Mediocre: The Frontier

The Frontier (2015)

Directed by Oren Shai
Written by Oren Shai, Webb Wilcoxen
Produced by Dana Lustig, Mark Smirnoff, Tal Fiala, Elric Kane, Stephen Harrison, Moshe Barkat, Pirchia Rechter, Dari Shai, Haim Slutzky, Dustin Cook
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Kelly Lynch, A.J. Bowen, Jamie Harris, Izabella Miko, Jim Beaver, Liam Aiken

Synopsis

She’s yet to put enough miles between herself and a homicide in Flagstaff when a drifter (Donahue) stops at a rundown diner and motel for a meal and overnight lodging, only to find that its proprietress (Lynch) and patrons (Harris, Miko, Beaver, Aiken) are soon to be recipients of over $1.7M in cash laundered from a recent heist. Their mercenary commonalities and continual visits by an obtrusive policeman (Bowen) complicate her designs on the money and a clean escape.

Script

Motivations are stultified and their promising story’s second act is bogged by Shai’s and Wilcoxen’s drippy, dispensable exposition, which temporarily reduces a hard-boiled crime thriller to a cheap costume drama. Had so much background been alluded rather than dilated, and the plot enhanced with twice as many twists, they would’ve written a winner.

Direction

His conduct is slick if unambitious: Shai shoots action and dramatics with equal facility, and prudently interposes between both direful, often speechless close-ups and slow zooms, mostly of Donahue.

Cinematography

If at all, Jay Keitel may be known to viewers of independent cinema as Amy Seimetz’s preferred DP. Diurnal scenes are gorgeously enriched though his lucent lenses, but by night, he’s manifestly affected by a nyctophobia plaguing so many in his trade. No harvest moon’s as fulgent as this movie’s nocturnal lighting.

Production design

Worn postwar furnishings and appliances salvaged and fabricated for Taylor Jean’s and Steve Morden’s set design, Yasmine Abraham’s perfectly selected and lightly distressed costumery, hairstyling courtesy of Emilio Uribe, and every other artifact of Lindsey Moran’s production design — driver’s licenses, matchbooks, photographs, suitcases, purses, bottles, mugs and more — replicate the mass-produced fashions of the ’70s. Irrespective of budget, few pictures set during this era look so verisimilar, largely because the aforementioned grasp its grime.

Histrionics

Hers could be the face and presence in a thousand last known photos of doomed and endangered beauties circa ’72-’84, so the niche that Donahue’s occupied since The House of the Devil is scarcely shared. She makes the best of her sly miss with chilly charm, unostentatiously easy expressivity, and a sensitivity which may convince your amygdala that she’s really rolling with so many punches. By contrast, indie regular Bowen (her assailant in House) has defied typecasting in a sweep of roles to varied results; here, he looks a southwestern part that he plays well, but his inauthenticity’s betrayed by a gentle voice. Harris enlivens most of his scenes as a friendly fop in his father’s footsteps, but Miko doesn’t flesh his bleached, bubbleheaded wife with such gratification. Perhaps the worst personation of Lynch’s career can be witnessed here, as she gratuitously overacts her every single line, mien and motion. Beaver’s brutish career criminal and Aiken’s antsy abettor are shallow figures energetically realized by their seasoned character actors.

Score

At its barest instrumentation in a minor key — guitar, horns, underlying strings — Ali Helnwein’s score is resonant of its place and period. It turns mushy with the inclusion of flutes, then musty when electric guitars and staccato strings are employed.

Highlights

Donahue’s pitch- and picture-perfect in every scene, whether evincing trauma and trouble, or trading pleasantries with Harris.

Nadir

Pick one:

  1. The movie’s midpoint slows to crawl through tawdry tales of woe involving Jack Warner worsened by Lynch’s awful acting.
  2. In a regressive episode immediate to bloody gunplay, Lynch’s bygone starlet recites lines from an unrealized production à la Norma Desmond to embarrass everyone watching.

Conclusion

If this were as good as it looks or as exciting as its promotional campaign implied, it would probably be some sort of cult classic by now. Regrettably, too much is said and too little done in an expertly staged but underwhelming production.

Sublime: The Romance of Astrea and Celadon

The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007)
Directed by Éric Rohmer
Written by Honoré d’Urfé, Éric Rohmer
Produced by Françoise Etchegaray, Philippe Liégeois, Jean-Michel Rey, Valerio De Paolis, Enrique González Macho, Serge Hayat
Starring Andy Gillet, Stéphanie Crayencour, Cécile Cassel, Serge Renko, Véronique Reymond, Jocelyn Quivrin, Mathilde Mosnier, Rodolphe Pauly, Rosette, Arthur Dupont, Priscilla Galland

“Where love is, no disguise can hide it for long; where it is not, none can simulate it.”

