May 30, 2016

The Razor's Edge

Shenanigans. Elliot Gould, Tom Skerritt, Donald Sutherland
Those of you who think that movies are entirely a visual medium, and that the script is nothing more than a springboard—a prop in a stage play—just try imagining Robert Altman's MASH (1970) without the script (credited to Ring Lardner Jr., who won an Oscar for it). The constant hubbub of overlapping dialogue, the profanity, the screaming, the cockeyed optimism—this corrosive, kinky screenplay does more than delineate character and set situation in the traditional commercial-movie way (advancing the narrative by having the characters "talk" the plot). The screenplay—about Army medics trying to save lives and stave off despair a few miles from the fighting front during the Korean War—binds the visual madness together into a cohesive, realistic world. Lardner and Altman make the movie a critique of highfalutin and hypocrisy—it's blackly funny but not cynical.

Other American movies of the time reflect the Vietnam War, dirty politics, and the country's disgust with itself—Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1967), Irvin Kershner's The Flim-Flam Man (1967) with George C. Scott as an M.B.S., C.S., D.D. confidence man ("Master of Back-Stabbing, Cork-Screwing, and Dirty-Dealing"), Blake Edwards's draggy and tasteless What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966), Ted Post's Hang 'Em High (1968), Don Siegel's Coogan's Bluff (1968). Many of these movies simmer with corruption, cynicism, and often what feels like gratuitous bloodshed (although the carnage in The Wild Bunch is a far more sophisticated, ambivalent violence that makes the audience question cherished beliefs about "civilized" manhood). Altman could have gone entirely cynical, too, but what makes MASH so satisfying is that he expresses a realistic idealism—the moviemakers keep their sanity, the way the medics keep theirs, not by a Frank Burns sort of preaching, but by demonstrating integrity and compassion, and disdaining hypocrisy and phoniness. MASH is a picture of redemption.

The bloody work of an army surgical unit is shown in a new way—not for didactic distancing (the way wounded men in war movies in the Forties and Fifties were used as homilies, swollen with sacrificial virtue), and not for the repellent gross-outs and shock effects of movies that use violence pornographically. In MASH, the blood-spattered surgical gowns, scalpels, and clamps are filmed for balance (and mostly in medium shot); the talented medics are humanized by working feverishly in rotten conditions to staunch bloodflow or save limbs (sometimes unsuccessfully). Even the satiric butts, like the prissily bossy "Hot Lips" O'Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) and the sanctimonious hypocrite Frank Burns (Robert Duvall), are picked up and dusted off after being scraped across the gravel (although Altman perhaps mishandles Burns's departure by stripping him of any vestige of pride he had—the scene goes for a cheap laugh at the character's expense). The surgery scenes give weight and purpose to the sexual shenanigans and practical jokes. The MASH campground resembles Freedonia, the mythical kingdom of wartime mayhem in the Marx Brothers' great Duck Soup (1933), only it's a Freedonia without the loopy Dada.

Altman's direction is excellent; he and his cameraman abruptly pan and zoom in and out to punctuate visual and verbal jokes, and the hip actors in the cast (who seem to know they're making movie comedy history) take advantage of Altman's generosity by improvising some bits. If the screenplay is a springboard for anything, it's improvisation, and it has the same tone as inspired improvisation. The story goes that Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland quarreled with Altman on the set. But their performances are marvels of corrosive wit, and reflect a cathartic release of tension.

The Last Supper.

The miracle of MASH is that it so successfully combines the taboo breaching of gallows humor—laughing at suffering to stay sane—with the naturalistic coarseness of low comedy: the movie balances bone saws and foul mouths, and spills off the screen in torrents. Although Korea is the ostensible setting, you know that the movie is really showing the madness of Vietnam, and telling America that it's possible to do good work and sustain your sanity and humanity amid the senselessness of bloodshed and strangling bureaucracy. The effect is restorative, a work of humanism. MASH is a Rabelaisian black comedy, and one of the most sensible American movie satires ever.

