Tag Archives: Woody Allen

Film on TV: June 8-14

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Singin’ in the Rain, playing Tuesday, June 9th at 12:30am on TCM

This week, TCM continues their celebration of great directors with Stanley Donen, Fred Zinnemann, Preston Sturges, Akira Kurosawa, Woody Allen, Billy Wilder, and Howard Hawks. They also seem to be doing director mini-marathons for John Huston, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, and Val Lewton/Jacques Tourneur, though they aren’t officially in the Great Director series. Whether they should be or not is definitely arguable. And IFC and Sundance have a few gems to throw in, as well.

Monday, June 8

12:45pm – IFC – Howl’s Moving Castle
Hayao Miyazaki has been a leader in the world of kid-friendly anime films for several years now, and while many would point to Spirited Away as his best film, I actually enjoyed Howl’s Moving Castle the most of all his films. Japanese animation takes some getting used to, but Miyazaki’s films are well worth it, and serve as a wonderful antidote to the current stagnation going on in American animation (always excepting Pixar).

6:15pm – TCM – The Big Heat
Director Fritz Lang came out of the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s, so it’s not surprising that he ended up making some of the better noir films, given film noir’s borrowing of Expressionist style. Glenn Ford is a cop working against his corrupt department, but the parts you’ll remember from the film all belong to Gloria Grahame in a supporting role as a beaten-up gangster’s moll. Her performance and Lang’s attention to detail raise the otherwise average story to a new level.

Great Directors on TCM: Stanley Donen
Stanley Donen shone at directing flashy musicals and mod comedies throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The films he co-directed with Gene Kelly (On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain, see below) stand among the best musicals ever made, and his later films like Charade and Arabesque merged Hitchcockian thrills with 1960s comic panache in a way that no-one else really matched.

9:00pm – TCM – On the Town
Sailors on leave Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin hit New York City, spending the day sightseeing and searching for Kelly’s dream girl Vera-Ellen, meanwhile picking up Betty Garrett and Ann Miller for the other boys. Not much plot here, but enough to precipitate some of the best song and dance numbers on film. Also one of the first musicals shot on location. Must See

9:45pm – IFC – Far From Heaven
Director Todd Haynes homages 1950s melodrama king Douglas Sirk with this film, loosely based on Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. I don’t think he succeeded as well as he might’ve (Sirk’s sort of in a class by himself), but he and lead Julianne Moore make a darn good attempt. Moore plays a 1950s housewife, trapped in her marriage to a man struggling with his own sexual identity (Dennis Quaid), and slowly falling into an affair with her black gardener (Dennis Haysbert).
(repeats at 3:30am)

10:45pm – TCM – Royal Wedding
This isn’t one of the all-time great Fred Astaire musicals, but it’s quite charming in its small way, and has the distinction of including the Fred’s “dancing on the ceiling” extravaganza, as well as a few surprisingly competent dance numbers from Fred and not-dancer Jane Powell. Oh, and Fred’s love interest is Sarah Churchill, Winston Churchill’s daughter, which is interesting (Powell plays his sister).

12:30am (9th) – TCM – Singin’ in the Rain
After On the Town, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly teamed up for what is now usually considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. Inspired by songs written by MGM producer Arthur Freed at the beginning the sound era, Singin’ in the Rain takes that seismic shift in film history for its setting, focusing on heartthrob screen couple Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (the hilarious Jean Hagen) as the transition into sound – problem being that Lamont’s voice, like many actual silent screen stars, doesn’t fit her onscreen persona. Hollywood’s often best when it turns on its own foibles, and this is no exception. Must See

2:30am (9th) – TCM – Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
What do you do when you’re seven brothers in the backwoods and need wives? Why, go kidnap them of course! Patriarchal values aside, Seven Brides is one of the most entertaining movie musicals ever made, and I defy anyone to outdo the barn dance/raising scene.

Tuesday, June 9

6:00am – TCM – I Know Where I’m Going!
This is one of those little films that doesn’t get much press and is very quiet and unassuming, but once you watch it you won’t easily forget it. Wendy Hiller is a confident young woman who knows exactly what she wants and where she’s going – that is, to meet her wealthy fiance and marry him on one of the Scottish Hebrides. But when a storm strands her on the way, she finds herself thrown off-course in more ways than one. There’s nothing wasted here, and I Know Where I’m Going! stands as one of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s crowning achievements, even if it’s not as well-known as Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes.

1:00pm – TCM – A Matter of Life and Death
An RAP pilot bails out of his crashing plane and survives, even though he was meant to die, due to a mix-up in heaven. He’s granted the chance to plead his case for life in a heavenly trial in Powell & Pressburger’s fantasy drama. I haven’t seen this one, but I have friends who place it among their all-time favorites, so I’m looking forward to it.

5:15pm – TCM – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
Another Powell & Pressburger film I haven’t seen, this one follows an idealistic army colonel from the Boer War through WWII, focusing on his romantic pursuits as well as the changes in military strategy and notions of honor. I find WWI films interesting for the juxtaposition of modern warfare with 19th century nobility, and looks like this will draw on that. Plus, really young Deborah Kerr.

