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Great Movies Roundtable: The French Connection

#93 on AFI’s 100 Movies, 100 Years – 10th Anniversary Edition is the 1971 cop flick “The French Connection.”

There’s not much story to outline in”The French Connection.”  Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is a cop with a reputation for bending the rules.  He sniffs out a drug deal about to go down, and relentlessly pursues flimsy leads until he ends up in a shootout with the French smuggler.

General thoughts: 

CRH: The thing that I noticed about the French Connection is that it definitely has a focus on style opposed to story. The plot almost seems to have a Unsolved Mysteries kind of vibe. It feels like the story was written as if we’re watching a reenactment. Apparently this is the story of a fantastic heroin bust. The movie is the kind of fictionalization of these events which makes it a little weirder. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider play Detectives Popeye Doyle and cloudy Russo respectively. The film covers their investigation and their ultimate success.

WK: It’s odd to me that, the month after reviewing a film by Quentin Tarantino, who is famous for valuing style over substance, we get this movie, which is all style and no substance.  When it comes to story and character, “Pulp Fiction” has ten times as much as “The French Connection.”

The “French Connection” feels like a two-hour-long chase scene.  It’s not exactly, but it so ruthlessly does away with any investment in story, characters, even stakes that all that is left is an atmosphere  (a very dirty, depressing, rundown New York) and pace. And the pace is relentless.

What Works? 

CRH: The action scenes are by far the things that give this movie staying power. The car chase was fantastic. It was quite exciting and I see why it is so influential and still referred to by other filmmakers. The film elements can be quite exciting.

The film shows in a New York that no longer exists anymore. The the city was old, decaying and filled with crime. Even if people stop watching it for entertainment I think it’ll still be a valuable historical document to show some of the racial, social, and political dynamics of the city in that era.

WK: Yeah, but if I want a document of New York in the early ’70s, surely there’s a documentary out there that covers the subject with greater depth and a commitment to honesty you’re not going to find in a cop flick.   I agree that its mise en scene is a strength of this film, though.  Basically, I agree with what you said: the action scenes and mise en scene are what make this good, if not great.

What Doesn’t Work? 

CRH: The biggest problem with the film is the lack of characterization. We just start right into the middle of the action and it takes a little bit to catch on to what is going on. The film has a strange, eerie vibe to it, almost as if you know what we’re watching is futile and ultimately makes the film nihilistic. Which fits with the mood of the 1970s.

WK: One of the things that I expect from classic films is that they continue to be rewarding and enjoyable, watch after watch.  That’s where “The French Connection” really falls short, in my book. I think that its pace really makes it fun the first time through, but at the end, what do you have?  On subsequent watches, it gets more troublesome.  I don’t know who Popeye is, or why I should root for him. Assuming he’s the good guy just because he’s a cop seems awfully naive, especially now, in our times. He does a number of really despicable things throughout the movie, including shooting an FBI agent – are those not supposed to matter?  I don’t have any sense of what’s at stake. Why does it matter that he stop this particular heroin smuggler?  Is he particularly bad, or important? Won’t he just be replaced by others?  And when it ends so suddenly, and completely unresolved, these questions feel highlighted.  What did I just watch?  In the end, “The French Connection” feels like the predecessor of so many big, empty action flicks that, like popcorn, are all flavor and no substance.

Buying or selling?

CRH: I’m definitely selling. I’m surprised it survived the second AFI list. It remains as a historical document and an interesting movie but I feel that its staying power is limited. It’s not a thriller; rather a proto-action movie

WK: Dang, we don’t have much to say about this movie.  We agree on almost every point. I feel like this is a movie that doesn’t come anywhere near to living up to its reputation. Maybe it’s important because there was nothing else like it at the time, but 45 years later, any number of movies have taken its innovations and improved on them.  It doesn’t hold up anymore. I hope it doesn’t make the next version of the list.

Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

MacBeth

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard both deliver fantastic, fascinating performances in “MacBeth,” as the Scottish warrior who would be king and his calculating wife. Why would we expect any less? Both Fassbender and Cotillard are among the finest actors working, and tend to be the best thing even in bad movies they’ve made (Fassbender is far and away the best part of “Prometheus,” the ill-conceived “Alien” prequel from Ridley Scott a few years ago, and Cotillard tried really hard to save the sexist, dated “The Immigrant” a few years ago.)  Both make a movie worth watching that wouldn’t be with lesser actors on the screen.

