They All Laughed (1980): Peter Bogdanovich’s Melancholy Screwball

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A version of this review was published over at Film Inquiry.

I recently watched an interview between Peter Bogdanovich and Wes Anderson reminiscing about the film. One of the most striking suggestions is the inferred sadness in “They All Laughed.” It takes its title from a song but while we think of laughing as an action full of joy, the past tense of the word sets it off. It is something transient — bound to change at any time. Unwittingly it becomes the perfect encapsulation of this most intimate project.

To describe it as a private investigator infused screwball romance is merely confining it to typical genre fare. Realistically, it is none of the above. At least not in the sense we might expect.

We have to play catch up with most of the story although we do settle in eventually. What helps are not only the characters but the actors themselves who are of a generally affable breed. We like getting to know them even when we don’t quite grasp their circumstances.

Also lets clear this up. This is not What’s Up, Doc? (1972). It’s lacking all the goofy witticisms of screenwriter Buck Henry or the wonderfully epic set pieces. Many have probably written it off because of this; furthermore, it was not very commercially successful upon its initial release (this must come with an asterisk).

However, They All Laughed is a surprisingly good-natured effort and some of the same cadence can be found, especially in Charles (John Ritter) and Christy’s (Coleen Camp) conversations, mirroring Howard and Eunice from the earlier picture. Names are swapped with every other sentence while their patter is frantic and harried in a similar manner.

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Is it wrong to see a bit of Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) in between the lines as well? Perhaps it’s the obvious strain of country music that cuts through the New York scene, of all places. If anything, it is a condensed version of the former film shot on the streets of New York with a skeleton crew and fewer actors. The same fresh near-improvisational feel is present with interweaving narratives.

Camp probably gets her best scenes not with dialogue but when she’s singing and simultaneously giving people wandering by an evil eye or a wink of acknowledgment. Like The Last Picture Show, we have another musical collage of classics composed of Jazz tunes of Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Sinatra with the more earthy diction of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. It just works.

It’s not executed in the same fashion as Nashville, with fewer moving parts and lacking the same brand of weighty commentary underneath the humor but nevertheless, there’s something here. It’s memorable just for the characters and moments and themes of love Bogdanovich seems to be having a grand old time playing around with.

The relatively plotless meanderings might test the patience of some viewers, but if your itching for authentic views of New York and a handful of hi-jinks and neurotic characterizations, you will get some.

Ben Gazzara is the quintessential dashing philanderer who holds something quietly mischievous in his eyes while still providing a sense of regret. He has two young girls from his first marriage and rarely sees them. We understand the scenario.

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John Ritter exerts his comedic chops as a gutless private eye on a tail. From a purely visual likeness, he can easily be seen as a stand-in for our director who was himself in love with Dorothy Stratten. Like Antoine Doinel’s attempts at private-eyeing, he seems like a hopeless case, but once again, the film is hardly about his day job. Nor is it about Gazzara, another P.I., or their partner in crime, the frizzy-haired, roller skating, joint -smoking pick-up artist Arthur (Blaine Novak).

It’s all merely a pitch-perfect excuse to further complicate the scenario by throwing all sorts of situations together. And if there are glimpses of Doinel in Ritter, by transitive property there must be Tati-like scenarios as well, not least among them positioning the viewers on the outside looking in at apartment buildings seemingly made entirely of glass.

Like the worlds of these French filmmakers (Jacques Demy included), the version of New York depicted here verges on the most agreeable of romantic fantasies where relationships are forged in meaningful even momentary encounters. There is a sense of preordained fate wafting through the air even as a wistful malaise lingers too.

Dorothy Stratten manages to be an ethereal beauty of simultaneous youth and maturity. Bogdanovich’s obvious affection for her is on display in every scene she is in front of the camera.  Meanwhile, Patti Hansen — Mrs. Keith Richards — has a part to play as “Sam” the cabbie, which is no less charming. It does appear as the world is made up of attractive women although she is someone with a different type of experience. She’s been around and you cannot phase her. There’s something simultaneously charming and disarming about her self-assured confidence.

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But, of course, I must save the best (subjectively speaking) for last — it’s time to talk about Audrey — who gets top billing, understandably so. Though I barely recognized her at first behind her shades, she still maintains the same congenial elegance, even in eighties attire. If anything she’s more grounded. Somehow she almost doesn’t belong but she didn’t belong in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) either and yet her warmth made the movie special.

In fact, it struck me momentarily, this picture is a full 20 years after Tiffany’s and New York, while it has evolved, still holds a nostalgia about it. Because looking back in time with rose-colored glasses, we cannot help seeing it in such a light — not like the grungy, noisy dump of the here and now.

With every one of these characters, there manages to be utterly transparent shades of reality. The details are there if you’re willing to look at them in the most personal light possible. It’s a prime case of when real life seeps into fiction and they feed into each other in a continuous loop. Where one ends the other seems to begin and vice versa.

Take each character and examine their reality and see what sings with the sound of truth. I think Bogdanovich would heartily acknowledge the best films and the best actors are in some way, shape, and form audaciously personal — in this way, they bear something and offer it to the audience.

But even in its themes of infidelity, heartache, and loneliness, They All Laughed somehow manages to cling to the humor found in its title. There is a pervasive conviviality that might feel counter-intuitive to both our plot and the location our story takes place. But it’s indisputably light.

Due to a lack of commercial success — Bogdanovich tried his luck distributing the film himself unsuccessfully — They All Laughed is considered to be one of the ending markers of The New Hollywood Era instigated by a generation of dynamic, young American directors. No one can completely blame him for his decision as he was stricken with immense grief at the time. Because of course, the aftermath of such a warm picture was marred with a tragedy of the worst kind — the murder of rising talent Dorothy Stratten. It proved to be the darkest possible closing note on this story.

