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Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: Into 'The Vast of Night'—and beyond

Screen Grabs: Into ‘The Vast of Night’—and beyond

Sexism in the US music business and on the streets of Algeria, an unearthed Elizabeth Taylor curiosity, more films out now

A couple restored minor classics, plus new features about recording-industry sexism, Islamic fundamentalism and UFO invasion, make this another wide-ranging week in the streaming world.

Released into the brand-new century of 1901 after serving thirty-three years on and off for stagecoach robberies, Bill Miner couldn’t stay on the right side of the law for very long. In this 1982 depiction of his later career, he (played by Richard Farnsworth, who’d just begun acting in earnest after decades as a stuntman) is roused by a trip to the nickelodeon. There, he sees The Great Train Robbery—a twelve-minute silent western credited with greatly advancing the new medium’s technical and narrative sophistication. But it’s not the film’s artistry that excites him. With stagecoaches now history, it’s the depiction of a successful locomotive heist that gets his attention. Crossing the border into Canada, he soon sets about turning celluloid fiction into reality, even as he flirts with the respectable life by romancing a lady photographer (the eccentric actress Jackie Burroughs).

En route Miner became something of a folk hero, dubbed “the Gentleman Bandit.” This bemused chronicle of one brief stint between his serial jailings was the rare Canadian film about a Canadian subject to be a significant critical and commercial success abroad. It remains a very handsome affair, taking full advantage of spectacular scenic locations, with much music by Ireland’s beloved The Chieftans on the soundtrack. If you didn’t see it in the ’80s, or have wanted to see it again, Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration (now available in various arthouse “virtual theaters,” including BAMPFA’s) is definitely worth a look. Beyond its other pleasures, it’s also a testament to the talent of first-time feature director Philip Borsos, who sadly would only make a handful more before dying of leukemia in 1995, aged just 41. More info here.

Last week brought two major new documentaries about high-profile, high-powered sexual predators. Lisa Bryant’s Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich on Netflix devoted four hours to the misdeeds of the late financier pedophile and Trump party pal who conveniently committed a much-disputed jailcell suicide last August, just before his testimony might’ve incriminated other well-connected panderers. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s latest is a feature-length examination of a still-living tycoon trailing a slew of assault and harassment accusations. All of which Russell Simmons vehemently denies—while at the same time he’s moved to Bali, a nation with which the U.S. has no criminal-extradition deal.

On the Record begins with numerous African-American women discussing how they’ve felt the MeToo movement was mostly for “the beautiful, the wealthy, the popular”—and white. Whereas people like themselves often feel obligated to “race loyalty” above all, because “America destroys our men,” so complaining about their behavior only adds to negative stereotyping. Also, when black women have levied assault accusations against the likes of Clarence Thomas or Mike Tyson, it’s the woman who’s disbelieved, and whose reputation gets dragged through the mud.

“Godfather of hip-hop” Simmons was a dream boss and mentor for many women who sought entree into the music industry. But at least twenty of them have recently come forward to accuse him of inappropriate behavior, up to and including rape. Among them are aspiring rappers, filmmakers, even his own erstwhile chief A&R executive. The latter, Drew Dixon, eventually fled his Def Jam for Arista. There, artists she signed scored more hits and Grammys. Yet she says she found herself all too soon facing exactly the same “put out or get out” demands from new CEO L.A. Reid—a “last straw” that drove her out of the business entirely.

Pressure from those men presumably led to executive producer Oprah Winfrey severing her association with the film before its Sundance premiere, which resulted in it also losing its original distribution deal. On the Record isn’t quite as powerful as the filmmakers’ prior documentaries The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground, which detailed respective systemic sexual abuses and cover-ups in the US military and on college campuses—if only because those indicted entire institutions, while this is ultimately about power-corrupted individuals insulated by celebrity and wealth. Still, it’s a forceful expose that raises important issues about entertainment, privilege, gender, race and silence. It’s now on HBO Max.

Sexism in an entirely different context is the focus of this first feature by Russia-born, France-based Mounia Meddour, the daughter of late Algerian director Azzeddine Meddour. “Inspired by true events,” it’s a fictional narrative set in 1997 Algiers, where political and terroristic pressure is being exerted to force strict interpretations of Islamic religious law on all of society. That’s anathema to Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), a carefree university student aspiring towards a career in fashion design. She’s introduced sneaking out of the dorm with bestie Wassila (Shrine Boutella) to grab a cab, blast Technotronic, and give themselves a glam makeover en route to an underground dance club.

