Donahue, Hitchcock, Lang, Scorsese and Tedeschi, West

The Sacrament (Ti West, 2014). Following a couple elegant, artful horror features, West finally goes where all modern directors with a propensity to scare must. The Sacrament is a “found footage” that relies on the conceit of a couple Vice News reporters who tag along when a fashion photographer acquaintance goes looking for his sister, who has become a resident with a cult-like commune that has recently relocated to a remote area in South America. The plot draws heavily on the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, right down to the notorious beverage of choice when it comes time to draw the experiment to a deadly close. The familiarity compromises the film’s narrative drive. There’s simply not enough mystery to it, making the film a slow march to the inevitable. If West was able to present it with his usual controlled visual panache, The Sacrament would have a chance to overcome its flaws. The “found footage” approach presumably could have tested his creativity. Instead, it clotheslines it, resulting in an utterly generic movie, especially as West includes a few too many cheats against the technique. About the only original element is West’s perfect capturing of the smug, self-congratulatory hubris that’s endemic to every Vice video I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if that’s sharp commentary is even intentional.

Casting By (Tom Donahue, 2012). This documentary about the work of casting directors is a little too much of a mish-mash to be full satisfying. For one thing, it often seems that what Donahue really wanted to do was to make a full-length documentary on Marion Dougherty, who was a defining groundbreaker in the field, but she wasn’t actually quite notable enough to hang a whole picture on. So it keeps drifting away down other side corridors, always coming back to Dougherty as the prime example of why the role is so slighted by much of the holiday community (the officious egotism of film directors, personified by the grinning dismissiveness of then DGA president Taylor Hackford, is the main culprit). Donahue does make a make a strong case for the value of the role and includes just enough of the best, well-traded tales from the world of casting to keep the film humming along. It’s more introduction than explanation, but it succeeds well enough in that limited capacity.

Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952). If only this loopy, twisty western had stuck with its original title: The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck. That name presented in big, bold letters at the start of the picture is about the only thing that could have made it even more goofy fun than it already is. The film casts Arthur Kennedy as a Wyoming ranch hand who tracks down the roving bandits who murdered his fiancee. He finds them at a Mexican border town ranch that Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich) has fashioned into a communal hideout for gunslinging miscreants of all sorts, as long as they’re prepared to cut her in on their loot. Lang directs with a brash, restless energy and an sly willingness to let to the most insidious story elements creep in, like blood pooling on the other side of a cracked door. Most of the cast is fairly undistinguished, but this is one of those later career roles that finds Dietrich absolutely going for it, practically causing the celluloid to pucker with the inspired acidity of her performance.

The 50 Year Argument (David Tedeschi and Martin Scorsese, 2014). For the past few years, Scorsese has ben successfully filling the time between big new fiction films with humble little documentaries about whatever bit of pop culture intrigues him, from Bob Dylan to Fran Lebowitz. Tedeschi, his regular editor and collaborator on those projects, joins him to co-direct a work that is a little trickier to contain: an examination of the fifty year history of The New York Review of Books. While there are plenty of stories and remarkably well-informed colorful characters to go around, the filmmakers never figure out how to wrestle the material into place, leaving a finished product that’s too freewheeling and unfocused. At least much of the archival footage holds some power, if only because it illuminates the way public discourse has degraded from the time when Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer might go at each other on national television, viciously but with deep reservoirs of intelligence. Today, we have loads of the former quality and little of the latter. Even if the film has provided more pointed commentary on that change, holding up the continuing publication of The New York Review of Books as the lonely outlier in the awful modern media landscape, it would have at least had a point of view, maybe even one worthy of its subject.

Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock, 1949). As he had the preceding year with Rope, Hitchcock uses this story of intrigue in nineteenth century Australia as an excuse to stage long, unbroken shots. It’s an impressive technical feat, especially given the equipment of the time, but it also renders much of the film overly static. When Ingrid Bergman eventually gets a chance to really dig into her meaty character, the lady of a manor who is beset by problems causing instability, it’s fascinating to watch her play big, emotional scenes without the mercy of an edit. Aside from that, too much of the film drags with lumpy exposition and bland conflicts. The craft is ever-present in the construction of the visuals and the staging of the scenes, almost distractingly so. The film is too buttoned up, in dire need of more liveliness or even a bit more florid tones infused into the more melodramatic elements.

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