Then, for New York a full 20 years after this film came out, The Twin Towers (visible in the opening credits) would be gone. There is so much suffering visible and yet invisible at the same time. Because They All Laughed is a film managing to capture a happy time even if a sobering road was waiting up ahead. Sometimes we need light, frothy movies to remind us of such things.

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When Peter Bogdanovich revisited the film at a public screening, he was openly emotional to the point tearing up. One can gather it was not simply because of the pain at the loss of someone dear to him, but also because those were happier, dare we say more innocent years. We can never have them back as they were before. Still, no one can take away the memories.

For others on the outside looking in, The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, or even What’s Up, Doc? might ring of superior film stock but it’s not too difficult to understand Bogdanovich’s own sentiments. This is about as personal as a movie can come even as its weaved into a hybrid private eye screwball tale. It’s not the content speaking, but the moments and happy accidents with friends and people he deeply cherished.

This palpable exuberance exuded by the director and his cast is infectious if also a bit doleful. Bittersweetness has to be one of the most maddening of human emotions. It points to something not yet satiated within us. We are always waiting for the next time we will laugh again or better yet when we never stop laughing.  The tears won’t hurt as much then.

4/5 Stars

Marriage Story (2019) and Being Alive

MarriageStoryPoster.pngIn full transparency, I’ve often considered Noah Baumbach as heir apparent to Woody Allen and a lot of this attribution falls on their joint affinity for New York City. It is the hub of their life and therefore their creative work even as the broader art world often finds itself seduced by the decadent riches of Los Angeles.

Allen most famously set up the dichotomy between the two places in Anne Hall (1977), where Annie and Alvy ultimately part ways because the woman he liked decided she likes L.A.; he loathes it above all else.

It’s hard to get these elements out of my head even as this film features two former Allen collaborators in Scarlett Johansson and Alan Alda. And yet, to his credit, Baumbach has allowed for a more robust dialogue between two people. It’s not merely a humorous juxtaposition, it becomes indicative of so much more.

Audiences should be forewarned Marriage Story is about the messiness of divorce full of hurt, troubled communication, and explosive moments of lashing out. It also features some of the most substantive and sustained pieces of fearlessness you’re probably going to see this year in terms of acting.

Scene after scene is carried by one or two performers in tandem. In fact, with the extended takes, fluidity, and intimate interiors, the relationship between film and the stage is close, going so far as to break up sequences with curtain-like fade-outs.

Yes, this makes Marriage Story unwieldy as it ranges all over the place. It somehow strikes this agreeable adherence to Baumbach’s intuitions as both writer and director, while still relying wholeheartedly on what Adam Driver and Johannson bring to their respective roles.

Right at the center of it all are their soulful performances lithely running the gamut from devoted affection to bitter resentment. But it’s the notes in between which become so crucial. Because it goes beyond mere technical ardor; there’s another kind of palpable investment present.

Their story is set up exquisitely by the words they use to recount one another. Perfect trailer fodder in fact. What they provide are observational affirmations of each other’s characteristics. Nicole is an actress. She is a mother who plays. She’s brave, knows how to push her husband, and she’s competitive. Charlie is a theater director. He really likes being a dad. He’s driven, neat, and always energy conscious. He’s also very competitive.

However, they never get to share these words because now they currently sit in the therapist’s office drifting apart. It looks like they’re already too far gone to salvage the thing. What could have been the passionate musings of love letters exchanged in a bygone era, instead find them at the precipice of separation.

The point of no return is dropped in Charlie’s lap in an oddly hilarious scenario of dramatic irony — somehow worthy of a Hitchcockian time bomb — where Nicole enlists the help of her good-natured mother (Julie Haggerty) and sister (Merritt Weaver) to help her serve notice. As can be expected, it unfolds in the most cringe-worthy and somehow the most perfect manner to suit the story.

It’s one showcase among a plethora of long takes supplying a formidable framework for the script to rest on. As such, it relies so heavily on its stars to be up for the task and to any degree we might adjudge as an audience, they come at it with impeccable aplomb.

Soon what looked to be an amicable dialogue between two rational human beings is being overhauled with lawyers. We begin to see how what started as a riff, between two solitary individuals, soon becomes complicated by well-meaning legalese, fees and the aggravation incurred from the middleman now bargaining between the former couple.

It gets to the point the relationship feels so far removed from where it began. You begin to question if any of it was worth it. Words get twisted. Feelings get hurt. They’re doing things because their lawyers say to and they become suspicious of motives. I was reminded of how our language makes it so arguments are literally equated to a war. There are winners and there are losers as the two sides become further alienated. The void in the courtroom never felt greater.

Laura Dern has an impeccable pulse for the kind of cajoling attorney with business acumen and bedside manner to get what she wants. Namely, the best for her clients. She’s ruthless yes, but it’s all within the confines of the game. There’s still a person there who has a life outside the 9 to 5.

Ray Liotta seems equally built for this cutthroat business-minded artificiality. We despise him even as we realize — much like Charlie does — he’s very good at his job. If you want to get out with you’re shirt, you’ve got to put up and buy into the game.

Alan Alda gets a bit as a sagacious saint of a man who plays as the antithesis of a lawyer (or any of his rivals). His spot feels like a hallowed place in a film filled with other prominent names who probably get to do more. He gets to be warm and wise, reminding us why he is such a dear soul to us all.

I came into Marriage Story expecting callbacks to Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979). Certainly, this is a film about parents and divorce and how they must tiptoe around their issues for the sake of their kids. But this is a bit different than the Hoffman picture where Meryl Streep at times feels non-existent. At least I always remember it as a father-son film.

This rendition is meant to provide equal footing two both parents with the onus of victimhood and blame distributed. Because that’s just it. You can’t draw it up so easily. Everyone contributes to the problem in some way.

