The Razor’s Edge

May 31, 2011

It didn’t work. For months now we’ve been hearing about how Bill Murray would essay his first dramatic role—not only that, he would do it in an adaptation of Somerset Maugahm’s The Razor’s Edge. That’s biting off a lot, and chances were the film would either be a disaster or a weird, original triumph.

The movie is here. It didn’t work.

The novel tells the story of a young American veteran of World War I who, disturbed by what he had seen in the trenches, turns his back on sophisticated society (including his fiancée) and searches for meaning. Eventually he finds spiritual guidance in India, and dedicates his life to selflessness.

Films about the search for internal truth don’t get made too often, but The Razor’s Edge was filmed once before. Tyrone Power had enough clout to mount a version in 1946, with himself as the searcher Larry Darrell, Gene Tierney as his fiancée, Anne Baxter as their self-destructive friend (she copped a supporting actress Oscar), and Clifton Webb as a social butterfly.

Bill Murray, who loved the book, also had to use his clout to get the movie made: He agreed to do Ghostbusters for Columbia Pictures if they would finance The Razor’s Edge. If you’ve been following the box-office reports on Ghostbusters, you know that Columbia isn’t going to lose any money on this deal, even if Razor’s Edge does a nosedive.

The Tyrone Power version was a faithful, if somewhat ponderous, adaptation. Murray and director John Byrum have leavened their script with Murrayesque humor, even when that humor is anachronistic or just plain misplaced.

Murray’s comic force, very much a part of our time, seems jarring when set at the beginning of the century. We can appreciate that his Larry Darrell might be a bit of a clown, but when Murray flops over the side of a swimming pool and does a seal imitation while his fiancée wants to talk about the collapse of their relationship, something isn’t ringing true. Don’t misunderstand me—Murray playing a seal is very funny. It’s just in the wrong movie.

This problem happens repeatedly; obviously, Byrum and Murray thought the mix of comedy and drama would work. No go.

They’ve also got a problem with the sheer size of the story. It’s long already, and they add a new (and rather good) sequence set at the front lines during the war. They rush through things too much—our hero gets to the Himalayas, and boom! He’s got his transcendental experience. We barely get to know the other characters.

There are problems in that department, too: most glaringly, Catherine Hicks as the fiancée who gets fed up and marries a solid, steady businessman (James Keach). Hicks gives an insufferable performance, and doesn’t come close to suggesting the ambiguities of her character. Denholm Elliott, as her society uncle, plays it with arched eyebrows, and not much more.

Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill’s brother) registers strongly as a wartime friend of Murray’s, and Saeed Jaffrey does nice work as an Indian boatsman who guides Murray to a temple high in the mountains. The acting jewel here is the performance of Theresa Russell, as the widowed friend who turns to drink and prostitution in the streets of Paris. Russell, made up to look like silent film star Louise Brooks, explores depths of character that are sometimes painful to watch.

Individual scenes are effective, and Murray has a few good moments, when he’s able to calm down. But the center doesn’t hold, and Byrum, who has made stylish films (such as Heart Beat) in the past, can’t keep it together. If, as the saying has it, the path to salvation is akin to walking a razor’s edge, this movie falls down and cuts itself wide open. There’s no one else to blame—the wound is self-inflicted.

First published in the Herald, October 29, 1984

The 1980s had some weird projects, but this is in a zone of its own. I really admire Murray for making the out-and-out trade with Columbia, and for wanting to shoot a movie of a very special book; I remember really wanting this crazy enterprise to work (did anybody think to set the story in the post-Vietnam era, which would have mitigated the problem of his anachronistic playing?). There was something fascinating about the fact that Murray took some kind of hiatus (four years or so) from movies and went off to live in Paris or something, as though the movie hadn’t entirely stopped for him.

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Rocky IV

May 30, 2011

It’s a bit difficult to remember that the first Rocky was just a movie—and an enjoyable, funny, and sweet movie at that. The subsequent entries have gotten exponentially bloated, so there’s no longer any sense of these things as merely films. They’re cultural phenomena, big and tacky and seemingly bearing no relation to other films.

