A bumper batch, as promised, this week on demand; deferring the latest first-of-the-month content boom to now has afforded us ample opportunity to indulge in its treats, and boy are they many. Cynicism and satire abounds amidst a minefield of yesteryear’s classics; to scan this list is as to see a cream-of-the-crop selection from the most influential American movies ever made. A pair of very fine new releases is on hand to sate those keen to stay in the here and now, as well as a nice little refresher for one of the year’s most anticipated blockbusters. The real highlight, let’s not lie, is the open invite to an Altmanathon: five of the maestro’s films find their way to our screens this week; it’s an eccentric selection to evidence the director’s indefatigable diversity. Don’t wait for my word to dive in.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge
If ever there were a sequel to drift from the tone of its forebear, it was the second in the Elm Street series, which followed Wes Craven’s wildly successful original with creaky camp abandon. Three decades have been equally cruel and kind to Jack Sholder’s swiftly-mounted sequel, its many absurd efforts at horror now seeming positively docile, its humorously homoerotic overtones earning it acclaim as a rare gay horror classic. It’s an interesting case, undoubtedly: intentional or not—Sholder and writer David Chaskin have alternate takes—Freddy’s Revenge is fascinating for the reading it allows of the arson-scarred antagonistic as a manifestation of subconscious desire. That’s not entirely enough, though, to overcome the movie’s hammy horror leanings and its dreadful deviation from the strengths to which the series would sporadically return; interesting as it is to discuss the film, to watch it is another matter altogether. AVOID IT.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Building on the black comedy he had begun to play with in Lolita, Stanley Kubrick delivered one of the most viciously witty films in history with the immaculately titled Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a savage satire that’s for good reason considered one of the great Cold War commentaries. It’s a consummate confluence of comic skill, razor-sharp writing met with skittishly silly performances in a picture so perfectly directed it’s near impossible to maintain control of your precious bodily fluids amidst all the laughter. Yet for all the hilarity of Peter Sellers’ three roles, each vying for the spotlight with George C. Scott’s immortal one, Dr. Strangelove excels on the bleakness beneath; furiously funny as all these antics may be, they offer a damning vision of global politics as dark and disturbing as Gilbert Taylor’s glorious cinematography. More than a mite of the laughter is nervous. MUST SEE.
One of the greatest graduate films from the Corman Film School—the name oft-accorded the group of young filmmakers who cut their teeth under the auspices of the maverick producer—Easy Rider plays not coincidentally as a spiritual sequel of sorts to the Corman-directed The Trip. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda starred in that film, too; here they respectively direct and produce a movie that, together with the likes of Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate, changed Hollywood forever with their integration of the counter-culture into mainstream consciousness. The context explains importance; the creativity accounts for excellence: Easy Rider, above all, was a radical stylistic shock to the system, ushering avant-garde editorial practices into the multiplexes and making American cinema infinitely more interesting. It’s an impact that holds up still: to see the film now is no less to feel its effect, and its outlook-expanding influence. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Kicking and Screaming
It’s not just for the presence of Chris Eigeman that Kicking and Screaming seems suitable for comparison to the first films of Whit Stillman. Though the angst might come care of an alternate source, Noah Baumbach’s 1995 debut bears a disenfranchisement that feels fully in-touch with the jaded intellectualism of Metropolitan before it. Perhaps it’s its characters’ college graduation that makes Kicking and Screaming feel that bit more immediate; both sets of young adults are detached to a point of denial, but Baumbach’s is a more desperate disinclination to join the real world, and for it arguably a more interesting one. The force behind Frances Ha is fully in view here: it’s fascinating to consider the pair, and the near-two decades of distance between them, in terms of a shift in cynicism; the later film might well be said to be nostalgic where the earlier is nascent. With both streaming, it’s time for a double bill. RECOMMENDED.
Due to debut his Godzilla in just over two months, Gareth Edwards might be the most obvious choice for a reboot in recent memory. That’s no dismissal: more tentpoles could use the independent acumen he brought to Monsters, the 2010 creature feature shot on a ludicrously low budget and given life via special effects he did in his bedroom. Real-life couple Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able play an American journalist and his boss’ daughter, who must trek through a quarantined zone of Mexico to make it back home. Edwards’ achievement is exceptional, indicative of the incredible things now possible for almost anyone to do with a computer; his movie is as much a journey across independent cinema’s new frontiers as it is through an alien infected land. It’s also evidence, less intentionally, of how much story still matters: these effects may create monsters, but they don’t so much to mask creaky characters and standard narrative beats. SO-SO.
