Pretty in Pink

Pretty-in-Pink-Duckie-AndieIt’s very rare in the realm of popular movies (outside of period pieces) that costumes play a major role, but Marilyn Vance is largely responsible for the success of the 1986 John Hughes script Pretty in Pink.  The third of the “Brat Pack” trilogy of movies, following Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, it closely resembles the first film, Sixteen Candles, and if Hughes had had his way by casting Anthony Michael Hall in the pivotal role of Duckie, it might have been even closer.

The following review contains total plot spoilers, so beware.

The film is about a high school  senior, Andie (Molly Ringwald), with a great fashion sense.  Coming from the poor side of the tracks–a fact that is bluntly stated in the opening shot when the camera actually crosses the said tracks–Andie lives with her father (Harry Dean Stanton) and struggles against the conformity in her high school.  By frequenting thrift shops, she puts together an amazingly fresh and offbeat ensemble every day.  Of course, the rich girls at her school are complete snobs and they all wear expensive (or looks expensive) clothing and they make fun of her attire.  Her best friend, since they were kids, Phil “Duckie” Dale (Jon Cryer) is also loose from head to toe, wearing outfits as outlandish as Andie’s are stylish.  Also poor and outside the circle of the rich kids, he follows Andie around like a puppy dog and seems oblivious that she’s not interested in him romantically.

In spite of her outcast status among the girls at school, she seems to be an object of interest to some of the wealthiest boys, including Steff (James Spader), who she rejects near the beginning of the movie, and Blane (Andrew McCarthy), who seriously interests her.  She works at a record store called Trax, for a beautiful, outlandish girl in her thirties, Iona (Annie Potts) and she seeks Iona’s advice a lot.  Blane shows up at the store one day and seems to be returning Andie’s feelings.  When he asks her to go out with him, Duckie is cut to the quick, goes into a serious depression, and even backs out of his friendship with her.

Blane takes her to a party at Steff’s where the girls’ antipathy toward her is obvious and makes her totally uncomfortable.  Taking her upstairs, they blunder into a room where Steff is lolling around with the coolest girl in the school, Bunny (Kate Vernon) who makes fun of her.  They leave and go to a club that Andie hangs out at, but Duckie is there with Iona and he picks a fight with Blane, so they leave.  He asks her to the prom and she gets excited about going with him.  They commit themselves to the relationship, but Steff keeps bothering Blane about it until Blane finally backs out and embarrasses Andie in school.

Her father buys her a pretty ugly prom dress and she combines it with Iona’s old prom dress to make a new creation that is pretty cool.  She goes to the prom alone, but sees Duckie there and they go into the prom together.  Blane, who has also come alone, both apologizes and at the same time blames her for their relationship not working and tells her that he loves her.  In a reversal of character, Duckie tells her to go after Blane, then a beautiful girl, the Duckete (Kristy Swanson) gets his attention and he’s off with her.  The movie ends with Blane kissing Andie in the parking lot.

If some of this plot seems a little muddled, it’s partly because the entire ending was re-written and re-shot after preview audiences booed the ending.  In the original script, Andie ends up with Duckie.  It’s really weird and creates a lot of confusion.  For one thing, the entire film has built toward Blane’s complete screw up with Andie and her moving beyond him–and that includes his blaming her at the end for something that was entirely his own fault.  How she could go with him after that is anybody’s guess.  Part of the issue, too, is that while her friendship with Duckie is strong and deep, there isn’t any romantic attraction on her part, which negates the original ending.  In an interview on the DVD, Molly Ringwald admits that Robert Downy, Jr. almost got the role of Duckie and that she had a strong chemistry with him that would have made the original ending work, but that she herself did not like ending up with Jon Cryer because they didn’t have any kind of romantic chemistry.

So the ending is compounded by multiple mistakes and it really screws up an otherwise engaging, funny, and hip movie.

The script by John Hughes was written for Molly Ringwald and the character of Andie is fully realized, fueled by a dynamic and engaging performance by the actress.  The direction by first time director Howard Deutch is loose and fun.  He creates a great little, believable world for Hughes’ characters to inhabit.  Jon Cryer is outstanding as Duckie, always funny and charming.  Harry Dean Stanton is terrific as Andie’s father and Annie Potts gives an amazing performance as Iona–probably the best performance of her career.  James Spader is both beautiful and slimy, a combination that he has made into lifetime’s work.  And the cast is sprinkled with terrific cameos, including Andrew Dice Clay, Dweezil Zappa, and Kristy Swanson.

Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer’s costumes are wonderful.  The only other movie I can think of that made such a fresh fashion statement was Woody Allen’s Annie Hall.  The use of pink in all of Molly’s costumes tactfully underscores the title of the movie and every outfit is innovative and fun.  The final ingredient that makes the movie special is the well chosen soundtrack that captures that great late eighties indie rock sound.

The DVD contains many special features that enhance viewing pleasure and they go into fine detail on the problems of the ending.

Even though the movie is deeply derivative of Hughes’ earlier success Sixteen Candles, it remains fresh and charming, but the uncertainty of the filmmakers regarding the ending creates a true confusion that was simply never addressed, either by Hughes or Deutch, and that makes it difficult to enjoy.

Even so, I highly recommend this movie for an evening’s light entertainment.

The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes (1938)Set in the fictitious European country of Bandrika, this 1938 British comedy-mystery  remains one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies.  Based on the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the script by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder is truly funny, even the suspenseful parts.  Enhanced by Hitchcock’s own wit, it emerges as a truly entertaining popular film that reaches well beyond his normal confines of mystery and suspense.

A group of English tourists and businessmen is trapped at an inn in Bandrika by an avalanche that has covered the railroad tracks.  Young, beautiful Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) has been visiting her friends, Blanche (Googie Withers) and Julie (Sally Stewart) before returning to England to marry a blueblood with lots of money.  She isn’t terribly excited about the prospect, but at the same time she can’t really find anything to get excited about.  Two apparently gay British businessmen, Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) are desperately trying to get back to England to see a cricket match.

Upstairs from Iris, a young English folk music enthusiast, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) has several Bandrikans clogging a folk dance.  Along with her neighbor, Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), a governess also returning to England, Iris complains about the noise and has Gilbert evicted from his room.  In retaliation, he comes to her room with his things and announces he’s moving in.  Forced to capitulate, she calls the manager and gets his room back.  In the meantime, Charters and Caldicott can’t get a regular room, so the manager has to put them up in the maid’s room, with the lewd suggestion that the maid will have to change her clothes there.  The two men are appalled and go out of their way to avoid seeing the young woman naked.

The next day on the train, Miss Froy befriends Iris who has been hit on the head by an object falling from a window.  The coach they are sitting in includes a Baroness and a magician.  After Iris takes a nap, she wakes up to discover that Miss Froy has disappeared.  The others seated in the coach deny having ever seen Miss Froy at all, so Iris begins to canvas the train trying to find anyone who remembers seeing the woman.  Along the way, she meets back up with Gilbert, who is determined to help her, even if he isn’t convinced that such a woman existed.  She meets Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas), a Bandrikan neurosurgeon who tries to convince her that she’s been hallucinating, but she can’t let herself believe that Miss Froy wasn’t real.  When Gilbert sees a porter throwing out the trash and notices the brand of tea that Iris told him Miss Froy gave to them, he becomes convinced and helps her to turn the train upside down looking for her friend.  The trains stops to pick up a special patient for Dr. Hartz and Gilbert begins to suspect that Miss Froy has been substituted for the patient.

Part of what makes the movie special is the terrific chemistry between Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.  A noted actor on the British stage, this was Redgrave’s first starring role and he definitely made the most of it.  His offbeat humor teamed so well with Lockwood that the two are completely engaging throughout the movie.  The rest of the cast is also quite good, but Radford and Wayne as Charters and Caldicott practically steal the show.  Their stiff British correctness, combined with their obviously gay relationship and obsession with cricket, despite the hijinks going on around them is hilarious.  In fact, the two went on to reprise their characters in other British movies after The Lady Vanishes.

Coming as it did, after several unsuccessful films, this major box office hit was what convinced American producer David O. Selzni,k to sign Hitchcock to a contract that would bring him to America and lead him to become one of the most respected directors in film history.

The Lady Vanishes contains many of the elements that were staples of Hitchcock’s movies: the uncertainty of relationships, a long train ride, slanted camera angles to emphasize important objects in the frame, long takes contrasted with fast montage, his fascination with spies, his fear of the police, and, of course, the humor that colored many of his later American films.  This film also carries more political weight than most of his movies, as it was made during the period of time that Chamberlain was capitulating Czechoslovakia to Hitler and the situation is alluded to obliquely throughout the film, but especially near the end when the English on board the train must make a decision to either capitulate to the Bandrikian government or to make a stand.  The one man who decides to capitulate is shot dead holding his white flag, while those who hold fast persevere.

The film showcases many of the great filmmaking techniques that Hitchcock had learned and mastered.  It was given a low budget and restricted to a very small studio at Islington.  No matter.  Hitchcock built one train car in the studio and shot virtually the entire train footage, which takes up most of the film, on his one set, using superb rear projection, camera angles, and masterful dissolves to keep the film moving and make it realistic.

With its great humor, charismatic cast, fine script, and showcasing most of the plot elements and camera techniques that were Hitchcock staples, this stands out among the best of his British films and one of his best films over all.

I highly recommend this movie for all audiences!

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

 

mr and mrs smithThis 1941 “screwball comedy” was the first of two comedies that Alfred Hitchcock directed during his long and distinguished career, the other being the black comedy, “The Trouble with Harry.”  The script, by Academy Award winning screenwriter Norman Krasna, found its way to Carole Lombard, the actress who actually gave the name “screwball” to this kind of comedy, and she backed the project.  Before leaving England, Hitchcock had expressed a desire to work with Lombard and he got his wish in this film.

David (Robert Montgomery) and Ann (Carole Lombard) are a devil-may-care married couple in New York City.  He is a partner in a law firm with Jeff (Gene Raymond), but is sometimes absent for days as the couple holes up in their bedroom trying to make up after an argument.  It’s one of Ann’s rules that they have to stay in the bedroom until they make up.  When the film opens, they have been there for three days and they finally reconcile.   Over breakfast, she asks him if he would marry her if he had it all to do over.  Following her rule of complete honesty, he tells her that he wouldn’t.

However, when David goes to work, an official from Idaho, Harry Deever (Charles Halton) informs him that because the county they got married in is actually in Nevada, their marriage is null and void.  David calls Ann and asks her to dinner at Momma Lucy’s, a restaurant they used to eat at before they were married.  Mr. Deever, an old family friend of Ann’s stops by their apartment and tells her what he’s told David.  Certain that David will ask her to marry him again at the restaurant, she meets him full of expectation.  When they arrive at the restaurant, they find that Momma Lucy has gone back to the old country and it is now a seedy dive.  They arrive back home and David gets ready for bed, putting champagne on ice.  Upset that he still hasn’t asked her to marry him, she throws him out of the apartment and he has to go sleep at his club, the Beefeater.

Without Ann’s rule in place to keep them in the bedroom, they cannot make up.  David, regretting his earlier statement that he wouldn’t marry her if he had it all to do over, begins to follow her around begging her to forgive him and remarry, but perversely, it is Ann who likes her new freedom.  She takes a job, which David gets her fired from.  He tries to get Jeff to talk to her, hoping they can work something out, but Ann simply hires Jeff to be her attorney and then accedes when he asks her to go out with him.

At the Beefeater, David makes friends with Chuck (Jack Carson), who has also been thrown out of his home.  Chuck sets him up on a double date with a couple of low end dames and when they appear at the restaurant, David sees Ann with Jeff and tries to make her jealous.  Desperate, he follows them to Lake Placid and begins a series of machinations designed to pull the couple apart and bring him back together with Ann.

In spite of Hitchcock’s very capable direction, there are several things in the movie that are bothersome and I believe the issues belong to the script.  For one thing, it seems very cold of Ann to simply turn away from David the way she does.  I expected to see her plotting to intentionally wound him with the objective of getting him back eventually, yet it isn’t until the very end of the movie that she capitulates and realizes that she really does love him.  If she had, for example, discussed with Jeff her plan for getting him to apologize and re-marry her, it would have made perfect sense.  Krasna (or Hitchcock) leaves us to guess at her motivation for wanting to marry Jeff.  Toward the end, we see that she is fighting against her instinct to love him, but it is actually Jeff who pushes her back toward David.  It seems a little weird to me.

Another problem is that aside from a very few moments, I didn’t find the movie to be particularly funny.  At times, it goes begging for laughs.  Carole Lombard’s superb comic timing is never really used to great effect in the script and Robert Montgomery actually mugs at times looking for laughs.  This was Lombard’s next to last movie before her life ended in a plane crash while on a War Bond tour.  It’s really too bad, because Hitchcock and Lombard would have made a terrific combination.

I guess it says something that Hitchcock himself was disappointed in Mr. and Mrs. Smith in spite of its big box office success.

It’s not a bad movie, but I was hoping for a lot more than I got.

Elizabethtown

 

ElizabethtownIf ever there was a candidate for a movie that needed a Second Look, it is the 2005 Cameron Crowe romantic comedy-drama, Elizabethtown.  Crowe wrote and directed the film, which features music by his wife, Nancy Wilson, one-half of the musical duo Heart.

Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) is a rising young star in a world-beating athletic shoe company in Oregon (think Nike) working for a man named Phil (Alec Baldwin).  He has designed what the company has hyped as the next great shoe, Späsmotica, but just before it is released, the reviews start tumbling in and it turns out that it is the biggest turkey ever put out by the prestigious firm, doomed to loose the company close to a billion dollars.  He has to say goodbye to his job and his girlfriend Ellen (Jessica Biel).

When he gets home, Drew rigs his exercycle with a knife in an effort to kill himself, but before he can actually do the deed, his sister, Heather (Judy Greer) calls him to inform him that their father, Mitch (Tim Devitt) has died and that he must go to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, his father’s home town, to cremate the body so that he can bring the ashes back to Oregon.  As they talk, their mother, Hollie (Susan Sarandon) is freaking out trying to cook.  On the flight, he meets offbeat, perky flight attendant Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) and they have an immediate affinity for each other.  She gives him directions on how to get from Louisville to Elizabethtown and gives him her phone number.

After arriving, his cousin, Jessie (Paul Schneider), a former member of country-rock band called Ruckus, greets him and re-introduces him to his dad’s friends and family, including Uncle Dave (Loudon Wainwright III) and Aunt Dora (Paula Deen).  They had planned on a burial in Elizabethtown and are completely against cremation.  He checks into his Louisville hotel and finds him in the middle of gigantic wedding party, “Chuck and Cindy: The Wedding.”  He tries to call Heather, Ellen, and Claire with no luck, then Heather calls him and tells him he needs to return at once to deal with Hollie, who is still freaking out.  Ellen calls him to break up and finally he gets on the line with Claire who is just returning home.  They begin a conversation that lasts all night long, discovering more and more how much they like each other and they finally meet half-way to watch the sun rise together.  They spend the day together and shop for his father’s urn.  Along the way, Drew becomes friends with Chuck and Claire practically joins the wedding party.

With so much going on around him, Drew just doesn’t have either the time or the inclination to grieve for his father’s loss, but he does keep revisiting the man in the form of flashbacks to his childhood.  At one point, Drew is ready to call off the cremation, but it is too late.  The deep has been done, so he collects the urn.  Claire shows up at his hotel again and they finally consummate their relationship, but the next morning, she prepares to leave.  Drew catches her in the hotel parking lot and explains about his monumental failure with the shoe company.  To her credit, Claire doesn’t care, but there is still something that keeps her from committing to him.  She explains several times that both of them are stand-ins, one side of an incomplete relationship and that this role is one they have to play.

As romantic comedies go, this is a very smart one, always entertaining, and deeper than it probably should be.  Crowe is an excellent screen writer and he really knows how to tell a story.  His characters get under your skin and you can’t help but root for them to have success.  Both Drew and Claire are extremely well-written and their romance is something that feels very special, maybe as special as Chuck and Cindy?  Could be.

However, even with such a great script and excellent director on hand, the movie could have easily failed—and nearly did.  The first actor cast as Drew, Ashton Kutcher, apparently had no chemistry at all with Dunst and was replaced after filming had started with Bloom.  It was a brilliant decision because the character of Drew must carry the film and Bloom is extraordinary in the role.  I don’t often rave about young actors suddenly fulfilling their promise, but Orlando Bloom is so engaging, both in the comedy and in the drama, that it is pretty much impossible not to like him and pull for him.  Dunst gives one of the best performances of her career and the worldly, carefree Claire, someone that every guy I know would love to meet.

I always love seeing Susan Sarandon in any movie she does and she is great once again as Drew’s mother Hollie, bringing a careless wonder to a woman trying to cope with the loss of beloved husband.  As if that wasn’t enough, the ensemble cast is terrific.  Paul Scheider is great as cousin Jessie, Bruce McGill is hilarious as Bill Banyan, and both Deen and Wainwright are wonderful in their cameos.

One staple of any Cameron Crowe film is great music and Nancy Wilson has obliged us with a big catalogue of mix and fill music, as well as her own film score that compliments the action and the mix music perfectly.

The end of the film is quite something and I find that I can watch Drew’s trip cross-country back to Oregon again and again for the footage of the great central United States.  And I love that Mitch’s final resting place isn’t one place, but rather an entire country.  I can’t help wishing that I had a son like Drew to help distribute me between Lincoln, Nebraska, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and San Francisco, California. 

What a way to go!

Calendar Girls

Calendar-Girls-001Even though the cinema is full of buddy movies and mindless stupid comedies, the joy of friendship, through good times and bad, isn’t celebrated enough in film, yet it is the heart and soul of this wonderful 2003 British comedy-drama.

A group of older friends in the small Yorkshire town of Knapely are members of the local Women’s Institute (WI), an organization dedicated to the advancement of women.  Every week, they attend lectures on various mundane topics and take place in the competitions for sewing and baking.  Chris (Helen Mirrin) is a buddy of Annie (Julie Walters) and she delights in making fun of these inane little events and the yearly calendar the WI puts out with pictures of flowers or bridges.  She helps her husband, Rod (Ciarán Hinds) run the local florist shop and they are raising a teenage son, Jem (John-Paul Macleod).  They decide to ask Annie’s husband, John (John Alderton), a connoisseur of flowers who works for the national park, to give a talk at the WI, but he reveals that he has cancer (leukemia).  Although he writes a lovely speech, comparing the women of Yorkshire to flowers, he dies before he can give it and Chris ends up reading it instead.  The combination of this writing and a the presence of a nude calendar at the local bicycle repair shop gives her the idea to do a nude WI calendar to raise money to replace the sofa in the family waiting room of the cancer wing at the local hospital.  She recruits Annie and their friends in the WI as models.

After many trials (including setting up a photoshoot with a trusted photographer, swilling a little wine to grease their courage, going through with the shoot, each getting naked, and somehow convincing the WI to go along with their idea), the calendar is finally released.  Not only is it a resounding success locally, but the British press pick up the story and the little town is beset with photographers and journalists.  Rod is a little put off by all the press and Jem is embarrassed that his mother has appeared naked in a calendar, but Hollywood calls and six of the women set off for Tinseltown to do an interview with Jay Leno.

With all of the exposure, Chris’s friendship with Annie is sorely tested and the two women must decide for themselves what is truly important in their lives.

Based on a true story, the screenplay by Tim Firth and Juliette Towhidi is truly funny, not at the expense of these middle-aged (or older) women who make a nude calendar, but in respect to the strain on family and friendship that such celebrity creates.  It treats the drama very tenderly, with respect and restraint.  The direction by Nigel Cole is so cozy and kindly it creates a sense of warm familiarity that draws the viewer inside the story.

The performances are uniformly beautiful.  Helen Mirrin and Julie Walters create true, believable, and very warm characters, so real that we wish we actually knew them.  The other women are all great, especially Linda Bassett as Cora, the piano player, and Penelope Wilton as Ruth, a woman whose husband has gone wandering.  Ciarán Hinds and John Alderton are both terrific as the understanding husbands.

The nudity is very brief, mostly suggested, and very tastefully done.  In a story about friendship, it may be the driving plot device, but it certainly isn’t what the movie is about.

This is a wonderful film that I am happy to recommend to everyone.

French Kiss

 

Sometimes the charm of two charismatic actors with great chemistry, combined with a smart, talented director, can make even the most banal of screenplays work to perfection. Such is the case with Lawrence Kasdan’s 1995 romantic comedy, French Kiss.

Kate (Meg Ryan) is a history teacher whose fear of flying goes far beyond what most of us would think of as terror, but she has a serious problem that involves flight. An American history teacher, she is engaged to Canadian Charlie (Timothy Hutton), residing in Toronto on a Resident Visa and waiting until her Canadian citizenship comes through before they get married.  Charlie is a doctor who is about to fly to Paris for a medical convention and he begs her to come with him, even though she isn’t supposed to leave the country because of citizenship issues, but the point is moot because Kate just can’t board a plane.  When a great house becomes available, they go to look at it.  Charlie fears it will be too expensive for them, but Kate reveals that she has a considerable savings that she hadn’t told him about yet.

A few days later, Charlie calls her in a drunken stupor and reveals that he has fallen in love with a French girl, Juliette (Susan Anbeh) and won’t be coming home. In spite of her fears, Kate decides to board an Air Canada flight and go to Paris to get him back.  The guy sitting next to her, Luc Teyssier (Kevin Kline) is a French thief who is illegally smuggling a small American grape vine back into France in order to create a new hybrid wine.  However, tucked into the cheesecloth padding the root ball is a stolen diamond necklace.  Luc begins an argument with Kate to distract her from her fear of flying, plying her with little bottles of liquor he has stolen from the flight attendants’ cart.  He hides his vine in her travel bag so he can successfully smuggle it back into France.  At customs, he meets his old friend Inspector Jean-Paul Cardon (Jean Reno), whose life he once saved.  Returning from a vacation, Jean-Paul gives him a ride with his family so he can inspect Luc’s bags to make sure he isn’t smuggling anything.

Kate goes to Charlie’s hotel to find him, but a smarmy desk clerk won’t reveal his room number to her. Another petty thief, Bob (François Cluzet), tries to hustle her as she sits on a sofa in the lobby waiting for Charlie to come down.  When she sees him kissing Juliette, she passes out and Bob steals her bag.  Luc arrives, passing Bob at the door, to discover Kate passed out on the floor.  He revives her and when he realizes that Bob has her bag, he takes her, steals a car, and drives to Bob’s apartment where they find he has already disposed of everything but her bag and the vine.  Thinking he has now recovered the necklace, they leave, but have an argument on the street and separate.  Kate goes to the American Embassy to get a duplicate passport, but they stonewall her because she is a permanent Canadian resident.  At the Canadian Embassy, they won’t give her a duplicate Resident Visa because she was once arrested for possession of pot.  Alone, penniless on the street, she reluctantly returns to Charlie’s hotel.  In the interim, Luc has searched the root ball of his vine and finds the necklace is gone, so he goes back to Bob who proclaims that he didn’t take the necklace, that it must still be in Kate’s bag.

When Kate makes a scene at the hotel, the desk clerk tells her that Charlie and Juliette have gone to the south of France where they intend to get married, so she sets off for the train station. Bob arrives at the hotel to fleece more guests, but is arrested by Jean-Paul who is interrogating him trying to find a “big fish,” a more important criminal.  At that moment, Luc arrives and forces the clerk to tell him where Kate has gone.  Bob points out Luc to Jean-Paul and tells him that Luc has stolen a diamond necklace.  Jean-Paul now chases Luc to the train station where they lose him.

Aboard the train, Luc finds Kate and volunteers to help her get Charlie back, so he can buy time to inspect her bag. Over the next few days, both of their affections begin to turn toward each other as Luc tries to help her reunite with Charlie, even though he now loves her himself.  She reveals that she actually has the necklace and slowly gives in to her feelings for Luc.

Although the screenplay by Adam Brooks is certainly not a ground-breaking story, Kasdan does a marvelous job of telling it. The cinematography and editing are both terrific and they aid determined performances by Kevin Kline, who is almost always brilliant, and Meg Ryan, who, despite a few hammy scenes, is her usual charming self.  The two of them bring a lot of chemistry to the romance, which is essential in a romantic comedy and their performances take a simple story and make it memorable.  France has never looked so good on film, not just Paris, with both gaudiness and grit, but the countryside and vineyards of Luc’s birth really shine, not to mention the French Riviera.

It is a tight, fast moving film that engages the viewer constantly during the one hour and 51 minutes of length. Colorful, skillfully directed, with wonderful, engaging cast, this is one romantic comedy that should be on your shelf.  I highly recommend it!

Waitress

waitress keri russell with babyFunny, touching, tough: three words that truly describe this vastly underrated 2007 comedy-drama, written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly.

Jenna (Keri Russell) is an amazing pie-maker in some unnamed southern town. She works at Joe’s Pie Diner with her friends, Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly), under the management of Cal (Lew Temple) and the ownership of Joe (Andy Griffith).  She’s married to a domineering redneck man named Earl (Jeremy Sisto), who takes all of her tip money and bullies her relentlessly, but she’s been hiding away some of the money and she hopes to enter a pie contest where the prize is $25,000–with the intention of leaving him as soon as she can.  This plan gets derailed at the very beginning of the movie when she discovers she’s pregnant.

waitress I don't want earl's baby pieThis brings on the inspiration for her to make tomorrow’s featured pie, the “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby Pie.” Dawn remarks that she shouldn’t probably write that on the menu board, so Jenna changes the name to the “Bad Baby Pie,” a quiche with Brie cheese and a smoked ham center.

waitress I hate my husband pieShe considers making an “I Hate My Husband Pie” made of bittersweet chocolate–unsweetened–made into a pudding and drowned in caramel. Deciding to keep the baby, she goes to see her doctor only to find that her gynecologist has gone into semi-retirement and most of her cases have been taken over by young, attractive Dr. Jim Pomatter (Nathan Fillion).  When he congratulates her, she tells him that she doesn’t really want the baby, but is having it anyway, so please don’t be all happy for her.  “It’s not a party.”

Her mother taught her to bake as a child, singing this little song (written by Adrienne Shelly):

Baby, don’t you cry, gonna make a pie
Gonna make a pie with a heart in the middle
Baby, don’t be blue, gonna make for you
Gonna make a pie with a heart in the middle
Gonna be a pie from heaven above
Gonna be filled with strawberry love
Baby, don’t you cry, gonna make a pie
Hold you forever in the middle of my heart.

waitress marshmallow-mermaid-pieEverything is about pie creation. She brings the doctor her “Marshmallow Mermaid Pie” that she created when she was nine years old.  She makes a “Falling In Love Pie” (chocolate mousse) for Dawn’s date, and she fantasizes about new pies night and day.  At one point, she considers making a “Baby Screaming Its Head Off in the Middle of the Night and Ruining My Life Pie” that would be a New York cheesecake brushed with brandy and topped with pecans and nutmeg.

waitress earl wants to kill me pie

“I Can’t Have An Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie”

Finding Dr. Pomatter irresistible, she begins an affair with him and considers making an “Earl Murders Me ‘Cause I’m Having An Affair Pie” made with smashed blackberries and raspberries in a chocolate crust, but decides it would be better to make an “I Can’t Have An Affair Because It’s Wrong and I Don’t Want Earl to Kill Me Pie” with vanilla custard and banana–no–hold the banana. Among the other pies mentioned in the movie are the “Spanish Dancer Pie,” the “Naughty Pumpkin Pie,” the “Singing Tuna Casserole,” and “Jenna’s Special Strawberry Chocolate Oasis Pie.”

After she discovers that Becky is having an affair with Cal, she asks him, “Are you happy?” He answers, “I’m happy enough.  I don’t expect much, give much.  I don’t get much.  I generally enjoy whatever comes up.”  Dawn finds happiness with a little accountant named Ogie, but Earl continues to make Jenna’s life miserable, forcing her to have sex with him, slapping her around, and controlling her.  In fact, she conceives of the “Pregnant, Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie,” made of lumpy oatmeal with fruitcake mashed in and served flambé.

In spite of the comedy, the movie holds a very dark side. Earl, for example, though an ignorant bully, has unexpected depth.  He’s never really been loved and he depends on his control over Jenna to give meaning to his life.  Joe, the owner of the Pie Shop, is himself an old loser, but he advises Jenna to leave Earl and start all over.  “This life will kill you,” he says.  “Make the right choice.”

The script contains many unexpected depths and Shelly’s deft direction and control of the story arc keep the movie on point through its one hour and forty-eight minutes. Keri Russell is beautiful, with a big heart that makes you love and root for Jenna to find a way out of her mess.  Nathan Fillion is charming as the nervous, tender Dr. Pomatter.  Cheryl Hines and Adrienne Shelly are funny and poignant as her waitress friends and Andy Griffith is terrific as Joe–again providing unexpected depths.

But the pies are magnificent. Every pie in the movie looks absolutely beautiful and each one acts like a Greek chorus, providing commentary on the action.

waitress adrienne shellyUnfortunately, Adrienne Shelly did not live to see her movie appear at the Sundance Film Festival or to see its critical success. Three months before it was due to open, Shelly discovered a thief in her apartment.  The man panicked and killed her.  A foundation has since been established in her name to help young female filmmakers fulfill their dreams and you man contribute at The Adrienne Shelly Foundation.

Everyone should see this movie! It’s a film that can be seen over and over again with a kind of sensual culinary pleasure, with laughter and tears, and lots and lots of love.

Funny, touching, tough.

Il Postino (The Postman)

Il Postino Poster

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.

~ Pablo Neruda, 100 Love Sonnets

On a small, nearly isolated Italian island, a fisherman, Mario Ruoppolo (Massimo Troisi), lives with his father. A rather simple-minded young man, Mario hates being out on boats all day and complains of the moisture, so his father tells him to get a job. One night, at the movies, he sees a newsreel covering the arrival of famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (Philippe Noiret) to Italy.  A communist, Neruda has been exiled by political opponents and has come to live on Mario’s little island.

Mario sees a sign on the door of the post office advertising for a postman with a bicycle to deliver mail. The next morning Mario applies and finds out that it is a part time job to deliver Neruda’s mail.  As he does his job, he begins a dialogue with the poet.  At first, he is looking for an autograph, so he can show he is a friend of great Neruda and get girls, but as he reads the poetry, he discovers that it appeals to him in some way that he can’t explain.  The poetry stirs in him both a desire for love and a desire to fight for the cause of the oppressed.  Wanting to write his own poetry, he asks Pablo how to go about it and that leads to an explanation of metaphors.

When Mario falls in love with Beatrice (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), the niece of the local inn owner, he begs Pablo to help him win her by writing some poetry for him, but the poet refuses, instead giving Mario a beautiful book of paper to begin writing his own poetry. He brings Mario to the inn and signs the book in front of Beatrice.  Using Pablo’s poetry, Mario begins to woo her with great success, so much so that Beatrice’s aunt becomes upset, complaining about the evil metaphors in the poetry.

Massimo Troisi was a beloved Italian actor long before Il Postino, mostly for his wonderful comedic roles.  When he found the book Ardiente paciencia by Antonio Skármeta, he bound himself to the project, committing to not only star in the film, but to help write the screenplay, along with director Michael Radford, Anna Pavignano, Furio Scarpelli, and Giacomo Scarpelli, even though he was having serious heart problems.  He put off surgery in order to the film and dies shortly after it was completed.

The film is beautifully photographed, full of light and color, with the sea surrounding the island always prominent. There is a great deal of Neruda’s poetry included in the movie and it certainly enhances the beauty.  The film’s Academy Award winning score, composed by Luis Enríquez Bacalov, is beautiful and gives the film a heightened sense of the love not only between Mario and Beatrice, but the brotherly love between Mario and Pablo.

Besides the win for film score, it was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screeplay Adaptation. The soundtrack features many well known actors reading Neruda’s poetry to the film score.  Some of the readers include Julia Roberts, who backed the project, Glenn Close, Ethan Hawke, Andy Garcia, Madonna, and Wesley Snipes, among others.

This is an excellent film. It is beautiful, full of poetry, music, and love.  In Italian, with subtitles in English, it runs an hour and forty-eight minutes.

Roman Holiday

This classic romantic comedy is as much fun today as it was when the film was first released in 1953. It is built around two lies of identity told to each other by the main characters so that they can spend a day together in Rome.

Audry Hepburn Roman HolidayPrincess Ann (Audrey Hepburn in her first starring role) of some unnamed kingdom is touring the capitals of Europe on a goodwill tour and has landed in Rome, her last stop. Young, bored with her grueling daily schedule, and rebellious against her keepers, the Princess throws a fit of pique at her bedtime and is given a shot of sedative to help her sleep.  Before the shot can take effect, however, she quickly dresses and sneaks out of the embassy in the back of a service truck.  As she wanders the streets of Rome alone, she falls asleep on a public bench.

Foreign correspondent Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck), after losing badly in a poker game with his pal, photographer Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) and other reporters, heads home, but spots Ann sleeping on her bench. Concerned for the girl’s welfare, he tries to wake her up and put her in a taxi, but she can’t function without him, so he brings her back to his tiny apartment and lets her sleep on his ottoman.  The next afternoon, while she’s still sleeping, he goes into his office, sure that he’ll get in trouble for missing the Princess’s press conference.  Not knowing that the meeting has been canceled due to a royal “illness,” he tries to convince his boss, Mr. Hennessy (Hartley Power), that he has interviewed her and narrowly avoids getting fired over his lie.  However, when he sees a picture of the Princess in the paper, he realizes that she’s the girl in his apartment and he may be able to get a terrific story out of it.

Gregory Peck Roman HolidayHiding his identity from Ann, Joe plays the part of an innocent American businessman on holiday and she makes up the name Smith (Smitty) so that he won’t think she’s a princess. In this regard, he takes unfair advantage of her.  While he knows who she is, she has no idea that he’s a reporter trying to get a story.  He proposes that they spend the day doing all of the things she’s always wanted to do.  He ropes Irving into coming along for most of the day to take pictures of her using his cigarette lighter camera.  Ann gets a haircut, eats at a sidewalk café, goes riding on a scooter with Joe, and goes dancing on a boat, all liberating her in ways she’d never imagined.  As Joe gets his story, he begins to fall in love with her and she with him.

Part of the movie’s strong appeal when it was released was that England–indeed, the whole world–was then currently enthralled in Princess Margaret’s love affair with a commoner, Peter Townsend.

The other part almost exclusively relates to Audrey Hepburn’s stunning debut. Although she had appeared on Broadway, acclaimed in performing the title role in Gigi, she was virtually unknown in the world of film and took the industry by storm with her performance in Roman Holiday.  Under William Wyler’s expert direction, her performance is restrained and vulnerable, yet one never doubts that she is absolutely extraordinary, a real princess, and a true beauty.  Among the awards she received was the Academy Award, the Golden Globe, the BAFTA, and the New York Film Critics Circle Award, all for Best Actress.  She was aided by Edith Head’s amazing costumes, which also earned an Oscar.

Roman HolidayGregory Peck and Eddie Albert are perfect in their roles, too. Peck brings a calmness and dignity to the hard-nosed reporter that elevates the role far beyond what it might have been and he is the perfect foil for Hepburn.  They have a chemistry that is truly magnetic.  Albert is almost unrecognizable as Irving.  With a beard and full head of hair, he adds a Bohemian element to the role that really makes him seem a natural part of the European scene.

The script was written by John Dighton and the great film screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, but because he was blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee, Trumbo did not receive credit for his writing. Instead, author Ian McLellan Hunter was listed on the credits and was nominated, along with Dighton for the Academy Award for Best Screenplay.  The pair actually won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Comedy, but Hunter’s award was later transferred to Trumbo’s widow Cleo in 1993.

William Wyler’s direction is superb. He decided to shoot the film in black and white, even though color in vogue in 1953 and, in retrospect, it was a great decision.  The beauty of Audrey Hepburn is truly shown to great advantage, as is the chiseled manly face Gregory Peck.  The third major star of the film is Rome itself.  Wyler decided to shoot the film entirely on location, a notion that Hollywood shunned at the time, preferring to shoot all their films on the back lots of the studios, using rear projection of world-famous landscapes and buildings.  In Roman Holiday, again, the black and white film loves the city in its pre-gaudy, non-Felliniesque gray tones.  The coliseum, the churches, the plazas, sidewalk cafés and little scooters running around everywhere gives the movie a truly authentic aura that meshes so well with Hepburn and Peck’s performances.

The DVD includes a terrific documentary, “Remembering Roman Holiday,” the featurettes “Restoring Roman Holiday” and “Edith Head – The Paramount Years,” plus photo galleries and some really interesting trailers, including Audrey Hepburn’s interview following her screen test and her modeling some of Edith Head’s costumes.

Funny, beautiful, frolicsome, Roman Holiday remains one of the great classic love stories of all time and should be seen by everyone–should, in fact, be a part of everyone’s film collection.