Herewith, the next batch of films for this year’s 30x90 project, capsules below. As before, I’m awarding a score on a 10 scale, along with what I’m calling a Relevancy score out of five stars. For that score, even if I wasn’t wild about the picture, this score suggests the significance of the film in the overall appreciation of cinematic history.
1.) Ratcatcher (1999): Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature, made when she was all of 30, is stunningly assured, an artist who had already found her exacting voice. Shot in her native Glasgow, set in 1973, during the course of a protracted garbage collector strike which left the tenements along the rutted canal surrounded by dark bags of festering trash, the film follows the fortunes of one young lad, James (William Eadie), who accidentally kills one of his friends in the opening minutes and deals with the submerged guilt, in ways both understandable (he has nightmares), and somewhat bewildering (he takes up with a similarly bedraggled young teen, who services many of the young louts James tangles with around the apartments). But the genius of the film is in the poetry of Ramsay’s frame — shot by Alwin Küchler, and elegantly edited by Lucia Zucchetti — and the distinct visual language she developed. The storytelling is pure and evocative — one sequence near the beginning after the drowned boy is first found, as James’ Ma (Mandy Matthews) watches forlornly from her apartment window, was so stunning and powerful I actually got out of my seat — which helps stave off the essentially bleak tableau it otherwise encompasses. It’s a film so gray and forlorn, that the occasional moments of grace — as when a boy looks through an unfinished apartment window into a gorgeously brightly lit yellow field — feel like minor benedictions against the onslaught. You could say the ending is at least slightly hopeful, though the unresolved nature of James’ true feelings suggests there most certainly will be more to come.
2.) The Glass Shield (1994): Following the contours of a true-crime exposé, Charles Burnett’s film exposes a rotten-to-the-dirty-core L.A. based sheriff ’s department in the Edgemar district, lead by a group of macho, white, mustached goons that dub themselves, appropriately, the “roughriders,” as they ride roughshod over such basic police work as evidence, due process, and racial objectivity. Burnett frames these goons through two standard devices: the wide-eyed rookie sheriff’s deputy, J.J. (Michael Boatman), one of the lone minorities in the department; and a more wizened vet, Deputy Fields, played by Lori Petty, as a female, yet another outsider to the force. As Burnett puts the characters through their more-or-less expected paces — J.J. soon comes to recognize the blatantly racist tenets of the department, and he and Fields discover a cover-up designed to falsely convict an innocent black man (Ice Cube) of murder— you can absolutely see where everything is going to land. I mean, has Michael Ironside ever not played a corrupt detective named “Vic” (or the equivalent)? Still, along the way, Burnett consistently makes interesting directorial decisions that, however small, give the film more nuanced coherence and sense of care than the genre usually demands. Dialogue scenes go on for several beats longer than you expect, scenes of seemingly inconsequential action and character details also exist for reasons other than to propel the plot forward (M. Emmet Walsh’s dirty detective rocks in his chair during a particularly poignant meeting, as if unable to contain his growing anxiety). Because Burnett spends this kind of time and care with (most of) the characters, it gives the film a weight it would not otherwise have (think a lighter, two-hour version of something David Simon might have produced). Not as searing as some of the director’s earlier work — including the much lauded Killer of Sheep, a film I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch for obvious reasons — it is, instead, a mostly successful hybrid of Burnett’s strong sensibility wedded to a more conventional studio effort.
3.) A Woman Under the Influence (1974): I have always found John Cassavetes an acquired taste, like Paul Auster, beet juice, or Stereolab. Hugely influential as a chronicler of men, women, and the terrible relationships they find themselves in, his heyday as a filmmaker centered in the ’60s and ’70s — often making self-financed productions with a recurring cast (including the two stars here, Peter Falk, and Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands). His style, documentary in tone, eschewing lighting, sets, or big name performers (other than this duo, and occasionally Ben Gazzara), allows for his particularly inscrutable sensibility to manifest. His films are filled with difficult, unconventional characters and nonlinear narratives. In this, one of his most celebrated works, he details the difficult marriage of a genial working stiff, Nick (Falk), and his seriously mentally ill wife, Mabel (Rowlands), who gets committed for several months, and then returns home. Cassavetes is fond of emotionally loaded gatherings — the film centers primarily around two separate large dining scenes at the couples’ house; one, near the beginning, when Nick brings his whole crew home after an all-night shift for some early morning spaghetti, culminating in Mabel’s increasingly unhinged behavior until Nick has to yell at her to stop; and, upon her return from the hospital, where their combined family sits around the table, hoping to create a sense of normalcy. True to the director’s form, Nick is all over the place — one minute, loving and attentive, the next, slapping his wife and screaming at her in front of their kids that he’ll kill her — which speaks to Cassavetes’ penchant for disturbingly unpredictable characters. In an otherwise sharply focused verité setting, these moments stand out as a director’s affectation, which is deeply distracting. Still, Rowlands is a marvel (a performance that earned an Oscar nomination), and the potency of their relationship is on full display.
