All posts by hangmantitan

Contempt (1963)

“Chekhov’s Gun” is a commonly-quoted dramatic principle underscoring the necessity of every element of a narrative story. If a gun is shown in the first act, it must be fired in the third. Elements that do not impact the story — unfired guns — should be removed entirely, so as not to make false promises or clutter the story with unnecessary details. Chekhov’s principle is intrinsically related to foreshadowing, and there are several ways to use it. You can use it well, giving your story the qualities of a fine-tuned machine. You can use it poorly, relying on it as a crutch such that your story loses its natural, organic feeling. Or you can use it like Jean-Luc Godard uses it in Contempt: as a massive fuck you to anyone who dares insist that dutifully following the rules is going to make your story better.

It’s more complicated than that, of course, but the handgun that appears in Contempt is indeed shown several times with great intention. It is never fired, nor is it brandished with the threat of being fired, nor is its owner really the type of man who would ever shoot anyone. That man is Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli), a screenwriter working on a new adaptation of Homer’s The Odyssey while contending with pressure from his American producer Jerry Prokosch (Jack Palance) and navigating marital strife with his spouse Camille (Brigitte Bardot). After a mere glimpse at Paul we understand he is not the type of man to resort to violence, much as we understand after Contempt‘s opening shot that Godard is not the type of director who’d forget that he put a loaded gun in the hand of his hero.

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Bend of the River (1952)

Jimmy Stewart was in a lot of Westerns. From Destry Rides Again (1939) all the way to The Shootist (1976), the actor’s continual returns to the frontier nearly end up signposting the decades-long rise and fall of the genre itself. In the early 1960s, just prior to the introduction of a violent revisionism courtesy of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, Stewart teamed with John Ford and turned out classics like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and How the West was Won. Prior to that, as the Western was enjoying its heyday in the 1950s, Stewart starred in the progressive-for-the-time Broken Arrow and in a string of Westerns from director Anthony Mann, including the eventual classic Winchester ’73. But the most underrated Stewart Western — and maybe one of the most underrated Westerns period — is another feature from Mann called Bend of the River.

It’s an unlikely candidate for that mantle, maybe, if only for the lack of stereotypical Western tropes. Stewart stars as Glyn McLyntock, a tough cowboy who puts himself at risk to ensure a delivery of supplies reaches a budding homestead in the Northwest Frontier. The route takes him by valley and mountainside, through Portland, and back and forth across the eponymous river, all the while accompanied by friend and foe of varying loyalties. This question of loyalty — who’s the real villain? —is very much at the heart of Bend, and the guessing game we play as viewer is a big part of what makes the film so great. (Also, it must be noted, “Glyn McLyntock” is an all-timer of a character name.)

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The Northman (2022)

I am admittedly predisposed to movies like The Northman — bloody, epic revenge tales with a strange angle, a hyper-specific period setting, or both. I’m also a huge fan of The Lighthouse, the previous film from writer/director Robert Eggers, one of the most unique American films of the 21st century. So the hype level for this flick was more or less at carrying capacity at this week’s screening, and Eggers and Co. did not disappoint. Starring Alexander Skarsgård as the vengeance-bent Viking prince Amleth, The Northman has Eggers’s blend of folklore and historical fidelity all wrapped up in a potent, ferocious epic. It’s not quite a perfect film, but it has some of the most stunning storytelling you’ll see onscreen this year.

Much has already been written on Skarsgård’s insane transformation into Amleth, a beastly and primal performance that puts the mere term macho to shame. Of course it’s far deeper than machismo, and Skarsgård imbues Amleth with a vulnerability that makes the character — and thereby the picture — really work. He’s doing everything Leonardo DiCaprio did as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, but unlike Glass, Amleth’s character is wholly defined by his relationships with others. His bond with his father and mother (Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman) and his hatred for his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) drive his every action. He’s frequently referred to as a wolf, and we see all sides of that metaphor: the young and uncertain pup, the lone stray seeking a home, the feral creature commanding a pack of other wolves, and finally the wisened alpha. Skarsgård goes all the way and then some, and Northman couldn’t exist without him.