Night of the Living Dead
And how better to show that then George Romero’s genre giant, which no one could call a masterpiece of make-up, but which manages nonetheless on the strength of its characters and the relationships between them to make us believe in the zombie apocalypse. A largely non-professional cast doesn’t preclude the urgency of their interactions, which craftily create a tension pitched more on the threat of the living than the (un)dead. Even in its own time Night of the Living Dead looked a little creaky at time; what’s impressive in spite of that is how economically effective it remains. But it’s the complexities of its commentary—layered enough to warrant the recent documentary Birth of the Living Dead—that makes it a great movie: the casting of a black lead and the race relations that arise therefrom; the use of media and military to reflect Vietnam-era angst. This is a horror classic it’s hard to question. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
O.C. and Stiggs
There’s not much difficulty in seeing why MGM delayed the release of O.C. and Stiggs, finally letting it see the light of day some two years after it was first sat on the shelf to the tune of scratched heads. Robert Altman’s oddity is a teen comedy in name only, turning the offbeat antics of its eponymous leads to an absurd satire of American life that even the director eventually admitted was only sometimes successful. That’s almost part of the charm; there isn’t another movie out there quite like this, quite as committed to a Trojan horse take on youth that’s as sceptical of them as they are of the middle class. Altman seems sceptical of all: his film is silly and smart in equal measure as it eyes the lot with prevailing uncertainty. That, perhaps, is the film’s lingering sentiment, the root of its strange and scattershot way, and the reason this mess is so fascinating to see. WORTH WATCHING.
Pit Stop (Read our full review)
It was only thirteen months ago that Yen Tan’s directorial debut Happy Birthday was dismissed in this very column as a “sad disaster”, but twelve years and three subsequent features have been kind to the Malaysian director’s talents. Pit Stop is a powerfully moving piece of work, a tale of men as stilted as the title suggests and the healing they need to get back on track. It’s borne above all on the strength of its leads: both in their separate stories and the romance that develops between them, Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda forge figures at compelling crossroads in life, their drama enough to bear them above the drawbacks of the script’s sprawling subplots. Tan’s is an aesthetic approach of manifest shadow; the doubts and darkness in his characters’ minds seem almost to seep onto the screen. The rare ray of light, then, feels as refreshing for us as it does for them. RECOMMENDED.
Ephemeral romance comes no better than Roman Holiday, William Wyler’s endlessly endearing comedy that melds laughter and pathos with a power to put most modern efforts to shame. Academy Awards for the script and Audrey Hepburn were not untoward; she, playing the touring princess of an unnamed European country, embodies its joie de vivre immaculately, bringing a beautiful counterpoint to the cold cynicism of Gregory Peck’s American expatriate journalist. The premise—whereby she escapes her carers under the influence of a sleeping pill and is taken in by him when he can tease no address from her—is the stuff of silly comedy indeed, but it’s the ill-fated eventuality of their burgeoning love that lingers on the mind. Eddie Albert’s Oscar-nominated supporting turn is perhaps the peak of the film’s funniness, no mean feat. A true taste for the city itself is the essence of Wyler’s direction; Roman Holiday often feels just like that. RECOMMENDED.
Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage
One needn’t necessarily enjoy the music of Canadian prog rock superstars Rush to appreciate Sam Dunn and Scot McFadyen’s portrait thereof, but it certainly helps. The anthropologists-cum-documentarians here bring to the subject matter the same sense of insight and awe that made such enjoyable fare of previous efforts Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey and Iron Maiden: Flight 666. But if the latter film’s energetic approach aped the audacity of metal’s most ambitious tour, Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage appropriates this seasoned trio’s contemplative approach to life and lyrics. It’s fitting that the title comes from “Limelight”, the song to best describe the band’s relationship to its own fame. That the movie has almost as much to say as that masterpiece is quite the compliment; Dunn and McFadyen have added another essential portrait to their fine canon here, a film that’s academic and intelligent and never not every bit as passionate as the music it loves. RECOMMENDED.
