Saturday, July 12, 2014


The Conversation, USA, 1974
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Cast: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford

In 1974, Francis Ford Coppola was coming off the greatest success of his career - The Godfather, and was working on its hugely successful, and some would say superior sequel, The Godfather Part II. In between these two enormous cinematic treasures, Coppola directed a smaller, but still masterful psychological thriller called The Conversation.

The Conversation, taking its themes from Michaelangelo Antonionni's classic film Blow-Up (1966), centers on a surveillance expert named Harry Caul, played by Gene Hackman. Caul's latest job, to wiretap a couple in the middle of Union Square in San Francisco, takes him on a wild journey into paranoia, hallucination, and a murder plot that causes him to lose his mind. The film's taut suspense is well crafted by Bill Butler's subtle cinematography, reminiscent of Edward Hopper paintings, Walter Murch's brilliant sound design, and David Shire's incredible piano inspired score. But the true spirit of the film is that it is a portrait of a sad, lonely man who is driven insane by his own genius. He is the Beethoven of wire tapping. And eventually, it drives him crazy.

Hackman, playing against character, spends the entire film in the same bland costume; a button-down shirt and tie, rain coat, and out of style glasses. He has a lover, played by Teri Garr, but awkwardly dismisses her feelings for him when she wants more information about Harry's life. Caul is a private person, who lives by simple means. His work is his life, which, ironically sometimes involves creeping into the personal lives of others. He leads a very quiet existence but also carries dark secrets from his past which come back to haunt him.

The Conversation
was released at a time that America was still reeling from the Watergate scandal, and conspiracy thrillers were abound in Hollywood. Other great thrillers of the period were Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men.

Coppola was also in the midst of one of the greatest artistic periods of any filmmaker that ever lived. In 1979, he directed the controversial Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. He followed it up with an expensive flop, the 1982 drama One From the Heart. The film ultimately sank Coppola's production company, American Zoetrope and Coppola never truly recovered, despite directing the third part in the Godfather trilogy several years later and other modestly successful films like 1992's Dracula. Coppola still resides in the San Francisco/Napa Valley area today, and runs a successful winery called Francis Coppola.

The superb cast of The Conversation also includes Harrison Ford, Robert Duvall, and the late, great John Cazale.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Solaris, USSR, 1972
Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky
Cast: Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk

A Soviet film unlike any you’ve ever seen, Solaris takes place in a near future where scientists have been experimenting on a strange ocean planet called Solaris. When officials on Earth learn that the crew has lost their minds on the spacecraft, they send Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, to investigate. Arriving at the station, Kelvin experiences bizarre occurrences. First he learns of his friend’s suicide that occurred aboard the spacecraft before Kelvin arrived. The morning after he arrives, he is awakened to find that his deceased wife is in his room. He doesn’t comprehend her presence, but with the help of his colleagues aboard the ship, he comes to understand that she is a creation of his subconscious, and he begins to fall in love with her all over again. 

Moving at a slow pace, the film carefully reveals that the planet has a mind of its own and is able to extract the thoughts and feelings of its inhabitants. Once a hub of science and exploration, the space station is now a hollow mask of its former self. And its up to Kelvin to bring things to order, until he sees his wife, and he falls spell to the magic of outer space. 

Before Solaris, Mr. Tarkovsky had completed the religious epic Andrei Rublev in 1966, but it consequently became one of his worst received films and was never given an official theatrical release. Needing money and work, Tarkovsky decided to adapt notable science-fiction author Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 novel Solaris. It concerns itself with matters of love, loss, memories, dreams, and has become Tarkovsky’s most reocognizable film today.
Andrei Tarkovsky began his career in the early 1960s with Ivan’s Childhood, and followed it up with Andrei Rublev. It would be a full six years before Tarkovsky made another film. Facing government opposition, Tarkovsky continued to direct, albeit at a slow pace, until 1979, when the Soviets essentially blocked Tarkovsky from making another film. Moving around to Italy, and then to Sweden, Tarkovsky only directed seven total films before his untimely death at the age of 54 in 1986. Legend has it that he, as well as his wife and another crew member, contracted radiation poisoning during the filming of Stalker in 1979, and all three died within years of the production.

