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Comedy Romance

Annie Hall

Given how many weak movies make a lot of money and garner a pile of laurels, it is particularly satisfying when justice is done and a magnificent film is a hit both with audiences and critics. So it was with 1977’s Best Picture Oscar winner Annie Hall.

The plot is straightforward. A neurotic Jewish comedian from Brooklyn who is a lot like Woody Allen falls in love with a kooky, lovely, endearing Wisconsin girl who is a lot like Diane Keaton. He educates her about his hang-ups, psychoanalysis, death, and ethnic baggage. She educates him about how to lighten up and enjoy life. But it doesn’t last. And then it is on again. And then it is off again. And along the way the audience laughs very hard many, many times. As in Shakespeare plays, there isn’t much new here story-wise, but the execution is an inspiration.

Director/Star Woody Allen was at the time known as a sharp stand-up comedian and a maker of funny, lightweight movies (e.g., Take the Money and Run). No one but Woody knew that he also had the ability to make extremely personal, affecting films with strong dramatic moments combined with his trademark hilarity. This movie launched a new phase of his career which has produced many artistic triumphs.

And as for Keaton, I once quoted former Stanford University President Gerhard Casper saying that “falling in love with Audrey Hepburn was an essential, civilizing experience for all human beings“. For a subsequent generation, the same could have been said of Diane Keaton. Men wanted to take care of her and women wanted to dress like her and a have a cool New York apartment like her. Allen puts incredible faith in Keaton, letting the camera roll and roll as she is alone on screen in several key scenes, and she delivers every time.

I can’t close without posting one of the most famous bits from the film (it ruins nothing of the story), which highlights Allen’s endearingly hostile wit, his chronic and effective breaking of the fourth wall, and his on screen chemistry with his amazing co-star.

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Action/Adventure Drama Romance Science Fiction / Fantasy

Excalibur

As a filmmaker, John Boorman really goes for it. He has an idiosyncratic perspective on the diverse material he films, and carries it to the limit. Sometimes this has led to abject disaster (e.g., the incomprehensible, pretentious and unintentionally risible Zardoz). But more often than not Boorman’s courage as a filmmaker has resulted in fresh, exciting cinema, such as Point Blank, one of the very best films I have recommended on this site. 1981’s Excalibur is almost as strong and every bit as original as that classic.

Excalibur re-tells the hoary tale of King Arthur, his wizard/mentor Merlin, his knights of the round table and his tragic love triangle with Guinevere and Lancelot. Boorman keeps roughly to the classic Malory version of the story, but tells it in his own inimitable way, with bloody battles, plenty of sex, and even at times a bit of camp (some of the over-the-top moments may have drawn a few chuckles that Boorman didn’t intend). Excalibur illustrates beautifully how a talented artist can breathe new life into familiar material.

The most memorable character in the film is Merlin, played with gusto by Nicol Williamson, who gives the most eccentric portrayal of an Arthurian Wizard since John Cleese essayed Tim the Enchanter. His Merlin is a cranky, cryptic, wise and powerful oddball who alternates between helping his human charges (First Uther Pendragon and then his son Arthur) and upbraiding them for their frailties. The film develops his rivalry/romance with Morgana le Fay more than has any other Arthurian adaptation, which was a wise move given that the ageless and subtle actress Helen Mirren is on hand to play the enchantress who longs for King Arthur’s downfall.

Excalibur Movie Review

The production values are spectacular and the battle scenes feel real. Rather than people leaping around in plate mail whilst nimbly fencing with longswords, the combat is often slow and clunky. Indeed, the actors visibly strain under the weight of their weapons and armor. Also to admire: Future superstars (Patrick Stewart, Liam Neeson) giving solid performances as knights. Cherie Lunghi and Nicholas Gray also register as the doomed lovers Guinevere and Lancelot, and it’s a shame their film careers didn’t take off after this movie was made.

Ultimately of course, this is Boorman’s movie, and whether it captivates you or not depends directly on whether you are willing to travel along with him as he develops his personal vision of Le Morte d’Arthur. Most viewers will find that while there are a few bumps on that journey, it’s an immensely rewarding trip with one of Britain’s great filmmakers.

