Crossing Delancey

January 20, 2020

crossingdelanceyCrossing Delancey is a movie to curl up next to. Utterly contemporary in many ways, it nevertheles incorporates the manners and morals of an old­-fashioned romantic comedy.

It’s set in Manhattan, where a bookseller, Isabelle (Amy Irving), who works in “New York’s last real bookstore,” is leading an ordinary, and solitary, life. Izzy, as she is known to all, is sophisticated, literate, and in thrall to the writers who frequent the store. But she’s also loyal to her grandmother, her “Bubbie” (Reizl Bozyk), who lives among the traditions of the Lower East Side. Bubbie and the local matchmaker (Sylvia Miles) decide it’s time to end Izzy’s singlehood and make a match.

Izzy, of course, recoils at the archaic custom, insisting that “this is not the way I live. This is a hundred years ago!” And an arranged meeting between and a man who owns a pickle stand (Peter Riegert) goes apparently nowhere.

But that’s where Crossing Delancey begins to shine. The pickle man turns out to be a complex and subtle person, while Izzy’s crush on a famous writer (Jeroen Krabbe) cools as she gets to know him. Izzy comes to understand this both through her own investigation, and through the delightful plotting of her Bubbie.

Crossing Delancey is directed by Joan Micklin Silver, and it’s a film that finally fulfills the promise of her Chilly Scenes of Winter, which came out almost decade ago. (And it’s reminiscent of her Hester Street, which also examined traditional Jewish customs.) Silver is wonderful at etching characters, finding the way they talk, the way they stand. She can capture the romantic aches of modem folk better than anyone this side of Woody Allen.

The script is by Susan Sandler, based on her own play. It’s full of rich nuances of speech, particularly for Bubbie, who is partially based on Sandler’s own grandmother. Even Sandler’s minor characters are generously treated: The roguish writer is endearing even at his most fatuous, while a childish married man (John Bedford Lloyd) who occasionally sleeps with Izzy acts like a gentleman when he finally meets the pickle man.

Silver gets splendid performances. The film is a showcase for Amy Irving, and Peter Riegert (he was the American businessman in Local Hero) is just wonderful, investing his pickle man with dignity and self-possession.

This is one of those movies in which a certain enchantment seems to hang over all. When, on her birthday, a lonely Izzy stops for a hot dog at a little frankfurter place, a woman strides in and sings “Some Enchanted Evening” a cappella. This movie describes a world in which this sort of thing can happen. It’s a very nice place to visit.

First published in the Herald, September 1988

Yup, lovely movie. Silver should have had a more prominent career. This movie does that thing that I particularly like, which is to allow the not-nice characters their moments of grace.

Straight to Hell/Law of Desire

January 17, 2020

straighttohellThere’s the kind of moviemaker who makes a film every couple-three years; he or she waits around for the perfect script, the perfect actor, the perfect moment. Then there’s the moviemaker who churns out flicks on a fairly continuous basis, just to have something to be working on. Such a busy bee is Alex Cox, the wonderfully demented director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy.

Cox’s newest film, released less than a year after S&N, was cranked out on a measly million-dollar budget (and, reportedly, a three-day writing schedule). Straight to Hell is no masterwork, and it’s obviously something Cox made with his left hand while his right hand was working on the next big movie.

As such, it sure is fun. Stylistically and otherwise, Straight to Hell flagrantly lives up to its title. This is a scuzzy, gadabout movie, barely existing except to spoof the filmic conventions of the spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) of Sergio Leone.

If you’re not familiar with Leone’s movies, some of the gags here won’t work. The credits and the music, for instance, which parody Leone’s flamboyant style – plus a lot of overwrought wide-screen compositions in the manner of that directors’s breath­less shoot-outs, which Leone would compose with the scope of a Wagnerian opera.

