Category Archives: Romantic Comedy

Blu-ray reissue: Lost in America ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Lost in America– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road with a “nest egg” of $145,000 to find themselves. Their goals are nebulous (“we’ll touch Indians”).

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the wrong end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like most Brooks films, it is as painfully funny as it is to watch it (I consider him the founding father of  the Larry David/Ricky Gervais school of “cringe comedy”). Criterion’s extras are skimpy, but the 2K restoration is fabulous.

Lazyhazycrazy: Top 10 Summer Idyll Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 12, 2017)

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Since we’ve officially hit the “dog days” of summer, I thought it would be a good excuse to cull a list of my 10 seasonal favorites for your consideration. These would be films that I feel capture the essence of these “lazy, hazy, crazy” days; stories infused with the sights, the sounds, the smells, of summer. So, here you go…as per usual, in alphabetical order:

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day– Bert Stern’s groundbreaking documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival is not so much a “concert film” as it is a time capsule of late 50s American life. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeously filmed numbers spotlighting the artistry of Thelonius Monk, Anita O’Day, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, etc., but it’s equally compelling when cameras turn away from the artists and linger on the audience and their environs while the music continues in the background.

The effect is like “being there” in 1958 Newport on a languid summer’s day, because if you’ve ever attended an outdoor music festival, you know half the fun is people-watching. Stern breaks with film making conventions of the era; this is the genesis of the cinema verite music documentary, which wouldn’t fully come to flower until a decade later with films like Don’t Look Back, Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Gimme Shelter.

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Last Summer– This underrated 1969 gem is from the husband-and-wife film making team of director Frank Perry and writer Eleanor Perry (who adapted from Evan Hunter’s novel). It’s tough to summarize without possible spoilers. On the surface, it’s a character study about three friends on the cusp of adulthood (Bruce Davison, Barbara Hershey and Richard Thomas) who develop a Jules and Jim-style relationship during an idyllic summer vacation on Fire Island. When a socially awkward stranger (Catherine Burns) innocently bumbles into this simmering cauldron of raging hormones and burgeoning sexuality, it blows the lid off the pressure cooker, leading to unexpected twists. It’s sort of Summer of ’42 meets Lord of the Flies; I’ll leave it there. Beautifully acted and directed.

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Mid-August Lunch-This slice-of-life charmer from Italy, set during the mid-August Italian public holiday known as Ferragosto, was written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio (who also co-scripted the critically-acclaimed 2009 gangster drama Gomorra). Light-ish in plot but rich in observational insight, it proves that sometimes, less is more.

The Robert Mitchum-ish Di Gregorio casts himself as Giovanni, a middle-aged bachelor living in Rome with his elderly mother. He doesn’t work, because as he quips to a friend, taking care of mama is his “job”. Although nothing appears to faze the easy-going Giovanni, his nearly saintly countenance is tested when his landlord, who wants to take a little weekend excursion with his mistress, asks for a “small” favor. In exchange for some forgiveness on back rent, he requests that Giovanni take on a house guest for the weekend-his elderly mother. Giovanni agrees, but is chagrined when the landlord turns up with two little old ladies (he hadn’t mentioned his aunt). Things get more complicated when Giovanni’s doctor makes a house call, then in lieu of a bill asks if he doesn’t mind taking on his dear old mama as well (Ferragosto is a popular “getaway” holiday in Italy).

It’s the small moments that make this film such a delight. Giovanni reading Dumas aloud to his mother, until she quietly nods off in her chair. Two friends, sitting in the midday sun, enjoying white wine and watching the world go by. And in a scene that reminded me of a classic POV sequence in Fellini’s Roma, Giovanni and his pal glide us through the streets of Rome on a sunny motorcycle ride. This mid-August lunch might offer you a somewhat limited menu, but you’ll find that every morsel on it is well worth savoring.

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Mommy is at the Hairdresser’s- Set at the beginning of an idyllic Quebec summer, circa 1966, Lea Pool’s beautifully photographed drama centers around the suburban Gauvin family. A teenager (Marianne Fortier) and her little brothers are thrilled that school’s out for summer. Their loving parents appear to be the ideal couple; Mom (Celine Bonnier) is a TV journalist and Dad (Laurent Lucas) is a medical microbiologist. A marital infidelity precipitates a separation, leaving the kids in the care of their well-meaning but now titular father, and young Elise finds herself the de facto head of the family. This is a perfect film about an imperfect family; a bittersweet paean to the endless summers of childhood lost.