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After Yang (2022)

Columbus, the debut feature from writer/director Kogonada, was so quietly self-assured that I figured I knew what to expect from his sophomore effort After Yang. Carefully composed framing, slow-but-steady pacing, and a general construction so precise that it borders on the architectural (and not just because Columbus was partly about architecture) — these are the hallmarks I readied myself for in After Yang, which premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival.

…so an opening that included the year’s flashiest techno dance sequence could very much be called a surprise. Based on Alexander Weinstein’s 2016 short story Saying Goodbye to Yang, Kogonada’s second feature is definitely the work of a director trying to reach farther, trying to push out beyond the bounds of his finely-calibrated debut. It’s an admirable and exciting endeavor, and After Yang would be disappointing if it adopted the personality of Columbus. In certain respects — see: techno dance sequence — this endeavor is a success. But After Yang is a bit disappointing in other ways, even if only in falling short of the high bar Kogonada set for himself.

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The Worst Person in the World (2021)

All good film is probably about balance in some sense, but it takes a particularly special work of cinema to strike the balance at the heart of The Worst Person in the World. The last installment of Joachim Trier’s loose “Oslo Trilogy” — which also includes Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011) — is connected to its predecessors mostly by the city of Oslo and a few recurring actors, rather than being linked in story or character. But the comedic youthfulness of Part 1 and the dramatic maturity of Part 2 dovetail beautifully here in Part 3, so perhaps that’s the real connective tissue. The Worst Person in the World has moments of genuine hilarity and moments of crushing sadness, but it never slips off that tonal tightrope between the two.

At the start, we’re pretty firmly in romantic comedy territory. Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a young medical student without much passion in her life, so she jettisons her designs on becoming a doctor and decides psychology is more her thing; it’s easier to be passionate about the mind than about the body, after all. She meets a guy and they hook up, and Julie then decides that photography, actually, is a better career fit. She buys camera equipment, takes portraits for a male model, and then hooks up with him. They’re at a bar in the next scene when Julie meets another guy, Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a moderately-famous cartoonist, and before the movie actually really begins Julie and Aksel are together for what feels like the long haul.

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Best of 2021

Another weird year for cinema means another caveat-laced Best Of list, something just south of comprehensive, perhaps, largely due to a significant scaling-back of my usual moviegoing frenzy. I like to think I saw all the big blockbuster stuff in the cinema — as opposed to on the couch — like Dune, Last Night in Soho, No Time to Die, a few Marvel flicks, etc. And a few of the “smaller” films that actually made my Top Ten were also experienced out in the wild, which I’m thankful for, not that this ultimately had much bearing on how good or bad the film actually was.

Fact remains that I saw fewer movies this year than I usually do, so this Best Of list does not reflect Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria, Celine Sciamma’s Petite Maman, Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, Joel Coen’s Tragedy of Macbeth, Sian Heder’s CODA, Julia Ducournau’s Titane, and a bunch of other films that would likely upset the following rundown. Still, from what I did see, here are the ones that moved me the most.

And as always, please remember to visit our Support Film Art page, aimed at encouraging relief to local arthouse theaters.

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Red Rocket (2021)

Independent Film Festival Boston presented Red Rocket at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA last night, and before I fawn over Sean Baker’s latest film it’s worth mentioning that it’s damn good to be back. The last film I saw at the Brattle was almost exactly two years ago — The Lighthouse, with director Robert Eggers in-person — and I didn’t quite realize how much I’d missed the comfort of that room. Props to IFFBoston and the Brattle for making that return as safe as possible.

Up on the screen, though, was a homecoming of a decidedly different sort. Red Rocket follows Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), a washed-up L.A. pornstar returning to his impoverished hometown of Texas City. Mikey’s a narcissistic bastard, to put it mildly, sporting a gravitational pull of destruction that threatens his old acquaintances after his 20-year absence. Mikey’s delusions imperil a new relationship, too, when he meets the 17-year-old Strawberry (Suzanna Son). Something about Mikey is undeniably electric, though, and so every new obstacle he faces presents an opportunity for him to redeem himself of his despicable ways. Maybe he’ll do the right thing this time, we think. Maybe he’ll turn it all around.