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Action/Adventure Romance Science Fiction / Fantasy

Superman

The undeniable wonder of Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman can be summed up in one word: Reverence. For decades, comic book fans were dismayed by movie and TV adaptations of the heroic stories with which they grew up. Producers and writers seemed to feel that the material couldn’t stand up on its own. Rather, it had to be made campy (Holy Evil Menace Batman!) or have asinine new characters added or adopt an ironic or juvenile tone. What Donner and Producers Alexander Salkind, Ilya Salkind and Pierre Spengler understood is that the reason untold millions of people around the world love Superman is that it’s a thrilling story with an inspiring central character. In short, it didn’t need some Hollywood type to change it, it needed someone to take it seriously on its own terms and produce it with a real budget and good actors. The result is a superb movie without which many subsequent, highly entertaining comic book hero films (e.g., Spiderman, Captain America, Iron Man) would be unthinkable.

The filmmakers’ respect for the source material is evident in the very first frame, during which a little girl reads some lines from Action Comics #1 (Superman’s 1938 debut) as the velvet curtains of an old style theater open. The camera then glides past the Daily Planet building into outer space, where the audience is treated to a whooshing credit sequence and John Williams’ thrilling, majestic score. This sequence doesn’t typically get discussed when critics debate the best film openings, which I view as rank snobbery: It’s transcendent.

The Superman story is then lovingly told, from his origins on the doomed planet Krypton, to his escape to Earth and his Midwest Americana childhood with Ma and Pa Kent (Love these scenes: old pros Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter ease comfortably into the roles of the Kent parents and newcomer Jeff East nicely conveys what it would be like to combine adolescent awkwardness and emotional pangs with budding superpowers). Then of course, Superman moves to Metropolis to work under the guise of a mild-mannered reporter at the Daily Planet, sweetly romances Lois Lane (Margot Kidder, a good choice for the part) and battles the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman, having and being a good time, while also being appropriately callous).

Superman Movie Review | Movie Reviews Simbasible

The most unforgettable set piece is Lois Lane’s helicopter disaster, which triggers Superman’s (Christopher Reeve) first appearance. But the romantic scenes and the closing sequence during a massive, Luthor-induced earthquake, are also welcome crowd pleasers.

Though Superman is an uncynical hero who believes in truth, justice and the American Way, and has been sent to Earth from the heavens by his father to save humanity (ahem), this is far from a self-serious film. I still remember vividly the explosion of laughter in the theater when Reeve looks at a modern phone “booth” when he needs to change into costume for the first time. The rapid-fire scenes with Jackie Cooper (as Editor Perry White) and the team at the Daily Planet are also a great deal of fun, almost a bit of Front Page-style screwball comedy interspersed with the overall adventure story. Valerie Perrine and Ned Beatty get some laughs as Luthor’s half-witted assistants. Look fast also for an amusing cameo by Donner as a guy on the street who isn’t sure he believes a man can fly.

Geoffrey Unsworth works miracles combining special effects and live action shots on this film as well as its sequel, Superman II, which was filmed at the same time and is dedicated to his memory (For other film recommendations featuring this gifted cinematographer, see my prior film recommendations here and here). Unsworth’s contribution is one of many reasons why Superman is not just an outstanding movie adaptation of a comic book; it’s a outstanding movie, full stop.

As a closing note, Superman was unquestionably the defining film of Christopher Reeve’s career, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine the movie without him. He passed away in 2004, even more of an inspiration in life than he was as the Man of Steel.

Categories
Drama Romance

Flirting

Adolescence includes aches (loneliness, alienation from adults, sexual longing) and joys (first love, treasured friendship and music). Few films have portrayed both classes of teenage experience as warmly and intelligently as the 1991’s Flirting.

Due to an execrable U.S. advertising campaign, which misrepresented the film as a sniggering teen sex comedy from “those crazy blokes down under” (I cannot bring myself to post the trailer) this Australian gem barely opened in the U.S. and when it did mostly the wrong people saw it. But a precious handful of people outside of Oz have found this excellent film and continue quite properly to point others to it. Having been so blessed by a friend some years ago, I wish to pay it forward here with the strongest possible recommendation that you give this excellent movie a look.

Writer-Director John Duigan sets his story in two boarding schools that stare at each other (like their residents) across a lovely lake. In the boys’ school, anxious, stammering Danny Embling (sweetly played by Noah Taylor) is being ground down by sadistic masters and bullying classmates. Meanwhile, a student from Uganda, Thandiwe Adjewa (the luminous star-to-be Thandie Newton), is getting a cold welcome at the girls’ school. Yet as is so often the case, the underdogs attract a stout friend or two, and are also drawn irresistibly to each other. Taylor and Newton have great chemistry on screen, and you will be rooting for their budding romance from the very first.

