Glenn Bassett Tag

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

The Greatest Classic Screwball Comedies” highlighted 30 zany gems from Hollywood’s Studio Era. Here, we’re going to trace how the screwball spirit has survived—and even thrived—in the modern era. Of course, these latter-day variations wander into areas their forbears never would have considered exploring. But that basic sense that anything can happen, and probably will, continues to define the genre almost 90 years on. 

The 1970s

What’s Up, Doc?

(1972)

Barbra Streisand, the great actress and film persona (and filmmaker) that she is, uses all her comedy skills, unique beauty, and talents in this revisit to the screwball comedy. Because she can be glamorous and funny (not crass or vulgar), she appears to be at ease fulfilling the classic 1930s role of the sexy girl who makes big trouble for everyone else. Ryan O’Neal is at his Cary Grant best. Madeline Kahn makes her screen debut with her brilliantly funny performance as O’Neal’s rejected fiancée. Indeed, the entire cast (Austin Pendleton, Kenneth Mars, and, in a surprise comic tour de force, Liam Dunn as the night court judge) reigns supreme and the result is a true screwball comedy—and it might just be the best one ever. It has all 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

the comedic perfection of mix-ups and ridiculous coincidences, but with an added chase scene. By 1971, this could be done realistically full-scale. It’s as thrilling as the car chase in Bullitt (also set in San Fran), but the results are a laugh a second. What’s Up, Doc? was a critical and box-office bonanza and created a whole new generation of screwball comedies.   Gerard Alessandrini

A / G / I / K / VY     

 

Sleeper

(1973)

Woody Allen, the great film historian as well as great writer/director, certainly knew what screwball comedy was, and when the genre became big box office again, he jumped right on the bandwagon with this semi-science-fiction farce that brought back the zaniness of the Marx Brothers. Diane Keaton is his Myrna Loy/Claudette Colbert, and she is as wonderful and crazy as any 1930s movie queen. Although many Woody Allen films contain elements of screwball, Sleeper is his purest one.  G.A.

 

Blazing Saddles

(1973)

Mel Brooks, one of the great kings of satirical comedy, 

crosses the border here directly into the center of screwball-comedy territory. While his Young Frankenstein, The Producers, High Anxiety, and Silent Movie are superbly entertaining, they are parodies of film genres. Yes, Blazing Saddles is a spoof of westerns but it transcends parody with its zaniness and non-sequitur plot. Cleavon Little is Cary Grant to Gene Wilder’s Carole Lombard here (although Harvey Korman is the one named Hedley Lamarr). Inspired Madeline Kahn is the Dietrich-like Blonde Bombshell (who’s a bit “tired”). Near the end when the actors cross from western soundstages into a Dom DeLuise musical, the film really goes screwball. Bravo, Mel!   —G.A.
A / G / I / K / V / Y     

 

Foul Play

(1978)

With the multiple revivals of screwball comedy films, it was inevitable a blonde star should take on the reign of Queen of the 1970s screwballs. Goldie Hawn had already won a Supporting Actress Oscar for her special brand of comedy. In Private Benjamin, she proved she was a formidable comedy force. 

But with Colin Higgins’ screenplay and Chevy Chase as her 1970s Cary Grant, she became the Queen of Screwball Comedy for the next decade. And any film that has the Pope in it has to be considered a screwball comedy.  G.A.

The 1980s

Seems Like Old Times

(1980)

Neil Simon, who certainly knew his comedic genres and classic films, wrote this second screwball for Goldie & Chevy. Simon pays tribute to screwball comedies by putting in a lot of surprise entrances and crazy exits and irrational mix-ups. The result has a good amount of decent belly laughs, even if the film doesn’t add up to be a brilliant work. At the time, critics were only moderately to nonchalantly impressed. But it’s fun all the way, and now that we have some distance from it, we can appreciate this charming film and enjoy the genius of Neil, Chevy, and, as always, Goldie.   —G.A.     A / CGIV / Y     

 

Arthur

(1981)

The breezy and fun-loving 1980s continued to surprise and delight with this box-office surprise. The wonderfully different story about a lovable alcoholic is a perfect fit for the talents of the late, great Dudley Moore. Liza gets one of her few good roles after Sally Bowles in Cabaret as the object of his affection. The music is also appealing and includes

Where to See Some Screwball

Of the 20 films here, only Sleeper, Foul Play, and To Be or Not to Be are currently unavailable on non-subscription streaming. Kaleidescape has gathered 15 of the titles into a “Modern Screwball Comedies” collection. And Crackle offers Seems Like Old Times, Clue, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles for free. (The boldface alphabet soup after each movie description indicates who’s got what.)

