All posts by hangmantitan

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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The Hot Rock (1972)

Here’s the starting lineup: William Goldman, red-hot off his Oscar win for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is your screenwriter. He’s adapting a novel by Donald E. Westlake, whose protagonist John Dortmunder will soon become one of his most popular creations. Robert Redford plays Dortmunder, with George Segal cast as his right-hand man. And you’ve got Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Friends of Eddie Coyle) in the director’s chair, seeking to marry his sensibilities for comedy and crime in the same film. Top it off with Quincy Jones for the score, and The Hot Rock should be shaping up to be a hell of a film.

One can understand and appreciate the drive to make a lighthearted caper in early ’70s New York, when the crime genre was growing in popularity but also in self-seriousness. Dirty Harry did much to cement a gritty remorselessness in the genre in 1971, asserting an edgy protagonist with no reservations about killing his enemies. In March 1972, The Godfather would in turn spawn a million imitators looking to recapture the Very Serious Drama of American crime. So the conceit of The Hot Rock, at the time, was explicit: bring back the fun.

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How It Ends (2021)

The 2021 Independent Film Festival Boston came to a close last night, having presented a virtual slate that included great films like Summer of Soul and The Sparks Brothers. The online format only left a lingering feeling of imperfection during those more raucous, larger-than-life entries, which Soul and Sparks certainly are, as the communal theatrical experience must bring out even more of the Big Joy in those films. I’m not sure that’s the case for How It Ends, the Closing Night film from Zoe Lister-Jones and Daryl Wein, a movie so slight and lonely that screening it at home sort of fit the bill perfectly.

How It Ends follows Liza (Lister-Jones) as she tries to get to her last party before the world ends. A conspicuous meteor hangs over her citywide jaunt, scheduled for impact around 2am, and so Liza engages in much the same behavior as everyone else: she says “fuck it,” eats a stack of pancakes with a glass of maple syrup, and sets out to right a few wrongs with the people in her life before the apocalypse arrives. She’s accompanied by her Younger Self (Cailee Spaeny), who by turns keeps Liza in check and also spurs her onward into situations she might otherwise avoid.

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LUPIN — Season 1

There are scores of film actors working today in what the U.S. smugly refers to as “Foreign Language Films” who are deserving of stardom on the international stage, and Omar Sy might be at the top of that list. The French actor began his career in 2000 with a string of appearances and voice roles in television and short films, and he gained notoriety in France in 2010 as half of a comedy sketch duo in a series called SAV des émissions. His true breakout was Intouchables (2011), a hilarious and poignant dramedy about an unlikely friendship between an ex-con and a quadriplegic millionaire. Sy is transcendent in this film, absolutely bursting with life and energy, and his efforts were rewarded when he became the first Black man to win a César Award. International fame, it seemed, should follow, and indeed over the next few years Sy made his English-language debuts in the X-Men, Jurassic and Transformers franchises.

None of those roles exactly called for an actor of Sy’s talents, though; I’m not even sure he had any lines as the mutant Bishop in X-Men: Days of Future Past. His appearances in these massively-recognizable franchises, frankly, are forgettable, which plays out as a near-impossibility after seeing how utterly unforgettable Sy is in the likes of Intouchables. This is not to say that becoming a household name in America is tantamount to having a successful acting career, nor that Sy should at all be faulted for appearing in these big-budget blockbusters. Predictably, though, Hollywood is a beneficiary of his Intouchables work in a way that excludes the actor entirely: the film was remade as The Upside in 2017, starring Kevin Hart in Sy’s role, a hollow retread of the original that went on to gross $122 million.

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What Lies Beneath (2000)

I’m constantly being surprised by What Lies Beneath. On first viewing it surprised me that Robert Zemeckis, the Spielberg acolyte behind feel-good romps like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, would direct this self-contained horror flick. Years later, I was surprised to learn that Clark Gregg — Agent Coulson himself — wrote the screenplay. When I revisited Beneath a few months ago, the thing that surprised me was how good it was, how it does a lot with fairly little, how the straightforward nature of the plot obscures nuances that you wouldn’t catch the first time through. And then, of course, I was surprised a final time to learn that I am not in a majority here, that the film received mixed reviews upon release and currently has a dismal 47% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and that the Pantheon of Horror Flicks may not hail What Lies Beneath as a genre masterpiece after all.

Doubtful, of course, that Beneath would ever really slip down the precipice into the Abyss of Forgotten Horror Flicks. It’s got Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford, and they and Zemeckis secured their places in film history long before 2000. And no, it’s not an outright masterpiece; it probably does little that Hitchcock didn’t do decades earlier. But one feels the need to defend it all the same, no? If not to reinstall it in the Pantheon or rescue it from the Abyss, perhaps just to feel better about being so endeared to it, as I am. We could touch on the film as a whole or dig into some of those criticisms from the mixed-review crowd…or we could sorta just talk about one single scene.

