Saturday, January 22, 2011

Annie Hall

Year: 1977
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 35
Writer: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Director: Woody Allen
Star: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Carol Kane

Thank God we have that screen separating us from Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), because if we had to be in a room with the guy for more than an hour we might think that first-degree murder might not be such a bad idea after all. But since we are observing Alvy from a distance, even when he addresses the camera directly, we can look past his so-damn-annoying nature, actually listen to what he has to say and, ultimately, get a lot of insight from what he tells us.

Alvy is probably the best incarnation of Allen’s sometimes-engaging, sometimes annoying “New York Neurotic” character that he played in countless films. Alvy freely admits all of his vices and neuroses but is too obsessed with himself to do anything about it, despite seeing a therapist for the past fifteen years. Like everyone else, he wants to be loved but can’t imagine a woman who meets his standards could ever want him. He quotes that great philosopher Groucho Marx: “I don’t want to belong to any club that accepts me as a member.” This is a man with deep problems, ones that the movie doesn’t exist to solve or admire, but to observe.

Because Alvy is so self-deprecating and lacks even the slightest bit of self-censorship we hear things from him and see things in the film that would otherwise go unheard. Other film stars were, and still are, too vain to have dealt with the material with the same sad-yet-humorous tone.

Many of Allen’s sequences were so inventive and pierces so closely to the truth of relationships and the way humans interact that they have been ripped off regularly in the decades since. How many times have we seen random animated interludes in romantic comedies? Or a device where both characters are in different conversations but addressing the same subject? Or how about when characters are saying one thing and their thoughts or emotions are subtitled below? My favorite moment is when Alvy is about to have sex, but his partner’s spirit seems to physically leave her body and go watch from a chair a few feet away.

Sadly, since these tropes, once so original, have been ripped off in lesser form so often, they can’t help but have lost some of their original power. The animated sequence in particular, sticks out like a sore thumb today. In 1977, I’m guessing just cutting to an animated sequence was enough to make viewers laugh back then, but today the viewer needs sharper dialogue and a better tag in the sequence to really make you laugh. I feel the same way, to a lesser extent, about the subtitled thoughts, but the dual dialogue sequence remains as sharp today as ever.

At the center of all this emotional turmoil and trauma (almost all of which is created by Alvy) is the title character, played with a great balance of charm and eccentricity by Diane Keaton. And how great is it that Annie is actually a “character” in a romantic comedy? Not only does she have opinions on books, films and culture, but she also has interests and real motivations. Filmmakers have become so damn lazy in recent years in their treatment of women. Even if she’s the main character in a film she often lacks any distinguishable trait. Screenwriters think that merely making her “busy” and “wrapped up in work” give her interests and enough characterization to get by. They don’t. And an even lazier subset of writers time and again make heroines obsessed with “finding the right guy” or “getting married” because it simplifies their goals and makes it easier to paint in broad strokes. Here, we understand Annie and why she is acting the way she does.

We also understand the relationship and why it breaks down. There are no romantic comedy clichés to be found here—things happen because the characters are fated to behave in certain ways. Alvy falls in love with Annie because she isn’t a parrot and has her own personality and opinions. Annie falls out of love with Alvy because of that exact reason: She’s too strong of a personality to put up with his constant need for focus and attention, however humorous his self-deprecation may seem.

Both of these characters are smart, and that’s something else modern films have forgotten about. The characters talk about Proust, Fellini, Balzac, Kafka and McLuhan, to name a few, and not in a way that talks down to the viewers. If we get it, we get it. If not, they’ve already moved on. I miss when movies were this literate and even the Muppet films could make references to Bronte or Kafka without being censored. Any script with these references today would be marked with red pen immediately—what if someone doesn’t understand it!? God forbid. The movies have long forgotten this, but luckily television is beginning to rediscover it thanks to the work of such writers as Amy Sherman-Palladino and David E. Kelley.

Allen takes his time. There’s no quick cutting to ensure a joke has landed or hurried dialogue to make things seem funnier than they are. The shots are long and the characters inhabit the screen as if they are normal people congregated in a room together. Early in the film, a noisy filmgoer launches into an attack on Fellini that gets his films and their meanings precisely wrong, and I think that wasn’t random. A lot of this movie reminds me of Fellini in its emotion and with the patience the filmmaker shows in the various scenes and sequences.