 

A = Amazon Prime / C = Crackle
G = Google Play / I = iTunes / K = Kaleidescape
V = Vudu / Y = YouTube

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

the Oscar winner “Between the Moon and New York City.” But the best surprise is the stunt casting of the superb Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud as Arthur’s stalwart butler. His dry performance in this marvelous film did not go unnoticed as Gielgud won an Academy Award for his subversively witty turn here.    G.A.     AGI / KV / Y    

 

To Be or Not to Be

(1983)

Mel Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft finally get to star in a film together in this color remake of the Jack Benny/Carole Lombard gem from 1942. This version is at least as funny as the original, but it also expands (and arguably improves) on 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

most of the absurd situations. Brooks wrote one or two of his special brand of “Nazi songs,” and they give the proceedings a Producers-type lift. Charles Durning as the befuddled S.S. Col. Erhardt is off-the-charts funny. Tim Matheson as Bancroft’s young paramour has the looks, the tongue-in-cheek delivery, and perfect Cary Grant lightness to give the film a romantic layer. And not to detract from the classic original, it’s fair to say that the arrival of Mel Brooks as Hitler at an English Pub is a terrific addition and a hilarious surprise. (Well, I guess I just spoiled that surprise!) It should be noted that Brooks didn’t direct this jewel of comedy, Alan Johnson did. Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham re-wrote the screenplay of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch version, so Mel gets to relax and fly to uninhibited heights. It’s particularly wonderful to see Ms. Bancroft sing, dance, do comedy-drama, and use so many of her God given talents.  G.A.

 

Trading Places

(1983)

Directed by John Landis and starring Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy, this is the story of an upper-class commodities broker and a homeless street hustler whose lives cross paths and switch places when they are unknowingly made part of an elaborate bet. It’s a classic 

screwball comedy setup worthy of Preston Sturges from 40 years earlier. Murphy and Ackroyd are both at the top of their comedic game. And most appropriately they are joined by Jamie Lee Curtis, herself an expert screwball comedienne. The production values are wonderful. Elmer Bernstein’s Academy Award-nominated music score is perfectly period. And Landis certainly knew he was making a 1940s-type comedy by casting true Hollywood screwball veterans Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in the senior roles.   G.A.     A / G / I / K / V / Y

 

Clue

(1985)

This comedy mystery film based on the popular board game by Parker Brothers initially did poor business at the box office but has since gained cult status. In a similar vein as the 1976 film Murder by Death, it is an all-star-ensemble whodunit where a

bevy of guests is invited to a big mansion, a murder occurs, and the suspects have to figure out which among them committed the crime. Where Clue and Murder by Death differ however is that the former is filled with much more slapstick and silliness, albeit with a less witty screenplay, catapulting it into the screwball comedy genre. With a tour de force performance by Tim Curry

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

as the butler Wadsworth and brilliant comedic turns by Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren, this film is notably quotable, with my personal favorite being Kahn’s line “Flames, on the sides of my face!” To add to the fun, there are three different endings!   Glenn Bassett     A / CG / I / K / V / Y     

 

Overboard

(1987)

Starring real-life power couple Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Overboard was neither a critical or commercial success, but has become a cult classic screwball comedy. Hawn, the queen of ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s comedy films, seems to be having a ball here playing Joanna, a rich, uptight snob who gets amnesia and is tricked by her carpenter, Dean (Kurt Russell), into believing she is his wife and mother of his four boys. The down-and-out Dean does this as payback for her refusal to pay him for work done and for throwing his tools into the ocean. The premise is ludicrous but in the hands of the charming and sexy Goldie and Kurt, as well as director Garry Marshall, the film manages to be heart-warming and witty amidst a very silly plot.    G.B.     AI / KV    

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

(1987)

Steve Martin has his own niche in the modern screwball comedy. Roxanne, The Jerk, and L.A. Story are just a few. But Planes, Trains and Automobiles has a special place in the hearts of screwball-comedy lovers. Of course, adding the genius of John Candy doesn’t hurt this wild road-trip romp. Here, Candy‘s obnoxious but lovable behavior comes across so effectively that it adds a certain dramatic layer to the film. John Hughes (Home Alone), at one of his peaks, wrote, produced, and directed this perennial holiday favorite. It has been noted that Hughes wrote his films quickly, and perhaps in doing so he gave them a driving urgency. Of course, this is always good for any film but even better for a comedy. Planes, Trains, and

Automobiles all takes place in a 24-hour period, and the unity of time adds excellent momentum to this “Traveling Home for the Holidays“ roller-coaster ride.    G.A.