–La Rochefoucauld, Maxims

Love rends, mends and fortifies impassioned, shepherding Foréziens of the 5th century for folly and affection in this charming condensation of d’Urfé’s classic, colossal comedy, L’Astrée. Dupery by one flirt (Dupont) incident to the fierce fancy of another (Galland) stings a jaundiced shepherdess (Crayencour) to jilt her highborn paramour (Gillet), who in rash heartbreak attempts to drown himself in the Lignon. A trio of nymphs discover him ashore downriver, then in their castle quarter and nurse to health the sheepherder with whom their doyenne (Reymond) finds herself unreciprocally enamored. Her fellow noblewoman (Cassel) frees the herdsman from immurement, then with her druidic uncle (Renko) heartens and edifies him before a Mistletoe Festival, where the adoring drovers may be reunited by an eccentrically epicene ruse. Rohmer’s casual, conversational, implicitly Christian manner is perfectly suited to the marquis de Valromey’s novel, from which all save a few of many parabolic excursus are here excised. Those judiciously retained vividly illustrate values of the seventeenth century transposed by its comte de Châteauneuf to the fifth: a dispute between our lovelorn protagonist’s stalwartly monogamous brother (Quivrin) and a ludic, licentious troubadour (Pauly) pits an amative argument for fidelity against hedonistic casuistry in promotion of polyamory; at a sanctified grove, Renko’s delphic druid skews from physiolatry to certify a monotheism for Teutates by relegating lesser gods as mere physitheistic personifications of virtues, and posits a consubstantial divinity that prefigures Christianity’s Holy Trinity. Two of the director’s perpetual performers won’t be overlooked by fans among his lovably lovely leads and their photogenic co-stars: one in three nymphs is Rosette, while Marie Rivière can be glimpsed as the reveling mother of Gillet’s straying swain. Late in life and art, Rohmer couldn’t have abridged a better story to example his final insistence that love’s as much fated as physical, or spiritual as sensual.

Recommended for a double feature paired with Love in the Afternoon or The Marquise of O.

Mediocre: Over the Top

Over the Top (1987)
Directed by Menahem Golan
Written by Gary Conway, David Engelbach, Stirling Silliphant, Sylvester Stallone
Produced by Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus, Tony Munafo, James D. Brubaker
Starring Sylvester Stallone, David Mendenhall, Robert Loggia, Rick Zumwalt, Susan Blakely, Terry Funk, Allan Graf, Chris McCarty, Bruce Way, Magic Schwarz
Produced at Cannon’s antic acme, this is the Golan-Globus picture, helmed by Menahemself, replete with magnified testosterone and breathing their strangely selective immigrant’s vision of The American Dream, here epitomized by daffily denominated Lincoln Hawk (Stallone), thewy trucker and semi-professional arm wrestler who bonds with his estranged and effeminate son (Mendenhall) en route from the prissily petulant cadet’s military academy to a hospital where his ailing mother (Blakely) awaits over exercise, competitive confrontations and an abduction at the behest of the spoiled stripling’s wealthy, peremptory grandfather (Loggia), whose possessive obsession generates more conflict than an approaching arm wrestling tournament in Vegas where our husky hero’s slated to strive. Golan’s goofy, glossy melodrama is idiomatically tacky but never for a moment humdrum, boasting Nevadan desert landscapes magnificently depicted by DP David Gurfinkel, a felicifically formulaic plot and superabundance of sweaty, screaming, hefty, hulking antagonists vying for the prize, as a bleached beefsteak (Schwarz), transitioning lycanthrope (Way) and Brobdingnagianly brawny consecutive champion (Zumwalt, playing himself) bloviating boasts and macho slogans to cow his competitors. Silliphant and Stallone evidently reveled in the composition of these, as well as the latter’s own ludicrous ruminations and invective inimitably growled by Loggia in usual fine, nefarious form. Beneath all its muscle, sinew and syrup beats a heart of American triumphalism, which for all its oblivious absurdity feels almost enviable in an era when post-ironic snark is waning wearily as the best hallmark of our tired, effete ethos.
Recommended for a double feature paired with any of Cannon’s Rocky sequels.

