubrick doesn’t do a lot of camera movements, instead relying on zooms to reveal and hide various actions.

Part two of the film is O’Neal and Berenson’s marriage, complicated by his mother (Marie Kean) and her son (Dominic Savage then Leon Vitali), amongst others—not to mention O’Neal’s callousness and cruelty as he assumes control of Berenson’s riches. He’d seduced her while her first husband, aged Frank Middlemass, was still alive and, once his prize is secured, he becomes quite the dick. Again, it’s impossible to know whether O’Neal was always a dick—he’d picked out Berenson as a target, during his days with mentor Patrick Magee, a fellow Irishman pretending to be a Frenchman to card sharp around Europe. O’Neal’s his committed sidekick.

O’Neal and Berenson’s eventual child, David Morley, provides a kind of touchstone for everyone to connect around, even Vitali, who’s seen through O’Neal the whole time and hates him. But it also ends up being Morley who will finally break Vitali’s fragile place in this home he loathes, with his final outburst arguably setting everyone’s lives on a path of destruction. The narrator tells the audience when it’s all too late, some fifty minutes before the end of the film, announcing when it’s time to prepare for the descent, a luxury the characters are without.

The first part of the film is full of entertaining supporting cast members, a somewhat eclectic, somewhat mundane bunch O’Neal meets as his destiny—already rerouted in youth as his father died in a duel just after securing stable employment—moves towards its inevitable conclusion. There’s cousin Gay Hamilton, who teaches O’Neal his way around a woman—it’s unclear how young thirty-two year-old O’Neal is supposed to be playing, but it’s like… seventeen or something. And O’Neal’s frequently blank look is perfect. One of the mysteries is how much O’Neal is grokking things around around him. The Hamilton stuff, at least then O’Neal’s naivety isn’t in question. Hamilton isn’t seriously going to marry her cousin so she warms up to a British officer, aforementioned first nemesis Rossiter, who O’Neal has no problem confronting and making his first duel. The film opens with O’Neal’s father’s death in the duel, so it’s always hanging around. O’Neal is actually fearless while his betters pretend to be and he wields that situation for his own class improvement. Again, does he do it consciously or instinctively… it’s intentionally unclear.

Because while O’Neal is an interesting historical figure to track through these turbulent times, he’s not a sympathetic one. He’s more sympathetic than many and he frequently deserves at least a measure of empathy, he’s never Kubrick’s tragic hero. The tragic hero of the film, its actual subject but not protagonist (because it’s not possible for her to be one) is Berenson. There are tragedies abound in the second part of Lyndon and none of them don’t serve to further devastate Berenson, who weathers them all onscreen in silence, with Kubrick and Alcott’s camera and then Lawson’s cuts all scrutinizing her. O’Neal gives a fantastic performance in Barry Lyndon, but Berenson is the performance the film hinges on. She’s got to convey all the answers without addressing them—or having them addressed in the narration—while O’Neal gets to embrace the inscrutability because, well, he’s a man. And the men of Barry Lyndon place very little value on anything.

The film doesn’t engage much with the fatalism of dueling culture but it’s ever-present. It lurks in the background, waiting for an opportunity to lunge. Similarly, while the first half of Barry Lyndon is very much a war film, it never greatly engages with it; often it’ll happen out-of-shot, but heard, a technique Kubrick utilizes to great effect throughout the first half. Reaction shots from the listener without showing this line or that line being spoken. Eventually it scales up to be the gunfire, which Kubrick actually foreshadows without sound effects earlier in the film. It’s all very intricate, very precise, very delicate.

Everything needs to work for the third act, say the last fifty or so minutes, to deliberately walk its tightrope.

Most everyone O’Neal meets along his way are distinct and excellent—Arthur O'Sullivan’s highwayman only gets a couple scenes but is memorable, Godfrey Quigley’s kindly captain is the closest thing O’Neal, the film, and the audience have to a wholesome role model. Murray Melvin is excellent as Berenson’s personal reverend. Philip Stone’s good as the suffering estate accountant.

Vitali’s got the hardest part in the film and he pulls it off. He manages to be loathsome—he always saves some of his lashings out for Berenson, spitting venom at her once he’s got everyone’s attention—and hateful but never exactly villainous. He’s a very interesting mirror for O’Neal, though neither (apparently) acknowledges it.

