Happiness

Dir: Todd Solondz, 1998. Starring: Jane Adams, Jon Lovitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Comedy.

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, risqué 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.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Feb 22, 2009 11:25am

Manhattan

Dir: Woody Allen, 1979. Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep. Comedy/Drama

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.

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 1:11pm

Hannah And Her Sisters

Dir: Woody Allen, 1986. Starring: M. Caine, M. Farrow, B. Hershey, W. Allen, D. Wiest, M. Von Sydow, R. Jenkins. Drama/Comedy

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.

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Posted by:
Paul Losada
Feb 18, 2009 11:58am

Raising Arizona

Dir: Joel & Ethan Coen, 1987. Starring: Nicolas Cage, Holly Hunter, John Goodman, William Forsythe, Frances McDormand. Comedy.

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.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Feb 7, 2009 3:53pm

Waitress

Dir: Adrienne Shelly, 2007. Starring: Keri Russell, Adrienne Shelly, Nathan Fillion, Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines. Comedy.

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.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Jan 27, 2009 10:37am

Party Girl

Dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer, 1995. Starring: Parker Posey, Liev Schreiber. English. Comedy.

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.”

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Posted by:
Gillian Horvat
Jan 20, 2009 1:03pm

Prairie Home Companion

Dir: Robert Altman. 2006. Starring: Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson. Comedy.

Robert Altman’s last film is an adaptation of NPR staple “A Prairie Home Companion,” Garrison Keillor’s liberal humanist weekly revue of folky Americana music, wry story telling, and gentle send ups of modern mores and it couldn’t be a more fitting film to go out on. Altman uses the big cast putting on their last show plot as a means of meditation on different kinds of death: the death of an old timer, the death of live radio as an art form and he creates something moving without being cloying, heartfelt without being sentimental....

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 5, 2008 8:10pm

Get Shorty

Dir: Barry Sonnenfeld. 1995. Starring: John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo. English. Comedy.

Chili Palmer (Travolta) is a Miami shylock who finds himself looking for a new career path in life. While chasing down a collection, Chili encounters a B-movie producer named Harry Zim (Hackman) and his scream-queen star, Karen Flores (Russo). Harry has backed himself into a corner, owning money to a local hoodlum (Lindo), who tries to get a piece of the best script Harry has ever owned. In steps Chili, who loves Tinseltown and decides to become a producer. Chili and Karen approach her ex-husband, mega-movie star, Martin Weir (DeVito), to star in the film.

After a successful career as a cinematographer (Raising Arizona, Misery), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) took his place in the director’s chair. After two successful Addam’s Family films, he brought Elmore Leonard’s bestseller to the big screen.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Aug 11, 2008 3:41pm

Lars and the Real Girl

Dir: Craig Gillespie. 2007. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Patricia Clarkson, P. Schneider, K. Garner. English. Comedy.

Here it is. Weird and definitely not what anyone was expecting but the next film to grace our local cable stations every day twice a day from Thanksgiving to Christmas and beyond will be Lars and the Real Girl. That is until some billionaire tycoon buys the darn thing and only lets it play once a season in order to preserve it. Thanks for ruining Christmas, billionaire tycoon. It's a Wonderful Life aside, Lars has all the charm, pathos, and even menace of its classic predecessor. Ryan Gosling plays Lars, a goofy under achiever who has seems happy enough in his quirky solitude despite his sister-in-law's maternal pressing for more social interaction. He is liked and respected at work, in the community and has even inspired a crush by the new girl in his office.

Not until he introduces his Internet girlfriend, Bianca, a Brazilian missionary raised by nuns, do we realize his situation is more dire than that of a solitary bachelor. Bianca is a life sized doll made to order and anatomically correct. In Lars' mind she is also a real person. His delusion is complete and Gosling's performance so nuanced that her side of conversations are filled in by your own imagination. At once Lars' brother and sister-in-law seek help as Lars' fragility becomes utterly apparent. The stunning absurdity of the situation filmed with a cunning honesty and a soundtrack that plays at a love story but weaves the underlying sadness from Lars over Bianca and subsequently, the audience, makes it inevitable that we write the dialog and story between them. Disturbing? Maybe, but Lars is loved and protected by the entire community. Not since It's a Wonderful Life has a township been portrayed with such fun and affection. Lars has touched all of them somehow, if only by finally being himself in the midst of his sadness.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Jun 28, 2008 3:06pm

Margot at the Wedding

Dir/Wri: Noah Baumbach. 2007. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, Zane Pais. English. Comedy.

Dark and funny, this bitter little comedy comes with sharp pointy teeth and a soft underbelly. Margot at the Wedding is an intellectual smörgÃ¥sbord without overindulging in “smart” references, plot curve balls, or even winning attempts of redemption.

Margot, a married and successful writer living in Manhattan, travels by bus with her son, Claude, to her family's Long Island home for her estranged sister's wedding. We quickly learn that Margot (Nicole Kidman) is tightly wound, very smart, and incapable of not saying exactly what she's thinking even if - especially if -  it's cruel. As they arrive at the house on a short cliff by the sea we meet her mellow new age sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and her fiance (Jack Black) who is sightly less than impressive. Margot can barely contain her disdain and you feel a change of air pressure within her sister's family unit which also includes her own teenage child, Ingrid, from a previous relationship. Soon, we realize that Margot's oozing destruction comes form her own life crisis and that she's really come to meet her lover, escape her own life and attempt a change in course.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Mar 5, 2008 4:21pm
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