This Week's New Releases
3:10 to Yuma
dir. James Mangold
A period Western with all the trappings—a sun-bleached old town, a pretty young barkeep, a morally ambiguous and mighty attractive villain—3:10 to Yuma avoids becoming a retread of its source materials thanks mostly to its terrific cast. Of course, it doesn't hurt that director James Mangold builds tension masterfully (half of the film is structured as a thriller) or that the male bonding uses a thick sexual subtext for its glue, but it's the acting that makes the movie.
Christian Bale plays Dan Evans, a homesteader who, having lost a leg and who knows what else in the Civil War, is ill-equipped to provide for his beautiful wife and tough, angelic sons. When his barn and livelihood are burned to the ground by an impatient lender, he's pretty much fucked. But then he catches a break. Flush from a successful highway robbery, the notorious criminal Ben Wade (played by Russell Crowe, fully redeeming himself after such piles of dumb as Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind) repairs to a saloon and promptly gets himself nabbed in flagrante delicto. The sheriff tries to assemble a team to escort Wade to a distant train station, where he'll be shipped straight to a federal prison in Yuma, but volunteers are hard to find. For a price, Evans offers his assistance.
What follows is an artful thriller juiced with sudden, shocking violence. The journey to the station is being tracked by two interested parties: virtue, represented by Evans's preteen son (a credible Logan Lerman), and sin, represented by a scene-shredding dust devil called Charlie Prince (the narrow-eyed, pale-skinned character actor Ben Foster). Unfortunately, virtue comes on a little strong at the end—there's practically an apotheosis—but it can't entirely bury the glittering memory of Charlie Prince, stalking his friend and prey across a no-man's-land. ANNIE WAGNER
This Is England
dir. Shane Meadows
Writer-director Shane Meadows's This Is England begins with a montage of England, circa 1983—Princess Di's wedding and Margaret Thatcher clash with images of riots, punks, and the Falkland war, all to the sound of Toots and the Maytals' reggae standard "54-46 That's My Number." Meadows's England is atomized and in decline: postindustrial, postcolonial, its peeling paint and graffiti the scars of economic and sociopolitical distress.
Twelve-year-old Shaun Fields (Thomas Turgoose), who lost his father to the Falkland war, lives alone with his mother in a run-down Nottingham flat. He's lonely and picked on at school, so he's happy to be adopted by a gang of relatively harmless skinheads—working class, not racist—led by the charismatic Woody (Joseph Gilgun) and rounded out by Jamaican-descended Milky and gawky new-waver Smell. The gang gets into little more summer trouble than drinking, vandalizing an abandoned flat, and loitering in a cafe. And though Shaun's mother chides them for shaving his head, she's ultimately relieved to have him in their care.
But when older skinhead Combo returns from prison a supporter of the protofascist National Front, he crashes the party and divides the group in half. Woody and Milky want nothing to do with Combo, while Shaun finds him a compelling father figure and becomes his accomplice in a series of increasingly violent and racist crimes, culminating with a brutal beating.
The story arc is fairly predictable (of course Shaun is going to renounce his misdeeds) and occasionally melodramatic, but it's not without moments of brilliance—the gang's goofy "hunting" expedition, Shaun and Smell's first kiss, Combo and Milky's tensely shared joint—and the gifted ensemble cast shine throughout. In the face of an especially dreary reality, This Is England reveals the foolish audacity and terrible need to belong that mark all youth. ERIC GRANDY
dir. Vit Klusak and Filip Remunda
This mini-masterpiece of consumer critique was made by two Czech film students. They wanted to make more than a film. They decided to conceive and advertise a hypermarket—a huge, temporary shopping center the exact likes of which we don't have in America, the kind of place that has everything. They hire image professionals to put them in suits and glasses that make them look like businessmen. Then they hire a slick Prague advertising agency to help them develop a name, a brand identity, an advertising strategy ("something that the average Czech person couldn't miss"), a shopper's pamphlet, and a song for this hypermarket. The name they settle on is Czech Dream, and the song (used in the radio and television ads) has lyrics like, "It'll be a nice big bash, and if you've got no cash, get a loan and scream, 'I want to live my dream.'"
The catch is that the hypermarket doesn't exist. When the filmmakers are asked why they would come up with, and advertise the hell out of, something imaginary, they say they hope the movie answers that question. The advertising people are the most fascinating part of the ruse; they know full well what's going on. One boasts, "Our ads work even if the product sucks or doesn't exist at all." Later, during a creative meeting, one of the filmmakers says he wants the ads to say, "You won't leave empty handed," and one of the advertising guys objects, because he doesn't think it's true. "We don't lie in advertising," he insists, incredibly. "Even if you lie in your films, we don't lie in advertising."