May 18, 2016

Out of Italy

The celebrated partnership of Vittorio De Sica, an actor who became one of Italy's—and the West's—most revered directors, and Cesare Zavattini, a screenwriter and film theorist, was inaugurated in the movies with the luminous The Children Are Watching Us in 1944, although the two knew each other for more than a decade prior. Together, their collaborations of Italian neorealism were more mystical and sometimes allegorical than the harsher social portraits of corruption and decay in the work of other Italian neorealists like Luchino Visconti and Roberto Rossellini. The De Sica-Zavattini films are smaller-scale studies in frailty and innocence; they paint not society but individuals in unselfconscious strokes, like prose poetry. When we've forgotten the scenes of wartorn Rome and its political infighting in Rossellini, we remember the disillusioned faces in De Sica.

Scenes from childhood. Luciano De Ambrosis
Zavattini's realism is an homage to the nineteenth century Russian novelists, particularly Turgenev and Tolstoy. (Jean Renoir paid tribute to the Russian and French realists in much the same way.) De Sica, a great director, uses actors' faces and classic narrative conventions like linearity and situational irony to tell stories of the bereft—losers, dreamers, and children enduring the cold hopelessness of loveless lives. He hits his mark, too. The emotional impact of these movies wells up like a rising tide, evenly and surely. In the final scene, the camera fixes on the back of the abandoned child as he trudges away, and the indictment of all squabbling, selfish, vain adults is complete.

The De Sica-Zavattini collaboration produced about twenty films, including the hallowed masterpieces Shoeshine (1946), Bicycle Thieves (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951), and Umberto D. (1952). The Children Are Watching Us isn't quite one of the masterpieces, but its incandescence and almost Petrarchan sweetness can't be shaken off easily. It points the way to the fables of Truffaut, the Taviani brothers, and Shunji Iwai.

April 16, 2016


What made Rex Harrison want to be in Dr. Doolittle? Was he strapped for cash? Did he screen Barabbas or Fantastic Voyage or The Vikings and have an overwhelming urge to be on a set with Richard Fleischer? Was he hankering to speak dialogue written by the insipid Leslie Bricusse, or sing-speak Bricusse's mind-numbing songs about the virtues of vegetarianism, with their canned Broadway blandness? Did Harrison think that his style of drawing-room wit would be complemented by the obnoxious Anthony Newley, whose acting career was distinguished by broad yuk-yuks and refrigerated ham?

Did Harrison think that audiences in the late Sixties—hip college audiences who were getting turned on to European directors and experimental styles—wanted gut-busting dances and stale, phoned-in stupidity from a bygone age of movie musical crap, an anachronistic studio production that's too long for kids to sit through and too asinine for normal adults to stand?

Maybe Harrison had a more practical motive. Did 20th Century-Fox agree to put his grandkids through college?

Seal abuse. Rex Harrison
This monstrosity of a movie musical achieves a dubious distinction, even in an age of awful musicals coming from many of the major studios at the time: it's utterly and completely charmless. Not a single scene, not a single song, not a single sentence, not a single conception has any of the light, carefree style and breezy satire of good musicals like Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and It's Always Fair Weather. That's hardly surprising. But even most of the other blubbery movie musicals at the time of Dr. Doolittle that all helped to sink the big Hollywood studios financially—Camelot, The Happiest Millionaire, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Hello, Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon, Sweet Charity—have moments with some appeal: a passable number here, a clever performance there. Dr. Doolittle stands apart in such a dull crowd; it's devoid of anything good from start to finish. It may be the worst stinking musical of its time.

Every response you're likely to have, scene by scene, song by song, seems inadvertent. Watching the posh, sexless Harrison in his silk opera hat sing a love song to a seal doesn't exactly generate tender emotions in you; you're more likely to react with revulsion. For hapless viewers, this beached whale of a movie is human-animal abuse.

