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Review: “Five Easy Pieces” (1970)

Robert Dupea (Jack Nicholson) is a gifted pianist, but that’s not his greatest talent. Robert’s true gift is running away. A bright future in piano performance, a well-to-do family of intellectuals, a needy and pregnant girlfriend — he can walk away from any situation at a moment’s notice. He reinvents himself constantly. Robert’s not quite as talented, though, at acting out whatever new part he’s written. The bitterness, the rage and the discontentment that seep out tend to give him away.

Other people are part of this man’s world, of course, but Bob Rafelson’s comprehensive character study “Five Easy Pieces” revolves around the volatile curiosity that is Robert Dupea. Much like the actor who plays him, Robert cannot be pinned down. He is aimless and distant and restless, a man perpetually ill at ease in his own skin. He’s also disgruntled, though the source of his discontentment is murky. What little information the script provides doesn’t make it any easier to diagnosis Robert’s problem, either. He works in a California oil field, spending his off hours with girlfriend Rayette (Karen Black), a waitress who idolizes Tammy Wynette and Robert in equal measure. Rayette’s hero worship suffocates him, and he treats her with contempt and cheats on her. He also kills time drinking with buddy Elton (Billy Bush). None of this makes him especially happy. Neither do Rayette’s unexpected pregnancy and Elton’s arrest for a convenience store robbery. So when Robert finds out accidentally that his father (William Challee) is ill, he sees his chance to escape … except that a moment of exasperation means Rayette is along for the ride.

An eventual clash of these two worlds — Robert’s listless life with Rayette and his family’s more urbane, pretentious existence — is inevitable. Where Rafelson takes the road less traveled is the result of this collision. He doesn’t present either life as a particularly charmed choice. Robert’s family, a cluster of aggressively cultured types, delights in insufferable dinner guests who name-drop equally insufferable philosophers and belittle the working classes, taking special aim at Rayette. Rayette, on the other hand, is naïve in a way that’s not the least bit charming: She shows up at the Dupea’s Puget Sound mansion when it’s crystal clear Robert doesn’t want her there; she asks for ketchup during a fancy dinner party; she chalks Robert’s hateful tirades and violent behavior up to “moodiness.” Before these two worlds can collide, though, Rafelson foreshadows the tension with the strained, beautifully shot road trip. In this portion of “Five Easy Pieces,” Nicholson outdoes himself. He simmers quietly but dangerously, weathering Rayette’s non-stop singing, her constant need for attention and approval. Robert swallows his annoyance with two bizarre hitchhikers, but some of it spills over in Nicholson’s now-famous “chicken salad sandwich” scene. His contempt for the rude waitress is positively scalding; his sarcasm, withering and razor-sharp. It’s not hard to see why this scene is often touted as the one that made his name — and his career.

“Five Easy Pieces,” though mostly (and undeniably) a vehicle for Nicholson’s talent, also excels visually. Cinematographer László Kovács takes great pains to film the parts of California travel guide photographers shy away from: the barren, featureless landscapes and oil fields; Rayette’s disheveled, nothing-special trailer home; the winding, dusty roads crammed with traffic so thick the exhaust fumes are nearly visible. It’s hardly surprising that Robert, suffocated by the cars, abandons his car in the mess, climbs aboard a truck hauling a piano and starts playing. Music offers a temporary escape, and his childhood home appears, at first, to be a respite as well: lush, verdant, overlooking the magestic Puget Sound. But for Robert, the Dupea home is merely another cage with nicer window dressing. He’s no happier in California than he is in Washington, with Rayette or with Catherine (Susan Anspach), his brother’s fiancée. Ultimately it’s Catherine who points out this terminal unhappiness to Robert, but he’d rather flee the scene than accept the truth. Thus, “Five Easy Pieces” cannot provide a conclusion with any sort of closure because Robert fears closure. He’s on the run from himself, and that’s a race he seems unwilling to give up.

Grade: A

Why Feds are like mushrooms

Don't cross Frank, or he'll cap you and make fun of the way your corpse falls.