Like any comedy, there are some misses, but “Annie Hall” hits the mark most of the time, and has a few gags and insights that linger long after the film is over. It’s the movie where Allen says just about everything he has to say about relationships, and has spent the rest of his career saying it over and over again, but with fewer laughs each time.

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

Monday, January 17, 2011

Swing Time

Year: 1936
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 90
Writer: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott (adaptation), Erwin Gelsey (story)
Director: George Stevens
Star: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore

Ugh, why can’t they just shut up and dance?

“Swing Time” is preposterous, stupid, at time unwatchable…and yet its dance numbers are some kind of perfect. Though they look effortless, I’m sure endless hours were spent creating these three-and-four minute magical sequences. If only a fraction of that time had been spent on the screenplay…

The plot…well…I think I understood a little bit of it. Fred Astaire portrays a gambler/dancer named Lucky, who misses out on his wedding because his brothers convince him his pants aren’t up to snuff (seriously). His fiancé tells him that she won’t marry him unless he goes to New York City and make $30,000 (seriously), so Lucky goes and meets Penny (Ginger Rogers). From there things get muddy.

The characters change their motivations and make decisions that make The Idiot Plot from romantic comedies seem inspired. The Lucky character is originally portrayed as a gullible pushover in the first two reels, but is suddenly ballsy enough to begin betting big bucks and telling off the wrong people once he gets to New York. He also basically destroys Penny’s life a piece at a time for a half hour after he meets her, and then suddenly we are supposed to believe they are a dancing team? I’d say looking anywhere below the surface would reveal huge plot holes, but they are often right there onscreen.

Penny and Lucky’s romance is one of the most convoluted in any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. He’s engaged to another woman but apparently can’t simply cut it off even though he’s falling in love with Penny, but then again she doesn’t seem to like him at all, except for the fact that she lets him follow her around everywhere. I finally threw up my hands and gave up trying to keep track during a beautifully shot sequence in the woods just north of the City, where Astaire and his father (Victor Moore) talk about the plot. The father doesn’t want Lucky gambling because he might win the $30,000 (because the fiancé will figure that out by telepathy, apparently) and he wants Lucky to stay with Penny, but then Lucky pleads with his Father to not let him get near Penny. I don’t know why, either. The father seems to be rooting for them to get together, but later, when they are about to kiss, throws a snowball at them to stop them. Yeah, I don’t understand it either. Oh, and in the background of all this Penny has another handsome suitor (who’s a nice guy to boot) champing at the bit to marry her.

If none of that made sense, it’s because of the plot, not my writing.

If the romance doesn’t make sense, then plot mechanics make even less. Lucky has a phenomenal dance number on the “reopening” night of a popular nightclub, but later when he and Penny lose control of the orchestra (seriously) they throw their hands up that they are finished, apparently forgetting that the audience would surely clamor for more of their dancing after seeing Lucky’s first performance that night, and then it would be quite simple to find another place to dance in. They are, after all, in New York City. By the final scene, the writers seem to give up entirely and just have the characters all simultaneously cackle until the movie fades to black.

Sections like those are nearly unwatchable, filmed with tepid dialogue in boring medium shots with actors apparently unaware of what the word “subtlety” means (Astaire’s shocked face is so overdone it might as well have come from a silent film).

Ah, but when “Swing Time” lets its characters sing and dance, everything else falls away. There’s more emotion in half a minute of Astaire and Rogers dancing than all the excess trash surrounding it. There are rarely cuts during the musical numbers, and the film is all the better for it, because it gives the scenes a grandeur and reality missing from the rest of the movie. Their final dance number, “Never Gonna Dance” is breathtaking. Here we can see the pain they feel at their imminent separation and the idea that they may never be able to dance with one another again. It’s as sensual as if they were making love to one another.

Astaire has a “solo” number, “Bojangles of Harlem” that is filled with the kind of creativity and high energy modern musicals have long forgotten. At one point he’s leading a line of twenty dancers in what appears to be a waltz effortlessly. Later in the number, he dances before three of his shadows, perfectly in sync at first until the real Astaire begins to out-dance the shadows. Moments like that can leave you cheering.

