Category Archives: Romantic Comedy

A dozen roses: 12 romantic comedies for Valentine’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 12, 2021)

With Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, I thought that I would share my 12 favorite romantic comedies with you. So in a non-ranking alphabetical order, here we go:

Amelie-Yes, I know this one has its share of detractors-but writer-director Jean-Pierre Juenet’s beautifully realized film (co-written with Gillaume Laurant) 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 like 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 will have to see for yourself. Whimsical, inventive, life-affirming, and wholly original, Amelie should melt the most cynical of hearts.

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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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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, the late 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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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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She’s Gotta Have It – “Please baby please baby please baby please!” One of writer-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. A 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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Smiles of a Summer Night– “Lighthearted romp” and “Ingmar Bergman” are not usually 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.

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 few lovers herself. Love in all 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 (the inspiration for Bergman admirer Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy).

Fast-paced, literate, and sensuous, Smiles of a Summer Night 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. Gorgeously photographed by Gunnar Fischer (he was also cinematographer for Bergman’s classics Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal).

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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. An underrated gem.

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Tampopo – Self billed as “The first Japanese noodle western”, this 1987 entry from writer-director Juzo Itami is all that and more. Nobuko Niyamoto is superb as the eponymous character, a widow who has inherited her late husband’s noodle house. Despite her dedication and effort to please customers, Tampopo struggles to keep the business afloat, until a deux ex machina arrives-a truck driver named Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki).

After one taste, Goro pinpoints the problem-bland noodles. No worries-like the magnanimous stranger who blows into an old western town (think Alan Ladd in Shane). Goro takes Tampopo on as a personal project, mentoring her on the Zen of creating the perfect noodle bowl. A delight from start to finish, offering keen insight on the relationship between food, sex and love.

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A Touch of Class  – Directed by Melvin Frank (The Court Jester, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) this 1973 film was co-written by the director with Jack Rose and Marvin Frank. George Segal and Glenda Jackson make a great comedy tag team as a married American businessman and British divorcee (respectively) who, following two chance encounters in London, quickly realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair.

The story falters a bit in the third act, when it begins to vacillate a little clumsily between comedy and morality tale, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. Segal has always shown a genius for screen comedy, but I think Jackson steals the film (and gets off some of the best zingers, with her impeccably droll “English-ness”).

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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, lasting commitment. Finney and Hepburn have an electric on-screen chemistry.

Blu-ray reissue: A Little Romance (***1/2)

Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 18, 2020)

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A Little Romance – Warner Archives

This 1979 comedy-drama from George Roy Hill (with a screenplay adapted from a Patrick Cauvin novel by Allan Burns) is best described as a puppy-love Before Sunset.

A 13-year-old movie-obsessed French boy with an above-average IQ (Thelonious Bernard) Meets Cute with a 13-year-old American girl with an above-average IQ (Diane Lane) on a movie set in Paris. They encounter a grandfatherly rapscallion (a hammy Laurence Olivier) who convinces them that the only way to affirm their love is to kiss under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset. The trio hit the road to Venice-with authorities in pursuit (alerted by the kids’ concerned parents).

This is a wonderful film; warm, funny, and endearing. Full of great little touches, like in the opening scene where Bernard is watching an American western dubbed in French. The film is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. In a later scene, he and Lane happen into a theater showing The Sting (obvious in-jokes for movie buffs, as both of those films were directed by Hill!). Also, in the opening scene Bernard snatches the poster for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on his way out and gets chased down the street by the theater manager…an homage to the opening scene in Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.

Warner Archives’ Blu-ray is bare bones (only one extra feature, “Remembering Romance with Diane Lane” which I have not got around to watching yet) but the transfer looks to have been taken from the best elements available (if not  actually “restored”). The audio is presented in the original 2.0 mono, but with DTS-HD Master Audio enhancement.

Blu-ray reissue: All Night Long (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 11, 2020)

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All Night Long – Kino-Lorber

This quirky, underrated romantic comedy from Belgian director Jean-Claude Tramont has been a personal favorite of mine since I first stumbled across it on late-night TV back in the mid-80s (with a million commercials).

Reminiscent of Michael Winner’s 1967 social satire I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘is Name, the film opens with a disenchanted executive (Gene Hackman) telling his boss to shove it, which sets the tone for the mid-life crisis that ensues.

