Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino’s revelatory gut-punch of a first feature, now 25 years old, has profoundly influenced crime movies. It established snappy dialogue on life’s banalities, 1970s nostalgia, extreme casual violence, vintage noir tribute, and foul-mouthed jokes as staples of the genre that endure to this day. The tone is set in the legendary pre-credit sequence, with the color-codenamed gang of veteran thieves eating at a diner. Mr. Pink (Buscemi) whiningly questions the need to tip the waitress, succumbing only under the baleful pressure of his fellow criminals. Once mayhem kicks in with a botched LA heist, Mr. Blonde (Madsen) tortures a cop as Stealers Wheel’s 1972 hit “Stuck in the Middle With You” plays on oldies radio. Nice Guy Eddie (Penn) utters a line so sophomorically racist, homophobic, violent, and filthy that the viewer is faced with the choice of either laughing or leaving—and usually decides to stick around.
Reservoir Dogs’ reach extended farther than cinema itself, deeply into popular culture. As peace took hold in Northern Ireland, formerly murderous Protestant loyalist paramilitaries appropriated the gleefully vicious cachet of the film to gussy up their image with coffee mugs bearing the iconic image of the gang, wearing dark suits and Wayfarer sunglasses, and stamped “Reservoir Prods.” Over 20 years later, Crystal Moselle in her prize-winning documentary The Wolfpack (2015) chronicled the lives of several boys shut in for years by their father in a Lower East Side apartment who kept sane by watching movies—and emerged from their long hibernation dressed in those patented suits and shades, ready for the world.
The sublimely resonant title itself suggests stray, amoral animals that nonetheless behave according to instinctive rules. In that sense, it has obvious forbears, including classics like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), Peter Yates’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), and Michael Mann’s Thief (1981), as well as unsung gems like John Flynn’s The Outfit (1973). What Reservoir Dogs added to the crime flick was overt, morbid humor alongside unflinching violence. And the fact that many find it as funny as it is gruesome remains as intriguing as it is disturbing. Implicitly, moviegoers ask of any drama, as Mr. Blonde asks of Mr. White (Keitel), “Are you gonna bark all day, little doggy – or are you gonna bite?” This remarkable movie bites. Hard. Jonathan Stevenson (New 35mm print opens May 19 at Film Forum)
Bless Their Little Hearts (1983)
Directed by Billy Woodberry
While at lunch with Orson Welles, Peter Bogdanovich got to talking about Greta Garbo and happened to say, “Wasn’t it too bad she had only been in two really good pictures?” Welles apparently narrowed his eyes and said, in a way that must have sent shivers down the young upstart’s spine, “You only need one.” Charles Burnett had one, but that’s not the whole story. Yeah, he brought Ozu-esque post-war impressionism to America in the 70s with his uncompromising Killer of Sheep (also newly revived this week), a bleak-yet-soft look at black malaise. If he’d only made that, he’d still be in the history books forever. But he directed more and he wrote and produced other films, including Billy Woodberry’s tragic Bless Their Little Hearts. A grainy black and white chamber piece, it tells the story of a man (Nate Hardman) busily failing his wife (Kaycee Moore) and three children (all Burnett’s). He drinks and steps out on his hearth to imagine a fork in the path to oblivion, like the West Coast cousin to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh strivers. The man’s humanity comes to him in quiet: when he’s setting lures, when he’s crying at the end of a long day, when he remembers the child he was, now reflected in the all-seeing eyes of his children. He seems to barely know them, but they know his every gesture, and Burnett and Woodberry make sure we feel the sting of his every regret and mistake. The camera and the eyes of children never forget. Scout Tafoya (New digital restoration opens May 17 at IFC Center)
Directed by James Ivory
Luxurious yet near-campy period picture adaptations of classic literature, a cinema of great passions, Merchant-Ivory pictures were always primed for consumption by a certain gay/queer community. Yet, though their plots and set design are ready-made for diva scene-chewing, the films were almost always resolutely “tasteful,” not treading into the realms of true camp so much as the decadent yet stifled reservoirs of emotion and longing that camp seeks to unleash. It’s appropriate, then, that their adaptation of E. M. Foster’s early 20th century gay romance—their only film to explicitly deal with homosexuality—is one of the duo’s most restrained. The leads (James Wily, Hugh Grant, and Rupert Graves, all excellent) have never looked better, to be sure, but the film’s crowning achievement is filtering their beauty through elegantly tense natural-light (or faux natural-light) compositions; the film’s sex scenes are unnervingly hot but always a hair’s breadth away from collapse. Built around, naturally, tortured and unrequited love and self-denial, the film nevertheless invests fully in the moments of beauty its leads and its style generate while always binding them to a larger, often architectural, milieu with careful, delicate remove. At a time when queer film has never been more visible but is so often numbingly focused on simple self-actualization, Maurice reminds us that in 1987 there were already films more invested in the texture and circumstance of desire than simply its release. Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli (New digital restoration opens May 19 at the Quad)
The Gong Show Movie (1980)
Directed by Chuck Barris
Judging by the late Chuck Barris’s prolific literary output, the former game show host lived to please an audience, be it with the possibly implausible (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, his dubious admission to being a CIA assassin) or intensely heartbreaking (Della, a recounting of his daughter’s life and death). But nobody, whether they loved or hate-loved his pioneering of amateur-heavy mainstream culture, could’ve anticipated Barris delivering the 8/ 1/2 of game show adaptations. The Gong Show, NBC’s hit talent show/tribute to cocaine’s clever powers, ceased syndication in 1980. Its simple premise—the more laughably horrendous the act, the more likely the panel judges were to bang the aforementioned gong—had drawn ire from critics as the epitome of low culture. Others stated, however, that Gong resurrected bygone theatre traditions for a post-Vietnam America, helping bridge counterculture and mainstream. In a fascinatingly bizarre—and ultimately doomed—way, the film, released mere months after the show’s cancellation, attempted to do the same cinematically.
