Tag Archives: Film classics

Ranking Louis Malle’s feature films

After his initial success at the height of le nouvelle vague, the French lost interest in Louis Malle when he turned to English-language subjects that surpassed his achievements in his homeland (his documentary achievements require their own thread). Lacombe, Lucien remains one of the best WWII films, as tense as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows and The Red Circle but more chilling in its implications (its look and approach presages what Varda would accomplish in Vagabond). He made a sweet depiction of mommy love in Murmur of the Heart. Directing a wowzer of a John Guare script, he turned Atlantic City into a roundelay for beautiful losers Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, both on the make and pitiless. Then he came home and scored a popular success with another memory piece with the wan Au Revoir, Les Enfants, which, according to my last viewing, looked suspiciously like one of Francois Truffaut’s latter-day lumpen entries in the Cinema of Quality category (The Last Metro, The Woman Next Door). Remember when Damage was a thing because Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche sexed and Rupert Graves caught them? Continue reading

The sensuality and play of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’

As part of its reconsideration of key films in Juliette Binoche’s career, Reverse Shot turns to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Philip Kaufman’s adaption of Milan Kundera’s novel that, according to Mark Asch, introduced the kind of film beloved by Miramax a few years later. “The 1990s were the final, tired echo of aspirational Boomer cinephilia—a time when daily-newspaper critics were constantly on the lookout for vestigial traces of the Janus Films ’60s, that golden age of heady, glamorous foreign films, and frequently found it preceded with the Miramax logo,” Asch writes. The Unbearable Lightness of Being transcends this taxonomy because it’s more playful than the competition; it’s not light, it’s buoyant. Kaufman may straighten Kundera’s digressions, but it results in no loss of esprit. To create a film infused with a Mann-ian irony lacking in the original novel is a miracle. Continue reading

The films of Mike Nichols

I’m glad he believed in comedy; the brooding Silkwood is the exception in a career defined by bringing the timing of stand-up and the precision of theater to film. But if Ingmar Bergman often failed at the latter I can’t blame Mike Nichols for maintaining his glib equipoise. Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Heartburn, Working Girl, and Closer have the rat-tat-tat hollowness of TV productions; in some of those things I can hear actors hitting their marks. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Wit are more than that; it’s impossible for me to imagine Albee (and screenwriter Ernest Lehman) and Margaret Edson letting anyone run away with their work. Hip, crisp, as pretty and meaningless as effective advertising, The Graduate defined how bourgeois youth saw themselves before they bought the first Crosby Stills & Nash album: the guy beds Mrs. Robinson and Elaine and is allowed a moment of self-doubt (their child will be Jesse Eisenberg in The Squid and the Whale had his parents been merely clever New Yorkers).

I may be alone in thinking that his run of work between 1996 and 2004 was his peak. Thanks to former collaborator Elaine May’s scripts and polishing, The Birdcage and Primary Colors are sound, solid entertainments (humanizing the Clinton-fied candidate in the latter is gross though), and despite garish touches (what looks intentionally chintzy on stage is worse onscreen, thanks to the camera’s literalizing effect) his HBO adaptation of Angels in America isn’t afraid to mismatch tones. I need to rewatch The Fortune; it can’t be as bad as Heartburn.

Hail YouTube for preserving many of the original Nichols-May routines. Quote of the day: “A moral issue is always so much more interesting than a real issue.”

1. Wit
2. Angels in America
3. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
4. The Birdcage
5. The Graduate
6. Working Girl
7. Silkwood
8. Primary Colors
9. Carnal Knowledge
10. Catch 22

The best of Werner Herzog’s feature films

I suppose I can say that this German enigma got worse as a director of fiction; like most people I prefer Burden of Dreams to Fitzcarraldo (and wonder how Mick Jagger would’ve fared), and I’d watch Fata Morgana, The White Diamond, and Grizzly Bear right now, documentaries in which his pulpish meditations and subjects merge.

1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God
2. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser
3. Stroszek
4. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans
5. Woyzeck
6. Fitzcarraldo

Peter Fonda RIP

A symbol more than an actor, but film actors are symbols anyway. Film actors often incarnate their times. It was Peter Fonda’s luck to star in Easy Rider, the epochal road film he also co-wrote. For him there was little of his older sis Jane’s intelligence and anxiousness; he projected a languor that millions of people took for a generational comment when the performance owed much to Brando and a previous decade’s idea of cool. But film actors do this too: that is, connect lines and establish a genealogy that directors and screenwriters can’t have known. Continue reading

The best of Sidney Lumet

Watching Better the Devil Knows You’re Dead a decade ago, I thought, “Will he ever learn to put the camera in the right place?” and “Does he equate shouting with effective acting?” Sidney Lumet had been in the biz for almost fifty years, yet no facile notions about “craftsmanship” ever tainted the tackiness of picture after picture. Yet auteurism types are too hard on him. Year after year Sidney Lumet beat onward, bringing a TV vet’s understanding of pace and getting points that coincided with the gradual evaporation of the Production Code. His run of good films in the Nixon-Ford era are metropolitan pictures through and through. The occasional prestige picture (Murder on the Orient Express, The Wiz) was beyond him. Even projects for which he had a hand in the screenwriting (Prince of the City) suffer from hamhanded melodramatics; at that point Hill Street Blues had more to say about big city rot. And I can’t forgive the contrivances in The Verdict, one of the few Oscar-baiting American films that contorts its dramaturgy for the sake of an unhappy ending. Continue reading

Ranking Quentin Tarantino films

Worn down by years of the fanboys’ undimmed enthusiasm, I avoided the screening for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I’ll watch it myself on Friday or Saturday morning. The list below is generous. I don’t care for anything after #6, and if I rank Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained at all it’s due to a few undeniable set pieces in each, none of which involve the execrable Christoph Waltz, a performer whose self-adoration is such that he wouldn’t make love to himself because he’s not good enough. As for Pulp Fiction, I fast forward through the Bruce Willis-Maria de Medeiros section; infantilized girlfriend, sodomy, etiolated Ring Lardner fight story results in a bolus too lumpy to swallow.

The best of the lot, no longer (if ever) a remarkable opinion, remains a lived-in adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel. Its hanging-out-on-a-Saturday-afternoon vibe infuses not a bit of the tension nor the sharply defined performances, supreme among them Robert Forster, whose mackerel-faced longing accrues nuance after nuance as Jackie Brown edges past the two-hour mark. As bail bondsman Max Cherry, Forster’s air of surpassing his own modest expectations is like a shared secret between himself and his audience; I like to think that he earns the quashed admiration of Ordell Brown (Samuel L. Jackson), which explains the series of pained looks as he realizes the extent to which Max has fucked him over.

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