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”

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)”

Rapid Response: Abigail’s Party

AbigailsPartyPosterAt the beginning of “Abigail’s Party,” Beverly enters the living room of her home, opens a cabinet full of liquor, and pours herself a drink, her first of what will be many this evening. She’s wearing a low cut, salmon colored dress and a large, garish gold necklace beneath a frumpy Pageboy haircut that’s rounded perfectly above her eyes. In the course of this evening, she will turn out to be a real monster. And that’s saying nothing of her friends.

In Beverly we get one of the most grating, annoying characters ever put to film, her British accent almost cartoonish, her poise sloppy and her decorum atrocious. And yet she’s the star of a truly devastating and cringe-worthy character study. “Abigail’s Party” was an early film by British director Mike Leigh released in 1977. It’s a teleplay made for TV and based on a theater production. Louis C.K. was inspired by it to make “Horace and Pete,” firstly due to its live, three-camera, sitcom style filmmaking, and secondly for how this darkly funny story of alcoholism, etiquette and societal values add up to a dreary tragedy. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Abigail’s Party”

Rapid Response: Face/Off

FaceOffPosterOh, I miss movies like “Face/Off.” We still have “John Wick” and “Kingsman” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” sure, but superheroes and perhaps the dark and gritty brand of Christopher Nolan movies have made the truly ridiculous action movie an endangered species and a thing of the past.

It was a different time, the ’90s. Pokemon may be back, but the superficially stupid and one-dimensional movies that un-ironically shoved explosions in our faces got replaced in favor of more serious fare. “Face/Off” was the most bananas of them all, and you could say that movies like “Face/Off” disappeared because everything was trying to be “Face/Off.” We have hordes of “Die Hard” copycats and directors pretending to be Quentin Tarantino, but people could only dream that their films could be as stylized as John Woo’s, and as insane as his stories.

Much of that success has to do with Nicolas Cage being on the best role of his life. After winning an Oscar for “Leaving Las Vegas,” he chose to follow that up by claiming the action hero belt away from the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, starring in “The Rock,” “Con Air” and “Face/Off” within a little over a calendar year. All three were major blockbusters.

NicCage

Cage plays Castor Troy, who plants a bomb in the LA Convention Center dressed as a dancing terrorist minister. He waltzes over to a singing choir sporting a devilish grin and sneaks a squeeze of a choir girl’s butt, experiencing ecstasy as he does. “You know, I can eat a peach for hours,” he says with a menacing smile. He wields a pair of gold pistols, he flashes his teeth wildly, whips off his sunglasses to make eye contact with the camera.

And then after getting captured by his FBI rival Sean Archer (John Travolta), who seeks revenge after Troy killed Archer’s son, the two switch faces. I repeat: they exchange ‘effing faces.

“John Wick” and others may be stylish, brutal and simplistic, but 2000s movies lack that high concept absurdity that could make “Face/Off” a classic. It doesn’t matter if the dialogue is atrocious, if the pseudo-science doesn’t make a lick of sense or if the surrounding characters are so thick as to possibly think this plan, of surgically giving Archer Troy’s face so that he can infiltrate a prison and get information out of Troy’s brother, is a good idea.

The concept alone is juicy, but Nic Cage being in the role consequently enhances Travolta’s performance, who starts to channel Cage’s mannerisms, his slick and sleazy attitude and villainous posture. Cage doesn’t precisely act like Travolta, but you recognize that the two of them are both giving performances within performances, and you’d be forgiven for confusing the two, thinking Cage somehow inhabits Travolta and was playing the real Castor Troy all along.

Smaller details emphasize the breadth of Woo’s mastery over the form. Inside the prison, where all the guards are one-dimensional monsters, the prisoners wear magnetic boots that lock them to the floor and track their movements, a detail so silly and outrageous that you remember it even though it has no bearing on the story.

