“Annie Hall” (1977)

December 22, 2008 at 3:22 pm (Cinema, Reviews & Articles, Woody Allen)

This review comes from Joseph McBride from Variety magazine (March 30, 1977). One of the great films of the 70s by one of the great filmmakers…


In a decade largely devoted to male buddy-buddy films, brutal rape fantasies, and impersonal special effects extravaganzas, Woody Allen has almost single-handedly kept alive the idea of heterosexual romance in American films.

His four romantic comedies with Diane Keaton strike a chord of believability that makes them nearly the only contemporary equivalent of the Tracy-Hepburn films. The latest, United Artists’ Annie Hall, is by far the best, a touching and hilarious love story that is Allen’s most three-dimensional film to date. Commercial prospects are excellent in the reliable Allen market, though the title may cause some confusion about the nature of the run. Alvy & Annie might have been a more effective handle, incorporating both characters’ names.

All through production and right up to the moment of the world premiere unveiling at Los Angeles Film Exposition, the content of Annie Hall was kept secret, though rumor correctly had it that it is Allen’s most overtly autobiographical film. The lack of publicity overkill is a shrewd stroke that gives the film a fresh and unexpected quality and is sure to engender beneficial word-of-mouth once it opens regular runs. It’s heartening, for once, to see a film without knowing the entire plot in advance and without having the director explain what it means ad nauseum.

As Allen requires more finesse as a director, more command of emotion and a smoother visual style, his films have gradually become something deeper than mere laugh machines, though still hysterically funny. The gags fly by in almost non-stop profusion, but there is an undercurrent of sadness and pain now, reflecting a maturation of style. Allen tells Keaton in the film that he has “a very pessimistic view of life,” and it’s true.

The script by Allen and Marshall Brickman is loosely structured, virtually a two-character running conversation between Allen and Keaton as they meet, fall in love, quarrel, and break up. Meanwhile, he continues his career as a moderately successful tv-nightclub comic and she develops a budding career as a singer. The unhappy ending, in this case, is an unusually satisfying conclusion, for though the audience comes to love both people, it also comes to respect both of them enough to want them to seek happiness individually.

In his idiosyncratic, comic terms, what Allen is attempting here is not so much different from what his favorite director, Ingmar Bergman, did in Scenes from a Marriage. This film could be called Scenes from a Relationship. Allen and Keaton go through just about all the emotional changes one could expect from an intelligent contemporary couple, only in this case the anguish is masked by the surface bravery of Allen’s wisecracking and Keaton’s deft retorts.

Allen adapts a number of visual devices from Bergman films, such as Wild Strawberries-like scenes from his childhood in which he is also present as a grown man, and an opening monolog delivered directly to the camera like those in Winter Light or Hour of the Wolf. He also makes liberal use of flashbacks, split screens, and other devices not typical to comedies.

Supporting cast is expertly directed but mainly confined to brief vignettes along the way. Tony Roberts basically repeats his hipster best friend role from Play It Again, Sam, Paul Simon is a sharp caricature of a Hollywood swinger, and Allen’s other women are nicely played by Carol Kane, Janet Margolin, and Shelley Duvall. Christopher Walken has a terrific bit as Keaton’s strange brother, and Jonathan Munk is droll as the nine-year-old Allen. Marshall McLuhan and Dick Cavett appear fleetingly as themselves.

All technical credits, particularly Willis’ lensing, are tops. Ralph Rosenblum’s editing deserves high commendation for keeping the complex pattern of fragmented scenes moving briskly for 93 minutes. Allen and Rosenblum know exactly how long to sustain emotional moments without letting them kill the comic tone.

The handsome Jack Rollins-Charles H. Joffe production was produced by Joffe and exec-produced by Robert Greenhut.


Joseph McBride

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Marshall Bowden – “Stay Free: A Tribute to Joe Strummer” (2002)

December 22, 2008 at 10:00 am (Reviews & Articles)

This tribute to the late, great Joe Strummer (who unexpectedly died 6 years ago on this day) is from a Dec. 27, 2002 posting on the PopMatters website.
Joe Strummer will never be forgotten…


The music of Joe Strummer and the Clash were an integral part of the soundtrack of my high school and college years. Strummer’s death represents the disappearance of an important and substantial part of my musical past as well as the loss of one of rock music’s truly poetic voices.

