Some movies merit a second viewing to get a better sense of what’s going on. There aren’t a lot of films I’d lump into this category but Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg is one of them. When I saw it during its original theatrical release I thought it fell flat. I was expecting a sharp-as-a-blade deconstruction of the kind of guy who, in Baumbach’s own words, seems to perpetually get in his own way. Ben Stiller’s character, Roger Greenberg, is a hyper-critical, excruciatingly self-centered guy aimless and adrift in a Los Angeles completely familiar to anyone who lives here—a place that seems to always have the lonely haze of a Sunday afternoon. Greenberg is a quintessential 21st century miserablist. None of his problems should chart on a list of the biggest issues facing society but in his own way he epitomizes the neurotic, existential crisis surrounding a particular stratum of our white western culture of insane privilege. Greenberg is paralyzed by how his actions make him seem to the outside world. He is obsessed with what people say about him. He is so busy avoiding the things he doesn’t want to do that he ends up not really doing anything with his life. He takes out his anger on justifiable targets—Starbucks, rude drivers—but lacks the self-awareness to see where all this self-obsessive behavior has gotten him. If this sounds unpleasant I assure you it’s actually pretty hilarious but the subtlety of Stiller’s performance caught me off guard the first time.
Roger Greenberg is a New Yorker in his 40s who has just gotten over some kind of vaguely alluded to nervous breakdown. He is offered his brother Phillip’s palatial house in L.A. to recuperate in while Phillip and his family are off in Vietnam on a work-related trip. Greenberg (as Stiller’s character is known) shows up after they leave and meets their personal assistant, Florence (Greta Gerwig), who agrees to get a drink with him. Their banter is suitably awkward. Greenberg often wears the expression of a trapped animal; his eyes dart around and he doesn’t so much engage in conversation as let you in on what one assumes is his constant, torturous inner monologue: a litany of complaints and contrarian opinions on every subject conceivable. Somehow this charms Florence or at least piques her curiosity. She’s a girl just out of college who is sleepwalking through young adulthood, a nice kid who doesn’t have her shit together and for whatever reason likes Greenberg. Greenberg, though, has a habit of letting people who care about him down. Whether it’s Florence or his former band mate, Ivan (Rhys Ifans), he can’t seem to move beyond his own baggage and he inevitably hurts the people closest to him. Misery, after all, loves company.
Morgan Stewart's Coming Home
Bold as it is to say, if you’re a horror fan and you appreciate the style of teen comedies that were often made in the ‘80s, then I think Morgan Stewart’s Coming Home is pretty much the most romantic movie ever made. What follows is my evidence to support this statement.
Jon Cryer (Pretty in Pink’s Duckie, as most of you know him) plays 16-year-old Morgan Stewart, a sweet prankster currently serving time at his 10th prep school who just also happens to be a huge horror fanatic. The opening shot of the movie starts out on a close-up of his vintage theatrical one-sheet poster for Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and then pulls out and pans across his room to reveal a barrage of masks, a mechanic moving severed hand, and a slew of posters ranging from Dawn of the Dead to Tales of Terror to The Exorcist. He ends up meeting the girl of his dreams, Emily, (Viveka Davis) while waiting in line at a mall to get George A. Romero’s autograph. She insists on being called “Em,” “just like in Dial M for Murder, the only film Hitchcock ever did in 3D.” Their first date is to see a late night screening of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Hell, even Em’s parents are cool and give her crap over her choice of a date movie, "when William Castle’s Strait Jacket is playing at the Inner Circle!" (And clearly it’s the better choice.) She convinces Morgan to jump into the shower with her while wearing Halloween masks in a wonderful nod to Psycho, which of course always warms my black and bitter little heart. See? Most romantic movie ever, right? Oh wait; there is a story and a plot here, too!
Husbands and Wives
If Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s ode to falling in love, 15 years later Husbands and Wives is an examination of falling out of love. Where the look and style of Annie Hall was clean and precise, Husbands and Wives is franticly shot handheld with herky-jerky editing and an almost improvised vibe to the performances. If Annie Hall marked the beginning of Allen’s great run of introspective masterpieces and near masterpieces, Husbands and Wives is the end of the streak. It’s his last really important Woody Allen film and definitely his last strong acting performance before he fell into a cliché of himself or brought in other actors to substitute, aping his own famous mannerisms. Husbands and Wives doesn’t have as many laughs as some of his earlier work but the insights into relationships can be utterly nerve striking. Made during his dramatic break up with his then wife Mia Farrow, it may be the last time Allen really had something he wanted to say or was worth hearing.
