Saturday, March 15, 2008

Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)

*****
USA



In his first - and, very possibly, still strongest - lead, Jack Nicholson at first appears to be playing a moody blue collar worker itching to ditch a dumb girlfriend he doesn't love. Through terse yet textured, consistently ingenious vignettes, you gradually get to glean an unwieldy personal history and an equally unwieldy mind that has contributed towards his unsteady handle on things like responsibility and contentment.

The subject matter - the oppressive bourgeoisie pushing one of its own into uncertain drifterhood - is very much tied to the early 70s zeitgeist. But the film's timelessness comes from the maturity and complexity with which it is explored. It remains a strong influence on today's moody independent filmmakers, conscious or otherwise.

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Horton Hears a Who! (Steve Martino, Jimmy Hayward, 2008)

***½
USA



One of the happier Dr. Seuss adaptations as well as one of the warmer contemporary cartoons about talking animals with spurts of 'attitood'. Even the aggressively postmodern snippets like the erratic anime parody, although jarring, are never quite grating since they're never mean-spirited. The voice-work by an unusually well-behaved Jim Carrey and the always lovable Steve Carell helps enormously. That said, here's hoping the overbearing-dad-alienated-teen dynamic never becomes a cartoon subplot again.

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Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)

***
UK/France



In the sections where director Joe Wright keeps his showboating tendencies in check his adaptation of Ian McEwan's absorbing if overtly mannered WWII meta-morality-tale flows elegantly. But beyond the first third Wright rarely remembers to restrain himself or his unfortunate tendency to squeeze out poignancy and advertise subtext. That, and the central romance comes off lop-sided. McAvoy is adequate but Knightley, looking morbidly skeletal, is too strained by her practiced if admittedly polished elocution to give off much warmth.

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Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (Melvin Van Peebles, 1971)

***
USA


The ode to all the "brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man" that was "rated X by an all-white jury" and opened in two theatres to a torrent of violent reviews before earning $15m and breaking several barriers for black and antiestablishment cinema. Beyond its social and historical context, it's mostly unwatchable, though writer-director-producer-star-composer-editor Van Peebles does come up with some arresting visuals - particularly in the closing third.

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Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)

***
USA



A suicidal youth befriends and ends up romancing a life-loving 79-year-old. When the premise is played straight and Ashby gives his characters room to breathe, the picture becomes bizarrely resonant. But when played for caricature - as it is through most of the first half - it's grating.

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