If not for the dancing, “Swing Time” would have been long forgotten. Sure, there are a few things about the film outside the dance that are passable, but those are details, not the meat and bones. The aforementioned scene in the snow is kind of wonderful to look at, and makes me wish more romantic comedies filmed in the snow. The club has some great set design going for it, with a staircase that goes on for an eternity and a floor finished with a great painting of the city. Its tables all appear to use cling wrap as tablecloths, but the less said about that the better.

The director, George Stevens, gives the musical numbers a lush, full quality missing from everywhere else. Stevens is a great actor’s director (he had recently directed “Alice Adams,” which is quite possibly Katherine Hepburn’s best performance in a career of best performances), so it’s shocking to see the abysmal acting moments coming from almost the entire cast. The exception is Rogers, who never quite gets bogged down in her character’s stupidity and remains elegant and appealing throughout. I just don’t understand why Stevens couldn’t have taken the time the actors needed to create interesting characters, or why he didn’t insist on a comprehensible, witty script instead of the dreadful thing he shot.

My Score (out of five): **

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Night At the Opera

Year: 1935
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 85
Writer: George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, James Kevin McGuinness
Director: Sam Wood
Star: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx

Haven’t I already reviewed this movie?

There are many similarities between “A Night At the Opera” and “Duck Soup,” the other Marx Brothers movie on the AFI Top 100 list (article here:, so there isn’t much left to say about the Brothers as characters. Groucho is still full of his witty witticisms, Harpo is the master of physical comedy and Chico is the best buffoon around. The characters they play here are nearly identical to their roles in the rest of the series, and their comedy routines are similar in tone and style.

So what else is there to say? I don’t want to copy and paste my previous review, so instead I’ll talk about the differences between the films. The biggest change here is that this film would be the first example of “structure” within the Marx Brothers series. “A Night At the Opera” hitches its gags and jokes on something resembling a plot, whereas “Duck Soup” dealt with a theme (politics) and then just let loose. Here there’s a romantic subplot between a male opera singer (Allan Jones) and a female opera singer (Kitty Carlisle) and several villains for the Brothers to gang up on. Jones seems to have taken up the mantle of Zeppo Marx (now gone from the series), in that he plays the pseudo-straight man in several scenes but also takes part in physical comedy when larger groups are needed.

The idea of having a “plot” in a Marx Brothers vehicle works both for and against it. Allowing the boys to hang their jokes on story developments makes some of their routines stronger, but at the same time the film’s best stuff takes place outside of the plot entirely. On the one hand, the movie feels like it’s heading somewhere (to opening night at the Opera House, to be precise) while “Duck Soup” and other earlier features drifted aimlessly into complete (albeit funny) anarchy for God-knows-how-long. On the other hand, though the romantic coupling is cute and disposable enough, it feels completely out-of-place and an unnecessary dose of sanity in an insane film.

The music here is a big improvement over the horrible, unfunny musical numbers in “Duck Soup,” but for the most part these are just as disposable. I’m not talking about the opera scenes, which work, especially when the Brothers sneak “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” into the orchestra’s reams of sheet music, but the two big expensive MGM musical numbers. What was the point of having them, especially when it’s much more fun to see Chico entertain children by playing the piano and Harpo at work on his harp?

Margaret Dumont is back here, playing (as she did in “Duck Soup”) the thankless role of the straight man to every Groucho joke. I really began to appreciate her here (though the role is smaller than in other films), because though she must appear serious and unamused in every scene, she’s really overacting just as much as the Brothers. She’s rolling every “r” and stretching every “t,” playing up every line as if she were an old theatre diva.

And what of the gags? Well, I’ve always been partial to Groucho, and he’s got some of his best zingers here. My favorite? While watching a disgusting gypsy onstage, he remarks to the audience: “How’d you like to feel how she looks?” And though no slapstick reaches the perfection of the mirror sequence in “Duck Soup,” seeing Harpo using the Opera backstage as a trapeze act to stay away from the police comes damn close. The overstuffed room scene has been copied so many times in lesser films and television that it can’t help but lose some of its power, but still remains quite funny.

