Oh god, it’s already week two of the new year? But I haven’t done anything yet! As long as we were still adrift in that post-Christmas/New Year haze of temporal ambiguity, I could avoid the anxiety of feeling insufficiently gung-ho about seizing the new year by the horns, and immediately accomplishing all my long-dormant life goals. But now it’s Week Two, and I’m still the same person I was last year, and clearly that means I am incapable of commitment or self-improvement or any of the other things we annually demand of ourselves. Fortunately, our house did indeed run through a fresh collection of films, so at least my cinematic education is still burbling along. I’ll do my best to internalize the fact that personal growth is a gradual process, and in the meantime, please enjoy this fresh collection of film takes!
Our first viewing of the week was a youth culture classic, as we checked out George Lucas’ American Graffiti. Focusing on one group of 1962 high schoolers’ graduation day, the film is essentially a love letter to the ‘60s “cruising” culture, and an ensemble drama much in the same mode as Dazed and Confused. We follow best friends Curt, Steve, John, and Terry as they each grapple with the end of high school, and either retreat into youthful fantasies or set their sights on a larger world.
In spite of largely concerning itself with hot rod races and attempts to pick up chicks, there’s a deep thread of loneliness in American Graffiti. Whether it’s Lucas’ melancholy at recalling this beloved but lost youth culture, or simply the reality of the future bearing down on these young boys, it’s hard to fully commit to the spirit of their revelry. Though the four leads are friends, we rarely see them together; the film begins with John angrily rebuking Curt and Steve for abandoning him for college, and the rest of the film largely concerns them running away from their future goals. Steve is afraid of abandoning all he’s known, and instead preoccupies himself with pursuing a mystery dream girl; meanwhile, Curt lords his college aspirations over his provincial girlfriend, only for both of them to realize they’ll never do better than each other.
Along with this savory combination of irreverent youth and world-weary melancholy, American Graffiti also benefits from a hit-rich soundtrack, as well as regularly stunning lighting. The combination of Lucas’ evocative night photography and clever use of diegetic light sources make an alluring jungle of the cruising experience, with each set of glimmering high beams in the dark promising new adventures. In this mystical, alienating panorama, all of Graffiti’s leads experience small moments of joy and sorrow, all equally uncertain of the future, all unequipped to guide each other through this moment. Ultimately, it takes the realization of a storybook fable for Curt to wake from the illusion: when the girl of his dreams is finally on the line, he demurs, saying he’s got some place to be. But as structurally perfect as Curt’s journey is, American Graffiti would be far less of a film if all its dreams came to fruition; just as important is teen racer John being consoled by Terry, condemned to “always be number one” on a track that only circles their hometown.
We followed up that melancholy journey with a heaping helping of popcorn and dynamite, as we checked out the John Woo-directed, Jean-Claud Van Damme-starring Hard Target. Hard Target follows a woman named Natasha Binder (Yancy Butler) as she journeys to New Orleans in search of her missing father. After nearly getting mugged in the street, she is saved by the delightfully named Chance Boudreaux (Van Damme), who agrees to serve as her bodyguard. Eventually, the two discover a human-hunting operation that’s been feeding on the city’s homeless population, and face off with its two masterminds (Lance Henriksen and Arnold Vosloo). And of course, there is a whole heckin’ lot of explosions, gunplay, and spinning kicks on the way there.
Though Hard Target’s concept is terrific, its script is lousy, and the only real acting to be found comes from the film’s satisfyingly overcast villains. Fortunately, Hard Target has no particular interest in dialogue or characterization; it is here to flex both John Woo’s action cinematography and Van Damme’s physicality, and it manages both with aplomb. I had initially wondered how Van Damme’s high kick-centered martial arts would interact with John Woo’s gunplay-based cinematography, and the answer is as brilliant as it is obvious: Van Damme generally shoots guys while walking towards them, then spin-kicks them onto the ground. He does this like thirty or forty times, and it never gets old. Does watching a master violinist play the classics bore you after the second or third performance? No, shut up and watch, Van Damme’s about to kick some fucker again.
Hard Target proceeds through set piece after glorious set piece of bombastic gunplay and kickmanship, blowing up a fair portion of the French Quarter in its rampage. Van Damme’s acting actually feels a bit more wooden than his standard, but that somehow feels appropriate, fitting with the indulgent grandiosity of Woo’s cinematography. There are barrel rolls over literal flaming barrels, uzi-equipped motorcycle duals, and an entire carnival’s worth of paper-mache costumes that all get blown up by gunfire. John Woo’s movies are rarely graceful, but they’re never boring; Hard Target had me hooting and hollering throughout, and I highly recommend it to any action fans.
We then checked out a new streaming feature, the 2021 horror film We Need to Do Something. Set almost entirely in one bathroom, the film follows a family of four as they bunker down for what they believe to be a hurricane, only to find themselves trapped by something far more sinister. With the parents already on the brink of divorce, tensions flare in captivity, while their teenage daughter suspects her dabbling in the occult are the reason for their confinement.
I’ll give We Need to Do Something this: it does a fair amount with very little, drawing perhaps forty-five minutes worth of genuine tension out of its locked room scenario. Unfortunately, the film is an hour and a half long, and the rest of it is filled with unsatisfying emotional drama, pointless montages, and an explanatory side plot that goes absolutely nowhere. It’s clear the film wants to draw some relatable human tension out of this family’s dissolution, but the characters are far too simplistic to feel sympathetic or human. Additionally, the father is pretty much a lunatic from moment one, meaning it’s less a descent into madness than just waiting for him to blow his top. Outside of a couple neat tricks involving the ambiguous threat outside their door, there’s not really much to recommend here – I got enough out of it for my horror completionist instinct to be sated, but I can’t recommend it as a watch-worthy film.
We finished off the week with The King, a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV/V plays starring Timothee Chalamet as Hal, the prince who must rise from the gutter to rule all of England. We were somewhat deceived regarding the nature of this film; the promotional materials really played up the idea of this film being a faceoff between Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, but Pattinson ultimately just appears in a handful of scenes. Fortunately, as my major introduction to Chalamet’s acting, The King more than demonstrates he has an intensity of presence befitting Hollywood’s latest anointed leading man.
The King is frankly a pretty morose take on the Shakespeare originals, dispensing with most of the revelry and wit of play Hal, and replacing it with a solemn sense of gravity better suited to Chalamet’s presence. The king’s story as told by Shakespeare is a series of hard, necessary lessons imposed on a feckless young man; in David Michod’s hands, it feels more like a tragedy than an education, the inexorable vindication of young Hal’s contempt for politics. It’s an effective-enough choice, but I feel the film would have benefitted from a bit more time demonstrating young Hal in his element; Chalamet does a fine job of portraying Hal’s subtly growing disillusionment, but his relationship with Falstaff needed more “before” to really underline the “after.”
That said, I thought the film’s choices in terms of tidying up Hal’s later adventures were actually quite clever, with the film’s Falstaff neatly combining a few characters in order to provide a satisfyingly cohesive climax. And the final war sequence, where we follow Hal through a full minute of interrupted, uncut bedlam in the muck of battle, threads that impossible line of portraying war beautifully without making war itself seem beautiful. War is always the enemy in this film, a tool used by small men wishing to cast long shadows, and you can see the toll it extracts on Chalamet’s carefully lit face. From the intermittently effective cinematography to the underutilized aspects of Hal’s personality, I’ve got too many quibbles to call The King a success, but its uniformly strong performances and novel take on Shakespeare still made for a reasonable watch.