A / CGI / KV / Y    

 

A Fish Called Wanda

(1988)

A Fish Called Wanda stars John Cleese (who also wrote the 

screenplay), Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin. I remember first seeing this movie when it had just come out, not knowing anything about it or expecting anything special. Well, what a surprise. Cleese’s screenplay is comic gold, as are his and all of the performances. It’s hard to pick a favorite among the leads as they are all doing their very best onscreen work here. And although this is a heist comedy, the hilarious situations, endless slapstick, and a trouble-making femme fatale (Curtis) at its center make it a screwball comedy classic. Deservedly nominated for three Academy Awards including Director (Charles Crichton) and Original Screenplay (John Cleese), Kevin Kline won for Supporting Actor in perhaps his funniest role to date.   G.B.     AGI / KV / Y     

The 1990s

Soapdish

(1991)

What a screwball brilliant cast this film has. Sally Field, who is always at ease in improbable screenplays, and modern comedy masters Kevin Kline and Whoopi Goldberg are just the headliners. Add in Elisabeth Shue, Carrie Fisher, Robert 

Downey Jr., and Cathy Moriarty in exquisitely broad comic performances, and it’s a star-studded screwball treat. The screenplay by Robert Harling and Andrew Bergman is as wild and improbable as it gets (but then again aren’t TV soap operas, too?) It’s exceptionally well directed by Michael Hoffman with just the right amount of frantic abandon. Also, the “look” of the whole film is

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

terrific and matches perfectly the outrageous tone. “The Look” is a great time capsule of life in glamorous 1991 New York City. Those were the candy-colored days!    G.A.     AGIV / Y    

 

Housesitter

(1992)

This is one of my personal favorite screwball comedies. It pairs the incredible comic talents of Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin, with Martin hysterical as Newton, an architect who has built a dream house in his small hometown for his girlfriend Becky (Dana Delaney) as a wedding-proposal gift, only to be turned down by her when he pops the question. He leaves the house abandoned and ends up having a one-night stand with a supposedly Hungarian waitress, Gwen (Hawn), to whom he tells the story of the house. An artful opportunist and a compulsive liar, Gwen hunts down the house, moves right in, and soon has Newton’s parents and the whole town convinced she is Newton’s new wife. Screwball comedy heaven ensues when Newton returns to his hometown and realizes this unorthodox arrangement may be the only way of winning Becky back. This is an absolute must-see Goldie Hawn performance!   G.B.     AGI / KV / Y     

There’s Something About Mary

(1998)

Everything about this escapade into romantic obsession screams “True Screwball!” With Cameron Diaz as Mary, the carefree and unaware blonde center of attention, and her three crazy suitors (Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon, and Lee Evans), every bizarre plot

twist and slapstick ballet is a set up for provoking laughter, just like the broadest and best of the 1930s screwballs. But the big difference here is that now a comedy like this can use sexual situations, crude language, and politically incorrect setups. The result may be a bit crude, but it’s always hilarious. It’s all so well directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly. And you’re sure to notice this film has a small, very drugged-up but indestructible cute little dog in it, so very Awful Truth-like!   —G.A.

AGI / KV / Y     

 

Runaway Bride

(1999)

Runaway Bride was a commercially successful re-teaming of director Garry Marshall and his two mega-stars from Pretty Woman (1990), Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. With a similar premise as It Happened One Night (1934), this screwball comedy has New York columnist Ike (Gere) traveling to small-town Maryland to write a factually accurate article about Maggie Carpenter (Roberts), whom the tabloids have dubbed “The Runaway Bride” for leaving numerous men at the altar. A somewhat cliche story, Roberts and Gere manage to rekindle some of the magic that made them box-office gold, and with a supporting cast including Joan Cusack and Héctor Elizondo (also of Pretty Woman), it has enough charm and laughs to entertain and amuse more than 20 years later.   G.B.     AGI / KV / Y    