Although you could see why Woo’s style would eventually go out of fashion. When a movie is this populated with people diving through glass windows away from explosions in slow motion at domineering low angles, it can get a little old. It’s when he pitches these set pieces at such a high degree of insanity, like the biggest Mexican standoff at the film’s climax, or when “Over the Rainbow” plays over a bullet-ridden bloodbath that would lay the groundwork for “The Matrix.” And don’t forget the doves!

The style and tone that “Face/Off” portrays has become nothing but cliches and has aged poorly, but the film itself hasn’t aged a day. It’s as fresh, exciting and fun as it was in 1997.

Rapid Response: Ghostbusters (1984)

GBPosterThe thing about Bill Murray movies is, they often don’t work without him. “Groundhog Day” would be a horrible Adam Sandler comedy if anyone but him played the part, and the same is true of “Ghostbusters.” Aside from all the ugly misogyny that’s being thrown at the movie sight unseen, no wonder everyone is freaking out over a remake of “Ghostbusters.”

If there’s so much controversy about whether women can play the Ghostbusters, it’s because even from its opening moments, Dr. Peter Venkman (Murray) channels a distinct brand of ’80s masculinity. He’s a smug playboy, a sarcastic goofball, an apathetic regular Joe, and yet he’s hilarious, confident, charming and likable. Take the opening scene after the credits, in which Venkman flirts with a cute student while tormenting another nerdy one with some electroshock therapy. Watch how he grins in a way that telegraphs to the camera he’s full of it but confounds his two test subjects. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Ghostbusters (1984)”

Rapid Response: WarGames

wargames-posterNostalgia does strange things to people. “WarGames” was a major blockbuster in 1983, the fifth highest grossing movie of the year and even the recipient of three Oscar nominations. I watched it because the film has a prominent place in the book “Ready Player One,” in which the lead character Parzival steps into David Lightman’s shoes and gets to act out the entire movie virtually. And yet it’s strange to think that anyone, even Ernest Cline, would imagine the film has aged well.

For one, hacking and even the presence of a NORAD command center for tracking the war were inventive images and concepts that gained some added credibility in pop culture following this film. But it also has to do with the film’s themes, which Roger Ebert argued in his original 4-star review went beyond those of simply being a “Fail-Safe,” Cold War Paranoia knock off. Not only does that not give enough credit to “Fail-Safe,” which feels as tightly wound, crisply made and poignant on a political theory and even a technological level, it’s overselling the virtues of John Badham’s (“Saturday Night Fever“) film.

Broderick in his pre-Ferris Bueller days plays a teenage hacker named David trying to tap into a video game company’s servers, only to stumble across a military super computer programmed to calculate outcomes in a nuclear war with the Russians. Alongside his girlfriend played by Ally Sheedy in her pre-“Breakfast Club” days, David accidentally triggers a war simulation that fools the military generals into believing conflict is imminent.

Computers have no morality, the film attests, only game-like logic. In turn, Badham smartly gives David the same vices. He changes his own grades without any inkling of the consequences, and when he decides to play “Global Thermonuclear War,” he does so recklessly and with gleeful abandon. Like the computer programmed to learn, he’s a kid who needs to mature. It makes for tense, tight and adventurous dialogue, and this added nuance makes the otherwise dryer war room discussions of who pulls the strings, man or machine, more thoughtful. For instance, the film’s General remains the most skeptical, and yet he’s the one most convinced and sucked in by what the computer tells him.

But the technophobia would be a lot more engaging and relevant if even a bit of the scenario seemed plausible. “WarGames” has the appearance of understanding computers, but maybe not humans. Despite no confirmations, no visible proof or no radar evidence, the entire military and President remain convinced that missiles are on their way to destroy everything. In one scene, the government agents assume David must be a spy working with someone on the outside, but it’s a series of dumb misunderstandings. At what point does the film shift from the genuine paradoxes of man vs. machine to just being something of a loony thriller?

