Friday, April 28, 2017

Annie Hall on its 40th Birthday

In what will be news to no one, Woody Allen’s Oscar winner Annie Hall is an absolutely marvelous motion picture. This classic tale of neurotic love in gritty Gotham remains a witty and vital entertainment, not aging a day since its initial release in 1977. The film, despite a thick stew of European influences, stands as an icon of the Great American Romantic Comedy and indeed both enlarges and transcends the genre’s conventions.

Annie Hall was originally conceived as a rather dark murder mystery with a minor comedic subplot, directed by Allen under the full imitative sway of the European auteurs he so admired. As Editor Ralph Rosenblum recounted in his superb book When The Shooting Stops, the Cutting Begins,  Allen’s footage consisted of such a chaotic clash of styles a coherent assembly was impossible. By retooling the script with co-writer Marshall Brickman, Allen was able to pare down his sprawling narrative to a relatively simple romance, told in a highly inventive way.

Within Annie Hall’s hilarious sight gags and slicing witticisms, viewers will note distinct flourishes of Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut. But Allen himself was becoming a more confident and assured filmmaker, no longer relying solely on his nebbish persona for laughs. Annie Hall was the first Allen film set squarely within his personal world: the excitingly grungy Manhattan of the 1970s, when the city was still a funky ethnic and economic smelter rife with avant-garde and dangerous possibilities, and not the glossy haven for well-heeled tourists it is today.

Simply put, Annie Hall is about the ill-fated relationship between a successful stand-up comic named Alvy Singer (Allen) and the title character, a charmingly scatterbrained Wisconsin-bred singer and actress (Diane Keaton). They meet through mutual friends one day at a tennis court, and a tender, if somewhat erratic, romance evolves. Over the course of the film the couple will endure all the transitions - both joyous and agonizing - that imperfect love typically inflicts on its victims.

Along the way, Allen and Keaton generate moments of hilarity laced with melancholy. But the film’s poignancy is counterbalanced by perfectly timed insertions of comic abstractions left over from Allen’s original, darker vision. In a scene that looks like a discard from Fellini’s Amarcord, viewers meet a few of Allen’s grammar school classmates. Through direct address, these innocent youngsters reveal their adult fates; an array that includes heroin addiction and kinky fetishes. In a famous segment that only gets funnier with repeat viewing, Allen produces renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan for a classic beatdown of an overbearing film critic. But these blackouts are more than mere comedic cutaways; they cleverly enhance exposition and momentum. Allen’s hilarious encounter with two unibrow Mafioso types outside a movie theater establishes his characters’ fame and success, while the scene’s coda – Keaton’s late arrival from psychotherapy – adds a frothy layer of fashionable neurosis. Profound insights are delivered with economy and brutal efficiency. A magical scene with Keaton involving a runaway lobster is reprised with Alvy’s new girlfriend (Wendy Girard), with heartbreakingly different results, while young Jeff Goldblum, with one line of dialogue, perfectly sums up L.A. in the 70s.

Through caustic wit and stinging observations, Annie Hall delivers a perfect snapshot of 1970s America; a time when leisurely navel gazing and wacky self-help regimens determined a pampered generation’s cultural legacy. It also offers a frozen-in-time capture of an assortment of extraordinary talents at their creative peaks. While Allen, Keaton, Rosenblum and cameraman Gordon Willis would all go on to make many more films, their brilliant collaboration on this production has never be exceeded. The intervening 40 years have not diminished Annie Hall’s sparkle, but given its sharply-hewn facets and fanciful dimensions deeper beauty and value. And we are all the richer for it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

12 Angry Men on its 60th Birthday

12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s tension laced set piece from 1957, is the story of a lone juror (Henry Fonda) who seeks to impede a jury’s rush to judgment in a capital murder case. 12 Angry Men is a drama that grows organically from tiny seeds; seeds that 90 minutes later produce a harvest of shameful revelations. Through clever and telling details, Reginald Rose’s script strips away his characters’ thin veneer of civilization and exposes the racism and class warfare that lies beneath. With the fate of an accused murderer in the balance, each juror is forced to look into the dark mists of his own soul and ultimately issue a verdict; not just in this case but on the whole of humanity.