All the sequels have been written and directed by mega-star Sylvester Stallone; and Stallone may be many things, but he’s not stupid (despite some of the airhead statements he’s made in interviews). He’s got a gut-level instinct for what works on an audience’s emotions. But he blows up his narratives (like his bulging muscles) to such huge proportions, you wonder how he’s going to top his awesome 1985 one-two punch of Rambo and Rocky IV.

Rocky IV finds the Italian stallion happy in his home life (Talia Shire still suffers as his wife, Burt Young still slobbers as Paulie) but wondering about a new challenger form the Soviet Union, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), also known as the Siberian Express.

This Drago, who is roughly the size of Vladivostok, is apparently trained by computer and pumped with steroids. Stallone shrewdly sets him up as the exact opposite of Rocky: Drago is bigger, blonder, colder, and run by committee. Not like our boy.

When Drago demolishes Rocky’s pal Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) in a gaudy Las Vegas exhibition (James Brown and some showgirls do a pre-fight routine), Rocky vows to pulverize this Russian—and do it in Moscow. This sets up the obligatory scene in which Talia Shire tells Rocky, “You can’t win,” to which the big guy mumbles something about doing what he’s gotta do.

Rocky retreats to a woodshed somewhere in the Soviet wasteland (really filmed in British Columbia), where he trains in the snow by carrying logs across his shoulders—the most embarrassing of Stallone’s many Rocky-as-Christ images.

This all leads up to the big fight in Moscow, and of course I can’t give away the ending—that would ruin it for those half-dozen or so people who actually wonder whether Rocky might lose. But Stallone has put together another audience-pleaser, and one that is (in my estimation) a lot more fun than Rocky II or III.

Having set his film in Russia, Stallone seems to have been inspired by the great Russian montage filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein: Stallone has gone montage-mad. Every 15 minutes or so, the soundtrack erupts with a song that cues a montage of Rocky training, or flashing back through the last three movies, or running up a mountain, where he stands at the summit with his arms outstretched like the Christ overlooking Rio de Janeiro.

And speaking of summit, of course, this film has its own view of American-Soviet relations. Surprisingly enough, after 90 minutes of jingoistic hooey (you’ll be booing those Commies with the rest of the audience), Stallone turns around at the end and opines that hey, we’re all just people after all, regardless of our nationality. Even Drago exhibits a tremor of capitalistic independence. In its own inarticulate way, Rocky IV gets sweet on us again, right at the end.

First published in the Herald, December 1, 1985

Stallone never topped ’85, the year of Rambo and Rocky IV, but who has? That duo so perfectly captured the inflated moment of the USA post-Reagan reelection, post-Grenada, post-L.A. Olympics, and pre-Iran scandal/market crash. The fight in Rocky IV is ludicrously stage-managed for maximum manipulation, and it turns out that’s exactly what everybody wanted.


Radio Days

May 27, 2011

With the opening scene of Radio Days, Woody Allen sets the comic-nostalgic tone that permeates his newest film. The narrator’s voice begins a “Once Upon a Time” story about two bumbling burglars ransacking a darkened home. Suddenly, the phone rings, and the dimwitted thieves decide to answer it.

Cut to the source of the call: a live radio broadcast of “Name That Tune,” where the announcer breathlessly informs the “homeowner” that he will win big prizes if he can identify some songs. Which, with amusingly misplaced intensity, the burglar promptly does (“Uh—lemme think—”Dancing in the Dark’?” “You’re absolutely right!”).

This sharp comic idea is capped by the real homeowners awakening the next morning to the sight of a truckload’s worth of unexpected gifts being dropped on their doorstep.

Throughout the film, Allen, who narrates, but does not appear on screen, balances the colorful memories of old radio shows with warm family comedy. It’s all set in the late 1930s-early 1940s (ending on a bittersweet New Year’s Eve, 1943), as Allen recalls his Jewish upbringing—fictionalized, of course—in New York.