Other moments don’t work. Here I’m thinking of the Brothers having their breakfast in Groucho’s hotel room. And the scene where Chico and Harpo discuss a singing contract, so famous for the “There ain’t no Sanity Clause” line, feels overlong and awkwardly edited today. The director, Sam Wood, seems to have originally intended to film the entire sequence in one take. But then maybe some of the jokes didn’t work, or maybe they were too dirty. Whatever the reason, there are sudden, awkward cuts to close-ups of Chico and Groucho saying unfunny filler lines before the film cuts back to the medium shot. It ruins the flow of the scene.

And yet, like “Duck Soup,” much more works here than doesn’t. To me, the Marx Brothers are the original version of the Muppets, and you embrace the scattershot style of their storytelling and humor the same way you would embrace an episode of “The Muppet Show.” “A Night At the Opera” is better than “Duck Soup” in certain ways, but in other subtle ways “Duck Soup” is better than this film, but those reasons are negligible. I’m not sure why those who chose the AFI Top 100 felt the need to put two films on the list, especially because they are so interchangeable. That last sentence wasn’t meant to be a come-down on the films, but why not pick the one that best exemplified everything the Brothers were about and spotlight that one film?

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Year: 1960
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 14
Writer: Joseph Stefano (adaptation), Robert Bloch (novel)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles

Like the character of Norman Bates, “Psycho” is split into two pieces, one more dominant than the other. The first is a crime noir starring Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, a broke secretary who steals $40,000 in order to start a new life with her boyfriend. The second is a dark and twisted horror film about Norman (Anthony Perkins), who just wants to be left alone and spend some time with Mother. On the surface, neither feels like a usual Alfred Hitchcock movie, and because of that the film consistently surprises.

Let’s concentrate on the first piece, shall we? Screenwriter Joseph Stefano creates an internal monologue for Marion as she drives her newly-purchased getaway car. She’s a likeable heroine and we believe that her love for her boyfriend Sam (John Gavin) is what drives her to theft, not the thrill of it all. There are the usual complications: Marion spies the boss she stole the money from as she high-tales it out of town, an inquisitive cop just won’t stop following her, etc. It’s all well done, and Marion is an interesting character, but isn’t it all a bit…just okay? The story feels like a noir, and yet Hitchcock is resisting the shadows, instead embracing long shots of landscapes and keeping things mostly in daylight. Watching the movie again, I was struck at just how different the first forty minutes are so from everything that follows and how elegant Hitchcock was at setting up red-herrings that seem like they’ll be so important later (putting the money in the newspaper, the nosey police officer).

The movie begins to transition the moment the first raindrop hits Marion’s windshield. In fact, all three major turning points for the narrative (the storm, the shower and the swamp) are marked by water. No more inner monologue, no more long shots of the landscape…just shadows. I’ve seen the movie a dozen times and the site of that monstrosity of a house staring down at the cheap-looking Bates Motel still gives me the creeps. It looks like the kind of place you wear shower shoes and sleep on top of the covers. Part of it is that the film is shot in black-and-white, leaving the sky behind the house always gray and foreboding. We feel at first off-kilter, seeing Marion in a place that doesn’t suit what we’ve seen before, but her calm as the strange becomes more ever-present assures the viewer that all will be okay.

Even when that house and the Bates’ secrets are known, the movie still works. You begin to appreciate the smart writing and Perkins’ performance still gets under your skin. He just doesn’t seem…right. In the scene where Marion and Norman talk in that stuffed bird-filled parlor, you begin to notice all the small ways Stefano was setting up the upcoming transition to Norman’s point-of-view. It’s so subtle and well-done that I forgave him for giving Marion the last name “Crane” and then putting her in a room with a bunch of dead birds.

After the fantastic murder scene in the shower, which proves that just a trickle of blood can be as unnerving as several feet of small intestine, the scene of Norman cleaning up the body and blood seem endless…and yet you can’t look away. For first time audiences, the time is spent to let the shock sink in, but for repeat viewers there are neat little moments of tension built in that you don’t notice at first, such as when Norman almost leaves the paper or when the car almost doesn’t sink into the swamp.