And “MacBeth” is certainly worth watching. Director Justin Kurzel’s visual style is maybe a little too beholden to music videos; I wouldn’t mind a few longer takes and a few less “striking” images (that’s a matter of diminishing returns.) But the ways that he has found a fresh angle on the famous play, while staying true to Shakespeare’s script, are profound and illuminating. “MacBeth” has always been a tale of madness, but Kurzel more or less gives that madness a medical diagnosis: in the grips of PTSD, after suffering the death of two children, MacBeth makes one bad decision that spirals him down into an inescapable hole.  It’s amazing the insight Shakespeare had into humanity so many years ago: we are still learning how to name and treat things that he identified and seemed to understand in 1606.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Drunktown’s Finest

“Drunktown’s Finest” is set in the fictional town of Dry Lake, New Mexico, which is pretty clearly a stand-in for Gallup, New Mexico. If you’re familiar with Gallup, there’ll be plenty of local landmarks you’ll recognize; I saw a motel I stayed in once. Gallup/Dry Lake is right on the edge of the Navajo reservation, and the movie is about three different Navajos who go back and forth between dominant culture in the city and Navajo culture on the reservation, all in different ways.

Sick Boy (Jeremiah Bitsui) is just a few days away from joining the Army, if he can stay out of trouble long enough to report for basic training. That’s hard for him, because he’s got a circle of friends always drawing him into bad situations. He’s got a pregnant girlfriend and a sister to take care of, but he’s also got a bad temper and an impulsive nature. Felixia (Carmen Moore), transgendered, enters a competition for a Women of the Navajo calendar. She has very traditional grandparents at home who love and accept her for who she is, but she hides her more unsavory activities from them. Nizhoni (Morning Star Wilson)’s parents died when she was young in a car accident, and she was adopted by white doctors. She’s on her way to college, but yearns to reconnect with her family on the reservation, despite the discouragement of her adoptive parents.

None of these three know each other at the beginning of the film, and it follows their separate stories until they intertwine.  This kind of cinema was really popular about 15 years ago, featured in movies like “Traffic,” “Crash,” and “Babel” (and, um, some other movies with more than one word in the title, probably.) It’s supposed to be a comment on globalization and just how intertwined our lives have become, but it often feels contrived.  It doesn’t in “Drunktown’s Finest,” maybe because, if you are a Navajo in or around Gallup, you probably will bump into every other Navajo who lives there, eventually. It’s just that kind of community. Everybody knows everybody.  Wal-Mart on Friday is a giant family reunion.

It’s pretty clear that director Sydney Freeland grew up in this kind of place, and is bringing her own life experience to the screen. “Drunktown’s Finest” is well-observed, and its cultural specificity is its greatest strength. It’s weaker at cinematic execution. Somehow, a movie that involves three intertwining stories and is only 90 minutes long still manages to drag in places. The performances are pretty uneven; Bitsui is the best and seems most at ease in front of the camera. Wilson broadcasts the most, as if she doesn’t trust the camera to pick up on subtle emotion. And, with the exception of comedian duo James and Ernie (who play garbagemen,) a lot of the supporting performances are stiff as a board. One bad performance is the fault of the actor; this many bad performances is the fault of the director. However, this is Freeland’s first feature-length film; there’s hope that she can learn more about cinematic technique as she keeps making movies. Her knowledge and insight into life as a Navajo is much more rare, and not something you can learn in film school.

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke, Native & Indigenous Cinema.

The Accountant

In “The Accountant,” Ben Affleck plays an autistic man who is a meticulous accountant.  When he’s called in to find some missing money for a biotech corporation led by John Lithgow, he learns something he’s not supposed to, and finds himself and the pretty girl working with him (Anna Kendrick) on somebody’s hit list.

But it’s ok, because he knows kung fu. And is a sniper. And has a camper trailer full of guns, money, and fake IDs. And by the end of the movie, a lot of nameless goons are going to be dead, and John Lithgow’s going to get what’s coming to him. (Wait, was that a spoiler? No, not really. If you can’t figure out that Lithgow’s really the bad guy within the first ten seconds he’s on screen, then you’re just not paying attention.)

