In 1996, Nick Cave released an album of murder ballads, that age-old subgenre of balladry that tells stories of death and violence. There are no big surprises in the murder ballad; what’s going to happen is embedded in the genre heading, and it’s all about how artfully one can spin that story out, drawing the listener in and then horrifying them with the specifics of the tale. Cave also wrote the script for director John Hillcoat’s Lawless, based on Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, and it plays out much like the cinematic equivalent of a murder ballad: rambling, violent, and more concerned with style and presentation than meaningful character development.
That last quality might sound like a complaint, but it’s really not; this is pure genre cinema, a classic gangster movie with modern sensibilities for screen violence. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive stuck close to film noir conventions so that the film rode to success largely on style, and Hillcoat does the same with this story of bootleggers in Franklin County, Virginia, in the final years of Prohibition.
Ostensibly the story of Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the youngest of three brothers, Jack mainly exists to drive the story forward by constantly creating messes that his two older brothers need to clean up. The performances are uniformly excellent, even though many of the characters are so caricatured that they chew the scenery relentlessly. There’s Tom Hardy as the leader of the brothers, speaking in an Appalachian mumble that sometimes doesn’t rise above grunts and guttural noises; Gary Oldman as a smart and violent gangster with whom Jack goes into business; Mia Wasikowska in an endearing and sly turn as the innocent preacher’s daughter Jack falls for; and Guy Pearce, with slick black hair and practically devoid of eyebrows, as a villain so evil and slippery he gives Voldermort himself a run for his money as most serpentine screen bad guy. Take those, add a dash of grisly violence and some surprisingly laugh-out-loud black humor, and Lawless is fantastic, if thematically lightweight, fun.
Comedian Mike Birbiglia took his own experiences with a fairly serious sleepwalking disorder and turned them into a book, a comedy record, and a hit one-man show. Now, with the help of NPR’s This American Life host Ira Glass, he’s also turned it into a feature film in which he plays Matt Pandamiglio, a standup comedian who is in a holding pattern with his career and his relationship and dealing with that sleepwalking, which puts him in both amusing and potentially life-threatening situations.
A Tribute to John Cage
Korean-American artist Nam June Paik made his reputation creating some of the earliest video art, but his original training was as a pianist. Given that, and Paik’s commitment to experimentation, it’s appropriate that he ended up making a documentary about John Cage, the composer whose experiments in incorporating nonmusical sounds in music helped to inspire much of Paik’s art. Next week’s presentation of that film at the American Art Museum is of a previously unscreened version, and is being shown in celebration of what would have been Cage’s 100th birthday. John Hanhardt, senior curator for media arts at the museum, will introduce the program and lead a discussion afterward.
Wednesday at 7 PM at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
During the month of September, the National Gallery is turning its attentions to Aleksei German, a Russian filmmaker who is virtually unknown in the US, who has made just half a dozen films since his first, way back in 1967. That count includes one that is still in post-production, and which has reportedly been in various stages of production for over a decade. The museum is screening all five of the completed films, along with one he wrote and produced but didn’t direct, starting with his most recent, Khrustalyov, My Car! Like most of his films, it’s a black-and-white picture set in Stalin’s Soviet Union about a doctor accused of taking part in the so-called “doctor’s plot,” in which many mostly Jewish doctors were accused of plotting to kill Soviet leaders.
Sunday at 4:30 PM at the National Gallery of Art.
If you didn’t get enough to satisfy your need for Prohibition-era drama from Lawless, Washington Psychotronic Film Society has a somewhat lighter take on the period with a screening of the 1976 musical Bugsy Malone. The film was a bomb on release, despite a warm reception at Cannes and generally positive reviews; audiences in 1976 just didn’t seem primed for a crime musical that starred only children, with adults dubbing their singing voices. Bugsy features the film debut of Charles in Charge himself, Scott Baio, as Bugsy, and the then-13-year-old child star Jodie Foster as the singer at the speakeasy that he frequents.
DVD Pick of the Week: Quadrophenia
The Who’s Tommy gets more attention—the splashy, fantastical rock opera about a deaf, dumb, and blind kid with a mystical talent for pinball inspired a film version that was a vision of cinematic excess (which I mean as a compliment). But Quadrophenia is that record’s smarter younger sibling, the one that doesn’t immediately grab your attention but tends to win you over once you’ve spent time with it.
Just as the filmed version of Tommy amped that record up to unforeseen levels of overkill, the movie of Quadrophenia shares its inspiration’s less ostentatious power. Franc Roddam’s film uses the Who’s music, but the film isn’t a musical; it takes the basic framework of the record’s concept, about a young man’s difficult coming of age in 1960s London, and makes a drama out of it that’s as affecting and rewatchable as the record is endlessly listenable.
Special Features: Commentary from director Franc Roddam and cinematographer Brian Tufano; interviews with Bill Curbishley,the film’s co-producer and the Who’s co-manager, and Bob Pridden,the Who’s sound engineer; a segment on the film from a 1979 episode of the BBC series Talking Pictures, featuring interviews and on-set footage; a segment from a 1964 episode of the French news program Sept jours du monde, about mods and rockers; “Mods,” a 1965 episode of the French youth-culture program Seize millions de jeunes, featuring early footage of the Who; theatrical trailers; and a booklet with an essay by critic Howard Hampton, a 1985 personal history by original mod Irish Jack, and Pete Townshend’s liner notes from the 1973 album.