The physicality of the production couldn't be simpler - twelve jurors sequestered at a conference table trying to reach a unanimous verdict – but that simplicity is deceptive. Through meticulous blocking and skillful performances, the scope of the story far exceeds its spatial confinements, and creates a dramatic web that encompasses the social spectrum. Through an impeccable ensemble cast, Lumet and Rose explore the dynamics of that spectrum: the entrenched dogma of the extreme contrasted with malleable souls who simply go along for the ride. The script inverts its own logic and sets forth a series of seemingly impossible hurdles, all of which are overcome by one man who refuses to submit to intellectual laziness. Lumet’s frames grow increasingly tighter, eventually isolating each juror as his preconceptions and prejudices are swept aside. Soon, all each man has left is his own self interested acceptance or denial; the intellectually honest concede their errors, while the ideologues battle on with bilious spite. But the tides of change are irresistible, and even the most deep-seated hatreds are powerless against them; a lesson we all need to remember in these troubled times.

12 Angry Men is an actor’s picture in the truest sense, its unrelenting pressure dependent on timing and technique. Here, established stars like Henry Fonda and Ed Begley freely mingle with relative unknowns who would go on to long careers in television and film. Over the course of the film, each actor is given his moment to shine, and in vignettes great and small there are no awkward or fumbled moments. Fonda, as thoughtful, empathetic Juror 8, acts as the film’s navigational moral compass; his intellectual cool providing a counterpoint that both infuriates and impresses his fellow deliberants. His polar opposite, Lee J. Cobb, delivers a pitch dark rendering as an authority-worshiper who can’t wait to slip the noose on the young Hispanic defendant; his thirst for vengeance driven more by personal failures than any desire for justice. The great Jack Warden adds another winning performance to his portfolio of regular guy slobs while Robert Webber, as a slick adman, provides the film’s scant comic relief. In a superb sequence, E.G. Marshall’s self-righteous stock broker has his Road to Damascus moment when he fails a memory test administered by Fonda, opening a floodgate of second guessing by his fellow jurors.

Any analysis of Sidney Lumet’s directorial style – and his extraordinarily successful 60 year career – starts with great respect for actors, as evidenced by the whole-cloth fashioning of 12 Angry Men’s nameless characters. Some dominate while others recede into the background, yet it’s clear each actor is working from a tightly defined backstory. Their biographies rarely come into play during the narrative, but each man’s history and place in the world form vital building blocks to character. Yet, Rose and Lumet build beyond types, and their jurors emerge as fully human and fully believable; each man a product of unseen experiences held deep in the soul. These hidden layers give 12 Angry Men its pervasive sense of simmering contempt and suppressed violence, and elevate the film into an American classic. It’s a bare knuckle fight to the finish, with the sharp daggers of intellect and decency as the weapons of choice.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Two of US Turns 50

Claude Berri’s The Two of Us is a charming and sentimental comedic drama set in occupied France during WWII. Here, a rambunctious Jewish kid from Paris (Alan Cohen) is sent to live out the war in the relative safety of the countryside near Lyon. With the Nazi occupation, Cohen’s parents have seen the writing on the wall. Life in Paris is consumed by tension and dread, and they would prefer their son spend his childhood chasing butterflies instead of fleeing bombs.

Young Cohen is placed in the care of an elderly couple (Michel Simon, Luce Fabiole) whose rough hewn, rural ways are quite the eye-opener for this city kid, giving the film plenty of humorous culture shock. While Parisians face the terrors of violence and death camp deportations, Cohen’s new village is chiefly concerned with head lice, and local kids are comically subjected to daily hair inspections.

But The Two of Us is really the story of the unlikely bond that develops between Cohen and Michel Simon as his foster grandfather named Pépé. Simon’s character is a gruff pensioner - a sort of Gallic Archie Bunker - who despises Englishmen, Jews and Russians, in that order. While Cohen keeps his origins a secret, he and Simon slowly overcome their 70 year age gulf as they provide each other with inspiration and a path to redemption. The crusty Pépé begins to see his own long-lost childhood in the boy and, in his dwindling days, embarks on a cheerful voyage of self discovery as he teaches young Cohen a few important life lessons.