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Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are seldom mentioned in the same breath, but it applies to this wise, drolly amusing morality tale from the director whose name is synonymous with somber dramas. Bergman regular Gunnar Bjornstrand heads a fine ensemble, as an amorous middle-aged attorney with a young wife (whose “virtue” remains intact) and a free-spirited mistress, who juggles a number of lovers herself. As you may guess, this all leads to amusing complications.

Love in all of its guises is represented by a bevy of richly-drawn characters, who converge in a third act set on a sultry summer’s eve at a country estate (which provided inspiration for Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy). Fast-paced, literate, and sexy, it has a muted cry here and a whisper there of that patented Bergman “darkness”, but compared to most of his oeuvre, this one is a veritable screwball comedy.

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Stand By Me– Director Rob Reiner was on a roll in the mid-to late 80s, delivering five exceptional films, book-ended by This is Spinal Tap in 1984 and When Harry Met Sally in 1989. This 1986 dramedy was in the middle of the cycle. Based on a Stephen King novella (adapted by Raynold Gideon and Bruce A. Evans) it’s a bittersweet “end of summer” tale about four pals (Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell) who embark on a search for the body of a missing teenager, during the course of which they learn hard life lessons. Reiner coaxes extraordinary performances from the young leads, who navigate a roller coaster of emotions with an aplomb that belies their age and experience at that stage of their careers. Richard Dreyfus provides the narration.

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Summer Wars– Don’t be misled by the cartoonish title of Mamoru Hosoda’s eye-popping movie-this could be the Gone with the Wind of Japanese anime. OK…that’s a tad hyperbolic. But it does have drama, romance, comedy, and war-centering around a summer gathering at a bucolic family estate. Tokyo Story meets War Games? At any rate, it’s one of the finer animes of recent years. While some narrative devices in Satoko Ohuder’s screenplay will feel familiar to anime fans (particularly the “cyber-punk” elements), it’s the humanist touches and subtle social observations (reminiscent of the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu) that makes it a unique and worthwhile genre entry.

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A Summer’s Tale– It’s nearly 8 minutes into Eric Rohmer’s romantic comedy before anyone utters a word; and it’s a man calling a waitress over to order a chocolate crepe. But not to worry, because things are about to get much more interesting. In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud), who is killing time in sunny Dinard until his “sort of” girlfriend arrives to join him on summer holiday, will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets bubbly and outgoing Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending her summer break waitressing at her aunt’s seaside crepery. Margo is also (sort of) spoken for, with a boyfriend (currently overseas). So a friendship blooms. But will they stay “just friends”?

Originally released in France in 1996, this film (which didn’t make its official U.S. debut until 2014) rates among the late director’s best work (strongly recalling Pauline at the Beach, which starred a then teenage Langlet, who is wonderful here as the charming Margo). If you’re unfamiliar with Rohmer, this is as good a place as any to start.

In a way, this is a textbook “Rohmer film”, which I define as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them”. But don’t despair; it won’t be like watching paint dry. In fact, even a neophyte should glean Rohmer’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy). One gentle caveat: any viewer of A Summer’s Tale (or any Rohmer film) will recognize  themselves at some juncture, yet at once feel absolved for being only human.

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Tempest– “Show me the magic.” Nothing says “idyllic” like a Mediterranean getaway, which provides the backdrop for Paul Mazursky’s seriocomic 1982 update of Shakespeare’s classic play. His Prospero is a harried Manhattan architect (John Cassavetes) who spontaneously quits his firm, abandons his wife (Gena Rowlands), packs up his teen daughter (Molly Ringwald) and retreats to a Greek island for an open-ended sabbatical. He soon adds a young lover (Susan Sarandon) and a Man Friday (Raul Julia) to his entourage. But will this idyll inevitably be steamrolled by the adage: “Wherever you go…there you are”? The pacing lags a little bit on occasion, but superb performances, gorgeous scenery and bits of inspired lunacy (like a choreographed number featuring Julia and his sheep dancing to “New York, New York”) make up for it.

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3 Women– If Robert Altman’s haunting 1977 character study plays like a languid, sun-baked California fever dream…it’s because it was (the late director claimed that the story came to him in his sleep). What ended up on the screen not only represents Altman’s best, but one of the best American art films of the 1970s. The women are Millie (Shelly Duvall), a chatty physical therapist, considered a needy bore by everyone except her childlike roommate/co-worker Pinky (Sissy Spacek), who worships the ground she walks on, and enigmatic Willie (Janice Rule), a pregnant artist who only paints anthropomorphic lizard figures (empty swimming pools as her canvas). As the three personas slowly merge (bolstered by fearless performances from the three leads), there’s little doubt that Millie, Pinky and Willie hail from the land of Wynken, Blynken and Nod.

