REVIEW: “Love in the Afternoon”


Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. Folks, that’s all I needed to hear to be interested in 1957’s “Love in the Afternoon”. And as if I needed any more prodding, this romantic comedy was directed, produced, and co-written by the great Billy Wilder. And then to add even more personal intrigue, “Love in the Afternoon” is set in the magical city of Paris. So you have an unlikely love story filled with good humor, some really strong central performances and the City of Lights. Sounds good.

One of the first things you’ll notice when watching the film is the dramatic age difference between Cooper and Hepburn. Cooper was 55 years old at the time and there were some people who had a problem with his casting. Hepburn plays a beautiful (and much younger) girl named Ariane. She lives in Paris with her father Claude (brilliantly played by Maurice Chevalier) who works out of their home as a private investigator. Watching Hepburn and Chevalier is pure joy. They have an adorable father/daughter chemistry which shows itself in her playful curiosity about his work and his father-like encouragement of her cello playing.


One day Ariane eavesdrops as her father reveals to a client that his wife is having a fling with a wealthy American named Frank Flannagan (Cooper). She hears the trysts are taking place in Flannagan’s hotel room and that the husband plans to kill him. The curious and adventurous Ariane decides to go warn Flannagan of his upcoming demise. In doing so she finds herself smitten by the millionaire playboy’s charm. Her innocence and inexperience with love creates new feelings within her. On the other hand Ariane is initially just another victim of Flannagan’s globetrotting womanizing. But she leaves him in the dark about many things including her name and her far-fetched tales of her many boyfriends intrigues him. But is that enough to cure him of his playboy ways?

Wilder does a great job of getting us to love Hepburn and her character. She instantly comes off as pure and sweet and her childlike curiosity is adorable. That’s one reason we dislike Gary Cooper and his Flannagan character. We see that she is enamored with him but he sees her as just another toy. We genuinely worry for her as this unusual story plays out. But Wilder also shows that she’s not just a child with a bout of puppy love. She’s clever and, as Flannagan finds out, she can be abstruse. All of this is key to developing what is a well conceived love story.

This was the first of many screenplay collaborations between Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. As you would expect from anything that Wilder has a hand in writing, the dialogue is slick and smart and his two lead actors handle it nicely. Hepburn was Wilder’s one and only choice to play Ariane but he wanted Cary Grant to play Flannagan. Grant turned down the role (as he did with several other Wilder offerings) which opened the door for Cooper. I admit, Cooper was an unusual choice and at first I wondered if he was going to fit. But as things move along, I think he captures what the role calls for.


The film also features some good bits of humor. The dialogue itself can be quite funny and there are several running gags that become pretty outrageous. There’s a hilarious reoccurring bit with gypsy musicians who Flannagan pays to play for him whenever he has a woman over. But we later see them popping up in some of the most absurd locations. It’s very funny. I also have to again mention the fun moments between Hepburn and Chevalier. She is her usual peppy and sprightly self. But Chevalier is a real scene stealer and for me some of the best moments featured him on screen.

“Love in the Afternoon” is a movie I’m glad I finally caught up with. This is another energetic and intelligent Wilder film that hits the romance and humor it shoots for. “Love in the Afternoon” may not be up there with the great romantic comedies of its time, but it’s still a solid film featuring a wonderful cast, beautiful Paris locations, and a smart director who has no problem putting all of his pieces together.



REVIEW: “Focus”

FOCUS poster

I can’t say I have always shared the general enthusiasm for Will Smith’s movies or his performances. It’s not that he is a bad actor. But, with a few exceptions, he often seems to play variations of the same type of guy. That is certainly not a problem for his fans who have made him a bonafide box office draw, but as someone who doesn’t always care for ‘that guy’ he plays, it can be a turn off.

Smith’s time on the big screen hasn’t been as prominent as during his heyday. He had at least one film (sometimes more) come out every year between 1995 and 2008. “Focus” ushers in a bit of a return to the starring spotlight and once again he is playing a variation of the same type of guy. He’s cool, stylish, cocky, and a bit of a wise guy. Sound familiar? Here he plays a dapper professional con-man with a seemingly endless amount of resources at his disposal. But more on that later.



The story begins with Smith’s character, Nicky Spurgeon, being seduced and conned by a novice scammer named Jess (Margot Robbie). Nicky isn’t fooled and he sees through her amateurish scheme. A few days later Jess approaches Nicky in dire straits begging to be his protegé. Nicky agrees and tests out her sticky fingers on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Impressed by her success Nicky invites Jess to join his crew. A few good scores and a painfully predictable romance follows.