6:05pm – IFC – Stage Beauty
Sometime around Shakespeare’s time, theatrical convention changed from having all female parts played by males on stage to allowing women to perform female roles themselves. Caught in this shift were the effeminate men who had made their careers and indeed, their identities, out of playing women. Stage Beauty is about one such man and his crisis of self when he no longer had a professional or personal identity. It’s a fascinating film in many ways.

Great Directors on TCM: Fred Zinnemann
I don’t tend to think of Fred Zinnemann when I think of great directors, and I’m sure that’s influenced by my auteurist outlook. Yet I do quite like several of the films he’s directed, such as the ones below.

8:00pm – TCM – High Noon
An Oscar-winning performance by Gary Cooper and an early role for Grace Kelly in Fred Zinnemann’s classic cowboy showdown drama. Follow it up with Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, something of a response to High Noon, which Hawks disliked.

9:30pm – TCM – Oklahoma!
I can’t begin to guess how many times I watched Oklahoma! growing up, but it’s well into double-digits. It’s a nothing story, about minor conflicts between farmers and cowboys, a couple of young lovers, and the obsessive farmhand who wants the girl for himself. It’s the way the music and dancing is integrated that’s wonderful (and groundbreaking in the 1943 play the film is based on). It’s worthwhile just for the surreal dream ballet in the middle.

12:00M – TCM – From Here to Eternity
There’s the famous part, yes, where Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr make love on the beach among the crashing waves. But there’s also a solid ensemble war tale, involving young officer Montgomery Clift and his naive wife Donna Reed, and embittered soldiers Frank Sinatra and Lee J. Cobb.

Wednesday, June 10

6:00am – TCM – Kiss Me Kate
It’s hard to improve Shakespeare, but it usually works best to place his stories and words in a new context. Kiss Me Kate does just that by coupling a musical version of Taming of the Shrew with a backstage story that mirrors Shrew‘s fighting protagonists. Great supporting work from Ann Miller, James Whitmore, Keenan Wynn, etc. helps out leads Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson considerably, as do Cole Porter’s songs.

7:00am – Sundance – Nights of Cabiria
Nights of Cabiria and La Strada, two films that Federico Fellini made during his sorta-neo-realist phase in the mid-1950s with Giulietta Masina, always stand out to me almost even more than his more famous, more flamboyant 1960s films like 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita. Nights of Cabiria casts Masina as a woman of the night, following her around almost non-committally, yet with a lot of care and heart. And Masina is simply amazing in everything she does – not classically beautiful, but somehow incredibly engaging for every second she’s onscreen. Must See
(repeats at 6:00pm, and 1:00pm on the 13th, and 5:00am on the 14th)

Great Directors on TCM: Preston Sturges
Preston Sturges is responsible, as writer and director, for many of the most insane, provocative, and lasting comedies of the early 1940s. He consistently pushed envelopes, and while some of his films may come across a little shrill today, I still love them to pieces.

8:00pm – TCM – The Lady Eve
Barbara Stanwyck and her father Charles Coburn are cardplayers, cheating cruise ship denizens of their wealth. Millionaire (and snake afficianado) Henry Fonda is a good mark, especially since he’s a bit dense and spacey. Stanwyck’s plot is hugely elaborate, only a little muddled by her falling in love with Fonda as well, and she’s a delight from start to finish. As she usually is. Must See

10:00pm – TCM – Sullivan’s Travels
Sullivan’s Travels is a slightly more serious turn for Preston Sturges, but ultimately upholds his comedic tendencies. Joel McCrea is a filmmaker known for his comedies who decides he wants to make a serious film about the depression; but as a successful Hollywood director, he doesn’t know anything about poverty and the working class, so he embarks on an odyssey to learn about them, picking up waifish Veronica Lake as a traveling companion. Must See

12:00M – TCM – The Palm Beach Story
Similar in tone but less consistent than The Lady Eve, this film follows bickering couple Joel McCrea and Claudette Colbert as she leaves him to gold dig for a richer man. He follows her, pretending to be her brother, and they get all entangled with a wealthy brother and sister. The ending is a weak bit of trickery, but there are enough moments of hilarity to make it worth watching.

2:00am (11th) – The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
Preston Sturges’ zaniest and most irreverent comedy gives Betty Hutton her best role as Trudy Kockenlocker, who goes out for a night on the town with a group of soldiers about to ship out. A few months later, she finds out she’s pregnant and can only vaguely remember an impromptu wedding ceremony with a soldier who may or may not be named Ratskiwatski. I’m always impressed that Sturges got away with as much as he did in this film in 1944.

Thursday, June 11

7:45am – TCM – The Asphalt Jungle
The Asphalt Jungle was really MGM’s first foray into noirish crime films. Being MGM, it’s more polished and, to me, less interesting than the crime dramas that Warner Bros. and the smaller studios were putting out, but hey. It’s still pretty good. And has a really young Marilyn Monroe.