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Great Movies Roundtable: Pulp Fiction

#94 on AFI’s 100 Movies, 100 Years – 10th Anniversary Edition is Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.”

General thoughts

CRH: Pulp Fiction is a very entertaining movie. The film is supremely cast but I think the thing that draws the viewer in and keeps them in is Tarantino’s excellent dialogue. The conversations feel organic and they give the viewer enough information to be able to keep the narrative in focus through the 3 different storylines. The three stories are very good stories. However the non-linear structure allows for the themes to be developed fully. Pulp Fiction is oddly a movie about redemption. Most of those exploitation movies that Quentin Tarantino references are about very simple themes and human drama. I think trashy stories are the best mode to talk about the really deep things like redemption.

WK: “Pulp Fiction” revolutionized the film industry when it came out in 1994. It felt like a new kind of cinema; a reinvention of what movies were and what they could do. It seemed like we were on the edge of a new New Hollywood. But we weren’t. A lot of films tried to be the next “Pulp Fiction,” to borrow from its bag of tricks — the nonlinear structure, the dialogue, the liberal borrowing from exploitation films — but none of them succeeded. Even Tarantino struggled to recapture the magic, and eventually gave up and made Westerns instead. I can’t think of a single film from the ‘90s that borrows from “Pulp Fiction” in a good way. I can think of a lot of really bad ones. Like “Boondock Saints.”

What works?

WK: So much. The nonlinear structure works. The quirky side characters, like Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, and Christopher Walken, and Esmerelda Villalobos, all add so much texture and richness.  Even Zed.

And of course, the dialogue, which is so unique.  This is a film of individual scenes strung together, an there’s isn’t a single bad or dull scene in the movie.

I think that the reason “Pulp Fiction” stands apart is because its three stories all resonate emotionally.  All three stories are about redemption in one way or anothers; they’re about someone facing a crisis and overcoming it. That’s fundamental, classic storytelling. That’s  an element missing from most of Tarantino’s films, which too often feel nihilistic.

CRH: It’s technically excellent. The acting is top-notch. But the fact that it is a cohesive, interesting, and entertaining story (in this case three stories) iswhat makes it a classic. And, as I mentioned, the dialogue is very entertaining. If the movie had this structure and the same direction and the same story but did not have the dialogue to carry the audience through the movie I think that movie would be unwatchable. You want to see these very unique characters talk to other characters. I think the character work in this movie is the best. The characters have arcs which is something that a lot of movies neglect these days. The characters go on a journey from the beginning to the end of the story.

What doesn’t work?

WK: One of the common complaints against this film, and all of Tarantino’s work, is that it’s too violent. I don’t think that’s exactly right —  someone in the special features points out that more people die in “Bullets Over Broadway” than in “Pulp Fiction” — but it’s the way the violence is portrayed that is disturbing.  There’s a story out there that at the New York premiere, an audience member actually had a heart attack during the overdose scene. When asked about this, Tarantino’s response was “Wow! This film really works!”  That’s a tacky response; first he should have expressed some concern for the actual human being that nearly died, and/or some relief that he was okay.  But that same cavalier attitude toward life and death is present in the film: when Vincent accidentally shoots the guy in the back seat, the problem is never that a young man is dead, even a young man who didn’t deserve it; it’s that there’s now a bloody mess in the back seat.  That’s kind of disturbing.

CRH: I agree. I don’t think the violence in movies is a problem. But I think as long as the violence has a point that helps move the story along, I think that is what really matters in a movie. This movie is very violent. It’s probably not as violent as some movies (the movie Excalibur comes to mind.) How it affects an audience is dependent on the context of the violence. I mean when we see an innocent bystander get shot down by Marcellus Wallace, I think that was a good moment but it’s all really horrifying because she’s just a random person trying to help and she gets shot for the trouble. Or Marvin getting his brains blown out. It’s kind of upsetting because Vince and Jules spare his life and he gets killed accidentally. I think that’s probably what upset most people.

Favorite scenes

CRH: One of my favorite scenes is the scene where the Wolf comes in and starts directing the situation to fix it. There’s a dead body in the car but he’s calm clear and collected. Harvey Keitel has probably about 6 minutes in this movie. But his character is so strong and well-developed it’s compelling.

