To Rome With Love (2012)

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The kid’s a communist, the father’s a mortician. Does the mother run a leper colony?  Four tales unfold in the Eternal City. Architect John (Alec Baldwin) encounters American architecture student Jack (Jess Eisenberg) living in Rome with girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and whose romantic woes remind him of a painful incident from his own youth; retired opera director and classical music recording executive Jerry (Woody Allen) discovers that his daughter Hayley’s (Alison Pill) future father-in-law is a mortician with an amazing voice, and he seizes the opportunity to rejuvenate his own flagging career; a young couple Antonio and Milly (Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi) have separate romantic interludes; a spotlight shines on an ordinary office clerk (Roberto Benigni) who becomes a celebrity overnight, hounded by TV journalists and paparazzi… Another Woody Allen film shot in Yerp that seemed like much less than the sum of its parts at the time but has worn well and is a mature entertainment, modelled on the portmanteau films made by a lot of Italian auteurs in the early Sixties. When I first saw this I thought it took a great deal of imagination to cast puddingy little Ellen Page as the voracious bisexual femme fatale wooing Eisenberg but obviously someone had the inside track. Baldwin is good as the man musing on his own foibles and the integration of his character as Jack’s invisible friend is nicely achieved. Allen is very funny as the man who has to get a shower on stage at the Opera so that the mortician will reach his peak performance and while we might wince at Penelope Cruz being cast as a prostitute entering the wrong hotel room and embarrassing a young man about to meet the in-laws, it’s actually a lot of fun – as is his fiancée’s own pre-marital adventure. Benigni’s overnight fame is a nod to Allen’s earlier Celebrity albeit with more humanity.  It’s nicely played by a really interesting ensemble – the incredible Ornella Muti shows up as famous Italian actress Pia Fusari in Milly’s story! – and like all of Allen’s lighter work it just gets better with each viewing, Darius Khondji’s mellow cinematography bathing us all in Roman light. Allen originally called this Bop Decameron but nobody got it …

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Marathon Man (1976)

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How am I to fathom your mind if you continue to hide it from me?  Thomas ‘Babe’ Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is a Columbia graduate student and long-distance runner who has just enrolled in a doctoral seminar with Prof. Biesenthal (Fritz Weaver) where his focus will be the fate of his father a fellow historian driven to suicide in the McCarthy era purely on the grounds of his Judaism.  He is oblivious to the fact that his older brother, Doc (Roy Scheider), is not in fact an oil executive but a government agent chasing down a Nazi war criminal Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) and who is almost murdered by a blue-eyed Asian hitman in a Paris hotel. Doc visits Babe in NYC and meets his girlfriend the allegedly Swiss Elsa Opel (Marthe Keller) whom he figures out immediately as one of Szell’s couriers. Babe doesn’t believe there’s a bad bone in her body.  Doc is murdered and his colleague Janeway (William Devane) tells Babe the muggers who ambushed him in Central Park are Szell’s henchmen but they won’t come for him tonight – but they do, and Babe is held at the end of Szell’s dentist’s drill constantly being asked Is it safe?  He is caught in the middle of a transaction being expedited by The Division who clean up matters arising from disagreements between Washington and the CIA ...  Director John Schlesinger reunited with his Midnight Cowboy star Hoffman to make this iconic paranoid thriller adaptation by William Goldman of his 1974 novel which invokes all sorts of historic nightmares not to mention the fear of unnecessary dental surgery. For a liberal pacifist you have some sense of vengeance Doc tells Babe when he realises he still has the gun their father used to blow his brains out. The last time I saw this was in the middle of another sleepless night during a three-month bout of glandular fever and the words Is it safe? made it impossible for me to recover, for, oh, probably another month at that point. There might be plotholes you could drive a truck through that not even Robert Towne’s putative and uncredited rewrite fixed but even fully conscious and in broad daylight it remains a transfixing piece of work whose echoes are still felt. The schematic structure is emblematic of a film whose many well-constructed sequences take place in famous locations – Columbia, Central Park, the diamond district, where Szell is recognised by two of his victims. Szell! Der Weisse Engel! shrieks a camp survivor as the old Nazi is ironically forced to get a price for his diamonds from the very race he tortured and executed with extreme prejudice thirty years earlier. The entire text is replete with such irony, expressed by Janeway in the line Everything we do cuts both ways after he supposedly rescues Babe only to deliver him back to the Nazi. The dialogue is biting and great:  I believe in my country/So did we all. Michael Small’s score is superb with a real feel for the emotive fraternal and familial issues underlying the narrative action whose logic turns on the notion of history itself and the versions of truth which we tell ourselves and in turn are told to keep us happy.  He did much the same job on The Parallax View, another paranoid conspiracy thriller whose similarly allusive style (and on which Towne also did some controversial rewrite work during a writers’ strike) makes it the best political film of its time. It looks incredible, thanks to Conrad Hall. Oh the Seventies really had great films. Nowadays they’d probably give Szell a sympathetic backstory. Not so much in real life for Keller whose father actually was a Nazi. History is all around us in this persistent, resonant film. Pauline Kael called it a Jewish revenge fantasy. Goy veh.

