You really wouldn’t have to say much more to me than “Sally Hawkins,” but when I saw previews for this film she stars in about an incident I remember well, I couldn’t wait! And it did not disappoint. For centuries, the memories of England’s King Richard III have been shaped by Shakespeare’s wonderful play, but there have been doubts . . .
He was writing during the Tudor era, and the Tudors (Henry VII) had wrested the throne from Richard, the last of the Plantagenet kings, by defeating him in battle. “A horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!” famously says the unseated king. Shakespeare had to hew the ruling dynasty’s political line here. And did.
The movie was directed by master storyteller Stephen Frears and written by him and Jeff Pope (trailer). Along with Hawkins, it stars Steve Coogan as Hawkins’s husband and Harry Lloyd as Richard III. Hawkins, as Philippa Langley, embarks on an impossible quest. Her husband has left her, her job is unbearable, and she suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which makes it hard to do much. But she sees a production of Richard III that really touches her. Was he really so bad or just misunderstood? She embarks on a quest to find out.
Introduced to the myths and mysteries surrounding Richard, she becomes consumed with a desire to find where he’s buried. Tradition holds that his body was dumped in the River Soar in Leicester, a city in England’s East Midlands. But Philippa finds scattered reference to a burial in the town’s Greyfriars Church, long since demolished.
Aiding her in her quest is King Richard himself, who appears to her (and only to her) occasionally, encouraging her on. They talk. Hawkins is perfectly cast as this tentative, but determined woman whom everyone sells short, except Richard himself. She has a brilliant way of simultaneously portraying vulnerability and strength.
Not only is it interesting, with some bureaucratic villains with all-too-familiar personalities, knowing it’s based on the true story of an amateur investigator’s triumph over hidebound historians unwilling to ask questions is quite satisfying. (You’ll loathe the university hacks.) Loved it!
If you asked me whether I’d like a movie about a rookie basketball player’s athletic shoe endorsement saga, I’m afraid you’d just get a blank look. Then, if you said the film centers on one of the most exciting stars in any sport, ever, but he’s actually barely in it, I’d probably wander off looking for a snack. I would be wrong.
Air, the new movie directed by Ben Affleck and written by Alex Convery, is based on Nike’s 1984 effort to woo college junior Michael Jordan and his shoe endorsement away from (then) major competitors Converse and Adidas (trailer). The story will grab you because the outcome, even though you know it, is so well delivered by a top-notch cast and a wholly believable script.
Ben Affleck plays the legendary Nike founder Phil Knight, and he has some superstars on his own team, notably Matt Damon as fixer (I can’t think of a better word for it), basketball superfan, and chief risk-taker Sonny Vaccaro. Jason Bateman plays marketing innovator Rob Strasser, Chris Tucker as advisor Howard White, and Matt Maher as down-in-the-basement shoe designer and innovator Peter Moore. At the time the film is set, Nike’s a big sports company known mostly for its running shoes, trying unsuccessfully to move big into the basketball world. They need a star. Incessantly watching the films of college hoops stars and the top NBA draft picks, Vaccaro recognizes Michael Jordan for the game-changer he’s going to be. But other companies want his endorsement too.
An actor playing Michael Jordan barely appears in the film and has no lines to speak of. Instead, Vaccaro’s unconventional recruitment tactics are aimed at his mother, Deloris Jordan, in a pitch-perfect performance by Viola Davis. It’s not appreciated that he makes his pitch directly or that he end-runs Jordan’s flamboyant and foul-mouthed agent, David Falk, played by Chris Messina.
There’s humor there, too, in the marketing meetings, in Vaccaro’s manipulation of Phil Knight (knowing what good friends the two actors are, they can nevertheless argue with real heat), in how Vaccaro tells Deloris Jordan exactly what the other companies’ pitches will be and seeing how that turns out, and how she out-maneuvers all of them. In the end, the new kind of deal they struck became a game-changer for college and professional athletes alike.
Give yourself a cinematic treat, and see this film!
