The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)
It's upsetting how many of these classic films I rent end up disappointing me. I'm still kind of torn on this one. On the one hand, it's actually quite boring, with the entire plot being about two cops following some shady guys who may be conducting a drug deal. That's the story: "We think something might be going down." There's little in the way of conflict, as the heroes and the villains don't have anything tying them together except business and the duties of their jobs. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that's actually the point of the film, that stuff like this isn't usually glamorous or exciting, and that drug dealers and cops are just two different brands of crude thugs. The villains are rarely portrayed as particularly villainous here; they just do their jobs. There are no sadistic torture scenes or rapes or anything like that, and very little violence until the end. After it was over and I had time to reflect, I could more appreciate the amoral structure of the whole thing, especially the ending title cards that tell you how the bad guys mostly got away or barely served any time at all, and the one who went to jail for the longest time was the one who had the least to do with the whole deal. There is also the famous car chase, which is not even really a car chase at all, but Gene Hackman in a car trying to catch up to a train running overhead. It was the only point during the film that I actually sat up and took notice, and it is incredibly well-constructed. The rest is interesting in retrospect, but a bit dull to actually watch.
Pieces of April (Peter Hedges, 2003)
This one is just total crap. My friend Jason called me while I was about halfway through it, and when I told him I thought it was awful, he was shocked. And indeed it has a high rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so I guess most critics were fooled like he was, but it's really just sitcom-level plotting and a Lifetime-movie-style story dressed up in indie-movie grit, shot with digital video and populated with decent actors. Luckily, two of my favorite critics, Ed Gonzalez and Walter Chaw, rightfully tore it apart. Katie Holmes is fine as the pseudo-rebellious heroine, and Patricia Clarkson is affecting as her cancer-afflicted mother, but the story is painfully predictable and sappy. I mean, this is a movie in which we learn to appreciate the meaning of Thanksgiving. How much more Charlie Brown can you get? It's just really condescending, too, with the painfully multi-ethnic residents of April's apartment building helping her cook, the grandma who's got Alzheimer's except when she needs to have a moment of clarity to say something significant, the sick mother whose illness helps her appreciate life, blah blah blah. There are some sad attempts to seem hip, like the mom who loves the music of "Smack Daddy" and Holmes' Hot Topic-esque wardrobe, which uses clothing as a substitute for actual character development. A total waste, and even worse for hoodwinking people into thinking it's meaningful.