Second Chorus (1940)

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I said ‘music,’ and Father said ‘bottlecaps.’ Father won. Two New England college music students Danny O’Neill (Fred Astaire) and Hank Taylor (Burgess Meredith) repeatedly fail their exams so that they can stay in college and play in their band, O’Neill’s Perennials. They change their attitude, however, when they meet Ellen Miller (Paulette Goddard) who agrees to be their manager and both attempt to woo her as a way of eventually getting a job in Artie Shaw’s band but Shaw woos Ellen to be his secretary and the guys fail their auditions. Ellen tries to persuade millionaire J. Lester Chisholm (Charles Butterworth) a wannabe mandolin player to fund a concert which will debut Danny’s song but the guys get in the way and muck it up by pretending to be married to her.  To get things back on track they have to keep this eccentric backer Chisholm from forcing Shaw to have him play at their gig … Astaire and Meredith are the oldest students in movies and if that’s a silly premise in itself (albeit I knew someone who failed for twenty years to avail of a family bequest which lasted as long as he stayed in college) and this occasionally veers on the puerile (even for B-movie standards) it’s still hard to dislike.  Astaire’s masquerade as a Russian refugee performing his nation’s songs is funny and at some point the film has to incorporate his dancing expertise – which it does as he conducts his own composition in the concluding concert number with aplomb and a little tap. Butterworth is drolly amusing. Goddard is luminously beautiful, as you’d expect and acquits herself well in a murderous dance sequence (I Ain’t Hep to that Step But I’ll Dig It) with Astaire but clarinet supremo and band leader Shaw is no thesp. Dig that swing, though! Billy Butterfield dubbed Meredith’s trumpet solo while Bobby Hackett played for Astaire. Musos will recognise several numbers. Frank Cavett wrote the story while the screenplay is by Elaine Ryan and Ian McLellan Hunter with uncredited contributions by songwriter Johnnny Mercer and Ben Hecht. That’s quite the band. Directed by H.C. Potter.

 

Blind (2017)

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We’re all just trying to get home I suppose. Suzanne Dutchman (Demi Moore) seems to be a happily married trophy wife. Her husband Mark (Dylan McDermott) is a wolf of Wall Street. At a dinner party Mark speaks to his client Howard (James McCaffrey) who is then caught by an undercover female agent for using and dealing cocaine and does a deal for immunity in exchange for information on Mark’s insider dealing. Mark is then arrested and Suzanne is facing charges and she is sentenced to 100 hours of community service.  She begins reading for visually impaired Bill Oakland (Alec Baldwin) a famous one-hit-wonder author and now a writing professor who is guilt-ridden over his wife’s death in the car crash that blinded him.  They take an instant dislike to each other. But she can’t leave and he needs someone to read his student’s work to him. During her time with Bill, Suzanne develops feelings for him and also finds out about her husband’s affair which leans her towards Bill even more… This is carried mostly by star power by three very likeable performes – although McDermott’s violence is foreshadowed in his presentation of a diamond necklace to his wife in the first scene, as though he’s imprisoning her. We understand the title isn’t just about Oakland, it also serves as a metaphor for Suzanne’s entrapment, blind to her husband’s flaws – and they become very problematic indeed. Her massive wedding ring also signifies the situation – writ large in the first scene with Oakland. Her arrival supplants volunteer Gavin (Steven Prescod) who is really a superfan looking to get into Oakland’s writing class – but even when he takes the job of houseboy he takes advantage and makes off with Oakland’s unfinished second novel. This is really a story about writer’s block, and then some. It has some lovely visuals and interactions but lags a bit in pacing. Still, it’s nice to see these actors who don’t get in front of the cameras enough, as far as I’m concerned. Based on a story by Diane Fisher, this was adapted by John Buffalo Mailer (who also acts here) and directed by Michael Mailer, sons of that very pugnacious writer, Norman.

