Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Top 5 Top 5 Lists Related To, But Not Including, Crimes And Misdemeanors

Top 5 Woody Allen Films:

1. Annie Hall (1977)
2. Manhattan (1979)
3. Hannah And Her Sisters (1986)
4. The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985)
5. Zelig (1983)

Top 5 Anjelica Huston Films:

1. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)
2. This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
3. Addams Family Values (Barry Sonnenfeld, 1993)
4. Buffalo '66 (Vincent Gallo, 1998)
5. The Grifters (Stephen Frears, 1990)

Top 5 Films Featuring Claire Bloom:

1. Limelight (Charlie Chaplin, 1952)
2. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965)
3. The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)
4. Clash Of The Titans (desmond Davis, 1981)
5. Mighty Aphrodite (Woody Allen, 1995)

Top 5 Non-Woody Allen Films Distributed By Orion Pictures:

1. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
2. The Life Of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
3. Caddyshack (Harold Ramis, 1980)
4. Amadeus (Milos Forman, 1984)
5. Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)

Top 5 Films Of 1989:

1. Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee)
2. Henry V (Kenneth Branagh)
3. Glory (Edward Zwick)
4. The Killer (John Woo)
5. Heathers (Michael Lehmann)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Links: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Roger Ebert applauds Crimes and Misdemeanors in his Great Movies series.

A synopsis of the film and a brief bit of background comes from Turner Classic Movies.

Reverse shot tackles the film's themes.


Friday, September 25, 2009

When I Paint My Masterpiece: The Recent Work of Woody Allen

In the two decades since the release of the universally-lauded Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen's critical credibility has erratically gone from that of an intellectual wunderkind, to a past-his-prime genius treading water, to an out-and-out hack, and back again. In fact these labels have been exchanged so frequently that they appear to be switched out annually when the latest film from Woody reaches theatres like clockwork.

Certainly Allen's output in the last twenty years has had plenty to do with these critical changes of heart. For every Mighty Aphrodite there has been a bomb like Celebrity. Sadly though many of the films released in this time period have been unfairly overlooked because of the critical climate surrounding Allen come the film's release. Recently Quentin Tarantino turned fanboys' heads with the proclamation that one of Allen's most notorious critical and commercial failures, the 2003 Jason Biggs vehicle Anything Else, was one of the twenty best films in the last two decades. I commend Tarantino's championing of Anything Else, even though I too fell prey to the mumblings regarding the picture and have so far avoided it. Like Tarantino, I have Allen films that I feel unfairly fell through the cracks. They deserve more attention and acclaim.

2007's Cassandra's Dream is one example. Woody had most recently released Scoop, his second film featuring the inexplicable Scarlett Johanssen. Scoop singlehandedly managed to temper the huge wave of goodwill that greeted the previous year's Match Point, a film I personally find ridiculously overrated. Cassandra's Dream is a drama centering around two working class brothers who commit murder to get themselves ahead. The film was initially scheduled for a Christmas release in hopes of qualifying for the Oscars but the studio had second thoughts and waited until the new year to dump it into theatres. The film received minimal promotion and subsequently disappeared shortly thereafter. That's a shame because I find the film, despite some very obvious flaws, rather effective.

One wise decision was that of swapping out Johannsen for the fine performances of Ewan McGregor, Sally Hawkins, and the man with the golden touch, Mr. Colin Farrell (can he do no wrong? I mean seriously, after the New World and In Bruges who dares doubt him??) The script itself is flimsy, feeling very much like a first draft. Though instead of becoming a hindrance, the script's skeletal nature somehow adds a unique energy to the film. For example, there is a scene early on that so obviously serves as a means of exposition (it functions solely to let the audience know that the brothers' uncle is wealthy), that you end up experiencing it from a wholly different perspective. It's as if Woody, who has written more screenplays than just about anyone, is riffing on the film's structure, similar to the work of his revered jazz musicians. He knows that the scene needs to be there but he also realizes that we've seen it all before, so he decides to get in, retrieve the pertinent information and then it's off to the plight at the center of the film. I also found the tone of Cassandra's Dream interesting. The construction of the film is so consistently downbeat, from it's moral crux to that Philip Glass score, that I couldn't help but find rays of humor in it. Intentional or not, the brief snippets of comedy that peek out through the film manage to give it a deeper sense of humanity. These flaws managed to draw me further into the feature, instead of putting me at a distance. The riches I derive from the picture may not necessarily be the ones intended but that's what excites me. Cassandra's Dream is a messy sketch by a consummate artist.