The 2000s

Superbad

(2007)

After 30 years of screwball-revival films, a new type of “buddy” screwball emerged. In these comedies, the crazy female figure is nearly non-existent and the boys take the irrational behavior lead. There are some elements of the “Drug Comedy” in this

film, although the culprit here is alcohol rather than drugs. The “Drug Comedy” is actually its own sub-genre (Up in Smoke, Dazed and Confused) but in Superbad, the string of outrageous situations comes so fast and furious, it feels screwball throughout—at least till the end, when it very satisfyingly slides into a real and moving friendship story. By the way, this sentimental friendship has been used effectively again and again, and in other Jonah Hill films like 22 Jump Street.   —G.A.     AGI / K / V / Y 

 

The Hangover

(2009)

You could classify this hysterical adventure as a “Drug Comedy,” however it has a certain layer to it that is rather like a Billy Wilder movie. Rather than sit back and be amused, we are asked to participate in solving a certain mystery. What did happen “the night before”? This quality of “we need to do a little brain work here” is a sure trademark of any Wilder film, comedy or otherwise. It adds a certain wit and wryness to the proceedings, and elevates this bachelor-party flick. Of course, the fabulous and frantic direction by Todd Phillips of the Jon Lucas/Scott Moore screenplay

doesn’t hurt! This is the movie that catapulted Bradley Cooper to stardom. Zach Galifianakis, Ed Helms, and, yes, Mike Tyson and a friendly but man-eating tiger (shades of Bringing Up Baby?) add toothy support.   —G.A.     AGI / KV / Y     

The 2010s

Bridesmaids

(2011)

Not since The Women (1939) has there been an all-female ensemble comedy as hilarious or as much fun to watch from start to finish as Bridesmaids. Directed by Paul Fieg with an Academy Award-nominated screenplay by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig, this screwball comedy about a woman named Annie (Wiig) who has lost everything and is about to lose her best friend is not only chock-full of slapstick, the troubled-woman trope, and witty dialogue, it also has enough raunch and ridiculousness to make modern audiences laugh till it hurts. The outstanding cast includes Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Wendi 

McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O’Dowd, Jon Hamm, and Melissa McCarthy in a shameless, uproarious Oscar-nominated performance.   G.B.   

AGI / KV / Y     

 

 

Walk of Shame

(2014)

Although this isn’t a film that’s on everyone’s most-famous list, it nonetheless is an undiscovered gem of screwball comedy. Like 

The Greatest Modern Screwball Comedies

many (or most) of the great screwball comedies, it has a beautiful but screwy blonde in the central role. Elizabeth Banks is perfect and superbly comic as a TV news anchorwoman who has a wild night of fun, but through improbable circumstances has a lot of trouble getting home to change her clothes. Improbable is right, but writer/director Steven Brill pulls all the terrific fun off breezily and hysterically. Some critics found the story laced with broad caricatures and broadly drawn stereotypes. But should true screwball comedy do it any other way? This is uproarious fun.   —G.A.     AGI / KV / Y     

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton
. He has been the
lyricist (and sometimes 
composer) 
for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker
& I, Scaramouche, and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. 

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. He was set designer for
a production 
of On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Connecticut and
for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He also did the production design for the
independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner. Current writing projects include
a mystery 
novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical thriller, Dig a Little Deeper.

Dark Waters (2019)

Dark Waters (2019)

As the title suggests, Todd Haynes’ film Dark Waters is no light piece of fluffy escapism, and its tone and weight feel even darker and heavier given the current state of the world. It is a film that forces you to confront sickness, death, and corruption head-on, like Robert Bilott, the protagonist of the story, convincingly underplayed by Mark Ruffalo. Based on a true story, you will be both disturbed and riveted.

The film opens on a warm night in Parkersburg, West Virginia in 1975 when a trio of teenagers sneak onto private property, shuck off their clothes, and take a dip in the lake. A few seconds later, they are swiftly kicked out by the authorities, two men in a small power boat bearing the name “West Virginia Containment Services.” The men are in the midst of spraying a mysterious chemical onto the water’s surface as one of them shouts to the other, “Turn off the beam, fool!”, referring to the boat’s spotlight. Whatever they’re doing, it’s meant to be a secret.