4.) Weekend (2011): You could say, in a sense, not terribly much happens in Andrew Haigh’s relationship drama, two men meet on a Friday night at a gay club in Nottingham, end up spending most of the next couple of days together and then go their separate ways, but the basic plot summary is misleading. Russell (Tom Cullen), a lifeguard, meets Glen (Chris New) at a club after ducking out of a gathering at his best friend’s house. At first, the pair just drunkenly hook up, but over the course of time — as delineated in several pitch-perfect scenes in Russell’s small, 14 th story flat — the two embark on an odyssey of growing intimacies. Glen, wounded from a previous relationship, and about to head out of the country, maintains strong boundaries as to his feelings, while Russell, relatively happy but lonely, seems more inclined to something substantial, but the pair ultimately find their own way to an intimate balance. The tremendously talented Haigh, whose Lean on Pete, was one of my favorite films of 2017, is expert at mining those tiny, subtle moments between couples that nevertheless yield a great deal of meaning and significance. Shot with precision and care by Ula Pontikos, the film shifts from elegant static shots of the countryside and Russell’s apartment building, to the more handheld intimacy between the two men. Impossibly enough, Haigh captures the fleeting moments of burgeoning love, and lets us watch them build into something a good deal deeper, more or less in real time, as it begins to dawn upon the characters themselves. A bit like a gay Before Sunrise, albeit without the continual conversation conceit of Richard Linklater’s film, the scenes themselves tend toward the quiet and understated — save for a few particularly emotional moments as the couple get spun out from lines of coke — but reverberate strongly. At one point, Glen expresses his frustration that queer couples in England aren’t allowed to be themselves in public, always worried about offending the “straights,” but Haigh’s film offers a healthy counter: Through the emotionally and physically intimate scenes between the two men, he forces his audience to relate to them as they would any other on-screen couple, at the first, tentative steps toward the ultimate vulnerability of falling in love.
5.) Mean Girls (2004): It’s almost impossible to ignore the unfortunate subtext that has come out in the last 15 years, since Mark Waters’ winning teen comedy (from a Tina Fey script) made its debut: The professional demise of the film’s star , Lindsay Lohan. Seemingly, a young actress with the world in front of her — first as a Disney actress, then starring in this sharply funny film, from there her career pretty much cratered. Instead of a glowing, rising trajectory she instead became tabloid fodder, representing the all too familiarly depressing story of a child-actor falling apart. Many rehabs and family-related miseries later, she has steered mostly clear of film acting, and has instead focused on business interests. Fortunately, this film remains, undoubtedly a high-water mark for her acting career. As befitting Fey, who would go on to create and star in 30 Rock shortly thereafter, the script is funny and surprisingly poignant — even if some of its racial humor hasn’t aged terribly well, nor its hands-off handling of its lone gay character. Fey is nevertheless able to turn teen cruelty into riotous comedy (literally culminating with a riot in the high school), while also providing a strong case for its sanction. Lohan shines as a genuinely sweet and innocent young woman having spent most of her life in Africa with her researcher parents, attempting to navigate the vastly more dangerous jungle of American high school (a point the film repeatedly refers to with animal-like re-enactments). The narrative depends entirely on the audience sympathizing with Lohan, and pulling for her even as she gets sucked into the vortex of cruel socialization, and she proves up to the challenge. We can lament what might have been with her — several of her co-stars, including Amanda Seyfried, and Rachel McAdams, have continued to make very interesting work — but at least appreciate how perfect she was for this role at that moment. Time is fleeting, indeed.
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