At the tail end of the turbulent ‘60s, psychedelic film productions fostered free-flowing creativity on set. The spirit of collaboration ran strong through Roger Corman’s 1967 film The Trip, where Corman teamed with Jack Nicholson to piece together a script while bugging out on acid, and Dennis Hopper pulled double duty as the protagonist’s dealer Max and as an uncredited second unit director. The experience gained from Corman’s production — both psychotropic and directorial — prepared Hopper for his most lasting accomplishment, 1969’s Easy Rider. As the film’s director, co-writer, and star, Hopper facilitated an environment of spontaneity and experimentation that made daring, hallucinatory sequences such as the cemetery-set LSD trip possible. With a premise as loose and easygoing as its yin-and-yang antiheroes — two pushers, one radiating zen calmness and the other a high-strung vibe-harsher, score big and take their hogs from California to New Orleans — Easy Rider lives for the ride. The movie ambles along and goes wherever the story might take it, which is, ultimately, annihilation.
If the Dennis Hopper who let Easy Rider spill forth from his chemically altered brain stumbled into a time machine and encountered the Dennis Hopper who released 1994’s Chasers from his body through a decidedly different orifice, he wouldn’t have recognized the studio-whipped square before him. Formulaic, broad, bland, and forgettable, the naval comedy Chasers is everything Hopper raged against during his fringe-jacketed heyday. Tom Berenger and William McNamara play seamen who enter into an odd-couple partnership when tasked with transporting a prisoner. The journey that ensues rivals Friedkin’s Sorcerer in its ruthlessly pragmatic valuation of human life as well as sheer tension, and if you believe that, then you clearly didn’t read the previous few sentences. The prisoner turns out to be Hot Blonde™ Erika Eleniak, here to flaunt her impossible curves and act as a delivery system for menstruation jokes. Chasers’ moral compass gradually grows completely haywire, with the film’s ostensible hero spending most of the runtime angling for a way to bang the super-hot prisoner who’s become his charge. It’s a crying shame that Dennis Hopper’s swan song hit so many sour notes. At least Easy Rider (not to mention its thoroughly kick-ass soundtrack) will always be up for another ride. — Charles Bramesco
Among the list of actor-turned-directors, the politically outspoken and Oscar-winning Sundance Kid indisputably claims the honors of being one of the most influential names in American cinema. The films of Robert Redford’s 6-decade long career signal a fascination with juxtaposing virtue and truth against the evolving ways of American life, both in front of and behind the camera. 1994’s terrific Best Picture nominee Quiz Show—Redford’s finest directorial achievement to date—exemplifies a significant crack in the American universe that pitted media and entertainment against the trust of the public, setting a lush stage for many of Redford’s interests. Set in the mid-50s during the rapid rise of television, the film portrays a widely publicized quiz show scandal surrounding NBC‘s “21,” its two popular contestants who admitted they were provided the answers in advance, and the young lawyer Dick Goodwin (Rob Morrow) who headed the investigation. Not blessed with dreamy TV looks, the underdog Queens Jew Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) blows the loudest whistle on the scandal that inadvertently planted the seeds of today’s loathsome yet addictive “reality” TV, where every sentiment or conflict is manufactured. Forced to take an embarrassing dive by responding to the “1955 Best Picture Winner” question incorrectly (the answer to which happens to be his favorite film, Marty), Herbie loses to the show’s next handpicked hero—the handsome college instructor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), who comes from a prominent New York intellectual family—after his weeks-long winning streak. Working with Paul Attanasio’s tightly knit, highly entertaining script, Redford breezily dances through the story’s ageless layers stacked between integrity and greed, sharply observing the hostile play between the seldom earned privilege and often undeserved disadvantage. Redford captures nuanced performances from his excellent ensemble—facing each other off in key moments with subtly competitive tête-à-têtes—Redford slickly conveys a sincere nostalgia for the olden times where the intellectualism of a family would have been found sexier than the empty celebrity of the Kardashians.