Palatable: Two-Lane Blacktop

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)
Directed by Monte Hellman
Written by Will Corry, Rudy Wurlitzer, Floyd Mutrux
Produced by Michael Laughlin, Gary Kurtz
Starring James Taylor, Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, Warren Oates
During the cultural flux of the ’70s’ dawn, the twisting tangents of two laconic gearheads — a driver (Taylor) and mechanic (Wilson) of an ugly yet optimized 1955 custom Chevy — who subsist on their winnings from drag races legitimate and otherwise converge and coincide awhile with those of a comely, capricious hitchhiker (Bird) and a mendacious, middle-aged braggart (Oates) seeking notice and competition as he oberrates in his cherry ’70 G.T.O. If it isn’t the deathless classic its cult audience avers, this filmic snapshot of its aimless age is as redolent as any, an immersive dream for motorheads. Stiff delivery from the young amateur leads nearly nullifies their considerable screen presence, so it’s just as well that the characterization of their meandering souls convey more silently than explicitly, at least regarding matters that don’t pertain to automotive prowess or maintenance. However, Oates is as smashing as ever, toothily charismatic while spouting braggadocio as the huffy mythomaniac who plies prevarication with a conviction concomitant of lust for attention and approbation, a perfect antipode to Bird’s pretty drifter, who pines only for whoever won’t treat her as a desideratum. Nothing planned within an immediate span comes to fruition for these ramblers of the open road who only reflect the irresolution of their zeitgeist, but no matter: Hellman’s direction and editing are so gracefully unobtrusive that his viewers can almost forget they’re watching a movie…or that this era of incomparable individualism and prosperity in which automobiles empowered the realization of freedom passed proud and strident decades ago.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Vanishing Point.

Palatable: Manon 70

Manon 70 (1968)
Directed by Jean Aurel
Written by Abbé Prévost, Jean Aurel, Cécil Saint-Laurent
Produced by Robert Dorfmann, Yvon Guézel, Luggi Waldleitner
Starring Catherine Deneuve, Sami Frey, Jean-Claude Brialy, Robert Webber, Elsa Martinelli
Transposed to chic, swinging ’60s Paris, this slightly torpid yet titillating umpteenth adaptation of Prévost’s classic fabular novella Manon Lescaut portrays the pursuit of a cosmopolitan bon vivant (Deneuve) by a handsome, sportive news correspondent (Frey) who wins her heart, but not her troth; addicted to her luxe lifestyle, the unscrupulous beauty will bed any man of means to maintain it, and her promiscuity piques his irascibility like an open flame to a dynamite fuse. Perchance the most listless treatment of this narrative, Aurel’s mode here nearly effects sporadic longueur, its finest moments contingent on the considerable charisma of its gorgeous stars and settings. However, his conference of drollery and a perversely modern prurience to this story while dispensing with its tragic conclusion is laudably elegant; a less able filmmaker (as King or Brass) would surely have contrived something approximating dopey softcore porn of a tawdry or soppy mold. Ever debonaire, Brialy steals his every scene as Deneuve’s opportunistic sibling, whose ingratiating cajolery and chicanery coaxes her transient lovers almost as effectually as her enticements. Magnificent orchestral and chamber standards by Vivaldi and a couple of groovy tunes courtesy of Gainsbourg sublime the ambience of this flick’s admittedly trifling proceedings. For languid summer beach parties, this is the picture of choice.

Favorites: Le Sauvage

Le Sauvage (1975)
Directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau
Written by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Élisabeth Rappeneau, Jean-Loup Dabadie
Produced by Ralph Baum, Raymond Danon, Jean-Luc Ormières
Starring Yves Montand, Catherine Deneuve, Luigi Vannucchi, Tony Roberts, Bobo Lewis
The tranquil isolation of a rugged yet refined French expatriate (Montand) domiciled on an island off the coast of Caracas is disrupted by a fortuitous encounter with a mercurial newlywed (Deneuve) fleeing her brutish, oleaginous husband (Vannucchi) and an American nightclub owner whose original Toulouse-Lautrec she’s abstracted in redress of his arrearage. An accomplished cast makes the most of their unidimensional roles: Deneuve is as beguiling (and bleached!) as ever, Montand exerts his prodigious presence to exude a curbed fervency, and Vannucchi and Roberts play their farce to the hilt. No less diverting is a fine production design, replete with homemade mechanisms and agriculture demonstrating the inspired functionality of this hermit’s insular lifestyle. It’s as compelling, riotous and romantic as French genre pictures come, parrying prognosis with a novel plot twist every twenty minutes, though its leads’ destined denouement is as ineluctable as satisfying.