Besides the French New Wave camera work and cutting, there’s an occasional narrator and interviews with the characters; what was meant to give the film a documentary feel actually seems now to predate reality TV. Gabe (Allen), a writer and college professor, is in a stale marriage to Judy (Farrow); they are shocked when, before a dinner date, their good friends Jack (Sidney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) announce their separation. Subconsciously it may expose their inner doubts about their own marriage. Jack quickly gets a much younger girlfrie...
Woody Allen’s most controversial film was hated by fans upon its release for its narcissism and disregard towards his loyalists, but time has made Stardust Memories a much more entertaining film than it was considered in 1980. It blatantly references Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, in both plot (a respected filmmaker trying to clear his mind while dealing with fans and women) and its look (shot in beautiful black and white photography which, like Feliini, includes grotesque close-ups of all manner of odd looking people). Woody actually comes off as one of the beautiful people compared to the faces on the extras. Though Stardust Memories is funny, it’s also deeply depressing. Woody plays Sandy Bates, maybe his most confident character, and though always surrounded by admirers, he may also be his loneliest.
Like Allen himself, Sandy is a beloved maker of comedies who longs to get more philosophical and serious in his work. While attending a film retrospective weekend of his work, he is bombarded by sycophant fans; every couple of minutes someone seems to be asking for his autograph or his attention for their cause or script idea or just heaping praise on him. Time jumps back and forth from the beachfront festival to his New York apartment, while past and present relationships are examined. He’s haunted by memories of his ex, Dorrie (the icy Charlotte Rampling), an insecure and possibly insane actress, and his current French girlfriend, Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault from Eric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s), who maybe he loves, but isn’t in love with. Meanwhile he strikes-up a friendship with an Annie Hall esque sincere violinist (Jessica Harper of Suspiria, who also appe...
"Like I've been telling my wife for years: 'Aside from sex,’ and she's very good at it, goddammit, 'I like you guys better.' I really do."
—So proclaims Harry, brazenly played by Ben Gazzara in Husbands. This bromantic refrain of love for his two friends characterizes the crass, yet affectionate honesty of John Cassavetes's 1970 comedy about life, death, and freedom.
“It’s hell gettin’ older, especially when you feel 21 inside.”
— A sobering reflection made by the aging Diane, brashly played by the vibrant, and still very alive at 86, Elaine Stritch, in Woody Allen’s 1987 drama, September.
The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew
Movies that originate as television sketches and skits usually lead to lame products: A Night at the Roxbury, The Ladies Man, Stuart Saves His Family (has anyone ever heard of or seen the Laugh-In spin-off The Maltese Bippy?), to name but a few of the forgettable titles. There have been a few good exceptions: The Blues Brothers and Wayne’s World, and even The Coneheads has its admirers. The most unusual adaptation of a skit and a very special movie in its own right is the Canadian flick The Adventures of Bob & Doug McKenzie: Strange Brew, which emanated from Saturday Night Live’s northern and usually better little cousin SCTV. The characters, Bob (Rick Moranis) and Doug McKenzie (Dave Thomas), became SCTV’s first breakout stars and even a minor cultural phenomenon with their catchphrase “take off, you hoser.” Like Wayne’s World years later, they were a couple hicks—brothers who hosted a public access cable show called “Great White North” and the jokes usually centered on Canadian stereotypes and their love of beer and hockey. Though their minor-hit song “Take Off” (with Geddy Lee of Rush) might have caused a bigger ripple then their movie did, over the years Strange Brew has found more fans and can now be appreciated for what it is, an incredibly goofy but lovable laugh-out-loud comedy.