As effortless as Quiz Show is in its depiction of pop-cultural decay, Redford’s contrastingly labored 2007 film Lions for Lambs sits on the opposite end of the spectrum in engaging with post 9/11 America. Themes around virtue vs. truth, integrity vs. greed are also in play here, yet the excruciatingly overwrought fictional stories in Matthew Michael Carnahan’s script feel more staged and artificially emoted than lived-in and felt, making Lions for Lambs Redford’s burning wartime lecture that spares no textbook liberal soundbites. And it is a “lecture” indeed, with Redford himself playing the political science professor Malley in the most insincere part of the film’s three-pronged narrative, preaching to his privileged, apathetic yet intelligent student Todd Hayes (Andrew Garfield). The remaining two stories involve two young Army Rangers in crisis in Afghanistan (former students of Malley, whose stories he shares with Todd), and a congressman (Tom Cruise) giving an exclusive interview to a prominent political journalist (Meryl Streep) about a “new wartime strategy.” Lions for Lambs is the kind of well-intended film that gets crushed under the weight of its high-minded ambitions. Redford admirably had something to say—going after both immoral politicians and amoral press, while hoping to teach a lesson or two to today’s youth—and aimed to make a reactionary, current political film that stands on the right side of the history. Yet sadly, the on-the-nose, contrived manifestations of Lions for Lambs are too overpowering and shallow, making what could have been a timeless political exercise utterly superficial. — Tomris Laffly
The films of Sofia Coppola aren’t character studies so much as character sketches. All five of her features establish an aesthetic based off the personality of a primary character. Then they riff along—often via song and dance—to that chosen style. The memories of lovelorn boys lead to sun-drenched dissolves, or a celebrity’s ennui is illustrated with unadorned, unflashy long takes. She’s searching for the sensual truth—for a cinema defined not by subtexts or narrative, but by the psyches of the people within them.
So perhaps it’s no big surprise that her worst movie features the most repellent characters: The Bling Ring is as deliberately numbing as the repetitive EDM beats that pound through each scene. She’s getting into the heads of the five kids that robbed a bunch of celebs—seemingly more for fashion than profit—and so the film is structured as a high energy rush through an empty tunnel. Music pounds as we stare at kids gazing mindlessly on their phones. Lights flash while they rattle off the brand names of designers they know nothing about. That we’re so repelled by this movie probably only confirms that Coppola evoked the mindset of her characters quite well.
Her best movie—Marie Antoinette—is not necessarily about a “better” person. But it’s about someone who allows Coppola to have much more fun. She stages the eponymous royal as a beautiful object, of both the patriarchy and consumer society. The latter effort allows for an MTV-style meditation on emptiness: Long pans down vibrant clothes, tracks across endless lines of shoes, loving gazes at masterfully baked cakes. And all this vibrant color, along with Kirsten Dunst’s Antoinette, is curiously contrasted against the coldness of the aristocracy. When the film isn’t fetishizing all the fun she’s having, it’s sadly regarding her as a carefully positioned pawn in life’s uncaring plans. It’s like Barry Lyndon as directed by Madonna.
It seems unfair to consider Coppola as an actress-turned-filmmaker. She never did any significant work outside of the small roles she played for her father and his close friends. And she has a screenwriting credit that predates her one sizeable performance in The Godfather III. Yet we can still see a connection when we consider her under the lens of that profession: Her films spurn narrative for character; they rely on actors more than editing tricks or camera movements. Each aesthetic choice is designed to evoke a person, not to make a point. She’s a performer’s director. — Jake Mulligan
The best works of actor-turned-director Christopher Guest contain a cavalcade of characters that possess wryly oblivious veneers and whose obsessions mask bittersweet realities about life’s hard knocks. With its droll observation of theater geeks and small-town folks alike, Waiting for Guffman is his crowning achievement to date. There’s a precision to its depiction of fictional Blaine, Mo., and its featured inhabitants that is at once familiar and revealing. By focusing on a microcosm of community theater and those who participate in its uber-earnest theatrics, Guest and company expose the distant dreams and unfulfilled promises of small-town American life. Despite the sardonic conceit and the exceeding silliness of Red, White, and Blaine, the production at the core of the film, Waiting for Guffman presents a troupe worthy of compassion as they try their best to express themselves in creative ways. Most impressively, Guest even exhibits a subtle touch when the film morphs into a full-blown contemporary allusion of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot once the play’s cast gets wind of a rumor that a Broadway producer is expected to attend opening night.
Although the genre in which Guest primarily works is the “mockumentary,” he often shows immense respect for the caricatures he immortalizes and tacitly analyzes. Little of that empathy can be found in his unbearably strained and vacant For Your Consideration. While small-town theater, dog shows (Best in Show) and folk music (A Mighty Wind) were all fresh institutions to investigate, Hollywood is hardly unexplored territory; in fact, Guest previously satirized the movie industry with more exactitude in his directorial debut, The Big Picture (1989). The most memorable character here is veteran actress Marilyn Hack (Catherine O’Hara), who, while filming the preposterously melodramatic Home for Purim, hears of gossip on the Internet of her earning a possible Academy Award nomination. The buzz ends up engulfing the set, with most actors modestly stating their happiness for her. What For Your Consideration is sorely lacking is humanity: more a parade of grotesques than a revelatory ensemble piece. – Nick McCarthy