I may be able to find unintended joys within an interesting, yet minor work like Cassandra's Dream but these rewards are mere trifles compared to the beauty and grace that permeates Woody's 1999 masterpiece, Sweet and Lowdown. To say that Sweet and Lowdown is one of my favorite Allen films is simply not enough. Few films by any director have had a more profound impact on me, both emotionally and creatively. When it was released I saw it three times in a single week, embarking on the thirty-minute train ride to San Francisco each time to do so. I wrote a short story about it, which I will mercifully spare you from. My deeper understanding of film in the last decade and the now-obvious influences that bear heavily upon Sweet and Lowdown, fail to diminish its charms in my eyes.

Sweet and Lowdown was Woody's retelling of Federico Fellini's perfect La Strada, a previous Metro Classic that I had yet to see back in 1999. The locations have changed, from an impoverished Italian countryside to the American jazz scene of the 1930s, but the characters are the same. Both films revolve around egotistical, controlling misogynists who don't realize their dependence upon the silent innocence of the women in their lives until sadly, they are gone.

Like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sweet and Lowdown is one of Woody Allen's best mixtures of comedy and pathos. His inimitable one-liners hit the mark consistently without once detracting from the story's central tragedy. Like this year's solidly funny Whatever Works, Sweet and Lowdown was initially conceived in the 1970s but was put aside, languishing in a drawer for decades until Allen decided years later to have another go at it. Originally titled the Jazz Baby, the film was to be his follow-up to Take the Money and Run, his well-received directorial debut. Despite the fact that the studio gave him free rein to write what he pleased, they were stunned to read the dramatic script Allen turned in. The pressure to deliver something funny resulted in the Jazz Baby's disappearance while Allen went on to make such comic classics as Bananas and Sleeper. In 1998 he rewrote the script and title.

Sweet and Lowdown is framed as a portrait of a fictional jazz guitarist Emmett Ray, exceptionally portrayed by Sean Penn, who is a volatile, emotionally-stunted alcoholic who considers himself the second best jazz guitarist alive (after Django Reinhardt whose music is the only thing that can drive Emmett to tears.) The character of Emmett is fascinating to watch and rather unique in Allen's work, for he is one of the rare leads who is not a simple facsimile of Woody's persona. His actions and thoughts are a far cry from the typical Allen protagonist. This can partially be attributed to the origins of Fellini's plot and Sean Penn's nuanced performance.

There are other notable performances in the film but none shines so bright, nor carries half as much weight as that of the peerless Samantha Morton, who portrays Emmett's long-suffering girlfriend, the beautiful Hattie. Told to play the mute character as Harpo Marx, Morton goes deeper, giving Hattie a solid somberness beneath her playful exterior. It's one of my favorite performances of all time. Her work elevates the film to greatness. She was nominated for an Academy Award (as was Penn) but she lost to of all people, Angelina Jolie for Girl, Interrupted. In my eyes, this is a slight of Crash-sized proportions.

It is with films like these, the unheralded gems that occasionally burst through the cracks that keep me excited about the next Woody Allen film. To know that the master that crafted such masterpieces as Annie Hall and Manhattan is still churning out works with artistic merit and emotional intensity is a cause for celebration.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Autumn's Metro Classics: Connections

Perhaps because we watched way too much geeky TV as kids, Mike and I have been inspired by the great James Burke to have our next Metro Classics series be based on Connections, with each film connected to the next film in the series in some nefarious way. The shows will once again run every Wednesday night, from October 07 through December 02. Here's the lineup, along with how the movies are connected:

Oct 07: Singin' In The Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) (elaborate choreography)
Oct 14: Enter The Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973) (action stars wreaking havoc on islands)
Oct 21: Commando (Mark L. Lester, 1985) (actors who became politicians)
Oct 28: The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976) (westerns)
Nov 04: Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959) (musicians who act)
Nov 11: Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994) (urban romances)
Nov 18: City Lights with The Immigrant (Charlie Chaplin, 1931/1917) (silent comedy double features)
Nov 25: Sherlock Jr with The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1924/1926) (civil war films)
Dec 02: Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

That's eleven films in nine weeks, six of them in high-definition. It will also be our eleventh musical, our seventh and eighth Westerns, our fifth, sixth seventh, and eighth silent films, our sixth Howard Hawks film, our fourth and fifth double features, our fifth Best Picture winner, our third Asian film, our second Gene Kelly film, and our first film that is so long we can only show it once.

Handsome fliers will be available within the week.

Coming Attractions: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Wednesday, September 30th at 7:00 & 9:00.

Giveaways: Husbands and Wives DVD and a gift certificate for Rain City Video, respectively.

See you there!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Top 5 Top 5 Lists Related To, But Not Including, Unfaithfully Yours

Top 5 Films Written By Preston Sturges:

1. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
2. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)
3. Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)
4. Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, 1937)
5. The Good Fairy (William Wyler, 1935)

Top 5 Screwball Comedies:

1. Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938)
2. The Philadelphia Story (George Cukor, 1940)
3. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
4. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks, 1940)
5. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)

Top 5 Films With Cinematography By Victor Milner:

1. It's A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946)
2. The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)
3. Trouble In Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932)
4. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942)
5. The Strange Love Of Martha Ivars (Lewis Milestone, 1946)

Top 5 Films Featuring Music By Tchaikovsky:

1. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
2. Sleeping Beauty (Clyde Geronimi, 1959)
3. Caddyshack (Harold Ramis, 1980)
4. Fantasia (Samuel Armstrong, 1940)
5. Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

Top 5 Films Of 1948:

1. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
2. Red River (Howard Hawks)
3. Fort Apache (John Ford)
4. Letter From An Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls)
5. The Pirate (Vincente Minnelli)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Links: Unfaithfully Yours

Novelist Jonathan Lethem digs Unfaithfully Yours at the Criterion website.

NPR's Fresh Air discusses the film's score with classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz.

Shooting Down Pictures has a video essay up analyzing one scene in the movie.


Friday, September 18, 2009

Unfaithfully Yours: The First Full-Length Live Action Looney Tunes Feature

Decades before Space Jam was released into an unprepared universe, a bold, visionary film premiered.  This monumental movie dared to take the silly spirit and elastic energy of the immortal Looney Tunes shorts and stretch their inherent madness to a robust feature length.  This cinematic gamble confidently blended the caustic wit of Foghorn Leghorn with the violent outbursts of Yosemite Sam; the anarchy of Daffy Duck with the destruction of the Tazmanian Devil; the black humor of Bugs Bunny with the relentless obsession of Wile E. Coyote.  Being so far advanced in terms of its humor, subject matter and performance, the film was a huge flop upon its initial release in 1948.  Only now with the advancements in the fields of science and cartoons can we appreciate this tour-de-force in all of its glory.

So the film was live action and was produced at Twentieth Century-Fox instead of Warner Bros...so what? Unfaithfully Yours is a loony toon through and through.  The story of a famous concert conductor who suspects his wife of adultery and plots out three distinct futures, was conceived by writer/director Preston Sturges in the early 1930's. On several occasions he tried to mount a production but was not given the green light until after he had successfully created a string of box office hits including such acknowledged classics as The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, and the Palm Beach Story. His increasing fame gave him the clout to finally helm the feature that had intrigued him for so long. 

The story of the vengeful conductor had come to Sturges as he was writing a comedic scene to the sound of an incongruously sad song playing on the radio.  It is the resulting marriage of music and movement in Unfaithfully Yours that is the most obvious connection with a Looney Tunes short.  There are three distinct set pieces in the film, each one a fantasy scored to an appropriate piece of music (Wagner, Rossini, Tchaikovsky) that dictates exactly where the scene will go.  Many moments in the movie are akin to the cohesion that Looney Tunes director Chuck Jones found with Carl Stalling's deft compositions.  A highlight of this collaboration is the fantastic Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd short "Rabbit of Seville".   Jones's own riff on Wagner, the Merrie Melodie entitled "What's Opera Doc?" is arguably the greatest cartoon of all time. 