There are also no clean breaks because time has a curious way of working on the human psyche. When you’re used to spending time with someone, you know all their quirk, and it’s hard to let them go. They drive you up the wall, and they fill you with that electrifying energy sending your heart aflutter. Their family becomes your family. You can’t snap that wishbone without some residual effect. Try as you might, it’s impossible to totally obliterate the memory.

It feels as if Scarlett Johansson has laid herself bare, extending herself like never before, and we see the flaws coursing through Adam Driver to go with his finest everyman attributes. Their urgency and honesty become brutally transparent and that is the utmost of compliments.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Contempt (1963) — Jean-Luc Godard’s film about moviemaking that famously documents the dissolution of a marriage (between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli), taking place within their house in one extended scene. These are the lengths Baumbach reaches towards in his own way through blocking and the relationship between his stars and the camera.

In one climactic confrontation among so many corkers, Driver and Johansson have it out in a fully ballistic, double-edged assault unearthing every wound and targeting every sore spot imaginable. Hurting each other in ways only they know how because they’ve been so intimate for so long. It ends with them red-eyed and huddled together on the floor totally spent. This is never what they wanted nor what they expected.

Where is the ending exactly? Because the film is substantial; it covers so much territory and the themes are wide-ranging from parental devotion to lingering love under new parameters. But with everything the movie allows us to be privy to, it’s obvious there is no easy resolution. Thus, with so many disparate reference points thanks to 80s icons like Julie Haggerty, Wallace Shawn, and Laura Dern, why not mention something altogether different.

In Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm (2012), you have a vagrant husband trying to win back the affections of his wife even as they figure out how to raise their kid. They’ve entered a new chapter of existence, and sometimes that’s hard to cope with. So when they walk off into the sunset it’s hopeful, but something’s inexplicably altered. There is reconciliation and yet they cannot undo everything. This movie, again, is also about moving forward from the most painful fission imaginable: between two human beings. It’s a work in progress.

To this point, I’m fascinated by the choice to have the movie called Marriage Story. Because if we wanted to, we could look at it purely from the point of view of divorce. After all, surely this is the all-important final outcome. How could we see it any other way? And yet it becomes so difficult to break two human beings apart from one another.

Interrelated is the impassioned statement made by Nora in one of her sole lapses in composure. Within an otherwise irreligious picture, she says the following:

“The basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child, and holds his dead body when he’s gone. And the dad isn’t there…God is the father, and God didn’t show up. So you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be an f—-up and it doesn’t matter.”

The misunderstandings in her statement feel immaterial, and I’m not invested in pulling them apart now. Instead, it teases some private hurt we cannot hope to know, but it also triggers ideas some might recall from the Judeo-Christian texts, which are pertinent to the conversation.

In discussing the union of marriage, it says, “A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is both mentally, spiritually, emotionally — in every way imaginable. People are meant to be together. But if Marriage Story is a reminder of anything, it’s that pride, pettiness, and imperfection get in the way of our joy.

For Charlie, for Nicole, for all of us. It also cannot completely quell the love we breed in our hearts. Yes, our love is imperfect; still, it can see us through a lot. It can be a beautiful even an extraordinary entity. It’s part of being alive.

4/5 Stars

 

Someone to hold me too close.
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Being alive.
Somebody needs me too much.
Somebody knows me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.
– Being Alive

The Naked City (1948): One Out of Eight Million Stories

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The Naked City begins inauspiciously enough with a flyover of New York and an introduction by producer Mark Hellinger. It seems like we’ve seen this countless times before. It’s almost like a stock image. And yet in the case of this picture, it was really one of the forerunners of a movement.

Here we have one of the first pictures to give us a sense that this is only one story in a whole patchwork of stories. There’s a loose, stream of consciousness to the proceedings as we meet people and overhear their conversations only momentarily as they go along with their daily lives.

But initially, we are introduced to an entire cross-section of people in the dead of night when most are slumbering peacefully at home. Although the street corners, places of business, and entertainment hubs are still bustling. And of course, in other spaces, we have the murder. The topic of interest in this story.

We are afforded the same opportunity to get a view into the lives of our detectives, the bright-eyed veteran Lt. Daniel Muldoon portrayed by everyone’s favorite brogue-voiced leprechaun Barry Fitzgerald. Don Taylor comes on as the fresh-faced cop and family man taken under his wing. This is the picture that made me take note of his earnest talents as a dashing everyman.

Soon they are looking into the tragic death of a beautiful young model, Jean Dexter. Until it comes out there might be more too it than meets the eye. Also, another man’s body is fished out of the drink. For the time being, they are isolated events.

The Naked City is at its best giving this beat-by-beat rundown of the case as it happened. True, it’s a compromised documentation from director Jules Dasson;  it’s not like we’re watching a docudrama. All the same, it proves a fascinating cultural artifact giving us so many authentic pieces of context. It becomes a matter of parsing through the real footage taken on the streets and then actors going through the paces of a Hollywood storyline.

Not only does Mark Hellinger supply a certain ethos to the picture, he actually remains an important piece of the story, adding his own glib commentary in a one-way conversation with the actors who play a part of the case. A more tragic note is the fact the producer and one-time journalist would die before the picture was even released. But his crucial fingerprints on the narrative cannot be disregarded as the case pushes on.

There is Howard Duff as Frank Niles, a man whose reputation begins to falter with every word that comes out of his mouth and every subsequent question he dodges. Corroborating his facts, it becomes apparent he’s lying again and again to the authorities.

Even his fiance (Dorothy Hart), a model who worked with the deceased woman, is oblivious to many of his dubious activities. But certainly, he cannot be the murderer. He has an alibi. There must be another culprit. Muldoon settles on his old friend, “J.P. McGillicuddy,” a convenient placeholder for the unnamed perpetrator they’re trying to smoke out.

The work of a detective is never done as the dead girl’s parents come to identify the body and bemoan the fact their girl went bad after having such a tough childhood. There’s a pursuit of a fugitive down a fire escape that leads through the streets and reaches a dead end when he’s able to shake them aboard the subway. But they’re getting close to something.