2:00pm – TCM – The Maltese Falcon
Humphrey Bogart inhabits the role of Dashiell Hammett’s private eye Sam Spade, creating one of the definitive on-screen hard-boiled detective (vying only with Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep, really). Not mention setting the early benchmark for noir films. Must See

3:45pm – TCM – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
One of Bogart’s best films casts him as greedy prospector Fred C. Dobbs, who teams up with old-timer Walter Huston and youngster Tim Holt to find a horde of gold. Along the way, they uncover instead the darker sides of human nature. One of director John Huston’s most impressive films.

6:00pm – TCM – The African Queen
Yet another team up of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart pits Bogart against the Amazon river – and straight-laced missionary Katharine Hepburn, who is forced to travel with him to escape Germany enemies. Well, boats are small, and one things leads to another, you know.

Great Directors on TCM : Akira Kurosawa
Between his flawless translations of American genre films (especially crime films and westerns) to Japanese settings both contemporary and medieval, his groundbreaking experiments with cinematic point of view and narrative reliability, and his brilliant juxtapositions of Shakespeare with Japanese tradition, Akira Kurosawa can easily claim to be one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time.

8:00pm – TCM – The Seven Samurai
Probably Kurosawa’s best-known film, The Seven Samurai is an eastern version of a Western, with down-on-their-luck samurai (led by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune) working together to help a ravaged village hold off bandit invaders. Completing the cycle of cinematic borrowing, the film was remade in the US as The Magnificent Seven. Must See

10:00pm – Sundance – Talk to Her
Talk to Her is one of Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar’s finest and most moving works, drawing heavily on the passion of bullfighting and dancing. Marco and Benigno develop a friendship as they care two women in comas – Marco’s girlfriend Lydia, a bullfighter gored in the ring, and nurse Benigno’s patient Alicia, whom he has fallen in love with. There’s a touch of the bizarre, as there always is in Almodóvar, but the film is richly rewarding in mood and vision.

Friday, June 12

12:30pm – TCM – Out of the Past
Out of the Past comes up in most conversations about film noir. It’s got all the elements: low-key lighting (due in this case to budgetary concerns), an existential anti-hero (Robert Mitchum), a femme fatale (Jane Greer), etc. It’s honestly not my favorite noir, but it’s a good one to see once.

2:00pm – Sundance – A Woman Under the Influence
Gena Rowlands gives a tour-de-force performance as Mabel, a woman whose teetering madness threatens her marriage to Nick (Peter Falk). Their relationship edges back and forth between love, frustration, and anger with amazing quickness, yet it’s not clear whether Mabel’s instability is causing the problems, or the other way around. John Cassavetes directs with an unwavering camera, refusing to look away.

5:15pm – TCM – I Walked With a Zombie
Or, Jane Eyre in the West Indies. In Val Lewton’s moody little fantastic horror flick, mousy nurse Betsy goes to the Caribbean to care for afflicted Jessica, the wife of an important plantation owner. Turns out her affliction is due to zombification, a curse of the voodoo-practicing natives. Certainly the acting and script are nothing special here, but the noirish cinematography and direction by Jacques Tourneur as well as producer Lewton’s peculiarly literary sensibility certainly are.

6:30pm – TCM – Cat People
Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur team up for this suggestive horror film, tapping into Eastern European legends of women who turn into cats to protect themselves against oppressive male attention. Highly creepy while showing almost nothing – and I happen to quite like that in a film.

Great Directors on TCM: Woody Allen
Woody Allen is one of the most prolific writer/directors currently working, having turned out a new film nearly every year since the early 1970s. He’s gone through several creative phases, gained and lost popularity, been in and out of the tabloids, etc etc ad nauseum. But when he’s on, he manages to create films that are by turn watchably philosophical, absurdly hilarious, movingly emotional, cinematically and personally nostalgic, and caustically witty. TCM’s hitting almost every base with the films they’ve chosen – throw in Crimes and Misdemeanors and it’d be perfect.

9:45pm – TCM – Broadway Danny Rose
In this lesser Woody Allen film, Danny Rose (Woody) is a theatrical agent whose clients always leave him when they start becoming successful. His current client, a has-been tenor trying to make a comeback, gives him further grief by having an affair with a young woman (Mia Farrow) with gangster connections. Not only does Danny worry about the tenor’s wife, he also gets himself in trouble with the woman’s family.

11:15pm – TCM – Hannah and Her Sisters
Say what you want about Annie Hall and even Manhattan, both of which I love, I throw my vote for best Woody Allen movie ever to Hannah and Her Sisters. It has all the elements Allen is known for – neurotic characters, infidelity, a tendency to philosophize randomly, New York City, dysfunctional family dynamics, acerbic wit – and blends them together much more cogently and evenly than most of his films do. Must See

1:15am (13th) – TCM – The Purple Rose of Cairo
A love letter to cinema, The Purple Rose of Cairo has Woody Allen at his most romantic. Unhappy housewife Cecilia (Mia Farrow) escapes to the cinema to see The Purple Rose of Cairo again and again, where she fantasizes over hunky character Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels). Much to her surprise (and the other characters’ consternation), Baxter steps off the screen to join her. It makes it even more complicated when Gil, the actor who played Baxter, turns up as well.