The plot here, such as it is, takes three greasy outlaws (Cy Richardson, Clash lead singer Joe Strummer, and co-writer Dick Rude) and their moll (Courtney Love) into a dusty Western town. The townsfolk, a deranged bunch of coffee underachievers who are weirdly fixated on caffeine, look as though they’ve dropped directly out of British society and into a Road Warrior post-apocalyptic world.

The movie gets out of control quickly, which may be its saving grace. A bunch of quirky people – Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, The Pogues – breeze in to fill up the background. It’s a larky film, very uneven, and everyone involved with it seems to have had a very good time.

lawofdesireLaw of Desire is a new movie from another idiosyncratic filmmaker, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar. He’s an acquired taste, but Law of Desire strikes a kind of giddy balance of hipness, camp, and melodrama.

Almodovar’s story seems to jump out of some sub-par 1950s American soap opera. A homosexual film director (Eusebio Poncela) is dogged by a worshiping fan (Antonio Banderas). Eventually Banderas takes out his madness on the director’s lover, and throws the lover off a cliff.

Almodovar takes this situation and puts a nutty spin on it. He sets the film in Madrid, then throws in the director’s transsexual sister (Carmen Maura), a crazy color scheme, and a subterranean sense of humor. It sounds like as wild a mix as Straight to Hell, but the elements in Law of Desire come together in a way that they never do in Straight to Hell, and Almodovar’s is much the better movie. Both movies, in their exotic trashiness, lend a much-welcome aura of untidiness to the current cinema.

First published in the Herald, June 1987

Pretty interesting twofer. I guess I thought Cox was going on to a career of big films, which, unfortunately, he did not. Nothing against his output, mind you, but one expected more spectacular things. And Courtney Love? Yes, it happened. Things turned out rather well for Pedro Almodovar, as you may have heard; this week his star Banderas got an Oscar nomination for the director’s Pain and Glory, a very good career-looking-back movie. Obviously Law of Desire deserved more space than I could give it here, but hey, you do what you can. And I refer to American soaps as the movie’s source of parody; I wasn’t hip enough to know about telenovelas in 1987.

Sammy and Rosie Get Laid

January 13, 2020

sammyandrosieIn My Beautiful Laundrette, director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi took a cook’s tour through the underside of a teeming, stewing London. In their follow-up collaboration, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Frears and Kureishi are back in the same milieu, but this time they’ve turned up the heat.

As the film begins, a former Pakistani cabinet minister named Rafi (Shashi Kapoor, India’s most popular actor) is returning to London, and he muses, “Before I die, I must know my beloved London again.” But his elegant city is transformed into a vision of hell: Buildings are burning, crowds are rioting, the streets are full of blood and broken glass.

Though the city may seethe, the people who live there go on with their own problems. Rafi stays with his son Sammy (Ayub Khan Din) and Sammy’s wife Rosie (Frances Barber). Rosie is something of a militant; she doesn’t believe in “getting the dinner on, or sexual fidelity.” Sammy’s lazier. He gives lip service to Rosie’s notion that all the unrest is “an affirmation of the human spirit,” but  quickly reverts to capitalist horror when the rioters overturn his own new car.

Sammy has an American mistress (Wendy Gazelle) with an interesting tattoo (the explanation of which is best supplied by the film). Rosie meets an enigmatic but kind-faced drifter (Roland Gift, lead singer of the Fine Young Cannibals) for a torrid encounter in an impromptu Third World conclave under a decaying highway bridge. Rafi hirnself calls upon an old flame (Claire Bloom) now living a respectable life.

If this begins to sound like the stuff of searing social comment, be assured that it certainly is. But the audaciousness of this film lies not merely in its social criticism (or in its I-dare-you-to-censure-me title), but also in its slashing comedic style. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid is a comedy of hysteria, a franctically funny satire in which no one is safe.

For instance. Rafi’s history includes the torture and murder of his political opponents, but this bitter past is absorbed right into the film’s general wild outrage; when Sammy and Rosie prepare a reception for Rafi, the son insists, “We can’t let a bit of torture get in the way of a party.” (This sly acceptance is aided by Kapoor’s wonderful, buttery performance.)