Adding elements of science-fiction and thriller, while referencing everything from Omega Man to Hamlet to Star Wars to the early Canadian gross-out flicks of David Cronenberg, Strange Brew opens with a movie within a movie within a movie. Surrounded by cases of Canadian beer, Bob and Doug host their TV show “Great White North” on the big screen. They run a projector of their homemade “Max Maxy” post-apocalypse flick, which leads to pandemonium in the actual theater where now Bob and Doug sit watching. They refund a distraught father his admission money (his crying kids saved all year to go see the movie), and this gets the real plot rolling—that it was their father’s beer money (the father’s voice is supplied with an amazing voice-cameo by animation legend Mel Blanc).
My Dinner with Andre
French director Louis Malle’s incredibly diverse career ranged from the exciting rule-bending era of the French New Wave to his documentary period, his work during the cinema revolution of the ‘70s, and finally to his American phase. Perhaps no film was more ground breaking then his astonishingly simple, yet hugely entertaining My Dinner with Andre—what is essentially a couple hours of two men who hadn’t seen each other in some time having a fascinating discussion over dinner.
Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, both known from the New York cultural and theater scene, play “Andre Gregory” and “Wallace Shawn,” which is to say they play themselves or at least variations on themselves. In real life Gregory had made a name for himself as an experimental theater director, traveling the world in search of groovy artistic expression. (He was a sometimes actor post-My Dinner with Andre, most memorably as John the Baptist in The Last Temptation of Christ). Shawn, the son of legendary long-time New Yorker editor William Shawn (which gave him lifelong NY high-brow street-cred) had some success as an off-off Broadway playwright, but ever since Woody Allen cast him as Diane Keaton’s ex-husband in Manhattan he has worked steadily as a character actor. The two started to record their own conversations and then got director Malle involved to help shape it into a script.
During one of the ugliest periods in American political history, as the Cold War hit hysteria, a drunk congressman named Joseph McCarthy managed to destroys thousands of American lives and careers with his House Un-American Activities Committee. HUAC would accuse people of being Communists (many of the accused at one time may have belonged to the then totally legal Communist Party or donated to causes that were Russian-related—this was years earlier when Russia was our ally against Germany). To clear your name you needed to name names and praise HUAC. Most famously many in Hollywood (almost always Jewish folks) were called to testify; some played ball with McCarthy and were considered “friendly witnesses” (Sterling Hayden, Elia Kazan) while many others refused to testify and either went to jail or were blacklisted from working.
Screenwriter Walter Bernstein was one of those blacklisted, but by the end of the ‘50s many gutsy producers began to break the blacklist by hiring the recently unemployable. Bernstein made a comeback writing the script for Fail-Safe and eventually wrote The Front, a semiautobiographical memoir of the period. Besides Bernstein the film is full of blacklisted talent on both sides of the camera, including actor Zero Mostel and Director Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma Rae).
Howard Prince (Woody Allen) is a two-bit Brooklyn hustler; he’s in constant gambling debt and is a schmuck in every way. When he’s approached by a childhood friend, blacklisted television writer Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy, who would play Allen’s old pal again a few years later in Manhattan Continue Reading
Life During Wartime
If you've yet to see Todd Solondz's film Happiness and you plan on seeing it, I suggest you watch this film afterwards because it is a sequel of sorts and would therefore spoil much of the movie's plot. As with Palindromes and other movies, Solondz has revived characters from a previous film with an entirely different cast and a different agenda. In Life During Wartime we find the Jordan family in an aged distress. Set in Florida, where the bulk of the family has now migrated after their experiences with divorce and heartache, the movie follows their path of forgiveness as they try to forget and/or interpret what went wrong in their lives.
In Happiness, the film ended with the entire family sitting at a table. The three sisters, Joy, Helen and Trish, were more or less sulking with their parents who were on the brink of separation. Joy was a humanitarian who wanted to make a difference, Helen a disillusioned housewife, and Trish a vain author. Helen and Trish played matchmaker to Joy, the black sheep, and Trish offered to set her up with her neighbor Allen, who enjoyed calling women from a phone book to sexually harass them. In Life During Wartime, Joy (Shirley Henderson) works with ex-cons instead of refugees and is now married to Allen, who confesses that he still makes lewd phone calls to women. Feeling betrayed, she goes to Florida to visit her sister Helen (Ally Sheedy) in the hopes that she can help her put her life in order.