Family affairs: Landline **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2017)

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Why are New Yorkers always screaming at each other? Is it in order to be heard above the constant din of traffic, sirens, and subway brakes? Maybe there really is something in the water (that same “whatsit” in NYC tap water that makes the bagels taste so…intense).

There’s even more screaming than usual in the latest NYC-based film, Landline. That’s because director/co-writer Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) sets her tale of two sisters in the mid-1990s, a not-so-bygone era when humans were still experiencing “face time” with each other (now the only time people turn off their goddam personal devices is when they pay $15 to sit in the dark-and watch characters in a film text each other for 2 hours).

Not that there is anything wrong with a dialog-driven film…and every character in Landline has plenty to say, particularly the two sisters I mentioned earlier. Dana (Jenny Slate) is the older of the siblings. She’s recently become engaged to her live-in boyfriend Ben (Jay Duplass), who is a bit of a milquetoast in contrast with his quirky, bubbly fiancée. That could explain why Dana seems to be vacillating about this big commitment.

Something else has been weighing on Dana’s mind…she suspects that her father (John Turturro) has  been carrying on a longtime affair. When she confides this to her sullen teenage sister Ali (Abby Quinn), the previously estranged pair now find themselves bonding as they team up to dig deeper. The trickiest part is how to carry on sleuthing without sending up red flags to their mom (Edie Falco).

Lots of family angst (and yes, screaming) ensues. Fortunately, there are laughs as well. That said, you do have to wade waist-deep in neurotic New Yorker whingeing for 90 minutes to net the choicest zingers (which average about once every five minutes or so).

Frankly, what keeps this derivative mashup of Hannah and Her Sisters and a glorified episode of HBO’s Girls afloat is an appealing cast. The always-reliable Turturro and Falco do that voodoo that they do so well, and Slate and Quinn hold their own against the seasoned players. Slate, in particular is a young actor I’d love to see more of; she has a naturally goofy charm that is hard to resist. She’s like the lovechild of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. For all I know…she is.

SIFF 2017: Zoology **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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This oddity from Russian writer-director Ivan Tverdosky answers the question: What would happen if David Cronenberg directed a film with a script by Lena Dunham? A middle-aged, socially phobic woman who lives with her mother and works in a zoo administration office, appears to be at her happiest when she’s hanging out with the animals who are housed there. That’s because her supervisor and co-workers cruelly belittle her, on a daily basis. But when a doctor’s exam reveals a tail growing from the base of her spine, she is overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of empowerment and begins to gain confidence, perhaps even a sense of defiance about her “otherness”. This does not go unnoticed by a strapping young x-ray tech, who becomes hopelessly smitten as this ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan…a beautiful swan with a freakishly long tensile tail.

SIFF 2017: Infinity Baby **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Merely posing as a “near-future” dystopia tale, Austin-based director Bob Byington’s film is really an examination of modern romance. In other words, it’s only “sci-fi” in the sense that Woody Allen’s Sleeper was “sci-fi” (if you catch my drift). A douchey hipster (Kieran Culkin) with a fear of commitment works for a company that holds a patent on a genetic modification that creates “infinity babies”…human infants forever frozen at 3 months old who never cry and require only weekly feedings and diaper changes (which makes it a fantasy for a lot of first-time parents, I’m guessing?). Onur Tukel’s fitful screenplay works best whenever it steers away from the sci-fi elements and focuses instead on wry observation and passive-aggressive verbal jousting.

SIFF 2017: Entanglement **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Any film that opens with a suicide attempt makes me wary; because let’s face it, they can’t all be Harold and Maude (but oh, they try…how they do try!). This Canadian mumblecore dramedy (directed by Jason James) stars Thomas Middleditch as a (wait for it) depressed divorcee who finds out his parents adopted but then quickly gave up a baby girl after a surprise pregnancy. And so this “only child” sets off on a quest to find and connect with the almost-sister that he never had. Very droll. It’s engaging enough to hold your interest, but marred by a certain amount of predictability.

