Each Motion State Face Off pits two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.
In The Harder They Fall, sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart) finds himself in a moral conundrum. He’s covering the boxing phenom Toro Moreno (Mike Lane), an absolute barn of a fighter who’s touring across America on an unprecedented winning streak. The conundrum? Toro can’t actually box worth a damn. The glassjawed giant has been set up by his manager Nick Benko (Rod Steiger) and had all of his fights fixed, though that particular fact is kept secret from Toro himself. Benko’s scheme ensures that the audience has a built-in perception of this fighter, that Toro’s reputation — even if it’s engineered behind his back — will equal dollars in Benko’s pocket. People love a clear-cut hero, an undeniable winner, and Benko forms Toro into exactly that. But Eddie’s not convinced, even if the blissfully-ignorant Toro seems to be having the time of his life in this heroic role. Shouldn’t the athlete himself have some say in how he’s portrayed to the world?
As Bogie’s last film, the noir-ish drama is of a piece with many of his other movies. Eddie isn’t at all riding around gallantly on a noble white steed, nor is he above making a quick buck off a media frenzy now and again. But as his relationship with Toro grows, Eddie softens and soon realizes he has to champion the athlete in response to a ruthless media and Benko’s managerial machinations. It’s not the Quintessential Humphrey Bogart picture, but The Harder They Fall is still deserving of a place amongst his filmography. And as a sports drama, it’s refreshingly not your classic scrappy underdog tale. A string of famous boxers lend some credibility by making appearances throughout the film, too, from Jersey Joe Walcott to Max Baer.
If you threw Spike Lee’s filmography into a pot and cooked it down, stirring occasionally such that all of the ingredients are thoroughly intermingled, you’d be left with Da 5 Bloods. Lee’s new Netflix joint is nothing if not ambitious, and at its shakiest it does feel composed of variations on ideas he’s had in previous films. Take the war-never-ends framing device of Miracle at St. Anna, the style-and-substance mentality of BlacKkKlansman, the epic scope of Malcolm X, a pinch of the melancholy soul-searching of 25th Hour, a dash of the motley cast of Get on the Bus, and Spike’s secret sauce, of course, that blunt intrusion of American history into an otherwise routine narrative. The last ingredient is always a tough one to swallow, but in Da 5 Bloods its sourness is even more noticeable. As with the final scene of BlacKkKlansman, the dark American past we’re witnessing is often only a few months old.
Bloods as a melting pot of ideas mostly works in its favor, giving heft to a story in which four black veterans of the Vietnam War return to country to retrieve a cache of gold they’d buried decades ago. The changes brought about in those decades have affected each man differently, particularly Paul (Delroy Lindo) and Otis (Clarke Peters). Paul’s now a MAGA-hat-sporting Republican, and from the jump the group’s return to Vietnam sparks radical thoughts in his volatile soul. Otis is still the picture of collectedness he was in wartime, but he’s obviously wearied by how the American political climate seems to be regressing. Flashbacks to Vietnam center around the fifth Blood, unit leader Stormin’ Norman (Chadwick Boseman), who unites the crew under the idea that its time for black Americans to collect what they’re owed. With the U.S. government’s eternal refusal to pay out, a few million dollars in gold will do in the meantime.
The Earrings of Madame de… is the English-language title for Madame de…, as it was released in France, which heralds the heart-shaped diamond jewelry — not its owner — as the star of the film. The earrings do indeed play a major role, significantly altering the lives of those who possess them, seemingly propelled by their own willpower from one owner to another and back again. With a pinch more malice this would be The Lord of the (Ear)rings, a fantasy tale about tempting jewelry that instills a deadly pride in those who dare purport to wield such power. But the passionately humanist Max Ophüls ensures that this is always really the story of Madame de…, not simply of her diamonds, and the themes of pride and ownership don’t necessarily involve the earrings at all.
That sleight-of-hand is one of the many reasons Madame de… stands as the most highly-praised work by Ophüls, whose career as a filmmaker was constantly capsized by the onset of World War II. A German-born Jew, Ophüls fled and became a French citizen in 1938, only to have to flee further to the U.S. There he failed to break into Hollywood until an admirer of his work recommended him to Howard Hughes; it helped that the admirer was none other than Preston Sturges. Ophüls directed five Hollywood productions before returning to Europe in 1950, where a new stage of his filmmaking career blossomed. Each of his final films — La ronde (1950), Le plaisir (1952), Madame de… and Lola Montes (1955) — is a masterful achievement in its own right, championed thereafter by the likes of Samuel Fuller, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Those with a dream to fulfill have a better chance of survival. This is the idea put forth to Diego Fairman, a once-famous film director, as he lies in his hospital bed. He’s dying of cancer at the moment, given only a few months to live, his body ransacked by the disease at every turn. Diego’s life outside his body has been ransacked, too, the cancer boiling within him such that deep issues in his marriage, his family and his work all bubble to the surface. The ailing artist knows he wants to survive, but he doesn’t yet know that this means more than simply “staying alive.” Even if you’re in perfect health, your chances of survival are better with a dream to fulfill.