The Clash was what a certain group of music fans and writers refer to as a “real” band, meaning a band that was actually a somewhat autonomous group of individuals who contributed their individual talents to create a greater whole. A real band is also one for whom the main objective is to create the best music that they can collectively, to allow themselves the freedom to grow in new and surprising directions, and not to allow the considerations of the marketplace to dictate to them what their music should sound like. The Ramones may have started punk rock rolling, and the Sex Pistols may have provided the flash and style as well as the inspiration, but the Clash provided punk music with its first real substance, articulating the war of politics, class, and aesthetics that lay at the heart of the movement. As the group’s lyricist, Joe Strummer was responsible for articulating much of this in phrases and images that place him in the pantheon of great rock and roll songwriters, period.

Strummer and the Clash were punks by virtue of the time and place in which they found themselves picking up guitars and trying to write their own songs, which is to say Margaret Thatcher’s Great Britain. Joe was the clear-cut rocker of the bunch, singing Chuck Berry songs in the London subways. He was connected to rockabilly and R&B, great music from rock ‘n’ roll’s past that most punk rockers and new wavers had either never heard of or completely dismissed. An art school dropout, he was aware of the great cultural movements and developments of the twentieth century as well as having a strong sense of politics and history. He could see clearly that rock music had never really realized its potential as a political medium. Though the music of early Dylan and some other folk poets veered in that direction, it had always gone off the tracks when the songwriter became immersed in art for art’s sake, losing sight of the message along the way. David Bowie once said that he knew nothing political would come out of the punk movement because the guys in the bands all wanted so badly to be stars. Strummer believed he could have it both ways—in fact, the only way to truly bring the band’s message to the people at whom it was aimed was to become as big as possible. The only other band to play with these contradictions with any degree of success has been U2, and lead singer Bono has said that the Clash “wrote the rule book for U2.” 

While the band may have become an enormous success in the UK and later the United States, they managed to remain truer to the spirit of punk rock than many bands who, while retaining the claustrophobic, nervous energy of the original music, stopped caring about what they were communicating and to whom they were communicating it. Almost from the first, the Clash was bringing in outside music and influences, with reggae and dub leading the way, providing both a sonic and spiritual link with another group of disaffected, angry outcasts. Their first album, The Clash, was largely comprised of singles that had already been a hit in the UK, but the record label declined to issue it in the US, citing its sound as “too crude” (read: lo-fi & political) to appeal to American tastes. Apparently, that was wrong, though, as the album became so successful as an import item that an American version was finally pressed, though it cut several tracks. The band moved forward musically and lyrically on each successive album. The second, Give ‘Em Enough Rope, featured a broader sound and displayed Strummer’s knack for writing lyrics that even today sound prophetic: “A system built by the sweat of the many / Creates assassins to kill off the few.”

By the time the two-record set London Calling was issued, the band was experimenting with rockabilly (“Brand New Cadillac”), guitar jazz (“Jimmy Jazz”), and the familiar reggae and ska (“Revolution Rock,” “Rudie Can’t Fail”), and Strummer was again offering first-rate imagery, as on the title track, a truly apocalyptic vision coupled with his wordless, blood-curdling rooster crows near the end, a wakeup call from deep in the depths of his soul. And then there was the majesty of the three-record Sandanista! While the sheer diversity of musical styles on display most often earns the album comparisons to the Beatles’ White Album, it ultimately seems much more ambitious than that, because its focus is outward rather than inward. Americans, deep in an era of failed Reaganomics and afraid the old coot might actually launch missiles at the Soviet Union, heard the truth behind Joe’s political broadsides, like “Ivan Meets G.I. Joe,” “Police on My Back,” “The Call Up,” “Somebody Got Murdered” and “Washington Bullets.” Despite a global, pro-revolutionary outlook that today would probably be labeled “un-American”, the group continued to win fans in the US. The feeling was mutual, as Strummer showed he had thoroughly absorbed many elements of American culture as well, turning a line from Apocalypse Now into the hilarious and poignant song “Charlie Don’t Surf.”

