LIBERTY HEIGHTS (1999)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on June 8th, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Wednesday, February 6, 2008.

Written & Directed by Barry Levinson, starring Adrien Brody, Joe Mantegna, Bebe Neuwirth, Rebekah Johnson, Orlando Jones, Anthony Anderson and introducing Ben Foster (who got the gig during an open call!)

Between Rosh Hashanah of 1954 and 1955, the Kurtzman family of Baltimore is confronted with endings, beginnings and other upheavals. Nate Kurtzman (Mantegna), who runs a burlesque house and numbers racket, sees both of his businesses dying at the hands of television and a brand new state lottery. Older son Van (Brody) is off to college in the first non-Jewish school he’s ever attended. Younger son Ben not only experiences his first crush with Sylvia, an African American girl in his class, he also discovers rock-n-roll. When Nate makes a last-ditch attempt at financial solvency for his family, races and generations collide in hilarious, poignant and unexpected ways.

This is the fourth of Levinson’s semi-autobiographical “Baltimore Films” the others being DINER, TIN MEN and AVALON. LIBERTY HEIGHTS is set a notch above the others by some of the most intricate editing (by Stu Linder) to come out of a major studio in years. Without taking the focus away from the characters, the editing creates stunningly evocative layers of sound, image and music. Aside from the music (Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Elvis, Tom Waits) it helps to have Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle providing the images. Doyle, possibly the most underrated shooter alive, is largely responsible for the glowing signature look of most of Wong Kar Wai’s movies. Many films are described as “labors of love” — it’s rare to see this much love poured into every aspect of a movie.

It’ll finish Friday.
Love, Jim

AFTER THOUGHT from 6.8.11
To this day LIBERTY HEIGHTS is the only movie that ever prompted me to write a fan letter to a filmmaker, primarily for the reasons mentioned in the above pitch to my agency coworkers: images in that playful 50’s color palette balanced with resonant music grabbed me within the first act and rewarded my attention throughout. I had witnessed a single song used well with a montage, but I had never seen montages of music paired with montages of images, with sound from one scene bleeding into the scenes that precede and follow. My actor and fellow writer pals will hate me for saying this, but certain elements of great movies can only come from the vision of a director, and must be controlled by the unsung creative forces of editors and composers.

Andrea Morricone composed the score for LIBERTY HEIGHTS. In the final 42 seconds of the trailer you can hear echoes of his father Ennio’s work, particularly the romantic sweep of CINEMA PARADISO, on which Andrea assisted the maestro. During a Halloween party scene where Van meets both Dubbie and Trey, the girl of his dreams and her boyfriend, dialog is often replaced with a soundscape swinging from “Shake Rattle & Roll” to the roar of Trey’s convertible to “Rock Island Line.” James Brown’s “Please, Please, Please” and Morricone’s score trade partners as Ben and Sylvia attend a James Brown concert downtown, while uptown Van and Dubbie share a heart to heart at a party in the backyard of one of their classmates mausoleum like homes. Levinson’s seamless blend of sound and vision finds one scene informing another, one character speaking for another character’s dilemma, in a manner as unorthodox for a mainstream film as it is haunting and unforgettable.

I do not mean to imply that LIBERTY HEIGHTS is lacking in the engaging performances and impeccable storytelling departments. This film afforded me the unique experience of giving up on guessing where the story will go next. It’s a wonderful feeling when you realize your cliché based predictions and assumptions have been tossed out the window, that it’s best to sit back, and enjoy the company in which you have been placed. I can give you one glimpse that will not spoil any dramatic turns: before Ben takes Sylvia to see James Brown, he asks if he can borrow his father’s Cadillac. In any other movie set in the 1950’s Nate Kurtzman would be reading the newspaper, Ada Kurtzman (Bebe Neuwirth) would be darning socks or otherwise knitting, and “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” would be on TV. Here when Ben yells down from the kitchen, we see Nate and Ada practicing the cha cha in a swank finished basement, hiding just how hip Mom and Dad Kurtzman are from passersby on the street. That’s a married couple still deeply in love and smoldering for each other, even as their son is old enough to go to college; when is the last time you saw that in an American movie?

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THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955)

Posted in THE LUNCH MOVIE CHRONICLES: The original e-mail announcements that were sent through our office the evening before we rolled a Lunch Movie on January 23rd, 2011 by Jim Delaney


From Friday, March 7, 2008

Written & Directed by Billy Wilder, starring Marilyn Monroe, Tom Ewell and Evelyn Keyes.

Richard Sherman (Ewell) is your average family man living in Manhattan with his wife and son. He spends his days either working for a paperback press, where he daydreams himself into the stories he publishes, or in his psychiatrist’s office where he tries to make sense of his fantasies. Sherman’s daydreams become reality when his wife and son leave town for summer vacation and Marilyn Monroe rents the apartment upstairs.

George Axelrod‘s Broadway comedy THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH generated most of its laughs through jokes about adultery. Billy Wilder knew that a story could get away with that on Broadway, but not in Hollywood in the 1950’s. Wilder and Axelrod altered the screenplay so that the seductions occur mostly in Sherman’s imagination rather than in his apartment. This change had the dual benefit of side-stepping the censors and enabling the film to poke more exaggerated fun at the male psyche than the play was able to. The film seems tame and cute by today’s standards, but in 1955 representatives from the Hays Code office and the Catholic Legion of Decency routinely appeared on set trying to rein in the fun. Thank God they were, for the most part, unsuccessful!

It’ll finish Tuesday.
Love, Jim
TRAILER

AFTER THOUGHT from 1.23.11
Two of the strongest elements of THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH are illustrated through the scenes of seduction: first, how creative and fun the script is, and second, what a unique actress and screen presence was Marilyn Monroe. Eight years before Fellini explored the sexual psyche of a man who had the means to fulfill many of his dreams, Wilder and Axelrod and Ewell play hysterically with a man in no position at all to act upon his fantasies. Richard Sherman is content with his imagination, too dutiful a husband and father to cheat on his family, and too decent to take advantage of The Girl upstairs. He has the desire, and for a time he is amused to simply imagine the possibilities, but his decency also forces him to imagine the ramifications. He does not simply imagine himself a Walter Mitty styled hero, or a lothario on the order of Guido Anselmi; he also imagines the shame of hurting his family. We are even treated to Sherman’s paranoia that The Girl might use her position as a performer in live television commercials to alert every woman in the tri-state area to his raging animal lust.

The amazingly sexy reality of Marilyn Monroe’s performance is that she never actively tries to entice Tom Ewell. Sure, she does in his waking dreams, but those moments are outrageous enough that they are more comic than sexy. Monroe is at her most attractive, and to Sherman her most irresistible, when she is sweetly naive of his intentions. She was 28 when THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH was filmed, but she manages to pull off an innocence more befitting a friendly and trusting young lady than the stereotypical dumb blonde. She walks an impossibly fine line here, succeeding in turning what could have been a one-note character into an emotionally and physically nuanced comedic performance worthy of Chaplin.

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