The French Connection (R)

9 Stars

If you mention The French Connection around men over forty, they’ll tell you how good it is.

This movie directed by William Friedkin (and based on the book by Robin Moore) has fallen into obscurity.

We’ve all heard of it. But how many of us have actually seen it?

It holds up strong!

Starring Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a brash alcoholic but passionate police officer. Roy Scheider received a nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Buddy Russo, his more reserved partner. Their characters are based on real-life detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso.

The French Connection was nominated for eight academy awards in 1972 and won five, including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Film Editing.

The movie dives right in, with Popeye in a Santa suit, and the rare ‘chase on foot’ through the streets of Marseille. The French part of The French Connection ends rather quickly because the setting soon transitions to Brooklyn for the remainder of the picture.

Let’s talk chase scenes.

The F.C.’s got three: Two on-foot, and one via automotive that podiums amongst the top car chases in cinematic history.

Did Hackman’s character introduce the cop cliché of commandeering a vehicle?

As for the other hunt on foot, it’s a passive chase in which both parties are co-aware.

No matter the manner of pursuit, Friedkin fires on all cylinders.

[Quick sidebar: Top seven car chases, in no particular order. The French Connection, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Drive, The Blues Brothers, The Matrix Reloaded, Jack Reacher and Children of Men.]

While attending the Turner Classic Movie Festival, I saw William Friedkin speak, and can happily report he’s a cordial, sharp-witted and poignant interviewee. He seems like a really good dude.

Amongst a number of others, his top films include The Exorcist from 1973 and Arbitrage from 2012.

Anyway, The French Connection is a riveting thrill ride that utilizes a number of stylistic shooting techniques.

The car-dismantling scene will have you on the edge of your seat.

There are relatively few weaknesses. Specifically a sprinkling of clunky ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) and a train conductor loses consciousness in an unrealistic fashion. Other than that, the loose threads are minimal.

Some plot points require post-viewing research. The ending’s a bit puzzling. And Popeye’s character utilizes a psychological interrogation tactic that will have you scratching your head.

While he berates Willy with questions, he interrogates the man about, “the last time he picked his feet in Poughkeepsie,” in order to cause confusion. According to Friedkin, its inclusion is due to the real-life interrogation technique developed by Eddie Egan.

Some of the stylistic camera techniques are rather innovative. Like the excellent use of ‘silent dialogue.’

At one point, Popeye’s staking out a restaurant. The cameraman is seated at the table with the two men he’s tailing. While Popeye clearly freezes outside, dumping out his presumably cold coffee, the camera slowly zooms in on him.

It’s an enchanting effect; creating ponderous distance between the audible and visual aspects of the film.

Popeye’s relationship with his stool pigeon is unexpected, compelling and fun. It’s an intriguing plot device in which to illustrate our protagonist’s scruples.

All in all, The French Connection is a fantastic flick.

It’s on the shorter end of the spectrum.

It’s poignant, innovative and gripping,

It’s Gene Hackman at his best.

You’ll devour it!

12 Years a Slave (R)

10 Stars

When I mentioned 12 Years a Slave to my Dad, he said, “I hear that’s great but depressing.”

An apt analysis, some may agree. But I would de-emphasize the depression aspect of this movie.

There are quite a few more tears than I am used to relinquishing, however, the majority are triggered by the happiness of the ending.

I’m not sure if it’s desensitization or a function of my age, but I would not describe the material as specifically “depressing.”

Horrifying? Sure.

Moving? Riveting? Absolutely.

But I don’t believe it induces a sad darkness that hitchhikes upon your brain for a number of days. We’re all aware slavery happened, right?

I do not mean this to be critical towards the specificity of my father’s diction. It’s more to discourage a certain mindset.

If you want to see a great movie, no matter how often you see them, 12 Years a Slave is easily worth the two hours and fourteen minutes. It’s shot remarkably well, edited masterfully, and retells the true story of the novel by Solomon Northup.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is spectacular in this role. Perhaps it’s the lack of theatricality in his performance, but it’s just stunning. It’s the perfect mix of reserved and outspoken.

Towards the beginning, when the man breaks two separate paddles over his back, how does he prepare for that sort of acting? Seriously, it baffles me. I’m so thoroughly convinced by Chiwetel’s performance that I’m more focused on what the other actor is actually breaking the paddles over.

(I shouldn’t think like that during first viewings, but can’t help myself sometimes.)

According to IMDB, Chiwy learned to play the violin for this role! Could he be any more of a boss?