Nicky’s dad always taught him that business and pleasure don’t mix, so he drops Jess after realizing he was falling for her. But obviously the story doesn’t stop there and the two meet again three years later in Buenos Aires. Is it a chance meeting or doesn’t Jess have something up her sleeve? A web of twists, turns, deceptions, billionaires, parties, and race cars make up the second half of the story.


There are times when “Focus” could be called a fashion extravaganza masquerading as a con-artist movie. Some scenes serve only as opportunities for the two stars to show off their good looks, nice physiques, and chic attire. This works well with the aforementioned typical Will Smith character. We get a lot of that here. It’s interesting that the film’s best scene features Smith casting aside that persona and showing us a vulnerable and intensely human side of his character. I won’t build it up but you will know it when you see it.

Ultimately “Focus” is a movie stymied by its amoral vanity, its overload of mediocre twists and turns, and the lukewarm chemistry between Smith and Robbie. If you view it through a very simple and straightforward lens you’ll notice a few fun moments. But it is never as cool or crafty as it tries to be and designer sunglasses, swanky sports jackets, and posh gowns only carry things so far. And even the movie’s title makes you wonder if you are the one being conned because there isn’t a lot of focus here.


2 Stars

REVIEW: “The Two Faces of January”


Beautiful Greek locales and three strong performances anchor “The Two Faces of January”, a smart and measured adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1964 novel. Viggo Mortensen, Oscar Isaac, and Kirsten Dunst star in this steady-moving thriller that doesn’t depend on big twists or reveals. Instead it is straightforward and focused – a slick and stylish retro noir full of fedoras and cigarette smoke.

It’s 1962 in Athens, Greece. Rydal (Isaac) is a tour guide and small-time con man. While at the Acropolis of Athens he connects with an American couple Chester MacFarland (Mortensen) and his younger wife Colette (Dunst). Rydal is instantly attracted to Chester’s wealth and Colette’s beauty. Colette takes a liking to Rydal but Chester doesn’t trust him at all. The three have a pleasant dinner together and then part ways.


JANUARY1Chester and Colette return to their posh hotel where they are confronted by a mysterious armed man. Turns out Chester owes money to the wrong people. A struggle follows and the stranger ends up dead. In a panic Chester scrambles to do something with the body. While doing so he runs into Rydal who is returning a bracelet Colette left in a cab. A desperate Chester pleads with Rydal to help him and Colette get out of the city. Rydal agrees and the three head to the Greek Islands where they try to lay low until they can get back to the States.

The tensions between the three characters skyrockets. There is an obvious sexual tension between Rydal and Colette. This leads to a growing animosity between Chester and Rydal. There is also Colette’s anger and frustration with Chester for getting them into the mess they’re in. Then you can sprinkle in Chester’s heavy drinking and growing paranoia along with the question of Rydal’s trustworthiness. Each one of these tensions are allowed to play out, sometimes in unexpected but satisfying ways.

Screenwriter Hossein Amini, probably best known for his work on “Drive”, makes his directorial debut and he certainly has an intriguing eye. The film is exquisitely shot and Amini doesn’t shy away from using the beauty of his setting. He also gives a keen attention to detail particularly in creating a nostalgic noir atmosphere. I swear, at times this film looked as if it were plucked right out of the the late 1940s or early 50s. It’s something Amini is clearly going for and for the most part he nails it.


The film is also helped by its exceptional cast. Oscar Isaac is finally getting the respect he deserves as one of cinema’s most reliable actors. Here he gives a character that is charismatic, charming, but also a mystery. Mortensen is tasked with the bigger and louder performance and he has no problems with it. He lays out the intricacy of his character sometimes with bravado but other times with quiet uncertainty. And Dunst was also very good. She is an actress who keeps getting better and better. Here she gives us a character who may be the only one worthy of our sympathy.

“The Two Faces of January” is an intelligent and efficient thriller that is very confident with its presentation and with the story it is telling. Hossein Amini gives an impressive directorial debut, but he also deserves credit for his well-conceived screenplay. And it doesn’t hurt to have talents like Isaac, Mortensen, and Dunst to help create your vision. I wouldn’t say “January” will be one of those essential time capsule movies, but it is a highly entertaining throwback thriller that more people need to see.




REVIEW: “Nightcrawler”


“Nightcrawler” is the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy and I have to say it’s a very compelling one. But it’s not like Gilroy is a stranger to the business. He has a handful of co-writing credits on his resume. His brother Tony has been writing screenplays since 1992 and his directorial debut was the Oscar nominated “Michael Clayton”. Also Dan has been married to actress (and one of the stars of this film) Rene Russo for 22 years. So Dan Gilroy has been around the movie business for a while.