I’m also seriously missing Broderick’s Ferris Bueller charms and sense of humor, even if he still has the sheepish quality down. “WarGames” has flashes of a sense of humor, like when David’s father slathers his corn in butter, or when a needle-nosed nerd in a computer lab starts butting in to the tense war drama, but the film lacks the whimsy that someone like Spielberg would’ve given it. And how it ever got nominated for Best Cinematography and was considered to be in the same league as something like “Fanny and Alexander” I’ll never know.

“The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?” Those are some of “WarGames” closing lines, and they’re good ones, a whole mess of social theory and Cold War paranoia summed up in one succinct line. Except if that’s the film’s biggest takeaway, it’s hard to say that it really stands apart from the other Cold War thrillers like it.

Rapid Respone: Battle Royale

battle-royale-poster-artwork-tatsuya-fujiwara-aki-maeda-taro-yamamotoIt’d be impossible not to compare “Battle Royale” with “The Hunger Games.” Conceptually, they’re identical. A tyrannical government has instated a law in which teenagers are forced to compete in a fight to the death in order to win their freedom.

Though I’m more interested in their differences. After all, neither of these films is entirely original. “Battle Royale” draws on a long lineage of Japanese horror films and action movies, and”The Hunger Games” borrows liberally from the romance and themes of many YA novels.

In fact, where “The Hunger Games” concerns government oppression, individuality and coming of age, “Battle Royale” serves primarily as a character study, and in some ways it turns out to be a lot more fun.

In the film, it’s explained that the Battle Royale was instated as a response to the behavior of rebellious young people. More and more kids would be disobeying adults and in turn the government passed a law in which one classroom of 40-odd students would each year be put on an island and forced to fight to the death. “The Hunger Games” has a far more plausible explanation for their dystopia, but “Battle Royale” has fun with the concept and harbors some genuine bitterness and spite toward the youth and tests them with what it is to be an adult.

“It’s your own damn fault. You don’t respect adults,” says Kitano-sensei, the game master. “Life is a game; you fight for your survival!” While some quickly get killed in their panic and immaturity, and while others hide or some even choose to commit suicide and not play at all, those who do play the game learn respect and how to be an adult fairly quick. Take one scene in which a group of girls have holed up in a lighthouse with plans to travel across the island and make their escape. Everyone in the film is horny for one another, so after Shuya, the protagonist, ends up accidentally killing one of the girl’s crushes, she poisons his food and plots to kill him. The poison ends up in the hands of another of the girls, and in their short fused rage, untrusting nature and stupidity, the whole room gets left in a bloodbath, with Shuya completely in the dark as to how it happened.

The game confronts their feelings of uselessness and ability to make it in the real world. Here on the island as in society, the system is rigged against them, and many of them won’t figure out how to survive. After several of the kids die, the film cuts to black to display an epitaph, and at the film’s close it says, “Run! For all your worth.” It’s a message that isn’t shared by “The Hunger Games,” a belief that to live and make it out alive in this world, you have to embrace your future and your adulthood and prove your value and respect for the world.

That a message like that can be contained in a movie so generally shlocky and campy hints at why “Battle Royale” has become such a treasured cult film. It was released in 2000, but could be right at home in the ’80s or ’90s action genre. Kids dive in slow motion away from explosions, someone lodges a grenade in a severed head, and the film squirts gallons of fake blood, with red the only color breaking through the many grays and beiges. The film’s villain, a silent “transfer” student, makes for the perfect demon. He has a sport coat and great, untamed hair, with his eyeliner dripping down his cheek like a vampire as he steps out alive from some flaming wreckage. The film even has some neat, surreal dream sequences and a surprising heart as these kids profess their love for one another in dying arms.

“The Hunger Games” has a lot of things going for it, and it’s a great franchise for a reason. But it would be wrong to say it’s a “Battle Royale” knock-off, or vice versa. These are films with their own strengths, ideas and bloody charms.