In fact, there are just so many small things that end up mattering so much that you just don’t pick up on the first or even second viewing. Vera Miles, who plays Marion’s sister Lila, has a purposely strong first moment onscreen where she shouts at Sam, as if to wave her hands in front of the audience and alert them that she’s the new girl in town that we should pay attention to. When Norman carries his Mother down to the fruit cellar, Stefano made sure to put in a line where the Mother shouts “I can walk myself!” to ensure viewers don’t think she’s too incapacitated to do the killings herself. Visually, I can never get enough of that single frame of a skull on top of Norman’s face in his final scene.

Miles and Leigh are both serviceable and quite sympathetic as (relatively) interchangeable heroines, but the real star here is Perkins. There isn’t a moment where he seems at peace on camera. Even sitting, he’s in constant movement, whether fiddling or chewing or darting his eyes from here to there. And yet there’s something we like about Norman, and when he’s cleaning up Marion’s blood and naked body, we don’t hate him. It’s pity, of course, but enough of a bond with the viewer for us to not want him to end up just another victim of Mother’s machinations.

There is one fairly huge flaw in all of this fun, mayhem and blood, and that is the closing sequence. “Psycho” should have ended with Sam wrestling with Norman in the fruit cellar, but Stefano and Hitchcock instead add in a needless explanatory scene to wrap things up. Some random dude explains every plot set-up and pay-off with little or no inflection even though even the slowest viewers could figure it out. The tension is gone, and by the time we visit Norman in that cell it’s almost too late.

There’s so much more, from Bernard Herrmann’s best score (sorry, “Cape Fear” and “Vertigo”) to those fantastic titles by Saul Bass that perfectly set up the mood of both the mini-films that follow.

“Psycho” is an elegant thriller, but also one that remains just as entertaining after its secrets are revealed. The shock value of a first viewing can’t really exist anymore—the movie’s twists are too engrained in pop culture, but there is still so much to love. Stefano and Hitchcock took the time the paint in the edges and make sure they were playing fair with an audience who would be eager to ensure that they did.

My Score (out of 5): ****1/2

Monday, January 10, 2011

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Year: 1966
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 67
Writer: Ernest Lehmen (adaptation), Edward Albee (play)
Director: Mike Nichols
Star: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is an ugly movie made by a group of self-satisfied artists who believed that just saying a bunch of swear words, gaining a few pounds and being generally despicable in bad lighting was the equivalent of making a masterpiece. Everything about the film points proudly to itself as being groundbreaking, smart and button-pushing…but all that is for naught if the viewer doesn’t connect with the characters or story.

The self-satisfaction begins with the main titles, which are just about the biggest main titles I’ve seen. All the main actors and above-the-line creative-types have names that take up almost the entire screen. They are, in essence, inescapable. Things go downhill from there. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton show up looking puffy and not like themselves then proceed to do a less-funny version of the “What’s that movie?” scene from “Rope,” except with cursing and insults.

Taylor plays Martha!, who doesn’t technically have an exclamation point after her name but might has well. She’s loud, louder and “time to mute your television.” The character is the daughter of the local university’s president, but mostly an alcoholic. Overacting would be an understatement for Taylor’s performance here: she’s not playing to the balcony but to a theatre halfway down the street. Burton plays George, who isn’t as loud of Martha!, but makes up for it with his acid-tongue and delusion that he is always the smartest person in the room. He’s also a professor at the university her father runs. There isn’t a moment in the film where they seem happy, but we can understand why they are together. Misery loves company, so they must throw some great parties. Alas, the party in this film isn’t one of them.

Look, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a movie that tries to test the boundaries of taste and allows its main actors to appear as less than their usually glamorous selves. I have a problem with a movie that does these things for no apparent reason. The two heinous individuals that I have just described have invited an innocuous, boring couple new to the town and college. The husband Nick (George Segal) is boringly handsome, and his wife Honey (Sandy Dennis) is an excitable lightweight. Martha! and George spend the next several hours relentlessly torturing the couple because…well…because they have nothing better to do, I suppose.