Allen’s youthful alter ego, played by the latest in a long line of pint-size Woodman clones, Seth Green, grows up in an off-center household. Against the lived-in jumble of his extended family (the parents are played to perfection by Michael Tucker of “L.A. Law” and Julie Kavner), the boy’s imagination is fired by the magical presence of the radio. Allen’s affectionate voice introduces a string of radio stories, and they weave in and out of the family comedy with seamless grace.

The anecdotal recollections are uncannily accurate take-offs on the radio stories of the time, such as the goofily exaggerated profile of the courageous baseball pitcher who keeps making comebacks despite losing a leg, than an arm(“Luckily, not his pitching arm”), then his sight.

Then there’s the time the little girl in Pennsylvania gets stuck at the bottom of the well, and all the nation holds a vigil as rescue proceedings drag on. That’s exactly the sort of event made special by the particular power of radio.

Elsewhere, radio memories intertwine with personal ones: Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” hoax spoils a promising date for the narrator’s spinster aunt (Dianne Wiest, the third sibling from Hannah and Her Sisters); or the time the socialist neighbor’s radio blaring on a Holy Day sends Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel) next door to complain, only to have him return an hour later spouting the party line: “Why should I atone? The only sin is the exploitation of the workers!”

I’m not giving away all the good parts. Rest assured there are many more—this film is a Whitman’s Sampler, stuffed with goodies and songs and gags at every level. For whatever happy reason, Allen continues to mine the warm streak of Hannah and Her Sisters (with the gorgeous work of the same cinematographer, Carlo di Palma), and his backward-looking affection is infectious.

The episodic nature of the film allows a bunch of Allen’s collaborators to step in for small roles—most prominently Mia Farrow, as a cigarette girl who charts a most unusual course to radio stardom. Also popping up: Tony Roberts, Jeff Daniels, Wally Shawn, and even Diane Keaton, contributing a pretty swan song.

On one viewing, Radio Days feels like an advisedly minor film, a polished cameo along the lines of Purple Rose of Cairo, rather than a major Allen opus. But with Allen making at least one movie a year, the occasional minor work can be allowed, and this one is particularly nice to spend time with.

First published in the Herald, January 1987

I grew up listening to nightly broadcasts of vintage radio shows on Seattle’s KVI, so I was a sucker for this movie’s particular feel and focus. Now that almost 25 years have passed since the movie came out, its evocation of that era grows even dimmer than it was in 1987, and perhaps more precious. As I would classify the majority of movies made by Woody Allen since 1987 “minor,” Radio Days is more of a major than I thought it was at the time.


Hannah and Her Sisters

May 26, 2011

Woody Allen seems to love experiments, and he’s got the sort of working situation (nobody tells him what sort of movie he’s required to make) that allows him to indulge his tastes.

It’s a good setup, and Allen has pleased us in recent years with odd baubles such as the pseudo-documentary Zelig, the raucous showbiz Broadway Danny Rose, and last year’s small gem, The Purple Rose of Cairo, none of which reached a very large audience. As lovely as those movies are, a nagging thought stayed with me: When is Woody going to get back to doing the sort of rueful, wise, romantic comedy (Annie Hall and Manhattan) he does best?

Now, such a thought is completely unfair to the Woodman (as Bill Murray used to call him), and if on the arrival of Hannah and Her Sisters we shout “Woody’s back,” it does a disservice to his recent films. Still—Hannah does represent a return to the flavor and feel of Manhattan, and it is his best and most characteristic film since that 1979 masterpiece.

The film centers on three sisters (as did Allen’s Interiors): Hannah (Mia Farrow), the oldest, who seems to have her life in perfect order and control; Lee (Barbara Hershey), whose relationship with a domineering artist (Max Von Sydow) is skidding; and Holly (Dianne Wiest), a would-be actress, would-be singer—would-be almost anything, if she could find her niche and get over her resentment of Hannah’s perfection.

These three get into various romantic entanglements with the three men in the film. Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine) launches an affair with Lee, Hannah’s ex-husband (Allen) has a date with Holly that he likens to the Nuremberg Trials. After Holly’s promising date with an architect (Sam Waterston), her partner in the catering business (Carrie Fisher) snatches him away.