On Combat Rock Strummer went even deeper into the American experience, and it seemed to be getting to him, as a more world-weary tone crept into songs like the refugee’s lament “Straight to Hell” and the incredible “Ghetto Defendant” (recorded with Allen Ginsberg), with its stark realization: “Ghetto defendant / It is heroin pity / Not tear gas nor baton charge / That stops you taking the city.” The tensions in the group had grown unbearable by this time, and there is a real tension on the album between the more poetic, brooding songs and the more pop-oriented ones. Still, Strummer’s lyrics on the group’s biggest American hit, “Rock the Casbah” were dead on, and sound just timely today as they did back in 1982. Strummer continued with what was left of the Clash on Cut the Crap, and it is the final Clash album, made the way Strummer wanted to make it-direct and without pretense.

Strummer continued to work in music, creating soundtracks for several films (including Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy and Straight to Hell, in which he also appeared), and later forming the Mescaleros, a band that explored many of the musical elements that the Clash had touched on with albums like London Calling and Sandinista! It was clearly his work with the Clash that will stand as his main legacy. The group is to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this coming year, and perhaps the tributes to Joe and the band will encourage people, particularly those who were too young to hear them the first time around, to listen once again their albums. What they will discover is a body of extremely literate and poetic work that also speaks very directly to the heart and the emotions. Because of punk rock’s proletariat aesthetic, the incredible quality of Strummer’s work has been overlooked in the past. In light of his untimely death and the attention that will be focused on the group in 2003, perhaps people will come to realize that punk was merely the spark that lit the fuse of Joe Strummer’s creativity. Songs like “London Calling,” “Working for the Clampdown,” “Stay Free,” “Four Horsemen,” “The Magnificent Seven,” “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” and “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” are pure rock and roll with all the imagery of Bob Dylan and all the urgency of Chuck Berry. In short, Joe Strummer belongs in the pantheon of rock music’s elite because he stretched the boundaries of what popular music could do, and because he engaged our hearts and our minds.

Marshall Bowden

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“Yellow Submarine” (1968)

December 22, 2008 at 1:45 am (Cinema, Roger Ebert, The Beatles)

A very early review from Roger Ebert, for the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 2, 1968, talking about the animated Beatles film Yellow Submarine…  


“Pepperland is a tickle of joy on the belly the universe. It must be scratched!” — The Chief Meanie


As everybody knows the Blue Meanies only take no for an answer. That’s why they get so mad when the songs of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band percolate through Pepperland. Such songs encourage strange plants to bloom. There’s a big YES sprouting near the bandstand, and love is growing all over the place. So the Blue Meanies counterattack with anti-music missiles, turning everyone in Pepperland blue. Except for Old Fred, conductor of the band, who flees in the Yellow Submarine to recruit the Beatles in the fight against Meanies.
What follows is the most original and inventive feature-length animated cartoon since the days when Walt Disney was still thinking up innovations. As Disney demonstrated in Fantasia, and as the underground has abundantly proved for the past decade, there is no form of film with more freedom than animation. You can do absolutely anything you want with movement, dimension color, shapes, perspective and anything else that occurs to you.
Unfortunately, most animated cartoon makers are content to reproduce the real world. So there’s a recognizable jungle in The Jungle Book, and Tom and Jerry chase each other through an unmistakable living room. The beauty of Yellow Submarine is that it casts this objective universe aside and sails in a world of pure fantasy. The strange creatures and designs that inhabit Pepperland are simply a delight to the eye.
We see strange dimensions. The Beatles are adrift on the sea of holes, and since all holes have an in and an out, you can go into any hole right side up or upside down and come out sideways to everybody else. This is all perfectly clear when it’s written about in the English language (how else could Alice describe Wonderland?), but only an animated cartoon can stretch space and bodies so that you literally see Ringo and George zapping back and forth between dimensions.
They also get caught in a time trip, speeding up and slowing down time in correct Einsteinian fashion, growing older and younger while their submarine travels the fourth dimension.
Then comes a series of adventures as the Beatles engage the Blue Meanies in battle, win, free Pepperland and use melodies to make flowers grow. Along the way, they also sing 11 Beatles songs, which are illustrated with the most fanciful animation, and they indulge in shameless puns.
Yellow Submarine, curiously enough, exists on two levels with nothing in between. It is beautifully simple and childlike on one level, and erudite and deep on another. But it is not simply straightforwardly entertaining as A Hard Day’s Night was.

Roger Ebert

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