The Best Old Movies on a Big Screen This Week: NYC Repertory Cinema Picks, August 17-23

nyc repertory cinema-breathless

Breathless (1960) and Contempt (1963)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
For its second “Return of the Double-Feature” pairing, the Film Forum staff has perceptively joined two of Godard’s outwardly very different French New Wave classics. In Breathless, based on a story by François Truffaut, Jean-Paul Belmondo breaks out in full amoral, chain-smoking swagger as Michel, a small-time hood who kills a policeman while stealing a car and attempts to enlist Jean Seberg’s pliant but ambitious Patricia in his slam-bang lifestyle. Godard’s then-novel use of jump-cuts and Belmondo’s signature restlessness convey Michel’s defiantly unreflective, kinetic, and Darwinian approach to existence. Patricia’s demurral—she is not ready to die, and is too independent merely to follow—is his downfall. Each character drains the romance from the other’s point of view, making Breathless a singularly penetrating film noir that still jars after more than 50 years.

nyc repertory cinema-contempt

In counterpoint, Contempt embraces domestic life, but it is scarcely less fraught and Godard is as merciless as ever. A prescient exercise in meta, this brilliant movie traces the deterioration of a screenwriter’s marriage, which parallels the film based on The Odyssey (directed by Fritz Lang, suavely playing himself) that the writer is hired to rewrite. Here love brings out the worst machinations in people, as Georges Delerue’s elegiac score strikes a moving and unsettling juxtaposition of the exaltation and meanness of human life. In a seminal real-time sequence chronicling the marriage’s unwinding in microcosm as the couple meanders through their apartment, Godard literally depicts the confining architecture of marital regimentation. Eventually it will crumble under the strain of suppressed emotion and the weight of myth. Abandon on the order of Breathless is no antidote. If there is some happy medium between each film’s plight, Godard is more interested in the painful and unending struggle to find it. Jonathan Stevenson (August 20 at Film Forum’s “Return of the Double Feature,” with 2-for-1 admission throughout the day’s showtimes)

nyc repertory cinema-interrupters

The Interrupters (2011)
Directed by Steve James
In the five years since I first saw James’s indelible documentary, I’ve never heard about another killing in Southside Chicago without thinking about The Interrupters’ stars: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. Former gangbangers who abhor the violence they perpetrated and bear the scars of the harm done to them, they are now “violence interrupters” with a program that treats violence as a socially transmitted disease rather than an individual failure. The interrupters aim to disrupt the vicious cycle of violence by helping their neighbors manage their emotions and learn new patterns of behavior, choosing not to react to insults and attacks with more of the same. James’s tiny crew (three people, including him) anatomizes Chicago’s violence pandemic close-up and from many angles, attending monthly meetings where the interrupters strategize and compare notes, learning about the three leads’ backgrounds and the paths they found out of the mayhem, and tracking their fitful progress and their enormous outpouring of effort and love as they work with several of their cases. If Chicago’s violence epidemic is ever cured, it will surely be largely through the heroic interventions of people like these. Elise Nakhnikian (August 19, 7pm on Opening Night of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Kartemquin Films retrospective; Steve James will be on hand for the 162-minute original cut of the film, never released theatrically)

nyc repertory cinema-breathe

Breathe (2014)
Directed by Mélanie Laurent
Before drugs, before alcohol, before sex––there’s the high of meeting a new friend. This can be habit-forming if you’re an adolescent female, and in Laurent’s brave, unapologetic second feature, we learn just how addictive teenage friendship can be. New girl Sarah (a venomous Lou de Laage) seductively enters her first day at a new school; she offers Nigerian cigarettes to her classmates; she lasciviously struts down the balance beam; she whispers an answer to a confused student. Sarah is everything that shy, asthmatic Charlie (stunning Josephine Japy) is not, so much so that after their first walk home, the girls are giggling with intertwined legs and confessing their innermost desires.

Their homeostasis lasts for the first half of the film, though danger signs arise early when Sarah tries to sleep with Charlie’s mother’s love interest and drive a wedge between her and a childhood friend. Once their honeymoon is over, the girls’ rapport is almost instantly acrimonious; the survival mechanisms kick in and malice replaces their camaraderie, leading up to a staggering, vitriolic ending.