Rapid Response: Ali

Ali_movie_posterI learned a lot about Muhammad Ali in the wake of his death a few weeks back. His fighting record was stellar, and there are so many wonderful photos of Ali with other geniuses who all saw him as The Greatest, but he’s the most important sportsman of all time because he changed the game and changed the world.

I perhaps learned less so watching Michael Mann’s “Ali,” a frustratingly long and meandering biopic with only some strong performances and fight cinematography to back it up.

Most biopics of this pedigree would feel the need to start in Ali’s childhood and work its way up through his late in life Parkinson’s. Mann resists that urge and focuses strictly on his time as a fighter, both in the ring and as a warrior for civil rights, his religion and the war. And yet you could make a movie that dialed closely on any one of these moments. If Malcolm X can get his own film then so can his relationship with Ali. You could make an entire Frost v. Nixon style movie based solely around Ali’s interviews with Howard Cosell. The discrepancy between their on-camera squabbles and off-camera chemistry could make a great comedy.

But by the time “Ali” arrives in Africa for the fight with George Foreman, not to mention the late-to-the-party introduction of yet another one of his wives, the compelling conflict and intricate drama of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement feels so far in the rearview mirror. We know the outcome of the fight, and the original tension the movie spent the first hour plus establishing has vanished.

So much of “Ali” hangs on Will Smith’s charisma in the role. It’s all in the mannerisms, the footwork, the bobbing and weaving, the physicality of his performance. When he’s being interviewed you can see his dramatic shift in posture, with his legs spread wide and a new cadence and rhythm to his voice. In the more dramatic scenes its his ability to get lost in a deep stare under heavy eyebrows and a gigantic forehead. Smith just fits the part better than anyone else could, and it’s arguably his best performance.

“Ali” wouldn’t be the first biopic to have a stellar lead performance and little else going for it. I said as much about “Chaplin” just this past week. But it’s amazing how in the film’s first hour, it genuinely floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, streamlining Ali’s life moments, his energy and his legacy all around those pivotal fights. It’s just by the end it’s moving so slowly it hardly resembles a champion.

Rapid Response: Chaplin

Robert Downey Jr. shines in the biopic on the life of Charlie Chaplin and his Tramp.

chaplin-coverA lot of generic biopics about geniuses get a pass because they show an endearing side to a beloved figure. I can swallow a mediocre movie about “The Doors” because Val Kilmer is so electric as Jim Morrison on stage and I love the music.

In the case of “Chaplin,” I’m at a crossroads. I adore Charlie Chaplin and The Tramp, and Robert Downey Jr. has his mannerisms and his likeness down pat. It’s a wonderful performance, and the same goes for Kevin Kline as Douglas Fairbanks, a natural fit. But Richard Attenborough’s film has the markings of a prestige picture, a stuffy melodrama made to win Oscars and exactly the opposite of what The Tramp stood for. It doesn’t understand what made Chaplin such a gifted physical comedian or have the visual style to capture how his knack behind the camera gave each visual gag the necessary grace and style to make it funny, and it doesn’t show how he came to be truly great but rather assumes he always was.

I refer back to the most basic rules of movie biopics about geniuses: focus on an individual moment of the figure’s story, not their entire life. Drawn from Chaplin’s real-life autobiography and yet reimagined as Chaplin filling in important blanks of his life story with a fictional publisher (Anthony Hopkins), Attenborough’s film starts in Chaplin’s childhood and his complications with a mentally ill mother, then moves through his early vaudeville days before he’s swept off to America and early Hollywood. During the title cards, the black and white image of a sad, lonely Tramp removing his makeup has an unexpected poignancy, a quick glimpse of an icon as we’ve never seen him before, but Attenborough immediately signals what kind of melodramatic slog this will be. Why do we have to endure such bland, downtrodden moments of grief when we’re telling a story of one of the silver screen’s most beloved clowns?