In 2002, Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh directed his own adaptation of the novel. Although the film moves at a much faster pace and excludes a lot of the detailed storytelling of Tarkovsky’s version, the 2002 Solaris is still very competent at focusing on the personal and metaphysical aspects of the novel. Although Lem disregarded both as being too attentive to the romantic nature of his story, rather than the scientific. Solaris is a study in existentialism. Overly philosophical and meditative, it is also a wonder. It is slow, and ambiguous, but like all great art, it should be viewed several times and analyzed in order to extract all of its secrets and meanings. Solaris is a film about the subconscious. The planet the astronauts are orbiting is a living organism that is able to extract the deepest emotions and fantasies of its inhabitants. For some, it’s a child, or an old friend, for others, like Kelvin, it is a deceased spouse.

Over the years, Solaris has gained popularity as a companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released four years prior to Solaris. In many ways, it was the Russian response to Kubrick’s masterpiece. Solaris features Donatas Banionis as Kelvin, the beautiful Natalya Bondarchuk as his wife and Tarkovsky regular Anatoliy Solonitsyn as a doctor on board the station. It won the Grand Prix Prize of the Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, and has been paired with Kubrick’s 2001 for double features at repertory theaters around the world for many years. Solaris is a classic of science fiction cinema, and a mystifying enigma that has puzzled critics and audiences ever since its release.

Friday, July 26, 2013


Killer Joe, USA, 2011
Dir: William Friedkin
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple

Where do I start? William Friedkin, director of 70s classics like The French Connection and The Exorcist, returned to the big screen in 2011 with an audacious, violent, and brilliant adaptation of Tracey Letts’ play, Killer Joe. The film stars Matthew McConaughey as Joe Cooper, a police detective who moonlights as a serial killer. Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in desperate need of cash to pay off some gambling debts. So Chris decides to hire Joe to kill his mother, so that Chris can collect the insurance money. Chris’s family gets involved in the plot, including his brainless father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church), Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Gina Gershon), and Chris’s innocent younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple). 

Joe is prepared to do the job but needs an advance on his payment, which naturally, neither Chris nor his family has. So Joe, after a chance meeting with Dottie, agrees to do the job and receive payment later, in return for Dottie’s virtue. That’s where the insanity begins. Soon, we realize that Joe harbors sick fantasies, which the virginal Dottie is receptive to because she’s never enjoyed such attention from a man before. 

Given an NC-17 rating upon its release, Killer Joe is a relentless, unforgiving, but fascinating portrait of the Deep South, and the shady characters that inhabit it. Matthew McConaughey was criminally overlooked during the last awards season, perhaps because the material is so dark and critics were probably rubbed the wrong way by a certain scene involving a piece of KFC chicken. But his presence is significant and McConaughey dominates every scene he’s in. He mixes charisma and sociopathic tendencies so fluidly together, it oozes out of him with every line he delivers.

With elements of classic pulp, and black humor, Killer Joe is a love it or hate it movie with potential to become a contemporary cult film. Friedkin, the old master, was able to garner solid performances from everyone involved including Gina Gershon (the sleazy housewife), Juno Temple (virginal lollipop), and Emile Hirsch (hapless loser who can’t catch a break).  

The original stage play premiered in Chicago in 1993. Since then, Killer Joe has been performed in at least 15 countries in 12 languages. Mr. Friedkin and Mr. Letts first teamed up in 2006 for the offbeat drama Bug, which starred Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon as a couple holed up in a motel room. Friedkin has had a patchy career over the last few decades, but Killer Joe proves that he is still one of his generation's most daring filmmakers. 

After flops like Blue Chips and Jade in the 1990s, Killer Joe is a courageous bid for a comeback from a director who has had few hits since his 1970s heyday. Luckily, the sharp skills that helped earn Mr. Friedkin an Academy Award for Best Director in 1971 for The French Connection and more accolades two years later for The Exorcist find their way into Killer Joe

Because of, or perhaps, in spite of, a very abrupt conclusion, Killer Joe proves to be a huge slap in the face to its audience. The film is outrageous and disturbing, but Friedkin and co. confront cinematic taboos with style and humility, but also (dark) comedy and pathos. In all, Killer Joe is one of the most difficult-to-watch-but-difficult-to-turn-away-from movies made in recent memory. This film is not for the faint of heart, but it is a balls to the wall, no-holds-barred drama that will leave you with your jaw dropped by the end. Its becoming more and more rare that a film takes as many risks as Killer Joe does, and that's why its so good.