Laurent is gifted at presenting the details in this linear tale, without letting them become clichéd. She concentrates on body language, parties, homework, and parents—the essence of teenage life—but it’s nearly impossible to be bored of these scenarios with such paramount acting and incomprehensible rejection. The sexual hysteria of Blue is the Warmest Color is certainly abundant in Laurent’s film, but without the overt eroticism. Instead, her characters ooze feelings through whispers and stoic glares until their plausibility as friends evaporates as quickly as a teenager’s attention span. Samantha Vacca (August 17, 7pm; August 21, 2pm at MoMA’s Gaumont series)

nyc repertory cinema-blow-up

Blow-Up (1966)
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Even now, 50 years after its release, the enigmatic depths of Blow-Up continue to boggle the mind. Considering the arc of its main photographer character, Thomas (David Hemmings)—temporarily energized from his emotional disaffection when he discovers he has inadvertently captured a murder—one could read the film as just a cautionary tale of the dangers of being detached from the wider world. This surface theme, however, is enriched immensely by its qualities as a character study. Thomas is a man who prizes visual beauty above seemingly everything else, seeing people, objects and events as little more than potential camera subjects; it’s telling that when he discovers the corpse he has accidentally photographed still lying in a park at night, he seems more concerned with photographing it for his upcoming book than reporting it to the police. Perhaps, for a filmmaker who has often been celebrated more for his eye for images than for his engagement with human beings, there is a level of auto-critique to Blow-Up as well, with Antonioni using Thomas as a vessel for questioning his own motives as an artist. By reflecting on his own perspective, though, he manages to implicate us all in the film’s lustrous color imagery, oblique dialogue exchanges and contemplative rhythms. Kenji Fujishima (August 19, 7pm; August 21, 4:15pm; August 22, 9pm at Anthology Film Archives’s “Voyeurism, Surveillance and Identity in the Cinema”)

nyc repertory cinema-matinee

Matinee (1993)
Directed by Joe Dante
Even the most vicious of Dante’s satires have a light touch, but none so light as the one he brings to his shamelessly nostalgic tribute to B-movie gimmick master William Castle. So dedicated to reproducing the charms of the golden age of shlock, the director goes so far as to create an entire creature feature within the movie that perfectly nails the chewy pulp and abysmal effects of 50s no-budget sci-fi. Yet buried within its whimsical parody/love letter to garbage are salient points about the anxieties of growing up in the Cold War and of finding safe release in the controlled terror of the movies. Jake Cole (August 21, 4:30pm at BAM’s Dante retrospective, as part of a double feature with The Smallest Show on Earth [1957])

nyc repertory cinema-fool killer

The Fool Killer (1965)
Directed by Servando González
George Mellish (Edward Albert) can’t take it anymore. The 12-year-old tires of the whippings he gets from his Bible-thumping foster parents. So he runs away, meeting an assortment of characters while tramping through Knoxville, Tennessee, where the film was partly shot. He meets Dirty Jim (Henry Hull), who tells George about the fool killer. A folk figure with roots in literature (O. Henry penned a short story) and pop music (dig that Gene Pitney tune), the fool killer is a Civil War veteran. Nobody knows which side he fought on, though. He’s a giant who chops with an axe those who act the fool. During his Huck Finn adventures, George meets the fool killer, a soulful and psychotic vet (Anthony Perkins) suffering from PTSD.

Adapted from Helen Eustis’ eponymous novel, and recalling The Night of The Hunter (1955), this independent film plays like a Southern Gothic fairy tale, one that González (a subject for further research if ever there was one) directs with a brass, punchy approach. What’s that line written by Alexander Pope and sung by Ricky Nelson? “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Forget the angels, here’s to the fools. Tanner Tafelski (August 22, 4:30pm, 8:30pm at BAM’s Joe Dante retrospective, as part of a Dante-programmed double feature with Confessions from an Opium Eater [1962])

nyc repertory cinema-balkan spy

Balkan Spy (1984)
Directed by Dušan Kovačević and Božidar Nikolić
It starts with miscommunication. The secret police call in Ilija (an apoplectic Danilo Stojković), for routine questioning. They ask about his tenant. The questioning sets Ilija ablaze: he now believes his tenant is an enemy of the state, a French capitalist spy. Paranoia takes root, and soon thereafter he tails him and bugs his room. Whatever the tenant does, Ilija finds a way to warp it as acts of espionage. So persuasive is his reasoning that he enlists his twin brother and wife to expose the spy. Ilija’s hardline Stalinist sympathies don’t just bubble, but boil to the service, and baby, it’s scalding hot.

Balkan Spy has the elaborate, stone-faced humor of Corneliu Porumboiu. The laughs come from two sources. They come from Stojković’s effusive performance. He’s ready to burst at any minute. And they come from Kovačević. Unknown in the United States, the playwright, screenwriter, and director is a treasure in SFR Yugoslavia (now Serbia). With Balkan Spy, he makes a film-length joke that mocks nationalism, militarism, and nostalgia. Tanner Tafelski (August 23, 8:45pm at Tenant416)

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