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Movie Reviews: 8/21/2023 to 8/27/2023

Movies reviewed this week: Dog Day Afternoon, Mystery Men, The Small Back Room, Nashville, 3 Women, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and The Woman in Question.

8/22/2023: Dog Day Afternoon (1975): *****

Lumet never stopped developing as a director. The opening credits of Dog Day Afternoon are fiercely dirty, focused on the reality of New York City streets, casting garbage in a central role. He was fifty when he made this, twenty years older than Scorsese was when he made Mean Streets. Lumet kept up with the times.

I could write a book about the first fifteen minutes. The way Lumet breaks the rhythm of the camera when Sonny (Al Pacino) panics, suddenly panning quickly and raggedly with Sonny as he runs — it’s phenomenal. The way he builds tension is amazing. Pacino and Cazale are explaining their relationship with their acting, building the foundations for the rest of the movie. Watch how Sonny never looks back at Cazale’s Sal, because Sonny trusts Sal absolutely. There’s no need for dialogue to establish this.

The rest of the movie keeps on being just as good. Sonny is a folk hero who doesn’t totally deserve it — Pacino’s performance includes Sonny’s self-centered arrogance. The crowd is fickle too; they just want bread and circuses in the end. And the tension is constant. The last thirty minutes of this are hard to watch.

I’m too old to believe in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but every time I watch a Lumet movie I get pissed off that he never won a competitive Oscar.

8/24/2023: Mystery Men (1999): ***

Give it another ten years and I’ll find bad CGI just as endearing as bad rubber suit monsters. The exuberance carries the effects here, with fun eye-searing set design. I would have been more cheerful about the whole aesthetic if the opening fight scene hadn’t been so haphazard.

At the end of the day, like many satires, this one functions as an excuse for a hangout movie. Once Paul Reuben and Kel Mitchell get firmly on stage, there are plenty of joyfully weird dynamics and I found myself settling in for the duration. I’m kind of betting the best jokes were ad libs: come on, look at that cast!

The 90s were the 90s but I’m kind of in awe at how extremely queer-coded those villains were. The bit where blue collar William Macy bashes his way through the Disco Boys — led by Eddie Izzard — is a perfect example of how we all live in the zeitgeist without realizing it.

Boofest 2023: connected to Zebraman by superheroes.

8/25/2023: The Small Back Room (1949): ****

Powell and Pressburger were quite the pair of filmmakers, huh? I was fascinated by the arc of this movie. With my modern sensibilities, I see it as a movie about a man struggling with his alcoholism with a somewhat strange ending. I don’t think that’s the movie Powell and Pressburger were making, though. I think their movie is about the underappreciated boys from the back room, who also helped fight World War 2, as personified by alcoholic Sammy Rice (David Farrar).

His alcoholism is significant, but it exists as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a disease. That amazing bomb defusing sequence is about Sammy’s ability to shake off his desire for booze when he has to; that established, everything can go back to the way it was. It’s just a matter of British willpower. Similarly, if the back room boys learn to stand up for themselves, they’ll get the recognition they deserve. Susan (Kathleen Byron) even calls out Sammy on his reluctance to face conflict.

It’s a bit of a waste of their chemistry to let the tragedy fade out so quickly, but they’re so good together that I could appreciate their scenes on their own terms. Likewise the movie as a whole. Those cuts between Sammy at the bomb and Renée Asherson relaying his words were immaculate: Power and Pressburger knew when the tension needed her reaction to make it even better. Such craft.

8/26/2023: Nashville (1975): *****

Two hours and forty minutes, and I’m not sure there were more than a handful of successful conversations in any of it. Quite a few completed transactions, but not much in the way of emotional interaction.

The scene that stuck with me was Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) trying to tell stories instead of tossing off the same old songs. It’s the most disastrous thing anyone can imagine. She wants to connect with people, but nobody else wants that for her, not even the audience.

Communication is at the heart of the whole film. The backbeat is Hal Philip Walker’s truck, roaming around the city broadcasting a one way message of populist revolution. Music is communication. Jeff Goldblum’s anonymous motorcyclist is a mute, unspeaking witness. The only people Linnea Reese (holy crap Lily Tomlin) clearly truly loves are her deaf children. There’s just enough successful communication to highlight how desperate everyone else is.

Desperation and hunger are the barbed wires wrapped around the heart. Everybody needs. One of those needs is met at the end of the film, but only by way of tragedy.

It is, after all, a 70s Altman film. It captures both the American spirit and the American flavor of decay, without mercy.

8/26/2023: 3 Women (1977): ****

The overlapping layers of identity congeal so slowly that I forgot to wonder what was going to happen next. It’s the eternal California now, with three women existing in one moment.

It’s a dream, obviously. I don’t think there’s a narrative dream here; it’s not Willie’s dream. I think it’s literally Altman’s dream, which is to say a masculine dream. It’s a deep pool of nightmares: women who need too much, and — as Edgar laments — women who don’t need at all. Women who reject their family.

I’m in awe at Altman’s instincts. He catches fire in his hands. The story goes that the first time Shelley Duvall caught her dress in the door Altman knew it was the right accident. He was correct; Duvall’s Millie has problems with boundaries, and the dress always trailing outside the car is perfect for that. But how did he know?

I am also in awe at the acting. Sissy Spacek’s shift between acts is phenomenal. Duvall’s shift at the very end is just as accomplished, even if we didn’t see it for long.

It’s interesting to me that Altman cast twins as twins, and a married couple as Pinkie’s parents. I suppose when you’re making something this surreal, that symbolic grounding helps you find your way.

8/26/2023: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978): ****

I’m not going to claim that Gordon Liu is on par with Daniel Day Lewis as an actor, but I will be impressed at how well he captures the zero to hero journey in this. It’s a long road from a callow student to a hero of the resistance; he has to move from humble to cocky to humble more than once. Go back and watch the first couple of scenes after you finish the last few.

Lau Kar-leung gets to really focus in on his passion: showing the moral power of martial arts. The training sequences are the core of this, and the fight sequences are the payoff. It could be a bit dull watching Liu train and improve for five in character years, if Lau had been pro forma about them. There’s a depth to the way he films them; the editing in the bit where Liu learns to balance on barrels is just about perfect.

I also found myself impressed, once again, with the way Lau uses space. One of the powerful tools at the disposal of Shaw Brothers directors was simply resources. The huge sets, the infinite number of extras — it gives Lau room to really express his creativity in large scene choreography. His use of color is more effective because of his bigger canvas.

Excellent start to the second Arrow Shaw Brothers set.

8/27/2023: The Woman in Question (1950): ***

Decently clever British mystery that revolves around clashing opinions about a murdered woman. It’s nothing spectacular but it’s fun, and the varying perspectives mean everyone gets to try on a few characterizations during the flashbacks. I’d even be willing to call it a noir for the sake of validating the Criterion Channel collection.

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