While watching this 1980 film from director Louis Malle, I couldn’t help but think back to a line from ‘Atlantic City’, the second song of Bruce Springsteen’s stark and haunting album Nebraska: “Down here it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” It’s a statement that would likely ring true to the people populating Malle’s film, people who have found themselves on the wrong side of that line, but who still dream of making their way back across to the right side. Burt Lancaster plays Lou, a longtime Atlantic City resident who enjoys reminiscing about his supposed “glory days” as a small-time gangster. Susan Sarandon plays Sally, an employee at a casino oyster bar who dreams of escaping from the monotony of her current life. The arrival of a desperate drug dealer brings these two lost souls together, setting in motion a chain of events that gives Lou the chance to live out some of his lifelong fantasies and gives Sally the means to leave Atlantic City for good and never look back.
There must be something about the aura of Atlantic City that inspires tales of loneliness and quiet desperation. Malle’s work here recalls at times Bob Rafelson’s work eight years earlier with The King Of Marvin Gardens, although Malle somehow manages to make Atlantic City an even lonelier backdrop than it was in that previous film. Malle’s work with characters is stronger too; there’s no kind of deliberate artifice or detachment here, just an honest look at two dissatisfied people looking for an escape. In the later stages of his career/life, Lancaster excelled at this kind of role, the dignified but weary old-timer yearning to recapture the energy of the past. The character of Lou fits right in with his portrayals of the aging prince Don Fabrizio Corbera in The Leopard and Doc ‘Moonlight’ Graham in Field Of Dreams. A less-confident actress would have graciously stood aside to just let Lancaster dominate, but Sarandon matches him scene for scene; I’m not sure if she’s ever been as good as she is here. Perhaps more than anything else though, the film is really an affirmation of the special touch Louis Malle could bring to just about any kind of material. I’ve found his filmography to be consistently rich with hidden gems, and Atlantic City is certainly one of the more valuable riches. 9/10.
In his 1999 review of The Matrix, Roger Ebert wrote, ” It’s kind of a letdown when a movie begins by redefining the nature of reality, and ends with a shoot-out. We want a leap of the imagination, not one of those obligatory climaxes with automatic weapons fire.” It’s a sentiment that effectively mirrors my own thoughts towards Elysium, the latest feature from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp. A science-fiction parable about a near future where the rich live on a utopian space station and the poor live on an overcrowded and unlawful Earth, Elysium is never shy about drawing political parallels, at times to an almost-insulting level. With that said, it’s a promising setup for a nice piece of dystopian science fiction, and Blomkamp has no problem with strongly establishing the world and its rules (although the magical medical machines that can cure anything is an idea that could have used more work in the scripting stages). Where he runs into problems, and this is something that plagued District 9 as well, is taking the promising setup and not following it through on its potential.
So why is the film so underwhelming? I think it ties back to that Ebert quote, at least partly. Blomkamp starts out with an intriguing premise, but all it leads to is a string of not-very-energetic shootouts and a climactic fistfight. At least the action in The Matrix was of a higher standard; Elysium can’t even make such a claim, with any sense of potential style or inspiration pushed aside to make room for sheer loudness. And it doesn’t help that every time the film seems to throw in an unexpected curveball, it quickly straightens back out again (the abrupt removal of a major character caught me completely off guard, only to be corrected a handful of scenes later). Now, District 9 was by no means perfect, but you could excuse its third-act devolvement into loud action mainly because of the originality on display in its first two-thirds. Here, apart from the initial promise of the opening scenes, the material is far less ambitious and, to be honest, far less interesting. The film is so straightforward and simple in its intentions and its overall execution that I can’t see myself ever feeling the need to revisit it; once is probably enough to mine everything it has to offer. 5/10.