Detective Halloran gets the go head to follow a hunch of his own — a long shot that becomes surprisingly relevant to their case — and the legwork leads to an elusive wrestler named Willie Garzah (Ted de Corsia). However, as has a habit of happening, find one lead and a whole slew of others start falling in your lap. Things start happening.

They involve Niles, who of course, has been up to more than he was comfortable divulging. Also implicated are a doctor and Garzah as well. The others know they have been caught red-handed, but what is a police procedural without one final showdown? The chase for Willie Garzah takes off and finally finds him on a bridge climbing for his life as the police flood the area.

The final outcomes are not altogether unexpected but the fact New York plays such a concrete role in this drama greatens its appeal, and it helped develop a tradition, an affection even, for on-location shooting in The Big Apple.

Fittingly, everything is wrapped with those indelible words that would become immortalized on television forever, “There are eight million stories in New York City. This has been one of them.” It really is a producer’s dream for a serialized television show, but in its day it made a darn good crime movie too.

4/5 Stars

Do The Right Thing (1989): The Legacy of MLK & Malcolm X

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The opening images are charged with the beats of Public Enemy matched by a provocative palette and a vibrant kineticism. One is reminded up a very particular point in time and a particular subculture — rap music is a part of it, certainly — but it’s indicative of so much more.

Because Do The Right Thing is shot on Spike Lee’s home turf in Brooklyn so there’s no denying the intimacy he has with the material. However, it was actually the obligatory “all persons and places” disclaimer that instilled the idea this film could be about any city. This could be Watts. This could be Detroit. This could be Ferguson. And unfortunately, in another year or two, it might just as easily be another city we’ll have to reckon with, whether due to prejudice or police brutality.

The film overwhelmingly succeeds in developing a world — that is a neighborhood — with the players who live within it. And in this regard, it does feel a bit like the Hollywood movies of old (which Lee is well aware of) where people have their types and their shtick. Take, for instance, the three stooges who shoot the bull on the street corner.

The stuttering Smiley is always making the rounds to pass out his personalized pictures of Dr. King and Malcolm X. The swaggery Radio Raheem does his own version of Reverend Harry Powell’s love-hate performance art for the benefit of the audience a la Night of The Hunter. It makes him as much as a thematic symbol as he is a larger-than-life character.

These relational dynamics feel authentically lived in, even going so far as casting his sister as his sister in the film. Likewise, the real-life couple Ruby Dee (Mother Sister) and Ossie Davis (Da Mayor), play out an antagonistic autumn romance on screen.

It gives the impression of minimal camera movements (aside from a few pans) because Lee cares about focusing on his characters head-on, photographing them in an often stylized manner with low angles. It’s not quite as precise as Ozu but having people placed up against their backdrops so overtly, it is hard not to remember. His own distinct visual language stands out emblazoned with color and the patois of his town.

Samuel L. Jackson is the groovy, smooth DJ, Mr. Senor Love Daddy, part Magnificent Montague, part Wolfman Jack. He provides the atmospherics — the soul — for the entire community, even as the heat hits record temps. It’s a portent of future attractions.

One doesn’t always think of Spike Lee as an actor per se, but it’s fitting he’s central to the action in Do The Right Thing because this feels like an extremely authentic context for him. Mookie’s current job as a lax pizza delivery boy allows him to mosey his way around the neighborhood.

Again, it acts as an invaluable narrative device to keep the story moving and yet it never feels totally manipulating. Each beat brings a fresh scenario worth discovering with every chocked sidewalk or spewing fire hydrant. Because this is a film about people and their relationship to one another.

Up until this point, the majority of the characters mentioned beforehand are African-American though that doesn’t necessarily suggest they have an entirely shared point of view. However, what gives Do The Right Thing it’s inherent conflict is bringing in a menagerie of starkly different individuals.

The prime example is Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, a pillar of the community’s social and economic scene, run by an Italian-American (Danny Aiello) and his two sons. There are the Koreans “fresh off the boat” running the grocery store across the street. Then the Puerto Rican subset of the community including Mookie’s put upon girlfriend and mother of his baby son, Tina (Rosie Perez).

Their problems and their passions feel like real 9-to-5 reality we are privy to. And the police who patrol the streets come off a bit oblivious, if not completely fat-headed. What’s gripping is how each one conveniently points their ire in another direction manifesting this never-ending cycle of bigotry.

Mookie can always be found repping number 42 (Jackie Robinson) and one of his street corner chums wears Magic Johnson’s 32. These are obvious cultural touchstones just as the white guy clamoring into his apartment wears a Larry Bird jersey. They represent the current social moment impeccably.

It’s as if everyone has misconceptions of everyone else. They are driven by ignorance and small-mindedness and no one is immune to this disease. In a telling conversation over the jukebox, Sal’s oldest boy, a general malcontent fed up with working in his father’s business (Richard Edson), talks to Mookie about how his favorite athletes and musicians like The Michael Jordans and Princes of the world aren’t just “black” they’re more than black.

Let’s put this straight. I think his assertion is totally absurd and yet I found myself thinking just before how ironic these African-American young men wearing Robinson and Magic because their lives and reputations feel so contrary to the young men who idolize them. That should hardly be seen as an offense against them.

Regardless, Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) feels affronted because there are no brothers on the “Wall of Fame” next to Pacino, De Niro, and Sinatra in Sal’s. He wants to start a boycott and at first, it’s an admittedly ridiculous idea.

No one takes him seriously because most everyone loves Sal’s pizza pies. And in his softer more hospitable moments, he doesn’t seem like such a bad guy. But this is one of the greatest revelations, even normal people — especially normal people — can seethe with hate, anger, and fear. Because the heat is not only about upping the temperature, it proves to be our dramatic barometer. We know at some point the story must blow its top.