Barry Lyndon, especially in the first half, is a history lesson (of sorts); it examines particular times and places, particular cultural norms and mores, without engaging with the larger scale historical events passing. The second half just focuses it in more, examining the participants of the unfolding drama, watching them struggle with their historical contexts… doomed by them, actually. But with a sense of humor about it.

It’s a singular motion picture, always grandiose but never unwieldy, with a superb script from Kubrick, every technical contribution an achievement, and perfect performances. There’s nothing else like it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Kubrick, based on a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray; director of photography, John Alcott; edited by Tony Lawson; production designer, Ken Adam; costume designers, Milena Canonero and Ulla-Britt Söderlund; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan O’Neal (Barry Lyndon), Marisa Berenson (Lady Honoria Lyndon), Leon Vitali (Lord Bullingdon), Marie Kean (Mrs. Barry), David Morley (Bryan Patrick Lyndon), Murray Melvin (Rev. Samuel Runt), Philip Stone (Graham), Patrick Magee (The Chevalier du Balibari), Gay Hamilton (Nora Brady), Leonard Rossiter (Capt. John Quin), Godfrey Quigley (Capt. Grogan), Hardy Krüger (Capt. Potzdorf), Steven Berkoff (Lord Ludd), Diana Körner (Lischen), Frank Middlemass (Sir Charles Lyndon), Dominic Savage (Young Bullingdon), and Arthur O’Sullivan (Capt. Feeny); narrated by Michael Hordern.


The Passenger (1975, Michelangelo Antonioni)

The Passenger is an odd mix of existential crisis and globe-trotting thriller. Director Antonioni does far better with the former than the latter, which has Jenny Runacre trying to discover what happened to husband Jack Nicholson. What happened to Nicholson is he assumes a dead man’s identity for no particular purpose in the film’s otherworldly first act. Then the film stalls, then Maria Schneider shows up and it gets back on track, then the stupid thriller stuff comes in.

Schneider initially inhabits the film as a non sequitur, which is far better than how she ends up (explaining Nicholson’s reasoning to him); she saves the picture just as Antonioni runs out of goodwill from the opening sequence. Well, just a few minutes after. Just enough to appreciate her presence.

Unfortunately, Runacre’s storyline–she’s trying to save Nicholson–is too big for the amount of character she’s got. And Antonioni tells her story flat. Everything else gets this beautiful visual lyricism, with amazing editing from Franco Arcalli and Antonioni, with some gorgeous and accomplished photography from Luciano Tovoli. Great sound design too.

Nicholson doesn’t get much to do once the real chase begins. While he’s got some good scenes with Schneider, Antonioni tries too hard to keep the magic once they get talking. It results in well-acted, problematic dialogue sequences.

The ending, which is technically magnificent, falls flat once the story has to come in just because Antonioni clearly doesn’t care about it.

But it’s definitely got its moments.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni; screenplay by Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen and Antonioni; director of photography, Luciano Tovoli; edited by Antonioni and Franco Arcalli; music by Ivan Vandor; produced by Carlo Ponti; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jack Nicholson (David Locke), Maria Schneider (Girl), Jenny Runacre (Rachel Locke), Ian Hendry (Martin Knight), Steven Berkoff (Stephen), Ambroise Bia (Achebe) and Charles Mulvehill (David Robertson).


Outland (1981, Peter Hyams)

What Peter Hyams does at the end of Outland–cutting away from Sean Connery to a shot of the mining station with a superimposed message from the character to his wife–ought to be a crime. Hyams gets one of Connery’s better performances out of him and then cheats both Connery and the viewer from giving the character a proper sendoff. Instead, the superimposed message and some really sentimental Jerry Goldsmith music. It’s particularly unfortunate, as Hyams makes very few mistakes in Outland and Goldsmith’s score is otherwise excellent. It’s even excellent two seconds before the cut to the exterior.

One could dismiss Outland as High Noon in space, but, in actuality, only the last third is High Noon in space. The rest is an effective, if derivative (from Alien in a lot of ways, particularly Goldsmith’s score), cop fighting corruption (in space) movie. There are a lot of Western elements, but Hyams nicely adjusts everything for the future setting. Strangely, his greatest strength is the human element, whether it’s Kika Markham as Connery’s fed-up wife (most of her scenes are video messages, in which she’s excellent, but Connery’s also good watching them), James Sikking as his shady assistant or–and here’s where Hyams really excels–with station doctor Frances Sternhagen. Connery and Sternhagen have maybe six scenes together and every one of them is fantastic. They’re Connery’s best moments, so maybe Sternhagen somehow got him to act. There’s this one scene, where Connery explains himself to her–short, maybe thirty seconds, forty-five, and he stunned me. Hyams’s dialogue is fine, but Connery’s delivery and Hyams’s composition make it a gold star moment.