SJFF 2017: Moos ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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This charmer from Dutch writer-director Job Gosschalk follows the plight of a young woman who is torn between care-giving for her widower dad and pursuing her dreams for a life in the theater. When an old childhood friend comes for a visit, everything goes topsy-turvy. Hanne Arendzen is a delight in the lead; her quirky performance (and the character that she plays) reminded me of the young Lynn Redgrave in the 1966 dramedy Georgy Girl.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Funny about love: Top 10 Romantic Comedies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 11, 2017)

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With Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, I thought that I would share my top ten favorite romantic comedies with you tonight. So in a non-ranking alphabetical order, here we go:

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Amelie-Yes, I know this film has its share of detractors (who are nearly as passionate as Nickelback haters), but Jean-Pierre Juenet’s beautifully realized film has stolen my heart for life. Audrey Tautou literally lights up the screen as a gregarious loner who decides to become a guardian angel (sometimes benign devil) and commit random acts of anonymous kindness. The plight of Amelie’s people in need is suspiciously similar to her own…those who need a little push to come out of self-imposed exiles and revel in life’s simple pleasures. Of course, our heroine is really in search of her own happiness and fulfillment. Does she find it? You’ll have to see for yourself. Whimsical, inventive, life-affirming, and wholly original, Amelie should melt the most cynical of hearts (in theory).

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Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes gaga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player on the school team. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence-the girls are usually light years ahead of the boys in getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think, as Forsyth is a master of low-key anarchy and understated irony. You may have trouble navigating those Scottish accents, but it’s worth the effort. Also with Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as the lead singer of 80s new wavers Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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Play it Again, Sam – I don’t know what it is about this particular Woody Allen vehicle (directed by Herbert Ross), but no matter how many times I have viewed it over the years, I laugh just as hard at all the one-liners as I did the first time I saw it. Annie Hall and Manhattan may be his most highly lauded and artistically accomplished projects, but for pure “laughs per minute”, I would nominate this 1972 entry, with a screenplay adapted by Allen from his own original stage version.

Allen portrays a film buff with a Humphrey Bogart obsession. He fantasizes that he’s getting pointers from Bogie’s ghost (played to perfection by Jerry Lacy) who advises him on how to “be a man” and attract the perfect mate. He receives some more pragmatic assistance from his best friends, a married couple (Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts) who fix him up with a series of women (the depictions of the various dating disasters are hilarious beyond description). A classic.

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Modern Romance (1981) – In his best romantic comedy (co-written by frequent collaborator Monica Johnson), writer-director Albert Brooks (the inventor of “cringe” comedy) casts himself as a film editor who works for American International Pictures. His obsessive-compulsiveness makes him great at his job, but a pain-in-the-ass to his devoted girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), who is becoming exasperated with his penchant to impulsively break up with her one day, then beg her to take him back the next.

There are many inspired scenes, particularly a sequence where a depressed Brooks takes Quaaludes and drunk dials every woman he’s ever dated (like Bob Newhart, Brooks is a master of “the phone bit”). Another great scene features Brooks and his assistant editor (the late Bruno Kirby, in one of his best roles) laying down Foley tracks in the post-production sessions for a cheesy sci-fi movie. Brooks’ brother, Bob Einstein (a regular on Curb Your Enthusiasm) has a wry cameo as a sportswear clerk. Also with George Kennedy (as “himself”) and real-life film director James L. Brooks (no relation) playing Brooks’ boss.

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Next Stop, Wonderland – Writer/director Brad Anderson’s intelligent and easygoing fable about love and serendipity made me a Hope Davis fan for life. Davis plays a laid back Bostonian who finds her love life set adrift after her pompous environmental activist boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suddenly decides that dashing off to save the earth is more important than sustaining their relationship. Her story is paralleled with that of a charming and unassuming single fellow (Alan Gelfant) who aspires to become a marine biologist. Both parties find themselves politely deferring to well-meaning friends and relatives who are constantly trying to fix them up with dates. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that these two may be destined to end up together. The film seems to have been inspired by A Man and a Woman, right down to its breezy bossa nova/samba soundtrack.

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She’s Gotta Have It – “Please baby please baby please baby please!” One of director Spike Lee’s earlier, funny films (his debut, actually). A sexy, hip, and fiercely independent young woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggles relationships with three men, who are all quite aware of each other’s existence. Lee steals his own film by casting himself as the goofiest and most memorable of the three suitors- “Mars”, a trash-talking version of the classic Woody Allen nebbish. Lee milks laughs from the huffing and puffing by the competing paramours, as each jockeys for the alpha position (and makes some keen observations regarding sexist machismo and male vanity). Spike’s dad Bill Lee composed a lovely jazz-pop score. An influential milestone for modern indie cinema.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. A genteel Southern neurotic (Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams), McElwee has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the funniest and most thought-provoking films that most people have never seen. Viewers weaned on reality TV and Snapchat may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition.

Sherman’s March actually began as a history piece, a project aiming to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South during the Civil War, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate. Despite its daunting 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time I saw it. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is worth a peek as well.