2:45am (13th) – TCM – Interiors
In case anyone doubted Woody Allen’s admiration for Ingmar Bergman, he made this film to prove it. Interiors is about the best imitation of a Bergman chamber drama you could ask for, down to the spare set design, strained family relations, and a climax involving an angry sea. Still, it is also very much Allen’s film – his first straight drama – focusing on deeply neurotic, introspective characters unable to get outside their own heads for long enough to form really true relationships.

4:30am (13th) – TCM – Take the Money and Run
An early Woody Allen movie, when he was mostly focused on being funny and absurd, and this film about a set of totally inept bank robbers is both. It’s actually my favorite of the pre-Annie Hall Allen films.

Saturday, June 13

Great Directors on TCM: Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder had an incredible ability to make definitive films in most genres – screwball comedy, film noir, socially conscious drama, bittersweet comedy-drama. Rarely are his films bad; most of the time they’re brilliant.

8:30am – TCM – The Apartment
Wilder had a knack for combining comedy and drama into bittersweet goodness, and that’s exactly what he does here, garnering Oscars for Picture, Director, and Screenplay in the process. Jack Lemmon lends his apartment to his boss Fred MacMurray for romantic trysts – a situation that gets even more complicated when MacMurray trysts with Shirley MacLaine, who Lemmon happens to love from afar. Everything comes together perfectly in this film, one of Wilder’s best. MUST SEE

3:30pm – TCM – Some Like It Hot
After musicians Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon unwittingly witness the St. Valentines Day Massacre, they have to escape the mob by impersonating women and joining an all-girls band. The fact that Marilyn Monroe is the band’s lead singer doesn’t help them stay undercover. Easily one of the greatest comedies ever put on film. Must See

8:00pm – IFC – Raising Arizona
This relatively early Coen Brothers comedy has Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter as a childless ex-con couple who decide to rectify that situation by stealing one of a set of quintuplets. They’ll never miss him, right? Wrong. Zany complications ensue.
(repeats at 1:00am on the 14th)

10:15pm – TCM – Double Indemnity
Quite probably the most definitive film noir film in existence (vying only with The Big Sleep in my head, anyway) has insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) being seduced by bored housewife Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and convinced by her to help murder her husband for the insurance money. Wilder’s crackling dialogue and Stanwyck’s perfectly tuned mixture of calculation and innocence can hardly be beat. Must See

12:15am (14th) – TCM – Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder’s classic noir explores the dark side of the rich and formerly famous, as a struggling screenwriter (William Holden) gets involved with a silent screen star seeking to make a comeback in the sound era. In one of the most brilliant cast films ever, actual silent screen star Gloria Swanson returned to the movies to play the delusional Norma Desmond and actual silent star/director Erich von Stroheim (who worked with Swanson on the never-finished Queen Kelly, portions of which appear in Sunset Boulevard) plays her former director/current butler. The film is a bit on the campy side now, but that doesn’t diminish its enjoyability one bit. Must See

Sunday, June 14

Great Directors on TCM: Howard Hawks
Even more so than Wilder, Howard Hawks genre-shifted with ease, including westerns and musicals along with comedies, action films, noir and drama. Yet they all somehow bore his stamp, making him one of the first directors given auteur status by the French film critics who coined the term. (I tend to have more difficulty finding his stamp than I do with, say, Hitchcock – someday I’m going to a specifically auterist study of Hawks so I can write about him more knowledgably. For now I only know that I usually like most everything he did.)

9:30am – TCM – Sergeant York
Gary Cooper won his first Oscar for this film, portraying pacifist-turned-WWI hero Alvin C. York. Unfortunately, I’ve never actually seen it all the way through, so I don’t have much more to offer about it.

12:00N – TCM – Bringing Up Baby
Poor Cary Grant just can’t get away from delightfully ditzy Katharine Hepburn, especially after her dog steals his museum’s priceless dinosaur bone. Oh, and after her pet leopard escapes (and a dangerous zoo leopard escapes at the same time). Incredible situation follows incredible situation in this screwiest of all screwball comedies. Must See

2:00pm – TCM – Twentieth Century
In one of the films that defines “screwball comedy” (along with The Awful Truth and Bringing Up Baby), John Barrymore plays a histrionic theatre producer trying to convince his star Carole Lombard to come back to him – both professionally and personally. Lombard is luminous as usual, and Barrymore can chew scenery with the best of them, which is precisely what his role calls for.

4:00pm – TCM – His Girl Friday
This is a remake of a 1931 film called The Front Page about newspaper buddies who go after a major story – Hawks took it to a whole new level by turning one of the men into a woman, and setting reporters Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant as a former couple, now divorced who can’t seem to stay apart, either personally or professionally. The dialogue is a stroke of genius, as well, overlapping in a maelstrom of words that’s overwhelming and delightful all at the same time. I call this one of the greatest American films ever made. Must See

6:00pm – TCM – Ball of Fire
Hawks tries to recapture a little bit of Bringing Up Baby in this tale of a showgirl (Barbara Stanwyck, who’s trying to recapture a bit of The Lady Eve) who ends up among a bunch of stuffy professors, including Gary Cooper. Ball of Fire isn’t as memorable as either of those other films, but it has its own charm, and it’s certainly worth a watch.