Much of the blame for the initial failure of Unfaithfully Yours is attributed to the utterly bleak, black humor that pervades the film.  None of the characters are remotely sympathetic and their actions are across the board, despicable.  What was seen as a mistake when performed by the esteemed likes of Rex Harrison, was a source of strength in the Looney Tunes canon.  Characters routinely ridiculed and maimed their co-stars with guiltless ease, all to enjoyable, comic effect. Backstabbing and double crossing were the modus operandi of most Looney Tunes shorts, be it Sylvester the Cat's constant conniving or Bugs Bunny's hilariously mean-spirited antics with any number of adversaries. In a world that now has such prodigiously black humorists as the Coen brothers, it may be difficult to realize how unique the approach to Unfaithfully Yours was sixty-one years ago.

The final third of Unfaithfully Yours, brings the chaos at the heart of a Looney Tunes short to the forefront with the depiction of Rex Harrison's fantasies realized.  The full folly of human nature is on display and the resultant destruction is worthy of the best cartoons have to offer.  To witness the demolition of an apartment by one determined, wordless man is Wile E. Coyote personified. 

Like Pennies from Heaven, another misunderstood and woefully underrated Metro Classic, Unfaithfully Yours is a groundbreaking, intelligent work that deserves to be placed alongside the best known titles in cinema history.  Sometimes context is everything. 

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Coming Attractions: Unfaithfully Yours

Unfaithfully Yours

Wednesday, September 23rd at 7:00 & 9:00.

Giveaways: Sullivan's Travels DVD and a gift certificate for Rain City Video, respectively.

See you there!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Top 5 Top 5 Lists Related To, But Not Including, L'Avventura

Top 5 Italian Movies:

1. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)
2. Voyage In Italy (Roberto Rossellini, 1954)
3. Once Upon A Time In The West (Sergio Leone, 1968)
4. L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)
5. The Battle Of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

Top 5 Winners Of The Cannes Film Festival Jury Prize:

1. All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
2. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
3. L'Eclisse (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962)
4. Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004)
5. Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi, 1963)

Top 5 Movies Set On An Island:

1. Manhattan (Woody Allen, 1979)
2. I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)
3. Tabu: A Story Of The South Seas (FW Murnau, 1931)
4. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)
5. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Top 5 Movies Distributed By Janus Films:

1. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
2. Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
3. The Rules Of The Game (Jean Renior, 1939)
4. M. Hulot's Holiday (Jacques Tati, 1953)
5. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

Top 5 Films Of 1960:

1. Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2. Shoot The Piano Player (Fran├žois Truffaut)
3. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard)
4. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick)
5. Late Autumn (Yasujiro Ozu)

"People Are Always Misquoting Me" - Antonioni: Image & Philosophy

I don't believe in words.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Links: L'Avventura

Criterion has three essays related to L'Avventura including one by the director, the late Michelangelo Antonioni.

A critical essay on the Senses of Cinema.

Lastly, Roger Ebert weighs in on the film, the way only he can.

Buono fortuna.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Ryland Walker Knight: L'avventura: Mapping Monica.

Some of you loyal readers may remember Ryland Walker Knight from his Charade post two months back or his in-depth interview with Sean and me at the onset of the Adaptations series.  He has recently begun publishing a visual mash note to the star of L'Avventura, Monica Vitti, over at his monolith, Vinyl is Heavy.  I've been thoroughly digging these virtual lockets and proposed an extended image essay on Ms. Vitti, in particular her role in this week's Classic.  Happily Ry came through.  I hope you enjoy the following as much as I do. . .


by Ryland Walker Knight



—Pressures verging, always portals


—Playing with masks




—Tousled, tossed, two shot lost


—Outsides in, in a push plight





—Schoolhouse flop


—Fallen folly




—Fright at the sphere


—Quit the corner