Funny Ha Ha
by John Farr
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Five films, organized chronologically, which capture the essence of the Cassavetes legacy: Ahead of its time, “Shadows” centers on a fragile love affair which dissolves when a young white man discovers his naive girlfriend is half-black. In “Faces,” we follow the crumbling world of a middle-aged businessman (John Marley) who leaves his empty marriage and retreats to his mistress, a high-class call girl (Gena Rowlands). “Influence” concerns a loving married couple (Rowlands and Peter Falk) who nevertheless can’t fully connect. “Killing” follows a strip-club operator (Ben Gazzara) who gets in over his head with the mob, while “Opening Night” shows stage diva Rowlands blocked over a part that suggests her advancing age.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Resolutely independent filmmaker John Cassavetes is a hero to film buffs, and this indispensable collection comprises five of his groundbreaking dramas. Though the rawness and immediacy of a Cassavetes film can be unnerving to watch, we feel sympathy, even affection for many of his characters. Our hearts break for the deflowered girl in “Shadows,” the bewildered housewife in “Influence,” even the two-bit gambler in “Killing,” whose only home is his strip-club, his only family its sleazy denizens. A Cassavetes film usually makes the viewer a bit uncomfortable, like someone who’s walked into a party uninvited, one which could turn ugly any second. Such is the impact of the “truth” Cassavetes empowered his actors to find, reflecting life as a wondrously weird, often messy phenomenon. Here’s your chance to see him- and his troupe- at their very best.
A model son and newly minted college graduate, Ben Braddock (Hoffman) is proudly paraded around his parents’ friends, who congratulate him heartily. But inside, Ben feels numb. He soon gets involved with his mother’s sexually frustrated best friend, Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft), then creates a combustible chain reaction by falling for her daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross).
WHY I LOVE IT:
One of the signature films of the 1960s, this feature introduced the world to Hoffman and gave Bancroft a racy role she played with marvelous feline cunning. This sublime black comedy transcends its period, speaking to new generations of alienated youth beginning to navigate a discordant, dysfunctional adult world. The supporting cast, including deft character players William Daniels and Murray Hamilton, are note-perfect, and that Simon & Garfunkel score still stirs the soul. A must for repeat viewings.
No matter what life throws her way—a stolen bike, a cutting remark—chipper, 30-year-old primary-school teacher Poppy (Hawkins) always sports a smile. Content as a single gal, Poppy enjoys the camaraderie of her best friend and flatmate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), with whom she shares an especially intimate bond. But her encounters with sour, rageful driving instructor Scott (Marsan) challenge Poppy’s natural effervescence, especially once a kindly social worker (Samuel Roulkin) enters her life.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Sally Hawkin’s winning, unforgettable performance in Mike Leigh’s Oscar-nominated drama, about a free-spirited working-class British gal confronting a unredeemably noxious soul, is absolutely first-rate. Ever the optimist, Poppy can’t help but try to recuperate Scott’s malignant, borderline psychotic attitude—bitter, racist, paranoid, utterly devoid of joy—and Marsan’s turn as the splenetic, tightly wound Londoner is edgy and riveting. Funny, sad, and life-affirming in equal measure.