Of course, Margaret Thatcher is lambasted, her words accompanied by shots of the city smoking, seemingly in ruins. But the left is also susceptible to ridicule; Rosie’s shrill  lesbian pals are appalling in their deadly political correctness, and turn out to be just as capable of petty jealousy as anyone.

Kureishi, London-born of a Pakistani father and an English mother, is often strident and didactic in interviews. Which is why it’s such a pleasure to see his screenplays so marvelously multi-sided and daring. Some of Kureishi’s fire is tempered by the generosity of Stephen Frears (Prick Up Your Ears) whose more mature sense of irony makes a nice match with Kureishi’s ferociousness. Together they seem capable of taking London by storm, if they don’t burn it down first.

First published in the Herald, February 18, 1988

Such a fine and original film, with Kapoor making a particularly outrageous character. Opened in Seattle at the Egyptian theater, a good choice. And yes, political correctness was a thing, not yet co-opted by the right wing.

The Family

January 10, 2020

familyIf Oscar nominations were the sole criterion for evaluating foreign filmmakers, Italy’s Ettore Scola would be right at the top of the list.

IIn the last 10 years, he’s had nominations in the best foreign language film category for A Special Day in 1977 and Le Bal in 1983. This year, he has another movie in the Oscar circle: The Family.

Scola’s busy decade has also included La Nuit de Varennes and the unsuccessful Jack Lemmon­/Marcello Mastroianni movie, Macaroni. There is some very good work there, and in a way The Family is the culmination of this winning streak. This is one of those big-canvas movies, a film that spans 80 years in the life of a family of the 20th century.

But Scola has made a crucial decision in the way he wants to look at this time. The entire film is set inside the house of an upper-middle class family. But for brief glimpses outside the window, we never see the outside world.

And yet the people who pass through the portals embody the changing moods of Italian society. There’s gentility and privilege in the early scenes, the specter of fascism during Mussolini’s rise, and the anger of the 1960s, all brought in by various characters from different generations.

The character who occupies the central position throughout the years is Carlo, whose baptism marks the film’s opening. (He is played as a young man by Andrea Occhipinti, as an older man by Vittorio Gassman.) Carlo grows up into a careful, non­ adventurous man, as befits his status as an observer.

The one great tragedy in his life was a love affair with a vital, exotic woman (Fanny Ardant); but he gave her up, and married her simple sister (Stefania Sandrelli) instead. He is happy in his marriage and yet, sometimes he wonders. . . .

He is always surrounded by colorful family members, such as the three nutty aunts who spend their lives bickering, as by ritual; the ne’er-­do-well younger brother, who will be a lifelong pain in the neck and who eventually writes a book called Waste: A Life Story; the good son who touchingly realizes he’s the dull­ witted one in the family.

Scola saunters through the 80 years in just a little over two hours, sometimes threatening sketchiness but almost always capturing the crucial times. The conversations in the movie frequently take place while the characters are eating, or engaged in some other ritual of day-­to-day living, as though to emphasize the power of small realities as opposed to large historical events.

Scola’s finest work comes in the sequence when Carlo finds himself alone in the house with his old flame. Their connection is still strong, but she leaves his life in just the way she left it many years before, with a painful walk down the stairway (the only two times we see that part of the house). It’s moments such as these that create the rich atmosphere alive within those old walls.

First published in the Herald, December 1987

Scola had a long and successful career, all right, including the 1974 film We All Loved Each Other So Much. This film has not left a lasting impression on me, but I like the sound of the subplot with Fanny Ardant.

The Fourth Man

January 7, 2020

fourthmanThe Fourth Man is a nutty Dutch exercise in paranoia and fantasy, served up by a director who – for want of able competition as much as his own talent – has distinguished himself as by far the most interesting Dutch filmmaker working today.

His name is Paul Verhoeven, and he’s been represented on local screens in recent years with Spetters and the very popular Soldier of Orange, which was something of a breakthrough film for Verhoeven and the Dutch cinema in general.

