A Night at the Opera. In 1934 Chico Marx, an inveterate bridge player, sat down at the table with one of the sharpest cards ever to hit Hollywood: Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder producer, whose career inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished last novel "The Last Tycoon." Thalberg's gambling ability marked him as the man to revive the ailing career of the three Marx brothers (Zeppo, having gotten fed up with his role as straight man, had left the team to become an agent; when Thalberg asked if the Marxist troika expected the same salary they had received as a quartet, Groucho riposted "Don't be silly. Without Zeppo we're worth twice as much!") and thus a stormy but ultimately fruitful relationship was born. The Marxes, particularly Groucho, had their own ideas about how Marx Brothers movies should be made, and frequently grew exasperated with Thalberg's revisionist notions, which included the resurrection of the serious romantic plotline--a tedious device that had been abandoned after the Marx Brothers' first two pictures "The Cocoanuts" and "Animal Crackers"--and "A Night at the Opera features Allan Jones and To Tell the Truth Grand Dame Kitty Carlisle as a pair of nauseatingly naive and boring singing lovers. But even they are not enough to sink a film featuring the redoubtable Margaret Dumont and authored by (among others) George S. Kaufman, S. J. Perelman, and 300-pound miracle worker Al Boasberg, who wrote the famous stateroom scene and then left it torn up into tiny strips for the others to find and paste together. And in the end, it seems that the Marxes' relationship with Thalberg was a truly dialectical one, in which Thalberg succumbed to Marxist absurdist consciousness even while trying to restrain it: how many other producers who walked into the office to find four naked men roasting potatoes over a makeshift bonfire would have had the presence of mind to send to the MGM commissary for butter?
The American Friend. Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who also authored the novel that was the source of the Hitchcock classic "Strangers on a Train," Wim Wenders' new thriller is frighteningly effective. Bruno Ganz and Dennis Hopper turn in the best performances of their careers as a dying Swiss picture framer and a psychologically-shattered American who helps manipulate the picture framer into murdering an upper-echelon Mafioso, and Wenders' sharp eye and dramatic sense hone the film to a remarkably fine edge.
Annie Hall. Even though it's based on his real-life relationship with co-star Diane Keaton, Woody Allen's latest--and arguably best--film is far more than cinema a clef. Allen's sensitive, sometimes painfully realistic portrait of a failed love affair between a neurotic but lovable New York Jew and a flaky midwestern WASP marks a generally successful departure in thematic approach: "Annie Hall" goes much farther in exploring human relationships than any of Allen's previous films. Still, the best moments in the film are the deliberate send-ups in which Allen unleashes his scathing wit against such deserving targets as Los Angeles and the Beautiful People, the too-chic Manhatten aesthetes and intellectuals who religiously study The New Yorker.
Bringing Up Baby. One of the all-time great screwball comedies. Cary Grant stars as a shy, befuddled paleontologist whose placid existence is completely upset by a one-woman whirlwind. Katherine Hepburn is the whirlwind, a rich, young New Yorker who enlists Grant's aid in caring for Baby, her pet leopard. Kate and Cary spend two hours ostensibly chasing Baby, Kate's dog George, and a bone Grant needs to complete a dinosaur skeleton; Kate, of course, is on the prowl for bigger game. Hepburn and Grant are at their comic best, and Howard Hawks' brilliant, fast-paced direction puts the finishing touch on this refreshingly irrelevant lunacy.
Cria. Film critic David Denby writes a sensitive and intriguing analysis of this latest film by Spanish director Carlos Saurus in the Boston Phoenix that makes it sound like far and away the most interesting new movie in town. Saurus portrays the hypocrisy of a philandering, insensitive military man and the despair of his young wife who is dying of cancer through the eyes of their aloof, perceptive and frighteningly critical young daughter, Ana. At the same time, he includes scenes that give a more objective, more compassionate view of the unhappy parents. The theme of the child's view of adulthood is one that has made for some remarkable films (one thinks specifically of Truffaut), and Saurus's juxtaposition of perspectives promises to be particularly thought-provoking. Critics have been heralding soulful-eyed Ana Torrent, who plays the disillusioned daughter, as the most self-possessed child actress to come along in years, and Geraldine Chaplin as the lonely, dying mother is said to give her most mature and affecting performance yet.
Julia, based on a section of Lillian Hellman's autobiographical book, "Pentimento," is a sensitive, occasionally self-conscious story of Hellman's lifelong friendship with a woman she calls Julia. The film recounts the girls' adolescent escapades while revealing the foundations of the political beliefs that will eventually take Julia from medical school at Oxford to a workers' community in Vienna. The women are separated through most of their lives; but Julia's need for Hellman's aid in her anti-fascist activities prior to World War II reunite them, with repercussions that even a writer of dime store spy fiction would envy.
The Late Show. Art Carney trudges through the role of washed- up shamus Ira Wells, opposite Lily Tomlin's hippy-dippy hippy, who hires Wells to find her cat and leads them both into a big mess of a sinister inbroglio. Robert Benton, screenwriter and director, does a lot of borrowing, from both classic and more recent detective flicks, but does his cribbing in style. The actors, meanwhile, are heavily, and affectingly, into themselves: particularly the kharma and vibrations-obsessed Tomlin. With the same L.A. backdrop that the great Chandler stories grew out of, this one proves as well-oiled as the barrel on a Smith and Wesson Model 19 .357 Magnum.
Looking For Mr. Goodbar. Diane Keaton plunges into a new area in her line of work--a leading role in a serious drama about a nympho working girl--and she can look back on the departure with satisfaction. Her masochistic Theresa Dunn rivals Keaton's technical excellence in portraying Annie Hall, but the character makes no claims upon our sympathy, despite all the vilification unloaded upon her by Dunn's succession of one-night lovers. Tuesday Weld provides an unmemorable contrast to Keaton as Dunn's capricious older sister Katherine, relying too heavily on the character's caricaturish whackiness to carry her through the part. Richard Brooks' direction and adaptation of Judith Rossner's best-selling novel is sufficiently slick to draw crowds to the box office, but the film can be filed as another victim to the typical superficiality of American movies. Sharp witticisms and flashy techniques keep the movie's pace upbeat, while Brooks neglects Dunn's broader significance as prototypical single woman vainly coping with today's anything-goes morality. The movie consistently entertains, but does little else.
Outrageous! Only Woody Allen at his best could outdo some of the one-liners in Richard Benner's brilliant comedy about a female impersonator's rise to stardom and the whacked-out woman behind his success. Craig Russell's unabashedly gay hairdresser has graced us with a character we will not soon forget, completely stealing the show in the movie's plot and the movie itself. His series of famed singers and actresses belting out "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" will bring down any house, so carefully honed are his Channings and Ellas. Co-star Hollis McLaren is inevitably overshadowed by Russell's stagewise presence but the delicate treatment she gives to her Crazy Liza perfectly complements her outlandish buddy.
Rocky. This film marked the emergence of Sylvester Stallone as a bona fide celebrity in the movie industry, and watching his Rocky Balboa give his best shot at the heavyweight crown makes you wonder if it may also mark his equally sudden return to bona fide oblivion. Stallone is perfectly suited to the title role, but therein lies a double edged sword; try to picture Stallone in anything other than boxer's shorts, and you get the message. But Stallone did capture America's heart for one fleeting moment in motion picture history, and no subsequent bomb can ever take that away from him. While the corny script does wear on your nerves at times, the film is chock-full of can't-miss scenes, and Rocky might restore your dwindling faith that the Underdog still has a chance in this world.