The great Sidney Lumet, whose career spanned a full fifty years from the dying days of the Hollywood studio system to the dawn of the digital age, made many masterpieces. Serpico might well be the best of them, a police procedural where procedure itself is the offender. Al Pacino turns in what might be his most magnificent performance as the cop of the title, an idealistic Italian-American whose reluctance to join the corrupt rank and file sets him on a twelve year quest to reform the system. Lumet’s register is remarkably subtle, channelling Arthur J. Ornitz’s gloriously dingy cinematography to a capitalist critique that’s as oddly inspiring as it is unyieldingly grim. That’s an apt sentiment for Pacino, too, whose various undercover guises offer only brief comic reprieve from the unrelenting bleakness. It’s well needed: he and Lumet render powerfully painful the personal fallout of this professional hell; to see Serpico’s plight is as to live it. MUST SEE.
Less a film in itself, perhaps, than an advertisement for their possibilities, Silent comes courtesy of the same animation studio that took home an Oscar two years ago for their debut outing The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. Fully titled Dolby Presents: Silent, a Short Film, the two-minute tour of the evolution of movie technique essentially amounts to not much more than industry insider backslapping—that it premiered at the Academy’s Technical Awards last month is telling—but that doesn’t deny its success as a sweet little nod to the films of yesteryear and their lingering influence on those of today. Added to YouTube and Vimeo as well as Netflix, its free-for-all distribution is an obvious extension of the animated awe of its young central character: here is all the movies ever could, can, and will do. RECOMMENDED.
Oh, what a versatile virtuoso that Altman was. An early effort among the director’s post-Popeye penchant for play adaptations—a phase that would hold strong throughout the ‘80s—Streamers seems strangely beholden to its source, the single setting in which the drama unfolds more a restriction to Altman than a source of strength. His direction here is more delicate than dynamic, apt perhaps given the sensitive subject matter as the army cadet characters come to terms with one of their number’s coming-out as they prepare for Vietnam deployment. A fine cast of theatrical talent is here-and-there hampered by the hamminess of the material; there’s an extended horseplay sequence that’s terribly trying in the broadness of its humour. But the drama endures: if Streamers is sub-par Altman, it’s proof that even that is above-par cinema. WORTH WATCHING.
Chills travel the length of the spine as Travis Bickle’s cab emerges from the fog to the tune of Bernard Hermann’s score. The opening of Taxi Driver is a masterclass of filmic foreboding, a fitting announcement of both its immortal antihero and the great talent it took to unleash him on the world. This is Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, in the true sense of the word: the movie in which his peculiar thematic and stylistic inclinations drew toward perfect, perfect harmony. Here he lays bare the American male psyche, with his formidable film knowledge forging a figure culled from the canon of the country’s cinema and its taut ties to violent heroism. Timid yet terrifying, De Niro’s Bickle spews hatred at every turn, his violent voiceover as much the agent of the film’s fantastical aura as Scorsese’s consummate command. His camera drains the cesspool Bickle decries to study the sediment; Taxi Driver tells us more about ourselves than we might care to know. MUST SEE.
It’s telling that Altman’s debut feature as solo director saw release in the same year as his documentary on the recently-dead James Dean; here is a film that speaks to the ‘50s teen idolisation of cool, its cautionary voiceover bookends playing like the forced disclaimers that accompanied the gangster pictures of the ‘30s. The Delinquents is an odd delight of a movie, as much an ode to the boys-will-be-boys boisterousness of youth as it is a sly satire on American values that’s typical of the director we would come to know so well over the ensuing five decades. Tom Laughlin’s performance as the frustrated youth kept from his girlfriend is a fine centre for a case that tends to ham it up; he, at least, is aggressively expressive in embodying the potential and the problems of a generation about to come of age. It’s of course nothing on the films that followed, but The Delinquents offers a fine start for the fledgling Altman. WORTH WATCHING.