Thursday, April 4, 2013


Phil Spector, USA, 2013
Dir: David Mamet
Cast: Al Pacino, Helen Mirren, Jeffrey Tambor

Phil Spector is not about Phil Spector. It’s not about Lana Clarkson’s murder, or the trials that put Spector in prison for what is likely the remainder of his life. The film is not about his lawyers, although it is told from the perspective of one of his lawyers. The film is so ambitious that it uses the story of Spector and the murder trial as a means of asking big questions, philosophical questions, moral questions. What is fame? What does it mean to be famous? What does it mean to die while being famous? Does death change a person’s well-known status? 
This HBO produced film is driven by David Mamet philosophizing about fame, money, wealth, excess, and the cult of celebrity, and the relationship between the public and celebrities. Many critics have been outspoken about Mamet's portrayal of Spector. But you’re never sure what to believe in this film, because, as it’s stated in an opening title card, it is not “based on a true story,” and is a “work of fiction.” Although, that disclaimer probably comes from HBO, not Mamet himself, because Mamet does offer his opinion on the events. He does make Spector a mentally unstable, but innocent victim, and the audience almost grows to have compassion for the man.
Mamet even went as far as to suggest Spector’s outright innocence in a 2011 interview. "They should have never sent him away. Whether he did it or not, we'll never know," he told the Financial Times, "but if he’d just been a regular citizen, they never would have indicted him." Regardless of what you may or may not believe, Mamet does a phenomenal job as writer and director, putting together an entertaining drama centered on a troubled, but strangely charming protagonist, played by Al Pacino.

Pacino plays Phil Spector, the legendary music pioneer of the 1960s and 70s, now serving a life prison sentence for the 2003 murder of waitress Lana Clarkson in his secluded mansion. Pacino does a great job of capturing Spector’s odd little ticks; his walk, his raspy voice and his shaking hands.
Its also a welcome return for Pacino to HBO, who previously starred in the immensely successful Angels in America mini-series in 2003, and won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Dr. Jack Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack in 2010. Here, Pacino reminds us why he is one of the finest actors we’ve ever seen. He is fragile, sensitive and nervous—the perfect embodiment of a man who once achieved the heights of his profession, and let his rich lifestyle catch up with him.
The excellent Helen Mirren plays Linda Kenney Baden, Spector’s lawyer during his first trial. At first, Baden is unsure of her client’s innocence, even though he claims it was a suicide. But after several conversations with the man, she slowly begins to realize that this is an old, broken down man, who, despite his past, might be telling the truth about this particular event.
In the end, many have criticized Mamet and the treatment given to Spector in the film. But if you only take into account that this is a movie, being portrayed by actors, reading lines from a script, then it is quite the fascinating little film. Quite like Spector himself, there is a strange charm to the movie, and its characters, and for this, I respect the actors, and the filmmakers, and applaud them for making a fine movie.

Friday, December 28, 2012


The Passion of Joan of Arc, France, 1928
Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Cast: Maria Falconetti 

Some critics and historians refer to her as Renée. Others refer to her as Maria. Some simply call her Falconetti. Whatever name you want place on her, Renée Jeanne Falconetti, born on July 21st, 1892 in Paris, France, remains to this day one of the most talented and elusive actresses that ever lived. She only appeared in two films in her career—the 1917 French film La Comtesse de Somerive and 1928’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, directed by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. It is her performance in the latter film that has stood the test of time as a stunning achievement, a performance created not through words, but with actions and feeling.

What is most impressive about Falconetti’s performance is that the majority of the film consists of close-ups with Falconetti's face as the principal means of conveying the mood of the story. Her facial expressions are consistently compelling and nuanced throughout the film, which she spends surrounded by judges and guards who want Joan to reveal her falsehood and sins. Her performance is essentially made up of her responses to the actions of her captives, and it is delivered with sincerity and honesty, shedding light on the face of Falconetti's soul.