Along the way, Hackman accepts a demotion offered by upper management in lieu of termination (night manager at one of the company’s drug stores), has an affair with his neighbor’s eccentric wife (an uncharacteristically low-key Barbra Streisand) who has been fooling around with his teenage son (Dennis Quaid), says yes to a divorce from his wife (Dianne Ladd) and decides to become an inventor (I told you it was quirky).

Marred slightly by some incongruous slapstick, but well-salvaged by W.D. Richter’s drolly amusing screenplay. Hackman is wonderful as always, and I think the scene where Streisand sings a song horrendously off-key (while accompanying herself on the organ) is the funniest thing she’s ever done in a film. Despite Hackman and Streisand’s star power, the movie was curiously ignored when it was initially released. Maybe this reissue will help it find new fans.

Even though the film does not necessarily appear to have been restored, the 1080p presentation is sharp, with decent color saturation. The sole extra is a new interview with screenwriter Richter, who (to my surprise) is cantankerous about how the film turned out!

My funny valentine: 10 Romantic Sleepers

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 15, 2020)

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I know …Valentine’s Day was yesterday. But at least I remembered. OK, I’m on the couch.

Anyway. I’ve combed through my review archives of the last decade or so and assembled a “top 10 list” of romantic comedies that may not have set the box office on fire, but are definitely worth seeking out. You may even fall in love with a few of these. Alphabetically:

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Blind Date – Is there a level of humor below “deadpan”? If so, I’d say that this film from Georgian director Levan Koguashvili has it in spades. A minimalist meditation on the state of modern love in Tbilisi (in case you’d been wondering), the story focuses on the romantic travails of a sad sack Everyman named Sandro (Andro Sakhvarelidze), a 40-ish schoolteacher who still lives with his parents. Sandro and his best bud (Archil Kikodze) spend their spare time arranging double dates via singles websites, with underwhelming results. Then it happens…Sandro meets his dream woman (Ia Sukhitashvili). There’s a mutual attraction, but one catch. Her husband’s getting out of jail…very soon. This is one of those films that sneaks up on you; archly funny, and surprisingly poetic. (Full Review)

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Emma Peters – As she careens toward her 35th birthday, wannabe thespian Emma (Monia Chakri, in a winning performance) decides that she’s had it with failed auditions and slogging through a humiliating day job. She’s convinced herself that 35 is the “expiry” date for actresses anyway. So, she prepares for a major change…into the afterlife. Unexpectedly lightened by her decision, she cheerfully begins to check off her bucket list, giving away possessions, and making her own funeral arrangements. However, when she develops an unforeseen relationship with a lonely young funeral director, her future is uncertain, and the end may not be near. A funny-sad romantic romp in the vein of Harold and Maude, from Belgian-American writer-director Nicole Palo. (Full Review)

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Hot Mess – Comedian-playwright Sarah Gaul does an endearing turn in writer-director Lucy Coleman’s mumblecore comedy about a 25 year-old budding playwright and college dropout who suffers from a lack of focus in her artistic and amorous pursuits. She expends an inordinate amount of her creative juice composing songs about Toxic Shock Syndrome. She becomes obsessed with a divorced guy who seems “nice” but treats her with increasing indifference once they’ve slept together. And so on. The narrative meanders at times, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny. (Full Review)

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Let the Sunshine In – The best actors are…nothing; a blank canvas. But give them a character and some proper lighting-and they’ll give back something that becomes part of us, and does us good: a reflection of our own shared humanity. Nature that looks like nature.

Consider Julilette Binoche, an actor of such subtlety and depth that she could infuse a cold reading of McDonald’s $1 $2 $3 menu with the existential ennui of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 123. She isn’t required to recite any sonnets in this film (co-written by director Claire Denis and Christine Angot), but her character speaks copiously about love…in all of its guises. And you may think you know how this tale of a divorcee on the rebound will play out, but Denis’ film, like love itself, is at once seductive and flighty. (Full Review)

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Liza, the Fox Fairy – If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale).

The story centers on Liza (Monika Balsa), an insular young woman who works as an assisted care nurse. Liza is a lonely heart, but tries to stay positive, bolstered by her cheerleader…a Japanese pop singer’s ghost. Poor Liza has a problem sustaining relationships, because every man she dates dies suddenly…and under strange circumstances. It could be coincidence, but Liza suspects she is a “fox fairy”, who sucks the souls from her paramours (and you think you’ve got problems?).