The Long Goodbye
Fledgling he was not by the time of The Long Goodbye, a standout sample of a decade studded with films the quality of which few directors could offer in the course of a career. Altman is an essential auteur case study: his array of efforts across all genres makes for a body of work defined by distinction, yet there’s a satirical streak and self-aware smartness that binds the work together no matter how different it may seem. A year later Roman Polanski would release Chinatown, regularly regarded as the greatest of neo-noirs, but it’s Altman that best inveigles the cynical spirit of pulp fiction in the contemporary concerns of Vietnam-era America. The Big Sleep scribe Leigh Brackett brings her understanding of the Marlowe mindset to bear, as does the impeccably gruff Elliot Gould; both, with Altman, reconstitute the old gumshoe in a story that says as much about the new age of America as the character himself. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The Silence of the Lambs
Maybe it’s only the existence of the underrated Manhunter that might make one resistant to the allure of Jonathan Demme’s take on Hannibal Lector; the earlier film’s relative reliance on a stylistic evocation of psychological turmoil makes for a deeply different film to Demme’s, which twists thriller tropes to undoubtedly impressive—if perhaps less unnerving—effect. This is a fine film, no question; it’s not for nothing that even Mads Mikkelsen has had a hard time making Lector his own, so iconic is Anthony Hopkins’ eerily amiable take on the cannibalistic killer. Just sixteen minutes of screen time earned him an Oscar, and it’s not undeserved; nor that for Jodie Foster, who makes of Clarice Starling a suitably scared surrogate for the audience’s entry to this ugly, evil world. Demme’s direction developed in exploitation, and it’s a sentiment that shows in his gritty, garish treatment of the material. Let’s not be all too unfair to the fellow; not being Manhunter ain’t much of a crime. RECOMMENDED.
The Station Agent
Few figures in American independent cinema can claim a string of films as finely acted as those of Thomas McCarthy. That’s why the actor-turned-director’s upcoming effort The Cobbler looks so appealing even with a lead role for Adam Sandler. He debuted with The Station Agent in 2003, a sadly sweet story of the loneliness we feel we deserve, hinged on a pristine turn from a pre-stardom Peter Dinklage. His caustic approach is perfect for the concerns of McCarthy’s script, which neatly navigates the self-loathing of his characters in a way that allows us in despite their difficulty. Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale complete the triangle, contributing as much in their own right under the auspices of the director’s attuned ear for the way we talk to those we love. With great wit and warmth, The Station Agent prods its characters’ wounds, provoking the kind of difficult drama we all know, all of us all too well. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Thieves Like Us
Following The Long Goodbye’s fine success in reconstituting noir in the new context of ‘70s cynicism, Altman turned his updating eye toward the classic gangster picture in Thieves Like Us. It’s no surprise that what opens in the vein of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang swiftly becomes something far more morally complex—that’s not to say better, of course—as the trio of thieves the film follows find themselves hid out in the deep south musing on life and love. As was so often the case, Altman’s surest strength here is in the direction of his cast: a fresh-faced Keith Carradine lends the film’s most interesting arc an air of innocence as the youngest of the three, whose slow romance with Shelley Duvall teases the inevitable end to which their optimism must fall. From the wonderful cross-country pan that opens the film, establishing its dramatic frontiers, Thieves Like Us is a treat for us. RECOMMENDED.
If the Coen brothers’ dependably bleak modern reimagining might make the original True Grit seem tame by contrast, it doesn’t serve to strip the film of any of its fun. That’s true for the respective leads too: John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn might play as more bumbling caricature than Jeff Bridges’, yet it’s not for nothing Wayne took home his sole Oscar. He’s terrific fun here under Henry Hathaway, who channels the strong supporting cast—look for a young Dennis Hopper—into an adaptation of Charles Portis’ source novel that’s Wild West action at its best. Particularly fine is Robert Duvall in one of his early villain roles, a far superior selection to the remake’s weak link in Barry Pepper. But excess comparison does both films a disservice: Hathaway’s is a movie very much of its time; it’s the mark of a good one that it plays so well, still, in ours. RECOMMENDED.
Vincent & Theo
The Altmanathon endeth, appropriately, with a film entirely unlike all those that came before. After his ‘70s success at the height of auteur Hollywood and his ‘80s hideout in theatre adaptations as the blockbuster era was born around him, Altman entered the ‘90s with a lush, languorous biopic of the brothers van Gogh and the relationship between them every bit as textured—and fittingly, perhaps, misunderstood in its time—as Vincent’s art. Awkward accents aside, Tim Roth and Paul Rhys do a tremendous job in crafting characters at once obstinate and involving; theirs is a deep and dreadful love, a fraternal passion alive with the fancy and fury of familial relation. If the film might feel a little procedural in hitting the key historical moments, it’s at least with a tumultuous tragedy it does so; like the furious strokes of Vincent’s brush, Altman’s camera captures the angst of an artist, and dares to dwell on its beauty. RECOMMENDED.