Blow Out (Brian De Palma, 1981). De Palma is a fascinating figure to me. He emerged with the film school generation of the seventies, standing shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg, indeed earning the most rapturous reviews bestowed upon any of them by the grand doyenne film critic of the era. To this day, there are a fleet of people who will proudly stand up and talk about every scrap of his output as if it were the needs to be studied with the unwavering attention usually reserved for the peak offerings of Welles or Kurosawa. This despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that, unlike most of his peers, he never diverged from his abiding love of trash. Good as they might be, early films like Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie are glossy, expertly made drive-in fodder of the sort that Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez could only cook up in their most untethered dreams. Even De Palma’s few attempts at more serious fare have an unmistakable (and occasionally unsettling) lurid sheen to them. Blow Out is a tight film with a wobbly narrative focus, following a sound effects artist whose recording of a deadly car crash embroils him in major political conspiracy. De Palma almost seems to be restraining his own sensibilities, trying to construct a more conventional, relatively lean thriller. He can’t quite do it, and the film teeters on that indecision. John Travolta gives a solid, engaging performance in the lead role, although it becomes clear as the film proceeds that the character is too thinly conceived. By the end, he has little more to do that play variations on a man becoming slowly unhinged.
Down to the Bone (Debra Granik, 2005). Granik’s feature directorial debut barely has anything that could be described as a plot, which is clear from its meandering progression and indifferent ending. It is instead a character study, a slice of hard life. Vera Farmiga plays a lower class mother and wife with a cocaine addiction. She struggles with it, hits low points, tries to emerge, basically churns along trying to survive the rigors of a heartless, downtrodden world. Farmiga, unsurprisingly, in sensational in the role, brutally real without leaning on cheaply sensationalized tricks. She doesn’t give this character her dignity, exactly, but she does honor her with an unwavering honesty. Without much story to drive it, Granik’s film rises or falls on the strength of its details. It is at its most effectively, and it’s most casually heartbreaking, when it illustrates the sheer difficulty of escaping a cycle of addiction when the entirety on your world is framed around that drug use.
A Face in the Crowd (Elia Kazan, 1957). The so much worth of praise in Kazan’s mercilessly dark comedy that it’s hard to figure out where to begin. Kazan reunited with On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg for a scathing film about a southern guitar player plucked from a country jail and given a chance at celebrity, which he builds to astonishing effect on the basis of a folksy charm that becomes more and more calculated as he reaches greater heights. There’s ample evidence that the condemning conceit remains pertinent, but the timelessness is not just in the concept, but in the construction. There’s nary a false note, and if the mechanics of his comeuppance now seems cliched (even implausible with fifty more years of accumulated cynicism), compensation exists in the splendid image of the lead character alone in his gigantic apartment, basking in the echoing cheers of a sound effects machine. That lead character is played with genius malevolence by Andy Griffith in his film debut, fresh from the first of two Tony Award nominations. His ferocious work here doesn’t just shove his iconic work as Sheriff Andy Taylor to the background, it’s satiric edge undercuts the very sincerity of that performance. It’s hard to believe that anyone who saw this film ever watched a single episode of that beloved television series without being overwhelmed with suspicion.
Man Push Cart (Ramin Bahrani, 2006). Bahrani has been the beneficiary of some outsized excitement of late. I can’t comment on the entirety of his filmography–perhaps the full selection of the films starts to coalesce into some vast, rich and amazing–but Man Push Cart is solid but unremarkable. It has a loose, quietly observant style that unmistakably marks its indie roots and adheres to the patterns it lays out from its opening frames and the first strikes of the various relationships contained within. It says some interesting things about class divisions among, but could stand to say them a touch more forcefully.
Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (Henry King, 1955). Back when romances needed little more than exotic locales, swooning violins in the music score and William Holden’s cleanly shaved oil barrel torso. If you’re one of those peacenik types you can throw in some cross-cultural understanding and get a load of Oscar nominations as a bonus. The kindest evaluation of a film like this necessitates putting it in the context of its era because by any modern standard it’s painfully insipid.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)