Thursday, October 19, 2017

80 Years at the Races

Most Marx Brothers aficionados agree that 1937’s A Day at the Races was the last truly great film featuring the zany siblings. Produced by MGM wunderkind Irving Thalberg, who had recently signed the brothers to a lucrative multi-picture deal, A Day at the Races continued the box office winning streak begun in 1935 with the mega-hit A Night at the Opera. While A Day at the Races has never attained the lofty critical stature of its predecessor, the film offers its own unforgettable wit and side-splitting set pieces. With the Depression lingering on and war clouds building on the horizon, folks desperately needed a good laugh and this full immersion into the madness of Marx delivered in spades. 

In this outing, Groucho plays a dodgy veterinarian who gets a cushy job as a psychiatrist at a Florida health spa due to a case of mistaken identity. The bulk of the film is devoted to a variety of outlandish machinations employed by Groucho to keep his secret safe, with predictably hilarious results. Also, there are subplots in which a washed-up race horse redeems himself and an on-again, off-again romance between Groucho and the great - if oblivious - Margaret Dumont.

But as with all Marx Brothers films, any notion of plot is purely a platform for the brothers’ dazzling comedic talents. In what may be one of the funniest sequences ever filmed, Chico cons Groucho into buying a series of books at the racetrack. The timing and slow build of the scene are sheer perfection, and shows the brothers capable of much more than manic madcap. But there’s plenty of hysterical mayhem as well, especially when Groucho, Chico and Harpo attempt to examine Dumont under the watchful eye of a snooty Austrian doctor (Sig Ruman), basically destroying a laboratory in the process. There’s a lot of Groucho’s patented scathing wit as well, including this iconic Marxism as he takes a patient’s pulse: “Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.”

In my personal Marx pantheon, Duck Soup (1933) is ranked number one followed closely by A Day at the Races. For my money, it’s a better movie than A Night at the Opera, with funnier lines and smoother pacing. Unfortunately, the film has a few racist-tinged musical numbers with African-American performers, but sadly that’s where we were as a society 80 years ago. However you rate the films, A Day at the Races was the end of a line. During its production, Thalberg died suddenly at the age of 37 and no other producer at MGM had a clue how to capitalize on the unique Marx magic. The brothers made several more films for MGM, but they were uneven affairs and none approached the brilliance of their collaborations with Thalberg. Groucho and company left us a rich comedic legacy, but it could have been even greater.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Book Review: 300 Days of Sun: A Novel by Deborah Lawrenson

Deborah Lawrenson’s 300 Days of Sun: A Novel is a marvelous and mysterious sojourn at a crossroads in history. It tells the story of a young Englishwoman named Jo who has made her way to the wind swept cobblestones of Faro, Portugal. Seeking solace and refuge, she soon finds herself involved in a baffling web of intrigue; its enigmatic shadows deepened by the blinding Portuguese sun. Accompanied by a charming young man in search of his past, Jo is thrown into a vortex of fate, as crimes from decades ago finally face a long delayed justice.

Jo’s story is interspersed with the book’s novel-within-a-novel set during the depths of WWII. It features a harrowing account of the evacuation of Paris, and the lonely despair of refugees seeking passage to America. This clever device offers a vivid foundation for Jo’s current struggles, and adds context and occasional clues to its resolution. Lawrenson nurtures her plot from the fertile soil of classic detective fiction, with each new character and narrow escape adding to a seductive strata of suspense.

But 300 Days of Sun is more than a rattling good yarn. Its lush evocation of time and place stimulates the senses as well as the mind, and readers will find themselves transported to the ocean breezes of Portugal. At times, Lawrenson seems to craft her sentences from the delicate petals of richly scented flowers, creating a hypnotic atmosphere. In her world “clouds cluster like purple grapes” while police stations reverberate with “unsettling acoustics.” In another scene “The air was heavy with orange dust from the Sahara that fell like a sprinkling of paprika powder over the town’s white sills and ledges.”

Part romance, part thriller, part history lesson, 300 Days of Sun: A Novel will leave the reader entranced and wishing for more. It’s a sensualist adventure with an ever-present malevolent edge and by the time it’s over, you’ll be a little bit smarter and a lot more aware of life’s lovely but dangerous possibilities You’ll also be mightily impressed with Deborah Lawrenson, and her graceful ability to make the English language flow and shimmer.

 300 Days of Sun at Amazon

Friday, May 19, 2017

50 Years of Belle de Jour

Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967) was one of the esteemed director’s most accessible and successful films. Over the years it has attained the stature of a true art house classic, combining popular elements of the French New Wave with Buñuel’s own patented brand of stunning surrealism. It further cemented the reputation of Catherine Deneuve as an iconic beauty with acting chops to match, and enhanced Michel Piccoli’s status as France’s go-to leading man. It was also the zenith of the final stage of Buñuel’s long career, and his return to European filmmaking after a long, self-imposed exile in Mexico.

Belle de Jour is the story of Séverine (Deneuve), a young housewife who daydreams about a life filled with romance and erotic adventure. When that life is not delivered by her pragmatic, hardworking husband (Jean Sorel), Séverine begins a secret career as a prostitute at an upscale brothel in a chic Parisian neighborhood. Working afternoons only, she is careful to return home in time to greet her husband when he returns for the evening. Eventually the naive Séverine has her eyes, and legs, opened by a variety of men, some with bizarre, kinky fetishes and some simply lost souls seeking companionship. But when she becomes involved with a lovestruck, psychotic gangster (Pierre Clémenti), the true cost of her harmless hobby is thrown into sharp relief.