Rounding out the cast are the parents of the sisters, played by Lloyd Noland and Maureen O’Sullivan (she’s Farrow’s mother in real life); and Daniel Stern, in a hilarious cameo as a vacuous rock star who wants to buy some of Von Sydow’s paintings, without vaguely understanding why.

It’s a terrific ensemble, and the action cuts back and forth evenly between the characters (some of whom narrate different sections of the film). Allen himself actually has one of the smaller roles, but he garners a lot of laughs as a man who, despite his lifelong hypochondria, is caught short when he suddenly realizes he may actually be seriously ill. At that point, he embarks on a metaphysical journey that leads him to try Catholicism (his survey of 3-D Jesus postcards is a comic high point) and Hare Krishna.

Allen strikes a lovely balance between hurtful romanticism and rueful humor; the characters are immediately recognizable, with all their human faults and durability. Holly is a particularly sharp figure, and Dianne Wiest—a Broadway actress heretofore relegated to peculiar roles in movies such as Independence Day and Footloose—captures all of Holly’s desperate search for a means of expression.

Gordon Willis has been photographing Allen’s films for years, but Carlo di Palma did the honors this time, and he allows a bit more light into the proceedings. It’s a wonderful thing to behold. Allen very likely has his biggest hit in a long time with Hannah, and it couldn’t come at a better time; for him, or us.

First published in the Herald, February 7, 1986

Kind of disappointed in reading this review again—not that I’m wrong about the movie, but this doesn’t convey the particular glow the film conjures up. A great success for Allen, and yet he went on to more unusual projects, which just kept getting unusualler as the years went on.


The Purple Rose of Cairo

May 25, 2011

Ever since he is early, knockabout comedies, Woody Allen has always had a bittersweet streak. It’s a tendency that reached full flower in the romantic glories of Annie Hall and Manhattan, but it was always there.

It remains with Allen, but lately the sweet has been dominating the bitter. Woody’s latest films, particularly Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose, have been sweet-souled, whimsical little movies, full of charm and small-scale humor. They’ve also seemed just a bit insubstantial, even if they may be every bit as well-made as his earlier high points.

This newest, The Purple Rose of Cairo, continues in this vein. It’s a slim, utterly likable fantasy about an unhappy New Jersey housewife (Mia Farrow) whose solace in life is disappearing into the movie theater and losing herself in the flicker on screen. One day, however, the screen looks back at her—when Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels), an archeologist-adventurer-poet character in a silly comedy called The Purple Rose of Cairo turns to her and asks her why she’s seen the movie five times.

Naturally, the housewife (not to mention the rest of the audience) is disconcerted—but she’s even more surprised when the character steps out of the screen and rushes her out of the theater. You see, he has fallen in love with her, and he wants to get a taste of real life.

The farce builds nicely: The other characters in the Purple Rose movie sit around and worry about how to finish the film, while filmgoers are disgruntled by the lack of plot. The owner of the theater calls the studio head, who contacts the actor who played Baxter (also played by Jeff Daniels, natch) to fly out and find his imaginary alter ego.

Meanwhile, Baxter, clad in pith helmet and khaki knickers, is learning that real life is a tougher row to hoe than happily ever-after film existence, while the housewife starts to believe maybe she doesn’t need her brutish husband (Danny Aiello) to get along in life.

What a terrific idea for a movie—something of a variant on Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., in which a projectionist enters a film and becomes a new character. Allen’s approach eschews slapstick and big laughs; he emphasizes Farrow’s wan love of movies, and Daniels’ energetic work (he was Debra Winger’s husband in Terms of Endearment) as the innocent Baxter and the fatuous actor who plays him.

Some of the choicest bits come courtesy of the fictional Purple Rose cast: Edward Herrmann, John Wood, and Deborah Rush do versions of Noel Coward, Edward Everett Horton, and Jean Harlow, respectively, and they exist in a beautifully realized recreation of an early 1930s black-and-white comedy, in which all the scenes are obliged to begin with one character jauntily bounding over to the cocktail table and piping, “Who’ll have an eye-opener?”