April 7, 2015


I'm very nostalgic for those stray movies between about 1979 and 1983 that gave hip audiences a sense of ownership of those movies—a smaller version of what hit college audiences in the late 1960s with Antonioni and Altman and Mike Nichols. By 1979 we had already been slugged by the space-serial blockbusters and mugged by the calculated emotions of Kramer vs. Kramer and On Golden Pond. But these other movies—like Peter Yates's Breaking Away and the Bill Forsyth movies Gregory's Girl and Local Hero and Fred Schepisi's Barbarosa and Iceman—made us college students feel like an intelligent, respected film audience with minds and good taste in stories and dialogue. I was at U.C. Santa Barbara when Local Hero and Peter Weir's The Year of Living Dangerously opened, and the university audience at the old theater in Isla Vista just ate them up. You were hit with a palpable sensation of satisfaction, and you thought, "Movies can be good."

But whatever it was, it was evanescent and got swallowed up, again, in crummy commercialism and emotional banality—junk like those really awful John Hughes movies and Top Gun and Flashdance. My heart sinks just thinking about how the huge mass of teen crud in the 1980s pushed out what little bits of potential appeared, magically, every so often in the American commercial film.

Almost thirty years later, American movies are a cross-fertilized art of hyperactive cutting and visceral sensations—arcade games and theme park thrill rides. Movies are designed for the enormous resolutions and nanosecond refresh rates. Those who find the current experience breathtaking must be having the time of their lives.

Generation gap. The Godfather (1972)
Before HDTV and home theater systems, people were better off going to the theaters to see not only movies with impressive visual dimensions (Citizen Kane, 1900, La Ronde) but also movies whose intended effects relied on communal audience involvement—not just sidesplitting comedies but melodramas like Now, Voyager that seemed stronger when people around you laughed or gasped when you did on first seeing the slimmed-down, self-actualized Charlotte Vale on the ship's gangway. When we opt to stay home to watch, I think we forgo the communalism of an audience of strangers who are reacting just like us. In many cases, moviegoing really is a shared experience—like a neighborhood's banding together in the face of adversity.

Not so much these days, but there were times when I went to see an old movie (Genevieve, for example, or Panic in Needle Park) at a revival theater essentially to experience the audience reaction to my favorite parts. I wanted to see these strangers respond like me, because their responses made them seem momentarily closer than actual friends. After a good movie—an immersive, great narrative experience like The Godfather Part 2, for example—I loved walking back up the aisle in the dim light with the rest of the audience, and I just knew that everyone was dazedly thinking the same thing, and the god of movies had bestowed a rare gift.

March 17, 2014

Isn't It Lucky?

Saratoga Trunk has long been at the top of my list of guilty pleasures. This 1945 costume melodrama is stuffed with the emotional and thematic detritus of mid-century romance novels. The plot is a tumbling fiasco of carriages, tight bodices, card sharps, cheroots, and whores—what used to be called "tempestuous." There isn't a single boring moment, or a single sensible one. For overheated ludicrousness, Saratoga Trunk outpaces virtually all of its competitors, including Gone With the Wind (1939), Forever Amber (1947), The Strange Woman (1946), and the Gainsborough Studio melodramas of the same period (The Wicked Lady, Madonna of the Seven Moons, The Man in Grey).

Ingrid Bergman is Clio Dulaine, a feisty demimondaine prone to occasional bouts of hysteria. She sashays around the marketplace in New Orleans, her dwarf (Jerry Austin) and mulatto maid (Flora Robson) in tow, flirting with the laconic, mentally slow Texan gambler Clint Maroon (Gary Cooper). Bergman does more than give the role fire: she makes Clio sleazy, sexy, and dangerous. It's one of Bergman's most enjoyable performances; she was never before so outlandish. It's as if the girl in Gaslight (1944) really had been driven mad at the end and decided to taunt and tempt all the men in the city to avenge herself.

Southern flirt. Ingrid Bergman
The whole movie is uninhibited and unhinged. Sam Wood, the director, made sure that no one put the brakes on. Maybe he thought he was still working with the Marx Brothers. The ramrod-straight Gary Cooper specializes here (much as he did in Sternberg's great Morocco in 1931) in being a dorky, galumphing target for the randy Clio (he often languidly stretches out his boots in front of her while she gazes down at them, excitedly). As the prim and pinched maid Angelique, Flora Robson performs in blackface and delivers all her lines in a huff (she's worried about her charge's reputation, if you can believe it). The actress played a similar part (also in face paint) opposite Vivien Leigh's kittenish queen in Caesar and Cleopatra about a year earlier, but this maid, clucking and scuttling after her mistress, with the dwarf bringing up the rear, is a damn sight stranger (and funnier) than that soggy Shaw adaptation (too tightly constricted by misplaced reverence and leaden bulk).

