Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010). “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man!” Is there another actor working today besides Jeff Bridges who could deliver a line like that and make it sound plausible? In the never-ending quest to mine every cinematic artifact from the past three to four decades and turn it into a sparkling new franchise, Disney delivers the sequel, almost three decades in the making, that almost no one waited anxiously to see. What’s more, someone apparently decided that the best way to honor the zippy innocence of the original digital groundbreaker was to heap a whole bunch of impenetrable mythology onto it. What was once fun now aspires to be some intricate sci-fi narrative and becomes grindingly dull in the process. It also decisively proves what I’m sure everyone already suspected: just because you can create a CGI young Jeff Bridges to interact with all the other characters doesn’t mean you should create a CGI young Jeff Bridges to interact with all the other characters. Kosinski directs like someone who doesn’t actually know that all the material he’s shooting is supposed to be stitched together to tell a story.
Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967). This adaptation of Frederick Knott’s hit stage play from the prior year also marks the last Audrey Hepburn film released before she settled into semi-retirement. It would be almost a decade before her next screen outing. As a sort of swan song, Hepburn couldn’t have asked much better. She plays a blind woman who is conned and then terrorized by a group of vicious thugs in her apartment because they’re sure she is in possession of a doll with a pricey batch of heroin sewn into it. Hepburn gets to rail and wail and stumble around in fevered desperation. She also gets to show the ever-stirring thought process of a woman whose sightless condition has taught her to get by on her wits. The adapted screenplay, credited to Robert Carrington and Jane-Howard Carrington, makes excellent use of the situation, exploiting all the shifting possibilities in clever, reasonable ways, all of it further enhanced by Young’s tight, shrewd direction. Alan Arkin plays the most menacing of the thugs, and even his flourish-filled overplaying is a delight, given the actor’s extensive history as the most understated person on screen in any number of films.
Le Doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962). Melville’s crime drama is as hard and dark as a black onyx. based on a Pierre Lesou novel, the film follows a con named Maurice, played with an edgy sense of crushing inevitability by Serge Reggiani, who has just been released from prison and begins his life as a free man by murdering an old cohort and stealing some hot jewels from him. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays another criminal who is drawn into the ex-con’s plan to rob a wealthy man’s estate. When things go wrong, as things often do in these sorts of films, the recriminations and suspicions begin to fly, especially as the police proceed with their investigation with clear indicators that they’ve got an informant somewhere within the extended crew. By the time the time the whole plot unfolds, all the layered details are absolutely dizzying, which can either be seen as Melville’s satiric upending of film noir tropes or his gleeful attempt to top them all. Either way, it makes for a stylish romp that’s fun to watch, especially on those occasions when Melville makes his camera glide through scenes like an elegant dance, such as a scene in a police station that proceeds at length without a cut.
Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008). In telling the true-life tale of the brutality endured by incarcerated Provisional Irish Republican Army combatants in the early nineteen-eighties, director Steve McQueen takes a fiercely unconventional approach. He shreds established methods of structuring such a film, spending much of the first half with a couple of characters who barely factor into the second half, and introducing the clear protagonist of the latter portion of the film in such casual, offhand ways that the viewer can feel as baffled and unmoored as the inmates onscreen. He also shares some of Melville’s disdain for breaking scenes into pieces, best seen in the film’s centerpiece, a lengthy discussion between Bobby Sands and a priest that the prison has brought in on the eve of the former’s famed hunger strike. For over ten minutes, the film is nothing more than a single static shot of these two men talking, and it’s absolutely riveting, thanks both to the bravery of McQueen’s choice and the performances of Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham in the two roles. (McQueen’s compulsion to let a scene play out at length is less effective when it’s a wide shot of a guard cleaning up a piss-soaked floor that he refuses to cut away from.) It’s no wonder this film and performance immediately rocketed Fassbender up the lists of actors that everyone wanted to work with. He went through a startling physical transformation to play Sands during the hunger strike and that’s the least impressive part of the performance. Fassbender brings an intensity to every moment that signals, as much as anything else, that Sands will go through with his convictions to the devastating end.
Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichardt, 2008). After the open-ended meandering of Old Joy, Reichardt decided to try a plot on for size, albeit a slight one, still built more on emotional impressions than intricate twists and turns. Michelle Williams plays Wendy, a young homeless woman traveling with her dog, Lucy, a few hundred dollars, a grinding old car and an Alaskan destination. Her already dim fortunes take a turn for the worse in Oregon when a series of events, beginning with her car not starting, bring her to a new low point. Resolutely sad and understated, Reichardt’s film operates with a quiet, pained understanding of how small lives proceed, not just that of the title character, but those she encounters, especially a kindly old drug store security guard, marvelously played by Wally Dalton. It’s a splendid showcase for Williams, who increasingly seems utterly unable to give a performance that’s not a wellspring of truth. Fine as it is, it’s finally a bit too minor key, lacking the sort of wily invention that distinguished Reichardt’s next film.