For Reel

God’s Country (1985)
December 28, 2016, 9:43 pm
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Director: Louis Malle
4.5 Stars
gods-countryGod’s Country plays as a charming love affair between filmmaker and subjects. Louis Malle, originally commissioned to make a documentary about shopping malls for PBS, abandoned the project and happened upon the small town of Glencoe, Minnesota, which could stand in for any number of towns across the country. There is nothing unique about the location or the people there, but the very universality of the experience does offer a certain warmth and poignancy, particularly as Malle reflects on just how close he become to the subjects in a short time. Strangely, although the film often basks in Malle’s appreciation for a foreign way of life, misery is always around the edges—an old man solemnly telling Malle that he wants to die, haunting images of nursing home lethargy, numerous cases of racism and bigotry. When Malle returns to visit some of his subjects five years after the fact and finds little but stories about economic woes and stewing resentments, it is telling that Malle’s voiceover remarks on the authenticity and lack of pretension in his subjects. If the footage Malle captured in Glencoe is often magical in the way that only the best documentaries are, this unusual contradiction represents the push-pull between a filmmaker who was interested in telling a certain type of story and the story that was actually unfolding before him. Malle’s detached, amused perspective is oddly charming in its naïveté, with the outsider finding beauty in a multitude of stories about loneliness and bitterness.

Explorers (1985)
October 8, 2016, 12:33 pm
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Director: Joe Dante
3.5 Stars
explorers”I hate to say it, but this isn’t how I thought it would be at all,” is one of the first lines said after the young boys of Explorers make it to outer space. It is a sentiment that is shared by many movie-goers who make it to Joe Dante’s absolutely eccentric third act. After Dante builds the film with an earnest sense of wonderment and awe—this is a film about average suburban kids who slowly find their world expanding—it collapses into a crushing disappointment. The aliens are not only vile, inane creatures whose dialogue consists mostly of commercial slogans and second-rate late show bits, but they are children just as confused and awkward as they are. If the third act of Explorers is undeniably anti-climactic, it is almost profound in the confusion it causes—Dante gives his best Steven Spielberg impression for much of the film, only to pull the rug out from underneath audiences. As the aliens attempt to amuse the Earthlings with their bad vaudeville act, the reaction shots of the kids (especially a young Ethan Hawke, whose expressions most succinctly capture the sense of both awe and disappointment) reflect the unfortunate truth that there aren’t really answers out there, and even the supposedly higher forms of intelligence are just as corrupted by the pop culture nonsense as they are.

A Room with a View (1985)
March 2, 2012, 7:31 am
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Director: James Ivory

The production team of director James Ivory, producer Ismail Merchant, and writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala found their first mainstream success with A Room with a View in 1985. Shedding the oft-criticized stuffiness of their previous efforts, it is a picture about the throws of passion, told with a light-hearted buoyancy and even, memorably, a remarkably strange bathing sequence between three very naked gentlemen. The impressive ensemble includes Helena Bonham Carter in the starring role, who is quite good as the dissatisfied young woman torn between Victorian manners and something more progressively romantic, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who brings so much to what is little more than a prig on the page, making Cecil perhaps the most complex and tragic figure of the picture. Where the production fails, however, is in the casting of Julian Sands as George Emerson, who is meant to be a manifestation of a sexualized free-spirit. On the page, he is not so much a character as an idea, and Sands fails the crucial role by not being, well, passionate enough. But, a las, few could come off as satisfyingly dreamy when they’re occupying the same screen as the splendors of Florence.

Fool for Love (1985)
June 8, 2011, 8:47 pm
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Director: Robert Altman

Considering that Sam Shepard’s screenplay, Paris, Texas, was adapted into one of the most visually striking films of the 1980s, it comes as a disappointment to see how uncinematic Fool for Love is under Robert Altman’s direction. Though much of this can be blamed on the play itself – which somehow makes an incestuous love/hate relationship seem entirely familiar – many of the scenes, such as one in which a drunken Sam Shepard writhes on the floor for what feels like ten minutes, may have worked on stage but come off as laughable in adaptation. When Altman does consider using the medium in a way that a stage play can’t – such as a series of flashbacks in the latter half of the picture – his efforts are tedious and utterly uninspired. Though its set is memorable and there are a few inspired gestures with the camera that capture an interesting kind of subjectivity – for example, the way that Altman’s camera doesn’t enter Basinger’s home while Shepard remains outside – as a trailer park Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, it doesn’t offer enough authentic character complexity to warrant listening to their never-ending vitriol.