The film is a tour de force - there is no other way to describe it - for Michel Simon, proving once again why he was considered acting royalty in France. His reading of Pépé remains lovable and bouyant despite a few crabby and ugly moods along the way. Simon starred in well over a hundred films throughout his long career, many of which have attained the stature of European classics. For director Claude Berri, The Two of Us was his first feature length film. A year earlier, he had won an Oscar for his short Le poulet (1965), and The Two of Us proved that his success was no fluke. Berri would also go on to a stellar career in the industry, scoring major international hits with Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring 20 years later.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Angel Heart Turns 30

Angel Heart is a darkly entertaining film that applies the Raymond Chandler hard-boiled detective template to a story steeped in mysticism. Within its smokey folds, a low-rent private eye (Mickey Rourke) will follow a trail of deception and murder from the hipster heights of Harlem to the sultry breezes of Louisiana in search of a missing Jazz singer. Along the way, the scruffy Rourke will encounter corrupt cops, Voodoo high priestesses and a few grisly sacrifices, both animal and human. But his greatest enemy will be his own cryptic history, and an ancient evil that ruthlessly seeks to exploit it.

Director Alan Parker and his favorite cinematographer Michael Seresin created an iconic visual language for the film, rich with dusky symbols and gloomy metaphors. It was a photographic style that appropriated, and was later appropriated by, popular music videos of the 1980s and 90s. Seresin’s dreamy images and Parker’s assured storytelling proved to be a winning combination, creating films that not only entertained, but told complex stories with clarity and charisma. As their combined filmography - which includes such popular titles as Midnight Express (1978), Fame (1980) and Angela’s Ashes (1999) - attests, Parker and Seresin were influential figures to a generation of filmmakers, and Angel Heart finds them at the top of their games.

Angel Heart also marked important milestones in the lives of its actors. Robert DeNiro, who plays Rourke’s mysterious employer Louis Cyphre, began to settle into middle-age with this performance, shifting away from the hyper-active, hyper-aggressive street punk persona that made him famous. For love interest Lisa Bonet, the film loudly announced that she had shed the adolescent larva of Denise Huxtable, and was now ready to be taken seriously in the full flower of womanhood.

And for Mickey Rourke, it was one of the last performances to fully capitalize on his distinct eccentricities. Despite a career as a dodgy tough guy, Rourke evoked a gentle, vulnerable quality often at odds with his cold-blooded characters. This trait enabled him to create fascinating portraits of thugs on the brink, only one nudge away from redemption, but ultimately undone by destiny. A few years after Angel Heart, Rourke would make a horribly wrong-headed choice to abandon acting for a career as a professional boxer. He endured so much punishment in the ring that his face had to be surgically rebuilt a number of times, costing him the tender, expressive quality that made him unique. Rourke now generally plays caricatures of his former self, with varying degrees of success. After watching his great work in Angel Heart, one can only wonder what might have been.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Young Girls of Rochefort Turns 50

Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort offers a distinctly French take on the Great American Musical. The film has delighted and enthralled audiences for half a century, and after a recent re-watch, I can attest the film has lost none of its groovy luster. From its miniskirts and go-go boots, to its candy colored set design, to its breezy Jazz score by Michel Legrand, the film epitomizes the brash, carefree cool of the 1960s. It’s rumored that Damien Chazelle studied the film obsessively while prepping for La La Land, and the 2016 Oscar nominee is heavily steeped in homage to Demy’s bouncy epic.

The film concerns a traveling musical show led by Etienne (George Chakiris) and Maxence (Jacques Perrin), who roll their convoy of equipment laden trucks into the town square for Rochefort’s annual Fete de la Mer. In between rehearsals, the guys roam Rochefort’s sleepy streets and get to know a few of the locals, including the mega-hottie Garnier twins (Catherine Deneuve and her real life sister Françoise Dorléac) who have a musical act and twinkly ambitions of their own. Along the way, there’s plenty of lively singing and dancing, with lavish production numbers and even a cameo from the great Gene Kelly as a visiting American songwriter.