“Chaplin” gets caught in an unfortunate middle ground, with film buffs who already know the full story disappointed at how the film chooses to treat their icon, and with newbies to Chaplin getting the wrong idea about his legacy. And while it might’ve been a wise idea to update the Tramp persona to exist in the late 20th Century, the movie forgoes a sense of classicism and feels dated as a result.

Occasionally the film shows twinkles of magic. Chaplin gets giddy and awestruck at the early magic of cinema and in how pioneer director Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) walks him through the elementary simple process of movie editing in order to create something incredible. It feels quaint today, but then this was once considered a gimmick and a novelty. Another sequence with Chaplin dodging some real life cops toys with some original slapstick and zaniness, although without a classical bent, several of these Downey showcases are undercut by editing that, in Chaplin’s case, would’ve been far more economical.

Working from “The Immigrant” up through “Limelight” and through all of his tumultuous marriages and tabloid worthy affairs, everything here has moments of promise before becoming yet another footnote in his autobiography. When your only goal is to do lip service to everything and say that even the genius can feel humble and inadequate, it begs the question again, who is this movie for? What is it trying to say? The Tramp never spoke a word, and yet he spoke more volumes than the biopic bearing his name.

Rapid Response: Young Mr. Lincoln

Henry Fonda plays Abraham Lincoln as a young lawyer in Springfield in John Ford’s 1939 classic.

220px-Youngmrlincoln“You’re crazy! I can’t play Lincoln. That’s like playing God, to me.” Henry Fonda said in a 1975 interview that he only played Abraham Lincoln because John Ford (who else) “shamed” him into doing it. “You think it’s The Great Emancipator huh? He’s a young, jack-legged lawyer from Springfield for Christ sake!”

We certainly do have this revered image of our 16th President, and yet the two biggest actors who have played him, Fonda and more recently Daniel Day Lewis, both played Lincoln with a sort of laid back aplomb. In their performances they made Lincoln into a great man by separating him from the esteem and the myth.

In “Young Mr. Lincoln,” which Ford cranked out in his seminal year of 1939 alongside “Stagecoach” and “Drums Along the Mohawk,” it’s immediately apparent that the image of Lincoln that Ford is going for differs from that of the stuffy politicians and bourgeois speaking in grand statements. He’s a proletariat homeboy who spoke calmly and plainly and won over the nation through his clear, honest demeanor and homespun wisdom.

Much of that credit certainly belongs to Fonda. Instantly he gives Lincoln a humble, trustworthy presence. It’s all in his tall and lanky body language. He leans on doorways and railings not unlike the iconic stooped perch he musters in Ford’s “My Darling Clementine, his poise and shoulders are lax, casual and he never has the need to truly boast or raise his voice. Look at one scene in which Lincoln, practicing as a young lawyer in Springfield, convinces two men who both want damages from the other to settle their case. He acts as though he’s telling them a story and lesson before revealing that he’s good at cracking heads, his eyes turning into icy spears as he does.

All the while Ford shoots Fonda at congenial, reassuring angles. Our first great look at Lincoln is a centered shot from chest height, just slightly glancing up at his sheepish face. Unlike the politician who spoke before him, Ford doesn’t frame Lincoln as some towering figure, but a relatable one. Lincoln’s words reached people on their level, and so does Ford’s film.

The story itself is a fictionalized version of one of Lincoln’s first court cases when he was a young man, not a president. Some out-of-towners get into a fight with a local brute, and when the man ends up dead, the town wants to lynch the two outsiders. Lincoln single-handedly stops the mob and agrees to defend the boys in a rousing and amusing courtroom drama. It’s complete with a few teases to his eventual wife Mary Todd and to his rival Stephen Douglas (a scene with John Wilkes Booth was cut from the film), but the film’s real charms lie in how Ford can capture the pulse of a community from this period.

“Young Mr. Lincoln” acts as a call for a more relatable leader, one who can subdue the fire of an angry crowd just through his words, but also one who will eat pies, split rails and cheat at tug of war, an average person who is in actuality extraordinary.