When he starts to sing with the other cotton-picking slaves is a wonderful transformative moment. But the whole movie is great; each scene is so beautiful and the conflicts running beneath are palpable.

You can feel the very value of his life diminishing as a product; a piece of human property. The film explores the themes of slavery so efficiently; that I wonder how much of the material actually came from the book.

The thing is, either way, the film takes place over the course of twelve years. I’m certain all of these things could have happened to him throughout that period. It seems like there are mostly only cruel white men in this world. Or at least, only slightly sympathetic Caucasians.

Which, as a side note, is perhaps the only loose thread in the screenplay’s quilt. Perhaps the only white slave depicted in the film shouldn’t be the one to betray Chiwetel to Fassbender. But that’s semantics, because it only further reinforces his apprehension when Brad Pitt rolls around.

So the weakness of that criticism is illustrative of any others I might have with this film – mild and without any real footing.

Like Eliza’s crying. It went on a touch too long, but perhaps that’s exemplary of the lifestyle Solomon had to endure. Perhaps there were times the crying went on much longer for him.

So overall, I give 12 Years a Slave two big thumbs up. It’s #4 on my ‘Best Films of 2013’ list.

It’s a visual masterpiece and tells an exhilarating narrative

Annie Hall (PG)

10 Stars

What sets Woody Allen movies apart is the prerequisite.

You must be a certain age to truly appreciate them. I think you need at least two decades under your belt before you can grasp the implications behind the character interactions, the political banter and all the cultural references.

Annie Hall is only the third Woody film I’ve seen besides Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. And I like it just as much.

The plot is basically a self-narrated character study of Alvy Singer (played by Woody) during the time in his life when he loved Annie Hall (played by Diane Keaton).

This thirty-six year old movie holds up! I watched it with my Dad yesterday and we were both having a laugh.

It took home the Oscar for Best Picture in 1977 as well as three others: two for Woody himself (Best Director, Best Screenplay) and one for Diane (Best Actress).

Christopher Walken must be bummed because he was in two best pictures in back to back years (Deer Hunter nabbed the Oscar in ’78) and hasn’t been in one since.

What makes this film great is the humor and the style. I get the feeling that every beat, every complete thought contains some sort of joke. It’s all about subtlety, nuance, irony and implication when it comes to the funny.

At times I’m consciously deciphering the wording of a dialogue exchange, and will give up because the discussion’s moving ahead without me.

For example, there is a scene in which Annie and Alvy are talking on a rooftop, and subtitles translate the implications of each statement. I try to digest each sentence and corresponding subtitle, but can’t keep up.

And that’s how all of Annie Hall is: Packed with material and moving along at a lightning-fast pace.

The subtitles are only one example of the many occurrences in which the characters break the fourth wall. Alvy, Annie and Rob (Alvy’s best friend) revisit the scenes of his memories in a number of ways.

Rob, played by Tony Roberts, is great. There’s a scene where Alvy watches along disgusted as Rob orchestrates the laugh track for an episode of his sitcom. And, again, this is exemplary of the entire film, which keeps the audience chuckling ironically from a distance.

One narrative quirk that confuses me is an interaction between Rob and Alvy. Early on in the film, Alvy says, “Don’t call me Max,” and Rob replies, “Why? It’s a good name for you.” For the remainder of the movie, Alvy and Rob refer to each other as Max. It’s hilarious, and I’m sure it’s written that way for a reason, but these types of stylistic oddities are scattered throughout.

The plot revolves around the settings of New York and Los Angeles, and compares/contrasts the traditional Jewish and Christian families of the main characters.

I love how Alvy grew up beneath a roller coaster, and the scene where he’s introduced into the psychotherapy that never seems to work out.

There’s a smart scene in which the frame is split in two and the main characters conduct therapy sessions concurrently. In this dichotomy the monetary, sexual, emotional and psychotherapeutic health of each individual becomes a form of currency in their relationship. It’s a fascinating, not to mention pessimistic, method of breaking things down.

The discussion with his elementary school classmates, whose hair is similar to his adult self, is nothing short of brilliant. They remain children in his mind, but morphed slightly over time to better reflect himself.

I bet that sounds complicated. What’s not complicated is Jeff Goldblum’s cameo. He’s on the telephone at a party and says, “I forgot my mantra.”

Larry David pays homage to the Wagner joke in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. And that animation scene was probably very original filmmaking for its time, but if I hadn’t heard about it previous to viewing, it would have blown past me.

The ending is fantastic. Like the rest of the film, it’s nothing short of brilliant.

Hopefully Woody’s got a couple good ones left.