While many of her peers and their families are seeking to flee abroad, escaping an increasingly repressive culture, Nedjma intends to stay put—lent perhaps a false sense of confidence by her own reckless, borderline-bratty youthful high spirits.

That light is dimmed a little when a member of her own family is assassinated, apparently for exhibiting overly “Western” values. Nedjma turns grief into the determination to stage a fashion show, even if that sends a red flag to fundamentalists who’d readily kill for far less of a blatant provocation.

It’s hard not to share the film’s sense of outrage at institutionalized misogyny and violence in the name of religion. But Meddour overstacks the deck, piling on too much melodrama, forced lyricism, a breathless tone, and too many scenes in which Jessica Alba-looking lead Khoudri is encouraged to stay near or over the brink of hysteria. A quieter film might have made its points more powerfully; Papicha has a worthy message, but almost no dramatic restraint in delivering it. It’s currently part of the Roxie Virtual Cinema programming. More info here.

1968 was such a stupendous year in film—with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Yellow Submarine, Planet of the Apes, Faces, Teorema, Stolen Kisses and Shame, just for starters—that movies which might’ve stood out at any other time have been largely overshadowed. A good example is this starry oddity from Joseph Losey, a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist who moved to England, where he re-established himself to the point of becoming one of that nation’s leading directors in the talent-clogged Sixties. After exploring scenarist Harold Pinter’s provocative psychodramas in The Servant and Accident, he plunged into even more bizarre “psychological thriller” territory with this script by an expat Hungarian (George Tabori) adapting an Argentine novel (by Marco Denevi).

Elizabeth Taylor, then at the apex of her stardom, plays Leonora, who’s become an apparent prostitute after a failed marriage and the death of her only child. Visiting the latter’s grave, she is accosted by Cenci (Mia Farrow, fresh off the same year’s Rosemary’s Baby), a weird, somewhat infantile young woman who mistakes her for her own mother. She drags the bewildered Leonora to her sprawling, palazzo-like London home (Debenham House, a location used in several films), where Leonora realizes from photos that she does indeed strongly resemble the parent whose cancer death Cenci refuses to acknowledge.

Made vulnerable by her own maternal instincts and material poverty, Leonora accepts this role-playing relationship. But a snake turns up even in this false Eden: Cenci’s stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum), an American professor who blandly admits  lusting after the child-woman since he first saw her “sliding down a bannister” at age 11. A manipulative changeling, Cenci pits the two “adults” against each other, even going so far as to fake her own rape by “daddy” before she actually gives herself to him.

In a way Secret Ceremony is just one of the more pretentious children of Psycho—not that it’s a horror film, really, but one of many ’60s films indulging the celluloid fetish for baroque, deadly behaviors excused under the broad umbrella of twisted “psychology.” This kind of theatrical hysteria tied to taboos (incest, et al.) can easily curdle into camp, as it nearly does here in Taylor’s performance. She’s too literal-minded an actress to attack this borderline-preposterous material any way but head-on, to occasionally strident, coarse effect. But Farrow dives right into her character’s creepiness, a doe-eyed victim one minute and malevolent sprite the next, while Mitchum’s middle-aged predator is an insouciant master class in banality-of-evil. This very stylized, rarified cabinet of celluloid curiosities isn’t exactly a “good” movie, but it’s a rather fascinating one. It’s now out in a new HD master on DVD and Blu-ray.

Andrew Patterson’s debut feature starts out feeling like American Graffiti meets The Last Picture Show, as elaborate tracking shots capture everyday life in a small New Mexico burg on the night of a high school basketball game circa 1960 or so. Among the few not headed there for the evening are garrulous teens Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz)—she’s doing a shift on the town telephone switchboard, while he’s doing the same at the local radio station. It’s while both are at these solitary tasks that they become aware of something odd occurring, with callers suddenly cut off and a strange interference noise in the area. Investigating, the duo eventually get pointed towards mysterious “people in the sky.” Is some sort of Roswell/alien abduction scenario unfolding in this sleepy backwater?

It takes nearly all of this film’s 90 minutes for that question to get answered, making The Vast of Night one of those films in which showy directorial style and cranked-up performances cover for the fact that not much actually happens for a long time. It would be one thing if the extended buildup led to some real surprise, but in fact it leads to something very familiar. Patterson’s choice to frame all this as a sort of mock vintage Twilight Zone-type TV show seems like another level of filigree that disguises without actually adding to the slim narrative content. Still, Vast is earnest and resourceful; I can see why some are considering it a major find, even if I can’t quite share their enthusiasm. It’s now on Amazon Prime.

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