Epstein, Greno and Howard, Nichols, Penn, Rush

Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols, 1971). Working from a script by by the great cartoonist Jules Feiffer, Mike Nichols explores the fraught, shifting dynamics of sexual relationship by following a few characters over the course of several years, putting special focus on a randy, rambunctious, sharp-edged man played by Jack Nicholson. The movie may have been most noted for it’s frankness about sexual matters, still remarkable for the time, but it remains engaging because of an even bolder willingness to plumb the emotional rigors of the various characters. Nicholson is especially strong, shrewdly carrying his character from an impetuous, greedy youth to a battle-scarred adult cynicism. The character clearly ages and changes from one sequence to the next, but Nicholson keeps the thread of a single life as clear as can be.

Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, 2010). As basically enjoyable as it is, Tangled still exhibits a certain level of identity crisis for Disney animation. The film embraces the old model of a colorfully burnished fairy tale, complete with Broadway style songs, while also chasing after that broadly comic, anxious business that’s characterized the animated hits from their competitors at other studios. And the continuing influence of Pixar founder John Lasseter in his role as the chief creative officer for all Disney animation means that there are doses of depth charge emotional acuity. It doesn’t all cohere just yet, but enough of the right spirit is in place to make this reworking of Rapunzel more blithely entertaining than other recent entries that fall under the category of “Disney Classics.” In particular, the side characters are amusingly conceived, including a clever chameleon named Pascal and a fiercely powerful horse named Maximus.

The Chase (Arthur Penn, 1966). Made a year before Arthur Penn put his most indelible stamp on cinematic history with Bonnie and Clyde, this film is wildly ambitious and, ultimately, a little more than Penn can pull cleanly together. Adapted by Lillian Hellman from Horton Foote’s play, the film examines the way a small, southern town is rattled by the escape from prison by one of the community’s ne’er-do-well sons. The storyline shows the way that a community panic escalates with the sort of plain-faced certainty that Rod Serling used to employ on certain Twilight Zone episodes. It touches on matters of racism, sexism and general elitism, all in a dizzying fashion. The film is perhaps most notable for providing early roles to Robert Redford and Jane Fonda–neither of whom particularly distinguish themselves, honestly–but, unsurprisingly, the most fascinating performance belongs to Marlon Brando, who plays the local sheriff with a level of worn-out irritation with the citizenry that gives otherwise hackneyed scenes a special friction.

The Times of Harvey Milk (Rob Epstein, 1984). This Oscar-winning documentary was routinely cited by the filmmakers behind the 2008 biopic Milk, and it’s no wonder. Epstein takes great care in laying out the life, career and tragic demise of the gay rights advocate and San Francisco politician Harvey Milk. He doesn’t particularly push the overt importance of Milk’s career, correctly determining that a thorough progression through the well-documented circumstances of his life, bolstered by the heartfelt testimony of those who knew him best, will make the point well enough. If it’s just the slightest bit stiff viewed through a modern lens, it’s also an admirable piece of cinematic scholarship. Unlike too many current documentaries, it doesn’t have an agenda to push, opting instead to tell a compelling story.

The Stunt Man (Richard Rush, 1980). A terrifically bizarre movie that casts Peter O’Toole as a devilishly clever and manipulative movie director provides sanctuary for a man hiding from the local police by having him step in and assume the identity of a stunt man who died earlier during the shoot. Rush’s film piles on the fictions and deceptions until it seems like it’s trying to shake the very being of reality into submission. O’Toole is absolutely marvelous, drolly having a unmistakably marvelous time as the egotistical director who is continually amused and enlivened by the power he has to reshape the world. Unfortunately, Steve Railsback is wooden, awkward and occasionally completely lost in the critical role of fugitive drafted into the director’s scheme. The film has too many fascinating levels for Railsback’s performance to entirely sink it, but he surely keeps it from achieving greatness.