On opening day of the hypermarket, consumers line up early, eager. The cameras witness what happens when they realize that structure out there in that field is just a facade. The reaction is incredible. CHRISTOPHER FRIZZELLE
dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
What connects Jean-Pierre Melville with the French New Wave—which he was too old to really participate in—is American cinema. His films, like the defining films of the New Wave, are made with an awareness of, or a love for, Hollywood. The type of American film that dominated Melville's imagination was crime thrillers and noirs—John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle, Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep, Fritz Lang's The Big Heat. He even wrote a love letter, Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan, to the supreme realm of crime and punishment, New York City. In Le Doulos, police officers drive about the city of Paris in a Citroën. Their mode is a cold search. Somewhere in the city of millions there is one man they want to interrogate. The cops go down this street, go up that one, turn, stop, proceed, searching the sidewalks, cafes, and bars.
This search is pure noir. The city is a maze, the streets are a mystery, and the man the cops are looking for has the keys, the answers to a difficult case. The underworld of the night is pierced by the light of the law. This is Melville at his most American. And his criminals are not nice people. They are brutal, sadistic, ready to disturb any stable situation with an explosion of violence.
In the American films of Melville's period, however, we never see the actual violence. In The Big Heat (1953), for example, we see the hot pot of coffee; we see the anger growing in Lee Marvin's eyes; we see the eyes of Gloria Grahame growing in fear—later we see her burned face wrapped in a bandage. In Le Doulos, which stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as a double-crossing crook, we see a woman, Monique Hennessy; we see a man, Belmondo, with a bottle of whiskey in his hand; we see him knock the living daylights out of the woman; we see him tie her limp body to a radiator; we see him pour whiskey on her face; we see her rise to consciousness; we see him smack her around for information: she tells him all. This is the violence that makes the gangland go around, and Melville was bold enough to show his time (the '50s and '60s) that underneath the handsome waistcoats, the sharp suits, the elegant ties, and the pressed shirts, there was an ugly core to crime. CHARLES MUDEDE
Have a Psychedelic Summer: The 40th Anniversary of the Summer of Love Film Festival
If you can get past the awkward title (meant to convey that these obscure 16 mm titles are from, or circa, or inspired by the informal season-long convocation in the Haight-Ashbury known as the Summer of Love, not that it's the 40th iteration of a festival on the subject), you'll praise the ancients—or at least the hippies—that you got the chance to see these movies. Assembled from the personal collection of archivist-impresario-madman Dennis Nyback, these films are one-reel ephemera, made for humble formats like television or video-jukebox Scopitone machines.
I haven't seen the opening-night feature, a CBS news report called The Hippie Temptation, but this introductory quip might be the squarest sentence in the history of sentences: "This is Harry Reasoner, reporting from San Francisco without flowers in his hair." Reasoner proceeds to investigate the scene, hanging out with the Grateful Dead and interviewing a doctor who claims LSD wrecks your chromosomes. The Hippie Temptation is preceded by an odd antiwar short by Hungarian director Istvan Szabo (Mephisto) in which perky kids are tutored by their Nazi fathers.
I'd also recommend the program LSD and Other Drug Scare Films (Sat Sept 8 at 7 pm), which is capped by a brilliant genre parody, Drugs: Killers or Dillers?, made by The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and his friend Tim Smith when they were still in high school. The Vietnam War and How We Got There (Tues Sept 11 at 7 pm) includes another Harry Reasoner special, a discussion with his son Stuart about the fabled generation gap. And Examining '60s Teenage Angst (Tues Sept 11 at 9 pm) is a program of National Film Board of Canada shorts about unhappy kids. I'm not hoping for anything as genius as the new wave juvenile-delinquent movies Northwest Film Forum showed in the spring (also financed by the NFB in the same decade), but one is by Mort Ransen, who would later write and direct the awesome coal-mining melodrama Margaret's Museum, and another, about a 9-year-old with an alcoholic father, inspired a schoolteacher to create the Degrassi television series. ANNIE WAGNER
Shoot 'Em Up
dir. Michael Davis
The name tells all. Clive Owen stars in this, the zenith of the action comedy, wherein the hero spends the whole movie trying to save a baby. Owen, a mystery man who lives in a creepy/cool squat, eats only carrots, and is really good at killing people, happens upon some high-powered hit men trying to kill a pregnant woman. He fails to save her, but delivers her baby (he shoots off its umbilical cord), then sets about killing the bajillions of people who are trying to kill him and the baby.
Other reviewers will say the plot doesn’t matter, but they are only half right. The nobility of Owen’s cause, and the wickedness of the Bad Guy—played by Paul Giamatti, who compliments and feels up the “nice rack” of the dead mother—make the violence palatable, even pleasurable. Anything for a baby, right? The rest of the movie is car chases, shootouts, more shootouts, even more shootouts, people getting stabbed in the eyes with carrots, an unpleasant torture scene, uncovering a sinister plot involving politicians and weapons manufacturers (again, nobility!), searching for a lactating prostitute to feed the baby (successful!), finding dead bodies, making dead bodies, et cetera. By the time Owen is killing a senator and using his carcass as an obstacle to slow down the Bad Guy, one realizes this is, perhaps, the Platonic ideal of shoot-’em-up movies. It’s ridiculous. It’s exciting. It is the best at what it does. Could Shoot ’Em Up, perhaps, be the final word in shoot-’em-ups?
One dares to dream. BRENDAN KILEY