Play Misty for Me

Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut ages surprisingly well. Working on both sides of the camera for the first time, he was able to craft a Hitchcockian thriller with the sexual tension and intensity that Hitchcock always wanted to include in his films, but was not allowed to by censors until nearly the end of his career. Today the romantic montages in Play Misty for Me seem a bit dated and out of place, but women’s lib, gay lib, and the sexual revolution were all in recent memory at the time, and all of these social changes find their way into the script, with various levels of success. The gay art dealer seems offensive and one-dimensional today, and was probably included as a way to show that Clint’s character was down with his gay friend as well as his black maid, but at least there was a clearly gay character in a Hollywood film, something that would not have been possible even five years earlier.

The famous scene shot at the Monterey Jazz Festival was clearly a homage to Eastwood’s love of music, but is also a clever way to make a crucial plot point less obvious. In other words, the directorial decisions were artistic and well thought out, rather than amateurish.

Waitress

This is a delightful film that is told wholly from the perspective of Jenna (Keri Russell), a waitress in a pie dinner in a Southern town who despises her domineering husband and naturally isn’t exactly thrilled when she learns that she is pregnant. Her coworkers (Cheryl Hines and director/screenwriter Adrienne Shelly) are a source of both support and stress as they try to give her the best advice they can. When Jenna launches a passionate affair with her handsome obstetrician (Nathan Fillion), she copes with the emotional turmoil in her life by baking pies, of which she invents a new one every day. The whole film is well shot, but the baking scenes are especially effective for portraying Jenna’s state of mind. Jenna’s oddball relationship with the dinner’s curmudgeonly owner Old Joe (a surprisingly sharp Andy Griffith) recalls the early films of Hal Hartley, where director Shelly got her start. “Oh I love living vicariously through the pain and suffering of others,” Old Joe says in one scene. Yet Waitress comes across as much more alive than any of Hartley’s films.

The tragic death of Adrienne Shelly, who was senselessly murdered in her New York office during post-production, unfortunately casts a pall across her last work, but this well-crafted film shows her at the peak of her talents as a writer and director.

Yuki & Nina

Yuki & Nina is a beautiful film and my only regret after seeing it was knowing that it would probably never be seen by a wide audience. Yuki (Noë Sampy) is a 9-year-old girl living with her Japanese mother and French father (played co-writer and co-director Hippolyte Girardot, who is directing for the first time). When her mother tells her that she and her father are separating and she is taking the girl to Japan to live, Yuki launches a campaign to keep her parents together with the help of her best friend Nina (Arielle Moutel), who lives with her divorced mother. The anonymous letters they write to the parents don’t work, so they decide to run away to the empty country home of Nina’s father, hoping their absence will draw the worried parents together. When a curious neighbor comes around, the girls get scared and flee to the woods. At this point, this ultra-naturalistic film takes a turn toward magical realism, as Yuki is separated from her friend and, running through the French woods, inexplicably finds herself in the Japanese countryside. The unstrained performances by the child actors allow the directors to show everything from their perspective, but it is the ambiguous storytelling that makes this a wonderful film.

Co-director Nobuhiro Suwa, who previously directed a sequence in Paris, je t’aime,  happened to be in the audience when I saw this film and did a short Q&A after the screening. As might have been expected, someone asked him to explain the magical realist segments in absolute terms. “Was it real or was it a dream?” The director expertly skirted a clear answer. “Of course it was real,” he said. “We had to take the actors and the crew to that location in order to capture it on film. If we didn’t do that, it wouldn’t be in the film”

The Q&A session was rather short, and I didn’t get a chance to ask a question, but when my friends and I spotted Suwa schmoozing with fans in the lobby, I asked him what it was like to make a film with another director. “Of course it is much easier to make one alone,” he said. “Living alone, for example, is much easier. Living together with someone is difficult. But if you living together there are a lot of things you can do that you can’t do if you live alone.” Suwa sited the scene in which Yuki’s mother (Tsuyu) reads the anonymous letter Yuki as written and breaks down in tears in front of the child. The adult actor’s performance is realistic and deeply moving. The child seems uncomfortable, and looks nervously off to the side, and almost seems to crack a smile at one point. Suwa related that he and Girardot argued for hours over whether to use this take or not. Girardot felt that Sampy had broken character, while Suwa’s position was that a child actually placed in such a situation would likely act the same way. Suwa obviously won the argument, as the take remains in the film.