8:00pm – TCM – To Have and Have Not
It’s said that this film came about because Howard Hawks bet Earnest Hemingway that he (Hawks) could make a good film out of Hemingway’s worst book. Of course, to do that, Hawks ended up basically changing the story entirely, but hey. It’s the thought that counts. It’s honestly mostly notable for being Lauren Bacall’s first film, the one where she met Humphrey Bogart, and the one that spawned the immortal “you know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve” bit of dialogue. That one scene? Worth the whole film.

10:00pm – TCM – The Big Sleep
Only one of the greatest detective/mysteries/films noir ever made. Humphrey Bogart is the definite hard-boiled detective, Lauren Bacall is the potential love interest/femme fatale. Don’t try to follow the story; whodunit is far less important than crackling dialogue and dry humor. Watch out for future Oscar-winner Dorothy Malone (Written on the Wind) in the small but extremely memorable part of the bookshop girl. Must See

12:00M – TCM – Only Angels Have Wings
I’ve never gotten into Only Angels Have Wings as much as I have into other Hawks’ films – why I don’t know. It has elements I like – Cary Grant as a daring pilot making dangerous cargo runs in exotic locales, Jean Arthur in an uncharacteristically dramatic turn, and a sighting of a young Rita Hayworth. Just doesn’t seem to come together in a memorable whole for me.

Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona one-sheetLeaving New York for London with Match Point revitalized Woody Allen‘s career in 2005; now he picks up shop again, this time seeking inspiration in Spain. And again, the move does him good, as Vicky Cristina Barcelona evokes, though perhaps does not quite equal, his greatest triumphs. Best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) head to Barcelona for a couple of months of study and adventure. Vicky, solidly sure of herself and preparing to marry stably but not imaginatively, plans to finish her thesis on Catalan Identity while Cristina, intense and impulsive, seeks new experiences and passions without really knowing what, if anything, would satisfy her.

All this is revealed in the first five minutes via voice-over narration, a device you’ll probably have a love-hate relationship with. In the beginning, I wished Woody would show more and tell less, but as the film progressed, the narration took on a very dry, ironic tone that I found delightful. Anyway, when painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) turns up and invites both girls for a weekend in his home town, the setup is fairly obvious – stability vs. passion. Complicating his attraction to Vicky and Cristina is the fact that he’s still completely in love with his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), even though their relationship ended by her stabbing him. Or did it?

Let me get my few negatives out of the way first. Juan Antonio is a dog – he propositions everybody within five minutes of talking to them. Once he’s in a steady relationship, he’s a great guy, but I wish Allen had come up with a better way to say “hey, this guy is passionate” than having him try to get everyone into bed immediately.Javier Bardem & Rebecca Hall Patricia Clarkson is wasted in her role of an older woman unsatisfied in her stable marriage whose job basically is to try to get Vicky to leave her fiance Doug (Chris Messina) to pursue Juan Antonio. And the ending leaves us not very much different from the beginning, unsure how the Barcelona experience has changed our characters. I’m not wholly inclined to see the last thing as a negative, though. Often such experiences don’t immediately make their effects known, and leaving it to each audience member to decide how Vicky, Cristina, Juan Antonio, Maria Elena, and Doug will ultimately be affected may be a shrewd move on Woody’s part. And nitpicky thing – hold the dang camera still! There’s barely a shot that isn’t panning or pushing or pulling or tracking. This complaint was perhaps intensified by my recent reading of David Bordwell‘s The Way Hollywood Tells It, which talks a lot about the growing use of the “roving camera,” which made me notice it a lot more than I probably otherwise would’ve.

Okay, back to the good parts. Woody’s most solid script in years balances drama and comedy very well, keeping away from extremes of silliness (cf. Scoop or Broadway Danny Rose) and seriousness (cf. Match Point or Interiors). That’s not to say he doesn’t do the extremes well, but I tend to find him most enjoyable and memorable when he does dramatic stories tinged with wit throughout, as in my favorites, Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters. While I wouldn’t raise Vicky Cristina Barcelona to those dizzying heights, it’s back on track.

In addition, the cast handles the script with perfect timing, both verbally and physically. When Rebecca Hall appeared in The Prestige as Christian Bale’s long-suffering wife, I found her far more compelling than Scarlett Johansson, who had the larger role of mistress to both Bale and Hugh Jackman. Reteamed here, Penelope CruzHall again outshines her flashier costar. She’s one to watch for in the future; I’ve yet to be unimpressed with her. Johansson can be uneven, but here she matches her performance to the ensemble nicely. You’ll forget all about Bardem’s menacing Anton Chigurh as he infuses Juan Antonio with warmth and humor. And Penélope Cruz owns the screen every second she’s on it (and many that she’s not). The many explosions of laughter from the audience were all deserved equally by the script, the actors, and even the editing at one particular point.

