Then Playing — The Ascent; Love Field; Dune

The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1977). The fourth and final feature from Soviet director Larisa Shepitko is a powerhouse drama set during World War II. After Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) are dispatched from their unit to seek desperately needed resources, the former is wounded in a firefight. The men seek shelter and try to avoid the German enemy, their misery mounting as they go. Shepitko frames the images beautifully, often recalling Ingmar Bergman in the exquisite, sedate beauty of her shots. The movie is harrowing and tough-minded without becoming exploitive, telling its wartime story with authority and poignancy. Both principal actors are extremely strong, with Plotnikov finding great depths in a quiet, withdrawn performance. The Ascent is striking work of cinematic art.

Love Field (Jonathan Kaplan, 1992). For a brief stretch in the late nineteen-eighties and early nineteen-nineties, Jonathan Kaplan was the go-to for strained, artistically unsatisfying issues dramas, like a Stanley Kramer for a new generation. In Love Field, Michelle Pfeiffer plays a Dallas housewife in the early nineteen-sixties whose obsession with the Kennedys inspires her to journey to the president’s funeral after his assassination. Along the way, she encounters a Black man named Paul (Dennis Haybert), who’s traveling with a young girl (Stephanie McFadden), and they bond once she discovers the hardships they’ve experiences, which she compounds with an panicked call to the authorities when she initially misinterprets the situation. The screenplay, by Don Roos, lays out its conflicts and resolutions with clanking mechanics. As usual, Pfeiffer is the film’s saving grace, building a real character when handed little more than a dramatic device.

Dune (David Lynch, 1984). In the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, director Alejandro Jodorowsky recounts the experience of settling into his seat to watch David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune. Jodorowsky spent years working on his own attempt an adaptation, which would have been a wildly ambitious project had it come to fruition. With professional envy, Jodorowsky was sure Lynch was one of the only filmmakers with enough crackpot inspiration to create a film that could rival — even outpace — what he had planned. With glee, Jodorowsky remembers the rejuvenating, cleansing pleasure he felt in realizing Lynch had instead presided over a disaster. That assessment is precisely correct. Lynch is somewhat faithful to Herbert’s text for the first half of Dune, which doesn’t mean the film is good. It is, however, bad in a more pedestrian way. In the second half, Lynch takes more liberties with the narrative, including more intrusions of his signature reality warping. The performances are either wooden (Kyle MacLachlan, Sean Young), cartoonish (Sting, Brad Dourif), or evidently baffled into passivity (Dean Stockwell).

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