At the core, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a slow, painful meditation on truth, courage, faith, and religion. There are many powerful moments in the film. At one point, Falconetti’s Joan loses consciousness and is being bled into a bowl, her blood flowing like a water fountain. It is a very disturbing scene, but deeply profound and sad and her emotions are overwhelming. Falconetti’s Joan is a saint with a lust for life. When she is asked to sign a confession that will save her life, she ultimately succumbs to the pressure and does so. At the last moment however, she realizes her grave mistake, and renounces her confession, choosing instead to be a martyr and become the ultimate sacrifice to God.

Falconetti spends the majority of the film looking at us with big, teary eyes. Eyes so big that they fill the frame. Tears so heavy that they can be felt through the screen. She was able to perfectly capture the legend and myth of Joan. The character is one that has built a lot of mystique over the years. The real Joan of Arc was born in 1412 in the Kingdom of France. Claiming divine guidance, she led the French army to several victories during the Hundred Years War. She was eventually captured and held prisoner by the British, who put her on trial for heresy. She was burned at the stake when she was only 19 years old. In history books, she is presented as a young, pious woman with a close connection to God. In the film, she is presented as a vulnerable, and helpless character. 

In order to enjoy the film, viewers must have patience in order to appreciate the art of the close-up. It can sometimes be overwhelming to see the same face, in the same expression for 90 minutes, but that is the beauty of the performance, not just of Joan, but of her captives as well. Thanks to Dreyer’s incredibly unique and sometimes dizzying camera work, he created a mystical and fantastic film experience.

Since it’s release 84 years ago, Joan of Arc has been victim to religious and political censors, several fires that destroyed valuable prints, and unauthorized cuts. In the early 1980s, an original, uncensored edit was found ironically enough in a mental hospital in Norway, and was fully restored for release. The film is an appalling example of the potential of film as an art form. No amount of critique or reviewing can account for the power of the film. It is a rare experience that has to be seen to be understood. Dreyer’s meticulously crafted aesthetic is perfectly matched to the agonized performance of Falconetti. The viewer does not have to be religious in order to understand the power of the performance. Her face performs actions that are beyond the realm of acting. It is a window into the soul of a saint and martyr and is perfectly captured by Ms. Falconetti.

Maria Falconetti was 36 years old when she portrayed the 19-year old Joan. Her portrayal of a fragile young woman, one who was put on trial, accused of heresy, then tortured and burned at the stake by educated religious figures is intense and unforgettable. She was the perfect Joan. The likelihood exists that among the last thoughts of this fascinating, scared, pitiful and extremely faithful woman of 19 was the belief that she would be reunited with God, and that this was her fate in life. It is a scary thought, but it takes great humility and conviction to sacrifice your life the way that Joan did. Either that, or you just have to be plain crazy.

Sunday, September 30, 2012


Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys, France, 2000  
Dir: Michael Haneke 
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Thierry Neuvic

Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys opens with a curious and unsettling sequence. A little girl, not older than 9 or 10, stands in front of a white wall, with a frightened look on her face. She slowly takes a step back, then another, and then another. She reaches out to the wall, trying to clutch it with her right hand. Finally, she kneels down, scared beyond wits, tears forming in her eyes, and stops moving. She looks directly at the camera the entire time. Then she stands up and the fear disappears from her face. It was a performance. It was fake.

The intention of the scene goes back to Michael Haneke’s specific style. His films aim to disturb you. He takes on stories other filmmakers don’t, and that makes his characters stand out. This opening scene is strange though. It has nothing to do with the rest of the plot. The little girl is never shown again. She never has a spoken line of dialogue and we never get to know her name. She is a ghost to us; A minor character. What is her purpose then?

Code Unknown's opening sequence is both creepy, and seductive. It leaves the viewer feeling anxious and uncomfortable. The framing of the scene is left very open. Nothing is seen except for the young girl, and the wall that’s behind her.  We are meant to question the placing of this scene. Why is the little girl in the movie? Why is she in the opening shot? What is she doing in the shot? Is it foreshadowing? This is Haneke’s style. It is unique, and unnerving.

