(On Cable TV, February 2018) At face value, On the Town is a ridiculous film. Following three sailors on leave in Manhattan through a day of gentle debauchery, it has unbelievable coincidences, a pat ending, generic characters and some astonishing lengths, including an entirely optional dream sequence. But here’s the thing: it’s a musical, and like many of the musicals closely associated with Gene Kelly, it knows it’s a musical. It doesn’t even waste any time telling us that it acknowledges its own absurdity, from the impossibly full morning tourism of the characters, to three cabarets reprising the same ditty, to the consciously ridiculous meet-cute romances. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra make for fantastic leads, and the visual polish of On the Town is often eye-popping: If I liked Ann Miller best of all the film’s dames, it may have something to do with the fantastic green dress she wears throughout “Prehistoric Man.” The film is, from “New York, New York” on, a joy to watch: Cheerful, exuberant, unconcerned with plausibility and rather racy in some implications, it’s also a delightful romanticized time capsule of post-war New York City in full Technicolor. The location shooting (a rarity at the time), as short as it was, brings a lot to the film. I’m not terribly fond of the dream sequence, except that it does show the possibilities of ballet in a non-traditional setting … like many of Gene Kelly’s films. All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by On the Town—it’s much better than a summary would suggest, and simply a lot of fun.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, August 2020) Two-and-a-half years and several dozen musicals later, I still like On the Town a lot — it’s self-aware, visually imaginative, can depend of the combined talents of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Ann Miller and does create the bubble of fantasy that many musicals rely on. A second look highlights a few things that hadn’t necessarily focused upon the first time — such as the underhanded agency of the female characters, and the fact that our male protagonists are slightly idiotic. Once past Ann Miller, I also have plenty of nice things to say about Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett and even Alice Pearce in a clearly comic role.
(On TV, April 2017) I’m usually pretty good about compartmentalizing an artist and an artist’s work—something that has occasionally caused me a few retroactive pangs of guilt, especially in considering Roman Polanski’s work. Most of the time, those little bits of disapproval aren’t enough to affect me: I’ve got my list of good Woody Allen movies despite being aghast at his personal life. But for all of Manhattan’s reputation as one of Allen’s best, I understandably had a really hard time separating the movie (in which he gets romantically involved with a high-school girl) from Allen’s personal life (in which he got romantically involved with not one, but at least two high-school-age girls). As much as I tried getting into the rhythm and sensibilities of Manhattan, the film itself couldn’t stop getting me from thinking, “No, Woody Allen, no!” every time Allen and Mariel Hemingway (who, for all of the problematic aspects of her character, is terrific in the role) snuggled on-screen. So if I sound less than enthusiastic about Manhattan, keep thinking, “42-year-old guy writing a role in which he’s dating a 17-year-old girl”). Fortunately, there are other things to talk about in talking about Manhattan. The black-and-while cinematography is exceptional, some of the one-liners are very funny, the portrait of complicated romances is stronger than the usual pap that passes for romantic comedies, Diane Keaton is fantastic and the portrait of intellectual New Yorkers has a strong credibility to it. Oh, and Meryl Streep shows up for a handful of devastating scenes. Still, I was never completely convinced by Manhattan’s humour or its romance(s). Much as I appreciate the achievements of the film, I can’t quite bring myself to like it. You can credit Woody Allen for both reactions.
(On Cable TV, July 2016) Absence does make the heart grow fonder. After spending much of the early 2010s getting gradually fed up with Michael Cera’s persona, I forgot about him for a while. Watching him being quite likable as his usual screen-self in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist reminded me that, overexposure aside, there is a reason why he was pigeonholed in that kind of role: it works well at what it’s meant to be, especially if you’re going to make an underdog romantic comedy. More or less tightly structured around a wild night in New York City’s streets chasing an indie band’s pop-up concert, this hipster teenage rom-com works largely due to the freshness of its script and the likability of its stars. While the story isn’t particularly innovative, there’s some wit in the dialogue and the small-scale moments of the film. Meanwhile, Kat Denning s earns good notices for her performance in the female lead role, with a decent supporting turn by Ari Graynor and Jay Baruchel popping up in an extended cameo. I’m not a fan of the specific kind of mewling indie “rock” favoured by the film and its character, but their love of music itself is infectiously charming. The NYC location shooting is a highlight at a time where most movies will have other cities play New York—this is the real deal, painstakingly captured night after night. Director Peter Sollett, adapting a young-adult novel, is warm and sympathetic toward its sometimes-misguided characters. Containing the entire story overnight works in the film’s distinctiveness, much like its positive outlook and sweet disposition. Worth a look, especially if you’re in the mood for a likable teen romantic comedy … even if you think you’ve grown used to Cera’s persona.
(In French, on Cable TV, July 2016) As an entry in Martin Scorsese’s filmography, Bringing Out the Dead is often forgotten alongside his classic movies. Which is weird, considering that it’s a drama featuring Nicolas Cage as a paramedic at the height of the New York City crime epidemic of the early nineties. Directed with some of Scorsese’s flamboyance, it portrays NYC nights as barely repressed war zones in which paramedics are helpless to help their dying charges. Crime, drugs, heart attacks and accidents kill scores of victims, while Cage’s character goes crazy knowing that he hasn’t saved anyone in ages. As a Cage performance, it’s a rare blend between his Oscar-winning dramatic intensity and his borderline-insane grandiosity. The overall nightmarish atmosphere of the film seems just as unhinged as its lead actor, with the film taking place nearly entirely at night, in-between a hospital where everybody’s is shouting and bleeding, and the streets where the only people they meet are doing badly. Cage’s paramedic colleagues (the pretty good trio of John Goodman, Ving Rhames and Tom Sizemore) are even more screwed up than he is and what’s more, he can’t quit even when he asks. Stripped of its showy hallucinatory sequences (including a flipping ambulance that should have been held in reserve for later during the film) Bringing Out the Dead isn’t much more than the story of a protagonist undergoing a nervous breakdown and picking himself up thanks to romance and a few ironic epiphanies. Set to Scorsese’s own rhythm, it’s a bit more than that, even though the pacing of the story severely slows down at times. It’s worth noting that the film was written by Paul Schrader, and fits squarely in the rest of his filmography as well. Scorsese’s affection for his city is obvious even when he’s portraying it as its lowest (and who doesn’t have a soft spot for the hellish NYC of the 1970s?), and it’s that kind of pairing (alongside Scorsese/Cage and Cage-the-actor/Cage-the-scenery-chomper) that makes Bringing Out the Dead interesting to watch even fifteen years later, perhaps as a time capsule yet unseen by many.