Sure enough, Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem are talking each other up and wander into Sal’s ready to make a stand. It’s utter idiocy. They’re being a pair of punks. They know full-well what they’re doing and yet in the same sense, I don’t think they do. It’s as if they don’t see the writing on the wall. No one does.

And everyone is once again on a different wavelength. Like Cool Hand Luke, we have a failure to communicate. Violence ensues. The fuses blow and the images are relatably chaotic and terrifying as they verge of the brutal and tumultuous. It’s insanity.

Fire shoots up the building and there’s something deeply affecting about seeing the portraits of the likes of Sinatra and Sophia Loren being licked by flames. Again, they feel like odd figures of collateral damage. All of this destruction feels directed across racial lines but surely it’s misdirected. What’s the real problem? What caused such an evening?

Is it merely angst and discontentment with the situation? Are they really mad at Sal? Are they mad at his establishment? Did he really want this boy dead? Were the police acting out of pure malice, fear, or both?

In the aftermath of the violence, I couldn’t help but bemoan the Twitter age we now live in. If this film is any indication, physical violence and confrontation is not the answer. However, I feel social media has polarized us even more — making our communities even more fragmented and our modes of communication either echo chambers of like-minded enlightened people or rival camps we can so easily demonize.

I must even admit one of the ones exacerbating this problem is President Donald Trump himself. It seems almost prescient he gets a mention in the film because some would say he is emblematic of where our country has gone in 30 years’ time. Surely, a country coming out of the Reagan years would never have guessed the future ahead (including a black president).

Ultimately, to say this is a film about racism is too vague. It needs some unpacking, some grappling with what it really brings to the fore. The issues run deep. They are partly economical. There’s de facto segregation. They have to do with police and deep-rooted traditions of tension. Racism is something taught and learned creating a feedback loop or closer still a vicious cycle. I am hardly the person to explain them all. But I’m willing to listen to others — to dialogue.

Do The Right Thing is the most unnerving piece of cinema I’ve seen in some time and I mean that only as the utmost compliment. It’s a bold expression full of energy but also more profoundly still the unmistakable threads of humanity. It’s as ugly as it is honest. Honesty, in a sense, it feels like Lee is making a valiant attempt to call out the inhumanity while still empathizing with all sides.

This even is reinforced by the two contrasting quotes he fittingly pulls from Dr. King and Malcolm X, a final testament to the picture’s message.

I must admit I wasn’t surprised by the substance of Dr. King’s quote but I do acknowledge being slightly taken aback by the sensibility of the second quotation. It’s this same duality visible in the film. Where there is a problem. Each of these men and their stances and the worlds they come out of have inherent flaws. The issue is how we get together and solve them. History has shown how messy and complex they have been and will remain if we fail to do anything. Strike that. If we fail to do the right thing.

4.5/5 Stars

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. It is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win his understanding; it seeks to annihilate rather than to convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends by destroying itself. It creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”–Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I think there are plenty of good people in America, but there are also plenty of bad people in America and the bad ones are the ones who seem to have all the power and be in these positions to block things that you and I need. Because this is the situation, you and I have to preserve the right to do what is necessary to bring an end to that situation, and it doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t even call it violence when it’s self- defense, I call it intelligence.”–Malcolm X

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

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“When life hands you conundrums you turn it into art” – Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher

The opening introduction of our character is nothing short of fantastic. He lights up a cigarette absent-mindedly, headphones plugged in to Tweedy only for his reverie to be broken by a patron telling him he can’t smoke inside. He responds bluntly, “I’ll put it out if you buy something.”

We know him instantly to be a man who doesn’t play popularity contests even when it would benefit him and his record shop. This is what the following piece of superfluous dialogue is implying as this offended customer says he just bought an album on Amazon instead.

Without hardly knowing anything about him, somehow we like this man behind the counter and simultaneously feel sorry for him. Surely, he can see the writing on the wall. The record shop, the trendy bastion of a bygone era, even in a neighborhood like Red Hook in Brooklyn, is probably on the way out. It is an endangered species and we as the populous have killed it.

This is not High Fidelity (2000). The record shop is no longer a place for buddy comedy with your ragtag band of musical connoisseurs quibbling over personal tastes and nonexistent romance. The niche begins to feel smaller and smaller. It has become even more so a thing of the past. I recently watched the documentary on the rapid decline of Tower Records, fittingly entitled All Things Must Pass. There is a certain wistfulness in acknowledging this irrefutable reality.

Like most indies of this day and age, Heart Beats Loud uses the same formula with quirky supporting characters who have their charms. The mother is a ditsy kleptomaniac who once had a career as a songstress. It feels like a blink and you miss it turn for Blythe Danner.

There’s Toni Collette, the local landlord who rents Frank his space. They have a relationship that’s hard to pinpoint. Their kids are grown. They’re friends and they can talk to one another. Still, there’s something unspoken between them; it supplies some unnecessary romantic tension.

Surprise, suprise, there’s Ted Danson who (wink, wink) runs the local bar and plays the ever-present available listening ear for our hero to commiserate with. We all need that friend.  Frank’s daughter Sam has such a confidante too even as she tries to figure out her life and love in the context of adolescence. Fortuitously, while I like these folks, they hold nothing compared to the people at the center. Seeing as we spend the most time with the two Fishers it’s probably for the best.

The age-old inversion is also present. The adult seems to be acting out like a child even as his kid makes up the difference by acting mature beyond her years. In one particularly indicative scene, Frank bugs his daughter in her attempts to study so they can have a father-daughter jam sesh together. Because this is the summer before she will head across the country to UCLA. They are on the cusp of a new period of life. He hasn’t accepted it yet.

The story beats are nothing strange or sensational just as the music is catchy but not altogether supernal pop. However, the familiarity is actually quite nice and because we like these people and the places feel warm and welcoming, we want to spend time there. There need not be more.