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Someone to Love (1987) – The perfect Valentine’s Day movie…for dateless singles. Writer-director Henry Jaglom’s films tend to polarize viewers; his work is highly personal, usually steeped in navel-gazing reviews of his own relationships with women. In Someone to Love, Jaglom plays (surprise surprise) a film director, who invites all of his friends who are currently “in between” relationships to join him at a condemned movie theater on Valentine’s Day for a get-together. Once they arrive, Jaglom admits a small deception-he wants each to explain why they think they are alone on Valentine’s Day, and he wants to document the proceedings on film. Very talky-but fascinating. Featuring Andrea Marcovicci (who had recently broken up with Jaglom at the time of filming), Sally Kellerman, musician Steven Bishop, and Orson Welles (don’t ask).

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The Tall Guy –Deftly directed by British TV comic Mel Smith with a high-brow/low-brow blend of sophisticated cleverness and riotous vulgarity (somehow he makes it work), this is the stuff cult followings are made of. Jeff Goldblum is an American actor working on the London stage, who is love struck by an English nurse (Emma Thompson). Rowan Atkinson is a hoot as Goldblum’s employer, a London stage comic beloved by his audience but an absolute backstage terror to cast and crew. The most hilariously choreographed sex scene ever put on film alone is worth the price of admission; and the extended set-piece, a staged musical version of The Elephant Man (a brilliant takeoff on Andrew Lloyd Webber) had me on the floor. This underrated gem is required viewing.

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Two for the Road – A swinging 60s version of Scenes from a Marriage. Director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) whips up a cinematic soufflé; folding in a sophisticated script by Frederick Raphael, a generous helping of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, a dash of colorful European locales, and topping it with a cherry of a score by Henry Mancini. Donen follows the travails of a married couple over the years of their relationship, by constructing a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards (a structural device that has been utilized since by other filmmakers, but rarely as effectively). While there are a lot of laughs, Two For the Road is, at its heart, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and true commitment. Finney and Hepburn have an electric on-screen chemistry.

Any news that fits: Criterion reissues The Front Page *** & His Girl Friday ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo January 28, 2017)

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Travel back with me now to the halcyon days of the chain-smoking star reporter…a time when men were men (and cracked wise) women were women (and cracked wiser), and fake news was but a colorfully enhanced version of the truth (as opposed to “alternative facts”). Actually, this particular version of “reality” existed largely within the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters

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The granddaddy of the genre is Lewis Milestone’s 1931 screen adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 Broadway hit, The Front Page. As Michael Sragow notes in his essay, included with Criterion’s Blu-ray reissue of the film and its 1940 remake, His Girl Friday:

[The Front Page] became famous, sometimes infamous, for its frankness about sleazy backroom politics and reckless, sensationalistic newspapers, and for its suggestive patter and profanity. It brought a crackling comic awareness of American corruption into popular culture, and it made rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue fashionable…

What did he say? “Profanity” in an American film from 1931? Well, this was “pre-Code” Hollywood, which is demarcated by the implementation of the 1930 Hays Code. Not strictly enforced by the major production studios until 1934, the Code set fairly strict guidelines on “morality” and message in films until it finally fizzed in 1968 (don’t laugh…could happen again).

That said, The Front Page feels a bit creaky and tame by today’s standards, and its “rapid fire” dialog is like slow-motion compared to the machine-gun patter of the 1940 revamp (more on that in a moment). Still, its historical value is inarguable, making it a most welcome “bonus” feature.

Bartlett Cormack adapted the screenplay from Hecht and MacArthur’s play, with “additional dialogue” by Charles Lederer (who was later re-deployed to adapt the same source material into His Girl Friday). Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, and Edward Everett Horton lead the fine cast.

O’Brien plays veteran reporter Hildy Johnson, on his last day at a Chicago tabloid. Much to the chagrin of his boss (and long-time friend) Walter Burns (Menjou), he has given notice and is about to head off to marry his sweetheart Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) and start a new career as a New York ad man. However, fate and circumstance intervene when an irresistible “exclusive” falls into Hildy’s lap regarding the imminent jailhouse execution of an anarchist, whose sentencing may not have been determined so much in the interest of jurisprudence as it was to benefit city officials up for re-election (political corruption in Chicago-how’d they get that idea?).