Palatable: Downhill Racer

Downhill Racer (1969)
Directed by Michael Ritchie
Written by Oakley Hall, James Salter
Produced by Richard Gregson
Starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Karl Michael Vogler, Dabney Coleman, Carole Carle, Jim McMullan, Kenneth Kirk, Walter Stroud
Redford was seldom so duly cast or laconic as yet another Errant Young American Man of cinema in the Nixon era, here a blistering, arrogant skiier ascendant in European tournaments to Olympic glory. Perfectly distinctive of the New Hollywood idiom, Richie’s debut feature hazards nary a jot of sentiment, etching characterization in broad strokes without cloying contrivances. It’s also much busier than his more polished efforts: from ski slopes to hotel suites to operating theaters, Ritchie located striking perspectives wherever Salter’s script (adapted from one of Hall’s lesser-read novels) located him. Still at the threshold of his fame, Hackman’s also in fine form (withal a dyad of flubbed lines) as the requisite coach who dispenses cautionary counsel to subdue his star contender’s hubris. Fleet, fantastic footage shot at World Cup races in Lauberhorn, Arlberg-Kandahar, Megève and Hahnenkamm in early ’69 constitutes the majority of sportive action, often overshadowing intervallic drama wherein the protagonist’s ingenuous egoism isolates him from jaundiced teammates and undermines his affair with a chic, flighty continental (Sparv). American indifference to winter sports sank this exemplary treatment of the subject, but Ritchie and Redford enjoyed collaborative success a few years later with the brutally trenchant political satire, The Candidate.

Execrable: Chocolat

Chocolat (2000)
Directed by Lasse Hallström
Written by Joanne Harris, Robert Nelson Jacobs
Produced by Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Alan C. Blomquist, Meryl Poster, Michelle Raimo, Kit Golden, David Brown, Leslie Holleran, Mark Cooper
Starring Juliette Binoche, Alfred Molina, Lena Olin, Johnny Depp, Victoire Thivisol, Judi Dench, Hugh O’Conor, Peter Stormare, Carrie-Anne Moss, Aurelien Parent Koenig
Viewers affected by glycemic disorders aren’t advised to view the most successful and saccharine of Hallström’s many syrupy features in a single sitting; conceivably, anyone prone to horripilation may also suffer convulsions of a severity thitherto unimaginable when subjected to this foul fable of a periodically migratory chocolatier (Binoche) whose animacy and perceptivity regarding her vendees’ adversities and sweet teeth endear her to the less subdued residents of a rigidly religious village in postwar France. Throughout Harris’s puerile story, every conflict is contrived, each character a caricature: a latitudinarian society of Mary Sues comprising Binoche’s errant artisan, her cute daughter (a heinously dubbed Thivisol), one battered housewife (Olin), a miserably cynical old bat (Dench) and her morbid drafter of a grandson (Koenig) resist the provincial proprieties imposed by the hamlet’s stuffily overbearing mayor (Molina) and the gauring, pusillanimous priest (O’Conor) under his thumb who assay the reclamation of a churlish publican (Stormare) to curb his domestic abuse by dint of penance and catechesis. A maternal bitch (Moss, presumably manifesting internalized patriarchal oppression) and daffily debonaire Irish Gypsy (Depp) merely incorporate another implausible clash and prerequisite love interest. Hopelessly trifled away by a director whose unceasing and seemingly obstinate ignorance of dramatic rudiments befuddles even the most hardened cinephile on an incorrigibly risible script, a respectable cast are reduced to the weirdly stilted yet hammy delivery now omnipresent in televised and cinematic productions: odious drama club theatrics revisited as professional pabulum. Launching the drearily perfunctory phase of his career that’s yet afoot, somnambulant Depp’s silly flourishes prove particularly peeving as yet another bathetically romanticized Romani — a portrayal of galling and specious political correctness proposed to patronize we Roma who know far better for the entertainment of whites who should. Numerous hokey hallmarks of Hallström’s glorified Lifetime picture wantonly layer treacle upon his unpalatably overproduced glop, especially shopworn narration paired with Rachel Portman’s cloying score to augur whichever few plot points aren’t predictable during the first act. A shred of depth is implied by the protagonist’s perpetuation of a ritual no more fruitful or righteous than those of her papal antagonists, but even this is enacted and duly resolved in as artless and obvious a manner as one could expect. Therewithal, whenever common flaws of a conservative society — which here hardly reflect the ethos of Gallic parochial life — are demonstrated in a work exuding typically trite Anglo-American convictions, deleterious phenomena such as spousal abuse and groundless xenophobia are trivialized, only addressed to safely vilipend a majority. This particular stamp of heterodox allegory might’ve been marginally subversive during the commercial culmination of Stanley Kramer’s popular propaganda forty-odd years prior, but by 2000 it was long since as dated as banal, another tired stab at Catholic tradition to propitiate aging suburban boomers and their guileless offspring, all weaned on the dissent of a counterculture long since expired and reanimated by corporate media entities. Yet to ostentatious hausfrauen, civilization began circa 1960; the Weinsteins craftily baited yet another hook for the gaping maws of a lucrative target demographic. Confections prominently snacked and snarfed appear ambrosial, but the contemptible subtext that Harris, Hallström, etc. peddle here is nothing save nauseous.