Together their jam sessions bleed into the synthesis of songs from the heart. It’s how they bond and find a way to communicate when there is no other available wavelength open.  Movies like these allow those of us who adore music and cannot play or sing a lick, live vicariously through some else’s experience. It’s the best way I can describe it. The last film to carry me away on the sound waves with this much relish was Sing Street (2016).

It won’t win any awards and it will be dismissed by so many more and yet there will be a niche market for it — just like vinyl itself. I am thankful we still have actors like Nick Offerman, willing to make unassuming, passionate projects like this one.

In the end, a seemingly inconsequential decision winds up stirring up some notice as the song they cut together actually has some mild success under their moniker We Are Not a Band. There’s the giddy delight registering on Frank’s face upon hearing the song he made in his living room with his daughter playing in a local coffee shop. He’s as proud and as flabbergasted as can be even though no one else seems to understand his elation.

This is purely That Thing You Do! or The Commitments grade musicianship. It’s good but not virtuoso or magnified enough to get a large following. Nevertheless, it’s tantalizing. What could have been? Because even as the shop is having its final day and Sam gets ready to head out west, they get another opportunity.

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Someone is interested to monetize their band and tour it into something with legs. There is a moment where Frank genuinely wants this until he realizes it’s indicative of another issue. He needs a catharsis — a healthy, meaningful way to say goodbye to not only his shop but his daughter — and he gets it.

What more fitting way than a Last Waltz in the record store, except they’ve never even performed before. Still, they do it for the first and last time (maybe) and give it all they have for an audience of record hunters. The accolades and circulation were never important anyway.

They are in the pantheon surrounded by a hall of heroes. Some forgotten. Some not. I see Peter Frampton. Marvin Gaye. Lana Del Ray. The Beach Boys. Aretha. Bob Marley. Tom Waits. They’re all smiling down on these two people who love music. The personified joy is what it’s all about.

The message is succinct and we’ve heard it so many times before. Hearing it in the context of these people’s lives somehow gives it renewed resonance. Because it’s the message they need to hear and who knows, maybe some of us do as well.

Contentment is key. All change is not bad just as things of the past should not necessarily be ditched entirely for the new. Somewhere in between them all, between the record albums and the Spotify playlists, we should be able to find a happy medium. At the end of the day, the point of the music doesn’t change. It’s meant to bring us together.

3.5/5 Stars

The Window (1949)

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The main conceit is just too delightful to ignore. It posits the following dramatic question: What if the boy who cried wolf saw a murder being committed immediately afterward? Because that’s precisely what happens to little Tommy Woodry.

He’s one of those imaginative little boys who likes playing Cowboys and Indians while telling his contemporaries that his family has a large ranch out west where they raise horses. It all seems perfectly innocent except in close confines such stories take on a life of their own. Soon the landlord assumes that the Woodrys will be moving out shortly.

It’s not just this incident either but Tommy has a history of dreaming up all sorts of stories and wanting to teach their son good old-fashioned American values and honesty, his parents say there will be consequences if he lies again.

What happens next is so absurd and outrageous Tommy is sunk even before he’s begun. He spies the upstairs neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Kellerson (Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman) take part in a grisly murder. He does the fairly logical thing and goes to wake up his mother to let her know what he witnessed. But it’s not so logical based on what has already happened.

First, she dismisses his stories as a bad dream but after he goes down to the police station to get them involved, his mother is even more alarmed. Mr. Woodry comes back home from the night shift to hear about his son’s behavior and as much as he doesn’t like to do it, he does the fatherly thing and punishes the boy.

He’s meant to stay in his room and that wouldn’t be so bad if his father didn’t work nights and his mother wasn’t called away to take care of her ailing kinfolk. Because the Kellersons know he’s been snooping around and they’re not about to be found out — especially not by an inquisitive kid. When they figure out what he knows, he’s little better than a sitting duck.

If it wasn’t obvious from the outset the picture sets itself up for a claustrophobic finale that’s quite the piece of entertainment. Rear Window is one of my favorite films and it’s hard not to draw up comparisons between the two pictures because they both utilize their limited space well and allow us to get inside the plight of our protagonist in a way that’s excruciatingly disconcerting.

For L.B. Jeffries it’s the fact that he’s trapped in a wheelchair with a purported murderer living right across the courtyard from him. In this picture, it’s that little Tommy has his freedom revoked and finds himself made prisoner in his own home with his parent’s gone because they are angry with his constant fits of fibbing.

But more so than Rear Window which is a fairly opulent picture, The Window suggest the impoverished state of the characters at the fore, living on the Lower East Side as they do. Their lives are not glamorous at home or at work. They have a tough time scraping by and it shows in their dress and how they present themselves every day.

Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale do a fine job as Tommy’s parents because they feel like decent folks, generally humble and wanting to raise their son the best way. That doesn’t make their immune to parental blunders but, nevertheless, they love their boy.

Likewise, Paul Stewart is a bit menacing and thuggish veiling it with a good-natured facade while Ruth Roman normally remembered for fairly upright roles is cast as a wife who seems more frightened by her circumstances than anything else. She’s hardly a villain but that doesn’t make her any less complicit in this whole affair.

Bobby Driscoll was on loan out from Disney and he embodies the precocious nature of a boy in a way that’s completely believable and at the very least compelling.  It’s a wonderful live-action performance to fit right alongside his voice work before his life took a tragic dive into drug addiction.

It might be an unnecessary connection to make but director Ted Tetzlaff was formerly a cinematographer and one of the films attributed to him was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) from only a few years before. Hitch would come out with his home thriller in 1954. I’m still partial to the later film — it’s one of my personal favorites — but there’s no doubt The Window proves itself as a harrowing family thriller in its own right.

3.5/5 Stars

Side Street (1950)

 

SideStreetposterThough director Anthony Mann later made a name for himself with a string of Westerns pairing him with James Stewart, it’s just as easy to enjoy him for some of the diverting crime pictures he helped craft. Everything from Raw Deal (1948) to T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and of course this little number.