My Hindu Friend unfurls the story of Diego (Willem Dafoe) methodically, with the mixture of matter-of-fact realism and dreamlike romanticism that one should expect from writer/director Héctor Babenco. The former finds grounding in Pixote, Babenco’s documentary-esque 1980 film about Brazil’s delinquent youth; elements of the latter can be traced to Kiss of the Spider Woman, Babenco’s transcendent 1985 endeavor to bring Latin American magical realism into the mainstream. It’s fitting that Babenco’s own art impact My Hindu Friend, as the film is based on true events from his life. Inasmuch as Diego is a stand-in for Babenco, the inextricability of art and “survival” is always at the forefront.
One of the best collections available on the Criterion Channel is one called Film Plays Itself, a self-reflexive assemblage of movies about movies. Here you’ve got your classics, like Sunset Boulevard and 8½. You’ve got your “out-there” stuff, like the experimental Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or Godard’s New-Wave Contempt. And you’ve got some modern triumphs like The Player and Adaptation. Each of these sort of screams CINEMA! in a not-so-subtle way, which is not a knock against them so much as a bit of a prerequisite for inclusion on the Criterion Channel in the first place. But the highbrow reek of such an overly-academic, carefully-cultivated program of thinkfilms threatens to become overbearing without any deviance — or at least it would, if not for Hollywood Shuffle.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Townsend saw the same problem that every black actor saw in Tinseltown: you either play a criminal, a convict, a slave or some combination of the three. Moreover, depictions of those figures were by and large stereotyped approximations rather than actual characters. Shuffle sparked when a white casting director turned Townsend down for a role because he “wasn’t black enough,” and Townsend recognized this as a brand of systematic racism baked into Hollywood itself. He only had to look to the local cinema at the time for evidence: the sole major studio production with black leads in the 1985-’86 movie season was The Color Purple, written and directed and produced by white men and a clear-cut case of overly-sentimental, stereotypical depictions of black men and women on the silver screen.
The Coen Brothers have been on my mind as of late. They usually are, granted, but especially so now that we’ve made the (ill-advised?) decision to dive into a complete Coen retrospective in our Director Series column. That means we’ve signed up for a lot of likable characters making drastically dumb decisions against a lovingly-rendered period America and a deep bench of memorable supporting players. You want pitch-black comedy? You got it. You want films that actually earn the moniker neo-noir? You got it, again and again. So how about a little break from the Coen-verse? Perhaps a new indie flick on Amazon to shake things up? Sure. Nice change of pace.
Rather than a standard film review, we’ve been compiling a visual glossary of likely inspirations in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 film The Master. Huge props go to Fandor, A Bittersweet Life and various others for compiling similar versions of this over the years. We’ll periodically update this article with new additions as we find them, so hit the comments at the bottom if you think you’ve spotted another visual cue.
The films of the Safdie Brothers tend to share a few recognizable qualities. Most apparent is the kinetic, stressful energy with which each of their films unfolds, a ride that weaves unexpectedly while continuously approaching a breakneck speed. Those weaves are almost always a result of character decisions, though, and I respect that the Brothers keep memorable figures at the fore through even their most plot-twisty jaunts. They seem drawn to slightly-delusional protagonists, too, if not fully-delusional, and so the common logline usually follows a familiar trajectory: Main Character makes increasingly dumb decisions and pays for it. And then there’s the street-level realism, from the single-parent struggles of Daddy Longlegs to the exploration of addiction in Heaven Knows What to the petty life of crime in Good Time.
So why does Uncut Gems feel so different? Increased production value, sure, and an increased profile to match. Before Gems the Safdies weren’t household names unless you caught Good Time, which most probably saw for Robert Pattinson more so than the directors. And of course Gems not only has the excitement of Sandler returning to a dramatic role, but also his most remarkable performance ever (fight me!) as Howard Ratner. These things alone set this particular Safdie outing apart.
Marianne, the artist and main character of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, invites us to know her immediately. Look at the way I sit, she says. Take time to look at me while I pose. Look at the way I hold my hands, she says, before her fist involuntarily clenches at the sight of an old painting of hers. A scene later Marianne is no longer posing, but we take time to look at her face when she sees her painting equipment go over the side of a boat. We see her foot find purchase on the boat’s edge, we see the briefest flicker of uncertainty, and we feel we know her a little better when she dives into the water.
How well can one really know another, though? Even under constant observation, even if the subject is unaware of the observer’s gaze, can that space between ever fully be bridged? Sciamma’s Portrait, a brilliant and surefooted romance captured passionately onscreen, asks this of Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The latter is introduced first under a figurative veil of secrecy — we’re told that the last painter who attempted Héloïse’s portrait was “unable to finish” — and then under a literal one, provided by a black cloak and a series of obscure camera angles. We’re with Marianne the whole time, wondering about Héloïse and her secrets.
Bernard Malamud wrote The Natural, his debut novel, in 1952, the year the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the World Series. The tale of once-promising baseballer Roy Hobbs was almost universally praised upon the novel’s release, with many championing it as the first great novel about baseball. Critical consensus, though, agreed that the actual baseball — the strategy, the technicalities, the game — mattered less than the fable at hand. In some ways the myth behind Roy Hobbs was more interesting than Roy Hobbs. The original New York Times review from August ’52 typifies this stance in describing the novel thusly:
a sustained and elaborate allegory in which the “natural” player who operates with ease and the greatest skill, without having been taught, is equated with the natural man who, left alone by, say, politicians and advertising agencies, might achieve his real fulfillment.