Director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet. (Full Review)

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A Matter of Size – When you think “star athlete”, it invariably conjures up an image of a man or a woman with zero body fat and abs of steel. Then there’s Herzl (Itzak Cohen), the unlikely sports hero of this delightful comedy from Israel.

Sweet, puppy-eyed and tipping the scales at 340 pounds, he lives with his overbearing mother, Mona (Levana Finkelstein) and works at a restaurant. After being cruelly fired for (essentially) his overweight appearance, Herzl falls into gloom. But when he experiences a mutual spark of attraction with a woman in his weight watchers group (Irit Kaplan) and finds a new job at a Japanese restaurant, managed by an ex-pro sumo coach (Togo Igawa)-his life takes unexpected turns.

It would have been easy for directors Sharon Maymon and Erez Tadmor to wring cheap laughs from their predominantly corpulent cast, but to their credit (and Danny Cohen-Solal, who co-scripted with Maymon) the characters emerge from their trials and tribulations with dignity and humanity intact. (Full Review)

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Mutual Friends – I’ve always found dinner parties to be a fascinating microcosm of human behavior; ditto genre films like The Anniversary Party, The Boys in the Band, and my all-time favorite Don’s Party. Sort of an indie take on Love, Actually, director Matthew Watts’ no-budget charmer centers on a group of neurotic New Yorkers (is that redundant?) converging for a surprise party.

In accordance with the Strict Rules of Dinner Party Narratives, logistics go awry, misunderstandings abound, unexpected romance ensues, and friendships are sorely tested. Despite formulaic trappings, the film is buoyed by clever writing, an engaging ensemble, and cheerful reassurance that your soul mate really is out there…somewhere. (Full Review)

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A Summer’s Tale – It’s nearly 8 minutes into this delightful 1996 Eric Rohmer film (which had a belated U.S. first-run in 2014) before anyone speaks; and it’s a young man calling a waitress over so he can order a chocolate crepe. But not to worry, because things are about to get interesting. In fact, our young man, an introverted maths grad named Gaspar (Melvil Poupaud) will soon find himself in a dizzying girl whirl. It begins when he meets the bubbly Margo (Amanda Langlet) an ethnologist major who is spending the summer working as a waitress at her aunt’s seaside crepery.

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”. Don’t despair; it won’t be like watching paint dry; even first-time Rohmer viewers will surely glean the late French director’s ongoing influence (particularly if you’ve seen Once, When Harry Met Sally, or Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy). (Full Review)

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2 Days in New York – Writer-director-star Julie Delpy’s 2012 sequel to her 2007 comedy 2 Days in Paris catches up with her character Marion, who now has a son and a new man in her life, a long-time friend turned lover Mingus (Chris Rock) who has added his tween daughter to the mix. The four live together in a cozy Manhattan loft.

Marion and Mingus are the quintessential NY urban hipster couple; she’s a photo-journalist and conceptual artist; he’s a radio talk show host who also writes for the Village Voice. Marion is on edge. She has an important gallery show coming up, and her eccentric family has just flown in from France for a visit and to get acquainted with her new Significant Other. The buttoned-down Mingus is in for a bit of culture shock. And yes-Franco-American culture-clash mayhem ensues. Smart, funny and engaging throughout. (Full Review)

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Your Sister’s Sister – This offering from Humpday writer-director Lynn Shelton is a romantic “love triangle” dramedy reminiscent of Chasing Amy. It’s a talky but thoroughly engaging look at the complexities of modern relationships, centering on a slacker man-child (Mark Duplass) his deceased brother’s girlfriend (Emily Blunt) and her sister (Rosemarie Dewitt), who all bumble into a sort of unplanned “encounter weekend” together at a remote family cabin. Funny, insightful and well-acted. (Full Review)

Blu-ray reissue: A Touch of Class (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 21, 2019)

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A Touch of Class  – Warner Archives

One of my favorite romantic comedies finally gets a Blu-ray upgrade, courtesy of Warner Archives. Directed by Melvin Frank (The Court Jester, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) the 1973 film was co-written by the director with Jack Rose and Marvin Frank. George Segal and Glenda Jackson star as a married American businessman and British divorcee (respectively) who, following two chance encounters in London, quickly realize there’s a mutual attraction and embark on an affair.

