Rapid Response: The Purple Rose of Cairo

Allen’s feather-light fantasy still has a lot of depth and laughs

purpleroseposterIn Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” a movie character in a classic, Old Hollywood, Depression-era costume drama steps out of the screen and falls in love with a woman in the audience. He later pulls her onto screen and into the fold of the movie and shows her a night on the town. A montage of lights and marquees with the two actors walking and smiling in black and white plays, and it’s a perfect, yet unremarkable moment typical of just about any film made from that era.

Step back though and you’ll remember this movie wasn’t made by some generic Hollywood director like Mervyn Le Roy or Leo McCarey, but was made by Woody Allen in 1985. Allen’s attention to detail in even just this simple montage is impeccable. And yet it’s all so light and frothy. Movies like “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” all have a special place in my heart, but some of my favorites of Allen’s are movies like “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Sleeper” and this film’s closest surrogate, “Midnight in Paris.” They’re effortlessly fun and seemingly insignificant romances and flights of fantasy, but they have surprising depth and insight about the world.

“I want what happened last week to happen this week. Otherwise, what’s life about?” That line could go almost unnoticed in the film. It takes place in a hilariously chaotic moment where the characters on screen are all taunting, showboating and arguing with the theater patrons watching them. One of the attendees says that line and it says so much about why we come to the movies, about how their predictability doesn’t just offer an escape but keeps us grounded. Continue reading “Rapid Response: The Purple Rose of Cairo”

The Bank Dick (1940)

“The Bank Dick” shows W.C. Fields’s distinct voice as a classic comic actor

wc_fieldsbankdickposterFool me once, W.C. Fields, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. It goes to show that in my Rapid Response to “It’s a Gift” just how little I knew about Fields or his movies. Roger Ebert’s Great Movies piece of “The Bank Dick” informs that you don’t have to be familiar with Fields’s movies to be considered a movie buff, and yet if you have never come across him, you’re hardly a movie lover at all.

Ebert describes him as a man who seemed to be drunk at all times, whose louse behavior was par for the course, and whose movies were not especially good, but whose best moments were spread across numerous features and shorts. His best known feature, “The Bank Dick,” made eight years after “It’s a Gift,” shows just how little Fields’s formula had evolved in that time. And to watch the two films in close succession, you begin to develop an affinity for their patterns and their sillier shared qualities.

That doesn’t mean I exactly enjoyed “The Bank Dick.” It’s perhaps even more formless of a story than “It’s a Gift,” and yet taken together it’s much easier to respect the work Fields is doing and the effort that’s gone into making these films, as dumb as they are. Continue reading “The Bank Dick (1940)”

In Defense of Jimmy Fallon (sort of)

Fallon’s Trump interview was bad, but let Fallon be Fallon

Jimmy Fallon was doomed no matter what he did with Donald Trump. In today’s political climate, if you’re not staunchly choosing a side then you’re part of the problem. And in having such a volatile person like Trump on his show this late in the campaign, he already stood to lose the respect of the leftist, cultural elite, but in holding Trump’s feet to the fire he would’ve definitely lost the viewership and respect of the right. Imagine if he tussled Hillary Clinton’s hair or dressed up in a pantsuit with her. He would’ve lost both groups, not just one or the other.

In the numerous think pieces that have been trotted around, the same 15 (scathing) tweets from the same journalists were used as proof that the Internet has turned against Fallon. Vulture said Fallon completed his transformation into Jay Leno, inoffensive and popular, yet to the point that it’s become a liability. Fallon’s the late night show celebs go to because they know he’ll be a pussycat, in the same way it was with Leno.

But Leno and Fallon are still highly different. Leno held firm to a Vegas-style variety show, and with his lame “have you heard about this” stand up and his vaguely snobby snickering at dumb criminals in newspaper headlines and in man-on-the-street trivia, he got old fast because he clung to a segment of the ‘80s and the past that was long past its due date.