This week in New Plaza Cinema’s entertaining lecture series on the movies and the people who made them, film historian and author Max Alvarez talked about the 50-year creative partnership between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, illustrated with numerous film clips. More than half a century ago (can this be true?) Paul Newman became my favorite actor with his portrayal of Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus, a status he cemented the next year in The Hustler.
So many of his great roles, were in the late 1950s and 60s (Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof , Hud in Hud, Luke in Cool Hand Luke, Butch in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Henry Gondorff in The Sting, Frank Galvin in The Verdict ). Just the films mentioned garnered him twenty-five major award nominations, including seven Academy Award Best Actor nominations. Yet he didn’t receive an Oscar until 1986, for reprising his Hustler role as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money.
While Newman was a dominant screen presence in those years, Woodward stayed more in the background, keeping her career secondary to her family role. (The couple has three daughters.) Nevertheless, accolades came early for Woodward. She won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Over his career, Newman acted in 57 feature films, and she in 27. They worked together—as actors, or with him directing—on 14 projects.
Newman and Woodward both arrived in New York in 1951, and, two years later, they met as understudies in Josh Logan’s Picnic, which gave Newman his Broadway debut. He arrived after Yale Drama School, and she, five years younger, studied in New York with Sanford Meisner in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She never completely lost her Georgia accent. Though they both worked on Broadway, they’re best known for films. As Alvarez emphasized, in that era, Hollywood was willing to produce a fair amount of serious adult drama, many based on literary works, which was lucky for them.
Alvarez found screen tests of each of them with James Dean for the 1955 film, East of Eden, based on the John Steinbeck novel. Judging by their tests, either or both of them might have been at least as good as Elia Kazan’s ultimate picks, Richard Davalos and Julie Harris. (Commentators frequently note that Dean’s untimely death opened up roles for Newman that otherwise might have gone to the then better-known actor.)
Newman and Woodward’s first film together was The Long, Hot Summer (1958)(trailer), based on William Faulkner’s stories. During filming, they became a couple. Newman, already married with three children, needed a divorce before he and Woodward could wed.
Other notable collaborations for the pair were 1959’s From the Terrace (trailer), based on a John O’Hara novel. It was filmed mostly in New York to accommodate Newman’s Broadway acting schedule for Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. In 1961, they appeared together in Paris Blues (trailer), with Newman on the trombone and Sidney Poitier on the saxophone. A jazz aficionado says Newman faked it pretty well. Newman directed Woodward in the low-budget Rachel, Rachel (1968)(interview with Newman and trailer), based on a novel by Margaret Laurence. The movie turned out to be both an artistic and surprise financial success. It was Newman’s directorial debut and led to his winning the Golden Globe and NY Film Critics Circle Award. Woodward also won those two awards. He also directed her in a 1986 film version of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (full movie), which features a young John Malkovich (worth seeing for that alone!).
Their final film together was the 1990 Merchant/Ivory production, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (trailer), about a sheltered Kansas City couple who must grapple with the profound social changes surrounding World War II. To keep costs down, the film was shot in real locations in Kansas City and received donations of costumes and props, modest and not-so: 100 gallons of paint from Benjamin Moore and a dozen Tiffany lamps and 1930s paintings from a local law firm, for example. Woodward’s performance was especially praised. The New York Times said “there is a reserve, humor and desperation in their characterizations that enrich the very self-conscious flatness of the narrative terrain around them.”
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The creative partnership between Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro has produced some of the most memorable cinema of the last half-century. From Mean Streets (1973) to Raging Bull (1980) to The Irishman (2019), their movies “can be hard to watch and hard to shake off,” said film historian Max Alvarez. Alvarez presented his survey “DeNiro and Scorsese: An Intense Collaboration” last week as part of New Plaza Cinema’s highly entertaining lecture series.