The story falters a bit in the third act, when it begins to vacillate a little clumsily between comedy and morality tale, but when it’s funny, it’s very funny. The best part of the film concerns the clandestine lovers’ first romantic getaway on a trip to Spain. Segal has always shown a genius for screen comedy, but I think Jackson steals the film (and gets off some of the best zingers, with her impeccably droll “English-ness”).

Warner continues their tradition of being stingy with extras, but the 1080p transfer, taken from a new 2K scan, delivers the highest-quality image I’ve seen of this entertaining film.

A funny people: A Faithful Man (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 10, 2019)

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Humorist Matt Groening once defined “cinema’s greatest paradox” thusly: “Sex is funny. The French are a funny people. Then why is it that no French sex comedies are funny?”

In my observation, over decades spent sitting in dark auditoriums munching on popcorn while gazing up at flickering images, sex comedies with subtitles have never struck me to be any less funny, nor particularly funnier than…sex comedies without them. It’s a wash.

In other words, Groening had me at “sex is funny.”

In my review of the late French director Eric Rohmer’s 1996 (wait for it) “sex comedy” A Summer’s Tale, I described it as “a movie where the characters spend more screen time dissecting the complexities of male-female relationships than actually experiencing them.” I think that also serves as a good working definition of most French sex comedies.

That is not to say that there are no “good” French sex comedies. Take A Faithful Man (aka “L’homme fidele”). It is very good. And it is very funny. And it is very short. Although it clocks in at 72 minutes, I’m guessing A Faithful Man says more about life, love, and the pursuit of happiness than, say, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw does in 136 minutes. Granted, I haven’t reviewed Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw-but seeing it took in $79,083,205 in its first week, it’ll limp by without my 2 cents.

Fashioning a narrative with the brevity of a fable, writer-director-star Louis Garrel and his veteran co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Belle de Jour, That Obscure Object of Desire, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Return of Martin Guerre, et al) dive right in. In the opening scene, 30-something Parisian Abel (Garrel) gets dumped by his girlfriend Marianne (Laetitia Casta). The double whammy: she tells Abel 1) she is pregnant by his best friend Paul and 2) they’ve set a wedding date.

Abel takes this in with relative calm. Perhaps it’s shock. Perhaps he was expecting this; perhaps not. Perhaps… he’s French. He asks a pragmatic question: this is sudden; may he keep his stuff at the apartment for now? She suggests it would be best if he starts packing.

Marianne marries Abel’s friend Paul. 8 years pass; Paul (we are told) dies unexpectedly.

One thing leads to another, and Abel and Marianne are back together (it’s been an eventful 10 minutes). There are, of course, complications this time around. There is Marianne’s son Joseph (Joseph Engel), now a precocious 8-year old not quite ready to give Abel his stamp of approval. And there is the departed Paul’s little sister Eve (Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp), now a comely child-woman who (it turns out) has been infatuated with Abel since she was knee-high to a sauterelle.

It’s a messy love triangle that would make Eric Rohmer proud. What ensues recalls Hannah and Her Sisters (especially in how characters provide first person exposition via voice-over) with a touch of Dangerous Liaisons (interestingly, co-writer Carrière’s screenwriting credits include Valmont, the 1989 adaptation from the same source novel).

Despite obvious influences, Garrel’s film is original, inventive and engaging. Casta and Depp are charming and charismatic, and Garrel’s performance as a malleable pushover perpetually confounded by the mysteries of amour reminded me of Francois Truffaut muse Jean-Pierre Léaud’s recurring “Antoine Doinel” character (particularly in Love on the Run). Cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky makes good use of the lovely Paris locales.

In a movie season I’ve been known to label “big, dumb and loud”, A Faithful Man could be that romantic late-summer getaway that the adults have been craving at the multiplex.

SIFF 2019: Emma Peeters (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Maybe it’s coincidence, but what with the popularity of the HBO series Barry and this new black comedy from Belgian-American writer-director Nicole Palo, it appears acting class satires with dark undercurrents are now a thing.

As she careens toward her 35th birthday, wannabe thespian Emma (Monia Chakri, in a winning performance) decides that she’s had it with failed auditions and slogging through a humiliating day job. She’s convinced herself that 35 is the “expiry” date for actresses anyway. So, she prepares for a major change…into the afterlife.