Knowing my affinity for all things Scorsese in general and “The Departed” in particular, Andrew of Encore’s World of Film fame asked me, Darren and Heather to shower praise — er, I mean objective commentary — on the many merits of the Oscar-approved best film of 2006. Click here or on the photo to read our reasons why “The Departed” is better for you than cranberry juice during that certain time of the month.

No. 37: “Chinatown” (1974)

Private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) would have us believe that he’s unflappable, as arch as the one-liners he slings at his she-done-me-wrong clients and the cops who snub their noses at him. “You’re dumber than you think I think you are,” he cracks to Lt. Escobar (Perry Lopez). Comments like this might peg him as a real hardnose if not for his pesky moral code. He wants to ignore it, but he can’t, and it’s the reason he gets swept up in too many tangled stories that don’t end happily.

Truth be told, it is Gittes’ nagging conscience that makes “Chinatown,” Roman Polanski’s gorgeously shot, densely plotted love letter to film noir, more than just a rigorous exercise in mental gymnastics. The fact that this investigator, with his steely, seen-it-all eyes, can’t pull back emotionally from his cases separates him from the pack. That gets him in trouble often enough, and if not the curiosity shows up to finish the job. Since Gittes can’t leave a hunch unexamined, he’s intrigued when a woman (Diane Ladd) shows up in his office convinced her husband, Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of L.A. Water and Power, is having an affair. Gittes decides to tail Mulwray and sees fresh water being dumped into the Pacific. Peculiar, since there’s a serious drought. Gittes snaps some money shots of Mulwray and his mistress, and when they wind up front-page news the second bomb drops. The real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) barges into his office, and she’s understandably enraged that Gittes took the case under false pretenses. Gittes, in turn, is none too happy that he’s become someone’s puppet, and he’s hell-bent on finding out who’s pulling the strings.

There is more, much, much more, to “Chinatown” than this. Polanski’s twisty plot continues to uncoil itself slowly, almost languidly. From this point, we, like Gittes, sense that Evelyn is hiding something, possibly something sinister or shameful, and that this Mulwray scandal goes far deeper than the ocean the water’s been dumped into. When Mulwray’s body turns up, lungs filled with salt water even though he was pulled from a freshwater reservoir, that much is clear. Now there’s a scandal and a murder, and the cast of POIs expands to include Evelyn’s millionaire father Noah Cross (John Huston), a man who serves Gittes a head-on fish for lunch and reveals himself to be a man as menacing as he is rich. The pieces start to come together toward the end of Gittes’ topsy-turvy investigation. Or do they? Scriptwriter Robert Towne unloads not one but two shockers, both of which force us to double back and scrounge around for clues we missed. And that’s when we realize Gittes wasn’t the only one trapped in an unpredictable cat-and-mouse game.

Not many scripts can draw in viewers the way Towne’s does. This is complex, captivating writing that manages to keep us guessing until the final moments, and even when the answers are provided, they aren’t necessarily easy or satisfying. Every revelation here is hard-won. Somehow Towne also manages to capture the spirit of 1930s film noir, with its femme fatales (Dunaway in this case), terrible misdeeds of the past and how they infect the present, the detective who’s in over his head but won’t back down. It’s all there, and it’s all executed flawlessly.

“Chinatown,” however, isn’t just a masterpiece because of the script — Polanski’s direction, his keen eye for the shadows-and-fog atmosphere, that sense of weariness, is impressive in the way it recreates 1930s-era L.A. and does so in color, not black-and-white. Mastery exists in the performances of Huston, Dunaway and Nicholson. Huston, with his towering presence, exudes the effortless menace of a man unaccustomed to having his whims questioned; he dictates and it becomes so. Dunaway’s Evelyn is equal parts fragility and untapped rage; she is exactly as mysterious as she needs to be, and not a drop more. Nicholson’s Gittes is a character for the books. The actor hits a career best here, demonstrating cracks in the armor. He makes Gittes the moral compass and the heart of “Chinatown,” the kind of man who not only can’t forget what he’s seen but doesn’t want to.

