What happened to Jonathan Demme? He used to make the best movies. I’m talking about the films he did before Silence of the Lambs changed his life and career options for good. Perhaps regretting his film's instigation of a wave of serial killer-based entertainments, he got very high-minded after Silence of the Lambs and kept returning with more Oscar bait in the form of Philadelphia, which continued his winning streak, and Beloved, which did not. Since then he has alternated between director-for-hire projects and small scale documentaries, before returning to something like his old style with last year’s Rachel Getting Married. But nothing he has done in years has been as good as the comedies he did in the late 1980s. They were exuberant life-affirming spectacles. He brought a New York downtowner’s aesthetic to mainstream comedy and lifted up a dreary end of the decade—a time best remembered for comedies that celebrated getting rich or blowing shit up—with an offbeat sensibility. He was like an American Pedro Almodovar in love with the idea of New York as a melting pot of bohemians and working class immigrants, all tuned in to the same Afrobeat soundtrack. His New York was full of loud colors, Jamaican beauty salons, and cool people—one big punky reggae party.
Something Wild is his best film. It’s a film that celebrates a life lived without rules before segueing into darker territory exploring the same themes. Jeff Daniels plays Charlie, a nice guy yuppie in Manhattan that gets his kicks walking out on his lunch bill. Melanie Griffith is Lulu—she’s got the famous Louise Brooks bob and lots of Voodoo priestess jewelry on. She’s an edgy chick who catches on to Daniels’s pathetic act of rebellion immediately. She threatens to rat him out if he doesn’t get in her car and see where the day takes them. She’s going to teach him a thing or two about wild. Pretty soon they’re naked in a hotel room and she’s making him call his office while she otherwise distracts him. The scene is playful and sexy, rather than obvious, because Lulu isn’t objectified as Charlie’s "manic pixie dream girl" who teaches him to live; instead she’s the one in charge. The scene is more about Lulu’s fetishizing of Charlie’s straightness than anything, though we get the feeling that Charlie has been looking for someone like Lulu all along. It’s the complete opposite of how most straight male directors would have played the scene and just one of the details that make this film unique.Continue Reading
Living in Oblivion
An artist painting about art. A writer writing about writing. Here is a film from a filmmaker about filmmaking. Yes, this film may appeal most to all filmmakers of any trade, but aside from its low-budget-independent-film-reference-allure, the film is just as funny as it is smart and can be enjoyed by a wide audience.
Filmmaking in the independent scene is not an easy trade. Boom microphones find their shadows in shots. Good craft service can be hard to come by. The camera assistant might not understand how to keep a shot in focus. Your actress will do her best performance when the camera is not on. And, you can wake up sweating, from this terrible nightmare.Continue Reading
Violence! Hilarity! Violence, again! Breathers on the phone! What the hell is going on here? That’s right: it’s “America during the war.” Vietnam War. But let’s face it; America has been enamored with violence since our cursory inception. This here tale just happens to take place in the late 60s/early 70s.
Alfred is a self-ascribed "apathist." He doesn’t care either way about, well, everything. As long as he can take his photographs, there are no problems. Constantly tormented and accosted by Manhattan street thugs for apparently no reason, he idly complies and daydreams his way through the relentless beatings until his assailants wear themselves out. Along comes Patsy. Witnessing one of Al’s beatings from her apartment window, she heads down the elevator to help him out. Alfred slyly walks away amongst the compounding brouhaha as if nothing has happened and continues snapping his pics with self-satisfying glee. Patsy is appalled. Shocked. “What kind of a man are you?!” she indignantly exclaims. Well one thing leads to another and they’re off dating. Imbibing in the standard bourgeois dating procedures of the time - golf, tennis, ‘a day at the lake’ - Alfred remains apathetic, content with verbal gestures such as “I really think I could trust you.” Violence? Hang on...Continue Reading
The Royal Tenenbaums
Following his indie breakthrough Bottle Rocket and his critically acclaimed sophomore effort Rushmore, director Wes Anderson creates the most complete film of his career so far. Written by him and Owen Wilson, the script is top-notch, running the gamut of human emotion while finding the humor in its flaws. The characters are unique and complex, the cast is full of brilliant actors, and the film is directed beautifully.
Screen legend Gene Hackman (Unforgiven) plays the family’s patriarch, “Royal Tenebaum”-- a man of high intelligence but lacking in morals and scruples. A disgraced and disbarred lawyer, Royal dupes his family into believing he is dying of cancer in order to find his way back into their lives. Hackman is an actor who always delivers, but, in this, plays one of the most unique and hilarious characters in his very long and impressive career.Continue Reading
Back in the mid-1990s during the heyday of the American independent film scene there were several films released during the decade that became lightning rods for controversy stemming from their, at the time, risquÃ© subject matter. I use the phrase "at the time" because it's not clear whether movies are really capable of shocking us nowadays. In the age of the "torture porn" genre (Hostel, et al.), where even Law & Order plotlines can get pretty damn sick for prime time television, a lot of what stirred social conservatives to boycott studios over what they deemed objectionable material in movies just doesn’t work them up the way it used to. It may come down to whether or not movies are really the pop cultural force they used to be.
The idea that an indie ensemble drama that features mostly a lot of awkward communicating between the unbelievably dysfunctional could cause so much trouble now seems almost quaint. Happiness, with its empathetic treatment of a pedophile character and it's numerous, uh, money shots, might still seem provocative by today's standards if for nothing else than for its refusal to deny the film’s screwed up characters their essential humanity, but at the time of its release it caused an outright media firestorm prompting its original distributor to deem it too toxic for release. It eventually found a new distributor and did open to equal parts fawning praise for people who think that provocative equals good and righteous denouncement from a lot of people who probably didn’t even bother to see the film.Continue Reading
Manhattan could be America's most moving film about the genuine love between a forty-something-year-old intellectual and a 17-year-old high school student. Well, it's about a bit more than that, but the central storyline is moving in ways few people can quite articulate, but are quick to call "brilliant." Both completely modern yet seemingly timeless, Woody Allen's 1979 film provides a picturesque tribute to one of the world's great cities, as well as a bold statement on finding romantic happiness in not so widely agreeable places.
Allen stars as Isaac Davis, a single father and writer living in Manhattan, who most would consider depressed. Involved in what he considers a meaningless relationship with the underaged Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), friends Yale (Michael Murphy) and Emily (Anne Byrne Hoffman) are concerned Isaac is wasting his life away with the girl while writing junk television shows. Isaac starts to re-evaluate his situation, however, after meeting Yale's mistress Mary (Diane Keaton). At first repelled by her "pseudo-intellectualism," he quickly develops an interest while her affair with Yale becomes more intense.Continue Reading
Hannah And Her Sisters
Many consider Hannah And Her Sisters to be the third and best installment in Woody Allen's realistic New York "dramadies" (the other two being Annie Hall and Manhattan). While not as stylish as the previous two, and perhaps even slightly marred by some distinctly 1980's hair and wardrobe choices, the film is one of the director's most mature and dense with ideas while still balancing his knack for comedic writing.
As indicated by the title, the multiple-storied movie focuses on the love lives revolving around Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest). Hannah's husband Elliot (Michael Caine) is torn by his romantic feelings for Lee, eventually leading to an uneven affair that also has Lee re-evaluating her life with ex-professor and current lover Frederick (Max Von Sydow). Meanwhile, Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) is a worsening hypochondriac who starts questioning the meaning of life after receiving news he might have a potential brain tumor. He also develops an interest in Holly, who is feeling secure and confidant in anything except her career or love life.Continue Reading
A childless-couple, with no hope of their own, decides to kidnap one of furniture tycoon Nathan Arizona’s eight babies. But once they do, life takes a serious turn, giving them much more than they bargained for.
In this early effort by the Oscar-winning Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men), the duo makes a timeless classic of the absurd. The script is hugely original and chock-full of many memorable lines. There is no scene-wasting as these people’s lives spin out of control with pitch-perfect tone throughout.Continue Reading
It is hard to review this movie and not mention the tragic death of its writer/director Adrienne Shelly. For a young woman in the 90's she was an unsung hero, portraying women who didn't want to be beautiful, or famous or even in love. Hal Hartley used his muse to create a female Woody Allen - funny, smart and confused by her own search for the unnameable. Ms. Shelley never failed in being simply interesting while taking in strange events and strange worlds unfolding around her. She emanated compassion with a steely sense of self preservation. I missed her presence for many years and when I heard about Waitress I felt her new day was coming and long over due. The violent crime against her fills me with such anger. That her future of telling her own stories is gone fills me with pain. There is no poetry in her death but because of who she was in the history of film there is a strong reminder that women must be ever vigilant against those who would silence us.
Waitress has enough of her compassion, hilarious practicality plus delicious pies to keep any viewer satisfied. Our young heroine, Keri Russell, is less than overjoyed at finding herself pregnant by her domineering and abusive husband. She falls into an affair with her doctor and dreams of making an escape by entering a pie contest which would free her from her unhappy story. Her fellow waitresses provide touching and absolute comic genius thanks to Cheryl Hines and Shelley herself. Nathan Fillion and Jeremy Sisto are no simple caricatures as the doctor and husband and as a bonus Eddie Jemison gives a unique and slightly sociopathic performance of spontaneous poetry reading as Shelly's courting beau. However, the jewel of casting is Andy Griffith as the grumpy diner regular. What a joy to see this veteran actor have some real fun and still make us feel like he could be the Pops that would teach us how to fish.Continue Reading
A few years ago a film premiered at Sundance starring several major blockbuster stars, shot by a couple of music video directors, and produced by a small, but successful Hollywood production company. Because of an aggressive marketing campaign and a highly publicized distribution deal, the film won several Academy Awards and made more than $100 million. Regardless of its high star wattage, its directors’ wealth of commercial experience, and Hollywood development credentials, it was still termed an “independent film.” 11 years previous, for 1/50th of its modern counterpart’s budget, Party Girl was made in New York by a first time filmmaker, starring an actress who, except for a notable supporting turn in a Richard Linklater comedy, had had only small character parts in independent films. Party Girl was accepted into Sundance that year and garnered only a limited theatrical run. But over the years through word of mouth, it has become a beloved cult hit, quoted ad nauseam by its devotees, whose ranks multiply yearly.
The plot seems at first utterly conventional, straying between nominally feminist chick flick to slacker comedy. Downtown It girl Mary (Parker Posey) is unemployed, on the verge of eviction, and “fabulous,” which in movie parlance means she wears quirky outfits and uses her acerbic wit against her friends. When she gets arrested for turning her apartment into a makeshift nightclub, Mary is bailed out by her godmother, Judy, a librarian. In order to pay Judy back and to prove herself to as capable and trustworthy, Mary becomes a clerk at Judy’s library. Gaining her good opinion is complicated by Judy’s constant panting that she can’t trust Mary because she reminds her so much of her mother, an irrational grousing that is the movie’s only major flaw. Mary’s mother may have been quite the party-goer, but many young women are, and one can’t hold young people accountable for doing the same things that their parents did when they were the same age. I would be extremely frustrated if my grandparents always said, “Gillian, you’re such a bleeding heart liberal, just like your mother was when she was your age. I won’t be surprised if you end up getting divorced, too.”Continue Reading