Criterion touts this particular restoration of The Front Page to be the closest approximation to date of the director’s “optimum cut”. It turns out that the version we’ve been seeing on TV, home video and at revivals all these years (along with the copy stored at the Library of Congress) was the so-called “foreign” version. In the early 30s, it apparently was not uncommon to shoot three different negatives; one destined for domestic audiences, and one each for British and “general foreign” distribution (I’ll admit I was previously unaware of this practice). As Sragow elaborates:

Cast and crew invariably saved their best efforts for the American version: the freshest, bounciest performances, the sharpest or most fluid camera work and staging, the keenest beats and cadences. For the other versions, filmmakers often rewrote scenes, substituting language and references that would be easier to grasp in other parts of the world. […] In 2014, the Academy set out to restore The Front Page from a 35 mm print that had been part of the Howard Hughes film collection at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. […] What’s most elating about Milestone’s preferred cut is not merely the restitution of more authentic language but the reclamation of more vibrant rhythms and images.

What he said-although again, I find the film a tad creaky. Still, kudos to Criterion for including it.

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There’s nothing “creaky” about Howard Hawks’ perennially fresh and funny newsroom comedy His Girl Friday, which is of course the “main feature” of this Criterion Blu-ray reissue package. Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht (uncredited) adapted the screenplay from the same Hecht and MacArthur stage version of The Front Page, but added some significant twists: pulling a gender switch on two of the primary characters, and modifying the backstory of a personal relationship.

Hildy remains a veteran reporter, but here is a female character (Rosalind Russell) who quits her job at a New York City paper, disappears for several months, then pops by the newsroom one day with a hot tip for ex-boss/ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant)-she’s off to Albany to marry and settle down with her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). As in The Front Page, Walter hates the idea of losing his star reporter (in this case for personal, as well as professional reasons).

In his heart of hearts, Walter (who freely admits that he wasn’t the best of husbands) doesn’t quite buy the idea that Hildy, a highly competitive, hard-boiled adrenaline junkie who enjoys nothing more than the challenge of getting the scoop on a hot story, has suddenly decided that settling down in Albany with a milquetoast insurance salesman is the life that she would prefer to lead. And so he sets about scheming to win her back. At this point, the narrative converges with The Front Page, vis a vis the subplot involving the condemned anarchist and the corrupt politicians.

What ensues is one of the most wonderfully played and rapidly-paced mashups of screwball comedy, romantic comedy, crime drama and social satire ever concocted this side of The Thin Man. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that director Howard Hawks already had two bonafide classic screwball comedies (Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby) under his belt.

Something to observe in repeat viewings is how Hawks masterfully frames all his shots; specifically how he choreographs the background action. The natural tendency is to focus on the overlapping repartee (delivered with such deftness and tight, precise pentameter that you could sync a metronome to it), but keep an eye out for sly sight gags that are easy to miss if you blink.

Something interesting that stood out upon my most recent viewing was the nascent feminism of the piece. For a film of its time, it is unusual enough to see such a strong and self-assured female character, much less one so matter-of-factually presented as being on equal footing with her male peers as Hildy. Her fellow reporters look up to her because they all acknowledge her as their best and brightest. That she happens to be a woman, is merely incidental. In this respect, I think of Russell’s inspired portrayal of Hildy as the prototype for future TV characters Mary Richards and Murphy Brown; I also see a lot of “her” in Holly Hunter’s memorable turn in Broadcast News.

Criterion’s hi-def transfer is stunning; I’ve never seen this film looking so good. The audio track (crucial in such a dialog-driven piece) is clean and crystal-clear (ditto for The Front Page, which was treated to a 4k transfer, in addition to its new restoration). Extras include an insightful new interview with film scholar David Bordwell about His Girl Friday, archival interviews with Howard Hawks, a new piece about writer Ben Hecht, radio adaptations of both films, and written essays about each film, presented as a faux-newspaper (a la Thick as a Brick…little reference for you Jethro Tull fans). The year is still young, but this is the best reissue of 2017 at this juncture.

Celebrating Independence: Top 10 Indie Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 4, 2015)

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With Independence Day upon us, I thought I’d share my top ten favorite indie films. You’ll notice that I went ahead and used “favorite” as a qualifier (instead of “greatest”) because I realized going in that there are as many differing views of what constitutes an “indie” as there are fingerprints (“What?! Not one Cassavetes on your list? No Altman?! Hartley, your critic’s license is revoked!”)

The most obvious explanation for the lack of a consensus would the simple fact that independent productions have been around for as long as cinema itself. Citizen Kane was an indie…as was Plan 9 from Outer Space; one is considered by many as the greatest film ever made, the other is considered by many as the worst (I rest my case). Is a film “independent” because it is made outside the system, or because it feels outside the box? We now live in an age when major studios have an “independent” division, churning out self-consciously “quirky” formula product like so much hipster catnip. Who’s to say?