Unexpectedly lightened by her decision, she cheerfully begins to check off her bucket list, giving away possessions, and making her own funeral arrangements. However, when she develops an unforeseen relationship with a lonely young funeral director, her future is uncertain, and the end may not be near. A funny-sad romantic romp in the vein of Harold and Maude.

Often inclined to borrow somebody’s dreams: Wild Nights With Emily (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 13, 2019)

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Do you like poetry? Do you like song mashups? Here’s an interesting mashup for you:

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

I never realized the lengths
I’d have to go
All the darkest corners of a sense
I didn’t know

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –

Just for one moment –
Hearing someone call
Looked beyond the day in hand
There’s nothing there at all

Two of those verses are taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson (circa 1861). The other two verses are lyrics from a Joy Division song (circa 1980). Can you tell which is which?

Well…if you are more cultured than I (which is highly likely) or know anything about poetry (which would be more than I know) it’s plain as the nose on your face that verses 1 and 3 are from a 19th-Century poem, and verses 2 and 4 come from a 20th-Century song.

I made this association while conducting extensive background research for my review of Madeline Olnek’s Wild Nights With Emily (OK, I Googled “Emily Dickinson poems”, and that was one of the first search results. Happy now?). I was struck by Ms. Dickinson’s magnificently dark and timeless…Goth-iness. I mean “Wrecked, solitary, here”? I could totally hear (the wrecked, solitary, and late) Ian Curtis crooning the words.

Who was this intriguing woman of letters who toiled in relative obscurity for the 55 years she strolled the planet (1830-1886), seeing only a dozen or so of her 1,800 poems published during her life, but is now revered and studied and mentioned in the same breath as Whitman, Frost and Eliot? Was she really (as legend has it) the brooding, agoraphobic spinster who wears a Mona Lisa expression in that lone Daguerreotype portrait-or did she feel life was a banquet, and most poor suckers were starving to death?

Luckily for those of us who flee in terror at the prospect of sitting through a scholarly cinematic treatise soaking in the mannered trappings of a genre that a longtime friend of mine dismisses with a snort as “hat movies”, Olnek concocts kind of a mashup herself by mixing material from Dickinson’s poems and private letters with a touch of spirited speculation regarding details of her private life (think of it as well-researched fan fiction).

This lighter tone is assured by casting SNL veteran and comic actor Molly Shannon, who tackles the lead role with much aplomb. Her performance suggests an Emily Dickinson who indeed may have spent most of her adult life house-bound and somewhat socially isolated, but perhaps not so completely bereft of passion and joy as historically portrayed.

Most of that passion and joy manifests itself in the scenes depicting Emily’s longtime “close friendship” with her sister-in-law Susan (Susan Ziegler), the woman who some biographers and historians have theorized to be the key romantic figure in Dickinson’s life; confidant, mentor, muse, and (assumed) secret lover. This is complicated by the fact they live next door to each other (at least in the film), adding door-slamming “Oh no! Your husband/my brother is home early-get dressed!” bedroom farce to the proceedings.

There are echoes of Comedy Central’s costume drama parody Another Period throughout, exacerbated by an appearance from Brett Gelman-one of that show’s more recognizable cast members. Gelman does a nice turn as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an early advocate of women’s rights and prominent staff member of The Atlantic Monthly who was a mentor (of sorts) to Dickinson (oddly, even though they formed a long friendship and exchanged many letters-he never pushed her hard to get published while she was still alive; but he did co-edit the first two posthumous collections of her poems).

Another key figure in Emily’s orbit is Mabel Loomis Todd (well-played by Amy Seimetz). Mabel is an interesting character; the de facto heavy of the piece, she also serves as the film’s narrator. Mabel Todd was the longtime mistress of Emily’s brother Austin (Kevin Seal), who (if you’ve been paying attention) was married to Susan, Emily’s longtime secret lover. Todd was also an editor and writer, who ended up co-editing the aforementioned posthumous collections of Dickinson’s poems with Thomas Higginson (which is a bit weird considering that Emily and Mabel never met in person).

This is about as far from an Oscar-baiting prestige biopic one can get, but as movies about writers and poets are a hard-sell to begin with (not enough explosions, car chases, CGI characters or Marvel superheroes to capture the general movie-going public’s attention) Olnek made a wise choice to think outside the box. Wild Nights with Emily may not be the flashiest film in theaters now, but it’s the only one with poetry in its soul.