There’s no driving force to the story, no reason we should care about any of the characters and no surprises in store for anyone. Yes, George and Martha! have one hidden secret that is set up so obviously it’s almost laughable. I’m sure writer Ernest Lehmen (who wrote the wonderful “North By Northwest,” “Sweet Smell of Success,” “West Side Story” and other great movies) didn’t write the line “Don’t say anything about…OUR SON!” with the ellipsis and capital letters, but you get the idea. The movie simply clunks from one insult to another, with only alcohol refills and more insults thrown in as a buffer. We learn that, “surprise surprise,” Nick isn’t exactly happy with his marriage, which is * yawn * so shocking. Nick tells George certain things and, of course, George immediately tells Honey in order to hurt their marriage. At one point the screenwriter tries to mix things up and make the movie seem less like the play that inspired it (it doesn’t work), by having the foursome go to a dance bar for another scene of insults that might as well have been back at the house.

Even within the movie’s own almost-nonexistent logic it doesn’t work. George keeps blackmailing Nick and Honey into staying by threatening to talk to Martha!’s father and get Nick fired if they leave. Earlier in the film, however, Martha! informed Nick that her father loathed George, and Martha! isn’t trying to make the couple stay. Huh.

As if two hours of endless rants, raves and verbal abuse wasn’t enough, the dialogue is written in such an uppity, condescending manner. Everyone gets their pompous, overwritten monologue about how unhappy life has made them, and the movie even goes so far as to have Burton reciting Latin phrases while Taylor speaks hers. Was the point of all this torture on both the characters and the viewers really that George and Martha! had fabricated their child? Really?

You know a movie is in trouble when you begin to ignore the dialogue and start staring at the corners of the sets, and indeed the house set for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a great one. It seems lived in and it seems like great attention has been paid to every detail. And yes, production design will be the only thing I compliment about the movie.

The acting…well, let’s just say you can tell it’s acting. I’ve already mentioned Taylor’s overacting, but Burton commits just as grievous a sin by making his work bipolar; he either underplays it or screams every syllable. Dennis is tedious and annoying, and Segal is handsome but forgettable. Nichols’ work makes the film seem at times like a comedy, but more often than not his tipped frames and odd angles make the proceedings seem like a thriller, which this is not.

The entire movie is so self-important it would be laughable if it was not torturous. It tries so hard to make us think it’s saying something, but what that is remains unclear. Even the title, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” remains a mystery they didn’t bother to explain. Sure, it’s an in-joke from the party the four main players attended, but what else? Why was that phrase so important it just had to be the title? Anyone? The film is a lot of bombast and screaming, but in the end all that amounts to is the sound of one hand clapping.

My Score (out of five): *

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The African Queen

Year: 1951
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 65
Writer: John Huston, James Agee
Director: John Huston
Star: Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Morley

“The African Queen” is one of the rarest of “formula” films because not only do you forget that you are watching a formula picture, but you also become defensive about placing the film within the mechanics of storytelling. Charlie, Rose, the ship, the Ulanga River, Africa herself—they all seem so individual, so special to this movie and this movie alone. The film takes familiar ideas and trappings and brings them to life with such vivacity that these universal themes seem completely new. For me, that’s the sign of a real masterpiece.

We open in deep Africa where a spunky, God-fearing woman named Rose (Katherine Hepburn, of course) and her brother (Robert Morley) have set up a mission. There only contact outside of the tribe of Africans they preach to is a ne’er do well boat captain named Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), who brings them news of a world war breaking out. England and Germany are the main players, but Charlie knows nothing of the reasoning behind the war or who’s got the upper hand. The mission and the village are soon burned by the Germans, who have brought the war to Africa, and Rose’s brother dies not long after. Charlie invites Rose to escape the chaos on his boat (the Queen of the title), and soon they find themselves on what seems to be a suicide mission down the Ulanga River to bomb the German gunboat The Louisa to save Queen and country.

Their journey down the river is a metaphor for Charlie and Rose coming back to life, but still, I’m always struck by how sparse and dead they seem in the opening scenes. Hepburn’s face was quite beautiful, but as Huston introduces her seated at an organ, we find her prominent cheekbones and chin have been underlined to the extreme. Her face seems too thin, her bones too obvious—she seems more ghost than human being.