Another simple pleasure gleaned from Side Street is the second teaming of the two young starlets Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell who made such an impression together in Nicholas Ray’s sensitive drama They Drive By Night (1948)

We begin this particular picture with a flyover of New York City and the “Voice of God” narration comes off as another installment of The Naked City (1947) because it too takes to the streets, shot on location in the city of a thousand stories with thousands more waiting to happen.

There’s something engrossing in this style of storytelling which takes interest in several seemingly unextraordinary, unconnected individuals and then over the course of less than an hour and a half slowly ties together all the threads of their lives into one cohesive narrative.

There are some calling cards of crime pictures including sleazy extortion, a body fished out of the East River, and the police who are working the beats of the case and trying to keep the frenzy of journalists at bay. Paul Kelly and Charles McGraw head up the police procedural angle.

But the man we come to know the best is unassuming postman Joe Norson (Granger), who becomes extra jumpy after unwittingly stealing thousands of dollars when he thought he only swiped a few bucks to buy his wife a mink coat. He’s just a poor, small, unimportant little man in the scheme of things. An “Average Joe” if you pardon the expression. He’s not supposed to be embroiled in such a story. It’s a bigger can of worms than he could ever imagine and there are consequences.

Other people of interest are wealthy businessmen, crooked lawyers, cabbies, bar owners, bank tellers,  journalists, cops on the verge of retirement, nightclub singers, and at least a few ex-cons, all the usual standard bearers.

Joe’s wife is in the latest stages of her pregnancy and shortly her baby is on the way but her husband has made up a fanciful story about a new out-of-town job that’s loaded him with cash. Of course, she has no idea what’s going on and nor does he. He asks a near stranger, the man who runs the local bar to hold the cash for him. He says it’s a nightgown for his wife.

But Joe’s not a criminal. His guilty conscience is too much for him so he goes back to the office to plead with them to let him return the money. Of course, they have as much right to it as he does. What follows is a cat and mouse chase across the city. First, some thugs tail Joe looking for the $30,000. Then, Joe and ex-convict George Garsell look for the bar owner who has all but disappeared and conveniently the money’s gone too.

As the police are also involved, they want both men, believing they are complicit in different murders that have been committed. Joe has just enough time with his wife to explain his predicament. Still, he got himself into this mess and he holds the belief that he is the only one who can make it right.

What follows is a culmination of all the events thus far as all the character arcs begin to bump up against each other. Namely, Joe, a local nightclub singer (Jean Hagen), and the last man that Joe wanted to see, Garsell himself.

Side Street closes out with a lively car chase near The Third Avenue El that predates many of the revered classics from Bullitt (1968) to The French Connection (1971) years later. The full weight of the title’s meaning, subsequently makes itself increasingly clear as squads of police cars look to close in on the criminal’s getaway taxi. Of course, what makes it compelling is the fact that Joe is right in the thick of it all to the very last avenue…with a loaded gun pointed at his head. Thankfully there are no speed bumps in this one.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Speedy (1928)

speedy1It’s hard not to appreciate Harold Lloyd. His life was less tumultuous than Buster Keaton and during the 1920s he was more prolific than Charlie Chaplin. So if you look back at his career you can easily argue that he was not playing third fiddle to the other silent titans. He was their equal in many respects, and it’s only over the years that he’s fallen behind the others. But he deserves acknowledgment at the very least and his comedies such as Speedy make his case with rousing gimmicks and gags aplenty.

The film opens with Pop Dillon, the last of the horse-drawn streetcar drivers. He’s a kindly old man who lives with his radiant granddaughter Jane, who is faithfully by his side. But a corrupt railroad magnate is trying to buy him out, and he’s ready to go to great lengths to get what he wants. It’s about what we expect to happen, so the real entertainment factor comes with how we get there.

Enter Speedy (Harold Lloyd) a baseball-loving soda-jerk turned crazy cab driver and the sweetheart of Jane. It’s true that he starts out working the coffee counter with great dexterity while keeping up to date with the latest box scores of Murder’s Row. However, after a major blunder, he knows he won’t have a job when he gets back. Rather than stew in his misfortune, Speedy heads out on a Sunday afternoon in Coney Island with Jane. This proves to be a wonderful aside rather like in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and there are a lot of great little gags being pulled by Lloyd, and others occur unwittingly. He tricks a myriad of folks with a dollar bill on a string and a crab in the pocket causes a lot of chaos. He even picks up a new unwanted friend in a hungry dog. But perhaps most of all the sequence is a fun nostalgia trip to the fair, showing off all the attractions circa 1928. It’s an eye-opening experience, and it still looks like quite a lot of fun.

speedy3The other section of the story begins with Speedy garnering a job as a cab driver, but he has an unfortunate aptness for picking up tickets. He does, however, pick up some precious cargo in Babe Ruth (playing himself) and it leads to a wonderfully raucous ride to Yankee Stadium courtesy of Speedy’s crazy maneuvering through the streets of New York. Even Lou Gehrig sneaks in on the fun with a wry grin.

As the last order of business Speedy must save Pop’s cart from utter extinction and what follows is a rip-roaring brawl in the streets between the young thugs and the old-timers. Instead of being suspended from a clock, Lloyd must race against it to get Pop’s stolen livelihood back to its track in time. Once more he puts his madcap driving to good use.

Speedy lives up to its name and certainly justifies the popularity of Harold Lloyd. Its strengths include a plethora of sight gags that play off the audience’s sense of dramatic irony. Put them in the hands of such a nerdish icon and it spells true comedic gold. It’s Lou Gehrig approved no less.

