HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song

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!

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences: 95%.

More info:
The Leonard Cohen website
David Remnick’s 2019 profile in The New Yorker, “Leonard Cohen and the Divine Voice

Weekend movie pick: Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris

“She may be weary
Women do get weary
Wearing the same shabby dress …”

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.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 94%; audiences 93%.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Romance

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.

Want more? Try these:

The DVD Alfred Hitchcock: The Ultimate Collection with “how they did it” material and interviews
Award-nominated biography: The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock
The Hitchcock Zone,” a website with more than 9000 images and, and, and!

Paris on Film: A Cinematic Journey

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.

Weekend Movie Pick: Elvis

You’ll hear a lot of divided opinion about this movie. When the Washington Post reviewer said watching it was like spending two hours inside a washing machine, I was uncertain, and while I sorta see what she meant in my opinion, it’s terrific!

There’s a lot in there(trailer). There’s some fast-cuts and jumping around in place and time, but it’s not difficult to follow. The film comes at you head-on, just like those times. The late 60s had the Civil Rights movement, men on the moon, the British invasion, the assassinations, the Vietnam War, Woodstock. A Lot Going On. Society was changing, and the film captures that upheaval.

I am a big devotee of the American Song Book—Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, all of them. But as much as I love their music, it doesn’t bowl me over with nostalgia the way the songs of my growing up do. And in this movie, you hear a lot of them.

It’s also fun seeing Tom Hanks be given the chance to stretch his acting chops. No surprise, he’s brilliant as the manipulative, self-serving Col. Tom Parker. Elvis desperately needed a business manager who was on his side, but he’s hardly the first creative talent to be ruthlessly taken advantage of. (Leonard Cohen and Al Pacino are two others who immediately come to mind.)

Director Baz Luhrmann shot the film in an interesting way. He gets very close in on Elvis (Austin Butler) and shoots his face in a dreamy, idealized way that you might associate with female film actors of the 1930s. In other shots, he leaves no doubt about what aspect of Elvis’s performances were the main draw. The energy that Butler brings to the role will leave you breathless. Olivia DeJonge as Priscilla is quite nice too.

Of course, in the end, it’s a sad tale. Unlike the many biopics of musicians who get hooked on drugs, then finally suffer through recovery to have a much longer career, Elvis (like Judy Garland) never got past it and died at 42.

If you’re looking for an authoritative biography, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for the complete story, this isn’t it (though, apparently, there IS a four-hour version rattling around). This is an artistic interpretation of a life, and, inevitably, choices were made. But if you’re looking to be reminded of the roots of rock-and-roll and to have some sympathy for a musical change-agent, see it and decide for yourself. Who wants to be persnickety when the sheer entertainment value is so high? The credits are pretty spectacular too.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 78%; audiences: 94%.

What to Watch This Weekend

popcorn

Three recent-ish British films well worth the time. Our theaters keep teasing us with lots of enticing film previews, but they aren’t here yet!

Downton Abbey: A New Era

Has this popular franchise finally lost its luster? I was afraid so, but writer Julian Fellowes pulled it off once again (trailer). All the regulars are there, except for Mary’s husband. In the opening scene, Tom Branson marries a wealthy young woman, and she and her mother join the ensemble. Downton is being taken over by the cast and crew of a deep-pockets film company, under Mary’s supervision. To avoid this intrusion, most of the family travels to the South of France to visit the Dowager Countess’s unexpected legacy—a villa willed to her by a man she charmed decades previously, before her marriage to Lord Grantham. (Here’s hoping her legacy included funds for maintenance.) Quibbles aside, the costumes, manners, scenery, and pleasantness of it all are refreshing. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 86%; audiences 97%.

The Duke

You’ll enjoy this comedy about a man whose single-mindedness repeatedly gets him into trouble with the authorities, directed by Roger Michell and written by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman (based on a true story)(trailer). To the exasperation of his wife (Helen Mirren), Kempton Bunton (Jim Broadbent) is so focused on aiding elderly veterans that he neglects his family responsibilities. He steals a famous painting, hoping to hold it for ransom that would be used to help poor people. He’s caught and put on trial. Lots of chuckles here, and you can’t go wrong with Mirren and Broadbent. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating 97%; audiences 86%.