Groundhog Day

Back when I was in college, I started to get really into Hitchcock and classic Hollywood, and as a result had almost zero interest in contemporary Hollywood products. I saw Pulp Fiction (1994) only at the insistence of friends, and reluctantly went to Shawshank Redemption (1994), which I found to be a waste of time at that point in my life and probably would today. When someone recommended Groundhog Day, which was already a couple years old at the time, I thought there would be no way I could enjoy it. A few years ago, a roommate practically forced me to watch it, and, like Harold and Maude (1971), it was a film that not only changed the way I think about movies, but changed the way I think about life. Of course I am far from the first to be effected this way by Groundhog Day.

The plot is well known, but to summarize: Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an egotistical weatherman from Pittsburgh goes to Puxatony to cover Groundhog’s Day, an annual assignment he despises almost as much as he looks down upon the town locals. His bad day becomes worse when he and his crew are snowed in and forced to spend another night in the small town. Although the reason is never explained and really doesn’t need to be, Phil beginnings reliving the same day over and over again, which he remembers but no one else does. After trying suicide, throwing caution to the wind with all imaginable forms of excess, and using his situation to take advantage of other people, Phil finally decides to use his unique predicament to improve himself and help others.

The film is doubtlessly the most spiritual film ever to come out of a Hollywood studio. The story touches on themes of self-improvement by turning outward to help others, spiritual transcendence, Buddhist concepts of selflessness and rebirth. The central theme echoes and idea presented in Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist: “When each day is the same as the next, it’s because people fail to recognize the good things that happen in their lives every day that the sun rises.”

Of course Groundhog Day is also a Bill Murray film, meaning it is very funny with the potential to be deeply touching, such as the scene in which he tries desperately to save the life of a homeless man, and fails, having to accept the inevitable cycle of life and the limitations of his powers.

The Price of Milk

The Price of Milk is simply a lovely film that is very much a part of New Zealand cinema in its quirkiness, at the same time seeming to belong to the South American brand of magic realism, as well as Russian traditional folk tales. The story starts with Lucinda (Danielle Cormack) and her fiancee Rob (Karl Urban) living a quiet, idyllic life on their dairy farm in rural New Zealand. When Lucinda fears the spark is going out of their relationship, her best friend Drosophila (Willa O’Neill) advises her to start an argument with Rob in order to add a little tension. Lucida begins to pull pranks, including ruining a $1,500 vat of milk by taking a swim in it, all of which fails to anger Rob, as he is so crazy about her.

Meanwhile, Lucinda’s prized quilt disappears during the night, and when she discovers a Maori woman and her team of golf playing nephews is using her quilt, she swaps Rob’s cows for it. Rob is quite literally left speechless, and leaves her. It is at this point that the story turns to magic realism, with several beautifully filmed shots symbolizing Lucinda being dragged down by her problems. The quilt takes on a special significance as it moves back and forth between Lucinda and the Maori woman. The parallel to Russian folk tales, with an old woman met by chance in the woods attempting to teach a moral the hard way is underscored by the soundtrack, selections from Anatol Liadov, Nikolai Tcherepnin and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

Father Goose

Nearing the end of a very long career playing debonair, impeccably-dress gentleman, Cary Grant must have relished his role in Father Goose, in which he plays as a drunk, slightly crude, slob who doesn’t own a necktie and doesn’t have a care in the world. Indeed, the actor said in interviews that this was the closest to his personality of all the roles of his long career.

