Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Paper Moon: A Light-Hearted Trip through Depression-Era Kansas.

Movie Review: Paper Moon

Directors: Peter Bogdanovich

Reviewed: 30 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

Paper Moon features a rather irredeemable scoundrel in its lead character, the lowdown con man Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal) and unites him with the recently orphaned Addie (daughter Tatum O'Neal) who may or may not be his daughter but definitely is his burden, partner, and influencer in this marvelous little 1973 film from director Peter Bogdanovich. The director, having made The Last Picture Show, is no stranger to filming desolate landscapes in black and white, offering a harsh look at Depression-era Kansas and its denizens. However, the film's biggest coup may be its frazzled chemistry between its leads; contrary to the cliche of pairing a jerk with a young child with the child helping to reform the reprobate, Addie ensnares, enables, and embellishes Moses's spiral out of control as they run every sort of hustle and cheat imaginable from selling Bibles to recent widows, out-foxing a bootlegger, and using wordplay to catch clerks unaware of exactly what they are handing over to them. Mose offers to take the young Addie to St. Josephs, MO to reunite with her closest living relatives (mostly as a plan to make some money off of her and then ship her on the train), and along the way, the pair develop a brusque shorthand that never gets too emotional or cloying.

Chemistry is a difficult thing to quantify; pairing a real life father and daughter brings some of it to the table, but I do not want to undersell the delicate work done by both performers here. Ryan O'Neal's performance is very physical, full of blustery mannerisms and overly polite stammering. In the modern day version of this film, an actor like Paul Rudd or even George Clooney would do well to play his exasperation. Tatum O'Neal's performance is more tricky; Addie is more rascally, more ornery in a stubborn way. I kept thinking of her as Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird in her desire to be in on the tricks of the grown-ups, adventurous and friendly. There are some real consequences to their tomfoolery here, but Bogdanovich never betrays his light-hearted tone. Madeline Khan is fun in a supporting role, and the film lollygags and dawdles along, never in quite as much of a hurry as it should be, making the journey and burgeoning friendship between the two lead characters all the more enjoyable. A triumph of recreating the clothing, cars, restaurants, and radio programs of the era, Paper Moon is more than just that.

The film is simply charming and that goes a long way for me.  I am glad that I caught up with it, though I must disagree with Tatum O'Neal's Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Hers is a lead performance all the way, but true to her character, the Supporting Oscar feels like she hustled something, and I like that. For a 70's film set in the 30's shot lovingly in black and white, Paper Moon captivates.

The Philadelphia Story: Hepburn, Stewart, and Grant in a Delightful Comedy.

Movie Review: The Philadelphia Story

Directors: George Cukor

Reviewed: 30 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Katherine Hepburn embodies all of the qualities of a magnetic movie star. With her unique, iconic vocal delivery, physicality, and quick wit, she sells the idea of the smart, privileged heiress caught up in a dizzying array of relationships with men who are obsessed over her. Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a Philadelphia socialite, who used to be married to the marvelously named C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), is engaged to the noveau riche George Kittredge (John Howard), and must fend off the undercover journalist Macauley Connor (James Stewart) who wants to write up the details of her marriage in the society column of Spy Magazine. The nearly Shakespearean plot of false names, double crosses, and drunken escapades achieves a sort of comic grandeur with Grant leading the way. He is so young and so charming here that he nearly eclipses the other stars. His character is also the most obviously flawed with an undercurrent of melancholy. Cukor's camera holds long takes and focuses on the interiors of the Lord mansion, giving it a stagey quality that befits the rapid fire dialogue and repartee.  At its core, Cukor's film studies the collision of love and personal philosophies, however damaging, and offers a winning conclusion that makes perfect sense and feels right, even though there are dozens of other possible ways the film could have turned. There is drinking, dancing, a wedding, and enough quick lines to hold a modern audience's attention. Though personally, I think Grant's is the strongest performance; Stewart, incredibly, took home a Best Actor Oscar for his role here. Sadly, the only shots of Philadelphia here are the superimposed images of Independence Hall over the opening credits, as the film primarily takes place in a comfortable mansion somewhere near Philadelphia. As of now, I do not have a better suggestion for a replacement title.  

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Descendants Duo almost make this work: The Way Way Back

Movie Review: The Way Way Back

Directors: Nate Faxton and Jim Rash

Reviewed: 27 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--**1/2

The unfortunate tagline for The Way Way Back reads "We've all been there," and I think by the end of the film, many of us have not been to these very specific and increasingly unbelievable dramatic scenarios, but the film's portrait of teenage awkwardness set amidst a summer complete with beach, beach house, and water park has both a resonance and a reserve of kind humor. While not entirely successful, The Way Way Back has its charms and laughs as the first feature film directed by the Academy Award-winning screenwriters of The Descendants.

Trent (Steve Carell) opens the film with an uncomfortable interrogation of his girlfriend's fourteen-year-old son Duncan (Liam James) as seen from Duncan's perspective in the way way back seat in the older car that faces backwards showing the road spooling out behind it. Duncan's mom Pam (Toni Collette) sleeps in the passenger seat, as does Trent's daughter Steph (Zoe Levin) sprawled across the back seat. Trent wants Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10; Duncan recoils at the idea. Trent is only seen as a disembodied set of eyes floating in the rearview mirror, making the scene all the more unnerving (as well as a nice inversion of Steve Carell's nice guy persona). When Duncan suggests a 6, Trent counters with a 3 and proceeds to list the reasons why. It is an unsettling way to begin a summer comedy film, a bit of bullying that feels painful and shocking.

A child of divorce and thinking he would rather have been in California with his father, Duncan settles in for an awkward summer in Trent's beach house where his mom transforms into a different and possibly happier person, where Steph heaps buckets of scorn upon him for no reason, and where Trent continues to grate on his nerves. Duncan's only solace comes from staring at the girl next door, listening to REO Speedwagon (?), and riding a pink bicycle with handlebar streamers around the town. On one of his sojourns, Duncan discovers Water Wizz Water Park, drawing the attention of a confident, smooth-talking employee Owen (Sam Rockwell) who has an answer for everything, defies authority, and seems as fun as Duncan is morose. Soon, Owen hires Duncan and mentors him about the perks of the park and drops life wisdom and aphorisms upon him. The summer becomes Duncan's chance to start afresh at a new job that he hides from Pam and Trent, as well as a chance to figure out his identity.

Again, there is much here to like. Allison Janney, Rob Corddry, Maya Rudolph, and both screenwriters Nate Faxon and Jim Rash all have terrific moments. Janney tries to steal every scene that she is in, while Rockwell unspools dialogue like a mid-nineties Vince Vaughn, never pausing, bulldozing through joke after joke, delivered through his brash style married to his unkempt hair and scruffy face. His arrested development and autonomy appeals greatly to the conflicted Duncan, but I cannot help shaking the idea that Owen is more writer's idealized creation than an actual character. Rockwell's winning performance made me wish that he was in even more of the film since he has all the best lines.

The movie shifts often between Water Wizz and Trent's home, attempting to straddle both worlds but failing to do each justice. A film like 2009's Adventureland presents the idea of a summer job as surrogate family more deeply and comprehensively. The Way Way Back offers some fuzzy truths about not following patterns set by someone else and relies on its soundtrack in moments to telegraph exactly how the characters feel. In order to fully buy into Duncan's transformation, the directors needed to spend more time in the park with him learning and acclimating himself to the community there. Instead, a dancing sequence provides the shortcut into Duncan's acceptance. It would have benefitted from more time showing him learning. Duncan's absences from home make the water park adventures more difficult to absorb as well. He traveled to Trent's house with his mother, and then she seems to want little to do with him once they arrive. He is gone all day, six days a week, ostensibly for weeks, but this causes no real concerns? Unfortunately, Toni Collette as Pam and Maya Rudolph as Owen's boss/girlfriend Caitlin are both given little to do here. Steve Carell's character is distinctly unlikable, robbing him of any dramatic arc. Liam James's reserved performance seems mostly nonverbal for the much of the film, complete with random outbursts and anger befitting the character. I found the growing romance between Duncan and neighbor Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) unsatisfying and one plot strand too many. By the end, the film seems unsure of how to handle its own climactic moment (though it does not resort to violence, refreshingly). It does pull off a perfect final shot typing back to that opening scene as well as the title.

A sign of a good movie is if I would want to spend more time with these characters and in their world. I think that in the case of The Way Way Back, I would like to spend more time with some of them and some of their world. I think there is a rich film in here that focuses more on the Water Wizz environs and the wonderfully madcap Owen, the likable Roddy, and the germaphobe Lewis.

I would rank them all at 10, but the movie gets more of a 6.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Jury Duty: An American Institution in disarray in Sidney Lumet's "Twelve Angry Men."

Movie Review: Twelve Angry Men

Director: Sidney Lumet

Reviewed: 26 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

What goes on inside of a jury room is the source of endless fascination. Regardless of the verdict reached in any case, outsiders can only wonder what the internal debate sounded like inside the jury room. In the recent Florida case, a jury of six women acquitted George Zimmerman of murdering teen Trayvon Martin, and the nation will never know how the verdict was reached despite seeing all of the testimony and arguments. Sidney Lumet does a neat thing with his 1957 film "Twelve Angry Men" by never showing the audience the trial. We are introduced to the jury as they file out of the courtroom, casting back glances at a young boy on trial for stabbing his father. But even before that, Lumet's camera focuses on the pillars of justice at the courthouse, soaring to the sky, which are about to coalesce inside of a small, claustrophobic, locked-in jury room in New York City.

The jury meets and nearly convicts the young defendant, but one man, an architect (Peter Fonda), offers up his belief that the case has a reasonable doubt. Plus, swiftly convicting a young man to face the electric chair bothers him, and he figures the boy deserves at least an hour of their talking about it. It is the hottest day of the year, the fan in the jury room is broken, and the various personalities of the other jurors slide in and out of focus, revealing each man's frailties and biases.  One man has Yankee tickets and treats the situation cavalierly; another man rages at the defendant who reminds him of his own thankless son. There is a surprising amount of open prejudice, but then it is worth remembering that this film is twelve white male jurors passing judgement on a crime. Lumet's camera holds the cast expertly, allowing their sweaty faces and body language to communicate both disdain and disgust. It feels stagey and rightfully so; the film is essentially set inside of one room. The habit of occasionally offering a close-up of a character's face staring dead-on at the camera is a bit distracting (and kind of funny) but seems attributable to the style of the time. The music is light, and the arguments lively. What keeps it from a four star rating for me might simply be that the climax is left too unexplained; I wanted to know more about the psychology of the shift within the character's mind. Lee Cobb's histrionic performance does not contain enough for him to do with his rage. Perhaps Lumet wanted it to be more implied. The final gestures between Fonda and Cobb and the final shots are both incredibly powerful, though.

"Twelve Angry Men" is about people talking and talking and talking. Lumet's compelling film challenges its audiences through these jurors to consider their own prejudices and hang-ups, positing that a jury is often both the best and worst that America has to offer. One voice that I heard raised after the Trayvon Martin verdict addressed how Americans need to be more serious about showing up for jury duty, implying that maybe too many of us evade this civic requirement or do so reluctantly. However true that might be, the voice also implies that better jurors would equal more justice, and I don't know about that. I do know that the stresses of the real world keep many people reluctant to serve; the right to a fair trial by a jury of one's peers is important in the abstract but messy in reality.

I think that it is impossible to know what jurors carry into that room with them to deliberate and pass judgement on other people's lives. They bring life history, education, experience with the law, and fears. Lumet offers a window into this group of men in this place and time, and I wonder if America has the attention span for an update or a return to that sacred institution of the jury room. In this film, the men of the title are not even given names, just numbers. Thankfully, juror #8 pushes the others to think and consider what they think that they have seen. And at the end, they walk away, separate and probably never to run across each other again.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Conjuring Up Scares: James Wan's "The Conjuring."

Movie Review: The Conjuring

Director: James Wan

Reviewed: 17 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--***

A sleepwalking little girl. An eerie pond in the backyard. The world’s most ominous tree. A hidden cellar. Scores of birds crashing into the house. The list goes on and on and on. Despite its seriousness in presentation and effective frame narrative, James Wan’s new horror film, The Conjuring, contents itself with being encyclopedic, rather than bold, leaning hard on its “Based on a true story” bona fides and an increasingly chaotic second half. Still, it is a mostly well-crafted and occasionally exhilarating film; Wan’s work might be best appreciated with a crowded summer audience that jumps, laughs, and gasps en masse.

The Conjuring introduces demonologist and clairvoyant couple Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) through the lens of an interview involving another case with an evil doll that seems to move and torment two young women. From the onset, Ed and Lorraine listen intently and earnestly, taking in the tale with a gravity that seems to set the tone for the entire film. The Warrens love each other deeply, and they speak with great intensity, whether to a college auditorium or just each other. True believers, their history of battling evil, as well as their confidence in their own abilities, are reflected in an early scene in their room of possessed objects containing the debris of untold adventures. They allude to getting too close to their last case and the damage done on them each time they come to battle with darkness.

Gradually, Wan brings the Warrens into the orbit of couple Carolyn and Roger Perron (Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston) who have just moved into a large, spooky house in Rhode Island with their five adorable daughters. Early scenes in the house have an ominous undercurrent of dread as the camera follows characters in and around the rooms and hallways during the daytime, knowing full well that in the dark, those same spaces will transform into a maze of shadows and darkness. The crisis starts slowly; one of the daughters feels a slight tug on her leg as she dozes and tells her sister to knock it off. Another girl sleepwalks and is found in a corner, steadily hitting her head against an old wardrobe. Carolyn notices strange bruises on her body that seem to have no origin. Wan balances these early scenes of growing terror with the girls playing a hide-and-go-seek game involving clapping and the discovery of a piano and old furniture in the cellar. In a way, part of the fun of the film involves seeing how Wan introduces a concept and then trying to figure out how he will milk suspense out of it. Soon, the Perrons experience doors that open and close on their own, the appearances of figures in their rooms, and worse; all this leads to a shaken Carolyn seeking out the Warrens after a lecture and begging them to take a look at their case. Sympathetic to her plight, they agree to take a look, uniting the two stories, and the remainder of the film becomes the Warrens’ investigation of the house, its history, and its torment of this family.

Farmiga and Wilson display a workmanlike gravity about their characters, and Taylor and Livingston deliver fine performances as the distraught parents. Wan injects humor into the film in much-needed small doses through some supporting characters, and he evokes the atmosphere of the early 1970s nicely through fashion, cars, a snippet of music here or there, but nothing overly distracting. The relentless, claustrophobic nature of the film means that nearly all scenes transpire in the home of the Perrons or the Warrens, accelerating the creepiness of staircases, long hallways, and open doors. By keeping the focus inside the house, the film has clear boundaries, and this anchor allows the filmmaker to invent ingenious ways of scaring the audience. At times, Wan and cinematographer John R. Leonetti invert the camera, offering a child’s eye perspective under a bed or perch the camera on the ceiling above a staircase to create disconcerting images of characters. Many of these shots work quite well, though the film has a penchant for overdoing it with the opening and closing doors for shock scares. There is a charm in watching Ed Warren work a cassette recorder, mammoth headphones, or a huge microphone; setting up a camera for one shot is an elaborate process and seems quaint when compared with our Paranormal Activity films now and omnipresent cameras.

The Conjuring’s throw-everything-at-the-audience-plus-the-kitchen-sink ending prevents it from becoming a truly great horror film and ultimately undercuts the film’s power. It becomes generic rather than specific and rooted in its place. Instead of making the choice to stick with one or two primary threads and play them out fully, the screenplay by Chad and Carey Hayes unravels by the end, offering up every possible scary idea at the audience. These decisions deflate the previously established story. The film’s climactic moment seems rather murky, offering little insight into how a main character reaches this level of power and collapsing a bit under its intensity. The Warrens remain enigmatic and curious characters rooted in something, though Wan never quite fleshes out what that is.

I have no doubt that the film will summon a giant audience this weekend. For the most part, The Conjuring delivers creepy thrills and dark moments, never expecting too much from its audience other than a grueling, albeit temporary, intensity.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Irish Taming of the Shrew: John Ford's "The Quiet Man."

Movie Review: The Quiet Man

Director: John Ford

Reviewed: 8 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

As a cultural artifact and a piece of the John Ford canon, "The Quiet Man" unfolds as a charming, watchable study of a community. Ford showcases a rustic Irish village complete with a local bar filled with characters while telling an increasingly complex story of the binds of love and family. In re-watching Nicholas Ray's "A Rebel Without A Cause" this year, I was struck by how much the notions of codes play out in that film from the 1950's: where you walk and do not walk in the high school, when to crack a joke, who dates who... In "The Quiet Man," gender roles and notions of propriety take center stage, though treated in a light-hearted way. There are acceptable ways to court in this society, as well as social customs that must be upheld by both families involved. Ford's film is at its best when it depicts the natural beauty of its Irish landscapes and two leads, as well as its codes juxtaposed against the modern era.

American Sean Thornton (John Wayne) returns to the land of Erin to see the cottage of his parents. Struck by its natural beauty and the beauty of nearby neighbor Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O'Hara), Sean offers to purchase the land, setting off a bitter competition with Mary Kate's brother Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen), who is also the main obstacle of his romantic pursuit of Mary Kate. With the assistance of a local matchmaker Michaleen (Barry Fitzgerald), Sean courts Mary Kate, a tempestuous and fiery woman with dreams of her own and reverence for her family's history as represented in her things and her dowry. When her brother refuses to pay Will the dowry, it sets off a confrontation that builds throughout the entire film, only further complicated by Will's complex reasons for refusing to pursue money.

"The Quiet Man" has a surprising amount of depth to it, building an interiority to Sean through judicious use of a flashback halfway through the film. Mary Kate's defiance when seen through a feminist lens is a powerful evocation of women's rights and independence at the time, though the gender roles that the film falls back upon in its final third complicate that position immensely. It was helpful to talk out the film with others; I was privileged to see it on a big screen at a screening room at University of Houston with the Wonderworks Motion Pictures class. The professor helped us with the Gaelic conversation between Mary Kate and the priest which proves pivotal, as well as uncovering some of the Catholic versus Protestant themes that Ford presents. In talking with my mother, she mentioned how she and my dad visited "The Quiet Man" bridge on their trip to Ireland last year, posing for pictures, and soaking in the landscape. The story has acquired a power, and the tourist trade to Ireland around the film is remarkable. It was my mom who mentioned that the film was kind of like Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew." The film's giant scene at the end involves a ridiculously extended fight which brings everyone from the film (and nearby towns) to watch. "The Quiet Man" is a film in love with its own Irishness, its worship of drink and the pub, its wisecracking, leprechaun-like Michaleen, its stranger in a strange land conceit, and its idealized, romantic locale of the small town in a beautiful land that just might be perfect.

Extraordinary People: A Masterpiece of Acting, Writing, and Directing.

Movie Review: Ordinary People

Director: Robert Redford

Reviewed: 14 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

Sometimes a movie can just burrow into your brain and live there for days. Its character haunt and are not so easily dismissed or labeled. Its story bothers you on multiple levels. Its ending raises even more questions. Robert Redford's 1980 film "Ordinary People" is such a film. I think that "Ordinary People" resonates so strongly because it is about one family enduring remarkable pain and change. A father and mother's disintegrating relationship. A grieving brother left alone due to a boating accident that took his sibling. A trembling sense of fragility when all three family members are in the room together, uncertain how to deal with each other. "Ordinary People" is mostly concerned with the family talking, fighting, and watching each other. I feel that if the film were made today (or by a less capable director), it could have easily devolved into histrionics with more cutting. Instead, Redford has crafted a film that honors its characters and story by making them painfully honest and raw, with family fights having consequences and the reminder that not everyone heals in the same way and that a family is an imperfect bond at best.

Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) sings in the Lake Forest High School choir, slinks around campus and his house with a melancholy to his eyes, and agonizes over the boating accident that led to his brother's death. He has recently returned from the hospital after a suicide attempt. Conrad's parents Calvin and Beth (Donald Sutherland and Mary Tyler Moore) are an affluent North Shore couple, attend plays together, and discuss the banalities of life and death at the breakfast table. However, Redford establishes a great deal in the family's opening scene. Conrad needs to be summoned to the breakfast table; Beth openly wonders where he is, so Calvin calls for him. Conrad reluctantly steps out from the hallway. Beth presents him with french toast: "It's your favorite," she reminds him. He tells her that he is not hungry, and she moves swiftly to dump the plate's contents in the garbage disposal, much to the chagrin of a pleading Calvin, before disappearing to a tennis appointment. With just the two of them in the scene now, Calvin tries to connect with Conrad about his friends ("We don't see much of the old gang around anymore") but ends up insulting his son who leaves him alone at the table. The final shot of the scene is of Calvin, isolated, calling out "Conrad!" as his son treks out for school. In about two minutes, Redford foregrounds the complex relationship Conrad has with both of his parents (and they have with each other), his reluctance to return to old, familiar patterns, Beth's harshness versus Calvin's gregariousness, the shifting that occurs when three becomes two, as well as the setting of the table, which returns later in the film. Based on his father's recommendation that he see a doctor, Conrad seeks out Dr. Tyrone Berger (Judd Hirsch) because as he puts it, "I would like to feel more in control," and the doctor works with Conrad twice a week after school to uncover the roots of his pain.

The performances are spectacular here. Timothy Hutton is a revelation in this film, and although he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year, his performance is never less than a leading one. Hutton embodies Conrad's guilt and anxiety through his tormented eyes, rapid fire (at times) delivery of dialogue, his sitting down and immediately rising, as well as his rehearsing of basic dialogue to himself showing his concern for how others see him. I learned that it was a debut performance which is all the more astonishing. Hirsch is fine as Dr. Berger, bringing a loving and abrasive quality to a minor but crucial role. Sutherland and Moore are unforgettably powerful as the couple, and they carry both individual and group scenes, telegraphing the qualities of their characters that shine through Hutton's performance. Their painful fight scene on the golf course never ends, and Redford holds the moving focus of the camera on them as they move and get increasingly more hurtful. The final scene at the table between them has a heartbreaking air of quiet despondence and is a tribute to these fine actors being able to carry such a scene.

Redford's directorial choices remain strong throughout the film. A jump cut in the middle of Conrad's ride to school foregrounds his obsession with the death of his brother without saying a word. The backdrop of the seasons changing is done with a light touch, as is the growing romance between Conrad and Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern). The doctor scenes appear sporadically, breaking the flow of the family up, while providing an anchor for Conrad to open up about his impressions of his life. Redford lightly layers music throughout the film, trusting the actors with lengthy dialogue scenes that play out in entirety. A scene at a Lake Forest social event is masterfully edited by Jeff Kanew to expose the shallowness of the friendships and this world. The light work on the difference between the siblings never overtakes the film, but it is always there: Conrad's impression that his mother loved his brother Buck more than him. Overall, the impression that I have of Redford's work on this film is one of great control and restraint. He has a strong story and tells it well.

"Ordinary People" seems to me to be the logical antecedent of "American Beauty" and "The Ice Storm" but with a deeper focus on the survival of the family, not a violent third act. Its doctor-patient scenes have clearly influenced a film like "Good Will Hunting." Redford has crafted a powerful film that lingers in the mind and defies easy explanations.

How rare is it that we see grief openly depicted in an American film today? Messy grief, uncomfortable grief that spills over into a person's relationships with everyone around them?

How rare is it to see a marriage depicted with both sensitivity and rawness, so that when a partner tells the other, "I don't know if I love you anymore" it has the quiet power of a neutron bomb exploding?

How rare is it to see a film where the antagonist is not so clearly defined?

In "Ordinary People," both Calvin and Beth are flawed human beings. Calvin collapses on a run, replaying an argument in his head. Beth loses herself in her thoughts at a department store, staring out as vacantly as the mannequin shown in the background. Conrad grabs the hand of the cute girl in choir who is reaching out to him, offering him a sliver of hope, another life, a way to start over. "Do you want to come in for breakfast?" she asks him in a closing scene. In contrast to his earlier refusal to eat his favorite breakfast prepared by his mother, Conrad agrees and enters Jeannine's home to sit at her table, and that mere action is a powerful evocation of trust and hope.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Woody Allen's "Manhattan" in Black and White

Movie Review: Manhattan

Director: Woody Allen

Reviewed: 1 July 2013

jamesintexas rating--***1/2

Woody Allen's films revel in the intimacy of walking New York city streets, conversations among intelligent people about art, psychoanalysis, and literature, taking place amidst the backdrops of planetariums and awe-inspiring bridges, and the shifting concerns of a small orbit of people wrestling with love. "Manhattan" depicts Isaac (Woody Allen), a television producer with a change of conscience about the work that he does, who happens to be dating high school senior Tracy (Mariel Hemingway). His ex-wife Jill (Meryl Streep) left him for another woman and is about to publish her memoirs of their intimate details to his chagrin. Isaac's best friend Yale (Michael Murphy) is having an affair with Mary (Diane Keaton), but his loyalty to his wife leads him to break it off, allowing a friendship between Isaac and Mary to grow.

Shot in luminous black and white by cinematographer Gordon Willis, the film seems both modern and classic. I do not pretend to pick up on everything that Allen is doing here, but the multiple narrative starts that are broken off in the beginning by Isaac offer a hint. Set to George Gershwin's soaring "Rhapsody in Blue" and holding marvelous shots of New York City architecture and culture, Allen begins the film by having Isaac wrestle with capturing the right romantic adoration of this place that he loves while acknowledging the passage of time. He starts, stops, tries to get it right, restarts, stops, repeats. The black and white offers a window into the past, showing the New York that is long gone but exists lovingly in the mind. As a meditation on both relationships and memory, "Manhattan" features many very funny moments, and Allen's eye for writing and framing deep intellectual conversations is never stronger than when he employs space, perspective, and shadow during a scene between Isaac and Mary in the Hayden Planetarium. He places their burgeoning relationship amidst the grandeur of the cosmos in that scene, as well as in another scene that features them sitting in the shadow of a bridge. His shot sequence simultaneously diminishes and heightens the reality of newfound love. We are in both in the stars and insignificant when compared to them. " Boy, this is really a great's really a knock-out, you know?" he muses at one point.

The film involves a trading of lovers and Isaac's search for what he may want. Multiple paths and futures exist to him. The final conversation between Isaac and Tracy is wonderfully written and acted, leading to Isaac's litany of the reasons that life is worth living: "Groucho Marx, to name one thing... uh... um... and Wilie Mays... and um... the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony... and um... Louis Armstrong, recording of Potato Head Blues... um... Swedish movies, naturally... Sentimental Education by Flaubert... uh... Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra... um... those incredible Apples and Pears by Cezanne... uh... the crabs at Sam Wo's... uh... Tracy's face..."( quotes).

The amalgamation of food, music, baseball, film, comedy, and romanticism is reflected in "Manhattan" which is also deeply funny. In both this film and "Annie Hall," Allen wrestles with the impermanence of love and foreshadows his statement later in life when he married his own adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn: "The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that's that" (Walter Isaacson's 1991 interview with Woody Allen, 0,9171,160439,00.html). I do not mean to read Allen's personal life into his films; rather, I think that his depiction of relationships, equality, love, and timing are as timeless and thought-provoking as the black and white cinematography.

The heart wants what the heart wants.

The ineffable and the unexplainable swirl and dance around in the air of Woody Allen's best films, and in my meager study of his canon, I put this film, "Manhattan," among the best.

The Power of the Press: Redford and Hoffman shine in "All The President's Men"

Movie Review: All The President's Men

Director: Alan Pakula

Reviewed: 3 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

I love watching movies that feature smart characters.  Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) are smart, and so are their editors Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) and Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), and so are their readers. The stakes are incredibly high: the investigation of the 1972 Watergate Hotel break-in that uncovered malfeasance at the highest levels of the government leading to President Nixon's impeachment. A persistent Woodward and a hungry, observant Bernstein join forces in the search for the truth, a search that entails much shoe leather, phone interviews, persistent questioning, meeting with anonymous sources, as well as asking the right questions. Together, with Bradlee's support, they brought down a President and changed the course of American history. "All The President's Men" is that well-told story, as well as a story about the work of two young journalists with ambition and tenacity. It is a pleasant reminder of how powerful our reporters and journalists can be.

Alan J. Pakula's 1976 film gets so many things right: the grand set of the Washington Post newsroom, a hive of activity and noises like typewriters, answering phones, and paper being pulled out; the steady relentlessness of acquiring sources and recording notes; the juxtaposition of the public political moments such as President Nixon's return from China or his reelection with the digging done by the reporters. There is a quiet, understated chemistry between the two leads, Redford and Bernstein; at one point, tension mounts as Bernstein rewrites a piece that Woodward is submitting, and when Woodward reads it, he cuts Bernstein's explanation off at the knees. "Yours is better," he announces and brings his notes over to him in collaboration. Both men use their friendships and pool of connections in D.C. to get people to talk on the record, to let them see records at the Library of Congress, to determine who is controlling the bugging of the Democratic National Headquarters and much worse. Little is known about their personal lives, but Woodward's apartment is a mess of books and papers.

To tell this story, Pakula zooms his camera in slowly to represent the slog of the writing of the pieces; he is content to show the audience the work of typing up a piece, answering phones, and scribbling down notes. He wisely holds Woodward's face in a close-up for a six-and-a-half minute unbroken take of a phone interview. What I liked is that "All The President's Men" eschews the typical banter of a workplace film; the writing is work and when Ben Bradlee wants more sources, he is represented as prudent, not tyrannical or outlandish. Evocative of the greater conspiracy afoot without being over-the-top, I can see how this film is emblematic of the power of the press to hold truth to power amidst the uneven playing field of American politics. With Bernstein in the news recently showing support of NSA leaker Edward Snowden and Woodward an omnipresent figure in the George W. Bush White House, both men have continued to be a part of the exploration of the power structures that run our country. And, their rise to national prominence came from the Watergate investigation. My one complaint about the film? It may be too self-effacing, as the reporters collaborate and avoid histrionics. And, that may be the film's best quality. It is difficult for any director to make writing compelling. There are far too many films that show actors squinting at computer screens nowadays. However, Pakula makes the act of journalism into courageous acts of will and patriotism. The conflict is never between the two men or them and their higher-ups. The real conflict is always unseen, the immovable shadowy power grab that overreaches and finds itself  exposed to the American public and to history by two diligent, resourceful journalists.

British Beatlemania: "A Hard Day's Night"

Movie Review: A Hard Day's Night

Director: Richard Lester

Reviewed: 30 June 2013

jamesintexas rating--****

The Beatles are such a phenomenon that to see them young and impish is a rare delight. When I was growing up, I checked out Beatles cassette tapes from the library and listened to Chicago's WXRT's program "Breakfast with the Beatles" on Sunday mornings. I remember hearing "Revolution" in Mr. Stan Reddel's World History class, as well as my good friend Dave Ward sing "In My Life" at our high school graduation. Beyond a few snippets of the Ed Sullivan show, they existed to me in music form only. Of course, it was impossible to escape some of the iconography of their album covers and fashion choices, but not until today did I ever watch the living, breathing musical force that was The Beatles. Part of my summer film challenge to myself is to seek out gaps in my own cinematic education, as well as to honor the great film critic Roger Ebert by seeing and reviewing films off of his "Great Movies" list. Richard Lester's "A Hard Day's Night" surely fits in that category.

The film takes place in England in the early sixties, and the band out-sprints its frenzied fans in the memorable opening sequence set to the title song. The quartet of John, Paul, George, and Ringo all get equal chances to mug in front of the camera as the film's loose structure involves full-length performances of their early hit songs, interactions with screaming fans, outfoxing a bossy manager, shenanigans and hijinks with Paul's meddlesome uncle, and a rehearsal and then television performance. The young men have an electricity about them, and Lester expertly captures it, showing the performances, the fans, the crew behind the scenes adjusting the image going out to the world. Without knowing too much of the context of the film, "A Hard Day's Night" feels like one of the first concert films, a hybrid of myth-making and song, with some gentle comedy thrown in the mix. John Lennon in particular stands out as a clown, a provocateur, a defiant and charismatic force. I loved seeing them interact with each other, tell jokes, and kid Ringo until he wanders off alone and despondent for a brief chapter. The film ends in the band's reunion and, appropriately, in song.

"A Hard Day's Night" offers a snapshot of the world's biggest band before they became the world's biggest band, and its sheer joy and exhilaration combined with some of the best songs ever written make this an unforgettable film. To complete the journey, I think that I need to see "Help!" and "Yellow Submarine" in order to best understand how fame, money, and worldwide acclaim changed these four lads from Liverpool. But this one is unforgettable and timeless.  Highly recommended.