There was a point however when Fallon was the new kid on the block, the fan favorite and the Internet’s favorite. Back when he was on Late Night, he didn’t play as many games with his guests but instead performed goofy, often inspired sketches that firstly proved that he was an incredibly talented impressionist and performer, but also ensnared the youth demographic. Remember Tebowie, the blend of Tim Tebow and David Bowie? Or his many stabs at Neil Young or Bob Dylan singing beloved theme songs and Top 40 music? He combined nostalgia for ‘90s TV shows like Saved by the Bell reunions and an affinity for hipper music, like in his history of rap performances with Justin Timberlake, as a way of creating content that, even if you weren’t watching his show live, demanded to be shared online, thus changing the game. Like Letterman and Conan before him, both of whom earned cult status on college campuses with edgy humor, Fallon had become the hot young star all the kids loved, and he did so with inoffensive charm. Continue reading “In Defense of Jimmy Fallon (sort of)”

The Light Between Oceans

Derek Cianfrance’s more modest adaptation doesn’t have the explosive proportions of his previous films.

the_light_between_oceans_posterDerek Cianfrance’s films have big emotions, sprawling, slow burn narratives and are steeped in conflict, romance, melodrama and more. He takes intimate stories, like a deteriorating marriage in “Blue Valentine,” or a relationship between two fathers on opposite sides of the law in “The Place Beyond the Pines,” and blows them up with Biblical importance and gravity. In the process, he wrings some incredible performances and powerful drama out of movies that might otherwise feel overwrought.

With his latest film “The Light Between Oceans,” he’s bestowed a small-scale character drama and romance with major emotion and conflict all on the surface level, but it hasn’t been expanded to Cianfrance size. It’s a modest tearjerker with spiritual qualities and a compelling story, but it doesn’t have the explosive moments that would make it truly resonate.

“The Light Between Oceans” is based on a novel by M.L. Stedman, unread by me. It’s set in 1918 shortly after World War I. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) was decorated in the war and now seeks a life of solitude as a lighthouse keeper on an island miles away from civilization. In time he meets and marries Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) and brings her to live on the island. They’re deeply in love, but twice Isabel suffers a miscarriage. And then suddenly, a boat appears washed up on the island. The man inside is dead, but a baby girl lives. Continue reading “The Light Between Oceans”

Sully

“Sully” offers a more nuanced portrait of heroism than “American Sniper”

sullyposterIt’s fitting that “Sully,” the latest film by Clint Eastwood about the “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, has been released on the weekend of 9/11’s 15th Anniversary. The worst happened that day, and we’re lucky to have first responders to celebrate this weekend. But what Sully experiences in Eastwood’s film casts doubt over whether he’s a hero at all, or whether he or all the other “heroes” could’ve done more to save others.

Eastwood’s “Sully” offers a compelling and dramatic story that proves to be a far more shaded and nuanced portrait of heroism than Eastwood’s own blockbuster “American Sniper.” It’s a film about doubt and uncertainty within even the best of us. For those like Sully, we hope that they can overcome their memories of the tragedy and accept the good they’ve done.

In the aftermath of the plane crash in which he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Ekhart) emergency landed on the Hudson River, Sully (Tom Hanks) imagines what would’ve happened if he failed. In January of 2009, both engines on his plane gave out within seconds of taking off, an ordeal that lasted just 208 seconds. In the end he saved the lives of all 155 “souls” on board. Had he chosen to try and return to the airport, he imagines that he would have not just cost the lives of all those on board, but perhaps hundreds of others in a densely populated Manhattan. Continue reading “Sully”

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

the_best_years_of_our_lives_film_posterIn Mark Harris’s book “Five Came Back,” Harris chronicles director William Wyler’s thoughts as he grappled with making “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He talks about his decision to cast the non-actor and real-life amputee Harold Russell as Homer, a man who lost his hands not in the war but during training. In making that choice, Wyler said he was dedicated to honesty and authenticity. He looked at thousands of veterans returning home to watch his movie, and he knew anything that didn’t ring completely true to their experience would fall flat.

Today when we think of authenticity, it’s the opposite of Hollywood endings and drama. It’s grittily real, dark and cynical. Earlier in “Five Came Back,” an early treatment of “The Best Years of Our Lives” became the novel “Glory for Me” by Mackinlay Kantor. Harris describes the book as “more explicitly brutal than any movie of the time could have been,” and that the “hardbitten pessimism of [Glory For Me’ was tonally closer to the budding genre of postwar noir.”

This is the film that would get made today. The returning soldiers have been through hell and back, and the civilians on the home front have taken their jobs and spit in their faces, either oblivious or uncaring to the challenges of PTSD. We’ve seen it in Vietnam movies, Iraq movies and more contemporary World War II stories. And journalists would write about those films as though these were the ones that captured the reality of the world.