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat, which was directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, is based on a nonfiction book by Ben Macintyre (trailer) It recounts the story of the key piece of the Allies’ massive effort to convince the Germans that Greece, not Sicily, was their invasion target in the Mediterranean. A corpse is given a back story and a set of fake papers and set adrift to come ashore in Spain. Will the papers get to  the German operatives in Madrid? Will they believe the fake story or recognize it as disinformation? This deception is led by military planners Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and Charles Cholmondeley ( Matthew Macfadyen). The film tries hard to maintain the tension, but knowing how the plot turns out, deflates that balloon somewhat. One fun aspect was the important role of Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn)—then a Lieutenant Commander as assistant to the Director of the Naval Intelligence Division. in the office typing away on what he says is “a spy novel.” I’m not convinced the romantic elements are factual, but that’s filmmakers for you. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 84%; audiences 64%.

No Escape

And, to show that you can’t get away from Downton Abbey, the cast of Operation Mincemeat includes Penelope Wilton, who plays Isobel Crawley Merton in Downton. Matthew Good, who played Henry Talbot (Mary’s absent husband) in Downton plays Kempton Bunton’s barrister in The Duke..

Weekend Movie Pics

The Outfit

Any film with Mark Rylance in the lead will be a hit with me. This film, directed by Graham Moore, who wrote with script with Johnathan McClain, doesn’t disappoint (trailer).

Leonard (Rylance) insists on being called a cutter—the man who cuts the fabric for bespoke men’s suits—not a tailor, and trained on London’s Savile Row. But it’s the early 1950s and now he’s in Chicago, where most of his clients are involved in organized crime. Mable (Zoey Deutch) is his assistant, and most of the time the two of them are alone in his shop.

A succession of shady characters use a dropbox in Leonard’s workroom to stash payments and other messages, but he stays out of their business. As he says Mable, “If we only allowed angels to be customers, soon we’d have no customers at all.” When she starts dating the not-too-bright son of a mob boss in the midst of a deadly gang war, trouble invades the cutter’s quiet workroom, and Mable and Leonard may not escape. Clever and entertaining.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences: 92%.

The Rose Maker

This French comedy-drama, directed by Pierre Pinaud and written by him with Fadette Drouard and Philippe Le Guay, originated in 2020, but is now appearing in US theaters, with subtitles (trailer).

Eve (Catherine Frot) inherited a rose-growing business from her father and breeds beautiful new varieties. Despite her success, bankruptcy is imminent. She and her assistant Vera (Olivia Cote) need help, and where does Vera find people they can afford? Three people on work-release program from a local prison. They have no horticultural experience, but at least they come cheap. It’s a classic “against all odds” plot, but satisfying.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 92%.

Mothering Sunday

A super cast (Colin Firth, Olivia Coleman, Josh O’Connor) in a slight film (trailer) set in 1924, about three upper-class British families, two of whom lost sons in World War I. Firth’s character has retreated into bland platitudes, while Coleman, as his wife, is seething with unquenchable rage. The only son left to any of them (O’Connor) has a brief liaison with a maid (Odessa Young), and much of the story is from her perspective then and later, after she becomes a successful writer. It’s dripping with sadness, but the constant use of jump cuts in time and scene seem designed to mask the thinness of the story as translated to film. Directed by Eva Husson and written by Alice Birch, based on a novel by Graham Swift.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 77%; audiences: 60%.

Hear the Beat — Those Dancing Feet!

Just when you think Big Dance Numbers have gone the way of the passenger pigeon, along came Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, the Academy Award-nominated (and commendable) new West Side Story, and the disappointing, but innovatively cast, Cyrano, all of which displayed innovative dance sequences. (I still get dizzy thinking of the dance/fight sequence in West Side Story, in which it seemed Tony or Riff—or both—would fall through the broken pier into the Hudson.)

Film historian Max Alvarez recently hosted a program on “filming the dance,” and how that has changed over the decades. When films acquired sound, the studios made a lot of quickie musicals to take advantage of the new technology, and persuade audiences they were the new thing. These films weren’t always good. But the studios had made a big investment in converting movie houses and equipment to accommodate sound, and they were determined to recoup. As a result, in 1929, the studios produced 50 musicals and in 1930, an astonishing 78! You’ll recall that the Gene Kelly movie, Singin’ in the Rain, is about the difficulties of the conversion to sound, and Max says it’s pretty accurate. (That movie is having its 70th anniversary this year.)

After the initial blitz of so-so products, movie makers became more discriminating about the form. In Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” the studio system was in full sway, and not only actors and directors, but songwriters and choreographers also had studio contracts. This made musicals economical to produce. Of course, early producers remained a little nervous about musicals. For one of his films, Darryl Zanuck put all the musical numbers at the end, so he could lop them off if audiences didn’t respond. Finally, the success of 42nd Street (1933) did a lot to assuage their nerves. Treat yourself with this Busby Berkeley number from the show. Glorious! Thrilling! Unforgettable!

For a time, the orchestra played, the singers sang, and dancers danced. Big soundproofed boxes had to be built around the cameras to dampen their noise. Today, none of that happens simultaneously, of course, as songs and music are recorded separately. Photographing dance sequences is almost a lost art, Alvarez says, because directors don’t trust audiences to follow the action, so they do a lot of quick cuts. It’s lively, but all the editing sacrifices something. Gene Kelly maintained that the use of a lot of fast cutting was simply to camouflage bad choreography. Even the sound of “those dancing feet” is added in post-production. There aren’t any taps on their shoes. Sorry.

Let the Oscar Countdown Begin!

Only three days until this year’s Academy Award ceremony, and if you haven’t seen all the movies in the overstuffed “best picture” category, there’s hardly time. This category needs to be broken up in some way so that viewers and voters are comparing apples to apples or at least to other fruit. Which is better, political commentary or pure entertainment? A film with a mega-million special effects budget or a small gem? A star-studded romp or exciting new talent? Ten choices are about twice too many. At the very least they should separate musicals from dramas, but of course that may just be my advocacy of West Side Story showing.

Let me admit up front I’ve seen only seven of the “Best Picture” nominees. No Don’t Look Up (sounded too baldly polemical), no Dune (though I loved the book), and no Drive My Car (too depressing and long). And here’s where they could pare the list further. Why is Drive My Car both a “Best Picture” and a “Best International Feature” nominee? Pick a category, please.

Tastes vary, and viewers who like one genre of movie may not resonate with another. In my pair of films in the “why was this nominated?” category, you may have a favorite Sorry! My mystery nominees are Nightmare Alley (though people tell me the 1947 original was better) and Licorice  Pizza. The corollary to the “why?” question is “why not?” Why wasn’t the awesome The Tragedy of Macbeth nominated?

One thing I’d say about all seven nominees I saw, is that the acting this past year has been great. Another thing that can be said about many of them is, they’re too long. Some judicious editing would have helped.

Here are my five top Oscar contenders, in reverse order:

Coda – one of those small sweet films that will never win, and, anyway, the plot was disappointingly predictable; loved the fish stuff
King Richard – great characters and great acting (yes! Aunjanue Ellis), and if I could ever remember how tennis matches are scored, I would have gotten more out of the looong, decisive match
West Side Story – perfection; loved that sly Riff (Mike Faist)
The Power of the Dog – a mystery; haunting music, beautiful scenery, horses!; too long
Belfast – beautiful acting, well directed, powerful historical story

Image by Gia Knight for Pixabay.

The Irish on Film

In past St. Patrick’s Day posts I’ve talked about some of my favorite books set in Ireland or with strongly Irish characters (See those here and here.) Here are a few of my favorite movies about that story-laden land, old and new. Is it because there are more stories there, or because the Irish are such good story-tellers? Cannot say.

Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s highly personal elegy to his home town in 1969, at the beginning of “The Troubles” certainly deserves its Academy Award Best Picture nomination (trailer). It captures the joy of childhood, as well as the anxieties of the adults in a Protestant family, where the neighborhood around them is devolving into religious violence. What a nine-year-old boy thinks of as adventure, his parents see as is mortal danger. Outstanding, should-have-been-nominated performances by Caitriona Balfe as the mother and Jamie Dornan as the father, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the grandparents, and Jude Hill as the sunny boy.

Brooklyn

Remember Brooklyn? The 2015 film written by Nick Hornby about a young Irish immigrant , Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) in the 1950s (trailer). It’s an effective meditation on how all immigrants feel they have a foot in two places, that they are or could be living two entirely different lives. Compound that in Eilis’s case that the trip across the ocean coincides with growing up and starting her own life. Lots o  disruption for one spunky gal.

In the Name of the Father

Go back in time thirty years for this one, released in 1993 (trailer). Daniel Day-Lewis, in one of his awe-inspiring star turns, plays Belfast petty thief and general layabout Gerry Conlon. Falsely imprisoned on charges he participated in an IRA bombing, he’s in jail for fifteen years before the dogged efforts of the lawyer for his father, also falsely imprisoned, provides any hope of release. Pete Postlethwaite plays his father, and Emma Thompson the lawyer. Though fiction, the story is “inspired by true events.”