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Pale Rider (1985)

The traditional Western is perhaps not known for subtlety, nor for its interpretive qualities, nor for self-awareness, and yet Pale Rider has all of those things and is very much a late-game classic of the genre. “Classic,” here, should indicate that this is not a revisionist Western, despite being released long after the genre had been declared dead. The plot concerns a fledgling California village under the thumb of a ruthless mining corporation, and Clint Eastwood’s mysterious loner rides into town and kicks ass in the name of the little guy. This, as you may have heard, is about as classic as the plot of Western gets (see also: Shane, Django, A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s own High Plains Drifter, etcetera).

Of course, none of those frontier tales double as a ghost story. By the end of Pale Rider, the implication is that Eastwood’s nomadic preacher is in fact not of this Earth (Higher Plane Drifter, maybe? Sorry). In the context of pretty much any other genre, such a twist would play out as little else: a twist, a cheat that we might have seen coming. Heck, the title signals in no uncertain terms that we’re about to behold a figure of otherworldly nature. If Pale Rider were a cop drama, or a crime noir, or a war film, we’d spot Preacher’s true colors from the start, spoiling that tantalizing ambiguity along the way.

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Seven Men from Now (1956)

The arrival of the Spaghetti Western in the mid-1960s might be credited as the major pivot point for the film Western on the whole, but a subtler shift began more than a decade earlier. American director Budd Boetticher was familiar with the genre in 1956, having helmed six or seven Westerns in the early ’50s, films starring the likes of Rock Hudson and Glenn Ford. By and large these fit the mold of what you’d expect from the era, right down to the leading man: young, chiseled cowboys with a strong moral compass and a way with horses. Typified by Hudson, Ford, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea and especially John Wayne, the Western Heroes of the time are jokingly (or not?) said to have had only two emotions on display: “hat on” and “hat off.”

The Spaghetti Western, of course, bucked that cleancut protagonist so far off the horse that he never really saddled up again. Sergio Leone introduced heroes that were as dirty as the villains, both literally and figuratively, first embodied by a snarling Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy. Leone would later cast Henry Fonda — the blue-eyed all-American known for playing Honest Abe and the least-angry man in 12 Angry Men — as the ruthless villain in Once Upon a Time in the West, solidifying the death of the unambiguous good guy/bad guy depictions that had defined the genre to date.

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Face Off: Le Samourai (1967) and Drive (2011)

Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

The inspirations for Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive are no secret. Perhaps the most direct analogue is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), which shares so many of the same characteristics that Refn’s film stops just short of being a remake. The general plot of both follows a nameless getaway driver of exceptional skill as he navigates a complex web of criminals, cops and would-be lovers, speeding to stay one step ahead as these forces converge around him. Drive features more minute homages to Hill’s film, too, including a redo of a particularly iconic scene in which the eponymous Driver (Ryan O’Neal) executes a high-speed chase in reverse gear. There’s something very American about a car chase in reverse, no? Difficult to say whether the instances of breakneck backpedaling in Drive or The Driver are done well, though, when the only competition is from the likes of The Transporter, Fast and Furious, Talladega Nights, etc…

Anyway. There’s sadly no reverse car chase in Le samourai, Jean-Pierre Melville’s quiet masterpiece of crime and criminal code. But it is undoubtedly an influence on Refn’s Drive, and is in many ways a more appropriate analogue than Hill’s Driver. Starring Alan Deloin as a largely-emotionless killer-for-hire, Le samourai went a long way to establishing a minimalist aesthetic in the gangster film — a genre more often associated with shootouts, explosions, larger-than-life mobsters and, yeah, reverse car chases. But the quietude of Melville’s film is haunting, reflected in the flat visage of its main character, and Le samourai went on to influence Woo’s The Killer (1989), Frankenheimer’s Ronin (1998), Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog (1999), Mann’s Collateral (2004) and countless others.

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