Saratoga Trunk is like a MAD magazine sendup of Edna Ferber (who wrote the novel and screenplay) or one of Georgette Heyer's insipid romances. Everything comes vibrantly alive on the screen—the dialog, the steamy moss-hung sets, the deserted Gothic mansion haunted by ghosts real or imagined, the satiny cinematography, and the music (the main theme is just about Max Steiner's best). It pulsates as artifice. Up through the 1950s, Hollywood melodramas were consistently Brechtian. Saratoga Trunk intentionally quashes any emotional identification and avoids any semblance of authenticity, except in one scene: Clio sings a sexily moist song to Clint in Creole French, and for the first time you get the feeling that art is imitating life. It's a put-on, but an earnest one.

December 5, 2013


The thinking—if that's the word—behind The Expendables 2 (2012) seems to be: "We're over-the-hill action stars who can no longer slam our surly carcasses around a movie set the way we used to, so let's play this for laughs."

The problem with the cast (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, and Randy Couture) is that their self-referential shenanigans, which are supposed to be with-it and amusing, fall totally flat, while their earnest attempts at macho action (firing automatics and engaging in hand-to-hand combat) are pedestrian and embarrassingly tired. These lunkheads are too old and corpulent to be doing what they're doing: they stand with their feet planted in place and swivel their hips, like plastic action figures, hitting hundreds of bad guys in the chest and face with a barrage of expensive ammo. The interactive action figures in video games have more life than these movie "legends" do. The exceptions are the physically fit, scruffy Statham and a cardboard henchman named Scott Adkins, who every so often remembers to speak his lines with that phony Slavic accent that only young children and movie publicists love. What is it with cornball Russian villains in action movies? Adkins is a carbon copy of previous carbon copies, from Ivan Drago (Rocky IV) to Sergeant Yushin (Rambo) to Mickey Rourke's Whiplash (Iran Man 2), but he doesn't resonate at all, even when his skull is pulverized by a propeller.
Action savior. Jet Li

The only person who brings any class to this noisy imbecility is the prodigiously gifted Jet Li, who executes his one fight scene with panache, perfect timing, and genuine wit. He also wraps it up in a sophisticatedly brief fifteen or twenty minutes, and then he splits. Li seems to be in a different movie (actually, he was in a different movie at the time, the beautiful Flying Swords of Dragon Gate). He's a deft acrobat, like the great silent movie clowns, casually smacking each opponent in turn with a cooking utensil, and just when you expect him to knock out the one remaining opponent, Li gives him a quick jab with the palm of his hand to send him toppling, and then shrugs and wriggles his nose like Chaplin besting Mack Swain in The Gold Rush (1925). Everything about Li is elevated above this slop, and he gives moviegoers something back for the time they've invested.

The Western stock actors of the 1940s and '50s—John Wayne, Bob Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Ward Bond, Jim Davis, etc.—kept churning out Westerns in the 1960s and '70s, trying to keep their own outsized myths going despite saggy faces and widening girths, hauling themselves up on horseback with the finesse of walruses. The Expendables 2 exemplifies a superannuated genre, and like those late '60s Westerns filled with yesteryear's stars who were well past their sell dates, it has all the charisma of a ranchers' convention. I hate to see Jet Li associated with something like this, not because he unbalances the movie with his talent but because, by saving a movie with no other redeeming value, he's used sacrificially.

November 21, 2013

Staying Alive

Onibaba (1964), the Kaneto Shindo film I'd been meaning to see for ten years, isn't particularly terrifying or scaled to overwhelm. But its photographic inventiveness and shocks (which are both visual and sexual) have an atavistic creepiness; watching these famine-stricken peasants run through fields of Susuki grass, wolfishly chasing down mortally wounded soldiers, puts your nerves on edge.

