October 3, 2010 by jamesessj
Bullets Over Broadway — Woody Allen’s 1994 film, considered perhaps the pinnacle of his Silver Age (i.e. the 1990’s), and while for me it doesn’t rank with Manhattan or Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s right up there in the second rank, along with Hannah and Her Sisters and Shadows and Fog. John Cusack has never been much of a favorite, and here he moves from initially doing a version of Woody (or Woody’s screen character, at any rate) to later doing a decent enough job of becoming his own creation, but he’s still no great shakes. Everyone else, though, is uniformly excellent, particularly Dianne Weist with her “Don’t speak!”s, Jack Warden as Cusack’s manager, Chazz Palminteri as the gangster with unexpected literary talent, Jim Broadbent as an ever-expanding actor, and Jennifer Tilly, whose performance is, I believe — based on comments Woody’s made about that earlier film — an intentional homage to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Tilly certainly has the annoyingly shrill voice down pat. The plot, about a Broadway playwright whose play finds the funds for staging in the pocket of a mobster, and whose script finds salvation in the aforementioned unexpected literary talent of the mobster’s girlfriend’s bodyguard (Palminteri), is rather ingenious, and serves as a fine demonstration of the theme, namely, What’s the connection between The Art and The Man? The screenplay I’m about to re-start work on deals with this very theme, so it’s of particular fascination for me, though Woody approaches the problem from an entirely different angle — and it’s refreshing to see Cusack’s character come to the surprising decision he does, at the end of the film. Not everyone is Shakespeare. In fact in all of human history, everyone but one guy hasn’t been Shakespeare. If that makes sense. Bullets Over Broadway is not the laugh-a-minute jokefest that, for instance, Annie Hall is (probably because Woody isn’t in the film himself), but its script is damnably clever and well-constructed, and contains one of Woody’s all-time funniest scenes: when Palminteri lies victim of a shootout, and with his dying breath instructs Cusack on a change to the final line of the play. Now that’s dying for your art.
Horror of Dracula — Hammer’s first foray into the Draculic vein, pardon the pun, starring Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as the Count. A Count who has, it must be said, about four lines of dialogue, all of which are spoken in welcoming Jonathan Harker at the very beginning of the film — he never speaks again, although he does on occasion hiss and growl. And leer. Herein lies one of the script’s biggest miscues, for Dracula is relegated to the status of a Frankenstein: a horror without personality, without individuality. Evil is all he is, all he’s meant to be. Which may be enough for an 82-minute horror film released in 1958, but imagine the possibilities: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, sharing a meal, Van Helsing probing the Count for details of his life, his existence, while Dracula parries, coyly, playing with the good Doctor, tit for tat…these are two fine actors, neither of whom is allowed in this film to stray too far from trope-ism. (But watch for the scene where Cushing leaps over the stairway railing when he suspects Dracula is upstairs threatening Mina — didn’t look like a stuntman to me, and if not, Cushing was, at 45, quite the athlete.) The script also streamlines Stoker’s novel in some interesting ways — Dracula’s castle, for instance, is located in “Klausenberg,” which is within carriage-distance of whatever city or town it is where Arthur & Mina Holmwood (Holmwood?) reside; which points out other changes: Lucy is Harker’s fiancee and Mina is another man’s wife — which make for a sleeker, faster, ride, but also beg the question: if Van Helsing has (as he claims) been studying Dracula all his life, why has he only now taken steps to end the evil? And why does he send Harker to do it, instead of himself? (In this version Harker comes to the Count’s castle with the specific purpose in mind of destroying his host; he is, predictably, turned into a vampire by the Count, forcing a broken-hearted Van Helsing to stake his student? apprentice? gay lover? through the heart.) For that matter, why don’t they both go to the castle to kill Dracula? Two vampire-hunters are better than one. And while we’re on the topic, why does Harker stake the “Woman Vampire” (so she’s titled in the credits) before he stakes Dracula? Has Van Helsing taught him nothing? Of course these are all typical of the questions one must ask of a horror film, because no one’s ever allowed to behave with basic intelligence. And, too, this was 1958…Horror of Dracula may or may not be the best version of Stoker’s novel ever filmed (Coppola’s version, for all its overwrought extravagance, is much more faithful to the source material), but it is, at worst, the second-best.
Seven Samurai — Kurosawa’s masterpiece, and I’m ashamed of myself for waiting this long to see it. I knew the film was three-and-a-half hours long, but like other great epics — Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai — time seems to disappear as the story simply takes over. I can’t offer much about the film that hasn’t already been said, save for a couple of items that struck me as interesting. First, Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune are forever mentioned in the same breath, but I wonder why Takashi Shimura isn’t remembered in that same breath, if not the breath before. His performance here as the “lead” samurai is another example of quiet, disciplined acting — as opposed to Mifune, whose hyperactive hijinks often border on, but never quite bleed into, parody. Second, a couple of comparisons to The Magnificent Seven, which was one of my dad’s favorite films, and so I’ve seen it, at a rough guess, nine billion times: I very much appreciated how, in Seven Samurai, Kurosawa laid out the village, via the map, and then laid out the villagers’/samurai’s defensive positions. It made the strategy & tactics of the battles very clear, something many war movies don’t take the time to do, to their detriment. I also appreciated the characterizations of the villagers, individually and as a group — Mifune’s monologue about why the villagers are who they are, why they behave as they behave, serves as explanation, but not absolution. These are a cowardly, beaten people, who behave precisely as one would expect a cowardly, beaten people to behave. And when they bring out the sake before the final battle, you realize, along with Shimura’s character, that these farmers are not so complete the fools as they might like you to believe. What else is there to say? I don’t rank Seven Samurai as highly as Ikiru, but that’s like saying I don’t rank Othello as highly as King Lear.