(In French, On Cable TV, November 2019) If you’re wondering what a title like Beaches has to do with the adventures of two headstrong women played by Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, may I suggest pronouncing the title again with a slight accent? (Sure, there’s the setting going from the sandy shores of Atlantic City to San Francisco—but my explanation is funnier.) The friendship drama spans decades, antagonistic romantic triangles, showbiz success, many personal milestones and one big sob at the end—exactly what a deliberate tearjerker needs to be successful. For many viewers, the best reason to watch the film remains Midler, here in the upswing of her movie career as a powerhouse performer. She’s terrific, although at the cost of taking away some of Hershey’s more delicate work. Director Garry Marshall does good work in executing the film’s intention in a mostly unchallenging manner, keeping its emotional punches for the tragic finale. The flip side of that mere competence is that Beaches feels far too deliberate to be affecting: it goes exactly where you expect in more or less the expected manner. While this may be an issue with jaded film critics and people falling outside the film’s intended demographics, this is unlikely to be much of a problem for that core audience seeking exactly what the film must deliver—the proof being all the other movies before or since taking up exactly the same formula. But, hey, this one had “Wind Beneath My Wings” to sob about.
(On Cable TV, October 2019) In many ways, Boxcar Bertha isn’t particularly remarkable: As a better-than-average production from the Roger Corman filmmaking school, it heavily draws upon Bonnie and Clyde for inspiration at it shows a depression-era couple turning to crime in between love scenes. But here’s the thing: It’s Martin Scorsese’s second feature film, his first professional feature one after his quasi-student film Who’s That Knocking at My Door. As such, it’s practically mandatory viewing for fans. But it also shows what a good director can do with familiar material: While most movies produced by Corman had trouble even settling for capable B-movie status (“crank them out fast and cheap” seem to have been his American International Pictures’ unofficial motto), Boxcar Bertha does manage to become a decent genre picture. Despite a blunt script and low production values, it’s handled with some skill and meditative intent, reflecting Scorsese’s approach to the material and destiny to execute superior genre pictures. Barbara Hershey and David Carradine also do quite well in the lead roles. I’m not sure contemporary audiences will appreciate the film as much at the 1970s one did—after all, there’s practically a 1970s “violent couple picaresque journey” subgenre by now-famous directors in between Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, arguably Beatty), Sugarland Express (Spielberg), Badlands (Malick), and Boxcar Bertha fits right into what was then New Hollywood’s most salacious appeal. Decades and a few more Natural Born Killers later, it’s not as new or invigorating as it once was. Instead, we’re left with something far different: the movies as juvenilia, interesting not as much for what they were, but what they foretold.
(On TV, March 2017) As I’m watching Woody Allen’s filmography in scattered chronological order, I’m struck by how his works seems best approached sequentially—there are definitely phases in his work, and they partially seem to be addressing previous movies. Hannah and Her Sisters does echo other Allen movies—Manhattan (which I saw between watching this film and writing this review) in tone and setting, I’m told that there’s something significant about Mia Farrow’s casting, and there’s a continuity here between Allen’s nebbish hypochondriac and the rest of his screen persona. Absent most of those guideposts, however, Hannah and her Sisters feels a bit … slight as a standalone. It’s nowhere near a bad movie: the quality of the dialogue, twisted psychodrama of unstable pairings and Allen’s own very entertaining persona ensure that this is a quality film. But in trying to find out what makes this a lauded top-tier component of Allen’s filmography, answers don’t come as readily. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that Hannah and Her Sisters does things that have since then been done more frequently—Northeastern romantic dramas about a close-knit group of friends and family? Might as well tag an entire sub-genre of independent dramas … at least two of them featuring Jason Bateman. Familiarity, of course, is trumped by execution and so Hannah and Her Sisters does go far on Allen’s script. Allen himself is his own best male spokesman, although Michael Caine and Max von Sydow both have their moments. Still, the spotlight is on the sisters: Mia Farrow is terrific as the titular Hannah, while Barbara Hershey remains captivating thirty years later and Dianne Wiest completes the trio as something of a screw-up. There’s a little bit of weirdness about the age of the characters—although I suspect that’s largely because Allen plays a character much younger than he is, and I can’t reliably tell the age of the female characters. It’s watchable enough, but I’m not sure I found in Hannah and her Sisters the spark that makes an average film become a good one. I may want to temper my expectations—after all, not every Woody Allen movie is a great one, even in the latter period with which I’m most familiar.