 

Cut to 1998 in Cincinnati, where Robert Bilott (Ruffalo), a recent partner at the corporate law firm of Taft, Stettinius and Hollister, is paid an unexpected visit by a farmer from Parkersburg seeking his help. Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp) 

DARK WATERS AT A GLANCE

This frightening, powerful true story of DuPont Chemical’s poisoning of a small West Virginia town features a strong performance from Mark Ruffalo as the lawyer who uncovers the truth.

 

PICTURE

The film is well made, but relies on a blue filter effect that’s distracting and ultimately unnecessary.

 

SOUND

Composer Marcelo Zavros’ score is particularly effective. 

claims that DuPont is poisoning his farm’s creek and thereby killing the animals—and he has proof. He needs a lawyer, though, and he wants Bilott, whose grandma lives in Parkersburg. Only problem is that Bilott defends chemical companies, he doesn’t sue them.

 

Bilott refuses at first, but a nagging curiosity brings him to Tennant’s farm in West Virginia, and what he sees there cannot be unseen—190 dead cows, people getting sick, and a mysterious landfill belonging to DuPont. Bilott eventually takes the case, as he is the only lawyer willing to face the juggernaut chemical company. Dark suspicions and alarming evidence begin piling up, as does the paperwork Bilott must sift through to uncover the horrible truth. It will take him many years to find it, and at what cost? His career? His family? His life?

 

Mark Ruffalo gives one of his best performances as “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare”, which is the title of the New York Times Magazine article by Nathaniel Rich from which the screenplay (by Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan) is adapted. The supporting cast is equally strong and includes Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Mare Winningham, Bill Camp (heart-breaking as Wilbur Tennant), and Anne Hathaway, particularly compelling as Bilott’s wife, Sarah.

 

The music score by Marcelo Zarvos is effective and in one scene, the use of the John Denver hit, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was particularly eerie juxtaposed with the film’s grim circumstances.

 

The look of the film, however, is its one weak spot. Nearly every scene is layered with a blue filter, used in an effort to manipulate the tone of the film, to make it feel somber and serious. The effect is overbearing and relentless. When we first see Tennant’s farm, for example, it is a dreary, blue day, and then when we revisit the farm more than a decade later, it looks exactly the same. The weather has not changed one iota. Did Haynes film it all on the same day using the same blue filter? His film does not need to rely on gimmicks. Dark Waters is an excellent movie; well-shot, well-scored, well-edited and well-acted, and these elements alone give us the tone. No filters necessary.

 

Despite this one qualm, Dark Waters is both frightening and powerful, and stands alongside the best of its genre like Silkwood, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich. It’s so scary, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, after seeing it, you find yourself going through your kitchen cabinets and throwing out some of your non-stick pots and pans. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of
On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album 
cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
thriller, 
Dig a Little Deeper.

Knives Out

Knives Out

For any mystery-film fan, Rian Johnson’s star-studded whodunnit, Knives Out, is a must-see. It stands up against the best of the genre, like the superb Agatha Christie films of the 1970s and ‘80s—Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Murder on the Orient Express. And it far surpasses the recent inferior remake of the last named. Hang up your oversized mustache, Kenneth Branagh, there’s a new Poirot in town—Benoit Blanc—sans mustache and perfectly played by Daniel Craig.

 

Knives Out has all the usual tropes for a good murder mystery—big house, wealthy victim, slew of suspects with strong motives for murder, reading of the victim’s will, and an eccentric detective. The film begins with a pair of barking dogs running in slow-motion through the fog, an imposing mansion in the background. The shot fairly screams “The Hound of the

Baskervilles” and is the first of several Sherlock Holmes homages throughout the film. Next we see a maid bringing breakfast to her employer, the famous mystery author Harlan Thrombey, only to find him in his study with throat slit in a pool of blood.

 

This opening scene tells the viewer exactly what they are in for. Your typical murder mystery . . . well, almost. Instead of screaming and dropping the breakfast tray upon discovering the body (like many an episode of the British TV series Midsomer Murders), the maid fumbles with the tray awkwardly and exclaims, “Shit!” This is not your grandmother’s Agatha Christie.

Cut to several days later when the police have come to interview the family, despite what appears to be an open-and-shut case of suicide. What follows is a series of interrogation scenes where the family members of the late Harlan Thrombey tell the police one story and we the audience get to see what really happened, through a series of revealing flashbacks. We soon learn that each of them had good reason to kill Harlan. And what about Harlan’s faithful nurse, Marta? 