Verhoeven’s talent seems coherent and fluid without being particularly visionary, but when I heard that his new film, The Fourth Man, was a far-out excursion into excess and bad taste, my hopes were raised that he might push himself into more imaginatively vivid filmmaking.

The Fourth Man succeeds in this, though not quite as far as one might have hoped. It’s got bad taste and outrageousness galore, but by the time it ends, you feel it’s just starting to explore the possibilities it raises.

But it’s certainly fun while it lasts. The main character – and the person through whose sensibility the film is filtered – is a Catholic homosexual writer (Jeroen Krabbe) who is subject to strange daydreams involving Catholicism and bloodshed. He’s been engaged by a literary society to give a lecture about his books, and he travels to the seminar and spends the night with the treasurer of the society (Renee Soutendijk). He has these weird dreams that Soutendijk takes a pair of scissors and, well, emasculates him during the night. Naturally, he regards her a bit oddly the next day. Then he starts to suspect her of murdering her previous husbands (she’s had three), and he fears, with increasing anxiety, that he may be the next victim – the fourth man.

Verhoeven presents this mad tale as a feverishly funny bad dream. He fills the movie with little clues and details that seem to be part of a monstrous, interlocking pattern – some lurid destiny that this man sees coming but cannot avoid (Krabbe gives a properly haunted, end-of-his-rope performance).

Verhoeven teases us to such an extent that we never do know whether this enigmatic woman is really the devouring spider Krabbe thinks she is. For all that we see, outside of his masochistic fantasies, she’s a normal woman who’s happened to have unnaturally bad luck with her husbands – one fell out of an airplane, one was devoured by a lion, one was run over by a boat.

We see the preludes to all these “accidents” via Soutendijk’s home movies. When you see husband No. 2, grinning stupidly in home-movie amateurishness, get out of his car and amble over to a lion in a safari park – all the while waving around a juicy slab of meat – you begin to understand just how gleefully perverse this film is.

First published in the Herald, June 7, 1985

Obviously, Verhoeven needed some kind of introduction in ’85. I liked his Hollywood career-to-come better than than his Dutch films, but The Fourth Man is a movie that clearly needs re-visiting.

Full Moon Over Paris

January 6, 2020

fullmoonparisTwo decades after the French New Wave sent the film world spinning, director Eric Rohmer continues to be one of the leading lights of the world cinema. His erudite films consist primarily of people having witty conversations, through which they discover things about themselves. Or just as likely, fail to discover things about themselves.

That approach explains a line in Night Moves when Gene Hackman sighs, “Yeah, I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kinda like watchin’ paint dry.” Ah, but there are many coats of paint in a Rohmer movie, and peeling off each one is part of the reward.

Full Moon in Paris is Rohmer’s latest entry in a series he calls “Comedies and Proverbs.” (His most recent movies – both lovely – were Le Beau Mariage and Pauline at the Beach.) The proverb that begins this movie is: “He who has two women loses his soul. He who has two houses loses his mind.”

This is a story about a woman (Pascale Ogier) who refuses to heed the advice of the proverb. She shares a suburban home with her lover (Tcheky Karyo), but he’s a stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t like to go out. She does, so she decides to keep a Paris apartment as well as the home. When in Paris, she hobnobs with her intellectual (and platonic) friend, a married man (Fabrice Luchini); they attend parties and happily dance the night away.

By all rights, she feels – without a hint of duplicity or ill will – that she should be able to have things both ways. But her Paris evenings turn out to be a little lonelier than she anticipated, and her suburban lover may not be as sure a thing as she thought.

Out of this slim concept, Rohmer spins his conversations. His people rarely say what they mean, and they rarely do what they say, but they all mean well – and they all head, however haltingly, toward some gently moral conclusion.

It’s a wry, amusing movie, even though Rohmer disdains flashiness and bellylaughs (unlike many lesser French comedies). The low-key nature of his comedy of observation probably explains the fact that Full Moon Over Paris has been booked for just a week ‘s run at the Harvard Exit, rather than an open-ended engagement.

