The Magnificent Ambersons

This past weekend saw the release of Us, writer-director Jordan Peele’s first film since his breakout feature, Get Out. Us arrives on a wave of hype and anticipation, and the question on everyone’s mind seems to have been, “Will Peele be able to repeat the success of his debut or will he fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump?” That curse, of course, is not unique to filmmakers, as creative figures in most artistic media who make a splash with their first major work buckle under the pressure of having to repeat or even top themselves with their follow-up. Some directors respond to the pressure by making a formula of their success and create second features that all too closely resemble their debuts. (All the Real Girls, David Gordon Green’s follow-up to George Washington, is one example that comes to mind.) Others (like Steven Soderbergh, whose second feature, Kafka, is one of his biggest duds) branch out so far from what made their first features special that they end up adrift.

My review of Us arrives later this week, so you can find out then whether I think Peele avoided the sophomore slump. In the meantime, enjoy these five capsule reviews from our archives of second features that are just as innovative as their directors’ firsts. One director conspicuously absent from this list is Jane Campion, since it’s a matter of debate whether her first film was the TV movie Two Friends (1986) or the theatrical feature Sweetie (1989). I consider Sweetie one of the greatest films—debut or otherwise—and its follows-up, An Angel at My Table (1990), is no small potatoes either. But since I couldn’t decide which work comprised her first and second features, I just avoided the matter.

The Magnificent Ambersons Orson Welles’s second completed feature (1942) and arguably his greatest film (partisans of Citizen Kane notwithstanding). By far his most personal creation, this lovingly crafted, hauntingly nostalgic portrait of a midwestern town losing its Victorian innocence to the machine age contains some of Welles’s most beautiful and formidable imagery, not to mention his narration, a glorious expression of the pain of memory. A masterpiece in every way (but ignore the awkward ending the studio tacked on without Welles’s approval). With Joseph Cotten, Tim Holt, Ray Collins, Agnes Moorehead, Dolores Costello, and Anne Baxter. —Don Druker

<i>Last Year at Marienbad</i>
Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad This radical experiment in film form by director Alain Resnais and screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet was a surprising commercial success in 1961, even in the U.S., and it’s been a rallying point for the possibilities of formal filmmaking ever since. A highly seductive parable about seduction, it’s set in and around a baroque European chateau/hotel, where the nameless hero (Giorgio Albertazzi) tries to persuade the nameless heroine (Delphine Seyrig) that they met the previous year. Shot by Sacha Vierny in otherworldly black-and-white ‘Scope, it oscillates ambiguously between past, present, and various conditional tenses, mixing memory and fantasy, fear and desire. The overall tone is poker-faced parody of lush Hollywood melodrama, yet the film’s dreamlike cadences, frozen tableaux, and distilled surrealist poetry are too eerie, too terrifying even, to be shaken off as camp. For all its notoriety, this masterpiece among masterpieces has never really received its due. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

<i>Mama Roma</i>
Mama Roma

Mamma Roma The least known of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s features in this country also happens to be one of his best. It stars Anna Magnani at her most volcanic, hyperbolic, and magnificent as a Roman prostitute trying to go straight and provide a respectable middle-class existence for her teenage son. Interestingly enough, while the slums of Rome were Pasolini’s essential turf, he dealt with them directly only in his first two films, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), turning mainly to period films and allegories in his subsequent movies. But the ultimate rejection of the bourgeois and petit bourgeois world is as total in the subproletarian milieu of this film as it would be in his later work. Not to be missed; with Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti, and Silvana Corsini. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

<i>My Brother's Wedding</i>
My Brother’s Wedding

My Brother’s Wedding The least known of Charles Burnett’s first three features (1983)—the other two are Killer of Sheep and To Sleep With Anger—focuses on the family pressure exerted on a young man in Watts (Everett Silas), who works at his parents’ dry cleaners, to abandon his disreputable ghetto friends and adjust to a more middle-class existence. This struggle is pushed to the limit when he has to choose between attending his older brother’s wedding to a woman from an affluent family and attending the funeral of his best friend, a former juvenile delinquent. Burnett’s acute handling of actors (most of whom are nonprofessionals) never falters, and his gifts as a storyteller make this a movie that steadily grows in impact and resonance as one watches. —Jonathan Rosenbaum

<i>Days of Being Wild</i>
Days of Being Wild

Days of Being Wild Wong Kar-wai’s idiosyncratic style first became apparent in this gorgeously moody second feature (1991), whose romantic vision of 1960 Hong Kong as a network of unfulfilled longings would later echo through In the Mood for Love. Leslie Cheung, Hong Kong’s answer to James Dean (in fact the movie appropriates its Cantonese title from Rebel Without a Cause), plays a heartless ladies’ man, raised by a prostitute, who eventually leaves for the Philippines in search of his real mother. Maggie Cheung is a waitress whom he woos with his philosophical ruminations on a wall clock, and Andy Lau is a lonely cop who yearns for her. This was conceived as the first of two movies, and its puzzling coda was intended as a teaser for the second part; the box-office failure of Days of Being Wild precluded a sequel and delayed its stateside release for years, though its lack of dramatic closure now seems almost appropriate. As critic Tony Rayns has noted, it’s “the first film to rhyme nostalgia for a half-imaginary past with future shock.” —Jonathan Rosenbaum  v