Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, 2008). A grim, atmospheric drama about people living small, desolate lives and the way a family tragedy accentuates the levels of their dismay to such a point that bad choices begin to take over. Green handles the film with an elegant restraint that sometimes veers close to bloodlessness, but overall gives it a hard, tense sheen. Adapted from a novel, the film sometimes feels as though it’s missing out on the deeper psychological understanding that’s far easier to realize on the page than on the screen. It offers up nice actorly moments for Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale as the two leads and they hit their big emotional moments with gratifying force. Still, by the time the plot gets to the hard logic of its conclusion, you feel like you don’t really know these characters, especially Beckinsale’s, quite enough to make the ending feel as chilling as it should. As he demonstrated with earlier features like George Washington and All the Real Girls, Green’s greatest strength is crafting a depiction of small time life in all its grinding loneliness and interconnections that is equal parts authentic and poetic.
Which Way Home (Rebecca Cammisa, 2009). A documentary about the dangerous journey undertaken by central American children traveling alone in a quest to cross Mexico for the happy illusion of the United States promised land. The film meanders as much as the tired old train tracks that the kids follow, but Cammisa’s devotion to following these kids, getting in the durable tragedy of their lives and asking them about their dreams of a better future leads to a film that is consistently heart-rending. As blustery proclamations that “illegal means illegal” continue to dominate the dwindling discourse on U.S. immigration law, Cammisa puts a human face–a child’s face–on the issue. Attempts to discard any hint of humanity in favor of keeping the debate safely in the abstract seem especially cruel in the reflected light of this earnest piece of filmmaking.
Incident at Oglala (Michael Apted, 1992). This documentary from English director Michael Apted examines events surrounding the killing of two FBI agents on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. It is a thorough and unfussy act of scholarship, an attempt to get at all the angles of an uncertain event and consider whether or not justice was properly rendered. Apted lays it all out, like a man trying to get every puzzle piece on the table because staring at the entirety of it will be the only way to spot the solution. He makes a compelling case that conclusions finally arrived upon by those investigating and prosecuting the case were of dubious merit, and provides the level of background needed to understand how the inclination to reach those conclusions was developed, grown out of animosities stirred up by the burgeoning movement to achieve civil rights victories for Native Americans. It does what the finest documentaries do: it stirs you with the sturdiness of its facts instead of the bombast of its opinions.
Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975). Eight years after the sublime Bonnie and Clyde, Warren Beatty offered up his second film as a producer with this utterly unique film, meshing slyly satirical irony with the story of a hairdresser Lothario who’s enduring a particularly hectic spell on Election Day 1968, bounding between partners like a rapidly racing pinball in the hours leading up to the moment Richard Nixon is the 37th President of the United States. This also marked Beatty’s first screenwriting credit (along with Robert Towne, one year after Chinatown) and it’s hard to avoid seeing a hefty dash of autobiography in the stressed Romeo he’s polished up for himself. Beatty is predictably terrific in the role, and there’s an equally strong supporting performance by Jack Warden as a cuckolded husband who takes a break from anticipating the anointment of his preference presidential candidate to dabble in the Los Angeles counter-culture. The movie is filled with nice, seemingly offhand touches that flesh it all out, give a sense of a whole set of conflicts, concerns and histories taking place outside the frame, a quality that perfectly suits the cerebral care of director Hal Ashby.
The Underneath (Steven Soderbergh, 1995). This bit of film noir playfulness anticipated Soderbergh’s strident, inspired return to the forefront three years later with Out of Sight. Based on an old Don Tracy novel, The Underneath follows a man of questionable repute who returns to his hometown for his mother’s wedding. He winds up sticking around, in part because his new stepfather helps him get a job with a local armored car company, an occupational opportunity that will clearly offer problematic temptations. Besides building a smart, lean, toughly clever screenplay out of the material, Soderbergh takes on the film as an extended excuse to experiment with different techniques, dabbling in deep focus or washing scenes with color as if its all being scene through the vibrant tinted glass accenting the suburban homes the characters move through. Much of Soderbergh’s career has been marked by him trying on different approaches, different voices. He’s often referred to one of the films he made shortly after this one, Schizopolis, as being the point when he started markedly moving the boundaries of his work, but I think you can see some of that pending movement in the fringes of The Underneath.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)