Finally, a word about the relationships, which all end up better in threes than twos – couples needing a third person to balance out. This goes to extremes with Cristina, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, but the same concept appears with Juan Antonio-Cristina-Vicky, Cristina-Vicky-Doug, abortively with Maria Elena-Juan Antonio-Vicky, and even perhaps with the titular Vicky-Cristina-Barcelona. At one level, the threesome activity seems like Woody’s own fantasies playing out (admittedly, in a rather tame fashion – there’s a lot of sex going on in this PG-13 film, but it’s pretty much all offscreen and termed “going to bed together”). But the shifting relationship triangle is not an uncommon literary device, particularly noticable in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, in which virtually all the relationships form shifting triangles. I’m not sure how far to take Allen’s use of the theme, but the idea seems to be that each person needs two people in their lives – one more passionate/emotional and one more stable/rational than themselves. But the film expounds no such obvious message, which is a plus for me.

Juan Antonio’s father is a poet who refuses to publish his work as a way of getting back at a world he doesn’t like – denying the world the things of beauty he creates. It’s impossible to apply that maxim to Allen, who has compulsively shared his work, beautiful and not, with the world nearly every year since 1972. The good is well worth putting up with the less-good, and hopefully Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a sign of more future beautifully-made films from him. Also, Barcelona? Gorgeous. I want to go now.

Scarlett Johnasson

USA 2008; dir: Woody Allen; starring: Scarlett Johnasson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penélope Cruz, Chris Messina, Patricia Clarkson
Screened 13 August 2008 with a sneak preview audience; Aero Theatre, Los Angeles
Well Above Average
Opens 15 August 2008

December 2007 Reading/Watching/Playing Recap

New record set again! Twenty-six movies this month. I love vacation time. And having awesome libraries around. And art-house theatres. After the jump, reactions to No Country for Old Men, Cars, Rushmore, Flags of Our Fathers, Slacker, The Squid and the Whale, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Underworld: Evolution, The Black Dahlia, MirrorMask, Juno, Notes on a Scandal, Interiors, The Illusionist, Mass Effect, Gears of War, and others.

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August 2007 Reading/Watching Recap

Time off school in August meant non-required reading yay! For the record, a lawn chair by a lake in Minnesota is a good place to read in August. Especially after 100 degree heat in St. Louis and Texas. After the jump, reactions to The Shining, The African Queen, Hannah and Her Sisters, Becoming Jane, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Dancer in the Dark, Zodiac, INLAND EMPIRE, Stardust, Le petit soldat, The Thirteenth Tale, Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, and more.

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August Recap

Movies

Night Watch (imdb)
This was Russia’s entry to the Academy Awards in 2005, and judging from that and the trailers I’d seen, I was really hoping it would be great. It’s the first of a proposed trilogy dealing with the on-going supernatural battle between good and evil, fought unseen to most humans by races of superhuman creatures (they’re human, or were at one time, but with special senses and powers–it’s sort of like Star Wars force sensitives put into the vampires vs. werewolfs milieu of Underworld). The underlying mythology is extensive and detailed, and pretty interesting as a premise. Unfortunately, the movie was so torn between its concern for plot complexity and its preoccupation with cool visuals that the whole thing ended up coming out a muddled mess. It’s like the scenarist handed them a perfect, pristine backstory, and then they called in a bunch of rewriters and editors who said “okay, take that, leave that out, put that over there, throw this in on top, etc” until you can’t hardly keep track of who’s doing what, much less why or what the consequences will be. This is a problem. I wanted to like it so badly, and on one level, I did. The visuals are good (though the quick editing–pandemic in action films these days–lessens rather than magnifies the effect), the themes are intriguing (the main character, a good guy, has to protect his son, who is becoming aware of the supernatural powers he has, from the bad guys, but in doing so, may in fact lose him to evil…each person must choose his own side), and if the other two parts of the trilogy are made, they may in fact make this one clear enough in retrospect that the entire work is much greater than the sum of its parts. I think that potential is there. Unfortunately, Night Watch on its own doesn’t work.
Average; I don’t know whether to upgrade it because I liked the underlying potential so much, or downgrade it because it failed so nearly completely to realize that potential, so Average it stays.

Scoop (imdb)
You never know what to expect from Woody Allen anymore. I was hopeful going into Scoop, based on the quality of Match Point, and his recasting of Scarlett Johanssen, but also a little trepidatious, because Match Point, after all, was a thriller/drama, and Scoop is a quirky comedy, though still with a mystery/thriller angle; perhaps Woody hasn’t yet regained his comedic ability. Also of concern was the fact that Allen refrained from acting in Match Point, but took a rather large supporting role in Scoop…Allen is a director to be reckoned with, but adding the paranoia and neuroticism inherent in his films to his extremely neurotic acting style is often too much, especially as he’s gotten older. Thankfully, he continues his now two-film streak, and Scoop is an extremely enjoyable, if slight, entertainment. Granted, Allen does go overboard as an actor, and repeats his character’s jokes a bit too often, but Johanssen stands out as a calming force, despite the fact that she does, in some ways, share Allen’s mannerisms (a piece of directorial advice that’s a little iffy, but seems to work for the film overall). She is a journalism student who is visited by the ghost of a preeminent journalist who has recently died before getting a chance to follow up on a tip to an extremely juicy scoop–a series of unsolved murders attributed to the Tarot Card killer may, in fact, have been committed by the son of a prominent English Lord. Johanssen jumps on the story and insinuates herself into the English gentry to try to expose this Lord’s son, who turns out to be Hugh Jackman looking extremely, um, exposable (take that how you will). Tagging along is Allen, as a vaudeville magician who gets roped into playing Johanssen’s father for her little charade. There’s nothing really deep or profound to think about here, as in Match Point or Allen’s best films of the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s a rollicking good time without pretensions of being anything more.
Well Above Average