Top 5 “WTF?” moments in Scorcese’s “The Departed”

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"OMG WTF?": Damon's shock won't compare to your own as "The Departed" slams one "WTF?" moment after another over your head.

So I have this friend. (Every truly interesting story begins this way, right?) You may have heard of him; his story is the stuff of urban legend. Or it should be. At any rate, he’s the guy who let a copy of “The Departed” — that would be the 2007 Oscar winner for Best Picture, savvy readers — gather dust on his TV stand for, oh, about six months. Yes, it sat there, untouched, unappreciated, unwanted and unwatched for six months. I’d mention it periodically (re: “aren’t you ever going to watch that?”) and he’d make some noise about not being able to make “that kind of commitment” to sit down and watch it. (He fancies himself something of a comedian, this one.)

Then one day something crazy and momentous happened: He watched it. And watched it again … and again … and again. (I can’t hazard a guess at how many times he’s seen the various parts in various orders; however, I suspect the number would make me cringe with laughter.) So you might say he’s become something of a “Departed” connoisseur.

It’s not surprising that during a recent discussion of great gangster films (“GoodFellas”: hell yes; “Miller’s Crossing”: I say also yes) “The Departed” came up. Of course, you can’t discuss “The Departed” without saying the words “what the f!@#$!?” (in that order and with an infinite number of inflections) roughly 30 times. It’s a film littered with “WTF?” moments; I’d bet my next paycheck it has, minute for minute, more “WTF?” moments than any movie ever made (excluding “Syriana,” which makes less sense the more I watch it, and “The Usual Suspects”).

So behold the birth of the newest list: The Top 5 “WTF?” moments in “The Departed.” (Note: There are spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t seen the movie (a) I blow my nose at you and (b) Stop reading, get off your duff and buy — not rent — it.)

5) Baby daddy drama: A weary, lonely shrink (the divine Vera Farmiga). Her is-he-or-isn’t-he? impotent fiancee (Matt Damon). Her hardscrabble but kind-hearted patient (Leo DiCaprio). Oh, what a love triangle it is, and in the next-to-last scene in “The Departed” we viewers — heads still reeling from Number 1 on this countdown — discover the head doc is in a family way. That’s surprise enough, but better still is Scorcese’s absolute refusal to divulge the father-to-be’s identity. (Even if you think you know, you can’t prove it.) I do so love a director who pimp-slaps me around.

4) Sweet revenge (the final scene): The last five minutes of “The Departed” kick you in the face, throw you to the ground so you can pick up the teeth you lost and then lift your spirits with a blackly comic and satisfying ending where Matt Damon’s charmed life meets a dramatic end — but in a way you’d never, EVER expect and with an abundance of sarcasm and satire. Consider it the bittersweet cherry topper on this “WTF?” sundae.

3) A guy walks into a warehouse … and gets thrown off it: Talk about a twisted punchline to that old joke. Captain Queenan/Martin Sheen’s untimely demise is one of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shockers, something so totally and wholly unexpected that even the shrewdest viewer/critic can’t see it coming. Once the shock wears off (it takes at least 10 minutes), the full impact will have you whispering “WTF?” with the particular abject hopelessness of a duped moviegoer who knows no explanation is forthcoming.

2) Will the real FBI informant please stand up?: So we have a rat who’s pretending to be looking for a rat … and a rat who’s pretending not to be a rat while looking for his own rat. Confused? A careful viewing of Jack Nicholson’s role in the second half of “The Departed” will clear up the mystery. Get used to whiplash; you won’t be shaking your head in disbelief so much as whipping it around constantly “Exorcist”-style. My response? W. T. F?.

1) I get capped, you get capped, we all get capped: This one will make you want to pull the “emergency stop” button before the elevator parks at your floor. This blow-your-mindhole moment inaugurates — with a very literal bang — a slew of gangland-style executions that become more shocking as the brain matter coats the walls. You’ve never seen a death scene this shocking — NEVER; it bears repeating — and you won’t again. It will have you reeling for days; in fact, it might have you shrieking “WTFF?” (“what the effing f?” of course). Thus, it is deserves the honor of being christened the Number 1 “WTF?” moment in “The Departed.”