The members of a small Japanese village live out their lives under the influence of an unusual tradition: once someone reaches the age of 70, they are encouraged/required to journey to the mountain of Narayama, which will serve as their final resting place. In this village lives Orin, a woman approaching that fateful age. Before she makes her final journey to the mountain, however, she decides to arrange a marriage for her recently-widowed son, who, unlike the rest of the villagers, is unwilling to accept his mother’s complete acceptance of her fate. The story is taken from a 1956 novel, but director Keisuke Kinoshita chooses to present the material in the form of kabuki theatre. All of the action plays out on elaborately-constructed soundstage sets, with an offscreen narrator offering additional details through song and elaborating on the buried emotions of the characters. The deliberately-artificial production reinforces the idea that the story being told is meant to be seen as a parable, a statement among other things on the callous attitudes younger generations have towards their elders. Only in the closing moments does the film depart from its controlled setting, moving into black-and-white reality and emphasizing that the message of the tale still has relevance in the modern world.
The stylized approach does occasionally have its drawbacks (at times the film looks like the “outdoor” environments you see on PBS children’s programs), but the decision allows Kinoshita the opportunity to experiment with all the options at his disposal. The most obvious benefit with the soundstage approach is the film’s remarkable use of color, which oftentimes changes mid-scene depending on the emotions of the characters. When a festival is interrupted by Orin’s pained calls for her son, the entire event is drowned by red light. A harrowing night scene plays out over dashes of pink skylight and overwhelming shades of green. And, at one crucial point, Orin’s internal emotions are visualized by the changing color of the dress, while the rest of her surroundings stay the same. I would have loved to see some background details on how this film was made (sadly, Criterion’s recent release is incredibly sparse with its supplementals), and I’m interested in tracking down the Shohei Imamura version from 1983 to see how the story works with a more realistic approach. This original version from 1958 is something special though, a textbook case of maximizing a simple story’s impact through entirely visual means. 8/10.
The increased viability of Video On Demand in 2013 has made possible some experimentation with the concept of early releases, where certain films are made available weeks before they hit theater screens. Recently, interested viewers have been able to watch Brian De Palma’s Passion from the comfort of their own homes, and now comes this low-key thriller from director David M. Rosenthal. Sam Rockwell plays a down-on-his-luck hunter who accidentally shoots and kills a woman deep in the adjacent woods of a small West Virginian town. While trying to figure out what to do with the body, he discovers a lockbox full of cash and decides to keep it for himself. But secrets are hard to keep secret in small towns where everybody knows each other’s business, and it doesn’t take too long before others catch on to what he’s done. In its best moments, A Single Shot evokes the tenser qualities of the Coen brothers’ Fargo and No Country For Old Men (the presence of William H. Macy in an offbeat supporting role strengths the connection), although that filmmaking duo’s signature black humor remains absent here. A closer comparison might be the terrific 2008 Australian neo-noir The Square, another film in which a man’s desperate and foolish actions lead to events that quickly spiral out of his control. Unfortunately, outside of a small handful of minor nuances, nothing in Rosenthal’s work approaches the quality of any of those aforementioned films.
On the plus side, it’s nice to see Rockwell in a role like this, a change of pace from the “manic” characters he usually plays. Not that he isn’t brilliant in those roles, but his performance here reinforces just how versatile he can be when given the opportunity. One of the better touches is that the character he’s playing isn’t the brightest bulb in the box; it doesn’t take long after he returns home with the cash before he starts throwing it around carelessly and attracting attention. Sadly though, even with Rockwell putting forth a valiant effort, the rest of the film doesn’t match him. Rosenthal lacks the directorial chops to elevate this material into something special, and apart from the appropriately colorless backwoods cinematography and a moody, dissonant score, the film passes by with little to no distinguishing characteristics. Because the direction is so anonymous, the weaknesses in the material become more apparent, particularly a poor ending that is heavy of contrivance and inexplicable character decisions. While I remain a proponent of VOD and the prospect of advanced releases, it feels like this one was made available early simply because it has almost no chance of attracting much interest or positive buzz for its theatrical run. 5/10.