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Review: Down in the Valley

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Set deep in the San Fernando — depicted here largely as an infertile crescent of looming power lines and anonymous housing tracts — David Jacobson’s terrific new film probes the absurdities of contemporary suburbia in time-honored (and still potent) fashion: by introducing a walking anachronism. En route to the beach to escape her domineering sheriff father (David Morse) and her perpetually needy little brother (Rory “the talented Culkin” Culkin), rebellious hot-pants teen Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) meets up with a courtly, aw-shucks stranger in jeans and a Stetson. Harlan (Edward Norton) seems to have wandered into town directly from some long-forgotten B-Western. Creepy age difference notwithstanding (and bravely uncommented upon), Harlan and Tobe begin a passionate affair, much to the consternation of her dad, who’s convinced that Harlan’s genial twanginess has to be a put-on. And indeed, Harlan turns out to be something other than he seems, though not necessarily in the cut-and-dried way you might expect.
    Mostly ignored when it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (in the smaller Un Certain Regard section), Down in the Valley has reportedly since been trimmed by about twenty minutes, though I didn’t notice anything of import missing in the shorter cut. Still present, for better (aesthetically) and worse (pragmatically), is a key scene in which Harlan practices his gunslinging moves before his boarding-room mirror, which has prompted lazy critics to dismiss the character as a dime-store psycho and the film itself as a pale retread of Taxi Driver. But Harlan’s reasons for creating his lone-warrior persona are far more personal than sociological, and Down in the Valley soon veers in a completely unexpected and fearsomely complex direction, making it clear that Jacobson’s true interest is exploring the definition of masculinity, and, by extension, paternity. (Norton has repeatedly said in interviews that he sees the film as a companion piece to Fight Club.) Distinguished by dynamic widescreen compositions and a quartet of superlative performances, the movie is essentially an old-fashioned showdown between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, duking it out over the soul of a small boy. That you’re never entirely sure who you want to see prevail is a testament to its power. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Crazy Like a Fox
Joyeux NoelNot without promise: an experienced theater director (Richard Squires) and actor (Roger Rees) deliver a Cherry Orchard-inflected elegy for rural America’s fast-disappearing gentleman farmer. Add that it’s a comedy — fine, Chekhov intended his play to be the same. But it doesn’t take one scene for things to get hairy. The gentleman farmer in question, startled by the young couple that has come to buy his estate, falls into a puddle of pig slop. Then he falls in again. Then the buyers get attacked by a pig, and they fall in. And let’s face it, three pratfalls per scene is more than a movie should have. Beyond its budget slapstick, Crazy Like A Fox lacks the depth of characterization that would’ve made it interesting to watch. Any comedy short of farce — and particularly one with elements of tragedy — can afford some virtues for its villains and some vices for its heroes. Crazy Like A Fox does not. Pitting two merciless yuppies (“Idiot didn’t even know where Palm Springs was!”) against a wacky, affable salt-of-the-earth type (“Dadgum it!”) is the kind of laziness that rarely pays off dramatically; in movies, as in cards, a stacked deck ruins the game. — Peter Smith
Date DVD: The Tennessee Williams Film Collection
Dog Day AfternoonThis week, you could suffer through Sahara, starrring that hyped-up “new Newman” Matthew McConaughey — or you could catch the original gangsta. The Tennessee Williams Film Collection collects Baby Doll, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Night of the Iguana, the Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone — and two films that feature some of film history’s hottest performances ever: A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. Streetcar has the famous “Stella!” cry and all that — the box even has several other cries from alternate takes, including a “Hon-ney!” which sounds more hen-pecked than guttural. Still, as historic as Brando’s Method performance was — and as uber-classic as the film will always be — I’d have to pick Hot Tin Roof‘s Maggie the Cat and Brick for a date. Yes, Williams was furious about cuts to the 1958 film — flat-out censorship, really, of themes like homosexuality — and it’s a shame that we’ll never see what Newman and Taylor would have done with more adult material (not to mention hypocritical, for a play so infuriated with “mendacity”). But what we do see is as hot as Taylor and Newman would ever be on screen: Taylor all Southern wiles and Newman all wasted potential, both sweating in the shade of the magnolias and Big Daddy’s shadow. Maybe it’s so powerful because movie stars (always eager to please and be loved) are at their sexiest when they’re the most needy, the most desperate. Surely, the sight of Elizabeth Taylor begging Newman to have sex with her — pleading in that stifling bedroom upstairs from his father — is the kind of illicit thrill no ratings board could deny us. — Logan Hill

   

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