At 82 minutes, The Purple Rose of Cairo—the first of Allen’s films since Interiors in which he does not also star—is perhaps too modest for its own good.

First published in the Herald, March 1985

I wonder what the ending of my review was before someone snipped it off to fit it onto the page? Because the way it stands, it’s too modest for its own good. Oh well. Maybe it fits the smallish accomplishments of this movie, which isn’t vivid enough in my memory to inspire any new insights.


Broadway Danny Rose

May 24, 2011

Woody Allen has sometimes been accused of “playing Woody Allen.” He retains essentially the same character from film to film: the uncomfortably intellectual neurotic with a romantic streak as long as the Brooklyn Bride.

As a criticism of his acting, this gripe doesn’t really hold water. Some great actors—Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, for example, not to mention Allen’s fellow comedians, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton—played basically the same characters in most of their films, and they now look like our best actors. It’s difficult, but somehow satisfying to an audience, for an actor to simply be himself on the screen.

That’s pretty much what Allen has done so far, and he’s done it well. In his new movie, Broadway Danny Rose, Allen essays a role that is clearly a “character”: the hyperactive, herky-jerky, small-time talent agent Danny Rose, whose invariably bizarre acts include a one-legged tap dancer and a woman who plays music on half-filled water glasses.

Danny Rose is a funny creation, with his hackneyed patter (a typical conversational gambit is, “Dahling, can I just say one thing?”), his schnooky energy, and his polyester shirts. He also has a touching belief in all his clients, no matter how awful they are—although he draws the line at managing the stuttering ventriloquist.

The film is constructed as a series of flashbacks: a group of New York stand-up comedians (played by real comics such as Sandy Baron and Corbett Monica) sit around in a diner and reminisce about good old Danny Rose. They tell anecdotes to crack each other up, and then one of them tells the all-time Danny Rose story, which will take up most of the movie.

It’s about the time Danny was managing the comeback of a former boy singer, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who is now well past his prime—if he ever had one. On the day of Lou’s comeback shot, a Milton Berle TV special, Lou’s girlfriend decides she doesn’t want to see him anymore. Poor Lou, devastated, starts hitting the bottle just hours before airtime.

Danny enters the scene to convince the girlfriend—played with almost unrecognizable vivaciousness by Mia Farrow—that she should show up for the special. He pursues her through a wild series of adventures, notably a nearly fatal encounter with her large and hot-blooded Sicilian family, who seem to have watched The Godfather one too many times.

Broadway Danny Rose takes on the style of a screwball comedy at this point, as we see that these two people may be falling for each other in the course of the excitement. The handsome black-and-white photography by Gordon Willis adds to this flavor.

But Allen only rarely conjures up the magic of a great screwball romp. He still may be too uptight as a director to really fly with this kind of material—remember how uneasy he seemed with the sunniness of A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy?—and he occasionally slips out of character, speaking philosophical Allenisms that are wiser than Danny Rose’s powers would suggest.

And yet this is a nice movie. Allen has his tone of sweet melancholy very much in evidence, and he appears to be content to go for the low-key chuckle rather than the boffo belly-laugh these days. And that approach is perfectly in keeping with this modest tale of small-time people with big dreams.

First published in the Herald, January 1984

Not sure why I went with the elaborate opening to the review, except it really was striking that Allen was doing a character piece in this one. The movie still holds up pretty well, and Farrow gives one of her best performances (that was the really startling turn, more than Allen’s). The movie’s best touch is the meeting of the Borscht Belt comics telling their stories—those guys crowded the talk shows in the late Sixties and Seventies, bouncing around from Merv Griffin to “Love, American Style.” A fine Allen grace note to gather them here.


Zelig

May 23, 2011

On the most recent “Tonight Show” anniversary program, they showed a clip of Woody Allen, circa 1965, doing a monologue while seated between Johnny and Ed. The story was funny, but the Woodman himself bore little resemblance to the lovable neurotic that we know so well today. He was bubbly. He was giggly. He was even touching Johnny. In fact, he almost looked like one of the boys. He was quite unlike himself.