She and her brother don’t seem to belong in Africa, but then again neither does Charlie. There’s a brilliant early scene where the three characters share tea that is the best “fish out of water” moment in film history. Charlie sits there in his sweat-stained mechanic gear, stomach unable to stop grumbling. He’s fully aware he doesn’t belong in the company of such classy Brits. But then again, why are Rose and her Brother pretending they are in Mother England and not the jungles of Africa, insisting on putting cream and sugar in the tea while taking in the newspaper and making polite small talk. Nothing fits, no one knows exactly what to say and the characters want to stop the guise of politeness but don’t want to seem rude. After her brother dies and Rose has gotten on The African Queen with Charlie, he is just trying to be polite when he agrees to her scheme to sink the Louisa. Neither know what the war is about or have any reason to involve themselves, but Rose feels as if she must.

Once Rose and Charlie get out on the open river, we are just as surprised as they are that they do, in fact, click as individuals. They bring out the best in one another and help to tone down the worst aspects of the other. They surprise us, whether it’s when Charlie goes back out into the rain instead of insisting on staying under cover or when Rose hacks through the jungle of reeds with a machete. Of course they fall in love, but the build-up is done so subtly that when their first innocent kiss happens it comes as a surprise every time I see the movie.

These are two people who have never been in love before, you can tell. They peck at one another, hug a lot and say all the things people in love say because they figure you should say them. They try to show off for one another, though since they are in a barely-floating boat in deep Africa that involves pretending to be hippos and making each other coffee. Though we don’t immediately get that “The African Queen” is a comedy, it is one of the best. After Rose and Charlie kiss, Rose begins to call him “Dear” repeatedly until finally building up the courage to ask “Dear, what is your first name?”

By the time we finish laughing about that last crack, we can see Rosie’s smile when Bogart introduces himself as “Charlie.” It’s as if she is saying “I’d hoped it was that” without her actually saying it. Everything becomes about how the two characters interact, and the odd ways they compliment one another through their actions. Hepburn and Bogart are both amazing here, giving the performances of their respective careers. After seeing Bogart glower and look forlorn in endless P.I. movies, it’s just aces to see him actually smile and invest himself wholeheartedly in something. You get the feeling that he’s really stretching in this role, and it probably had a lot to do with his history and familiarity with John Huston. Hepburn has played a lot of headstrong women, but never one as genuinely lost or more loving than Rose (though her role in “Summertime” comes close). The movie would flounder and die within moments if anyone else were cast.

At first the film doesn’t seem like the kind of movie John Huston would direct, but its humanity and careful character work convince me otherwise. Though he could be a hugely stylized direct when he wanted to, Huston knew when to stay out of the movie’s way and just let it breathe and come to life. There’s only one showy shot in “The African Queen,” when Huston pulls his camera up to show the ship marred in reeds only a hundred feet from freedom, but you don’t need that kind of work here. Glamorous shots of the river and Africa are the last thing this movie needed. We want to stay close with Charlie and Rose, and that’s what Huston does. He also treats the characters with more sympathy than any others in his many films. There’s no judgment about Rose being such a devout Christian or Charlie being so uneducated, and that makes the characters that much more powerful.

Every time I watch “The African Queen” I get carried away in it, and I didn’t write that to make a river metaphor. Everything in it feels just right. How can you not root for these two lovable losers trying to do right and not get destroyed before they have the chance? The film surprises us even though its storyline follows a familiar path, and its characters share one of the definitive romances ever filmed. But, more than anything, it makes you unapologetically happy, and what more can you ask from a movie?

My Score (out of 5): *****

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Philadelphia Story

Year: 1940
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 44
Writer: Donald Ogden Stewart
Director: George Cukor
Star: Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart

That Tracy Lord…what a dame. Not only does she appear to be the wittiest, wiliest woman in all of Pennsylvania, but she can perform a perfect swan dive and, as “The Philadelphia Story” begins, seems to have created the perfect fiancé for herself through sheer force of will.

“The Philadelphia Story” is the rarest of films: The thinking man’s romantic comedy. There are, of course, all the usual pratfalls, witty interchanges and rage-fueled sexual tension, but writer Donald Ogden Stewart seems more interested in examining the psyches of his main characters. Tracy and her three beaus are all messy, three-dimensional people with conflicting needs and desires.

Katherine Hepburn portrays Tracy with a fantastic mixture of gusto and withheld emotion. We can understand the defenses she has put up around herself. Her father is a philanderer and, as the film opens, is away with his much younger mistress. Her mother is a weak wet cloth of a woman. Her first husband Dexter (Cary Grant) loved her but became a slave to his alcoholism, and as a result their marriage fell apart. It’s pretty deep, dark stuff, but handled so carefully in the screenplay that the exposition and emotional undertones seem natural.