The film's plot is scattered, and its characters are loosely connected. Juliette Binoche plays Anne, an actress whose boyfriend is a photojournalist who works in odd ways. His younger brother gets into an argument with a black man whose African family struggles to adapt to city life in Paris. There is also a homeless woman who is deported, and attempts to sneak her way back into the country.

Haneke’s films mostly leave a bad taste in your mouth. This is not Woody Allen’s idea of Paris. It’s not Godard’s Paris either. This is a more corrupt world, with poverty and theft, and realism. The film is about expression. Perhaps that is the point of the young girl at the beginning, who turns out to be deaf, and playing charades with her classmates. It’s slightly confusing, but tense enough to hold your attention throughout.

Haneke’s most successful work followed his 2005 feature, Caché (Hidden). He proceeded to direct an American remake of his acclaimed 1997 film Funny Games, this time starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. After returning to Europe, Haneke made the brilliant The White Ribbon in 2009, and earlier this year won the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival for Amour.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


The Decline of the American Empire, Canada, 1986
Dir: Denys Arcand
Cast: Dominique Michel, Dorothée Berryman and Louise Portal

The Decline of the American Empire is a French-Canadian comedy that was nominated for the 1986 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The premise is simple--eight characters, four male, and four female, discuss the most personal details of their private lives during a getaway at a summer retreat. At first, they all seem normal. They all have jobs, marriages, they own homes, and enjoy successful careers. Once the topic of sex is brought up however, all the secrets come spilling out. The film then delves into a satirical exploration of the dark philosophy of marriage, relationships, homosexuality, and infidelity.

Written and directed by Quebec-native Denys Arcand, the film was a smash hit in Canada, and at the Cannes Film Festival, before turning up as a nominee at the Oscar ceremony in 1987. Arcand would lose the award that night, but 17 years later, he would triumph for The Barbarian Invasions, winner of Best Foreign Language Film, and nominee for Best Original Screenplay, in 2004.

The unusual title points to the decline of American society, but it actually deals with the social and sexual liberation of Quebec of the 70s and 80s, a culture shock that overthrew centuries of social control exercised by a predominantly conservative Catholic church. The script is written with a very witty, and dark sensibility. The characters are shallow, but charming, and their stories are interesting and funny. Consider this film a French-Canadian impression of a Woody Allen film.

The Decline of the American Empire deals with sensitive themes, beautifully explored by a great ensemble cast playing a great script with heart, no pretension, and to great result. It is a film about aging. It is about men and women who, feeling their youth slipping away, try to grab moments of desire, however singular, in order to  escape the thought of growing old. It is a sad film, with each character dealing with a certain kind of private turmoil which we find out about very personally. The film plays like a soap opera. We know its not real but we're sucked in anyway. We start to care for the characters, we're happy when they're happy, we're sad when they're sad. If you like a good farce, with dark humor and real emotion, check this one out.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Crimes and Misdemeanors, USA, 1989
Dir: Woody Allen
Cast: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Anjelica Huston

Scoop, USA, 2006
Dir: Woody Allen
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Woody Allen

The other two films that I happened to (re)watch were Crimes and Misdemeanors, from 1989, and Scoop from 2006. Interestingly enough, both films also shared many similarities. By 1989, Mr. Allen was already one of the most famous movie directors in the world. He was a three-time Oscar winner, and Crimes and Misdemeanors was a very curious way to cap another successful decade of work for him. Throughout the 1980s, Mr. Allen wrote and directed a lot of silly films, from the Shakespeare spoof A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, to the mock-documentary Zelig. Allen would occasionally make a serious film like 1988’s Another Woman, but never did he approach the subject of morality and murder until 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The film was really a portmanteau of two short stories. One, about a wealthy eye doctor, played by Martin Landau who orders the killing of his mistress, a neurotic, unstable woman who threatens to ruin his marriage and career by revealing the truth about their affair. The second story centers on a failed documentary filmmaker, played by Mr. Allen, who falls in love with a producer, portrayed by Mr. Allen’s longtime girlfriend, Mia Farrow. The two stories are loosely connected, and the two characters only share one scene together, at the very end.