There is an element to this Rohmer production that adds an eerie melancholy. It surrounds Pascale Ogier, the 24-year-old daughter of veteran French actress Bulle Ogier. She’s a typically offbeat-looking Rohmer heroine, and she gives a wonderful performance in the first of what should have been many leading roles for her.

Sadly, she died shortly after the film’s initial release. She had been attending a party in Paris and went to sleep at a friend’s apartment – perhaps she was very like the character she plays – where she died of undetermined causes. Her promise as an actress fills the screen, and the knowledge of her tragic death lends the movie, as wise and delightful as it already is, an extra layer of moodiness. She was awarded the Venice Film Festival Best Actress award for this film a few weeks before her death.

First published in the Herald, 1985

IMDb says Pascal Ogier died of a drug overdose, the day before her 26th birthday. That poignancy aside, I remember feeling this was a minor Rohmer. But the movie sounds great in description, and I should watch it again, given my high regard for this (in recent years apparently disprized) filmmaker.



Chances Are

December 18, 2019

chancesareA real old-fashioned movie-movie, Chances Are is a welcome addition to the dismal Hollywood scene. It’s not a great film, but it is refreshing to see a traditional comedy format being smartly reworked by people who seem to care about the material.

A prologue, set in Washington, in 1963, shows the marriage of a young couple, their gushy happiness, and then the early death of the husband. But the husband doesn’t take his death lying down; in heaven (the customary version, with dry ice and jazz music) he demands that his spirit be reincarnated as soon as possible, so he can find his wife again. He’s promptly deposited into a newborn baby.

Jump ahead to the present day. The widow, Corrine (Cybill Shepherd), has been constant; never been with another man, despite the faithful and gentlemanly love of her best friend, Philip (Ryan O’Neal), who quite naturally pines for her.

Meanwhile, that same baby boy into whose mortal coil the dead husband’s spirit has shuffled, is now a young man: Alex (Robert Downey Jr.), a bright-eyed journalism student, who is brought to Corrine’s doorstep through a series of clever coincidences.

Alex doesn’t remember his past life – not yet – but he does know there’s something awfully familiar about Corrine’s house. Why, for instance, is he so sure the corn-holders are in the second drawer on the left?

One of the movie’s funniest sequences has Alex suddenly remembering who he was, and becoming very nervous about his attraction to this older woman, to say nothing of his ambivalent feelings about her – and his – college-age daughter (Mary Stuart Masterson).

Obviously, there are elements of such reincarnation classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven can Wait, and Made in Heaven. Director Emile Ardolino, in his first outing since the megahit Dirty Dancing, attempts to conjure some of the magical qualities of those films, and largely succeeds.

And this movie has romance to burn: tuxedos and evening gowns, a waltz to the sounds of a carousel, the Johnny Mathis theme song. The presence of Shepherd and O’Neal evokes a certain bygone style of Hollywood glamour, while the nimble performance of Robert Downey Jr., in his best role since The PickUp Artist, keeps the film lively. For the first time, Downey seems like a real leading man, charming and disciplined; his reactions as he twirls an enormous society matron around the dance floor at a fund-raising ball are evidence of some impeccable comic instincts.

The screenplay is by the sister team of Randy and Perry Howze, who also wrote Mystic Pizza. Aside from a disposable subplot about a corrupt judge it’s a nice piece of work; everything that gets set up in the deliberate, unhurried prologue has a payoff somewhere down the line. That sort of care brings the most satisfying results.

First published in the Herald, March 1989

It seems to have slipped off the radar, and I don’t think it was a big hit at the time. If I’m remembering right, I interviewed Ardolino for this film, and he clearly had a feel for movies, especially classic comedies. He died in 1993 from AIDS complications. Downey is terrific in this film, but so is Ryan O’Neal, displaying the gentler side of his screen persona. So the Howze sisters wrote three movies, and this is their final IMDb credit; what happened to them?