Despite its lofty historical status, Belle de Jour is a film that has not aged well. Its eroticism - innovative in 1967 - is surprisingly tame and untitillating by today’s standard. This is a least partially due to cinematographer Sacha Vierny’s harsh over-lighting, which gives every character three shadows. Buñuel’s typical melding of reality and dreams is an important element of Belle de Jour, and while it may have been unique 50 years ago, it’s the kind of thing that’s been done to death in the years hence. Still, Belle de Jour was a significant step in the sexual liberation of mainstream cinema, and blazed a trail for the more explicit and complex films that followed. It should be viewed as an essential artifact of film history, dealing with long suppressed themes ripe for revolution.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Field Guide to Cannes 2017: Films in Competition

The 70th edition of The Cannes Film Festival begins May 17th. Below is our annual look at the films in competition for the Palme d'Or.

The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola

The adaptation of Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel stars Colin Farrell as a Union soldier who charms his way into a Confederate girls boarding school. Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Nicole Kidman are also among the cast.

120 Battements par Minute

Robin Campillo

The French-language drama, set in Paris in the early 1990s, follows a group of young activists who is desperately tied to finding the cure against an unknown lethal disease. They target the pharmaceutical labs that are retaining potential cures, and multiply direct actions, with the hope of saving their lives as well as the ones of future generations.

The Day After

Hong Sang-soo
South Korea

The Korean-language title stars Min-hee Kim and Hae-hyo Kwon. Areum is preparing to start his first day of work in a small publishing house. Bongwan, his boss, had a romantic relationship with the woman Areum replaced. Their connection has just ended.

A Gentle Creature

Sergey Loznitsa

The Ukrainian director's Russian-language narrative is inspired by Dostoyevsky’s short story about a woman who receives a parcel she sent to her incarcerated husband, marked ‘return to sender.' Shocked and confused, she travels to the remote prison on a blind quest for justice.

Good Time

Benny and Josh Safdie

Barkhad Abdi, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Robert Pattinson star in the Safdie Brothers' crime drama about a bank robber finds himself unable to evade those who are looking for him.

Happy End

Michael Haneke

Isabelle Huppert stars in the French-language drama about a family set in Calais with the European refugee crisis as the backdrop.

In the Fade

Fatih Akin

Diane Kruger stars in her first German-language feature. Katja sees her life suddenly implode when her husband and son are killed in a bomb attack. Her friends and family are unable to give her the support she needs, but Katja somehow manages to keep going through the funeral and formalities as well as the search for the perpetrators.

L'Amant Double

Francois Ozon

Jacqueline Bisset stars in the French-language film alongside Marine Vacth and Jeremie Renier. Chloé, a fragile young woman, falls in love with her psychoanalyst, Paul. A few months later she moves in with him, but soon discovers that her lover is concealing a part of his identity.

Jupiter's Moon

Kornel Mundruczo

The latest from the filmmaker behind 2014's Un Certain Regard winner White God is a refugee drama about a young immigrant shot while illegally crossing the border into Hungary. Terrified and in shock, the wounded man finds he can now mysteriously levitate at will.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Yorgos Lanthimos

Colin Farrell reunites with the helmer of The Lobster alongside Nicole Kidman, Alicia Silverstone and Bill Camp. The psychological revenge thriller sees Farrell is on board as a successful surgeon who attempts to integrate a teenager into his family, but when the teen’s actions grow increasingly sinister, the doctor is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice. 


Andrei Zvyagintsev

The Russian director of 2014's Leviathan helms the drama centering on a couple who, while going through a divorce, must team up to find their son who has disappeared during one of their bitter arguments. Oleg Negin wrote the script.

The Meyerowitz Stories

Noah Baumbach

Starring Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, Grace Van Patten and Emma Thompson, the intergenerational tale follows adult siblings as they contend with the influence of their aging father, played by Dustin Hoffman. 


Bong Joon-Ho

The sci-fi fantasy film from the director of Snowpiercer centers on a girl who risks everything to prevent a company from capturing her friend, a massive hairy beast. Korea’s Ahn Seo-hyun stars alongside Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Lily Collins and Paul Dano. 


Naomi Kawase

Also starring Masatoshi Nagase, the Japanese-language drama centers on Misako, a passionate writer of film voiceovers for the visually impaired, who meets Masaya, an older photographer who is slowly losing his eyesight. Together, they learn to see the radiant world that was previously invisible to her eyes.


Michel Hazanavicius

The biopic-romance from the director of The Artist stars Louis Garrel as French film director Jean-Luc Godard who falls in love with 17-year old actress Anne Wiazemsky (Stacy Martin) while shooting a movie.


Jacques Doillon

Vincent Lindon portrays the revolutionary French sculptor Auguste Rodin in the biopic, which is framed around his tumultuous relationships with fellow sculptor Camille Claudel (Izia Higelin) and with his lifelong partner Rose Beuret (Severine Caneele).

The Square

Ruben Ostlund

The Square is set in a renowned museum where an artist exhibits an installation meant to promote altruism, providing people with a symbolic space where only good things can happen.


Todd Haynes

Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams star in the adaptation of Brian Selznick's book, in which the story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from fifty years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay

Joaquin Phoenix and Alessandro Nivola star in the adaptation of Jonathan Ames' novel, which tells how a war veteran's attempt to save a young girl from a sex trafficking ring goes horribly wrong. Lynne Ramsay, who helmed We Need to Talk About Kevin, directs from her own script.

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.

80 Years at the Races

Most Marx Brothers aficionados agree that 1937’s A Day at the Races was the last truly great film featuring the zany siblings. Produced by ...