“Nightcrawler” is all his. In addition to directing the picture he also wrote the story which takes a look at the sleazy underbelly of freelance crime scene videographers. Jake Gyllenhaal stars in the film and he continues to impress me. It has taken me a while to come around to him as an actor, but a string of really strong performances has convinced me of his talents. “Nightcrawler” may give us the best Gyllenhaal performance to date.


Gyllenhaal dropped thirty pounds for the part of the unassuming Lou Bloom, an out of work eccentric living in Los Angeles. The very first scene is telling and gives us a good introduction to this character. A security guard catches Lou stealing metal from a construction yard. Lou jumps him, steals his watch, and escapes. He sells the stolen metal to a scrap yard and asks for a job. The manager pointedly tells him “I’m not hiring a thief”. Within these first few minutes Gilroy gives us several nuggets of information about Lou to process.

After coming up on a car crash Lou is inspired by videographer (Bill Paxton) who shoots footage of accident and crime scenes and then sells it to the highest paying news outlet. Lou steals a bicycle and pawns it for a cheap camcorder and a police scanner. After some rough early experiences, Lou captures some footage of a carjacking. He approaches Nina Romina (Russo), the news director of a struggling morning show, and she eagerly buys the footage. She encourages Lou to bring anything newsworthy to her first.


As Lou’s ‘business’ picks up he gets a new car, new equipment, and a new assistant named Rick (Riz Ahmed). He also becomes egotistic, more ambitious, and addicted to his new-found success. He begins tampering with crime scenes in hopes of getting more dramatic footage and bigger paydays. But Lou ultimately lusts recognition. As the film progresses we see more unhinged and sociopathic behavior from him and we begin to wonder how far he will go down this dark and twisted path.

Gilroy gives us a veritable smorgasbord of dark humor, biting satire, and neo-noir perspectives. There are so many clever machinations that keep things fairly unpredictable and uncomfortable (and I mean that in a good way). Initially it is the subtlety of the evil that is unsettling. Sometimes it is camouflaged within Lou’s quirky and seemingly mild-mannered behavior. Later his actions cross a number of disturbing lines and we see in him a cold indifference to what he is doing.


Gilroy develops such a dark and twisted tone in large part thanks to Robert Elswit’s atmospheric cinematography and the moody score from James Newton Howard. But the brightest spotlight shines on Gyllenhaal and his sensational performance. He is truly terrifying but in an unorthodox sense. It’s Gyllenhaal’s appearance, his expressions, his postures. But it’s also his inconspicuousness. His character is someone that could gel into society without anyone noticing his existence. Russo is also very good and she gives us an entirely different form of evil. Television ratings at all costs, morals and ethics out the window. But I do think her character is a tad too broad and at times absurdly unethical.

“Nightcrawler” has been getting a lot of praise and I can see why. It’s such a creepy, tense, and efficient crime/psychological thriller. I certainly don’t think it’s the modern day “Taxi Driver” as some critics are calling it and it doesn’t strike all of the chords it wants to. For example its sleepy little jabs at the all-American way and the entrepreneurial spirit come off as a tad weak. But it is definitely effective in far more areas than not and it doesn’t follow any routine conventional path. Add a phenomenal Jake Gyllenhaal performance to that and it’s easy to see why this film works so well.


REVIEW: “The Babadook”


You could say there are two very different stories being told in “The Babadook”. But over time you’ll notice that the two are cleverly and shrewdly interwoven giving us something well beyond a run-of-the-mill horror film. It’s an intelligent film made with a tiny $2 million budget and actually completed thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. The end result turned heads at Sundance and it is finally getting deserved respect from a wider audience.

The film was written and directed by Jennifer Kent and found its roots in a short film Kent made in 2005. The story follows a widowed single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). The two have been alone since the death of her husband and his father. Samuel hasn’t adapted well to his fatherless home. He’s a lonely boy with a number of behavioral issues which cause problems at school and home. On top of that Samuel is haunted by dreams of a terrifying monster and his belief in it causes his behavior to be even more erratic and troubling.


But it could be said the film is more about Amelia. She is an earnest and loving mother who struggles to conceal her own sorrows and burdens for the sake of her son. Kent’s vision and Davis’ performance create a disconsolate portrayal of a woman drowning in her circumstances. We get close looks at how her situation effects every social and potentially romantic relationship she has. We easily sympathize with Amelia which makes the sharp turns in the second half of the film all the more devastating.