Wolves. Nobuko Otowa, Kei Sato, and Jitsuko Yoshimura
Like the barren heath in King Lear, the setting is a Hobbesian marketplace of killing, pilfering from the dead, and exchanging the plunder for food. The Japanese countryside is a wasteland, bereft of a moral center. The social hierarchy (during a period of medieval civil war) is nothing more than an immediate function of who cooperates with whom, or who preys on whom. It's often the smaller, nimbler predators—like the two women—who maintain control. But the movie's point of view is that "nature red in tooth and claw" will out; alliances disintegrate amid a heated atmosphere of animal sex and betrayal. In the end, the two women and their male partner are revealed as opportunistic demons who have sacrificed their humanity.

Onibaba isn't as all-encompassing as Kon Ichikawa's masterpiece Fires on the Plain (1959)—the latter has a forgelike intensity that makes it a visionary, emotional experience. But the two movies have similar themes: the grisly horrors of war, cannibalism (figurative in Onibaba and literal in Fires on the Plain), and the black comedy of the superior strength of flesh over spirit.

November 2, 2013


Just about every venerated American institution takes it on the kisser in His Girl Friday (1940). Nothing is sacred—politics, marriage, motherhood, sentiment, patriotism, and the values of the Fourth Estate all get deveined and dunked in butter like shrimp. The prodigious Howard Hawks directs for breathless laughs; he and his actors (Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Clarence Kolb, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, and Regis Toomey) generate a mind-blowing tempo in the dialogue. This fast-talking high point of screen newspaper comedies raises the American movie vernacular to a Benzedrine-fueled art. His Girl Friday is the Menckenesque city of salty reporters, toadying careerists, gangsters, politicos, and simpletons—a modern commedia dell'arte with its character types. It shares with the Renaissance tradition an emphasis on character acting and an exuberance that reminds one of improvisatory theater. The reporters work for various dailies and travel in packs, which is weird considering they're all out to scoop the others. These guys have no patience for pretense or tender emotions, and they cut through the bull. Grant and Russell—a controlling editor and his independent-minded reporter—parry and thrust, and their erotic verbal jabs are a classic American mating. They were the screwball genre's best pairing since Fredric March and Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred (1937), another skewering newspaper comedy (accented by Walter Connolly's conniption fits). His Girl Friday is both knockabout farce and sharp, modern satire, and speeds along from start to finish on a solid track of one-liners, squib, and broadside. Thanks to the overlapping dialogue (a technique used before in movies), jokes whiz by you so fast that if you stall on any one to replay it mentally, you're liable to miss the next two or three.

In the 1930s, Hollywood comedies were at their toughest and most satirical. They were designed to get Depression-era America out of its funk, and these tart, springy romances, newspaper farces, and review-style musicals were huge successes. An intermingling group of 1920s newspaper columnists, critics, and playwrights on the East Coast gave American talkies much of their whiplash energy and smarts. In one of the great migration stories in the history of popular art, many of these wags wound up in Hollywood—year-round sunshine and easy money. The screenplays they wrote are filled with smart, sardonic dialogue—crude, quintessentially American poetry. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote The Front Page (the 1928 Broadway hit from which His Girl Friday was adapted) and Hecht wrote Nothing Sacred, Charles Lederer wrote the screenplay for the first movie adaptation of The Front Page in 1931 as well as the screenplay for His Girl Friday, Jules Furthman wrote the pre-Code Jean Harlow newspaper comedy Bombshell (1933) and two or three enormously entertaining Howard Hawks classics (1939's Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not in 1944, and The Big Sleep in 1946), Herman Mankiewicz co-wrote Citizen Kane (1941) and adapted the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber play Dinner at Eight for the screen in 1933, Nunnally Johnson wrote the riotous comedy Roxie Hart (1942) starring Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou (who played the editor in The Front Page in 1931), Robert Benchley returned to Hollywood during the worst of the Depression to write features and star in several popular shorts, and Donald Ogden Stewart wrote The Philadelphia Story (1940).