WK: For me, it’s the diner scene, without a doubt – but maybe for different reasons than most. I just really love that Jules’ spiritual conversion feels authentic.  I know it’s being played for laughs, but it never feels like the movie is mocking my religion.  In fact, it grasps the nature of a conversion better than most.  When Jules tells Vince that it doesn’t really matter whether they actually witnessed a bona fide miracle, what matters is that he felt the presence of God in that room and it changed him – I’m nodding my head. Yes.  Exactly. And then, when Jules realizes/confesses that he has been an evil man, but is now trying real hard to be a shepherd… well, that’s the stuff, right there.

Buying or Selling? 

CRH: I’m definitely buying. 1994 was kind of a messed up year. Not saying Forrest Gump is bad: I really like Forrest Gump but this movie is better. This seems to happen — sometimes good movies are kind of pushed out of the way in Oscar consideration or even public acclaim and popularity by other films. I think Pulp Fiction will be around for a while because I think it’s Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece. I don’t think he’s done better than this movie because the rest of his movies lack a core element or piece of humanity. The rest of his films seem to be merely violent; this one is transcendent.

WK:  It’s interesting to note that opinion, at least at the American Film Institute, hasn’t changed since 1994 – they still think “Forrest Gump” is a better movie, placing it at 74 on their list.  But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a cinephile under the age of 50 who really thinks “Forrest Gump” is a better film than “Pulp Fiction.” (Neither of us think so.) I guess we’ll get more into that when we cover “Gump” –  in about 20 months!

I really like this film, and I’m impressed watching it this time around how much it captures a particular moment in cinema history.  So I think it’ll rise.

Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

Goodnight Mommy

In a bit of dark humor, “Goodnight Mommy” opens with a TV shot of the Von Trapp family singers. By the end, you’ll wonder if someone ought to remake “The Sound of Music” as a creepy horror flick.

“Goodnight Mommy” mines a lot of its ominous feel from its very small cast. Lukas and Elias Schwarz, real life twin brothers, play twin brothers (named Lukas and Elias.) Susanne Wuest plays their mother. Aside from 2 or 3 scenes, all of which are pretty minor, there is no one else in the movie. Their world is small, and terrifying.

The 3 of them live at a peaceful (read: isolated) upscale house in the Austrian countryside. There’s plenty of space for the boys to play outside, amongst cornfields, a bog, and a forest, but no one to play with besides each other. In some ways, the opulent isolation is a callback to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games.” Never since then has peace and quiet felt so threatening. Anything could happen here, and nobody would know until it’s too late.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Deepwater Horizon

If anyone is wondering why all those people are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, watching “Deepwater Horizon” might help them understand. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell and Gina Rodriguez, this film is about the oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 people and spilled 210 million gallons of oil into the ocean.

The film focuses on the blue-collar oil workers on the rig, led by Russell. Like a lot of work crews, their camaraderie and commitment to each other give them the feel of a military unit, and it’s not hard to imagine that most of them are veterans. They are seasoned by experience and know their machinery inside and out, but have to take orders from BP executives in suits who rarely even visit oil rigs. Those executives, led by John Malkovich (looking as soulless as ever) are more interested in turning a profit and staying on schedule than in making safe and smart decisions. You make money in business by taking risks, but you take risks on a giant oil rig, and things go boom.

As a disaster flick, “Deepwater Horizon” is just okay.  There is a ton of information the filmmakers have to communicate about how oil rigs work, what the danger is, the safety tests that are being circumvented, etc. And while director Peter Berg handles most of this deftly, it’s like watching a ballerina with a backpack full of concrete try and dance – it’s clear she’s more graceful than you or I would be, but you can also see her starting to sweat.

And then, when disaster does strike, it’s plenty big and explode-y, but also pretty straightforward. Things are on fire, people are trying to escape, and most of them do.  There are a few noble sacrifices made. It’s all furiously paced and efficient in its storytelling. But the best disaster movies involve impossible decisions and moments where characters’ true colors are revealed; here’s none of that here. Berg’s hands are probably tied by the facts; not all disasters can produce fascinating and dramatic stories, and it would be bizarre to expect them to.  It doesn’t make those involved any less heroic, though.