Dexter, now sober, has returned to Tracy’s family estate (which has to take up at least a third of Philadelphia) with motives that seem murky at first. Does he want Tracy back? Does he want to break up the marriage because he knows Tracy can do better? Does he want to embarrass her through the trashy magazine article he’s enabling?

Dexter has brought a reporter and photographer with him to write an expose on the Lord family. The reporter’s name, unfortunately, is Macaulay Connor and he is played, fortunately, by James Stewart. Connor is an “important writer” trying to find humor in the fact that he must now slum it up by writing unimportant exposes on silly families. He’s also sort-of/kind-of/casually sleeping with his photographer Elizabeth, played by Ruth Hussey. Hussey’s role isn’t large, and she ends up acting as an honorable mention ribbon at the ending, but she really kills her scenes. Between her work here and in “The Uninvited,” I can’t imagine why she didn’t become a bigger star.

Also involved (yes, there’s more) is Tracy’s fiancé George Kitteredge (John Howard), who is handsomely boring, or boringly handsome, whichever floats your boat. Stewart perfectly defines his character and his relationship with Tracy in their first encounter, where Tracy shoves him in the dirt to make his riding clothes seem authentic. Poor George seems more or less just as tedious as all of the token love interests we know aren’t right for our heroines, though he at least has a cool last name.

All the players (along with Tracy’s family members) are placed on the Lord family estate and you can almost hear Stewart and director George Cukor shouting “Go!” off camera. The humor manages to be both quick-witted while still letting the jokes breathe and sink in for maximum effect.

Cukor is, I believe, the best director of actors in the history of film, though Elia Kazan is a close second. He has a gift of allowing the actors to drop their inhibitions and surprise you with their versatility without making it seem like a show. His casts never seem like “actors” doing a show, and he also has a gift of choosing projects where our expectations about an actor can be turned on their ear. Look at his work with Judy Garland (in the performance of her career) and James Mason in “A Star is Born,” where we expect the star crossed lovers to find strength in one another instead of almost destroying everything they loved about each other. Oops. Or look at “Gaslight,” where Cukor makes the usually strong Ingrid Bergman an emotional, withdrawn wreck. In “The Philadelphia Story,” he slowly peels away the layers of Hepburn’s natural strength, ultimately displaying the vulnerability and psychological needs of her character.

And while Hepburn steals the show, Grant and Stewart are also aces in their respective roles as the men who have fallen for Tracy. Grant in particular surprises us with the raw emotion he displays in a poolside scene with Hepburn where he explains why their marriage fell apart. Both have considerable chemistry with Hepburn and make us think they could be the one she rides off into the sunset with in her dirty riding gear.

And therein lies the unavoidable problem of “The Philadelphia Story,” and that is that we can never fully invest ourselves into one of the couplings. Every time we think Tracy should be with Connor, the movie zigs back to an elegant romantic scene between her and Dexter. At a certain point the viewer has no choice but to throw his hands in the air and root for everyone and no one. We know Tracy will be happy at the end and stop caring who she’s happy with. These types of romantic triangles work much better in dramas than comedies because they are messy by nature, but this is probably the best example of one in a comedy I’ve seen.

The other major stumbling point in the movie is how it deals with Tracy’s father (John Halliday). In the first reels, she has cut off all contact with him because of his repeated cheating, but after he returns for the wedding, the movie, horrifyingly, seems to be fine with his behavior. His wife forgives him and they seem on great terms despite the fact that he will probably go back to his whore after the wedding. He tells Tracy that it’s basically her fault he cheated because she wasn’t a good daughter (!?) and that it should be expected of men. What. The. Hell!? Cukor’s later “Adam’s Rib” would deal with the same subject in a much, much better manner, and to see such an ugly, disgusting ideal here takes you completely out of the picture every time the father comes onscreen.

That ugliness is the exception in a film of surprising depth. If more modern romantic comedies had the heart, intelligence and humor of “The Philadelphia Story,” more husbands wouldn’t mind watching them and the divorce rate in America wouldn’t be at an all time high.

My Score (out of 5): ****