Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975). Gene Hackman plays a seedy private detective named Harry Moseby who gets drawn into a case that involves tracking down a missing teenage girl, played by Melanie Griffith in one of her first real film roles. The film is entirely of its era, in good and bad ways. It’s nicely gritty and dark, but it also gets completely mired in a sense of existential dread until it become subsumed by its own fatalism. Nothing good can even come of this world, which the film labors to proves across its overly calculated third act. The film is largely rescued by Hackman, who is characteristically outstanding as a man who is punch-drunk from the blows delivered by the worl but doesn’t quite realize it yet.
The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). Truth be told. I’m not entirely certain I’ve ever before watched this movie in a single sitting, start to finish. I definitely don’t recall the admirably deliberate pacing of the film, even given the quite different expectations of nineteen-seventies audience. Retrospective celebrations of the movie focus so much on the most visually sensational and harrowing moments of the young girl possessed by the devil that it’s easy to forget that it’s almost a full hour into it before she’s engaging in behaviors that can’t be explained away by extraordinary anxiety or mental illness. The rawness of the film also provides stunning evidence of how rapidly the content of American cinema changed once the Hays Code was scrapped in the late sixties. Just seven years earlier, the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? couldn’t use the phrase “Screw you,” but The Exorcist had a demonically infested child scream “Your mother sucks cocks in hell!” That’s a pretty sharp pivot in less than a decade. The film actually holds up beautifully well, in part because of the sterling, fiercely real performances by Ellen Burstyn as the girl’s mother and Jason Miller as the local priest brought in to try and save the girl. Friedkin’s directing is perfectly controlled. He doesn’t try to jolt the audience with tricks; he knows he doesn’t need to. Keeping it all feeling as true as possible is what makes it scary.
Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970). I believe it was Gene Siskel who once said that Jack Nicholson’s onscreen persona was was forever cemented into place at the exact moment in this film that he told a waitress to hold the chicken between her knees. It’s hard to argue with that; Nicholson’s first Oscar nomination and the beginning of his escalation to stardom may be connected to Easy Rider, but this is where Jack the angry, toughly intelligent rebel really took liftoff. He’s great, but Rafelson’s movie now feels a little slack. It’s a anti-establishment cry without any sense of exactly what establishment is provoking all the ire. That confusion may be part of the point, but the movie still feels oddly directionless. Nicholson plays a one-time piano prodigy turned blue collar worker who is pushed into a reunion with his family. While there are nice moments throughout, no deep emotional schism takes place. The whole movie is a muffled cry in an empty room.
Fright Night (Craig Gillespie, 2011). It’s not that Tom Holland’s original 1985 film Fright Night was some model of perfect filmmaking, but the creators behind the remake still could’ve and should’ve learned a thing or two from it. For one thing, it had levels of charm and cheekiness that are all but absent in the new version. At best, they mistake broad parody for wit, taking everything that’s promising in the material and drowning it in churning mayhem. As the sexy vampire next door neighbor, Colin Farrell is at least having a little fun, mostly because he plays the character in a way that slides just enough off of the expected beats. It’s mildly amusing, but not deft or deep enough to carry the whole film. The skill at calibrating difficult material that characterized Craig Gillespie’s directing job on Lars and the Real Girl is completely absent here. What the film does have are plenty of awkward moments meant to show off its 3D, but really just make it look as silly and immediately dated as all those gimmicky flicks from the red-and-blue eyewear craze of the nineteen-fifties.
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2011). This is the second directorial effort from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who have gotten a surprising amount of mileage out of writing the admittedly terrific Bad Santa. The film explores uses the break-up of a long-term marriage as a means to explore the myriad of travails awaiting anyone who ventures out into the modern dating scene, though “dating” is probably not even the right word to use. Ficarra and Requa pour so many divergent storylines into their film that the whole thing turns into a thudding, colossal mess. The only scenes that really work are those between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and that’s clearly a product of their swirled together charisma. More problematically, the film indulges in all sorts of deeply problematic turns such as a third act revelation that surprises because the filmmakers have essentially cheated to keep information hidden. There’s an even worse subplot centered on a middle schooler’s supposedly cute infatuation with his babysitter that is, by any rudimentary reading of the subtext, a romantic endorsement of stalking.