After all these years, The Young Girls of Rochefort remains a feast for the senses, with colorful, eye popping spectacle and an assortment of catchy tunes choreographed to the nines. It also served as a launching pad for several long careers in the industry. Chakiris would relocate to Hollywood, where he would become a fixture of American television, appearing such shows as The Partridge Family and Dallas. Perrin would remain in Europe, but achieve international recognition for his pivotal role in the sentimental hit Cinema Paradisio (1988) and is still active today. Deneuve, of course, has gone on to iconic stature, even though she was more eye-candy than actress in those early days. Her sister was not so fortunate, however. A few months after shooting this film, Françoise Dorléac was killed in an auto accident on the beach road near Nice. Her tragic death stunned the French nation, but her spirit lives on in The Young Girls of Rochefort.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

La Collectionneuse Turns 50

La Collectionneuse is best viewed as a transitional work, and Rohmer’s first attempt at adapting his patented talky romance format to feature length. The two previous entries in the Moral Tales series, La Boulangère de Monceau and Suzanne’s Career, both produced in 1963, were B/W shorts, shot in Paris in a gritty, documentary style. La Collectionneuse was filmed in color by the great Nestor Almendros (who would go on to win an Oscar for Days of Heaven) and takes place in the rural south of France, in one of those stone farmhouses that make American tourists swoon.

A Parisian named Adrian (Patrick Bauchau), who has taken navel-gazing to an art form, has come to the villa for one of those interminable French holidays. He shares the house with his friend Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle) and a free-sprited – to put it mildy - young woman named Haydee (Haydee Politoff). Haydee’s vacation plans consist almost entirely of having sex with, well, everyone. Everyone except Adrian, that is.

In an interesting reversal of the usual sexual politics, it is Haydee who views sex as a series of one night conquests, and she ‘collects’ trysts with men  the way others collect stamps or rare coins. All of this throws the handsome, and quite spoiled, Adrian into a blasé sort of tizzy, as he finds himself unable to seduce the unselective Haydee, and his self esteem, which is basically his entire raison d’être, is mortally threatened.

Despite having a loyal fanbase, La Collectionneuse is not one of this reviewer’s favorite Rohmer films. There are issues with the casting – usually Rohmer’s strong suit – that prevent the film from fully capitalizing on its intriguing premise. Patrick Bachau (who has gone on to have a long and successful career, including the wonderful HBO series Carnivale) seems generally too ambivalent considering he's supposedly The Worlds Most Self Absorbed Man, and Haydee Politoff (who went on to do a couple of low budget vampire movies) simply isn't very interesting.

The slightly tomboy-ish ingénue is a Rohmer archetype, serving as the narrative lynchpin in much of his future work, and here, through Politoff’s shortcomings, we gain a deeper appreciation of the many times the director would get this character exactly right. Politoff was 20 years old when the film was made, but she photographs much younger, giving the film an accidental unattractive edge; it’s as if we’re watching the story of an older man obsessed with a bit of slutty jailbait. This is an idea Rohmer would explore with much more finesse a few years later in Clare’s Knee, and there he pulls it off thoughtfully and with a minimum of ickyness.

La Collectionneuse is a bumpy ride that will appeal mainly to hard-core Rohmer fans and completists. But we do get a peek at the evolution of the director’s unique brand of insightful humanism.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Seventh Seal Turns 60

Like a lot of great classics, The Seventh Seal is basically a road movie, with all the requisite digressions and diversions along its circuitous path. Set in the 14th Century, a knight named Antonius Block (a young, strapping Max Von Sydow) has returned to Sweden after 10 years of fighting in the Crusades accompanied by his faithful squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand). But instead of a hero’s welcome, Block finds a cold and barren land; its populace ravaged by the horrors of the plague. The only figure to greet him is the black-cloaked angel of death, who has come to add Block to his ever mounting toll. However, Block proposes a desperate gambit to forestall his demise. He and Death will play a game of chess, and as long as Block avoids checkmate, he will be allowed to live.