 

Johnson’s Oscar-nominated original screenplay twists and turns, keeping us guessing. Was it a suicide? Was it an accident? Or was it pre-meditated murder? The film feels like it’s from another decade yet at the same time plucked from today’s headlines.

 

The issue of immigration is front and center, and the film gets political on more than one occasion, notably in a heated discussion during Harlan’s 85th birthday party. The script is packed with humor as well, from Marta’s inability to tell a lie

without vomiting, to references to TV shows like Murder, She Wrote and Hallmark Mysteries to Daniel Craig doing car karaoke to Sondheim’s torch song “Losing My Mind.”

 

And speaking of Craig, his detective Benoit Blanc is relaxed, fallible, and funny, a far cry from his brooding and intense James Bond. With a knowing smile belying his cool blue eyes,

Knives Out

Craig seems to be having a ball in this film. Whether pounding a single piano key during the interrogation sequences (much to the annoyance of the suspects) or playfully spouting vintage dialogue like “The game is afoot, eh, Watson?” in a Colonel Sanders southern drawl, Benoit is a modern, American Sherlock Holmes. And while the character of Benoit plays head games with the murder suspects, it feels as if Craig is simultaneously toying with us (the audience) and shaking off any pre-conceived 007 baggage.

 

The supporting cast is excellent, playing their quirky characters to the utmost without ever crossing into cliche. Christopher Plummer is pitch-perfect as Harlan Thrombey, and deftly manages to be cruel and hateful in one scene and lovable and 

Knives Out

noble in the next. Jamie Lee Curtis as Linda, Harlan’s eldest daughter, is at her tight-lipped, controlled best in the first quarter of the film then smoothly transitions into a simmering pot before boiling over later in the story. Don Johnson is understated but completely believable as Richard, Linda’s riding-on-her coattails husband. Chris Evans plays (to the hilt) 

Harlan’s grandson, a spoiled, obnoxious bad boy. Michael Shannon as Walt, the youngest son and CEO of his father’s publishing empire, steals each moment the camera is on him. Twitchy, sweaty and desperate, his work in the confrontation scene at Marta’s apartment building is particularly chilling. Toni Collette as Joni, a skincare and lifestyle influencer, provides comedic balance to her more serious daughter Megan, played by Katherine Langford. They are joined by Jaeden Martell, K Callan, Lakeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome, Frank Oz, Edi Patterson, and Noah Segan (hilarious as a goofy cop and die-hard fan of Harlan Thrombey’s books).

 

If Manhattan is the fifth lady in Sex and the City, then Thrombey Mansion is the last family member in Knives Out. The myriad of unusual objects filling the meticulously macabre house was conceivably inspired by (or inspiration for) Harlan’s novels, including the imposing wheel of knives that is the metaphorical “donut” Benoit keeps referring to.

 

The great surprise of the film (no spoilers here) is Ana de Armas as Marta Cabrera. I had never seen her before, so watching her in Knives Out felt like the debut of a new star. She is the emotional center of the film but never relies on overacting. Her Marta is believably sensitive, smart, caring, and cunning. We are with her every step (and misstep) of the mystery. Even when we are convinced of our heroine’s guilt and she is covering her tracks, destroying evidence along the way, we are on her side and in her shoes.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett lives in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats. Most recently, he
was set designer for a production of
On Golden Pond at The Katherine Hepburn Cultural Arts
Center in Connecticut and for the Salt Marsh Opera’s 
production of Pagliacci. He was production
designer on the upcoming independent shorts 
Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed Tanner and
designed and illustrated the poster and album 
cover for Forbidden Broadway: The Next Generation.
Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an original musical
thriller, 
Dig a Little Deeper.

Aquarela

Aquarela

I recently saw Victor Kossakovsky’s astonishing Aquarela (Portuguese for “watercolor”) at The Landmark theater on West 57th Street in Manhattan. This is not your typical documentary.

 

First off, it’s filmed at a frame rate of 96 frames per second. Projectors capable of showing it at this speed are extremely rare, but many theaters, including The Landmark, are showing it at 48 frames per second (as opposed to the typical 24). This

translated to incredible detail, especially of water spray, ice crystals, any kind of small particles. It also provided very smooth, seamless camera pans that felt very natural.