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Barton Fink (1991)

Not long ago we lauded the Film Plays Itself series on the Criterion Channel, a collection of films about films that includes everything from Sunset Boulevard to to Hollywood Shuffle to Adaptation. Here, Tinseltown is by turns cynical, magical, savage, surreal, everything you could possibly hope for, anything you could possibly imagine. Here, film artists are by turns inspiring, insipid, visionary, avaricious, down on themselves, full of themselves. If you’re interested in movies about movies, Film Plays Itself represents a kaleidoscopic cross-section of Hollywood artistry that encapsulates pretty much everything you could want.

…except for Barton Fink.

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Passing (2021)

Passing, one of the most unassuming and unpretentious films to premiere at this year’s Sundance, might have been the festival’s best. As noted by The Guardian way back in 2018 when the project was announced, the film’s subject matter revives a cinematic trope that used to be fairly popular in the ’40s and ’50s: non-white characters “passing” in order to enjoy the privileges of whiteness. Odd, perhaps, to think of such a thing as a “trope,” as “popular,” or as fodder for melodramas like Pinky or comedy-musicals like Show Boat. As it pertains to real life, the practice is decidedly more complex than its depiction in film would lead one to believe. Passing is one of the few to treat this social maneuver with care and restraint, and in doing so it instantly becomes the defining film on the subject.

The film follows Irene (Tessa Thompson) as she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare (Ruth Negga), discovering that Clare has been passing for some time. She’s married to an unsuspecting white man (Alexander Skarsgård) prone to a matter-of-fact hatred of non-whites, and their child together was “thankfully” equally so light-skinned as to not give her away. Clare is immediately fascinating to Irene, and Irene’s obsession only grows when her own husband (André Holland) seems to take an interest in Clare as well. The criss-crossing relationships become fraught with ambiguities, true motivations and intentions often shrouded by a social façade that each character carries like a shield.

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Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

The trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah made me doubt how effective the film would actually be. Not because it looked bad, mind you, or uninteresting in any way. But I had flashes to Man of Steel, which lured me to the cinema with a stunning trailer and then turned out to be a soupy mess. Same for Only God Forgives, which had a bangin’ trailer — I remember saying the words “looks amazing” to a friend — and ultimately had about as much substance as the two-minute teaser itself. Well, fool me twice. Trepidation filled the air as the Sundance premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah began, because the first glimpse I’d had of the film was this rollicking hype-train of a masterful trailer:

Shaka King’s first major studio feature, thankfully, is indeed a strong and energetic biopic that doesn’t at all renege on the promise of that trailer. Messiah stars Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and focuses on FBI efforts to suppress and ultimately silence Hampton as he gains more and more popularity nationwide. It’s a long overdue portrayal of a significant figure in American history; before Kelvin Harrison, Jr. played Hampton in a bit part in this past year’s Trail of the Chicago 7, you have to go back to 1999 to find the only other instance of Hampton in another film or TV show (it’s another bit part in the miniseries The ’60s, which is mostly about hippies).

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The Sparks Brothers (2021)

I’ve got a snapshot of your Aunt Maureen.

Okay, I don’t, actually. You probably don’t even have an Aunt Maureen. But that line is a real attention-grabber, much like the guys who came up with it, so I figured what the hell. Film criticism is an unsexy business. I’ll take any spice I can get.

Sparks, known by some as the best British band ever to come out of America, seems perennially able to remain interesting without looking like they’re trying to remain interesting. Since their inception in 1971 — that’s 50 years ago, for those who flunked math — the duo have released a whopping 25 studio albums, closing in on 300 original songs. For those who flunked math, that’s, like, a lot.

Comprised of brothers Russell and Ron Mael, their stage presence and obvious visual flair is perhaps as inextricable from Sparks as the actual music. Russell, the singer, fronts the band with hyperactive and often very sweaty antics. Meanwhile Ron, keyboardist and songwriter, sits very still and scowls while his brother goes nuts. Either of the two alone would turn heads, but together they create a contrast that would force a smile on even the most straightlaced of faces.

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Mass (2021)

There’s an intentional obscurity at the start of Mass, the debut feature from writer/director Fran Kranz, that instantly placed it amongst the most intriguing premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We open on a church in a suburban town, meeting the volunteers as they set up a room in the basement for an impending meeting. Much attention is paid to the placement of the table, the positioning of the chairs, the proximity of a tissue box. We meet a social worker, clearly acting in the capacity of a liaison, who asks that the tissue box not be placed in the middle of the table — that would be weird. As long as it’s within reach. This much we can glean about Mass, after a simple Times New Roman title fades in on a black screen over dead silence: we’ll probably need tissues. But we’re not sure why, exactly, and yet we’re gripped all the same. The social worker moves the chairs from their even placement around the table, putting two on one side and two on the other.

Mass is no less interesting once the purpose of this meeting is revealed, but it’s a particularly refreshing opening in an age where most films assume an audience will lose interest if they’re not given all the facts up front. Every glance and seemingly-negligible line of dialogue becomes a potential clue, and it never approaches a feeling of purposeful obscurity or frustration. Before we reach that point we finally put the pieces in place: two sets of parents are meeting six years after a tragic school shooting in which one son killed the other.

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