Little Miss Sunshine (imdb)
I have never been to a film that roused the audience as much as this one did–the entire theatre erupted into delighted laughter so often it became impossible to keep track. It would have been worth it just to experience the audience enjoying itself so much, but the film deserved every outbreak of emotion, both laughter and near-tears. It is, in fact, a great example of the quirky independent film–each character is well-defined with dreams and aspirations, quirks and weaknesses. If they get a little caricaturish at times, it’s due to the necessarily short amount of time we have to get to know them. Think of Arrested Development smashed into an hour and a half. Greg Kinnear plays Richard, the father of a family which includes: himself, a motivational speaker trying to get a book deal; his wife Sheryl (Toni Collette), overworked and stressed as she tries to care for her family without a real income from her husband, but who cares deeply about the desires and goals of her children; their teenaged son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has taken a vow of silence until he gets his pilot’s licence and reads Nietszche constantly; their young daughter Olive (a remarkable turn by Abigail Breislin), who wants desperately to win the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest; his father (Alan Arkin), an irascible and outspoken old man who supports Olive unequivocally, but in a somewhat unorthodox fashion; and Sheryl’s brother Frank (Steve Carrell, who is awesome), a recent addition to the family due to his recent suicide attempt. Put all of them in an old Volkswagen van with a faulty clutch for a three-day road trip to the beauty contest finals, and chaos ensues–but so does love. It’s a very successful amalgamation of comedy and pathos, of quirkiness and relatability, of witty dialogue and spot-on performances.
Superior

Ossessione (imdb)
Ossessione is based on James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (which was filmed by Hollywood in 1946, and more unfortunately in 1981), and also ranks as one of the first films considered to be part of the Italian neo-realist movement. Personally, it didn’t seem terribly “realist” to me, but that’s largely because the acting style hasn’t caught up with the other elements. The woman particularly overplays her character to the point of incredulity at times. The story, as in the book and American film versions, concerns a drifter who stops in at a gas station and insinuates himself into the life of the propietor and his much-younger wife. Before long, the drifter and wife have planned to get rid of the husband, who is decidedly in the way of their being happy together. That scene is particularly well-done, as neither of them explicity says what they’re planning to do, yet it’s completely clear. There’s also a young girl whom the drifter takes up with at one point (he’s not quite as committed as his murder accomplice is to the relationship), and I laud her performance as indicative of the sort of freshness and realistic acting that will characterize much of the neo-realist movement once it really gets going. Basically, the film has a lot of great elements, but they didn’t add up to a great film for me.
Above Average

The Island (imdb)
Great premise, average execution. Pretty much what I should have expected from Michael Bay. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johanssen are part of large group of people confined to a futuristic, sterile outpost due to the contamination of the earth…all except for “the Island,” where everybody hopes to be chosen to go. Except, all that’s a lie created to keep the inmates content; in actuality, they’re all clones created for the very wealthy as organ donors. There are a lot of very interesting ethical dilemmas that could be explored here–the rights of clones as opposed to their “owners,” the fact that the head of the corporation creating the clones has lied to the public (who all think that the clones have no consciousness), the knowledge that Johanssen’s double is going to die within hours without an organ transplant and leave behind young children–but the film doesn’t explore them hardly at all. Once the McGregor figures out what’s going on (a conclusion which isn’t sufficiently explained, either), the film goes into total “free the clones, preferably with as many explosions and chase scenes as possible” mode. Which, again, to be expected from Bay. McGregor and Johanssen are very pretty. And there are a lot of explosions. Sometimes that’s enough, but in this case, with so many big ideas hovering below the surface, it simply wasn’t.
Average