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 Badlands– With only 6 feature-length projects over 40 years, reclusive writer-director Terrence Malick surely takes the prize as America’s Most Enigmatic Filmmaker. Still, if he had altogether vanished following this astonishing 1973 debut, his place in cinema history would still be assured. Nothing about Badlands betrays its modest budget, or suggests that there is anyone less than a fully-formed artist at the helm.

Set on the South Dakota prairies, the tale centers on a  ne’er do well (Martin Sheen, in full-Denim James Dean mode) who smooth talks naive high school-aged Holly (Sissy Spacek) into his orbit. Her widowed father (Warren Oates) does not approve of the relationship; after a heated argument the sociopathic Kit shoots him and goes on the lam with the oddly dispassionate Holly (the story is based on real-life spree killers Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate).

With this film, Malick took the “true crime” genre into a whole new realm of poetic allegory. Disturbing subject matter, to be sure, but beautifully acted, magnificently shot (Tak Fujimoto’s “magic hour” cinematography almost counts as a third leading character of the narrative) and one of the best American films of the 1970s.

Killer’s Kiss– It’s been fashionable over the years for critics and film historians to marginalize Stanley Kubrick’s 1955 noir as a “lesser” or “experimental” work by the director, but I beg to differ. The most common criticism leveled at the film is that it has a weak narrative. On this point, I tend to agree; it’s an original story and screenplay by Kubrick, who was a screenwriting neophyte at the time. Hence, the dialog is a bit stilted. But when you consider other elements that go into “classic” noir, like mood, atmosphere and the expressionistic use of light and shadow, Killer’s Kiss has all that in spades, and is one of the better noirs of the 1950s.

There are two things I find fascinating about this film. First, I marvel at how ‘contemporary’ it looks; somehow it doesn’t feel as dated as most films of the era (perhaps indicating how forward-thinking Kubrick was in terms of technique). This is due in part to the naturalistic location photography, which serves as a time capsule of New York City’s street life circa 1955.

Second, this was a privately financed indie, so Kubrick (who served as director, writer, photographer and editor) was not beholden to any studio expectations. Hence, he was free to play around a bit with film making conventions of the time (several scenes are eerily prescient of future work).

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Last Night– A profoundly moving low-budget wonder from writer/director/star Don McKellar. The story focuses on several Toronto residents and how they choose to spend (what they know to be) their final 6 hours. You may recognize McKellar from his work with director Atom Egoyan. He must have been taking notes, because as a director, McKellar has inherited Egoyan’s quiet, deliberate way of drawing you straight into the emotional core of his characters.

Fantastic ensemble work from Sandra Oh, Genevieve Bujold, Callum Keith Rennie, Tracy Wright and a rare acting appearance by director David Cronenberg. Although generally somber in tone, there are some laugh-out-loud moments, funny in a wry, gallows-humor way (you know you’re watching a Canadian version of the Apocalypse when the #4 song on the “Top 500 of All Time” is by… Burton Cummings!). The powerful final scene packs an almost indescribably emotional wallop.

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Pink Flamingos– “Oh Babs! I’m starving to death. Hasn’t that egg man come yet?” If Baltimore filmmaker/true crime buff/self-styled czar of “bad taste” John Waters had completely ceased making films after this jaw-dropping 1972 entry, his place in the cult movie pantheon would still be assured. Waters’ favorite leading lady (and sometimes leading man) Divine was born to play Babs Johnson, who fights to retain her title of The Filthiest Person Alive against arch-nemesis Connie Marble (Mink Stole) and her skuzzy hubby.

It’s a white trash smack down of the lowest order; shocking, sleazy, utterly depraved-and funny as hell. Animal lovers be warned-a chicken was definitely harmed during the making of the film (Waters insists that it was completely unintended, if that’s any consolation). If you are only familiar with Waters’ more recent work, and want to explore his truly indie “roots” I’d recommend watching this one first. If you can make it through without losing your lunch, consider yourself prepped for the rest of his oeuvre.

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Pow Wow Highway– A Native American road movie from 1989 that eschews stereotypes and tells its story with an unusual blend of social and magical realism. Gary Farmer (who greatly resembles the young Jonathan Winters) plays Philbert, a hulking Cheyenne with a gentle soul who wolfs down cheeseburgers and chocolate malts with the countenance of a beatific Buddha.

Philbert decides that it is time to “become a warrior” and leave the res on a vision quest to “gather power”. After choosing a “war pony” for his journey (a rusted-out beater that he trades for with a bag of weed), he sets off, only to be waylaid by his childhood friend (A. Martinez) an A.I.M. activist who needs a lift to Santa Fe to bail out his sister, framed by the Feds on a possession beef. Funny, poignant, uplifting and richly rewarding. Director Jonathan Wacks and screenwriters Janey Heaney and Jean Stawarz deserve kudos for keeping it real. Look for cameos from Wes Studi and Graham Greene.