The Bible says “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10.) “Deepwater Horizon” illustrates how a few men, in love with money, made bad decisions that cost the lives of 11 people, and did virtually immeasurable harm to creation. So when they tell you “our pipelines hardly ever break,” you might think twice before you listen.

Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

Sully: The Most Concise Drama of the Year

 

I decided to go to my favorite movie theater with a visiting friend to see the Clint Eastwood’s new drama Sully starring Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart, about the 2009 Miracle on the Hudson, you may remember this from the news.  Tom Hanks plays Captain Sullenberger — who, after taking off, experiences complete loss of power in his aircraft due to a bird strike and decides to ditch his plane in the Hudson River. He succeeds, which I hope is not a spoiler for anyone! The rest of the film deals with Sully enduring doubts about his actions in the subsequent NTSB investigation.

The main thought I have about Sully is that the movie is almost obsessively concise. The film starts with a dramatic worst-case scenario played out in Sully’s head during a dream.  The actual water landing is shown in a series of interlocking flashbacks with the drama of the investigation.  Tom Hanks delivers his performance as the embattled everyman and everyone else is there pretty much to support him or denigrate him in the course of the movie. The film has a clear A to B sort of structure. Sully lands the plane, is hailed as a hero, has doubts as the investigation progresses, we have some insights into his home life, there is a hearing where he exonerates himself. Then a joke by the dependable Aaron Eckhart (who plays his copilot) and the movie is over.

My friend joked that the movie was so concise because Clint Eastwood is getting older and does not want to sit through longer movies.  I think that actually might be the reason. The drama in the movie is mostly of the actual event which is quite an amazing and harrowing event. Captain Sullenberger is no doubt a hero. However I wish the movie had more meat on it. The movie plays more as a docudrama, which as a fan of history I really enjoy, but I think it left me wanting more. I feel the movie is a little handicapped by Eastwood and his commitment to show the heroism of his American subjects. I personally do believe his movies shows this heroism (like the controversial American Sniper, which I enjoyed) but I feel that sometimes the movie is less than it could have been. TE Lawrence was no doubt a hero, but a straight telling of his story would not have the artistry that the famed Lawrence of Arabia had (or its 3-hour runtime.)

“Sully” tells a good story because it’s true, but sometimes a story embellished can illuminate a hero even better than just the facts.  So I guess I’ll just have to watch Robert Zemecki’s Flight again to be satisfied. All in all I say this movie is worth the watch, but on home rental.

Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins.

Eye in the Sky

“Eye in the Sky” is about one of the oldest topics in art –the incredible cost of war – as well as one of the newest subjects under the sun:  our astonishingly increased ability to see and understand that cost.

One of our popular responses to warfare drone technology is that it makes taking the lives of other people far too removed from reality: piloting a drone from a dark room on a Las Vegas air force base doesn’t look very different from playing a video game in a dark basement in a Las Vegas suburb. Shooting real people looks and feels more and more like shooting monsters on a TV screen.  But “Eye in the Sky” highlights a different side of the same situation.  It is far easier to pull the trigger on the battlefield, when the enemy is trying to kill you. The action is easily justified. But from a thousand miles away, in no danger at all, perhaps it is much more difficult, knowing that you are taking lives while, at that moment no one is trying to take yours.  What is abundantly clear is that any action a soldier takes is going to be endlessly scrutinized; by superiors, by politicians, and likely also by journalists and/or newsertainment anchors, and often by anyone with a YouTube account.  How has this vastly increased level of scrutiny changed the way we engage in warfare?

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

The Magnificent Seven: Magnificent Casting

Antoine Fuqua has remade “The Magnificent Seven,” which itself was a remake of the classic “Seven Samurai,” which in turn was inspired by John Ford westerns. It’s the story of a town and its citizens who are being terrorized by a robber baron who wants their land. After a massacre in their town they hire gunmen to protect them. They find their seven champions in Warrant Officer Sam Chisholm, (Denzel Washington) Cavalier gambler Joshua Faraday, (Chris Pratt) Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, (Ethan Hawke) assassin Billy Rock, (Byung-Hun Lee) tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’onofrio) vaquero outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia Rulfo) and a comanche warrior, Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier.) It is up to these fighters to defend the town from an army of bad guys hired by the villainous Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard.)

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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins.