Wednesday, June 15, 2011

1974(Part III)

I first saw Lenny, director Bob Fosse’s biopic of iconic comedian Lenny Bruce, written by Julian Barry(based on his play of the same name) and starring Dustin Hoffman in the title role, oh, probably around 20 years ago on VHS and recall liking it very much, though this was mostly a new experience that Lynne joined me for. I think this one has improved with age as many of the reviews of the time, those I’ve been able to unearth anyway, seem to be rather limited in their praise. I don’t find much not to like here, starting with the beautifully black and white photography, sure direction by Fosse, and a brilliant performance by Hoffman. If there’s one thread that connects Fosse’s work, it seems to be show business. But, as noted in my entry on Cabaret, there’s nothing stagy about his film work. The connective tissue for the film is pseudo documentary style “interviews” with(among others) Bruce’s wife Honey(Valerie Perrine) and mother Sally(Jan Miner) as well as Hoffman recreating Bruce’s routines. As a note on the trivial side, many will recognize Miner as Madge from the Palmolive commercials(“You’re soaking in it!”). By juxtaposing these scenes with the dramatized situations, we see that we’re being led by a number of unreliable narrators. Hoffman does a wonderful job of showing us a very flawed yet charming man, most charming in his stand up, and most flawed in his personal life. He talks his wife into group sex and then treats her like a whore for enjoying it. Fortunately, it shies away from making Honey a martyr either as they’re certainly both willing participants in their descent into drug abuse, a habit Honey embraces more eagerly at times. So despite Lenny’s semi deification due to his groundbreaking controversial material and early death, Fosse doesn’t show us saints and villains(with the exception of the U.S. courts who hounded him mercilessly), but instead he shows us flawed human beings. Though most of the standup bits serve to advance the story or introduce chapters, one in particular stands out. Hoffman apparently got an audiotape of an actual particularly embarrassing incident and performed it verbatim. Fosse chose to portray it in one long wide take, the camera staying static for the vast majority of the scene. Not only does it show remarkable discipline on the part of Hoffman, but by essentially keeping the point of view from the back row of the club, Fosse chose a daring but ultimately mesmerizing approach.

Thanks to Matt B. for loaning me his copy of director Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I’ve often waxed rhapsodic about Lumet’s talents, but I’ll candidly say that this is not high on my list of his films. That being said, this film is exactly what it sets out to be. It’s a soufflĂ© of an entertainment, as Lumet himself acknowledges. I did enjoy most of the performances and found the film to be entertaining, though I think perhaps the information in the supplementary materials a little more intriguing. Much of Lumet’s work is, for better or worse, very serious, sometimes lacking in humor. He states in one of the interviews that he appreciated the challenge of doing something a little lighter and, in fact, that 1976’s Network( a film to be discussed more thoroughly at a later point) would not have been as humorous as it was if he had not made this film. If that is indeed true, I’m glad this film exists for that reason alone. Murder on the Orient Express presents a large ensemble star studded cast, many of whom barely have more than a scene or two, making this almost a highbrow very special episode of the Love Boat. Of course the emphasis is on highbrow and most of the cast is in top form. For me, the only exception was Albert Finney. I’m generally a big fan, but his work here was so mannered and broad that I found it somewhat distracting. I kept trying to like it and understand it, but he just didn’t do it for me. I must acknowledge that Lumet truly did create a soufflĂ©, especially in the sense that if I try to deconstruct it too much, this light entertainment could easily transform into an endorsement for vigilantism and ritualized murder with all on board serving as willing participants and/or accomplices. So I guess I won’t. Much.

I’m a big fan of Martin Scorsese, so it was a little bit of a surprise to me when I realized that I’m pretty sure I had never seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in its entirety. I had seen clips from it, I had seen significant sections of it on television broadcasts, but I’d never seen it all front to back. Thanks to Lynne for joining me for this one. This is the second of three Scorsese films on the list and Ellen Burstyn’s fourth. At the time she was a bigger star and essentially had her pick of directors. Though he had doubts about his abilities to direct a film with at woman at the center of it, Burstyn, basing her opinion partly on advice and partly on what she had seen in Mean Streets, figured that someone who could deliver gritty realism could bring it to whatever project he worked on. Though this power imbalance between director and star reportedly caused tension from time to time, the end result was quite good. Alice starts the film entrenched in housewife drudgery, married to a man who, though not a monster, is certainly lacking in some regard. Early in the film he dies in a car accident and Alice is left on her own with her young son Tommy(Alfred Lutter III). They start on a road trip with a planned destination of Monterey where Alice believes she is going to make a fresh start as a singer, a dream she’s had since childhood. Along the way she makes several detours, first with a regrettable choice of romantic partner(Harvey Keitel) and eventually a good hearted though flawed lug(Kris Kristofferson). Burstyn was apparently determined that Alice not make her next choice based on the man in her life and, due to some improvised dialogue by Kristofferson, managed an ambiguous ending. Alice doesn’t give up her dreams, but she may have found a man who won’t repress them. In the end, she may not have made the radical change she was hoping for, but she may have evolved a little into establishing her own identity. Scorsese achieves a real naturalism here and the scenes between Alice and Tommy are a huge highlight. Often, child actors are just made to look cute and say smartass lines, but Scorsese just let the kid be a kid, apparently often relying on improvisation, most notably in a scene where Tommy repeatedly tells a joke that I still don’t understand. Keitel is in fine form as always, especially in a scene where he frightens Alice into leaving town just to get away from him. Apparently, she was so unprepared to deal with Keitel’s intensity that Burstyn burst into tears following the scene. I wouldn’t necessarily put this in my absolute favorites with regard to Scorsese, but it’s definitely a significant footnote in his development.

I will freely admit that I’m intimidated to write about The Godfather Part II. I first saw it years ago on VHS and then not again until October of 2008 at the Film Forum as part of a double feature. So I can’t say it was exactly a new experience. But I enjoyed revisiting it regardless. Most sequels are unnecessary. They’re essentially remakes hitting all the main points of the original and, though many find them unsatisfying, they frequently make more money than the original due to name recognition. As a result, they’re deemed a success by the Hollywood machine, which is why they continually spew them out. In fact, sequels are so frequently bad, that when they are discussed, there are generally three exceptions that are cited where part twos actually exceed the quality of part one. Those exceptions are Superman II, The Empire Strikes Back and, well, you know. The Godfather Part II moves us forward to the late 1950s. Michael is still in charge, but the family’s moved out of New York to Lake Tahoe. As with the first film, we open with a celebration and with the godfather entertaining requests, but as we shortly thereafter witness an assassination attempt in the Corleone compound, it becomes clear that things are far from calm. This story is juxtaposed with the back story of Vito Corleone, first as a young boy in Italy and then in turn of the century New York, played mostly by Robert DeNiro. One of the interest in the contrast between the two stories is that, in many ways, Vito doesn’t seem to have much of a choice. That is, his choice is to be brutalized and maybe be killed by mob thugs, or to become one, and hopefully be more of a man of honor than those he replaced. As a result, he develops more of a moral compass than his sons do in his wake. Yes, he still engages in unethical behavior, but somehow he really seems to be operating from a core of decency. Michael, on the other hand, seems to always be trying to prove that he’s his late father’s equal, and repeatedly proves that he isn’t. He somehow managed to inherit a ruthlessness to his character, but his steadfast unforgiving nature means that he alienates all around him. In attempting to keep the principles of the family alive, he finds himself alone. There is ample reason to suspect that Michael has deep seated psychological flaws to begin with. After all, he started by deliberately distancing himself from his family by resisting his father’s attempt to protect him from the draft and enlisting. This need to have something to prove persists in his character throughout. But perhaps ultimately, what Vito built, though he tried to build it from a place of honor, was always rotten to the core because it was built on intimidation, murder, and thievery. I’ve read that Coppola wanted to deglamorize the romantic notions that many took away from the first film. Whether or not he intended to, he also seems to have created, in his portrayal of this family in the late 50s and early 60s, a metaphor for the disillusionment and decay of 1970s America. Vito seemed to represent the promise of the founding fathers and Michael is the caretaker as the chickens come home to roost. Vito did what he did for survival while Michael alienates those around him by trying to maintain something that is crumbling because it was never actually built on a solid foundation.

Lightning seems to have struck twice in two places in 1974, first with Coppola’s two films, and then with Mel Brooks one two punch concluding with Young Frankenstein. I saw this years ago on VHS, perhaps not paying proper attention to it. Then, after years of hearing people rave about it as well as seeing clips, I revisited it a few years ago, as noted before, on a double bill with Blazing Saddles at the Film Forum. I’m inclined to think that all Brooks’ films work better when viewed with an audience, as it spoke to me more in that setting than any other I’ve experienced. This one has quite the plethora of gags but, unlike Saddles, it delivers them in a more restrained and disciplined fashion. As a result, when a vaudeville or borscht belt sensibility emerges, the contrast is even funnier. They’re still hilarious, but Brooks seemed determined to truly honor the source material by shooting it in black and white and even utilizing some of the original sets. Not only does Brooks do an admirable job, but Wilder as Frankenstein(who also cowrote the script with Brooks) turns in a fearless and hilarious performance. The disc comes with a number of supplements, including interviews with contemporary comedians, one of whom points out that Frankenstein is a huge prick, engaging in all kinds of horrible behavior, but Wilder still manages to make it funny. And now I find myself tongue tied again while trying to deconstruct comedy so I’ll just end with a list of the standout performers that tied it all together. Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Kenneth Mars, and Marty Feldman as Igor. And that concludes 1974.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

1974(Part II)

I first encountered Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View maybe 10 years ago at the Film Forum on a double bill with the original The Manchurian Candidate. I don’t recall precisely, but it must have been some sort of paranoia double feature, which would be appropriate as this one is considered by some to be part two of Pakula’s trilogy of paranoia, bookended by Klute and All the President’s Men. Whereas The Manchurian Candidate is a satire of all the McCarthy era Red Scare nonsense, running with the idea that Soviet agents are brainwashing Americans and turning them into assassins, The Parallax View, if not a better film, takes the more frightening premise that such projects are actually undertaken by a homegrown shadow government. I was joined by Matt B. on this viewing who was very curious as he’d never seen it before. Warren Beatty plays Joseph Frady, a rebellious reporter who just happened to witness a political assassination, an event portrayed in the opening moments of the film in a prologue which concludes with an ominous Warren Commission like body concluding that it had been the work of a single troubled man and that there were no others involved, despite rumors to the contrary. And yet, as the action of the film begins to unfold six years later, more and more witnesses seem to be dying under mysterious circumstances. When someone close to him succumbs to such circumstances, Frady, no doubt acting out of equal parts self-preservation and curiosity, decides to investigate. Not only does he find ample evidence to fuel his suspicions, he stumbles across an organization called The Parallax Corporation, a group seemingly in the business of recruiting assassins. Frady manages to infiltrate the group and manages to repeatedly stay two steps ahead of them. Unfortunately, they usually manage to stay five steps ahead of him, and his mission is ultimately doomed. The film ends with another proclamation from the mysterious commission, stating similar findings that we, as the audience know, is patently a smokescreen. In context, this film actually follows similar patterns as Gatsby. Whereas Gatsby takes what we literally know, that the U.S. is run by the people who have always had the money and power and there’s no way to get into the club unless you’re born into it, films like The Parallax View go a step further, indicating that a shadow government, presumably run by similar folk, is actually in charge of everything. They pull the strings that need to be pulled to get their appointed candidates into office, and when someone unappointed or unanointed gets in, they have ways of making things balance out. And what we don’t fully realize until the end of the film is that we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. We’ve only viewed the process of how patsies are created. Pakula creates a great tone here. Early on, we get a barroom brawl and a car chase that seem a little hackneyed, but once the film settles into its trajectory, it’s hypnotic. Beatty is at his best here as well, which I don’t mean as a lefthanded compliment. When the great films of this era are mentioned, this one usually gets left out, which is a shame as it’s a hidden gem.

I don’t remember the first time I saw Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, but I’m pretty sure this was only the second time. Whenever I saw it previously, it was most likely on VHS, certainly never on the big screen, and, as such, seeing it in a way that felt almost like the first time on a 42 inch plasma screen was certainly a treat. The film is shot beautifully, but it’s also a brilliantly acted absorbing film. Much has been made of where this film came in Polanski’s career and whether his personal life had an effect on the darkness of the story. Personally, I think his work was awfully dark before but, for the uninitiated, here are the details of his life that may or may not have scarred him in a way that turned him into a brilliant filmmaker. As a boy, he lived in WWII occupied Poland where his mother was murdered by Nazis. Only a few years before this film, his pregnant wife was murdered in his own house in Los Angeles by the Manson Family. I won’t get into his legal troubles as that all happened after this film. At the very least, he certainly seems capable of telling a story where one can’t depend on those whose job it is to protect us from evil in the world. In many ways, this is a faithful genre piece, set in the ‘40’s and, if you knew nothing about Polanski’s troubles or that the U.S. was going through a period where the authorities seemed less and less deserving of trust, it would stand on its own against all the best Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, etc. hard boiled detective movies. And yet, within this frame, the film always feels vital and alive. At the center of this great film is yet another brilliant Jack Nicholson performance. Nicholson is Jake Gittes, the aforementioned private dick at the center of all stories like this. A plot synopsis would be both too time consuming for me and likely confusing for anyone reading this. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating. Polanski wisely chose to excise the voiceover that was in Robert Towne’s original script. Though it may be a convention of the genre, the removal of it allows for a more intelligent audience, one that can figure things out along with Jake rather than having Jake spell it out for us. Polanski reportedly clashed with Towne over the ending, lobbying for a happy ending. Some accounts blame Polanski’s personal tragedies on the ending, but I’m inclined to believe that his brilliance and truth as a filmmaker very well might have driven him to push for the ending he gave us. The powers that be, represented in John Huston’s richer and more powerful than God character, Noah Cross, emerges at the end of the film victorious, while his daughter Evelyn(Faye Dunaway), who bore his incestuous daughter/ granddaughter dies, leaving her sister/ daughter to likely the same fate. As Jake wanders out of the wreckage, a friend mutters to him the now famous line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” The fatalism matches the genre, Polanski, and post Camelot Vietnam era America.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time with The Longest Yard. It’s very likely one of the best performances Burt Reynolds has ever given. It may even be, as many have said, the best football film ever made. It just wasn’t for me. I’ll admit that I don’t like sports. And maybe I should have someone like my friend Daniel to help me with this one and explain to me why I should like it more. I have actually seen a number of films in the world of sports that I found very watchable and enjoyable. But this one wasn’t one of them. I should also add that it’s a prison movie, and, on the Clooney list spectrum, not as entertaining as Cool Hand Luke and likely more entertaining than Papillon. It is certainly much higher quality than some of the other cheese Reynolds became known for later into the decade and beyond, but the writing and direction overall just seemed mostly adequate. Also, it seemed like the final game consumed something like the last 40 minutes of the film. I could do somersaults and twist myself in knots cherry picking the merits this film has, which it no doubt does. I just don’t feel up to it. I’m fine with this being all I have to say about it.

Matt B. not only joined me for The Taking of Pelham 123, he was kind enough to bring along his own personal copy of it. I had never seen it, but was certainly aware of it, especially as there was a big budget Hollywood remake of it only a few years ago. This is another film with great NYC locations and takes what would seem to be an absurd premise. What if someone hijacked a New York City subway car? The movie moves along at a great pace and, though the humor sometimes borders on cheesy, is a great deal of fun. Walter Matthau plays the transit cop trying to get to the bottom of it all and Robert Shaw is the mastermind behind the heist. The film is filled with great and believable performances but I’m going to focus on these two. I mentioned earlier that Shaw has been a real find for me on this list. He’s a much smarter character here than he was in The Sting and, most likely, more dangerous. He doesn’t have to say much or even really raise his voice for you to know that he is to be taken seriously. This is Matthau’s third of four performances on the list, but his span from the beginning to the end. His performance here is solid and holds the movie together and is really responsible for selling the final moment of the film when he figures everything out. Ultimately, though this certainly shows the seedier side of New York when it was at its seediest, Matthau actually is convincing as a good New York cop who takes his job seriously and makes justice prevail.