News ink. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell
By the middle of the 1940s, the era of carefree screwball stories about newsmen, wisecracking society dames, and daffy heiresses was largely played out, and His Girl Friday was thus not only the greatest but also one of the last of its kind. American audiences turned their attention to events in Europe, and found there wasn't much left to laugh at. Movies got propagandistic and returned to serious, "noble" homefront themes, as in Mrs. Miniver (1942), Since You Went Away (1944), and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). The war sapped comedic energies and soured the public on its old urge to satirize its sacred cows.

October 23, 2013

Show Biz

Ruby Keeler, bless her heart. It's tough to say which aspect of hers is clumsier—her hoofing or her acting. But no matter, because her real job in Mervyn LeRoy's entertainingly dumb-ass Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) is to moon after Dick Powell. Powell's a young songwriter in a tenement room across the alley from Keeler and her girlfriends Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, and Aline MacMahon. The girls want to be in show biz, but it's the Depression and shows keep closing down because producers can't pay the rent.

Dollar for dollar. Ginger Rogers
The movie, an early thirties Warner Bros. classic that certainly deserves its status, goes in a million different directions: it's a cascade of daffy visual non sequiturs, thanks in large part to a series of libidinous musical numbers concocted and shot by Busby Berkeley. James Agee wrote about a 1944 Preston Sturges movie that it "raped the Hayes office in its sleep," and there's plenty of pre-Code monkey business going on in Gold Diggers, too. This is undoubtedly the most manic, vivacious Depression you've probably ever seen in movies, and it's framed in a silvery Art Deco production design. Ned Sparks is the irascible, put-upon producer with faith in Powell's talents, Ginger Rogers is a superb camera subject (in the opening number she sings "We're in the Money" in pig Latin), and the excellent Joan Blondell, with her bee-stung pucker, adds fizz to this crazy champagne. Poor Ruby Keeler huffs and puffs her way through a pair of good songs with Dick Powell, but even her inability to keep up with her surroundings seems bizarrely right, and, as she manages to do in many of her '30s movies, she wins over moviegoers despite being a klutzburger. You're both amazed and amused by her—when she says her lines, she crinkles her face with pride at having remembered them. Aline MacMahon plays the wisecracking pragmatist with many of the best punch lines (the same role that stars like Eve Arden and Paulette Goddard played a decade later).

A huge hit in 1933, the movie must have sent audiences out feeling buzzy and lighthearted. In its uniquely American energy and its punchy, sexy tomfoolery, Gold Diggers of 1933 is emblematic of Hollywood's life-affirming inclination, at a time of pervasive hardship, to good-naturedly remember the nation's forgotten men.

October 19, 2013

The Greatness of Audacity

In answer to the question: What is the greatest American movie performance of the early sound era? Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) or Scarface (1932)? Chaplin in City Lights (1931)? Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)? Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933) or the barely remembered Emma (1932)?

Mesmerizer. Jack Barrymore
John Barrymore (Broadway's Orson Welles) in Svengali (1931) unpacks theatrical traditions and his own sly, self-referential archness into a variety of grand gestures—the sing-song accents, interrogative upturns, and squeaky upper registers of the Eastern European Jew; the static postures and bearing of the angular nobles in the Eisenstein historical epics (Barrymore is made up to resemble Nikolay Cherkasov in Ivan the Terrible); and the tortured self-doubts and sadism of the Shakespearean villains. Barrymore is so audacious that all these styles blend seamlessly—he gets to the essence of the art of acting: creating a character that is both lifelike and larger than life. When his great death scene occurs, you're ready to go to the grave with him because you're sure he's going to spring uncannily back to life. And the special effects in the mesmerism scenes have sensual heat: Svengali's eyes glow like molten metal.

Watching John Barrymore spellbind in Svengali is like watching a fabled stage performance from some long-lost age of theater. He stalks the floorboards in high-heeled boots and overcoat, as gaunt as a vampire. But his voice and mien are so commanding that the gothicism never degenerates into camp. Like Karloff's terrifying, confused monster in Frankenstein or Sam Jaffe's nebbishy Grand Duke Peter in Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934), the experience is too appallingly profound for camp.

October 5, 2013


The loose, romantic playfulness of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is lifted from screwball comedy of the 1930s. This laid-back romp gives Woody Allen and Diane Keaton an opportunity to be Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937), and Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche in Midnight (1939), and it has the most sustained tempo of any of Allen's movies of that time. (Alice, from 1989, is a lovely flight fantasy for the first hour, but gets bogged down in marital melodrama in the last half—its whimsical romance dissipates into sodden confusion that leaves moviegoers bummed out.)

Daffy detectives. Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
The movie's central conceit is the romantic gambol of the old screwballs: the girl (often played by Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, or Jean Arthur, and later by Betty Hutton) is frisky and in the mood for an adventure, while the shy, straightlaced guy wants no part of it, but nervously follows her anyway because she's such a babe—Henry Fonda was the quintessential lovestruck nerd in The Lady Eve (1941). Here, it's Keaton, back to form, leading a constantly protesting Woody Allen around with a ring in his nose, sneaking into people's apartments and scouting for clues.

Like those earlier screwballs, Manhattan Murdery Mystery has its classic sequence: Allen, Keaton, and friends (Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston), a quartet of intrepid amateur detectives, concoct a plan to blackmail the suspected killer by playing prerecorded dialogue on cassette tape over the phone to simulate an actual conversation; naturally, the tapes get all jumbled and the "conversation" hits an abrupt snag. The last scene is kind of a dud—an anticlimactic shootout amid a maze of mirrors and projection screens (during the scene, The Lady From Shanghai is playing on the screens just in case you couldn't quite figure it all out by yourself). But all in all, the movie is a plush, snug recliner: you can settle yourself in and have a pretty good time as old movie references fly back and forth, and cobblestone streets gets soaked with rain. Things are a lot closer to the spirit of the '30s here than Peter Bogdanovich's mostly witless What's Up, Doc? (1972) or even several of the 1980s Allen comedies. In Manhattan Murdery Mystery, Woody Allen got his groove back.

October 2, 2013

A Capricious Masterpiece

Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939) was voted the third greatest film of all time by an international group of critics for a 1962 Sight and Sound poll, and the fourth greatest film of all time by a 2012 panel of critics and scholars brought together by the British Film Institute. This fabled masterpiece is widely regarded as the greatest French film by the greatest French director, and decade after decade hangs on to its hallowed place at the summit of world cinema.

The hunt. Mila Parely
I love this movie more than almost any other. Seeing it is as rich an experience as you are likely to have in a theater. Renoir and his team infuse centuries of high comic tradition into a Modernist farce that only appears as if it were spinning out of control. In fact, it's a completely controlled tragicomedy in which chance, or fate, is the prime mover.

Just about every social or cultural anchor—love, honor, class, even classical distinctions between literary genres—is dismantled in La Règle. The title is doubly ironic: The social classes abided by their rules in pre-war Europe, love had its rules, comedy and tragedy had their rules. Renoir smashes these rules into pieces. La Règle in 1939 points the way to the absurdist strain in Modernism. The animal hunt is a deft visualization of the slaughter during the Great War and the slaughter to come—warfare on land (the rabbits) and in the air (the birds). The idea of the disintegration of class distinctions, of relationships teeming with infidelity and jealousy, had been around since Musset (whose Les Caprices de Marianne Renoir used as a springboard), Beaumarchais and Molière. In La Règle, ignobility is society's great leveler (the way all cats seem to be the same color at night), much as you find it in Enlightenment theater traditions. But the movie pounces on the modern: civilization itself becomes a witches' sabbath in which sentiment is juxtaposed with raunchy sex chases, heroes (like the hapless aviator) are turned into victims of mischief, and the intricate organizing impulse of society itself crumbles into a mayhem of poaching (both animal and sexual). In earlier literature, the immoral was the moral, but in La Règle it's the revelrous commingling of the immoral with the amoral. That's what makes the movie so absolutely modern, and so sustaining.

October 1, 2013

The Boom

Boulevard of broken dreams.
The Great Gatsby (2013) is a brashly kinetic adaptation of a literary landmark. Filled with flaws of taste, it nonetheless has a primal power, balancing F. Scott Fitzgerald's lyricism with a eurotrash sensibility. Baz Luhrmann's direction goes beyond realism—beyond hyperrealism, even—into a garishly ornate romanticism, a jewel-encrusted, stylized vision of the 1920s as distant from reality as a fairy tale. Luhrmann makes the florid hysteria of Ken Russell (The Devils, The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah) seem tranquil by comparison. But Fitzgerald's poignancy and homespun longing elevate this movie above Russell's emotional barrenness.

Except for Leonardo DiCaprio (who's looking a little pudgy around the jowls), the cast was too tightly controlled by the iron-clamp production to be able to create human beings with believable idiosyncrasies—the kind of imperfections that allow a performance to breathe. The actors are largely props in marvelously explosive tableaus (New York looks like a Jules Verne creation, and the Art Deco mansions are steely, cartoonish Studio 54s). DiCaprio is able to do more than adopt Jazz Age poses. He navigates the mega-technology and whiz-bang camera successfully, and he steals a great many scenes (except perhaps those with his gorgeous Duesenberg, whose shimmering yellow coat of paint mirrors Gatsby's tailored suit). Gatsby's self-made man (in post-Horatio-Alger America—serendipitously mentored, financed, and launched) pulls you in deeply enough that you're fixated on the boulevard-of-broken-dreams corrupted hope theme, which could be the green light of our collective movie past.

September 29, 2013

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Sidney Lumet, who died two years ago, directed Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. It's his best movie. Like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, and Lumet's own Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon plays its themes with compelling vigor: crime, crowds, police action, the media, and the enervated realism of a New York afternoon in post-Watergate America.

Watergate hero. Al Pacino
The movie is hugely successful at what it sets out to do: it drops you into a Brooklyn bank right before a robbery, immersing you in the comedic tension of a day on the job. This may be the first movie ever to mine equal amounts of humor and pathos from a couple of bozo bank robbers. Sonny (Al Pacino), the more decent and pragmatic of the two, needs the cash for his lover's sex change operation. Everything goes wrong for him: he's like a Polish Alvy Singer, a bumbler whose good intentions get him kicked around, and the movie makes him a comic hero of the Watergate era. (The character is based on the actual bank robber John Wojtowicz.)

Lumet and his team combine just the right amounts of asphalt realism and expressionist distortion of smoggy sunlight as it sinks into an Edward Hopper evening. As night falls, beads of sweat drench everybody's face: the negotiators, the hostages, Sonny and his friend and accomplice, Sal. The air conditioner in the bank chugs noisily, its condensers and coils rattling with exhaustion. Everyone and everything in the movie grows exhausted and frazzled. It's a comedy of errors as the action moves between the two sets—the bank and the street outside, where the boys in blue spend the day trying to keep the crowds from crossing the crime barricades as they chant "Attica! Attica!" The tone alternates between the frantic, the comic, and the exhaustedly placid, but stays completely lifelike.

Dog Day Afternoon is unusual for 1970s movies because the police (the establishment) are treated sympathetically; the movie's point of view is that the street crowd's response to Sonny's plight—treating him like a celebrity and political hero—is nutzo and obstructionist. How did Lumet know that, decades later, we'd actually be willing to feel ashamed of our own corrupted '60s youth?

September 26, 2013

Fast Food

The Bank Job (2008) is a cheap buzz, neither likable nor memorable. This heist thriller fulfills the most superficial purpose of movies: you get a slight kick out of the twists and folds, and then easily walk away from it. There's practically nothing in the way of humor, let alone wit, and the silly business with the head burglar and his estranged wife comes out of nowhere, trying to evince a smidge of poignancy, but it's a no go. A neurasthenic action film is a bummer for moviegoers.

That subplot wraps up in the lamest scene in the movie—only a child or a dunderhead would fall for it. Not a single performance stands out, either as especially skilled or as notably bad. In fact, nothing stands out at all. The guy who plays the porn mob boss looks like David Suchet, but I didn't even care so I didn't bother to look it up. Everything goes down quickly, without eliciting love or disgust—any strong response whatsoever—for any of it. This movie isn't watched, it's consumed.