The film is an extreme change of pace for Mr. Allen. Crimes and Misdemeanors is a morose, depressing film. It features moments of comic relief, I’m sure Mr. Allen simply couldn’t resist, because after all, he made a successful living as a comedian for years before turning to movies. But the heart of the film stays on the subject of murder, greed, God, and punishment. Inspired by Dostoyevsky and the Italian Neo-realists, Mr. Allen concocts a brilliant satire, not only of contemporary high society, but of the choices we make in order to hide our secrets and bury our past.

In 2006, after the success of the British-set thriller Match Point, Woody paired up with Scarlett Johansson in a very quirky but satisfying comedy-thriller, Scoop. Johansson played Sondra Pransky, a journalism student who meets a bumbling magician, known as Splendini. The film also stars Ian McShane as a recently deceased reporter, and Hugh Jackman as a wealthy socialite who may or not be a serial killer called the Tarot Card Killer. It was Mr. Allen's last role on-screen before this year’s To Rome With Love.

The two films share a striking resemblance, like a person you meet on the street who gives you déjà vu. They both deal with the theme of moral choices, and murder as an opportunity to erase illicit relationships. Crimes and Misdemeanors managed to receive three Academy Award Nominations. Scoop, on other hand, was not as successful. The film was met with antagonizing reviews, perhaps because Mr. Allen was coming fresh off the hugely positive reaction to Match Point, a much darker thriller that lacked any of Allen's trademark humor. Both Crimes and Misdemeanors and Scoop, made 17 years apart, share a dynamic that has been prevalent throughout Mr. Allen's illustrious career that has spanned nearly 50 years now. They are smart films, well-written, funny and clever.

Woody Allen will turn 77 on December 1st, and shows no signs of putting a pause on his film career. He is already filming his next project with a host of actors including Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, and comedian Louis C.K. Mr. Allen often talks about his fear of death, and it is not surprising that death is a common theme in most of his films from the 70s classics like Love and Death, and Annie Hall to more darker fare like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Scoop. Perhaps Mr. Allen, who has directed a film every year since 1982, is a catch-22 unto himself. He will not stop directing until he passes away, and he will not pass away until he stops directing. As a long-time admirer of his films, here's hoping he never stops working.


Stardust Memories, USA, 1980
Dir: Woody Allen
Cast: Woody Allen, Charlotte Rampling, Jessica Harper

Celebrity, USA, 1998
Dir: Woody Allen
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Joe Mantegna
"You can learn a lot about society by who we choose to celebrate."

During a recent self-imposed Woody Allen bender, it struck me that the four films I watched were all connected with each other.

The first two, Stardust Memories from 1980, and Celebrity from 1998, represent the most underappreciated period in Mr. Allen’s career. Both films were shot in black and white, which, for contemporary films is highly irregular. Both films are also about the film industry, and pay homage to the classic European filmmakers who inspired Mr. Allen, like Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman.

Mr. Allen has long had an obsession with paying tribute to his movie heroes. In 1972’s Play it Again, Sam, the film not only attributes its title to Casablanca, but it even incorporates the ghost of Humphrey Bogart as a character. His 1978 drama Interiors was inspired by several of Mr. Bergman’s films. After winning Best Director and Best Picture at the Academy Awards for Annie Hall, Mr. Allen turned to more serious fare, including Interiors and the bleak romantic dramedy, Manhattan. Criticized for abandoning his earlier, slapstick comedies for more adult-oriented films, Woody made Stardust Memories not only as a response to the critics, but also to pay homage to Fellini’s classic 8 ½, about a film director in turmoil.
Stardust Memories was also the mark of a new chapter in Mr. Allen’s career. His relationship and collaboration with Diane Keaton had concluded, and a year later, he would being to date Mia Farrow, who would star in many of Mr. Allen’s most notable works from this period including Hannah and Her Sisters and The Purple Rose of Cairo. 1980 was also the year United Artists tanked due to the immense failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven's Gate, thus leaving Woody without the studio he routinely worked with. 

Nearly two decades later, Allen revisited the black and white world of the movie business with Celebrity. In one of the rare instances in which he did not act, Mr. Allen instead chose to cast British import Kenneth Branagh in the “Woody Allen” role, this time as a neurotic journalist who hangs out with the rich and famous. The film also stars Judy Davis as his ex-wife who embarks on a career in television. Both Stardust Memories and Celebrity examine the lives of movie stars and the privileged few who get to make a living off of it. 