 

The Red Shoes (1948)

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– Why do you want to dance? – Why do you want to live? Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is a ballerina torn between her dedication to dance and her desire to love. Her autocratic, imperious mentor (and ‘attractive brute’) Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who has his own ballet company, urges to her to forget anything but ballet. When his star retires he turns to Vicky. Vicky falls for a charming young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who Lermontov has taken under his wing. He creates The Red Shoes ballet for the impresario and Vicky is to dance the lead. Eventually Vicky, under great emotional stress, must choose to pursue either her art or her romance, a decision that carries deadly consequences… The dancer’s film – or the film that makes you want to dance. An extraordinary interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, this sadomasochistic tribute to ballet and the nutcases who populate the performing universe at unspeakable cost to themselves and those around them is a classic. A magnificent achievement in British cinema and the coming of age of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger partnership, it is distinguished by its sheerly beautiful Technicolor cinematography by the masterful Jack Cardiff. It also boasts key performances by dancers Robert Helpmann, Ludmila Tcherina and Leonide Massine with a wordless walk-on by Marie Rambert. The delectable pastiche score is by Brian Easdale. Swoony and unforgettable, this is a gloriously nutty film about composers, musicians, performers, dancers and the obsessive creative drive – to death. Said to be inspired by the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, this was co-written by Powell and Pressburger with additional dialogue by Keith Winter. It was a huge hit despite Rank’s mealy-mouthed ad campaign and in its initial two-year run in the US at just one theatre it made over 2 million dollars.

 

Why Him? (2016)

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Her spine meets the arch of her tailbone and I want to pitch a tent and live in there. Tech millionaire Laird Mayhew (James Franco) introduces himself to the print-business owner father Ned (Bryan Cranston) of his Stanford student girlfriend Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) by flashing him over Skype on the older man’s 55th birthday. Invited to celebrate Christmas in California Stephanie takes her family to her boyfriend’s modernist mansion where the tattooed ignoramous bro hugs everyone, says everything that is inappropriate (likes Mom Megan Mullally rather overtly, charms little brother Griffin Gluck) and introduces Ned to a newly constructed bowling alley decorated with his image. He is just too much. And as for his assistant Gustav (Keegan-Michael Key) who does a Cato/Clouseau act with Laird which neither recognises when Ned understands the obvious reference… But when Laird asks Ned for his blessing in marriage to Stephanie he oversteps horrifically and it doesn’t end there … From a story by Jonah Hill, this was co-written by Ian Helfer and director John Hamburg and works both as (actual) lavatory humour (a huge plot point) and Silicon Valley satire (listen to what the poor intern says) while overtly reworking the story of Father of the Bride as it negotiates the problems a dad might have with a boor screwing his daughter on a table while he’s hiding underneath Get past the foul-mouthed quasi-autistic socially awkward techno savant fatherless antagonist and enjoy Cranston’s facial expressions which were made for just such a hellish but amusing meeting of bizarrely attuned minds in this generational bromance clash where it would appear both men are hiding problems with the state of their very different businesses. Mullally gets a chance to do what she does best too while you might recognise Zack Pearlman, Adam Devine and Andrew Rannells from The Intern which makes this rather meta. Definitely for fans of the band Kiss! (And Elon Musk…) A Christmas movie with a difference.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

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Alright alright alright. School’s out in 1976 and it’s time for the incoming freshmen from junior high to get hazed by the seniors. There’s a lot of riding around, talking, smoking, and there’s a party later on tonight before someone gets it together to score those Aerosmith tickets everybody wants. There’s little mention of politics, just a throwaway about the Warren Commission. Family Plot is playing at the cinema. Everyone’s concerned about their social standing and who’s getting with who and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and his friends are determined to get their own back on bully O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) after a vicious paddling. Richard Linklater’s richly nostalgic slice of life take on a day in the life of average high schoolers is so laidback you’d think it wasn’t written or constructed or performed or directed – and it’s all shot and lit very nicely by Lee Daniel. Relax. Watch. Sublime.