For writing and directing help, Barris recruited—and later fired—his friend Robert Downey Sr., who gained underground notoriety for his satirical bite (Putney Swope) and formal disregard (No More Excuses) by cribbing from contemporary European cinema and American vaudeville. As such, The Gong Show Movie is a confounding whatsit: an existential navel-gaze that celebrates the show’s most popular—and most forbidden—moments while blurring life and fiction with an absurd “behind the scenes” narrative. Bored and burnt-out, Barris struggles to find peace and happiness while adrift in success, hounded by wannabe contestants and tight-ass execs. But it’s not just a song of himself; The Gong Show Movie is as much a tribute to the people that gave Barris a reason to not bottom-out, be it wife Robin Altman, bewigged pal Rip Taylor, or royal pain-in-the-ass The Unknown Comic. For a project that could’ve very easily just been a glorified highlight reel, Barris and company instead channel The Gong Show‘s anarchic and exploitative pleasures into an entertainment that’s surprisingly controlled and eminently rewatchable. Max Kyburz (May 17, 9:30pm at the Alamo Drafthouse)
Ghost World (2001)
Directed by Terry Zwigoff
There are some films that open up holes in the world and create safe spaces for viewers to hide inside. Ghost World is such a work. After making documentary films about artistry realized outside of—and even happily in opposition to—the commercial mainstream, the American director Zwigoff completed his first fiction feature with ample inspiration from two sources of deep personal love. He drew from comic book art in close collaboration with Daniel Clowes, the author of Ghost World’s source graphic novel, and played up the importance of blues music through the character of Seymour (played by Steve Buscemi), a lonesome collector of vintage LPs. Seymour lives in an unidentified blah-blah town, as do Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) and Enid (Thora Birch), two disaffected companions who gradually move into his orbit during the weeks that follow their graduation from high school. Enid in particular grows particularly attached to a kindred spirit whose path first connects vividly with hers when she listens over and over to the record she’s borrowed from him of “Devil Got My Woman”, by Skip James.
Mark Asch once wrote phenomenally about Hou Hsiao-hsien’s work that, “These are movies to live your whole life with.” The same could be said about Ghost World, which offers not so much narrative as it does a portrait of a shared moment of lostness, the kind of which many (perhaps all of us) pass through and to which memory often returns. The still-active Zwigoff’s very beautiful film will screen at the Metrograph on 35mm during the opening night of a retrospective of the director’s five released feature-length films. The director and Steve Buscemi will hold a Q&A following the early screening and introduce the late show. Aaron Cutler (May 19, 6:45pm, 9:15pm at the Metrograph’s Zwigoff series)
Divorce Italian Style (1961)
Directed by Pietro Germi
Germi’s hilarious satire jabs at Catholic hypocrisy and male chauvinism, particularly within Sicilian society. Germi’s comedy of manners, whose title gave its name to the whole commedia all’italiana genre, stars Marcello Mastroianni as a middle-aged aristocrat who lusts after his first cousin. Obvious moral concerns regarding incest aside, Ferdinando is also married to a smothering wife (Daniela Rocca). Well aware that divorce is illegal in Italy, the impoverished baron hatches an intricate plan to tempt his wife to cheat on him with the local priest’s nephew. This way, he can murder them with some questionable legal justification. Needless to say, Ferdinando’s plan proves not to be as simple as imagined. Despite the corruption, Germi allows some room for us to sympathize with these depraved characters. Mastroianni has the extraordinary ability to win us over with his familiar charisma and devilish charm. The ease in which he has casually carried his roles as womanizers, antiheroes, and bourgeois misfits is matched only by his instinctive grace, style and elegance. Alejandro Veciana (May 19, 7pm; May 28, 1pm at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Mastroianni retrospective)
The Rain People (1969)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
With his wiry, jutted-back shoulders, taut physique and busily darting eyes, James Caan is almost always the most alive and mesmerizing thing onscreen whenever he’s there. Nobody occupies space or moves around in it quite like Caan. So it’s a welcome event that the Museum of the Moving Image is paying tribute to the actor in a series that could only have been called The Caan Film Festival, whether you like wordplay or not. One of his earliest serious roles was in this, Hofstra classmate and repeat Caan collaborator Francis Ford Coppola’s fourth feature, a strange, well-directed little road movie about a woman, Natalie (Shirley Knight), who isn’t really feeling her husband nor the fact that she’s two months pregnant, and so sets out on an aimless trek west from Long Island. She soon spots Caan’s Jimmy “Killer” Kilgannon on the side of the road and picks him up, obviously hoping for a quick, mind-clearing jock piece of ass. But after some light sub-dom play, Killer’s mental stuntedness, incurred during a football injury and shown in abstract snatches of handheld flashback, reveals itself, and Natalie becomes a reluctant caretaker (who of course receives some needed lessons and warmth in kind). Her repeated attempts to ditch him become farcical, even after she meets a more suitable sidepiece in the form of a flirtatious motorcycle cop played by Robert Duvall, who turns out to have problems of his own (a trigger-happy prepubescent daughter who’s over-fond of brassieres, for one).
Slottable with other sensitive finding-oneself road movies of the era like Wanda, Five Easy Pieces and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Rain People can run a little thin in comparison, at least script-wise, but it directly addresses issues like female domestic dissatisfaction and abortion. The cinematography, by Jaws and The Conversation shooter Bill Butler, is exciting and kinetic, with many fine chopper shots of America’s heartland. Knight gets the ostentatious actorly moments here, particularly two emotional phone calls home to her husband in which she continuously manages to defend her liberated/confused whims. Caan provides the necessarily subtler counterweight; Killer’s something of a schematic holy simpleton on paper, but Caan never tries to make him magical or anything other than a good-hearted kid nursing a codependent crush. You can see the actor considering his decisions in a way the more seasoned Caan later internalized, but it’s pleasurable to watch, and because of his coiled build and carriage, there’s always the thrilling potentiality of violence. Justin Stewart (May 20, 4:30pm at the Museum of the Moving Image’s “Caan Film Festival”)
Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time (1994)
Directed by Želimir Žilnik
A special, emblematic place in Serbian director Žilnik’s extraordinary filmography is occupied by his masterpiece Tito Among the Serbs for the Second Time. At a time when Serbia was under international sanctions and at (fratricidal) war, the director resurrected Marshal Tito, the late leader of the nation that was now being torn apart. There he is, walking the street of Belgrade asking people the reasons of such absurd war. “What happened to our great and united Yugoslavia?” Though fully aware of the fictional nature of the stunt, passersby engage in surprisingly heated discussions with their late leader, freely speaking their own mind. The film thus turns into a retroactive happening, an act of political psychoanalysis where the national subconscious is laid bare in front of the spectator. It’s a film that exemplifies the sheer genius of Žilnik’s oeuvre, a politically instinctual cinema that through farce gets at the heart of tragedy. The film that deals with the history of a single country and yet resonates universally. Giovanni Vimercati (May 21, 7pm; May 27, 9pm at Anthology Film Archives’s Žilnik retrospective)
The Stranger (1946)
Directed by Orson Welles
A mustachioed Welles plays a mastermind of Nazi atrocities who aims to evade prosecution by hiding in plain sight, assuming a false identity to teach at a quiet New England college and marry the daughter (Loretta Young) of a Supreme Court justice (“a famous liberal”); it’s his bad luck that War Crimes Commission manhunter Edward G. Robinson arrives in town on the day of the nuptials. A tour de force of visual style, The Stranger shrouds this pastoral idyll in dread and uncertainty, building to a climactic set-piece worthy of Hitchcock. Hubris was Welles’s perpetual subject—here he found it not only in one totalitarian monster, but also in the oblivious crowd in which he sought refuge. Eli Goldfarb (May 22, 9:30pm; May 24, 4:30pm at the Quad’s “Immigrant Songs”)
Swamp Thing (1982)
Directed by Wes Craven
Craven was always innovative—though not all his films are resounding successes, they’re always filled with interesting tidbits and ambition, even in for-hire projects like this one. Though based on a DC Comics property, Swamp Thing has more to do with 50s sci-fi like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, featuring mutants who fall in love with women. Here that template is subverted quite a bit. First, the monster is the hero, a scientist who has fallen victim to his own discoveries, who must also fight the organization that wants to steal the serum that transformed him into the titular monster (he’s played by Ray Wise, famous for another yin-yang performance). Also, the classic woman in distress, played by Adrienne Barbeau, isn’t actually so: she can double-wield machine guns while running away from the bad guys. She is also, obviously, the monster’s love interest, but every time he tries to save her, he ends up ruining the whole thing and putting her in more danger than before. If anything, Swamp Thing is like a feminist reading of the creature-features of yesterday, putting us into that mindset by imitating some of the strained acting and taking a similar approach to locations—the swamp looks exactly like the river in the aforementioned 1954 Universal picture. Jaime Grijalba (May 23, 7pm at BAM’s “Peak Performances”)