In Stardust Memories, it was Charlotte Rampling and Jessica Harper that headlined the cast. Celebrity featured a more spread out array of young stars including Winona Ryder, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Charlize Theron. Both films end up being tone poems to the dark side of filmmaking that Mr. Allen allegedly despises and finds his own criticisms by voicing them in his work.

Mr. Allen thrives on intellectual comedy, that which provides  him the opportunity to prove how much smarter he is than everyone else, and how he rationalizes every situation so that it becomes logical and sensical. Mr. Allen has the most uncanny talent at showing his disdain for human civilization, simultaneously commenting on moral values, society, love, sex, money and beauty. His view of the celebrity world is bleak, lacking any warmth or color; perhaps that is why he chose to film both stories in black & white.

While Stardust Memories was made in response to the critics of Mr. Allen's more serious films, Celebrity was a response to the intense media coverage surrounding his affair with the 20 year old adopted daughter of his girlfriend, Mia Farrow in 1992. Since then, Mr. Allen has stayed away both from the limelight of the media, as well as from making films that satirize the world they inhabit. In 2012, Mr. Allen won his fourth Academy Award for Midnight in Paris. He is currently shooting his 43rd film, an as-of-yet untitled romantic comedy set in San Fransisco and New York.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Dial M for Murder, USA, 1954
Dir: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings 

What more could be said about Alfred Hitchcock? He is the godfather of classic cinema. Honestly, was there anyone more talented and popular than Hitchcock from the 1940s through the 1960s? He directed over a dozen masterful thrillers including Shadow of a Doubt, Lifeboat, Notorious, Rope, Strangers on a TrainNorth by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. In 1954, while anticipating the release of Rear Window, one of Hitchcock’s trademark films, Hitch directed Dial M for Murder, an adaptation of the stage play by Frederick Knott, starring one of Hitchcock’s favorite blonde bombshells, Grace Kelly.

Hitchcock and Grace made three films together from 1954-1955. In addition to Dial M, she also starred across Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, and Cary Grant in the crime caper, To Catch a Thief. Ms. Kelly retired from acting a year later, after marrying Rainier III, Prince of Monaco. She died, tragically, in a car accident in 1982, at the age of 52.

Dial M for Murder is a very shrewdly written film. It deals with a former tennis champion who blackmails an old college friend into murdering his adulterous wife. The friend reluctantly agrees and goes ahead with the clever scheme planned by the husband, but it goes terribly wrong and the husband is forced to concoct a plan B. Hitchcock does an expertly job in creating the most tension and thrills out of a very claustrophobic setting. The studio decided to release the film in 3-D hoping to grab audiences by their throats, literally. The bet paid off and the movie was a large success for Hitch and co. Although the 3-D fad of the 50s wore off, the film remained one of Hitchcock’s best thrillers, overshadowed possibly, by the overwhelming reaction to Rear Window, released in theaters just a few months after Dial M for Murder.

Also in the film is Ray Milland, the Oscar winner from Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, and Robert Cummings as Grace’s lover. Dial M for Murder was a welcome return to England for Alfred Hitchcock. Ever since coming to Hollywood in 1940, Mr. Hitchcock had become accustomed to making films in America, primarily working with American actors like James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Joan Fontaine, and Joseph Cotton.

Mr. Hitchcock employs some of his best camera techniques to set up unforeseen twists and turns, and for a film that is nearly six decades old, it still holds up pretty well. That is the sign of a true master filmmaker, and Hitchcock deserves no less than such recognition. His ability to scare the audience is derivative of his ability to manipulate audiences, to convince them that the story will go in one certain direction only to turn the tables and go down a completely altered yet still satisfying path. 

After the dual success of Dial M for Murder and Rear Window in 1954, Hitchcock continued to scare audiences until the mid-1970s when health problems took Hitch away from movie sets. When presented with the AFI lifetime achievement award in 1979, he singled out four people he wanted to thank—a film editor, a scriptwriter, his daughter’s mother, and his favorite cook—all four were his wife, Alma Reville. Hitchcock passed away in 1980 at the age of 80.