The other central character is the alpha girl of Thandiwe’s school, played to perfection by a pre-fame Nicole Kidman. Initially imperious and frosty, she eventually reveals more accessible layers beneath, particularly in the superb scene after she catches Thandiwe sneaking back into the school after a rendezvous with Danny.

Many of the plot elements and themes here are familiar (Rebel Without a Cause is one a zillion films to tread similar ground). But it wasn’t fresh plots that made Shakespeare the Immortal Bard, it was what he did with them. With its wisdom, sensitivity and wit, Flirting turns the usual coming-of-age story into an fresh and inspiring experience that is not to be missed.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Comedy Horror/Suspense Romance

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps (1935)

Alfred Hitchcock had a successful directing career in Britain that preceded his American super-stardom. Hitchcock fans rightfully consider the 1935 comedy-romance-thriller The 39 Steps among the very best works of the Master’s “British period”.

Robert Donat cuts a dash as Mr. Hannay, the hero of the film, who tries to save England from the threat of nefarious and crafty foreign agents. As in other Hitchcock films (e.g., North by Northwest, The Wrong Man, The Man Who Knew Too Much,), the central character is an innocent who is pulled into a web of intrigue and danger which he doesn’t understand. But unlike in those darker films, it doesn’t seem to bother him a jot.

“Did this beautiful woman just fire a gun in a crowded theater to evade her pursuers and then tell me that she is an international spy for hire? Well then, let’s go back to my flat for a large whiskey and soda and I’ll cook her up some haddock while she tells me all about it.”

“I seem to have walked into a political rally focused on I know not what and I have been mistaken for the distinguished guest speaker. Well then, jolly good, I’ll give it a go.”

“Am I really handcuffed to yet another beautiful woman as I run through the Scottish Highlands with people trying to shoot me? Well then, I wonder if she’s married or at least broad-minded.”

Categories
Comedy Romance

The Court Jester

Sometimes comedy in the movies gets a bit ahead of current cultural tastes. But the joy of TV re-runs, DVDs, streaming, and the like is that as audience sensibilities catch up, a film whose wit eluded people at the time of its release can be recognized as a comedy classic.

This has been the fate of several big name comedy films made in the 1950s, including the Truman Capote-scripted Beat the Devil, a dud at the time now regarded as a cult classic. An even better example, and one that should be in every discussion of the best comedy scripts in Hollywood history, is 1956’s The Court Jester. A big budget bomb at the time, this film is now deservedly recognized as a complete delight, for laughs, for music, and for a tour-de-force performance by the amazing Danny Kaye.

The chortle-filled script of Co-Producer/Directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, like those of Monty Python and The Simpsons much later, piles jokes on top of each other without seeming to mind if many viewers miss some of them. In the typical 1950s comedy film, the dialogue about how “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle” would be THE joke of that scene. And, at one level, that would have been fine, because the wordplay by itself is gutbusting. But why not have Danny Kaye’s armor struck by lightning, causing it to magnetize, to throw some physical comedy on top of the verbal jokes? And again, Python-style, why have boring credits when you could put a bunch of sight gags and a ridiculous song in there as well?

The film is set in Olde England, where crafty royals, dastardly nobles, and noble craftys all involve themselves in the succession of the king. Thrown into the mix is Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) a song-and-dance man who gets intertwined with the plotting and repeatedly gets mistaken for someone else in situations of romance and peril. There is swordplay, there are castles and jousts, there are $4 million in production values (which was a lot of money in the 1950s).

But plot schmott, this is film as fun. And who could be of greater service in that endeavour than Danny Kaye, in one of his finest moments as an entertainer? He handles the physical and verbal humor equally well, seems at home both in the dueling scenes and in romantic moments, and sings and dances as well. Because he doesn’t seem to be taking anything too seriously, it’s very easy to laugh along with him.

Basil Rathbone, as the villainous Lord Ravenhurst, gamely mocks his role in another of my recommendations, The Adventures of Robin Hood. He is an absolute hoot and the final fate of his character is priceless. Mildred Natwick is so funny that I literally cried from watching her expressions and listening to her delivery of great comic lines. And Angela Lansbury, as a besotted adolescent of a princess, shows great comic touch.

We sometimes say “They don’t make ’em like that any more”. But this film deserves a higher compliment, which is that they didn’t make ’em like that then, but they learned how by watching groundbreaking films like this.

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