 

This visually breathtaking nature documentary contains zero voiceover narration, minimal dialogue, and very little music score. What scoring there is is original rock 

music, which was not my favorite, but worked whenever used (which was sparingly, fortunately). The sound (in Dolby Atmos), though not the star of the film, was a vital supporting player and was especially effective in the sequence of Greenland’s calving glaciers. Hearing glacial shifts, cracks, and bellows all around you was very powerful. I suspect this will be equally effective experienced in a reference-quality home theater, when Aquarela receive its inevitable UHD Blu-ray and streaming release.

 

But the true star of this film is water, captured in its many different forms all around the world.

 

The first sequence takes place atop a frozen lake in Siberia, where, during the coldest months, people drive across to get from one place to another. What we soon discover, however, is that the ice has begun to melt (three weeks earlier than usual,

Aquarela

according to one victim of the thaw) and cars are actually falling through the ice while people are driving them! It is one of the scariest parts of the film, and an unexpected choice to open with. I found myself on the edge of my seat; and the matter of life and death, juxtaposed with the calmness of the expanse of glass-like ice, was chilling (pardon the expression).

 

The next sequence, possibly my favorite, showed the glaciers of Greenland as they calved then fell, bobbed, rolled, and floated in the icy waters below. Their dramatic, smooth, and graceful movements made me feel like I was watching a well-choreographed ballet. Also, as the ice emerged from the water, I couldn’t help but think of a scene from a film I watched over and over as a kid, Superman: The Movie, specifically the moment when the Fortress of Solitude was being created, with shards of ice rising to the surface. But, astonishingly, Aquarela is real. No special effects here.

 

A calmer moment showed icebergs silently drifting in the sea. Like one might when looking at the clouds, I found myself seeing things in their shapes. One iceberg looked like a dragon, for example, as it slithered past a sailboat with a busy crew

that took no notice of the creature. On a side note, the floating bergs also reminded me of the incredible pastel art of Zaria Forman (shown at right).

 

At times I found it difficult to tell the scale of what I was looking at, but that is part of Aquarela’s magic. And, like many great magic tricks, the solution is even more impressive than the 

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trick itself. Kossakovsky masterfully keeps us guessing until he gives us a long shot of a large sailing vessel anchored alongside an immense, mountainous glacier. The sailboat resembles a tiny toy next to it.

 

Next, we see icebergs from a vantage I had never seen before, neither in film nor photograph. Shot from underneath, along their crystalline surfaces, are some of the most beautiful closeups in the film, of which there are many. This portion is probably the most abstract of the entire film and it’s like a visual fantasy straight out of Fantasia. The color and quality of the light glowing through the ice and water is something to behold.

 

Subsequent sequences include more man versus nature (a theme sprinkled throughout) including a crew of two navigating a sailboat in a storm, evacuation and devastation from the Oroville Dam crisis in California, and a riveting drive through the streets of Miami in the heart of Hurricane Irma.

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The film ends with gorgeous shots of Angel Falls in Veneruela, but my other favorite sequence (and certainly one of the more magnificent moments in the film) comes about 3/4 of the way through, consisting of beautiful closeups of ocean waves. The detail of the sea spray, the fluidity of the water, and the crispness of the image (the high frame rate certainly helps here) are truly mesmerizing. And again, what is the scale? Are these waves actually just tiny ripples or giant tsunamis?

 

My overall reaction to Aquarela was one of wonder, amazement, and fear. Wonder of how the actual filming of it is, in and of itself, man versus nature. Amazement at how very small we as humans are and how much of our world is water. And fear of what’s happening to our planet and how delicate the balance between man and nature really is.

 

This film offers us the chance to witness nature in a way that few ever can, and I think it will translate well to Blu-ray. This will be something to watch on your biggest screen with your best playback system when it does become available for home viewing. And if you can catch it in the theaters, check the movie listing for HFR (high frame rate) to see it at 48 frames per second.

Glenn Bassett

Glenn Bassett is a bit of a Renaissance man (designer, artist, writer, director, and actor) living
in Manhattan with husband Gerard and their two cats, Bruno and Roxy. Most recently, he was
production designer on the upcoming independent shorts Dollars and Sense and Marble-eyed
Tanner
. Current writing projects include a mystery novel set in Provincetown, MA and an 
original
musical thriller, Dig a Little Deeper, which had a developmental reading last year starring Tony
Award-winner Alice Ripley. He is currently designing the set for Salt Marsh Opera 
Company’s
fall production of Pagliacci.