Breaking Away (1979)

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– My dad told me Jesus never went more than fifty miles from home. – Look what happened to him! Dave (Dennis Christopher) and his high school friends are doing nothing for the summer other than getting fired from the A&P.  Mike (Dennis Quaid) is the former quarter back hero with no future, Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is in love with his cashier girlfriend and waiting for the family home to sell so he can get out, and Cyril (Daniel Stern) hates his father. Nobody wants to go to college even though they’re living right on the edge of Bloomington campus. To the college kids they’re known as Cutters – working class kids destined for the quarries where they go swimming and laze around on summer days. Dave is obsessed with the Cinzano cycling team and his entire world revolves around cycle practice and Italy – he calls his father (Paul Dooley) Papa, christens his cat Fellini and his mother (Barbara Barrie) succumbs to his love of both opera and Italian food. Then he falls for college girl Catherine (Robyn Douglass) who’s dating hottie Hart Bochner and their rivalry ends up with an accident in the quarry and a fight in the cafeteria bringing Mike’s policeman brother into the fray. The Cinzano team arrives and Dave has to beg Papa for time off at his used car lot to participate in a race with them one weekend but the Italians cheat and Dave is shattered. Together with the Cutters he pulls himself together to enter an endurance race and he falls off the bike … Steve Tesich’s marvellous screenplay was based on a classmate at college so it’s a quasi-biographical piece as well as being a smart film about families, friendship and the issues boys face when they graduate high school and have no plans. It’s a beautiful, delicate, funny coming of age tale treated with the care that it requires by director Peter Yates and cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this and it gives me that warm fuzzy feeling that it did the first time round – a lot of the genius lies in pitch perfect performances with a cast that now rings of future stardom. Christopher (who is half-Italian) won a BAFTA for this and he would go on to star in cult entry Fade to Black but never attained the heights of Quaid in the Eighties and Nineties; Stern worked with Woody Allen and Haley made a comeback in the Noughties after becoming a director of commercials. Dooley and Barrie are fantastic as Dave’s bemused parents – his father’s working class aspirations are opposed by his mother’s fanciful thoughts and when Dave woos Catherine by singing an aria on campus it’s parallel cut with his mom doing exactly the same with a recording over a romantic dinner with Papa. Dooley’s realisation that his son is hurting when he finds out people cheat is brilliantly played:  they had already played father and son in Altman’s The Wedding. And the friends who have to face reality but give it their all when the chips are down – well, everyone wants friends like that. Gentle and tough, inspiring, funny and uplifting, with an ending to make the hardest heart happy, this is just cherishable. I thought we were going to waste the rest of our lives together.  I love love love it.

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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This isn’t an experiment!  This is real! That’s what Prisoner 8612 (Ezra Miller) declares one hour into this dramatisation of psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s controversial 1971 study (or demonstration?) of perceived power and authority, paying self-selecting students to participate in a two-week faked prison on the grounds of the University. He leaves and is swiftly followed by Prisoner 819 (Tye Sheridan). They know their rights even if the guards, aping the mirror-shaded Southern-accented sadists from Cool Hand Luke,  led by Michael Angarano, are getting deeper into character and don’t care. The other fools stay to be preyed upon.  These are not prisoners. They are not subjects. They are not students. They are boys. Zimbardo’s girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) arrives to participate on the parole board and watching the ‘prisoners’ make no attempt to just leave this horrifying situation she tells Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) what is going on is truly disturbing. But he is on a power trip himself and it isn’t until he finally observes the degree of abuse and destruction while left alone watching it unfold on the surveillance cameras that he finally calls a halt just 6 days in. This won’t tell you anything new about human behaviour. The faux interviews (based on the original recordings) at the end won’t clarify anything except that people seem to slide into preordained institutional roles and succumb to punishment which is dealt them entirely arbitarily by alleged superiors. And everyone’s kinda surprised that other people would treat them like dogs. But nobody got harmed during the making of this ego trip for a University professor. Go figure. Reality’s a bitch. Just! Say! No!  Or beat them up right back. Adapted by Tim Talbott from Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez.