Author Archives: Marco Trevisiol

About Marco Trevisiol

Born and resides in Melbourne, Australia.

Was Irving Thalberg right about the Marx Brothers or: How I learned to stop worrying and love their MGM films



Whenever the topic of the Marx Brothers and their cinema careers is discussed these days, it’s become conventional wisdom to state that their earlier Paramount films were superior to their later MGM films.

This 2013 article from the now defunct website The Dissolve sums up this perspective. Namely that while MGM producer Irving Thalberg saved their careers after they’d fallen out of favour at Paramount, their 5 MGM films as a whole were weaker than their 5 Paramount films. This is because the 5 Paramount films showcased Groucho, Chico, Harpo & Zeppo at their anarchic hilarious best with virtually no restrictions placed on them whatsoever. In contrast, their MGM films (minus Zeppo) saw them become less inspired and zany, the jokes reduced, overblown musical numbers appeared more often and significant time wasted with boring romantic subplots involving even more boring personalities. The Paramount films may have been cheaper and more rudimentary but they contained the Marx Brothers at their peak.

This conventional wisdom – which has been around for a while – seems to be taken a step further these days. Just the other week I was heard on a podcast an expert on Marx Brothers say that ALL of their Paramount films were superior to even the best of the MGM films, specifically ‘A Night At The Opera’. This is a pretty amazing change in perspective as for decades ‘A Night At The Opera’ and their final Paramount film ‘Duck Soup’ were battling it out for what considered the best film of their illustrious career.

Indeed, growing up I felt pretty much the same watching the Marx Brothers films. Their final Paramount film ‘Duck Soup’ was my favourite not only because it had an insane amount of great jokes but because it didn’t have the endless music numbers that the MGM films or the Chico piano/Harpo harp solos which seemed like unnecessary intermissions from the comedy.

One on occasion when their first MGM film ‘A Night At The Opera’ came on TV, we actually edited out the romantic subplot and the music numbers so we could just have the 40 minutes of pure comedy. It was like YouTube before YouTube existed!
Time marches on and I hadn’t seen a Marx Brothers film for close to 20 years when the opportunity arose recently to watch a bunch of their MGM films and see how they held up. And I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed all of them on their own terms, even without edits.

It brought back to mind the process by which they were brought over to MGM by Irving Thalberg. His philosophy basically was that the brothers couldn’t be completely anarchic that they had to be helping people (usually a young romantic couple) to get more audience sympathy towards them. Also, he believed in reducing and spacing out the amount of jokes so audience laughter wouldn’t drown out the next rapid-fire joke. And also he believed in using MGM’s great resources for more elaborate music numbers, some with the Marx Brothers but not always.

It’s fair to say that these changes Thalberg installed (who died tragically young in 1936) – while well received by critics back in the day – are now considered at the heart of the decline of the Marx Brothers as a cinematic force.

It is true that there are issues with the Marx Brothers MGM films, especially the last three made after Thalberg’s untimely death. Post-Thalberg the studio seemed to lose a bit of interest in them and the A-Grade gloss and production they were given in ‘A Night At The Opera’ and ‘A Day At The Races’ is downgraded. The straight romantic leads get worse, the plots seem a bit more ho-hum and many of the musical numbers are dull and not even that well-staged.

But while many carp about what’s absent from the MGM Marx Brothers films, too often it’s forgotten how much good stuff there still is in them. Their most acclaimed MGM film ‘A Night At The Opera’ has more laughs than probably all of the comedies released this decade combined. One only need to look at the Quotes section on its IMDB page to see the incredible array of great one-liners it had. And of course this excludes all the great silent comedy Harpo provides.
Even what is widely considered to be their weakest MGM film, ‘The Big Store’, has some great comedic scenes, particularly an early scene where Groucho & Harpo are trying to fool a potential client that they are a prestigious detective agency.

And the bigger budgets MGM were able to offer over Paramount could be used not just for surface gloss, but for impressive comedic scenes. For example the finale to ‘Go West’ where the Marx Brothers are driving a train to overtake the bad guys while totally dismantling the train at the same time is a marvellous comedic and technical scene, and above all else a great demonstration of the comedy team actually being good guys while being total anarchists.

And, as derided as it is by Marx Brothers aficionados, Thalberg’s belief that having the brothers act not as total anarchists and instead be helping other characters actually works for me. It’s not like they’ve abandoned their anti-establishment ethos; they’re almost always helping out individuals who are being pushed around by people in power, whether they be pompous establishment types and/or powerful crooked businessmen. And they not only save the day but totally humiliate those in power in the process.

To be sure, the later MGM films began to seem tired and uninspired. Especially their MGM farewell ‘The Big Store’ which has some misfiring comic routines, a neverending musical number ‘The Tenement Symphony’ whose negative reputation is fully deserved and it’s rather sad to see stunt men obviously standing in for the Marx Brothers during the action finale.

But overall, rewatching four of their MGM films again was a highly enjoyable experience. I think the critical consensus now has gotten too negative to these films. Perhaps they don’t reach the inspired lunacy of their peak Paramount efforts but they have so much pleasurable to offer. Just enjoy them for their own sake.

Other films that opened in the USA, February 2017


As we went a couple of weekends in February without doing posts documenting the films released on those weekends, I thought I would fill in the gaps by documenting them here

The Great Wall (IMDB rating 6.3) – Notable as being a major hybrid US/China film aiming to create a blockbuster and appealing to both countries, this Matt Damon starring action film has had a poor critical reaction and disappointing financial results (in both America & China) so that concept will be put on hold for now seemingly.

Fist Fight (5.8) – A film based around a looming fist fight between two teachers after one gets the other fired seems a pretty thin concept for a feature-length film and judging by its IMDB rating and critical reaction, it didn’t seem to be up to the task. Certainly the trailer suggests it all has the negative clichés of modern Hollywood ‘comedies’: crude, clumsy and no sense of comic timing at all.

A Cure For Wellness (6.6) – Watching the trailer for this film about a mysterious ‘wellness’ clinic made it seem initially intriguing but this is a classic case of a trailer giving away far too much of its narrative so it ended my interest in it. A box office flop and critically maligned.

Everybody Loves Somebody (6.6) – Mexican film about a woman running into complications when she gets a co-worker to pose as a boyfriend for a family wedding

Keep Quiet – (6.1)  Documentary about a European politician who is openly anti-Semetic… only to discover that he is Jewish!
XX (4.7) – Something that used to be quite common back in the late 1960s/early 1970s (especially in British cinema) – a horror anthology. In this case its four stories all written and directed by women. Unusually for a horror-related film it’s been much better received by critics than by the public judging by its IMDB rating.

From Nowhere (7.3) – This story of undocumented teenagers trying to not only stay in school but stay in the USA certainly seems timely considering the political climate at present in the country and it certainly seems to have struck a chord with critics and at film festivals leading to it getting a release. Also of interest is that the director is Australian Matt Newton who is from a very well-known and successful showbiz family and had developed a fairly successful acting/director career in the 2000s before constant public headlines for his behaviour and legal troubles stopped it in its tracks. Having relocated to the USA this seems like an impressive first step in rebuilding his career.

Lovesong (6.4) – Relationship drama between two female friends which uses that old trope of the low-budget indy film – the impromptu road trip! Well-received by critics according to Rotten Tomatoes

Get Out (8.3) – One of the most significant films of the year for multiple reasons. A breakout box-office smash that has had an enormously positive critical response (99% on RT) and clearly had a very positive public response. These aren’t qualities you usually associate with a horror film. Its racial and socio-economic elements certainly seem to have helped it strike a chord amongst the USA public in these politically tumultuous times.

Rock Dog (5.6) – Animated film which apparently is another China/USA co-effort which like The Great Wall has flopped at the box office. Luke Wilson provides one of the voices who seems to have completely disappeared this decade after being everywhere in the 2000s.

Autobahn (5.7) – This action film about drug smuggling and the like has a a troubled history – originally scheduled for release in 2015 but the distributor went bust and it’s limped out to virtually no interest. Even the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley and up-and-comers like Felicity Jones in the cast hasn’t saved it from public apathy and critical derision.

Bitter Harvest (7.2) – Judging by the critical reaction and trailer, this mixture of romance and war in 1930s Soviet Union/Ukraine seems like a cornball version of Dr Zhivago. Has a decent IMDB rating though.

My Life as a Courgette (7.9) – This stop-motion European animated film was Oscar nominated for Best Animated Feature and considering it has a 100% RT rating, that isn’t a surprise. Certainly seems like one to watch out for.

Fabricated City (7.9) – South Korean film about a person trying to prove his innocence with the help of his virtual gaming friends certainly feels like a more modern narrative than most films.

Pelle The Conqueror (2017 re-release) (7.9) – Re-release of the 1987 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, starring Max Von Sydow.

Review: Bright Lights Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds (TV) (2016)



When a documentary on the famed mother/daughter combination called ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ was in the works last year, it already promised to be a notable event.

Reynolds and then Fisher both had been part of pop culture for over 60 years and had rather similar careers; both had one film that defined their lives, both were multi-talented enough that when their film careers stalled they were able to successfully branch out into other areas (Fisher with screenwriting, Reynolds on Broadway and cabaret) and both had messy private lives that often played out in public

But when they tragically died almost simultaneously late last year, this documentary carried extra weight and poignancy to it and its release was brought forward due to public interest.

The documentary isn’t a traditional biography on Reynolds & Fisher; it’s more a potted history of them mixed with fly-on-the-wall observations of their lives interspersed with old home movies. Also, while this documentary is portrayed as a joint Reynolds/Fisher take, it really is largely from Fisher’s point of view and is mainly her story and her perspectives on her mother and life in general.

As a take on Carrie Fisher’s life, the overall impression one gets is that she was finally at peace with herself and the life she had lived. She was at peace with the tumult of her childhood when her father Eddie Fisher left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor which became a huge international story. While it isn’t directly said, clearly the whole saga had a major impact on her psyche for decades; how could it not?

We see Carrie at peace with her relationship with Debbie, which had at times been on rocky ground in previous decades. We see them live next door to each other with both of them bantering and conversing like they’re an older version of the mother/daughter from The Gilmore Girls.

Also, we see Carrie at peace in her relationship with her father Eddie Fisher. In perhaps the most poignant segment of the documentary, we see Carrie taking care of Eddie only months before his death in 2010. To see Eddie – once one of the most popular singers in America – sickly and incapacitated sharing tender moments with a daughter who’d he had a difficult relationship with, is genuinely moving.

And we see Carrie at peace with her eternal fame from the Star Wars franchise. We see her at a fan convention (something she only took to late in life) signing autographs and conversing with people of all ages who see her as a heroic figure. Fame overwhelmed her when it hit in the late 70s (especially as she had no desire to be an actress) but as she discusses after the convention she clearly has come to terms with how much her role and performance have meant to others.

A great asset of the documentary is the plethora of home movie footage it shows of Reynolds/Fisher in the early years right down to Carrie at The Great Wall Of China in the 1980s. The most significant home movie footage from a Reynolds cabaret show in the early 1970s where a reluctant Carrie is brought on to stage to impressively sing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. To then see Reynolds in the present day get emotional at how Carrie never wanted to sing publicly is touching.

As for Reynolds, we get to see her perform in the present day in her one-woman shows. It’s rather sad in one way as she clearly struggles at times (her health problems are a constant theme throughout the documentary) but the admiring older audience at the shows don’t seem to mind and are glad that she’s still performing after so many decades.

As a documentary, ‘Bright Lights’ is rather frustrating at times. It jumps about in time constantly and feels a bit messy, although the closing stages surrounding Debbie receiving a SAG Lifetime Achievement award helps give it focus. Also, one feels that the documentary might’ve had better structure and purpose if the documentary had been told from the perspective of Carrie’s brother Todd (who does provide observation & narration on occasion).

But perhaps ‘Bright Lights’ is better served by its rather messy style than being a more traditional style as it isn’t about providing a comprehensive analysis of Debbie & Carrie’s lives, but capturing what made them tick and observing the chaos and contradictions they lived through. And especially with Carrie, it does seem to capture her essence as a personality and what made her so appealing to the public during her life.

Overall, ‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher And Debbie Reynolds’ is a worthy celebration of two remarkable lives.

Review: The Founder



During the 2000s Michael Keaton’s film career had fallen into the abyss. It was a mixture of non-starters and thankless roles in films no one liked much where he played the father of a popular young female star of the time. It appeared the comedic and dramatic talents he’d displayed in 1980s and 1990s cinema weren’t going to be seen on the big screen again.

But out of nowhere he came right back into the spotlight in the past couple of years, getting rave reviews for prominent roles in two consecutive Best Picture winners (Birdman & Spotlight). And his performance in John Lee Hancock’s ‘The Founder’ may be the best work he’s ever done.

In this true story, Keaton stars as Ray Kroc, a struggling salesman in mid-1950s America with a wife (Laura Dern) tired of their struggles and his long absences on the road. His life changes when he is intrigued by a fast food restaurant called McDonalds run by two brothers (Nick Offerman & John Carroll Lynch) that seems far superior to all the other diners he’s been at throughout the country. In a marvellous extended sequence, the McDonald brothers explain how they came up with a restaurant that delivers burgers faster and more efficiently than anyone else around. Kroc sees the enormous potential and starts up franchises of the format to great success. But soon the McDonalds & Kroc come into major conflict into how the business should be run and Kroc pulls out all the stops to win the battle.

There are multiple reasons as to why ‘The Founder’ works so well; firstly in demonstrating the battle between the McDonalds and Kroc and how they’re a metaphor for how America operated during the 20th century. The McDonalds belong to the first half of that century, utilising hard work and knowhow to develop a successful, well-run business that they can take pride in. For them that’s the American Dream.

But unfortunately for them they’re now in the 2nd half of the 20th Century and a different mindset amongst American business and culture is developing, represented by Kroc. It isn’t enough to be a good stand-alone small business, you’ve got to expand and dominate the market. Not only should you look to expand statewide, but countrywide and then globally.

Kroc is the personification of this mentality. He may not have created the McDonalds concept but he knows how to market and exploit it and in the latter stages of 20th Century America that becomes more significant. Constantly throughout the film we see Kroc chaffing at the restrictions imposed on him to exploit the brand by the old-style, more considered McDonalds brothers and something has got to give. Eventually Kroc transforms into a ruthless businessman who (notwithstanding a large lump sum) takes everything from the brothers, right down to their surname.

For this to convince (even though it’s a true story) we have to be convinced that Kroc is transformed from a likeable, frustrated, battling salesman to the ruthless businessman who will destroy and discard anyone who doesn’t fit into his mindset. It’s a difficult challenge but Keaton is fully up to the task. The role is a great fit of not only his manic comedy energy but the ruthlessness and cold-blooded nature he displayed in his more villainous roles. He doesn’t make Kroc a hero or even entirely a villain but a real characterisation of someone who was sinking in life and decided that to rise above the waves he wouldn’t let anyone stand in his way, not even his wife.

In the early stages of the film I was dreading the domestic scenes between Kroc and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) as I thought it would go through the standard domestic clichés that films like this do; but here it’s far more interesting. We see in the early scenes when Kroc is struggling that while there’s a level of discontent between the two, they seem to get along fine. If Kroc had remained a battling salesman all his life, they probably would’ve stayed married till death; but this isn’t that story. As Kroc becomes successful and admired for his business acumen, it’s clear that it’s leading to a rift in the marriage because the roles have become reversed. When he was struggling, she could mildly admonish him for not being stable enough for them to enjoy their middle-class existence. But when he becomes a successful entrepreneur, he has desires for an upper-class elite lifestyle and she is stuck in wanting the modest suburban existence. Even though the end for them comes in a sudden and callous manner, it makes sense with how their relationship deteriorated.

Director John Lee Hancock takes an interesting style to the film. Considering there’s pretty ruthless behaviour and devastated individuals during the latter stages, he could’ve easily made it into a downbeat, sombre affair about the ruthlessness of modern American capitalism but instead gives it a fairly breezy, light touch (perhaps because he’s more sympathetic to Kroc’s behaviour than most would be?). In anycase, I think it works well as it treats Kroc objectively instead of one-note monster, and giving insight into how and why he became the ruthless and cruel corporate power he was.

Overall, ‘The Founder’ is an excellent film that amongst its other virtues gives fascinating insight and detail into how McDonalds became the worldwide phenomenon it still is today. And it also contains at its centre an outstanding Michael Keaton performance that might enable him to get the Oscar some thought he was going to get a couple of years ago.

Films that opened in the USA Oct 21-23, 2016


Boo! A Madea Halloween (IMDB rating 4.8) – I’ve never seen any of the Madea films but I wouldn’t be alone here in Australia as afaik none of them have ever had a cinematic release here in Australia. As it is, at what appears to the 10th Madea film in the series managed to top the US box office. The films never do well with critics (or IMDB ratings) but clearly a significant section of the population love seeing Perry and his creation.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (6.4) – This is getting amongst the weaker reviews for Tom Cruise in his lengthy career as – whatever you think of him – he’s maintained a pretty impressive standard in his film work for someone who’s been almost exclusively mainstream Hollywood for his career. It would be interesting to see him try some character roles instead of the endless action/Reacher/MI films he’s been in in recent years.

Ouija: Origins Of Evil (6.8) – This is a modern rarity: a horror film with an excellent RT score. Seems pretty interesting going by its trailer – certainly the scariest trailer that’s ever had a Herman’s Hermits Song.

Keeping Up With The Joneses (5.4) – This comedy seemed promising; a time-worn but potentially amusing plot, a promising cast (reckon Jon Hamm would be great in the right comedy vehicle) and a director who has had some acclaimed films. But all indicators are that this is a misfire as it’s had terrible reviews (including one in the local paper here in Oz), poor imdb rating and even worse box office. That it’s release was delayed by six months was probably a warning sign. Seems like the umpteenth modern Hollywood comedy that is a misfire.

I’m Not Ashamed (6.4) – Story of one of the students who died in the 1999 Columbine school massacre and her Christian beliefs and perspective. Amongst the cast is 1970s star Jennifer O’Neill who apparently has been married 9 times!
Moonlight (8.6) – Youth drama (with Brad Pitt as one of the producers) which has got excellent IMDB and RT ratings.

El Jeremias (7.8) – Mexican family film.

American Pastoral (6.3) – Based on an acclaimed Phillip Roth novel looking at 1960s/1970s US society, this potentially could’ve been one of the most notable films of the year. But it critical and public reaction suggests its a disappointing misfire; perhaps star Ewan McGregor in his debut directorial effort bit off more than he could chew.

ISM (7.8) – Indian drama

Luck-Key (2016) – South Korean drama about an assassin who gets amnesia (see, not only Ron Howard films use this plot device) and becomes an actor.
The Hand-Maiden (8.0) – South Korean period film which has had much critical acclaim and was nominated for the Palme D’Or this year.

Michael Moore In Trumpland (5.9) – Michael Moore on his Twitter account has been pumping up the ‘record-breaking’ box office figures for this hastily-assembled film of his one-man show about the upcoming election. But in truth box-office mentions just highlight how far he’s fallen from 2004 when Farenheit 9/11 was a major cultural event (and a huge box office hit) that even here in Australia had people writing film reviews of it in the news section of the newspaper. You could dislike Moore back then, but you couldn’t ignore him.
Now, his influence has dissipated significantly, and this documentary which is apparently a love letter to Hillary Clinton (almost as unpopular as Trump and widely seen as the epitome of the political establishment) probably won’t help much.

In a Valley of Violence (6.0) – This American Western starring Ethan Hawke & John Travolta has gotten strong critical reviews (76%). With this and his great turn in the OJ miniseries, Travolta may be making yet another successful comeback against the odds

Tampopo (7.9) – Acclaimed 1985 Japanese film has been restored and re-released

King Cobra (7.1) – Biopic about a gay porn star has an interesting cast starring James Franco and various notable 80s/90s stars appearing in rare film modern-day film appearances (Alicia Silverstone, Molly Ringwald, Christian Slater).

Wildflower (6.4) – American drama

We are X (8.7) – Documentary film about a Japanese rock band called… well the title gives it away

Spices Of Liberty (4.8) – Story of immigrants in America

It Had To Be You (7.5) – A neurotic jingle writer is offered marriage and has to weigh up whether to become married or pursue her fantasies. If this doesn’t sound like a cliché of modern American indy film it’s in there pitching.

Ugly, Dirty & Bad (7.9) – Re-release of a 1976 Italian black comedy

The Uncondemned (9.6) – US documentary

Review: Inferno



A decade ago I saw at the cinema the film version Dan Brown’s book ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Highly anticipated due to the success of the book, the film was considered a disappointment by many (although a big box-office hit) although I enjoyed it for what it was. While it never reached a level of profundity it perhaps desired, in terms of a throwaway mystery it was satisfying, with the mysteries worked out by main character Robert Langdon quite fun and the history and scenery of old Europe giving it a cultural aspect unusual in Hollywood big-budget films.

I didn’t see the 2009 followup ‘Angels And Demons’ and hadn’t really given any recent thought to any of the Dan Brown books/films, but because of circumstances I had the chance to see the third film in the series Inferno’ last night at the cinema and took it, hoping that would provide the same level of entertainment that The Da Vinci Code did. Alas, it was not to be.

The film dives right into the action with Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awaking in an Italian hospital having suffered injuries and amnesia after being apparently attacked. Still groggy, he is rushed out of his hospital room by the doctor taking care of him (Felicity Jones) when an assassin attempts to kill him. Eventually it becomes clear it’s all associated with a plot by wealthy geneticist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) to severely reduce the world’s population. But how can Langdon save the day, not only still unwell but especially as most things aren’t what they seem?

Among the many things ‘Inferno’ gets wrong, probably its biggest one is forgetting how Langdon’s using his historical knowledge of ancient culture and artefacts to work out mysteries and provide knowledge was the most entertaining aspect of TDVC. We do get occasional mystery solving and bits of knowledge (you do learn where the word ‘quarantine’ comes from) but far too little.

And what we get instead isn’t impressive. Director Ron Howard – perhaps trying to compensate for the thinness of the material – frantically overdirects the film’s many action scenes and endless horror nightmares using every cinematic trick he knows. But instead of these scenes being exciting, the action scenes feel incoherent and uninteresting and the nightmare scenes are so overhyped they almost descend into parody territory. In his desire to make the film cutting-edge, Howard makes the film and his own directorial style seem distinctly old-hat.

Indeed a lot of this film seems to be based around things that would’ve been considered clichéd generations ago, starting with the central character having amnesia… an amnesia that of course that doesn’t impact the plot when required.

Even in minor details the film feels hackneyed. Whenever the film moves to a different location, we not only get the name of the city displayed but the time displayed. If the film made use of its race-against-the-clock concept it might be of value, but instead it almost feels like something you’d see in an Abrahams/Zucker film. And of course whenever a character uses the Internet or play a YouTube it occurs instally just as it never does in real life.

Also, we see a scene where there’s video evidence of Langdon stealing a precious artefact (Langdon can’t remember due to his memory) and I’m still not clear how this was resolved. As well, would a geneticist like Zoborist really be a billionaire?

There aren’t many positives to be had from ‘Inferno’. Irrfan Khan is enjoyable as a mysterious high-level security operative, the film gets a bit more interesting in the closing 25 minutes once a revelation is made about a major character and the scenery of various European cities is lovely to look at on the big screen.

But overall, just about everything about ‘Inferno’ seems tired, uninspired and dreary; even Tom Hanks can’t do much to save it. In the lengthy career of Ron Howard, this would have to go down as one of his weakest directorial efforts.

Films that opened in USA on Oct 7-9, 2016


Know it’s late but always like to keep a record of the films that opened in the US since this blog started, especially because if we see one of these films we can post a comment in the related thread:

The Girl On The Train (IMDB rating 6.7) – A big hit in America last weekend, and an even bigger hit here in Australia (where it was heavily marketed for weeks). Not really of interest to me and after seeing the trailer, even less so. Interesting to note that in supporting roles are Alison Janney, Laura Prepon & Lisa Kudrow – all who had roles on highly-successful TV series in the late 90s/early 00s era.

The Birth Of A Nation (5.6) – This was such a ‘hot’ film coming out of Sundance that many were talking about it being a major Oscar contender for months. But controversy over events from star/director Nate Parker’s past appear to have ended that speculation, with the lacklustre opening box office not helping. The oddly low IMDB rating suggests something similar to the Ghostbusters remarke; people who haven’t seen it piling on it because of Parker’s past, or perhaps the film’s ideology in his heavily politically charged year in the US.

Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life (5.8) – Has a low IMDB rating but the trailer for this school comedy actually makes it look pretty fun. Interesting trivia note: this is the first film for director Steve Carr to get a ‘fresh’ RT rating after 8 rottens.

Premam (8.4) – Indian romantic drama

The Greasy Strangler (5.8) – Saw a headline suggesting this offbeat black comedy may be the weirdest movie ever and after seeing a trailer, they may be right! Seems to be worth a look

Asura: The City Of Madness (7.0) – South Korean crime thriller
Under The Shadow (7.5) – Horror film set in 1980s Iran.

The Battle Of Algiers (8.1) – Appears to be a reissue of the great 1960s historical war film. Was lucky enough to see this on the big screen several years ago and highly recommend it – my abiding memory of it is a quieter scene where the Colonel in charge of the occupation (under fire from media over his conduct of the occupation) asks the media whether they support the occupation; when they say they do they’re exposed as not really being oppositional at all.

Being 17 (7.3) – French drama

Newtown (5.5) – Doco on how a town recovers from a mass shooting. The user comments on the IMDB site for this are rather disconcerting.

Blue Jay (7.4) – Romantic drama (filmed in a week) in seemingly mumblecore style written and starring one of the prominent members of that style, Mark Duplass. Also starring Sarah Paulson who was sensational in the great OJ mini-series. Looking at the trailer and it being filmed in B&W, reminded me a bit of the late 00s film In Search of A Midnight Kiss which I reviewed here many years ago

Theo Who Lived (7.2) – Doco on an American journalist captured by Al-Qaeda.

The Hollow (5.3) – US murder investigation thriller.

Homeland (N/A) – War-related film about a citizen of war-torn Syria living in Sweden.

Review: Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)



When trying to understand the significance of a great filmmaker, sometimes it’s more insightful to look at their less successful films or when their career is in decline. A good example is famed writer/director Billy Wilder and his 1964 film ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’.

Wilder had many peaks during his lengthy and illustrious career but his run of three exceptional films from 1959 to 1961 – ‘Some Like It Hot’, ‘The Apartment’ & ‘One, Two, Three’ was never bettered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Wilder’s career never reached such heights again and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ was made when Wilder’s career was beginning its steady decline, culminating in 1981’s abysmal ‘Buddy Buddy’.

But ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is probably more valuable for study anyone interested in Wilder’s career as it showcases his significant strengths as a filmmaker but also the weaknesses that began to develop in his work from this point onwards.
The plot of ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ sees Orville Spooner (Ray Waltson)as a small-town frustrated piano teacher looking to break out of his dreary lifestyle by becoming a famed songwriter with friend Barney (Cliff Osmond). Their opportunity arises when they dismantle the car of popular singer Dino (Dean Martin, obviously playing a variant on himself) driving through town. But because of Dino’s voracious sexual appetite, Orville is obliged to send his wife out of town and have local prostitute Polly (Kim Novak) pretend to be her. But things get only more complex from there.

‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fascinating mix of old-style and modern cinema. Watching the film in its black & white photography, long takes and limited camera movement, the film could easily pass for a film made 10, even 15 years before.
But whereas its filming style wasn’t ‘modern’, its content certainly was. In fact, the film not only feels modern by 1964 standards, watching it today one is surprised by how it didn’t just stop at innuendo but actually followed through with multiple infidelities carried through by central characters. Even in this era of ‘raunchy’ comedies, if a mainstream film like this were made today it wouldn’t go as far as ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ does.

Also, like most of Wilder’s post-1961 films, ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ feels slower and longer (at around 124 minutes) than it needs to be. Perhaps this is because Wilder was first and foremost a writer and was reluctant to condense his words when possible and didn’t have the deftness the best directors have to make a film more succinct without any value being lost.

Probably the film’s biggest problem though is the casting (or miscasting) of Ray Walston as Orville. In a role crying out for Wilder regular Jack Lemmon, Walston displays none of the vulnerability or likability required to pull off a difficult role. Indeed, an early comic scene where he chases a music student out of his home out of paranoid jealousy leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth because of the way Walston plays it. One wonders if a more likable central performer had been in the role, that all of the claims of moral indecency wouldn’t have surfaced?

But for all that’s wrong with ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’, there is a lot that’s right with it and that includes Wilder’s script (written with long-time collaborator I.A.L Diamond). It may be not the best script they ever wrote but compared to many of today’s comedies that almost try to make virtues of having no sense of timing or narrative, it feels like a comparative masterpiece. One of the refreshing aspects of a Wilder film is how well-organised and structured they are. And ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is very well put together from a plot structure point of view with all the main characters reaching resolutions of some kind.
Wilder/Diamond scripts always felt well-structured plot wise in that they accommodated narrative and key character resolutions and ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is no exception. And their famed comic one-liners are backed up by lots of nice little details; for example how a local hardware store is incorporated deftly into the film.

Apart from the Walston,, the cast does a pretty good job and it bats pretty deep with the likes of John Fielder, Alice Pearce and even Mel Blanc appearing in small roles. Dean Martin is obviously having a ball mocking his own persona and Kim Novak (someone who I’d previously felt was a dull performer) gives the film zest as Polly.

A fascinating part of the film from a sociological perspective is how the dream of the central characters is to become great songwriters as they were not only financially successful but were revered figures in American culture. Indeed, many of the most famous ones like Cole Porter were household names. And yet just as the film was getting made the new wave of popular musicians like The Beatles (who are referenced in the film) and Bob Dylan were becoming famous for not only being great performers but writing and composing their own material. As a result the role of the pure songwriter/composer was – while not redundant – going to be far down the pecking scale when it came to fame and fortune.

Back to Billy Wilder, why did his career gradually decline from mid-60s onwards when his skills, cynicism and preparedness to take on ‘adult’ subjects suggested he could’ve prospered in the permissive Hollywood cinema of the 1960s and 1970s? One reason is – as already mentioned – a technique issue as his old-style filmmaking would’ve seemed out of whack with the increasingly inventive, risk-taking and ground-breaking style of 1970s cinema.

But more significantly while Wilder was always prepared to attack aspects of American society, it would usually only go so far. Often he’d direct his scorn towards those on the lower rungs of society as being full of deviousness and hypocrisy such as struggling screenwriters, scheming lawyers or those trying to make a quick buck. But Wilder never seemed to direct his criticism at American society as a whole and its institutions that helped create a culture develop where ordinary citizens would act so cravenly. And in the ‘New Hollywood’ of the 1970s that tended to criticise American society overall and show more empathy for those at the bottom of the social ladder, Wilder’s satire felt more brittle and nasty instead of incisive as it had once been.

Nevertheless, despite these issues ‘Kiss Me, Stupid’ is a fine film worth seeking out, especially for those despairing at the standards of modern mainstream Hollywood comedies.

The top 100 film of the 21st Century (so far)


A story of note in the movie world was the BBC publishing the results of a survey of 177 film critics from dozens of countries about what the best films of the 21st century are to date. They have a detailed not only to the results but all 177 top 10 lists which is arguably more interesting (website is here).

Inevitably the results led to much discussion and debate, so why not do that here?
The top 10 were:
10. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)
9. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)
8. Yi Yi: A One and a Two (Edward Yang, 2000)
7. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)
4. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

Suffice to say it certainly has an international flavour as isn’t heavily biased towards American cinema (or English-language cinema) as has often been the case with lists like this in the past.

Personally, I’m not really qualified to comment on them as I’ve seen very few – probably less than 20 – but I do have some observations.

The biggest surprise in the top 100 list was the absence absence of any Alexander Payne films. Notwithstanding that his best film was probably done last century (Election) and I always haven’t been satisifed by his recent films, he’s still a high-class filmmaker who has usually had a high rep amongst critics. To be specific, Sideways was one of the most acclaimed films of its year and I thought would’ve been a certainty to be in the top 100, yet only two out of the 177 critics mentioned it. And About Schmidt (definitely one of my favourite films this century) didn’t even get mentioned once.

I was also a bit disappointed that some of George Clooney’s best work as actor/director was overlooked – both ‘Good Night… And Good Luck’ and ‘Michael Clayton’ got mentioned by just two critics each. Also, I was surprised at the lack of mentions (two) for ‘Ghost World’ – perhaps it just came too early in the century.
I was interested that Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Margaret’ managed to get as high as 31 on the list. I thought it was a fine film when I saw it but I do wonder whether it would’ve gotten so high if not for being delayed in post-production for years and it became a ’cause celebre’ for some critics.

Looking over the individual submissions, probably the least deserving was such mediocre Hollywood comedies like ‘Bridesmaids’ and ‘Tropic Thunder’ (both voted twice!). And yes, one of the most maligned filmmakers of his era in Michael Bay got a vote from a critic (for ‘Pain And Gain’).


Review: War of the Worlds (2005)


wotw (warning: contains spoilers)

I first saw Steven Spielberg’s War Of The Worlds when it was first released in 2005. Critical response hadn’t been great and star Tom Cruise’s antics while doing publicity were creating a negative aura around it. But I generally enjoyed it although my only vivid memory of it over the years was a scene of throwing a baseball between Cruise and his son that leads to a broken window.

As the years marched on, it’s reputation seems to be cemented as one of Spielberg’s lesser films, a missed opportunity that magnified his weaknesses (especially for the relatively upbeat ending which many critics felt was misguided). Having not seen the film in over a decade, I decided to watch it again the other day and see how it has held up.

This version of WOTW has Cruise playing crane operator Ray Ferrier who is divorced and estranged from his children. While his children are visiting, unusual weather patterns signal something is awry and when an invading alien force arises in the local town, it begins to incinerate most of the nearby humans. Ray and his family escape but with a seemingly unstoppable alien force devastating society, how will they survive?

The startling thing I found watching the film this time is how grim and depressing it is; even in this present day of big-budget films often being cynical and downbeat, WOTW is a particularly harrowing film to take at times.

Undoubtedly the most striking aspect of the film is in the first half when the aliens start to attack the general population. Spielberg manages to genuinely convey the horror of an unstoppable superior force wiping out human lives in an instant, especially through random individuals being turned to dust. It makes one think of the endless modern wars humanity has suffered and the countless lives wasted by an unstoppable military power. Later scenes which briefly show humans being harvested by aliens for their blood and matter-of-factly rummaging through personal human belongings further underline that.

When the focus shifts to Cruise and his family in the film’s second half, the film loses a some of its impact (although still reasonably effective) because it feels a bit misguided and redundant. While perhaps inevitable under conventional narrative structure, WOTW would’ve been a powerful if it had a broader scope and focussed on the whole fate of humanity.

And it’s the prime reason for the most criticised aspect of WOTW – namely the final scene where not Ray returns his daughter to her mother (curiously in a part of town unscathed by alien attacks) and his seemingly dead son returns unscathed. The critical consensus seemed to be that the finale was too positive and unlikely considering the devastation that had occurred previously. I think this criticism is valid to an extent but the seeds for it are laid in the decision the film makes to move its focus from society getting attacked by the aliens to primarily Cruise and family being attacked. Once the film chooses that path, the final scene is inevitable.

Another criticism of the film was that Cruise as a working-class parent (albeit a divorced one) was unconvincing. It is true that this is a very atypical role for him (even now he’s still playing individualistic action heroes) and he doesn’t seem a natural fit for such a role. But that sense of awkwardness actually works in the film’s favour because Cruise’s character has clearly been a poor parent (and husband) that even his own kids are reluctant to call him Dad.

And the underlying theme of the story is how Cruise’s character matures in the most heinous situation possible and becomes the strong parent that he would never have been without the alien invasion. When you factor in all the physicality required for the role, Cruise in the role makes sense and he generally does a good job with it.

Apart from Cruise, there isn’t a chance for many other actors to make an impression. One of them is Dakota Fanning as Ray’s daughter who starts off as one of those know-it-all pre-teener who only seem to exist in the movies and then, when the aliens attack, becoming understandably hysterical at the fear and horror that is surrounding her. Perhaps the filmmakers made her character a self-assured preteen to outline how useless this attitude is in real life? In anycase, while there seemed to be criticism of how hysterical her character was that seemed far more believable than the early scenes.

Another performance of note is Tim Robbins who plays a disturbed individual whose residence Ray and his daughter hide out with for a brief period of time. What’s most effective about his character (helped by Robbins’ whose perfectly cast in the role) is that he has that uneasy mix of being seemingly perceptive one minute, then clearly disturbed the next minute. Eventually it becomes clear that he’s someone who can’t be trusted, leading to a grim realisation from Ray about what must be done.

Overall, WOTW holds up as a generally impressive experience. It misses the potential for greatness by not looking at the big picture of how such an alien invasion would impact humanity on a grand scale and instead focussing on the small beer of the fate of one family, but it’s a fine film and an undervalued work in Spielberg’s career.

Review: California Suite (1978)


californiasuiteposterThe screenwriting career of playwright Neil Simon fascinates me not because of the quality of his work but the critical & popular context they exist in during his heyday and today.

From roughly 1967 to 1983, a film written by Neil Simon was one of the safest guarantees of a hit in mainstream Hollywood; a very rare case of the screenwriter being the main selling point. Simon’s peerless ability for comic one-liners and amusing, relatable characters not only made him popular but critically respected. He got 4 seperate Oscar nominations for his screenplays but multiple actors won Oscars in his films.

And yet today, Simon’s film work has severely diminished in reputation. For example in 1977 Simon’s ‘The Goodbye Girl’ was competing as a Best Picture Oscar nominee against someone not entirely dissimilar in style – Woody Allen for ‘Annie Hall’. And yet while Annie Hall is considered a modern classic whose reputation has grown over the years, The Goodbye Girl is largely forgotten.

Perhaps what seemed amusing and biting in Simon’s work back in the day is now perceived as safe and brittle; certainly few would disagree that he an excessive tendency to rely on one-liners instead of genuine dialogue.

The best way to assess Simon’s work is of course to look back in his films and one such example is the 1978 film ‘California Suite’, directed by Herbert Ross.
Visitors From New York – About a divorced couple meeting up for the first time in years due to a runaway daughter, this all the hallmarks of Simon at his worst; endless one-liners instead of actual dialogue and based on the simplistic contrast between uptight New York lifestyle and the relaxed California lifestyle. But it works, thanks largely to the excellent performances of Jane Fonda and Alan Alda who make it much more substantial than it should be.

Visitors From London – About a married couple visiting for the Oscars ceremony, this is the best of the segments, mainly because (by Simon’s standards) it’s deftly characterised as it’s only at the end we understand what makes the marriage tick. As the wife, Maggie Smith got the Oscar in real life (she doesn’t in the film) but Michael Caine – atypically playing a softly-spoken upper-class type – gives the more impressive performance.

Visitors From Philadelphia – A comic tale about a husband trying to cover up a one-night stand from his wife, the pairing of Walter Matthau and Simon worked wonders in many films. But not here. The slapstick is weakly written and staged by director Herbert Ross and Matthau tries to make up for this with some desperate overacting where he sometimes sounds like Pee-Wee Herman. Elaine May is always a pleasure on-screen but even she can’t save this.

Visitors From Chicago – This story about two married couples and friends bicker relentlessly, leading not to only verbal fights but various physical disasters, is a total misfire. Even at only 25 minutes or so it is over-stretched. The main problem is that there is no context about the constant resentment and niggling between the two husbands; if they can’t stand each other why are they on holiday together? Director Ross’ lack of skill with staging physical humour doesn’t help. Even at the time of release this was seen as the clear weakest segment and the appearance of the now-pariah Bill Cosby in one of the main roles makes it even more uncomfortable to watch.

Overall, California Suite is a good example of Simon’s strengths and weaknesses. At his best, he’s a sharp and funny writer who can create memorable characterisations of a particular milieu. But he also had significant limitations and these are probably why his film work have not lasted the test of time that a contemporary like Woody Allen’s has.

Review: Now You See Me 2


Now_You_See_Me_2_posterRealism and believability were never strong suits of the 2013 magic/heist film ‘Now You See Me’ but but it had enough inventiveness, verve and joie de vivre to make the film an enjoyable experience.

However, the makers of the sequel ‘Now You See Me 2’ (with a new director, Jon M. Chu) in an attempt to outdo the original have ramped up the magic tricks on display to such an absurd level that it makes the first film seem like a gritty Sidney Lumet 1970s New York film. The sense of fun isn’t completely gone but the lack of realism is so shameless that it’s hard to care about the plot or characters this time round.

One minor example of the film’s absurdities occurs at the very beginning where it has a flashback to 1984 where a magician is going to attempt to break out of a safe buried at the bottom of a river. They have much of this scene filmed from the perspective as a live news broadcast hosted by… Morgan Freeman’s character from the first film Thaddeus with the title on-screen of ‘magic debunker’. That someone like this would be hosting a live news broadcast is nonsensical but considering what follows, it feels almost realistic.

Throughout the film the central group of magicians (‘The Four Horsemen’) regularly perform tricks and illusions so impossible that it seems the screenwriters took turns thinking of what would be the most logic-destroying trick imaginable. At one stage Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) falls on his back surrounded by hundreds of people and when he hits the concrete, his body has disappeared but his clothes have remained. These people aren’t characters anymore, they’re cartoonish superheroes.

The height of absurdity is an extensive scene where The Four Horsemen are trying to escape from a heavily-secured room with software chip stuck on the back of a playing card (don’t ask). When they are searched by security, they flick the playing card amongst the four of them in the most elaborate ways possible (why one of them doesn’t hide it after they’ve been searched is a mystery to me).

Scenes like that are so laughably nonsensical that it’s hard to care about any of the narrative or plot elements after this point as it’s clear that depending on plot or character requirements, The Four Horsemen will be able to get out of an impossible situation or get trapped in seemingly easier situations. It’s so arbitrary that one largely loses interest and it feels pointless even going through a rote description of the plot.

Interestingly, the film’s best acting comes from newcomers to the franchise. Radcliffe is fun as the chief villain, Lizzy Caplan with her charisma and comic timing proves to be an improvement over Isla Fisher as one of the Horsemen and Woody Harrelson has campy fun by playing the twin of his character from the first film. However, virtually all of the returning main actors make little impression because there’s nothing new to their characters (or banter) and they’re just going through the same patterns and shtick from the first film.

To be fair to NYSM2, the film still provides some entertainment and fun, especially if you enjoy magic. And the central trick involved in the finale is actually fairly well done (and by the standards of the film, semi-plausible). But overall the film is tiresomely slick and frankly rather tedious to get through. While there’s apparently another sequel planned, it’s one I’ll almost certainly be skipping.

A look back at the (probably) retired Jack Nicholson


NicholsonBack in 2010, Jack Nicholson had a supporting role in the James L Brooks film ‘How Do You Know’. The film was a notorious failure with an uninspired Nicholson performance and was one of the most forgettable films of his illustrious career.
But six years on, perhaps the film has become more noteworthy as having the increasingly likely fact of being the final acting performance of Nicholson. While he has lengthy breaks between films previously they’ve never been at this length and turning 80 next year, one wouldn’t surprise if he has no desire to act again.

In anycase, it’s a good excuse to look over his career as even his detractors would be obliged to admit there have been few more noteworthy actors in American cinema in the past 50 years.

Before Nicholson became a major star at the end of the 1960s, he had spent over a decade in independent, low-budget films in genres ranging from horror to westerns with famed producer Roger Corman often involved. He had also dabbled in screenwriting with some interesting results.

During this period as an actor he had shown flashes of the brillance that was to come but 1960s mainstream Hollywood was still too conventional for someone as idiosyncratic like him to become a major star. As a result, he was often in throwaway, ill-suited films like 1963’s ‘The Terror’ (made in just a few days), playing a French officer in the Napoleon era. Nicholson demanding a castle be opened in the name of the French government in his distinctively non-French accent wasn’t one of his finest moments.

However, things would take a major turn upward for Nicholson with his supporting role as a disheveled lawyer in the 1969 film ‘Easy Rider’. It wasn’t just that Nicholson effectively stole the movie with his effortless charisma, but the success of Easy Rider ushered in a different type of Hollywood film, one where Nicholson’s specific and unique talents for great characterisations wouldn’t put him to the sidelines, but make him perfect for ‘New Hollywood’ and their move away from conventional leading men.

It’s generally agreed that Nicholson’s performances in the 1969 to 1975 era are not only the peak of his career, but are a peak that few actors of any era would reach. Put simply, Nicholson was essential and compelling viewing like few others in this period as he made a wide array of characters seem vivid and unique and yet defined by his own brand of charisma.

Were there any common themes in the characters Nicholson played in this 69-75 era? For the most part they were flawed people beaten down by society in one form or another but were full of defiance and charisma (as exemplified by the “hold the chicken” scene from Five Easy Pieces) and characters you just wanted to see flourish. In an era where audiences hungered for characters defiant of authority and fighting back, there were few who connected more than Nicholson.
Post-1975 Nicholson has done a lot of impressive work but he never reached the same level of greatness. One reason is the changing trends in Hollywood towards less character-based films and the great roles Nicholson got just weren’t as plentiful anymore.

But also I suspect Nicholson got caught up in his own fame and success to an extent. Whereas in 1969-75 Nicholson could adapt himself to what the role required, it increasingly became the roles adapting themselves towards his own personal style. To be sure he was often greatly entertaining, but more often than not he’s coasting on his persona.
His role in ‘The Shining’ is a good example of this transition. While the film is one of my favourite horror movies I’m somewhat conflicted by Nicholson’s performance. On one hand he has some truly brilliant scenes in the latter stages that are so well done that they’ve become part of pop-culture. On the other hand, playing a troubled father and writer who goes over the edge I don’t think he entirely convinces as he doesn’t seem suited or willing to put in the work to make the characterisation concrete and truthful. A grandly entertaining performance, but not a great characterisation.

Similarly in the 1997 film ‘As Good As It Gets’ Nicholson’s performance as a successful but incredibly obnoxious novelist is entertaining, especially early on when he’s dishing out the insults. But in terms of creating a rich characterisation, Nicholson’s role is somewhat skin-deep and one of the weaker parts of the film.
A latter day exception to this trend was his performance in the 2002 film ‘About Schmidt’. All the standard mannerisms of the modern Nicholson performance – the charm, the cockiness, the slicked-back hair – were replaced by downbeat, dour, not particularly likable character with a comb-over. It is a genuinely affecting and moving performance (especially in his closing monologue) and easily the most of his latter-day performances that harks back to the greatness of his 1969-75 era.
Despite these reservations, there is no doubt that Nicholson has been one of the greatest and most iconic actors of recent generations. What looks like now a permanent retirement from acting is a sad event, but also a chance to treasure his great performances.

Random thread for April-May 2016


Reading  the sad news of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace child star Jake Lloyd’s legal and mental troubles made me think back to this interview he did at a Star Wars convention back in 2009.

It’s clearly an interview that doesn’t go well and many in the YT comments blame the interviewer (he does ask some inane questions) but for mine it’s pretty clear that Lloyd is passive-aggressive from the word go and not only hates doing the interview, but seems to half-hate that he’s at the convention and back in the public spotlight. Seeing this interview and reading about his troubles would surely put off any parent from having their child do acting.

Review: Midnight Cowboy (1969)


Midnight_CowboyThere are many reasons as to why the 1969 film ‘Midnight Cowboy’ was such a success (winning Best Picture Oscar of that year) and is still a highly-regarded film today. The acting, the visual style, the characterisations, the Nilsson hit song accompanying it would all be valid reasons.

But for mine Midnight Cowboy’s greatest strength is its use of New York (where the majority of the film takes place) which is so vivid that it’s an essential part of the film.

When you hear of how films make a city or town appealing, it’s usually through a combination of beautifying the place through picturesque shots that highlights its natural beauty. Not so with New York in Midnight Cowboy. The city is shown as grimy, dirty, vaguely dangerous and full of desperate people on the edge of oblivion. And yet, personally speaking, I found it fascinating and captivating. It made me almost wish I could go back in time to visit the city at the end of the 1960s.

The prime amount of credit for this should go to British director John Schlesinger who was making his first film in America after consistent success during the 1960s in England. He comes in with fresh eyes onto New York and his fascination with New York is conveyed marvelously to the viewer. Sure, the city may be a troubled place but it’s bursting with such human intensity that one’s humanism can only increase after viewing the film.

The story in Midnight Cowboy concerns Joe Buck (Jon Voight), a naive Texan who believes his destiny is to travel to New York and be a highly-acclaimed prostitute for well-to-do women. Unsurprisingly, the reality doesn’t match his dreams as he is unable to get work, is scammed by con men and is out on the streets trying to find his next meal. Then, when he runs into the con man who scammed him, Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), after initial hostility they form an unlikely friendship. Will they be able to find a way to get out of their dire situation and onto a better life?

For all the technical skill the film displays, the heart of the film is the relationship and friendship between Buck and Rizzo and the exceptional performances of Voight & Hoffman that make it feel so real and moving. While both are equally impressive Hoffman’s performance is the greater achievement because he was just coming off the sensational debut success of ‘The Graduate’ and instead of settling for commercial roles he took the challenge of doing an unlikable character role and created a sympathetic and fascinating characterisation. While The Graduate is what made Hoffman’s career, it is Midnight Cowboy which would be the guide to how his career would turn out.

Midnight Cowboy is a technical triumph for Schlesinger he uses every flashy technical trick – monochrome segments, flash-backs, fantasy sequences, jump cuts, rapid montages – without losing any of the gritty realism essential to the film’s success.

The reason that the film’s technical tricks feel organic and not self-indulgent showing-off is that they often relate directly to a character’s thoughts or provide insight towards them. For example there’s an early scene where Joe is travelling on a bus to New York listening to a radio discussion on women discussing romance when it suddenly switches to a visual montage of wealthy women expressing their desires, culminating in how they want Joe. The fantasy montage ends with Joe screeching in delight. It’s a marvellous example of Joe’s naivety, backed up by detailed technical cinematic skill.
My favourite example of visual trickery is when we see Joe making the same lonely walk (with his radio) down a New York sidewalk and there is intercutting between him doing it during day and night. Within the space of a few seconds, Schlesinger has conveyed how monotonously lonely life is for Joe.

Midnight Cowboy is not only a visual feast but subtly an aural one as well. Joe carries around for much of his time in New York a portable transistor radio which he seems to have on at all times and almost feels like his only friend. The range of noise and chatter coming from the radio highlight how overwhelming and chaotic living in New York would be for someone who came from a rural backdrop (and to us the viewer). When Joe has to sell the radio for money and it gets switched off, it symbolically feels like he is on the verge of oblivion.

The film isn’t flawless – occasionally it overplays its visual style and it turns from naturalistic and necessary to being rather garish and overbaked. An example is a sex scene between Joe and a wealthy woman where they’re rolling on the TV remote which means we see a montage of TV shows while they’re having sex. It doesn’t really add up to much.

More significantly, there’s a late scene where Joe – in desperate need to take an ill Rizzo to Florida – has an aborted homosexual encounter with an older man which ends with Joe violently beats him up to get the necessary money. The scene really doesn’t convince because the characterisation of Joe up to this point suggest that he is capable of such desperation and brutality.

Despite this, Midnight Cowboy almost 50 years after its release holds up as an outstanding film of its era and two great central characterisations. And yes, it does make one want to travel to New York.