The Seventh Seal is a sort of Don Quixote in reverse. While Cervantes’ scruffy knight is filled with absurd illusions of grandeur, Antonius Block is a withered husk of disillusion. No longer believing in the lofty ideals that led him to the Holy Land, Block seeks not to destroy Christendom’s enemies, but to peacefully enjoy his few remaining days. He and Jöns befriend a ramshackle traveling theatrical troupe, and a lazy afternoon picnic of wild strawberries and fresh milk bring Block the only joy he has known for a decade. As the knight and his new friends continue their surreal trek, a tempest of biblical metaphors and a delayed date with destiny await them. While never far away, the grinning, hooded shadow of the Grim Reaper stands ready, his freshly sharpened scythe gleaming in
the moonlight.

For most of my youth, I was a simple country boy. I liked nothing better than trading baseball cards, stealing apples from the neighbor’s orchard, or fishin’ down at the creek with a bent pin. All that changed on a rainy afternoon in 1971, when a visionary high school English teacher - whose name has been lost to the fog of ancient memory - rolled the school’s clunky Bell and Howell projector into our classroom. He then laced up a tattered 16mm print of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, ostensibly as an illustration of the concept of symbolism. As the film ended and the classroom’s buzzing fluorescent lights harshly bloomed, I found that my life had been changed forever.

I’d never seen a movie like that before, with good and moral people openly questioning the existence of God - or at least wondering just what the hell He was up to - and grimly confronting their own mortality, without the hope of a rescuing cavalry charge from just beyond the hill. It profoundly changed me, and over the next few months I would completely lose interest in high school football - or any type of physical exertion, to be honest - prom dates and sporty cars. I would develop a passion for great art, great music and the exotic cultures of other lands. I would become one of those strange, introverted kids whose previously innocent mind now pondered the vast questions of existence for which there will never be satisfactory answers. I have Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to thank for that. On second thought, don’t watch this film. It will ruin your life.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My Guest Post at European Film Star Postcards Part 2

The second part of my guest post is up, detailing some of my favorite foreign films from 1960 to present. Again, many thanks to Bob from Holland for the opportunity. Check it out HERE.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

My Guest Post at European Film Star Postcards Part 1

Many thanks to Bob from Amsterdam for giving a chance to expound on some of my favorite films. You'll find part one HERE, which has my faves up to 1960. While you're over there, be sure to look through Bob's vast treasure trove of posts covering many aspects of film history. European Film Star Postcards is always fun and educational!

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Waiting for Guffman Turns 20

Waiting for Guffman is a hilarious ensemble comedy from the delightfully twisted mind of Christopher Guest. Filmed in his patented “mockumentary” style, the film satirizes and skewers a number of targets, including small town boosterism, amateur theatrical productions and the vainglorious nature of performers. However, as usual in Guest’s screenplays, underneath the laughs and absurdity are rock-hard kernels of truth that will have you gleefully nodding in recognition. Guest’s sardonic scenarios work because they drill down to humanity’s wobbly core of folly. He then takes that foolishness and turns it up to 11.

The film is all about the fictional small town of Blaine, Missouri, and a plan to celebrate the mundane burg’s 150th anniversary with a lavish musical. Guest plays a local hairdresser named Corky, recently returned after a brief stint as an actor in New York, who is hired to write and direct. The show, entitled “Red, White and Blaine,” presses local realtors, dentists and mechanics into service as singers and dancers with predictably hilarious results. All goes well until a theater critic from the New York Times agrees to attend the performance, giving Corky and his motley troupe twinkly - and totally delusional - dreams of stardom.

Over the years, Guest has developed a recurring roster of talented co-stars, and Waiting for Guffman  gives them plenty of room to shine. Local power couple Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara nail their audition with an uber-tacky version of “Midnight at the Oasis” that will have viewers rolling in the aisles. Eugene Levy is great as an orthodontist smitten with the stage, while Bob Balaban strikes perfect comedic notes as a staid high school band teacher frustrated with Corky’s erratic direction.

But it’s Guest who steals the show with his flamboyant hipster reading of Corky serving as a perfect foil to Blaine’s rustic dullards. Every small town has a character like Corky; an artistic type with dreams of escaping his backwater origins, but not quite enough talent to make the leap. The film also has a highly memorable and quotable moment when, after a disappointing meeting with the town council, Corky delivers one of the great lines of 1990’s cinema:

“I can’t put up with you people because…you’re…you’re…bastard people!”