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Stop that train: R.I.P. Albert Finney

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 9, 2019)

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Albert Finney died yesterday, and more people should have cared. I almost missed it myself, which is odd considering how much time I fritter and waste in an offhand way online these days. It didn’t even trend on Twitter, for fuck’s sake. No, I learned of his passing the old-fashioned way: a perfunctory mention on a nightly network TV newscast.

A file photo of Finney popped up (rarely a good sign), and the blow-dried anchor mustered all the teleprompter-fed solemnity extant in his soul to sadly inform me that “the actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the movie version of Annie has died” before moving on to “a video you have got to see”. The actor who played Daddy Warbucks in the film version of Annie? Really? That’s all you got? I wouldn’t call that his most memorable performance; I wouldn’t even consider Annie to be a particularly good movie.

The Royal Shakespeare Theatre-trained Finney’s film career spanned over 50 years, and in the course of that time he proved over and over that he had chops to spare for both drama and comedy. Innately charismatic onscreen, he could effortlessly hold your attention as the dashing leading man, or just as easily embed himself into a character role.

Finney never strayed too far from his working-class roots in his off-screen demeanor. He shunned interviews and the trappings of stardom; he was all about the work. He declined the offer of a CBE (as well as a knighthood) and once compared an actor’s job to that of a bricklayer. So let’s get to work here, shall we? My picks for Finney’s top 10 film roles…

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The Dresser– Peter Yates directed this tale of a fiercely devoted “dresser” (Tom Courtenay) who tends to the mercurial lead player (Finney) of a traveling company’s production of King Lear. The story is set against the backdrop of London during the blitz, but it’s a tossup as to who is producing more Sturm and Drang…the German bombers, the raging king, or the backstage terror who portrays him and is to be addressed by all as “Sir”. Courtenay and Finney deliver brilliant performances. Ronald Harwood adapted the script from his own play. In the most memorable scene, Sir literally halts a locomotive in its tracks at a noisy railway station with his commanding bellow to “STOP. That. Train!”

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Gumshoe– This relatively obscure U.K. gem from 1971 was produced by Finney and marked the feature film directing debut for Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, The Grifters, High Fidelity, et. al.). Finney is wonderful as an emcee who works in a seedy Liverpool nightclub and models himself after Philip Marlowe. He decides to indulge his long-time fantasy of becoming a private detective by placing a newspaper ad offering his services-and gets more than he bargains for with his first case.

Screenwriter Neville Smith’s clever dialog is infused with just enough shadings of Chandler and Hammet to deflect suspicion of plagiarism (and Finney thankfully doesn’t overdo his Bogey impression-which isn’t half-bad). Nice supporting turn from Billie Whitelaw, and Frears’ use of the gritty Liverpool milieu lends an appropriate “noir” vibe.

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Miller’s Crossing– This 1990 gangster flick could only come from the unique mind-meld of Joel and Ethan Coen. Finney is excellent as an Irish mob boss engaging in a power struggle with the local Italian mob during the Prohibition era. Gabriel Byrne (who is the central character of the film) portrays his advisor, who attempts to broker peace by playing both sides against the middle. This form of diplomacy does carry a certain degree of personal risk (don’t try this at home).

You do have to pay attention in order to keep up with the constantly shifting alliances and betrayals and such; but as with most Coen Brothers movies, if you lose track of the narrative you always have plenty of twisty performances, stylish flourishes, and mordant humor to chew on until you catch up again.

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Orphans– There is sometimes a fine line between “intense drama” and “overcooked ham”, and while I will admit that this 1987 Alan J. Pakula adaptation of Lyle Kessler’s stage play toddles dangerously close to that line, it is still well worth your time.

Matthew Modine and Kevin Anderson are two fringe-dwelling brothers who live on their own in a decrepit house. Finney is a low-rent Chicago gangster who gets blotto at a New Jersey bar, and upon waking up discovers he’s been “kidnapped” by Modine, who has a hold over his brother reminiscent of the dynamic between the sisters in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The story becomes even stranger when Finney decides then and there to move in and impose himself as a father figure. It’s a bit ‘stagey’, but the acting is superb.


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Saturday Night and Sunday Morning– This 1960 Karel Reisz drama gave the 24-year-old Finney his first major starring role and is one of the seminal entries of the “British New Wave” film movement. Finney delivers an explosive Brando-esque performance as a womanizing young man stuck in a dreary factory job. Allen Sillitoe adapted the screenplay from his own novel. A gritty slice of life steeped in “kitchen sink” realism.

