For Reel

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)
December 28, 2016, 9:41 pm
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Director: Barbara Kopple
4 Stars
harlan-county-usaThe opening images of Harlan County, U.S.A. depict miners “riding” to work on a conveyor belt, a cleverly efficient way of traversing the cave’s minuscule entrance. As the film continues to detail the life of a miner—particularly the shocking working conditions and criminally low wages—one can hardly believe that this isn’t a document of the Depression-era working class. While the film’s success has much to do with its support of unionization (and particularly the violent resistance these people are met with), it is the reality of the miners’ day-to-day life that makes a tremendous case for the importance of a voice for the working class. Director Barbara Kopple follows in the tradition of great documentary filmmakers such as D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers in the way she values a sort of fly-on-the-wall reporting, however her use of editing and the prevalence of the folk music, in particular, creates a sense of urgency that many documentarians would shy away from. If she allows the subject matter to unfold naturally, the very act of filming the stories she does is a memorable act of protest.

Network (1976)
July 9, 2016, 2:52 pm
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Director: Sidney Lumet
3 Stars
NetworkForever branded with the unconquerable burden of being ahead of its time, Network encourages the sort of viewing that fulfills a very hollow impulse to make connections—it is an analysis no more worthy than reflecting on how Star Trek anticipated future technologies, as if that alone were a statement of its worth. In fact, Network is at its most enjoyable when considered as a reflection of the anger of its specific period in time. Removing Paddy Chayefsky’s script from the context of 1976 seems to be almost missing the point entirely. Like Peter Finch’s memorable diatribes, Network‘s best pleasures come as a guttural, desperate plea—the screenplay eventually becomes more problematic than sophisticated, but what is never lost is the base paranoia and anger at the center of it all. But what must have played equally regressive in 1976 as it does now is the relationship that forms between William Holden (brilliant, even if saddled with the most cringe-worthy material) and Faye Dunaway. Here, Dunaway is meant to be a stand-in for the television generation, void of empathy and human compassion. It is known that she sees her interpersonal relationships as if they were television sitcoms because that is explicitly stated by the script a handful of times. In these moments, Chayefsky’s film about television capitalizing on the anger and fear of the populous becomes a victim of its own paranoia—the radicals and the younger generation become the straw men, they being the ones who’ve long since been spoiled by television and are therefore unsalvageable. For such a progressive, risk-taking satire, Chayefsky’s self-important perspective on his chosen “other” creates as hateful a dynamic as the one he wishes to condemn. Regardless, even Network‘s trashiest moments are performed well, and a handful of the monologues are undeniably genius.

Mikey and Nicky (1976)
June 1, 2016, 10:57 pm
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Director: Elaine May
4 Stars
Mikey and NickyAlthough a surface-level examination would have one believe that Mikey and Nicky is the outlier of Elaine May’s short directorial career, it actually plays as the most precise of her features, condensing her themes into a modest epic about a failed male friendship. Her previous comedies (A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid) concerned betrayals and humiliation in excruciating detail, and similarly Mikey and Nicky sees John Cassavetes playing a character with the same manic desperation seen from May’s comedic actors in an even grimmer context. May pits Cassavetes against Peter Falk in what largely amounts to a two-hander, and the script and the performances embrace the series of reversals along the way—the picture doesn’t really begin until Falk has had his back pushed against the wall and the power dynamic is challenged. The two men often speak sentimentally about their childhood together, but the purity of what came before seems impossible in the adult context of what it means to establish oneself and make a living. True to the cynicism of many 1970s American features, Mikey and Nicky reflects the cold brutality of a world in which relationships are valued only as highly as the gains one can make from them. What is most remarkable about the film in relation to May’s previous efforts is how similar they are—the final sequence plays out with the same excruciating detail of the most embarrassing moments of The Heartbreak Kid. If much of the comedic context is gone, the desperation of the characters is the same.

Small Change (1976)
July 18, 2012, 2:08 am
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Director: François Truffaut

One of François Truffaut’s most commercially successful films, Small Change is an often precious, somewhat slight tribute to the resilience of children, encompassing everything from burgeoning sexuality to child abuse. Unlike his landmark The 400 Blows, which pitted a child against a number of adults who failed to understand him, Truffaut is much more optimistic in this later effort – sometimes gratingly so, as in a misjudged soliloquy addressed to the students by their teacher in a late scene. Yet, despite such missteps, the vignettes are both enchanting and identifiable, with Truffaut’s humor being significantly more pronounced than one might expect of him. In the picture’s most lasting episode, a toddler chases a cat out of a window and plummets to the ground unscathed. It’s a nail-biting sequence that culminates with the surreal, a fascinating detour that perhaps houses Truffaut’s central idea – that children are not quite as vulnerable and helpless as adults expect them to be. Sensitive and nostalgic, it’s a film that beautifully details the day-to-day of kids that we only gradually come to know and appreciate.