North by Northwest (1959)

It’s probably only interesting to me and a few other nerds that Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick both have seven films in IMDB’s top 250. Of course, seven films represents over half of Kubrick’s output and only a little over 10% of Hitchcock’s, and there probably isn’t another director that has had a run like Hitch’s from the late ’40s to the early ’60s (unless it’s Alfred Hitchcock from the late ’30s to the late ’40s). And North By Northwest is considered in his top 5 films along with Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954) and Dial “M” for Murder (1954). I’m pretty sure nobody else has made two top 250 films in the same year .

He's not fighting this that hard, really.
No matter how much they had to drink.

The funny thing, though, about rewatching this film is that I was a little underwhelmed. And I think The Boy was, too. The Flower and The Boy’s Girl loved it, but this is where being a cinephile can have its downside. We (the Boy and I) both noticed the sparing use of music, and in places where music would’ve definitely improved things, like the cropduster sequence. The lack of music is positively odd there.

My theory on this, for a long time now, is that Hitch simply resented the brilliant musicians he worked with because they were geniuses who were not him. I don’t find this as sinister as my college music-for-TV-and-film prof (David Raksin) did. (Oh, he could rant about that “fat, old man”, he could, and understandably.) But Hitch was a guy (like Kubrick) who wanted to control every aspect of his film. He did not view filmmaking as a “team effort” even though it most certainly must be. I’ve heard it said that he made Psycho to prove he could make a movie without a story and The Birds to prove he could make one without acting (though I’m not sure either charge is justified).

But, hey, Hitch was in England during WWI. Maybe he had experience.
I always felt like Grant’s straight line running would be especially ineffective as a defense against a biplane attack.

Anyway. It’s still a great movie. A momentary misunderstanding leads to Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill being mistaken for a mysterious spy and abducted by evildoers working for James Mason and Martin Landau (in one of the great “heavy” roles), and the subsequent insanity requires him to flee in search of the real man he’s been mistaken for. On his journey he crosses paths with Eva Marie Saint (On The Waterfront) who just throws herself at him in one of the great screen romances.

I swear to God, every time I see this film, I have the same reaction. “Holy cow, Eve is throwing herself at him.” She doesn’t just flirt aggressively, but virtually challenges him to bed her down right then with the cops breathing down their necks. And then I think, “Well, he’s Cary Grant. That’s probably how it would go down.” And then she gets even more aggressive. And then I remember (after the film reminds me) that this is all part of the plot, a la Notorious. Nothing in this movie is an accident or just sloppy, of course.

James Mason is not amused.
Though I don’t recall this groping scene.

The other thing that gets me, every time, is the ending. I forget which filmmaker was talking about this, but he worked with Roger Corman, and he wanted to have a bit of exposition at the end of his film, to which The Corman said, “Monster’s dead. Movie’s over.” Hitch was the king of MDMO: In this film there aren’t thirty seconds between Eve slipping from Roger’s fingers to the train dalliance that the film ends on. It’s astounding. Dial “M” for Murder is another one like that:

“Take him away!”

(combs mustache)

The End.

Psycho is the exception and its lengthy post-Mother-mortem is a little hard to watch these days when of course we all know what psychotic mother-phobic slasher killers have going on in their crazy noggins.

At two-hours-and-fifteen minutes, this film still flies and is still fun with all its twist-and-turns. I’m just not sure if I’d rank it as highly today as I would’ve when I first saw it, or if it was just a mood thing. I could certainly watch it again, however, which probably tells you all you need to know.

But it would be in the shape of a giant gold top hat on Lincoln's head.
Sadly, there’s no actual house atop of Mount Rushmore. I feel like Donald Trump would live there, if there were.

Manchester By The Sea

I was on the fence about this one. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s last film (as auteur) was Margaret, which I did not see.  His prior film was 2000’s You Can Count On Me, which is what won me over, at least up to the box office window. YCCOM was a morose little film with Laura Linney and a relatively unknown Mark Ruffalo (playing the only role he’d ever play) as brother and sister whose lives were a wreck due to having suddenly lost their parents at a young age. Linney’s fragile life is upended when Ruffalo suddenly shows up after a long absence, and there’s virtually no chance of a “Hollywood” ending because It’s Just Not That Kind Of Movie.

Things Casey Affleck has never said.
“A screwball comedy, you say?”

But, here’s the thing: There’s a big difference between morose and nihilistic which Lonergan seems to appreciate really well. His characters are motivated out of concern for each other, and they’re trying to do the best they can but are just overwhelmed by the past. This tends to make a movie much more watchable than one about mostly functional people who treat each other badly, at least for me.

That brings us to today’s feature, Manchester By The Sea. Casey Affleck is Lee, a guy living a meager life as a handyman in Boston, who he gets word that his brother died and (inexplicably to Lee) puts him in charge of his nephew, Patrick. The movie is basically Lee’s struggle regarding what to do with Patrick. We are immediately tantalized with a flashback showing Lee and Patrick getting along famously on a fishing boat with Patrick’s father, Joe (Kyle Chandler, Zero Dark Thirty, Carol) at the helm, so the question becomes “What the hell happened to cause this split?”

Then we get flashbacks of Joe’s heart problem and bitchy wife (Gretchen Mol, 3:10 To YumaThe Notorious Bettie Page) and of Lee’s happy home life with salty-but-warm Michelle Williams and his three beautiful childr—

OHMYGODWHEREAREHISWIFEANDCHILDREN!?!?!

Which, no, they haven't.
Eaten by sharks, if movies have taught me anything.

Yeah. So. Best case scenario when you see this flashback, which is very early, is a bitter divorce that ruined Lee. But you know it’s not going to be anything that prosaic. Lee is a walking ruin. And where the hell is Patrick’s mother?

That’s your movie, right there. We live through Lee’s tragedy to understand where he’s coming from, but, as with YCCOM, we end up with a situation that’s not exactly a happy ending but still leaves us with respect for the difficult choices Lee makes. Affleck is good, of course, as he always is, though I’ve enjoyed other performances of his more (like Gone Baby Gone). Michelle Williams has a few scenes that’ll rip your heart out.

Yeah, this is a film that’s chock full of acting, and it’s not all of the weeping, broody stuff. That’s the Academy-bait stuff, of course, and Affleck’s turned in a body of performance of the sort that ultimately gains respect for a guy even if he is Ben Affleck’s brother.

Obviously, one doesn’t recommend this sort of film for everyone. But I don’t consider it a downer, myself: Bad things happen to people in life, and what matters is how they handle those things. The little flicker of not-quite-optimism-but-at-least-a-kind-of-indomitability that Lonergan keeps alive is what makes these movies palatable to me and raises it above the Oscar-grabbing despair of the pack. The Boy strongly approved, as well, and for much the same reason.

Just super.
Everything’s going great. Just great. Couldn’t be better. What? These razor blades? I shave. A lot.

La La Land

You never know. That’s sort of become my mantra. With my “reading-all-my-books” project, I’ve had a poor record of guessing which books I’d like, and even seeing classic movies, while I can guess that I’ll like them, I’m often surprised by them. (As in “I wasn’t expecting that sort of experience.”) But that can cut both ways, and there’s a lot of pressure on the guy (Damien Chazelle) who made one of my favorite films—if not my favorite—of 2014, Whiplash to hit it out of the park in his sophomore effort, a musical no less!

Unless of course Gosling and Stone can actually levitate.
And fully embracing the less-than-literal nature thereof.

And the opening of La La Land had me worried. It’s a lot of what I don’t like about modern musicals (when I’m unfortunate enough to see a number from one): Sort of bland, sort of generic, a reasonable set-up, surely, but with the over-produced vocal style that makes it so clear how fake the whole thing is. I mean, obviously The King and I and Singin’ in the Rain are fake. But those people (or the people dubbing them, heh) could stand on a stage and project something like the sounds you hear on screen.

When a crowd of people standing on an open freeway sound like they’re whispering in your ear, well, it just alienates me. It might be because of my college education, in which I was exposed to a ton of live (unamplified) music, or it might more likely just be some idiosyncratic aesthetic quirk, but the effect is to leave me utterly cold.

His characters, of course. Not him. He's lovely. Probably.
Or maybe I’m just a jerk. (J.K. Simmons pictured for no particular reason.)

Thereafter, however, the songs are mostly between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and the intimacy makes the whole effect work, not least because of Chazelle’s deft technique and unabashed affection for the city, the business, and the spirit behind it all, but also because Stone and Gosling are endearingly offbeat.

Gosling, even when he’s heartthrobby (Gangster Squad, Crazy, Stupid, Love.) has an element of the unusual, which shines in his weirder roles whether lovable (Lars and the Real Girl, The Nice Guys) or menacing (Drive, Only God Forgives), but here we have a nice mix of intense oddness that is both lovable and a little menacing, as Gosling plays Sebastian, a guy who lives for restoring a long-despoiled L.A. club to its former jazz glory.

Pure jazz, he assures us. And, as a musician, I can think of no more oxymoronic phrase as “pure jazz”. But he’s talking about that sort of masturbatory “who cares what the audience thinks?” stuff that was represented so well in Whiplash, and most of the time accurately reflects an indifference if not outright hostility to the listener.

That’s neither here nor there, since this is a story about passion and improbable dreams, and his, certainly, is an improbable dream.

But I'm cynical that way.
Less probable than levitating at the Griffith, I’d say.

Stone, meanwhile, is a struggling actress like tens of thousands of others, particularly unsuccessful (like tens of thousands of others), and in the inevitable hookup, we get a kind of reverse Star Is Born scenario, where he sells out (i.e. achieves commercial success) which results in contempt (rather than jealousy) and she gives up and, as my aptly-named Twitter pal @JulesLaLaLand points out, this is more Umbrellas of Cherbourg than Singin’ in the Rain.

But it’s still, at heart, an affirmation for the creative effort, for the improbable dreams, and (in a scene that reminded me very much of Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris) ultimately used to an emotionally effective gut-punch of an ending. An ending which, whatever its larger intentions were, also works as a sort of apologetic for Hollywood marriage and divorce.

I didn’t love it as much as Whiplash because, to me, the 2014 film was just pitch-perfect at every step and a dead-on representation of that sort of insane musical pedagogy, but this film is much more ambitious, much trickier and a good omen for future Chazzelle films. This is a unique movie, despite having ten times the budget of the last one, and there had to be all kinds of struggles with the studio to get it out the way it is.

They're supposed to be watching "Rebel Without a Cause".
Odd, but oddly appealing.

Improbably, this has paid off with a $100M+ box office that may ultimately put it in the top 20 films of 2016, so that’s also a good omen. The Boy, who is not especially inclined to love musicals, was pleased. The Flower, who is on a serious Technicolor kick, and in a very judgmental mood regarding the limited color palette of todays’ films, was also mightily pleased by what she saw as homages to the great technicolor musicals of the past.

High praise indeed.

Singin’ In The Rain (1951)

The Flower avoided all films over the past two weeks to make sure she was over her cold well enough to see and enjoy this film. She was, as the kids say, “hype” about this 1951 musical classic, in all of its Technicolor glory. The Flower has become so entranced by the style of the classics we’ve seen, she’s vowed to bring back Technicolor and proper set design, wardrobe and whatever else it takes to Make Movies Great Again.

Milk was not, in fact, used.
“I’m happy again…”

A novice—a rank amateur, some would say—might worry about That Much Hype before a movie, but 2016 taught me that time has a way of picking winners. So, despite the occasional quips of “So, when does Malcolm McDowell show up?” I was not the least bit surprised that this film was a Huge Hit with her, as well as with The Boy and His Girl. And, really, with everyone. For some revivals, the theater uses a smaller auditorium but for this, they used one of the big ones, and it was packed.

And people clapped after some of the dance numbers, especially “Good Morning” and “Make ’em Laugh” because, really, what else can you do? I’m not really a big dance guy but I was impressed, repeatedly, by the numbers. (I’d seen the film before but only on TV which, meh. Yeah, I’m a snob. You should know that by now.)

Maybe they should've tried dancing on a cloud.
You can’t even see the flesh-colored bandage used to hide the burst blood vessels in Debbie Reynolds’ feet.

Almost ironically, the weakest part of the film is the opening number where the three leads sing the title song at a traditional tempo while stamping around in galoshes. “Singin’ in the Rain” had been a modest hit back in 1930 and appeared in half-a-dozen pictures before this one, but Gene Kelly’s brilliant decision to slow it down and give it a less frantic and more beatific tempo and style does as much for the song as Dooley Wilson’s relaxed-swing vibe does for “As Time Goes By”.

The hook of the film was pretty hoary even at the time: A silent movie duo finds their careers on the rocks with the advent of sound. Oh, he’s okay (Gene Kelly) but she (Jean Hagen) sounds like a gangster’s moll. Hagen’s performance is unquestionably brilliant. If she had just done a screechy voice through the whole thing, it would’ve been torture every time she came on screen. Instead, she makes these wonderfully weird attempts to sound “proper” and ends up with an accent hash of bad English, Queens and sorta proto-Valley girl. It’s a marvel.

Sublime.
She’s amazing, but probably overlooked in hindsight, since she has no song and dance numbers.

Donald O’Connor is, of course, brilliant. He’s also remarkably handsome, which isn’t something that was obvious (to me) on the small screen. Especially for a guy who’s comic relief, he supports the film easily and plays off Gene Kelly easily.

From what I can tell, nobody liked Gene Kelly (in terms of working for him on this set). The stories one hears are similar to those one hears about Fred Astaire. These guys were perfectionists and they had Big Tempers. In addition, he was apparently trying to get out of his contract with MGM. The beauty of this is how absolutely none of that ever shows up on screen.

Which brings us to the late, great Debbie Reynolds. Much like O’Connor, she suffered tremendously at Kelly’s hands, but neither of them would exactly say so. (Kelly would, and did, admit this much later in life.) And yet this 19-year-old with no dance experience doesn’t just keep up with the two experienced hoofers, she looks like she’s doing it easily, like she was born dancing and nothing could be more natural to her than playing off the greatest dancers of the era. Not just easily, but joyfully.

And some other parts of her.
Cyd Charisse’s legs are ALSO in the movie.

One of the recent retrospectives I read compared Debbie Reynolds with her daughter, Carrie Fisher, in terms of how they viewed life. To the end of her days, Reynolds seemed to go through life with a positive, grateful attitude, while Carrie Fisher could scarcely countenance such a thing. Fisher was from the Holden Caulfield era of everything-not-scuzzy-is-fake, and though I think (to some degree) she overcame some of this, it’s part-and-parcel of the ’60s tradition of cynicism and degradation. At some point, entertainers forgot that what they give people is a vision of beauty, wonder and, yes, fantasy; of states much higher than can be attained in our daily lives.

This is why a movie like this, rare even in the most upbeat of eras, is like a unicorn today.