One night things take an even worse turn. Samuel asks Amelia to read him a pop-up children’s book titled “Mr. Babadook”. It’s a grisly story about a creature who consumes those made aware of his existence. Samuel is convinced Babadook is real leading to even more troubling behavior. A series of creepy events begin happening around their house which Amelia first attributes to her son. But soon she too comes face-to-face with the question of Babadook’s existence. It’s here that the lines between reality and the supernatural are blurred.

“The Babadook” is a creepy movie but not in the conventional sense. Jennifer Kent pointed to movies like “The Shining”, “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, and even “Nosferatu” as influences and you can see them in her technique and presentation. And “The Babadook” does indeed employ several familiar horror film devices. But she uses such a careful and strategic blend of classic haunted house scares, boogie man frights, and the film’s most potent element – psychological horror. It all works to near perfection. Adding to the movie’s uniqueness is the wonderfully eerie use of sound and the minimalist approach to special effects. These things are vital to giving the film its own satisfying aesthetic.


But the main reason that the horror works is because of the characters. The first half of the film sets them up and connects them to the audience. By the second half we are so invested in Amelia and Samuel and their deteriorating circumstances that we are desperately rooting for a happy resolution. It’s this connection with the characters that so many horror films fail to establish. Davis gives an inspired performance and conveys such motherly authenticity through her character. Young Noah Wiseman is heartbreaking and deserves a lot of credit. His character transforms over time and he manages it so well in his performance. These two are the lifeblood of the film.

In the end I found myself smitten with “The Babadook’s” smarts and craftiness. The story is rich with raw emotion and a genuine eeriness. There is always a tinge of uncertainty which constantly has you questioning what you’re seeing. I like that kind of interpretive challenge. This isn’t the type of film that will ever be considered a classic, but it’s well written and well made which I believe earns Jennifer Kent attention as a filmmaker to keep your eye on. She certainly has a winner with this film.


REVIEW: “The Heiress”


At times William Wyler’s “The Heiress” comes across as an extravagant stage production. That makes sense since it was adapted from the popular 1947 Broadway play. But the original story actually came from the the 1880 novel “Washington Square” by Henry James. Husband and wife playwrights Augustus and Ruth Goetz brought James’ book to the stage and were later convinced to write the film’s screenplay. Their familiarity with the material and their mellifluous writing style mixed perfectly with Wyler’s perfectionism. The result was a highly acclaimed that still garnered critical praise and several Academy Awards.

In many ways the film’s star Olivia de Havilland can be thanked for making the movie happen. She went to see the play based on a recommendation and before it was even finished she was making calls. She first convinced the wonderful William Wyler to direct the film. He was instrumental in getting studio support and in convincing Augustus and Ruth Goetz to write the script. Montgomery Clift added another popular face to the production and the wonderful Ralph Richardson, who had taken part in a London stage version, was also cast.


The story is set in 19th century New York City and focuses on a plain and reserved young woman (de Havilland) from the upper-class Washington Square neighborhood. She lives with her wealthy and proper father (Richardson) who does a poor job of hiding his disappointment. Her shyness and naivety draws her father’s insults and disenchantment and her feelings of self-worth are practically nonexistent. But their relationship takes a worse turn when she starts a relationship with a charming young man named Morris (Montgomery Clift). Her father thinks Morris is after her inheritance and he certainly doesn’t believe she’s capable of attracting a decent man. This three-way conflict makes up the core of this story.

“The Heiress” is unquestionably talky, but when the script is so fluid and its placed in the hands of such great performers, it’s easy to get lost in it. The Goetzs have no problem moving the story from stage to screen and Wyler’s directorial fingerprints are everywhere. His calculated long takes and his precise attention to detail are just some of the things you’ll notice. The film moves at a wonderful pace and it always keeps its focus. It also takes some pretty heavy subjects and treats them with respect.


And then again you have the marvelous performances. Olivia de Havilland is nothing short of fabulous and she would go on to win her second Academy Award for her performance. Ralph Richardson is simply perfect as the arrogant aristocratic father. His well-spoken eloquence and tinge of snobbery is exactly what the role demanded. And then we have Montgomery Clift who I think does marvelous work. Apparently he didn’t think so. It’s said that Clift disliked his performance so much that he left the premiere before the film ended. That is definitely a case of being your own worst critic because I thought he was excellent.

“The Heiress” is a true motion picture classic and it is crafted by the talents of some of the best filmmakers and performers to ever work in the business. It has a very stagey feel and rightfully so. But it’s great drama that dissects and exposes its characters while telling a dense and emotional story. This film may not draw the attention of some modern moviegoers but it should. If you love movies, treat yourself by seeing “The Heiress”.