Thelma and Louise

Considering the controversy that surrounded its initial release, an action-packed plot line involving impulsive crime and platonic love-on-the-run, and its iconic ending, “Thelma and Louise” once seemed well on its way to the status of a genre-creating classic along the lines of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Today, it plays like a glossier, more sentimental, and politically charged variation on “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” but there’s nothing wrong with that. Written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott, the story is as simple as any western. Tightly-wound waitress Thelma (Susan Sarandon) and too-sweet housewife Louise (Geena Davis) hit the road, ducking her ridiculously chauvinist husband (Christopher McDonald). Their plans for a relaxing fishing vacation die alongside a probable serial rapist (Timothy Carhart) who is impulsively murdered by Thelma after attacking Louise. In no time, the two women are playing cross-country cat-and-mouse with a sympathetic police detective (Harvey Keitel), surviving via some help from Thelma’s smitten boyfriend (Michael Madsen) and armed robbery.

Khouri’s Oscar-winning screenplay feels slightly glib, though its humor, emotion, and some moral complexity remain. Scott’s showy, ultra-confident direction looks great on MGM’s 20th anniversary Blu-ray and involves the usual barrels of ersatz rainwater and a shot of Thelma applying make-up at a crowded ladies’ room mirror that was copied three years later by a famed admirer of Scott in “Pulp Fiction.” Still, it’s Sarandon’s and Davis’ show. When they hold hands at the end as they make their final leap of faith, we’ve got to kind of love these two women and believe they love each other, and we do.

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RIP Arthur Penn

arthur penn

He wasn’t a young man, though he always seemed a lot younger than his age. So, it’s still a bit of a sad surprise to read that Arthur Penn, one of the most notable American directors of the sixties and seventies, has died at age 88.

There aren’t a lot of clear dividing lines in life, but as close as you can probably get to that in film history is that American movies made after 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” were most definitely different in any number of ways from movies made before it. Sure, there was the increased freedom with sexuality and violence, but there was also a looser and more European-inspired feeling in U.S. movies, for a time anyway. That’s not to say Penn was anything like a cinematic one-hit wonder. “The Miracle Worker,” “Little Big Man,” “Night Moves,” and “Mickey One,” at least were all remarkable and important films in their way. He was also, by the way, a major figure in the American theater and in the history of television as well.

I learned the sad news via the terrific blog, The Sheila Variations, and Sheila in turn led me to the very good and detailed obituary at the New York Times.

As always when a cinema great passes, there’s more from MUBI’s David Hudson. Also, I’ve got just a few videos after the flip.

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A bit of the OLD ultraviolence

With “Kick-Ass” raising just a little bit of controversy, below are two trailers and a Siskel & Ebert review for the three movies for which the term “ultraviolence” was originally coined, though I suppose author Anthony Burgess might get the credit for the actual words. Though “A Clockwork Orange” and “Bonnie and Clyde” are both obviously more serious films than an action-black-comedy like “Kick-Ass,” its worth noting that, as is the case now, the juxtaposition of violence and humor in those films was a big part of what so disturbed some critics. As for “The Wild Bunch,” it was just the sheer savagery of the thing.

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Given his review of “Kick-Ass,” I think Roger Ebert’s remark about the children in “The Wild Bunch” is worth noting. I’ll be discussing that some more shortly.

  

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Musical biopics with a difference. Maybe. Part 2

Together with the UK’s “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” about Ian Dury, comes a film from the other side of the channel about the genuinely ahead-of-his-time pop maestro Serge Gainsbourg — together with Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf one of the very few French musicians to influence American and British performers. Best known outside France for a scandalous bit of pre-Prince porn-pop called “Je t’aime… moi non plus,” Gainsbourg was easily one of the most distinctive musical minds of an era full of distinctive musical minds, the late sixties and early seventies.

Here’s the trailer. Two provisos: To get the English subtitles, you might have to click the “CC” box in the lower right hand corner. Also, it’s a bit NSFW in a distinctly French way. In other words, for God’s sake don’t look at this if the sight of tastefully unclothed European beauties upsets you.

And, as a bonus, here’s a video for my favorite Gainsbourg piece influenced, naturally, by a great American movie featuring none other than his most famed collaborator and a legitimate one-time superstar, Ms. Brigitte Bardot.

  

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Robert Benton on “Kramer vs. Kramer,” 30 Years Later

Robert Benton has seen more than one cinematic revolution in his time. He and his late screenwriting partner, David Newman, were major players in two films that forever changed movies: 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” which brought European New Wave aesthetics into mainstream American cinema and permanently altered the portrayal of violence in American pop-culture, and 1978’s “Superman,” which created the big-budget superhero flick and convinced the world Christopher Reeve could fly. But as the writer and director of a little movie without violence, groundbreaking special effects, or even a whole lot of controversy, Robert Benton actually helped change real life with 1979’s “Kramer vs. Kramer,” about a careerist father (Dustin Hoffman) raising his son alone after being left suddenly by his wife.

Drawn from a novel by Avery Corman, the film was an immediate critical and box-office success, ultimately making over $100 million. It proved to be a star-making role for the twenty-something Meryl Streep, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as Hoffman’s ex-wife, who endures a change of heart and sparks a painful custody battle. Moreover, it racked up a historic Oscar nomination for seven-year-old Justin Henry in the crucial role of Billy Kramer, and garnered both a Best Picture award and a Best Directing Oscar for Benton against an exceptionally strong group of nominated films that included “All That Jazz” and “Apocalypse Now.” Still, lots of movies have received acclaim, Oscars, and a tidy profit. “Kramer vs. Kramer” is a different story.

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