Hyams has gone on to shoot his own films, usually poorly (with some excuse about natural light), but here he’s got Stephen Goldblatt, who makes Hyams’s shots look wonderful. Hyams knows how to compose for Panavision and he knows how to make the most out of a limited effects budget. When there finally are a bunch of sets at the end, Hyams concentrates on the enormity and the surrounding emptiness and pulls off a great concluding action scene.

The acting is all good–except Nicholas Barnes as Connery and Markham’s kid, he’s terrible–though Peter Boyle really doesn’t have enough to do as the bad guy.

A lot of the exteriors in space are excellent. Goldsmith’s score is great. Connery’s good, sometimes better. Sternhagen’s a joy. Shame about the last thirty-five seconds though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Peter Hyams; director of photography, Stephen Goldblatt; edited by Stuart Baird; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Philip Harrison; produced by Richard A. Roth; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Sean Connery (O’Niel), Peter Boyle (Sheppard), Frances Sternhagen (Lazarus), James Sikking (Montone), Kika Markham (Carol), Clarke Peters (Ballard), Steven Berkoff (Sagan), John Ratzenberger (Tarlow) and Nicholas Barnes (Paul O’Niel).


Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P. Cosmatos)

Rambo‘s pretty awful. It’s not terrible–not too terrible to watch anyway (at least once, though New York Times critic A.O. Scott should probably be fired for supporting it to any degree). The main technical fault lies with George P. Cosmatos, who somehow managed to stock the crew with capable people (editor Mark Goldblatt is no slouch and Jack Cardiff–you know, the Archer’s cinematographer–shot it), but can’t shoot an action scene, establishing shot, anything. The second unit stuff of the helicopters is the best composition in the movie. The next big problem, then, lies with the script. And not even Stallone’s political commentary, which I’ll save for its own paragraph. No, the problem with the script is the movie’s mostly action after fifty minutes. Forty or so minutes of chase scenes and shooting and explosions. None of these things, of course, look good. Cosmatos is awful at shooting them.

Next problem, the cast. Richard Crenna’s terrible, Charles Napier’s terrible, Martin Kove’s terrible, Julia Nickson-Soul is terrible. Steven Berkoff’s poorly directed but he at least appears to be having fun. Stallone’s okay for some of it… not when he’s talking, not when he’s romancing Nickson-Soul. But when he’s running around, he’s okay. Not when he’s got the big gun either. It just looks too absurd.

As for the film’s politics, they’re incredibly confused (if strangely well-meaning). So confused–and the movie is such an absurd vehicle for political commentary–it’s hard to take them seriously. Stallone pushes and pulls in every direction. Each one of Rambo’s painful moments of political insight is invalidated by the next and it’s somewhat offensive–given the whole movie is about POWs still in Vietnam–Stallone takes the spotlight for himself at the end, instead of acknowledging–in the movie’s reality–there are a dozen or so men about to go home after twenty years in a prison camp.

Luckily, Rambo’s final speech is so dumb and brother Frank Stallone’s song is so awful, it’s impossible to dwell much on Rambo: First Blood Part II… thinking too hard about it, trying to unravel Stallone’s contradictory ideas, trying to understand why Rambo falls in love with Nickson-Soul in four and a half seconds… it hurts the brain.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by George P. Cosmatos; screenplay by Sylvester Stallone and James Cameron, based on a story by Kevin Jarre and on characters created by David Morrell; director of photography, Jack Cardiff; edited by Mark Goldblatt and Mark Helfrich; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, Bill Kenney; produced by Buzz Feitshans; released by Tri-Star Pictures.

Starring Sylvester Stallone (John J. Rambo), Richard Crenna (Col. Samuel Trautman), Charles Napier (Marshall Murdock), Steven Berkoff (Lt. Col. Podovsky), Julia Nickson-Soul (Co Bao), Martin Kove (Ericson), George Cheung (Tay), Andy Wood (Banks), William Ghent (Capt. Vinh) and Voyo Goric (Sgt. Yushin).


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