Except Wyler’s film today seems the most authentic. It has a classical, Hollywood-friendly love story and uplifting ending despite some tough themes and drama. “The Best Years of Our Lives” doesn’t grapple with the extraordinary cases and nightmares but the ordinary people returning home. It’s 170 minutes long but feels intimate and small in its scope. Whereas other war films have been intrinsically tied to the politics and the pulse of the day, “The Best Years of Our Lives” feels timeless. Continue reading “The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)”

Rich Hill

rich_hill_ver4_xlgTo look at the 13-year-old Appachey is to think the worst about him. He’s a sullen, pudgy kid with an attitude toward his mom and perhaps a vendetta toward life as he aimlessly breaks ice in an abandoned lot. Even his name, a misspelled pronunciation of a Native American tribe, just makes you wonder about this kid and his family. When we first meet him in the documentary “Rich Hill,” we see him light a cigarette in an oddly placed toaster in the middle of his house’s foyer. Then he explains how his father walked out on him when he was 6 and never came back.

“We’re not trash,” says Andrew, another boy from the small town of Rich Hill, Missouri. “We’re good people.” They’re good people, but they don’t have good lives, and it affects them in ways that can make it hard to find the good in them. In the documentary “Rich Hill” by Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos, the idyllic, romantic view of Real America is replaced by a tough community and lifestyle where the three kids at its center grow up quick. It’s a highly perceptive and observant, albeit dreary look at adolescence in the Midwest.

Rich Hill, MO is a rural town near the border of Kansas. A sign informs that the population is just 1,396. They have bake sales, 4th of July celebrations, and a high school football team, but there’s really nothing here for these kids. Continue reading “Rich Hill”

Hell or High Water

Hell_or_High_Water_film_posterThe salt of the Earth genius of David Mackenzie’s “Hell or High Water” is that it takes this Robin Hood story of justice for the working family over the bankers and the system and makes it purely Texas. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay (“Sicario”) sees debt billboards mocking our heroes from every highway and has political, financial commentary carefully weaved in among heist dialogue, brotherly joshing and casually offensive and racist quips. It’s so steeped in Southern values and is one of the most richly American movies of the year.

Toby and Tanner Howard are two brothers with a plan to rob small banks throughout Texas in order to pay off the mortgage on their deceased mother’s ranch. The land will overturn to the bank by the end of the week, but rather than sentimental value associated with the ranch, diggers found oil on their property, and they stand to clear more than the mortgage is worth within the first week of digging.

Toby (Chris Pine) wants to give the property to his ex-wife and sons as a nest egg to atone for his past transgressions. He may not be a great person, but he’s got a clean record, a young, ruggedly handsome face and brains. His brother Tanner (Ben Foster) has been in and out of prison and has volatile mood swings with often amusing results, like when he scares off a woman hitting on his brother and then proceeds to pick up their hotel desk clerk. He says he’s never known a single person get away with any crime, but his reason for helping sums up everything you need to know about their relationship: “Because you asked little brother.” Continue reading “Hell or High Water”

Rapid Response: It’s a Gift (1932)

220px-WCF_It's_a_Gift_1934The comedies of W.C. Fields have not aged well, but there’s a clear dark side upon watching them today. I can imagine a version of this film in which none of the incompetence, prat fall humor and family comedy would be played for laughs and instead as a dark satire of a depressed, miserable nuclear family.

Sure enough, people have reimagined the family comedy and the sitcom. You can see traces of W.C. Fields in Clark Griswold, or I think of Louis C.K. trying to stage a sitcom in which when his wife scolds him for opening a bottle on the table, she doesn’t say “I love you,” but “I’m leaving you.”

In “It’s a Gift,” Fields plays Harold, a struggling grocer who lucks into a small fortune upon learning of the death of his wealthy relative. Before the ink is dry on the will, Harold has already purchased an orange grove in California, unaware (or unwilling to learn) that nothing will grow on his newly purchased lot. But the film plays more as a series of slapstick sketches. Continue reading “Rapid Response: It’s a Gift (1932)”

Weiner

WeinerPosterIn the press, Anthony Weiner’s real failing was not just being the butt of a sex scandal or an obviously smutty pun, but for a failure of trust. He had gotten caught sending sexually explicit photos to other women, resigned from Congress, apologized, and then got caught again. Lawrence O’Donnell asked him flat out on MSNBC, “What’s wrong with you?” He had shown repeated acts of poor judgment, and his combative presence in the media and with the public belied that of a man who could not control himself.

But honesty was never really his issue. In the scathing and often hilarious new documentary “Weiner,” the curtain gets pulled back to show that Anthony Weiner absolutely gets it and knows how wrong he is, but paints a portrait of a man unable to stop. It’s a film about the media and about compulsion, about a need not just for attention but for vindication. Directors Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg reveal that for all of his smarts, all of his charisma, Weiner seems to seek out conflict and controversy and brings everyone around him down with the ship. Continue reading “Weiner”