Triumph of the Will (imdb)
Welcome to an all-but-impossible film to review. Triumph of the Will is the record of the 1934 Nazi Party rally, held very soon after the death of Hindenberg, which essentially made Hitler the supreme leader of Germany. It is the propoganda film to end all propoganda films. The question that has plagued film critics for decades is this: is it possible to evaluate this film on its own terms as a documentary film, and separate it from its propogandistic purpose and the knowledge of everything that the Nazi party would do over the next ten years? And of course, being me, I was like, of course! Technique can always be evaluated separately from ideology, right? But now I’m not sure. Because the whole time the camera was proudly surveying Hitler’s Youth Camps, and the whole time the hundreds of batallions were marching through the streets of Nuremberg, and the whole time the people were cheering themselves hoarse for the Fuhrer, I couldn’t help but be horrified, thinking of what would happen–what these boys, some of them ten, twelve years old, would be doing in ten years time. And it’s not as if the whole agenda was kept quiet–in the speeches preserved from Hitler, and Himmler, and Goebbels, and others, though it’s not emphasized as much as the desire for a strong German fatherland, there are explicit references to the necessity of preserving the Aryan race, no matter what, and retaking the lands that were split up after WWI, etc. It’s all there, already. And the most unbelievable thing is how small a man Hitler was. He doesn’t seem to be a strong leader at all. But boy did his speeches get everyone riled up, even though they were little more than patriotic drivel. It’s really incredible, the power he was able to gather to himself. I noticed that watching Downfall as well, but here…this is actually Hitler. One thing that did come out was how demoralizing the reparations of the end of WWI were to Germany, which goes a long way to explaining how quickly Hitler was able to rise to the position he did. See, I did an entire reaction that’s all about ideology. Wow. There’s a lot of rather boring marching and stuff, but even there, Triumph of the Will is chilling to watch. Must-see if you’re at all interested in Germany or WWII history.
Above Average

Grand Illusion (imdb)
You ever watch a film and have the feeling while you’re watching it that it’s a great, great movie? Sometimes I feel that when the credits roll, sometimes I feel it a few weeks later, and once in a very long while I feel it before the first reel is through. Grand Illusion is that sort of movie. For some reason, I expected Grand Illusion to be one of those anti-war movies that’s good, but not terribly enjoyable. But those fears were gone a mere ten minutes into the film, and my only concern was whether the rest of it would keep the same high. And it does. The story concerns two French officers in WWI captured by the Germans in the first few minutes–the rest of the film is about their time in the prison camp and their escape attempts. Along the way is some wonderful comment on the way WWI totally changed war, not only in actual combat (of which there’s almost none), but in the conception of the army. The German commander of the prison camp gives preferential treatment to one of the officers, because they are both noblemen, holdovers of a time when military leadership was the province of the nobility, and this–at least according to the German man–gives them more in common with each other than either has with their own fellow officers. I was a little skeptical of the easy time all the Frenchmen had as POWs, but director Jean Renoir claimed he took many of the scenes from firsthand stories from relatives in the war. I don’t know. Anyway. The scenes of cameraderie as all the POWs plan their escapes, the grimly triumphant joy that breaks into “La Marseillaise” when the prisoners hear that France has taken a town from Germany, and the despairing disappointment when the next day, Germany takes it back (“there won’t be any of it left,” one of them realizes), the passing of an entire way of life in the figures of the gentleman officers, the extremely beautiful section near the end, after the commoner officer escapes and hides out with a young German widow and her daughter–so many scenes worth remembering. In a way, it feels like three films in one, but it makes one whole that’s absolutely perfect. And every once in a while you’ll hear me caveat an older film by almost apologizing for the acting style…no need to do that here. There isn’t a wrong note hit, there’s not a hint of overacting (even by Erich von Stroheim as the German commander); in fact, all taken together, these are some of the most natural and fitting performances I’ve seen in a long time. I wanted it to keep going forever.
Superior

Books

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (audiobook version read by Paul Giamatti)
I must admit to finding it pathetic that the only book I finished in all of August was an audiobook that I listened to in its entirety while driving from Waco to St. Louis. And I can’t even really blame school, because it didn’t start until the third week of the month! Still, if I only had one book in the month, A Scanner Darkly deserved to be the one. It’s an excellent example of the paranoia school of sci-fi, and honestly, it helped me understand the movie (which I saw last month), a lot better. I think I ran down the story when talking about the film, but I’ll do it again. In the future, a drug known as Substance D has taken hold of the population–it’s highly addictive and mind-altering, and eventually causes death. The main character, Bob Arctor, is a user and dealer, but he’s also an undercover cop working to out dealers, and he spends a good deal of the time surveilling himself and his friends. As the story goes on, the D affects his brain more and more, causing him to really split into two people, the dealer and the cop. This is MUCH clearer in the book than in the film. In the film, it’s unclear whether he knows at the beginning that he’s both Arctor and the cop, though by the end he certainly does not. In the book, he certainly knows at the beginning that he’s spying on himself, trying to find out who his supplier’s supplier is. His self-knowledge grows successively weaker, though, and by the end, he’s completely shocked when the police psychiatrists inform him that he is Arctor. I thought the book did a much better job with that part of the story, but I’ll need to rewatch the film to make sure. Like the film, it’s very trippy, but it does explain things a little more–that can be good or bad, I guess, depending on how into ambiguity you are. Also, since I listened to the audiobook version, it’s appropriate to point out how awesome Paul Giamatti is. I already knew he was an awesome actor, and it was the fact that he was reading that pushed me into getting the audiobook (normally I disagree with the way the reader reads a book so much that I can’t listen to audiobooks), and it was well-worth it. Even if you’ve read the book, I recommend checking this out from the library or something, just to experience Giamatti’s genius.
Well Above Average