I started thinking about that clip while watching Allen’s newest movie, Zelig, which is about a man who became famous during the 1920s because of his bizarre physical capabilities. Leonard Zelig (also known as “Chameleon Man” and “The Lizard”), it seems, would physically and mentally adapt himself to whatever person or group of people he was around; so, when he would chew the fat with a group of obese folks, he would suddenly sprout extra tonnage, and when confronted with a Chinese gentleman, would assume the look and posture of an Oriental. When Zelig’s gift was discovered, he was exploited and abused, although he eventually found help from a caring woman doctor. It turns out that, after an unhappy childhood, Zelig was so desperate to be liked by others that he would literally make himself like them.

Allen plays Zelig, and any autobiographical similarities between the two are probably not coincidental—especially remembering that Carson clip. But, thankfully, Allen is not in a whining or self-pitying mode; the unattractive self-righteousness of Stardust Memories has been banished in favor of a sweeter, more winsome tone. To a certain extent, this is partially due to the fact that Woody shuts up during most of Zelig. This is by necessity; the film purports to be a documentary reconstruction of Zelig’s life, through the use of newsreels and stills. Thus, a narrator does most of the talking for the movie, and Allen is relieved of the temptation to speechify. Instead, the way people move in front of, or look into, the camera, carries the load of Zelig‘s wistful message.

I’m not knocking on Woody, but let me give an example of one of these moments when he says too much. At one point in Zelig, Leonard is describing his love of baseball, and we hear his voice saying something like, “I love baseball—it’s so beautiful, so graceful.” Now, baseball is beautiful and graceful, but—we know that. I winced when I heard it; Allen nudges us here as though we were being let in on some great secret. There is a much greater (and much more graceful) love of baseball communicated through a shot early in the film, of a perfectly self-possessed Zelig standing in the batter’s box behind Babe Ruth, waiting to bat after the Bambino. Allen’s figure has been matted in so that he exists in an old newsreel of the real Ruth, and this moment—even with a static camera and shaky processing—transmits an almost ecstatic feel for the game. It’s funny, too.

To give Woody his due, let me laud a sequence in which he is very good indeed: under hypnosis (and under the eye of a documentary camera supposedly recording the scene), Zelig woozily declares his love for his doctor, Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow): “I love you…but I hate your pancakes…I want to be with you, take care of you…no more pancakes….” This paraphrasing does a disservice to the well-played rhythms of the scene, but you can see how Allen has struck a nice balance between the expression of Zelig’s long-buried—or at least disguised—emotions, and the unconscious surfacing of some practical considerations. Those pancakes keep the scene honest, and they transform the moment into something very meaningful.

The technical accomplishment of Zelig—the painstaking care with which the film combines stock footage, glossy pseudo-Hollywood filmmaking (in clips from the 1935 bioflick, The Changing Man), some beautifully restored stills (in one, Zelig looks almost presidential, standing between Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover), and the “documentary” motion-picture footage, is quite impressive—Zelig is a lot of fun to watch. Allen’s great cinematographer, Gordon Willis, is surely responsible for much of the film’s brilliant look. The is-it-real-or-is-it-fake appearance of the movie is exactly the appropriate treatment of the chameleon Zelig. That’s an important conceptualization on Allen’s part, and more evidence—after some odd misfires—that he may be continuing to learn as a film director; that, like Leonard Zelig, he is a Changing Man, in the best sense of those words.

First published in The Informer, September 1983

Woody Allen’s got a new movie out, Midnight in Paris, so we might as well take the hint to visit a few titles from his clockwork run in the 1980s. I haven’t seen the movie in a long time, so I can only guess that the technical business of blending newsreel footage and old photographs with newly-shot images much look quaint in this age of easy photoshopping, but it was considered quite impressive in its time. It would be cool if Allen were to make a movie like this now, something truly offbeat in its conception and format; at this working rate, he’s due.