4/5 Stars

Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

taxidriver1Well. Whatever it is, you should clean up this city here, because this city here is like an open sewer you know. It’s full of filth and scum. And sometimes I can hardly take it. ~ Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle

Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle is an American icon representing anyone and everyone who has ever felt like an outcast, outsider, or misfit. He’s the perfect embodiment of any of the angst or disgust that might surge through our veins at any given time. Except before I ever saw Martin Scorsese’s film, I always assumed him to be a thuggish villain. But his character is more complex than that. He’s far more relatable than I would have initially given him credit for.

The film actually opens feeling like the pilot of the Sitcom Taxi or something. There’s Bernard Hermann’s beautifully cool jazz-infused score and then the illuminating lights of an average New York evening. It feels strangely peaceful in spite of all that is going to go down.

Travis is an ex-Vietnam vet who takes a taxi driving job for the strangest of reasons. He just wants something that will have him working long hours and he isn’t too particular about what part of town he ends up in. From the get-go, he strikes the audience as a quiet almost silent observer of all that takes place around him on the streets every night. He’ll sit around with a couple cabbies as they chew the fat, but he’s essentially isolated — a repressed young man who doesn’t really express himself. His existence feels tragic and lonely, certainly not deadly.

taxidriver2There is a small beacon of hope when a pretty campaign volunteer named Betsy (Cybil Sheppard) catches his eye, and he has an extremely awkward interaction with her but it lands him a date. But Travis just doesn’t quite know how to act, he hasn’t learned what it means to be in a relationship and he has an error in judgment while they are out. However, he doesn’t see it that way. He feels his attempts at kindness were completely rejected.

Then, he also begins to notice a young hooker out on the streets and his next mission is to get her away from there back home. He thinks it’s the right thing to do and he means well but young streetwise Iris (Jodie Foster) doesn’t seem to want his charity. So once again Travis seems unwanted and not needed when he is trying to do something nice.

Travis even acknowledges to his colleague Wizard that he’s getting all twisted up inside and confused. He’s distraught and he has no way to deal with it so his outlet includes a heavy strength regimen and loading up on a ton of guns. Never a good sign, but it his mind’s eye it’s all to clean up the streets of the scum of the earth.

However, first he attends a rally for a presidential candidate that Betsy will be at and he has intent to cause harm, but he backs out at the last minute and goes to Plan B confronting Iris’s pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) and shooting him. The inner demons of Travis are unleashed as he goes off, but his delusions of grandeur reassure him that this is all for Iris. This is for her good. All this bloodshed.

taxidriver4The final moments after his rampage have Travis receiving a letter from Irises parents who are grateful for his actions to save their daughter from corruption. Then, a fully recuperated Travis finds Cybil sitting in the back seat of his taxi cab in all her glory. It’s beyond his wildest dreams, which begs the question is this reality, or is this just a clever construction of his own brain? Another delusion of grandeur. It’s a wonderful open-ended finale.

Paul Schrader’s script is a wonderful character study giving introspection into one troubled man’s psyche. However, there is controversy on two fronts. It’s rumored that John Hinckley Jr. who tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan was influenced by this film and also the finale seems to reflect many people who commit mass shootings. Oftentimes they are people who are deeply troubled and are looking for some type of attention. But with that desire comes often deadly consequences.

taxidriver3Martin Scorsese’s film has also received pointed criticism for its violence which is hard to downplay. However, Taxi Driver remains interesting because it is not bloated with killing (in fact only one scene is actually bloody). Most of the film has to do with relationships or lack thereof because a lot of what Travis does is watch and listen. It might be Martin Scorsese in a cameo as a jealous husband or a presidential candidate asking Bickle’s opinion from the back seat. Furthermore, like any warm-blooded boy, he knows that Cybil Sheppard is a dream girl. And he has enough compassion to want Iris to have a normal childhood. It’s just that his conscientiousness is misdirected and subverted.

The film resigns itself to following this one man in the wasteland that is New York. It’s starkly beautiful and thought-provoking placing a troubled anti-hero in front a canvas of urban realism. I could never condone his behavior, but then again I could never be completely against him either.

4.5/5 Stars

Frances Ha (2012)

Frances_Ha_poster“You look older but a lot less grown up…” 

People as diverse as Buddy the Elf, Holly Golightly, and Annie Hall call New York their stomping ground and along with these iconic figures comes Frances Halladay. Her bubble does extend to France and California, but New York is really her home base. In Noah Baumbach’s film, we follow this enigma as her address constantly changes, and she strives to follow her dream of becoming a professional dancer. We are allowed time to examine and analyze her in all sorts of situations because plot usually gives way to various asides showcasing the free spirit who is Frances.

She worries about money, can’t pay rent, wants to play fight with her best friend, and is a self-proclaimed “undateable.” She acts like a five-year-old one moment and yet has an almost unknowing beauty about her.  In other words, she’s a real winner. We cannot help but fall in love with her since she wins us over with all her oddities from beginning to end. Her friend Sophie cannot stay mad at her forever either. It’s just not possible. They have to make up.

Frances settles down one final time, after trying her hand rather successfully at choreography and moving back to Washington Heights. There we get one last little nugget. We finally can chuckle knowingly about the title of this film. It’s so Frances and it’s the perfect cherry on top of the sundae.

In the tradition of New York films, Baumbach’s effort has a visual style that was meant to hearken back to the austere black & white of Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). In some sense, it acts as another character altogether. Whether he is pandering to us or not, there is no doubt that I am a sucker for the cinematography and it made things just a little bit more magical.

Thankfully Greta Gerwig helped craft this script and in her character, she found the perfect paradox. An individual so extremely quirky, but still somehow believable in the same instance. Her foibles and pratfalls only help to solidify her character in our mind. The fact is that each of us probably knows some variation of Frances. Those individuals who dance to a different drum and give every single day that they live on this earth a certain degree of pizzazz. I speak for all the cautious, rationally minded human beings out there. We need the Frances Has to make us laugh and to shake up our normality at least a little bit.

4/5 Stars