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Shoot the Moon– Be forewarned: Alan Parker’s 1982 drama about the deterioration of a marriage pulls no punches (it is right out as a “date night” movie). Finney co-stars with Diane Keaton as a couple with four kids whose marriage is about to go kaput. As in Kramer vs. Kramer, the film essentially opens with the split, and then focuses on the immediate emotional aftershocks and its profound impact on all family members.

Absolutely heartbreaking, but beautifully acted by a skilled cast that includes Karen Allen, Peter Weller, and Dana Hill. Bo Goldman scripted, and Michael Seresin’s cinematography is lovely (the Marin County environs almost becomes a character itself).

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Tom Jones– The film that made Finney an international star, Tony Richardson’s 1963 romantic comedy-drama is based on the Henry Fielding novel about the eponymous character’s amorous exploits in 18th-Century England.

Tom (Finney) is raised as the bastard son of a prosperous squire. He is a bit on the rakish side, but wholly lovable and possesses a good heart. It’s the “lovable” part that gets him in trouble time and again, and fate and circumstance put young Tom on the road, where various duplicitous parties await to prey upon his naivety. Will he triumph? Of course, he will…the entertainment lies in how he gets there.

John Osborne adapted the Oscar-winning script; the film also won for Best Picture, Director, and Music Score (Finney was nominated for Best Actor).

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Two For the Road– Director Stanley Donen’s 1967 romantic comedy is 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 (both at the peak of their sex appeal) exude an electric on-screen chemistry.

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Under the Volcano– John Huston’s masterful 1984 adaptation of Michael Lowry’s novel stars Finney as a self-destructive British consul stationed in Mexico on the eve of WW2. The story tracks the consul on the last day of his life, as it unfolds during Dia de los Muertas celebrations (the irony is strong in this tale). Very dark and steeped in dread. Superb performances all round from a cast that includes Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews and Katy Jurado. Guy Gallo wrote the script. My favorite Finney performance.

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Wolfen– This 1981 supernatural thriller from director Michael Wadleigh generated mixed reviews, but I think it has held up rather well. Sort of a thinking person’s horror film, it follows a NYPD homicide detective (Finney) and his partner (Gregory Hines) as they investigate a series of grisly murders. The victims’ wounds indicate something much akin to a wild animal attack. Add elements of ancient Native American legends regarding “shapeshifters” and things get…interesting. Granted, some of the early 80s visual effects haven’t aged well, but overall Wolfen is a smart, absorbing, and genuinely creepy chiller.

Blu-ray reissue: Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema [box set] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema – Criterion Collection Blu-ray (Box Set)

One of my favorite exchanges from Barry Levinson’s infinitely quotable 1981 film Diner occurs between two friends sitting in a theater watching the Ingmar Bergman classic The Seventh Seal:

Edward ‘Eddie’ Simmons: Who’s that?

William ‘Billy’ Howard: That’s ‘Death’ walking on the beach.

.Edward ‘Eddie’ Simmons: I’ve been to Atlantic City a hundred times. I never saw Death walking on the beach.

Speaking for myself, I saw Death walking on the beach just the other day, in a restored 4K print. It’s one of the 39 films included in Criterion’s exhaustive, bicep-building box set. I have previously seen approximately half of the films in this collection; several I have never even heard of (18 of these titles have never before been released by Criterion).

My plan of attack is to watch the films in chronological order of original release dates. OK, full disclosure: I watched the first two (neither of which I had previously seen, from the late 1940s) but then cheated by skipping ahead to The Seventh Seal (couldn’t wait to see the restored version). So…36 to go (is mid-winter a bad time of year to plow through a box full of Bergman films? Discuss). From what I’ve seen so far, the prints are gorgeous.

Extras. Where to start? There are 5 hours of interviews with Bergman and some key collaborators. There are 2 rare documentary shorts by the director, extensive programs about Bergman’s work, “making of” featurettes, video essays by critics and film scholars, a 248-page hardbound book…everything short of a collectable Death action figure. Discs are mounted in numbered slots on cardboard flip-through “pages” (kind of like an oversized coin collection) and curated as a “film festival”. Of course, you can watch them in any order that you wish (especially at this price). A treasure trove for art house fans!