Allen, Cuaron, Jarmusch, Kazan, Kaufman

Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch, 1984). A New Yorker’s Hungarian cousin comes to visit, staying with him for an extended period, despite his initial protests. He grows to like her, eventually recruiting his buddy to join him in paying her a visit when she later moves to Cleveland. That trip evolves and the three of them wind up traveling to Florida together. And that’s about it. Jarmusch’s signature aesthetic was forged here as he often seems to be trying to see how little action he can put into any given sequence. Sometimes that can be wearying, but here it works dandy, maybe because it’s ideally suited for these sort of mildly disaffected urban hipster characters. John Lurie is especially good as the main character, lacing his sedate malaise with an entertaining cantankerousness.

Rudo y Cursi (Carlos Cuaron, 2008). Carlos Cuaron, probably best known for writing Y Tu Mama Tambien with his brother Alfonso, reunites the two young male stars of that film for this story of combative half-brothers who both become professional soccer players in Mexico. The film cuts jaggedly across the field, from dramatic to jokey and back again. Despite solidly engaging work from Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, and an even better performance by Guillermo Francella as the unscrupulous scout who recruits them, the film is a sluggish disappointment, never finding a vividly original path to take. Instead, it settles for being a parade of cautionary tale cliches.

Whatever Works (Woody Allen, 2009). Woody Allen, having long since adapted Alvy Singer’s theory of constant motion in relationships to the progression of his career, dusts off an old script he wrote for Zero Mostel (who died in 1977 for those trying to determine the vintage of the work) and hands it to Larry David. The Curb Your Enthusiasm star dashes off some amusing moments, employing his gift of comic hostility to rage against greater society and the dimwitted kids he coaches in chess with equal fervor. There’s not much he can do with the plot, though. It’s a tired collection of relationship mini-dramas all intended to emphasize that any couplings (or triplings, as the case may be) that provide some solace in a hard world are worth pursuing. As a message of understanding, it’s nice I suppose, but I prefer the Woody Allen of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the one who’s determined nothing works.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951). Streetcar looms large in the mythos of Marlon Brando. It was his work in the original stage production that vaulted him to stardom, and the subsequent film version earned him the first of eight Oscar nominations. As a piece of history, it’s endlessly fascinating, as Brando employs a nascent version of the loose, grounded, offhand realism that would transform the entire field of acting. All four principals, three of whom came from that storied stage production, operate in styles that are just a shade or two off from one another. Taken together, they represent a roughly drawn spectrum of the range of approaches being utilized in that tremulous time for the craft. If Vivien Leigh’s performance seems a little antiquated in its formality next to those of her colleagues, she’s leaning on older methods in the right role since Blanche DuBois rewards theatricality like no other part an actress can take. The screenplay by Tennessee Williams, adapted from his original play, is as florid and flushed as the New Orleans culture is takes place within. Elia Kazan smoothly captures it all, knowing full well that he doesn’t need to pump it up. Streetcar, by its very nature, is inflated enough.

The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983). Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s hefty work of narrative nonfiction, Kaufman’s film focuses on the original Mercury astronauts, men who were selected to lead America in the surging space race with the Russians. More importantly for some, they needed to be the proper face for the space program, inspiration figures for the nation to rally around, and much of the film’s success centers on the conflict between perception and reality. Kaufman has a lot of material to fit in, and does so admirably, creating a film that is dense with information and often cleverly, surprisingly entertaining. Many of the characters are vividly rendered, even though they have only glancing screen-time, an accomplishment bolstered greatly by the fine performances, especially those by Ed Harris, Fred Ward and Sam Shepherd. The ambition of the project diminishes the damage of some missteps, most notably a sequence involving Australian Aboriginal people seemingly providing some mystical assistance to a distant spacecraft.

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