Scorsese, a born New Yorker, grew up in Little Italy in a family where all four of his grandparents were immigrants from near Palermo, Sicily. Scorsese wasn’t a particularly good student, but he was fascinated by the movies. He has said the only college he could get into was NYU, where he eventually attended the Tisch School of the Arts. There, he started making short films, and his first feature-length film—1967’s Who’s That Knocking on My Door—signaled the start of another long-time collaboration, this one with Harvey Keitel.
Robert DeNiro, also a lifelong New Yorker, has a more ethnically diverse background. He was the only child of two artists, who separated when he was two. He grew up in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods, in what Alvarez called a “cultured and cultivated household.” He was sent to private schools and knew many artists of all types, who were friends of his parents, including Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Henry Miller. He began studying acting in high school and went on to study at the Stella Adler school.
Interestingly, despite the cultural touchstones many of their movies have become, few of them actually made money. The exceptions were Taxi Driver (1976)and Goodfellas (1989). By the time that was made, DeNiro had already won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II fifteen years earlier.
Scorsese’s films pioneered many techniques common today; the pop music soundtracks, the profanity that was uncommon previously, the film noir touches, especially in lighting, through the introduction of fast editing and CGI (used to de-age DeNiro in the early scenes of The Irishman, for example).
But even as he tried different projects—a musical, a comedy or two, a religious drama, a couple of psychological thrillers, a costume drama—and even though he’s worked with many other top stars—including Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Newman—he keeps coming back to DeNiro. Maybe it’s that trust that allows the frequent use of improvised (or improvised, then polished) dialog that you sometimes see, as in Goodfellas. Scorsese says that DeNiro is gifted at bringing humanity to “characters who ordinarily would be villains.”
For a treat: Watch this YouTube video of Scorsese and DeNiro have dinner with Don Rickles (who played a straight role in Scorsese’s movie Casino, shown in the photo alongside).This filmed dinner was Rickles’s last performance.
As Halloween approaches, memories of the disturbing 2016 horror movie The VVitch recur. Those Puritans! Below is a shortened review of that movie and info on the most horrifying movie I ever saw. Well, it’s a tie with Psycho.
In an old-timey flourish, the opening credits for writer/director Robert Eggers’s unconventional The VVitch (trailer), use the ancient Latinate “double v.”
It’s 1630s New England, and William and his family have been exiled from their Puritan community and must find a new home, alone together in the wilderness. Their expulsion has dangers that are obvious from the strength of the stockade surrounding the sad village buildings, the armed Indians who look on the departing family with curiosity, the gate so firmly barred behind them. From this ominous beginning Eggers builds a horrifying tale.
William (played by Ralph Ineson), his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie), their pubescent daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy, later Emma and the chess whiz in The Queen’s Gambit), and their three younger children must create a new farm, and he selects land near a stream and a dense old-growth woods.
Some time passes, and the family has a house and an outbuilding, a chicken house, a stable for the horse, and a small corral for the goats, including a suspect animal named Black Phillip. They also have failing crops and not enough food for the winter. They also have a new baby boy, who disappears while Thomasin is minding him. All the lengthy prayers and the catechism the family recites are powerless in the face of this calamitous loss. Was it a wolf? Or did a witch emerge from the woods and snatch him?
As for atmospherics, the winter sky is ever thickly clouded. The film’s color palette ranges from gray to dark gray to greige. Brilliant color is saved for the carmine of a cape, and, of course, the blood. The music, by Mark Korven, shrieks in all the right places. These new Americans’ old Yorkshire accents are sometimes hard to understand, but the emotional current is so clear that words are almost unnecessary.
Regardless of your answer to “witches—yes or no?” the film is a chilling portrayal of what all can go wrong in a family alone in the wilderness in that very particular culture and era. Though critics liked it, audiences expecting a typical horror film apparently are disappointed that it is heavy on thinking and light on exsanguinating! Available on Amazon Prime, HBO MAX, and Apple TV.
And here is one of the scariest films I ever saw: The Vanishing (1988). There are lots of movies with similar titles and a US remake of this one. If you want to be haunted by a truly nightmarish scenario (do you?), see the original Dutch film (Spoorloos)(trailer), directed by George Sluizer, adapted from the novella The Golden Egg. In the U.S., it was judged one of the top foreign films of 1991, when it was released. Says Wikipedia, “Stanley Kubrick thought The Vanishing was the most terrifying film he had seen.” So it’s not just me. According to Rotten Tomatoes, which gives it a critics’ rating of 98%, it’s available through Prime Video and Apple TV.
Reviews of this movie are mixed, but if you’re looking for something fast-paced and fun, it might just do the trick (trailer). Written by Mark Chappell and directed by Tom George, alcoholic police detective Sam Rockwell and ambitious constable Saoirse Ronan try to solve the mysterious death of an obnoxious American film producer (Adrien Brody). Ronan is completely charming here.
It isn’t a matter of their not having any suspects, it’s having too many. In 1950s London, Brody’s character, Leo Kopernick, has managed to offend pretty much everyone involved in a West End production of The Mousetrap that he’s hoping to make into a Hollywood movie. Lots of backstage shenanigans and back-stabbing theater folks.
The buzz about the movie may have struck the wrong note with audiences when it inevitably compared this story to the work of Agatha Christie. Still, it’s a light-hearted spoof with a super cast. If you remember your nursery rhymes, you’ll hear them echoing throughout, though I never saw even one blind mouse. That particular mouse was already trapped.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 74%; audiences: 69%.
This eagerly awaited (by me!) documentary tells some of Leonard Cohen’s personal story and an awful lot about his most popular song and how it came to be (trailer). The film was produced and directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine, and thankfully, a number of people interviewed and recorded Cohen through his long career—talking, singing, schmoozing—which gave the filmmakers a lot to work with. As a result, you hear Cohen talking about many personal and career issues over time, and you see how they are reflected in his journal entries, where he’s groping for the words that would turn into “Hallelujah.”
Over a period of years there were many false starts with these lyrics, and, ultimately, many versions, an estimated 150-180 verses altogether! Cohen’s deep spirituality was in part rooted in his Jewish background, but he also spent several years at a Zen Buddhist monastery in California. Lyrics written early on were quasi-religious “a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” At some point, he worked on more secular verses: “Baby, I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this room; I’ve walked this floor.”
When the producers of the movie Shrek wanted to include the song in a melancholic moment, co-director Vicky Jenson says she “took out all the naughty bits”—tying to kitchen chairs and the like.
Amazingly, in retrospect, Various Positions—the album that contained “Hallelujah,” along with other memorable songs, including “Dance Me”—was rejected by Columbia Records, which refused to issue it. The producers found a small record label to bring out some copies, though meanwhile (if I caught this right) it was a hit overseas.
When artists like Bob Dylan, John Cale, Jeff Buckley, and others began singing “Hallelujah,” the song rose and rose in popularity. Film of Cohen’s overseas concert tour demonstrate that love of this song is practically universal. Why? To me, it had broad and timeless appeal because it operates on so many levels. The words are mysterious and open to interpretation, which appeals to the mind; its mix of broken-hearted sadness and joy speaks to the heart; the hymnlike quality resonates with the spirit, and some of the references are frankly libidinal.
Most appropriately, though I was becoming a little tired of the repeated excerpts of the song from different performers, the film ends with KD Lang’s version at Cohen’s memorial concert. That one, I would gladly have heard more of. (Here she is, in different performance.)
You might think one song is a rather slender reed to rest an entire movie on, and you’d be right. More interesting than “Hallelujah” was Cohen himself, who seems like a person whom it would have been be both a joy and a privilege to know. The interviews with a still-gorgeous Judy Collins, John Lissauer, the first producer of “Hallelujah,” and Larry “Ratso” Sloman, a long-time Rolling Stone reporter who covered Cohen for decades, were fascinating. Bottom line: I’m glad I saw it!
Count Mrs. Ava Harris (Lesley Manville), hard-working and underpaid London charwoman, among those weary women, envisioning something more uplifting than the “same shabby dress.” Cleaning the homes of her clients, she sees what couture has to offer and aspires to such loveliness for herself. I was more than a little doubtful about this film—it sounded much too fluffy for me, but . . . it was fun!
If you’ve seen previews for the movie, based on a novel by Paul Gallico, and directed by Anthony Fabian (trailer), you’ll have a pretty good idea of what happens, up to a point. Mrs. Harris’s husband died in World War II, which the military finally acknowledges some years later. The windfall of a delayed pension will let her travel to the Dior atelier in Paris and buy the dress of her dreams.
The uptight woman managing Dior (Isabelle Huppert) doesn’t want to give Ava the time of day, but the young people on staff take to her unassuming manner, and a gentleman offers himself as her companion for the viewing of the Dior’s tenth anniversary collection. You know she’s going to get a dress, some way or another, but how that’s accomplished is delightful.
A perfect, frothy, summer movie. And you get to see a lot of elegant dresses, something I thought The Phantom Thread (2017)(also with Lesley Manville as Daniel Day-Lewis’s sister) shortchanged, whereas PBS’s series The Collection did not. Don’t think too hard. Just sit back and enjoy.
No, I’m not talking about the scandals involving the Master of Suspense and his fraught relationships with women, I’m talking about Hitch’s love affair with the United States. As you probably recall, Hitchcock was born in England almost exactly 123 years ago (August 13, 1899) and did his early work in silent films and talkies there. From the start, he was a keen observer with diverse interests: art history and true crime; he had an intense fear of law enforcement; and he called himself an Americaphile. As soon as he had the chance to direct, he began making thrillers, and his film Blackmail (1929) was the first British talking picture.
He had some familiar hits in Britain—The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938)—but the UK film industry was losing ground to Hollywood, so when David O. Selznick made a generous offer to bring him to California in 1939, Hitchcock jumped at the chance for bigger budgets, greater creativity, and better weather.
In Hollywood, Hitchcock had the chance to meld America’s promise and his own dark vision. The open spaces, the sunshine—these set up a contrast, a natural tension, with the nightmarish stories he wanted to tell, according to film historian Steven C. Smith, who talked about “Alfred Hitchcock’s America” in the New Plaza Cinema lecture series last week.
Selznick’s instincts were right. The first film Hitch made for him was Rebecca (1940), based on the Daphne du Maurier novel, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. (Ironically, Hitchcock himself never won a best director Oscar, despite five nominations.)
Rebecca, though, was set in Europe, and Hitchcock’s first film set in America was Saboteur (1942), when war panic and fear of German spies was high. I saw it for the first time a few months ago, and the climactic scenes atop the Statue of Liberty remain thrilling today. Smith revealed how the illusions were done (decades before CGI, of course), following a pattern Hitchcock perfected: extensive storyboarding, so that every shot was defined beforehand; a surprisingly small number of location shots; and as much filming as possible on a sound stage, where he and the special effects cameraman could control every element.
The limited wartime production budget for Hitchcock’s personal favorite film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), meant fewer sets, and much of it was perforce shot on location in Santa Rosa, California. That small town (then only about 30,000 people) had to stand in for a generic, idyllic America. His scenes of actual mid-century New York (and New Jersey) captured for The Wrong Man (1956) are a valuable visual record of that era.
Many of the locations used in Vertigo (1958), filmed in and around San Francisco, still exist: the Mission Dolores, the Brocklebank Apartments, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, and, of course, the Golden Gate Bridge. The Mission San Juan Bautista where two important scenes occur still exists, but at the time the movie was filmed, the bell tower (from which falls occur) had already been demolished. Smith did a fascinating shot-by-shot analysis of the first fall scene, noting how each shot was filmed—alternating sound stage, miniature, on location, matte painting, combination matte painting and location, etc. (Any view including the “bell tower” is a matte painting.) Yet the artistry is so perfect, to the viewer the action appears seamless.
Perfection was a bit harder to achieve in the famous scene in North by Northwest (1959) in which Cary Grant is running across a field, while being buzzed by a crop duster. Supposedly this action occurred in northern Indiana, but the wide-angle shots were actually filmed in Bakersfield, and the scenes where he stumbles and hunkers in the dirt were shot on a sound stage, with a film of the airplane playing on a screen in the background. But, Smith said, the continuity director neglected to keep track of how much dirt Grant had on his suit from one shot to the next, so they had to do a lot of re-shooting. This is the movie that ends with the famous chase scene on Mt. Rushmore. The crew was allowed only two days at Mt. Rushmore to shoot still photos (no climbing!), which were used to recreate views of the monument. The rest was Hollywood magic. (An oddity I observed in the Mt. Rushmore footages was Eva Marie Saint wearing heels and carrying her handbag as she clambers around Thomas Jefferson’s nose.) In the previews for this film, Hitchcock looks at the audience and with tongue-in-cheek menace asks, “Have you had your vacation yet?”
Itʼs the realism of these sound stage creations that makes them so memorable and terrifying. Hitchcock believed that nightmares are very specific. Rear Window (1954)and Psycho (1960)—two of his scariest—were shot almost entirely at the studio. (It was years before I could take a shower without reliving Psycho.) For exteriors in The Birds (1963)(another contribution by Daphne de Maurier, a short story this time) Hitchcock chose Bodega Bay, not far from his home in Northern California, and well away from meddling studio executives.
As Smith pointed out, other films have made use of many of these same locations, but when we think of their star turns in the movies, Hitchcock’s films are the ones that come to mind.
In celebration of Bastille Day, New Plaza Cinema and film historian Max Alvarez presented a zoom program on Paris on Film: A Cinematic Journey. Paris has always been a sophisticated (presumably) and popular setting for movies, but over the years, much has changed.
In the early days, films with a Paris setting provided a tourist’s eye-view of a visit to Paris. Before the end of World War II, few Americans had been there, and movies, if they saw them, were their only guides on what to expect. In the early days, Paris scenes were all shot on back lots somewhere in California, but after the War, that was no longer tenable. People knew better.
Max himself visited France as a teenager, but because he’d seen quite a few real French movies, he did not feel “foreign,” and was very comfortable with the mores and behavior of the Parisians. Still, Hollywood had its point of view, and presented the City of Light much as a tourist might view it. Contrast Vincent Minelli’s musicals, An American in Paris (1951), shot almost entirely in California, with his later Gigi (1958), shot on location. Another director from that period, Stanley Donen, likewise shot Funny Face (1957), with Audrey Hepburn, Kay Thompson, and Fred Astaire in Paris.
The musicals were a rather romantic and sweet take on Parisian life. But meanwhile, French and other European filmmakers were giving it a bit more of a cynical edge. In the late 1950s, the French “new wave” directors came to the fore. Generally, they filmed everything on location, preferring black and white. Their focus was not on the lovely French countryside, but on the bustle and grit of the cities, often with darker themes. Examples are: François Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows (1959), Jules et Jim (1960), and Jean-Luc Godard’s edgier crime drama Breathless (1960). Some of these filmmakers filmed real street-scenes with hidden cameras. The everyday people you see are exactly that.
Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci and his skilled cinematographer Vittorio Storaro made three increasingly dark films in Paris: The Conformist (1970), an anti-fascist tale that took advantage of the city’s famous “blue light”; Last Tango in Paris (1972) with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider; and The Dreamers (2003), a violent film about political and sexual passions.
Alvarez says you can think of the films featuring Paris as reflecting “A Tale of Two Cities.” Most of them that come to the United States have “tidied up” and prettified Paris (Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris is a current example.)
A few French films show the other side, the desolate, desperate banlieues, the suburbs peopled by immigrants and decrepit low-income housing. Director Mathieu Kassovitz’s Hate (below)is an example. Such films show that while Americans might want to think of Paris as a place not beset by the kinds of social conflicts that affect our country, that is a pleasant and inaccurate fiction.