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Radio On – You know how you develop an inexplicable emotional attachment to certain films? This no-budget 1979 offering from writer-director Christopher Petit, shot in stark B&W is one such film for me. That being said, I should warn you that it is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, because it contains one of those episodic, virtually plotless “road trip” narratives that may cause drowsiness for some viewers after about 15 minutes. Yet, I feel compelled to revisit this one at least once a year. Go figure.

A dour London DJ (David Beames), whose estranged brother has committed suicide, heads to Bristol to get his sibling’s affairs in order and attempt to glean what drove him to such despair (while quite reminiscent of the setup for Get Carter, this is not a crime thriller…far from it). He has encounters with various characters, including a friendly German woman, a sociopathic British Army vet who served in Northern Ireland, and a rural gas-station attendant (a cameo by Sting) who kills time singing Eddie Cochran songs.

But the “plot” doesn’t matter. As the protagonist journeys across an England full of bleak yet perversely beautiful industrial landscapes in his boxy sedan, accompanied by a moody electronic score (mostly Kraftwerk and David Bowie) the film becomes hypnotic. A textbook example of how the cinema is capable of capturing and preserving the zeitgeist of an ephemeral moment (e.g. England on the cusp of the Thatcher era) like no other art form.

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She’s Gotta Have It– “Please baby please baby please baby please!” One of director Spike Lee’s earlier, funny films (his debut, actually). A sexy, hip, and fiercely independent young woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggles relationships with three men (who are all quite aware of each other’s existence). Lee steals his own movie by casting himself as the goofiest and most memorable of the three suitors- “Mars”, a hilarious trash-talking version of the classic Woody Allen nebbish.

Lee milks maximum laughs from the huffing and puffing by the competing paramours, as they each jockey for the alpha position (and makes keen observations about sexist machismo and male vanity along the way). Spike’s dad Bill Lee composed a lovely jazz-pop score. Despite being a little rough around the edges (due to low budget constraints) it was still a groundbreaking film in the context of modern independent cinema, and an empowering milestone for an exciting new wave of talented African-American filmmakers who followed in its wake.

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Sherman’s March– Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. McElwee, a genteel Southern neurotic (think Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams) has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the most hilarious, moving and thought-provoking films that most people have never seen.

Audiences weaned on the glut of “reality TV” of recent years may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition. Sherman’s March actually began as a project to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate.

Despite its daunting 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time I saw it. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is worth your time as well.

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Stranger than Paradise – Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 debut firmly established his formula of long, static camera takes and deadpan observances on the inherent silliness of the human race. John Lurie is Willie, a brooding NYC slacker who spends most of his time hanging with his buddy Eddie (Richard Edson). Both suffer from terminal boredom, alleviated by constant bickering.

Enter Eva (Eszter Balint), Willie’s teenage cousin from Hungary, who shows up at his door (much to his chagrin). Eddie is intrigued, but the misanthropic Willie has no desire for a new roommate, blood relative or not, and Eva decides after a few days that she would probably find more welcoming accommodations with Aunt Lotte (delightfully played by Cecillia Stark), who lives in Cleveland.

Flash forward a year, and Willie and Eddie are still sitting around and bickering. Eddie convinces Willie that a road trip to Cleveland might break them out of their rut. Willie grumpily agrees, and off they go to visit Aunt Lotte and cousin Eva. Much low-key hilarity ensues.

Future film director Tom DiCillo did the fine black and white photography, evoking a strange beauty in the stark and wintry industrial flatness of Cleveland and its Lake Erie environs.

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Word, Sound and Power– This 1980 documentary by Jeremiah Stein clocks in at just over an hour, but is about the best film anyone is ever likely to make about roots reggae music and Rastafarian culture. Barely screened upon its original theatrical run and long coveted by music geeks as a Holy Grail until its belated DVD release in 2008 (when I was finally able to loosen my death grip on the sacred, fuzzy VHS copy that I had taped off of USA’s Night Flight back in the early 80s), it’s a wonderful time capsule of a particularly fertile period for the Kingston music scene.

Stein interviews key members of The Soul Syndicate Band, a group of prolific studio players who were sort of the Jamaican version of The Wrecking Crew (they backed Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, and Toots Hibbert, to name but a few). Beautifully photographed and edited, with outstanding live performances by the Syndicate. Musical highlights include “Mariwana”, “None Shall Escape the Judgment”, and a spirited acoustic version of “Harvest Uptown”.