Grant plays Walter Eckland, an American who has been drifting aimlessly around the South Pacific, when an old friend (Trevor Howard), who is now a commander in the Royal British Navy, convinces him to work as a coast spotter, living on an isolated island while keeping a look out for Japanese fighter planes. When Eckland is sent to a neighboring island to pick up another spotter, he finds that the man has died in an attack on the island, and in his place he finds a number of young European girls and their very prim and proper French teacher (Leslie Caron). Plot-wise, the rest of the film is pretty predictable and echoes The African Queen (1951), but Grant and Caron have good on-screen chemistry, which makes this entertaining enough.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil

Silver Streak, and to a slightly lesser extent Stir Crazy, are films I have have loved since seeing them on TV as a kid. And so I was expecting to be somewhat disappointed by the the later films of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. I got what I expected. Wilder and Pryor play a deaf newstand manager and a blind gambling addict who together see and hear a crime being committed and get embroiled in a plot by some very ’80s villains played by Kevin Spacey and Joan Severance. At least we get to hear Richard Pryor say “asshole” a lot, something at which he excels.

The Woman in Red

This Gene Wilder-directed film was made at a time when romantic comedies could still actually be good, albeit at the very end of that era, just before the whole genre became completely formulaic. The film opens with shots of the San Francisco skyline that eventually pan over to a shot of Gene Wilder standing on the window ledge of a penthouse in a luxury apartment building (where Madeline lived in Hitchcock’s Vertigo), wondering how he got there. The story rewinds four weeks, to the day this advertising executive first spotted the titular character. Although Wilder casts himself, pal Charles Grodin and wife Gilda Radner,this is by no means a mere vanity project. Wilder crafts an engaging study of a mid-life crisis with characters the audience can care about. Wilder’s character deliberates over plunging into an affair with the woman in red while his two best friends go through marital strife and his own wife reveals her high-strung jealous side, making one of the better films ever on the mid-life crisis.

The Great Train Robbery

This Sean Connery vehicle was directed by Michael Crichton and based on his own novel, which in turn was loosely based on a real train robbery that captured the imagination of Victorian England in 1855. Victorian life and the criminal underbelly of England were obviously meticulously researched by Crichton, who delights in adding his own details to the historical thieves who remorselessly hid behind a thin veneer of respectability. As a crime/suspense film, it is not particular shocking, and other than a few masterfully filmed sequences, it is not especially suspenseful. But there is something delightful in watching Connery and Donald Sutherland play dress up and talk in Victorian criminal slang, a light approach to the crime drama complemented by Jerry Goldsmith’s mischievous score.

The Honeymoon Killers

So much has already been written about this cult classic, the real-life serial killers whose story the film closely follows, and the shoestring production, with director Martin Scorsese fired shortly into filming as he was spending far too much time on each shoot. As there is not much new to say, at least I can add that I am thankful that there is enough interest in cult films for them to get rediscovered, restored, re-released and eventually find their way onto a screen in front of me.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

Even though I never saw it, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas made a strong impression on me when I was a kid.

Colin Higgins is best known for the script of the cult classic Harold & Maude (1971), which he wrote as his masters’ thesis in screenwriting. Higgins sadly died young  of AIDS in 1988, but not before writing and later directing a handful of films that, in my mind at least, define the late ’70s and early ’80s, including Silver Streak (1976), Foul Play (1978), Nine to Five (1980), and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I remember seeing the cover for the BetaMax video of this film on the top shelf of the video store I was sometimes taken to as a kid, and later not being allowed to see it when it played on TV.

Finally seeing it for the first time, it lived up to my expectations. The staging of the musical numbers is campy almost beyond belief, the dialogue is corny, and when a few serious topics are touched upon, they are dealt with in the most superficial of ways. What can I say? I love this film. As in 9 to 5, Dolly Parton does her best to put in a professional performance, and Burt Reynolds was at stage of his career when he actually still had some charm.

Haunted Honeymoon

This Gene Wilder-directed oddity falls into the genre of ’80s comedy-horror films such as Transylvania 6-500 (1985) and The Private Eyes (1980). Haunted Honeymoon, set in the 1940s and filmed in England, is clearly the best of the bunch, with excellent cinematography and an atmospheric score. The fact that Wilder previously starred in the greatest comedy-horror film of all time, Young Frankenstein (1974), can make this seem like a pale imitation, but there is plenty to enjoy here. Dom Deluise’s turn as Aunt Kate is completely over the top in each and every scene, but far from being a defect, his campy performance is actually the highlight of the film.