When I heard this 1973 drama was getting a release on the UK division of The Criterion Collection, for a film I had always wanted to see in its entirety – I jumped at the chance. Loosely based on the true story of the state-to-state murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his 14 year old girlfriend Caril Anne Fugate … this changes the names and certain incidents to explore an unconventional love story between Martin Sheen’s Kit and Sissy Spacek’s Holly as they go on the run across the badlands of Montana.
Director Terence Malick, a celebrated auteur delivers an atmospheric, particularly artsy drama that’s never quite as exciting or eventful as it’s premise suggests, going more for a love letter to the American wilderness, some rather gorgeous vistas and an exploration of young love with the backdrop of gradually increasing violence. Spacek narrates like a love sick school kid and her reactions to Kit’s murderous ways are naive and dismissive, which creates a bit of a weird vibe. The influences this later had on movies like True Romance and Natural Born Killers are obvious, but its not quite as entertaining as those movies and is more a movie of ‘it’s time’ and should probably be appreciated as such.
Sheen & Spacek are both very watchable and Sheen has probably never been more iconic what with his James Dean swagger. The movie also has an enjoyably whimsical atmosphere, which I suppose gives the whole thing its own identity. Worth a watch then, but for me hardly essential.
The Criterion Collection once again delivers. The movie whilst often rather soft focus has had the full 4k restoration treatment, and looks great, showcasing the movies naturalistic photography well. The soundtrack whilst only in uncompressed mono is clear and effective-enough. Extras although nearly all archive are plentiful with a 42 minute making of, interviews and an episode of American Justice exploring the real-life crimes of Charles Starkweather. There’s also detailed booklet included, boasting an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda. No audio commentary is a bit of a shame but this is otherwise solid treatment for a cult favourite that’s fascinating and enjoyable but not quite the ‘classic’ it’s often celebrated as.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. When I saw that this had been given the prestigious Criterion treatment, I immediately was transported back to when I saw this one night on TV many years ago and remember really liking it. Sitting down now with much more jaded eyes, it transpires it’s not quite the classic I thought it was, even though there’s still fun to be had. Jeff Daniels (Dumb and Dumber) plays Charles, a straight laced office worker who one day has a chance encounter with free-spirited Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who takes Charles on a road trip straight out of his comfort zone that awakens a side to him he never knew he had. Everything is going great until they bump into Lulu’s jail bird husband (Ray Liotta) who seems hell-bent on winning Lulu back.
Its a good concept and one I quickly felt engaged by, but once the ‘wild’ element of Lulu’s nature falls away and reveals who she really is, the movie stops dead, with a very awkward ‘lets go visit my mom’ scene and a drawn out high school reunion sequence. Thankfully once Liotta turns up the movie is cranked up several levels and transforms into more of a thriller. Liotta is brilliant, channelling that dangerous-charm he later honed to perfection in Goodfellas. Also Daniel’s proves much more than simply an every man for the audience to latch onto. Griffiths is also highly watchable and further proves why she was the go-to actress of the 80’s and has presence and personality to spare. The movie never really hits it’s stride though, suffering from a bit of an identity crisis and is neither funny enough to be a comedy, exciting enough to be a thriller or charming enough to be a love story. Like a lot of the other also-ran movies of the 80’s this one’s a bit of an oddity, but certainly retains a quirky appeal.
This UK Criterion release is rather underwhelming. The image quality, whilst showing off some vibrancy to it’s colour palette is marred by a lot of smudgy shots. There’s generally a soft look and lack of detail to the whole presentation. The 2 channel DTS HD soundtrack doesn’t exactly wow either, but dialogue is sharp even if music cues seem to lack punch. Extras consist of a detailed booklet that includes an essay by film critic David Thompson. On the Blu-ray itself there’s an archive interview with director Jonathan Demme and the screenwriter, and we also get a trailer. Not exactly the exhaustive treatment one might expect from Criterion.
Spike Lee’s powerful 1989 ghetto drama always seemed to me like a poor man’s Boyz N the Hood at the time when I first saw it – where’s all the Mo Fo’s and the Gats? But seriously, this is a very different and believable portrait of racial tension and ignorance that gradually builds up during one hot summers day in suburban Brooklyn. The film revolves around a Pizzeria known as Sal’s and is owned by Italian Danny Aiello and his two sons (with a stand out John Turturro as the bullying Pino) with Lee’s own Mookie as the Pizza delivery boy. After one of the local black guys spots that Sal only has Italian celebrities on his wall of fame, a boycott of the pizzeria is started, and although the film mostly focuses on the comings and goings of a bunch of very vivid characters, trouble soon erupts, leading to a startling climax.
This thought provoking film really pulled me in, and is an intelligent look at different ethnic cultures in modern America and the ignorance and bigotry that can be caused. From a personal viewpoint, I find it hard to sympathise with some of the black characters, who play the victim when they themselves are stirring it up. Although Sal’s boys and some other bystanders don’t exactly make things any easier. Overall this is fascinating, often funny and challenging cinema that really should be seen by the widest audience.
The DVD from the good ‘ol boys at Criterion is a deluxe two disc set, with a wealth of documentaries on the second disc (including a fascinating return to Brooklyn sequence by Spike Lee and producer Jon Kilik) and we also get a commentary track with Lee again and the crew. Picture and sound are first rate, and although the film looks a little grainy in the darker scenes, its vibrant colours are shown off brilliantly. Oh and Public Enemy’s Fight The Power will blow you away, despite the basic 2.0 surround soundtrack (to preserve the film’s original recording).
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