Clifford, Karlson, Mottern, Mulligan, Smith

Zack and Miri Make a Porno (Kevin Smith, 2008). I think of Kevin Smith as one of the laziest directors working today because he demonstrates no particular skill with telling stories visually, seems to know this, and, most distressingly, has indicated the awareness of this shortcoming inspires no aspirations to improve. Zack and Miri may have a whiff of desperation about it–up to an including the please-pay-attention-to-me title–but one positive side effect is that Smith does push himself a little more as a director. There are a few moments which demonstrate some care and attention to crafting interesting visuals, even if there’s no need to break it down shot-by-shot in a film class or anything. Unfortunately, it’s in the service of a typically puerile and juvenile Kevin Smith script filled with interchangeably brash, paper-thin characters. Elizabeth Banks rises above the material with a solid performance, though the film is bad enough that it doesn’t inspire admiration as much as thoughts of rescue.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962). You will understand, I hope, if I have a soft spot for a film featuring a widely misunderstood creature named Radley. This film adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved novel is revered in its own right, and justly so. Horton Foote’s screenplay is a masterpiece of understatement, hardly a guarantee given the potential for a heavy studio hand demanding incendiary, excitable treatment of the story. There are big points to be made, but Foote realizes that capturing the most mundane elements of the small town faced with an uncommonly charged court case involving a black man raping a white women is the way to illicit the strongest possible impact. Mulligan follows this lead, often keeping his camera at a respectable distance when the heated drama all but begs it to charge in. This also stands as one of the finest–perhaps the finest–depiction of childhood in an American film. The freedom of youthfulness is evocatively captured, especially the way that spirit extends to a constant need to try and make sense of the world, especially at the moments when the cruel conflicts of people most tragically defy logic.

Trucker (James Mottern, 2008). The feature film debut of writer-director James Mottern feels like the sort of independent film that was once nearly ubiquitous, but shows up with ever-decreasing frequency these days. It is simple and small, telling a human-scale story that involves people living in the ignored corners of American society. These are the sort of people kept offscreen. Michelle Monaghan gives a very good performance as a woman whose life is lived in tenderized increments. She drives a semi truck for a living, lives hard when she’s not driving, and just barely gets by financially and emotionally. Her life is complicated when the son she effectively abandoned a decade earlier comes back into her life. The arc of the story may be familiar, but the conviction of the emotions and the care with which they’re portrayed has a strength that’s more impressive than surprise.

Scandal Sheet (Phil Karlson, 1952). This gruff and punchy film noir is based on a novel by Samuel Fuller. The story involves a couple of reporters puzzling through a murder, trying to first figure out the identity of the victim and then the perpetrator of the crime. It’s not a whodunit, though. The murderer is identified as the reporters’ editor from the moment the crime is committed. The pleasure of the film is watching him squirm as his guilt gets closer and closer to being revealed, especially since the best way for him to avoid suspicion is to egg them on in their investigation. Broderick Crawford is strong as the twisting, grimacing editor, but the reporters are a different matter. Donna Reed is adequate as one member of the team. As the other, John Derek shows he was about as talented of an actor as he was later as as a director.

Frances (Graeme Clifford, 1982). Jessica Lange is sensational in every way as the tragic nineteen-thirties and forties actress Frances Farmer. She’s fierce and fearless. She is gritty and elegant in equal measure. As Frances falls deeper into disarray and gets dragged into a hellish institutionalized existence, Lange is wild and unencumbered without ever leaning on too much showiness. Everything she does in painfully real and honest. A great performance is no guarantee of a great film, but Clifford, an editor making his directorial debut, crafts a fully realized work that is worthy of the force of nature at its core. He builds scenes beautifully, shadowing them with the rupturing moods of his title character, a quality heightened by the expert cinematography of Lazlo Kovacs. Clifford has the admirable thoroughness to establish how the era Farmer lived in led to her downfall, showing the way that everything from the power structure to family expectations to the World War II posters tacked to every vertical surface reinforced obedience and conformity as the only acceptable approach for a person who wanted to prosper.

5 thoughts on “Clifford, Karlson, Mottern, Mulligan, Smith

    1. Some days I miss you too.

      It might not be that weird. I recorded Frances off of TCM’s Oscar month programming. Is that how you found your way to it?

      1. no i netflixed it. I am very weak in “good” 80’s movies. john and i turned off our cable in January. I sadly missed TCM’s oscar ramp up. On the positive side I can’t remember the last time I watched a “reality” television show.

        When are you making you yearly trip down here?

        1. I’m watching (or, as was the case with Frances, rewatching) a fair number of movies from the 80’s myself, in preparation for the next logical step in my ongoing project.

          And I will be in Florida soon. Next week in fact. I’m going to try to figure out the particulars today.

          1. I am free next week so YAH!

            I would like to see you again and introduce to my four-legged ladyfriend.

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