Tuesday, November 29, 2016


In the lore of One-Eyed Jacks, it’s said that Marlon Brando’s character Rio was supposed to be Billy the Kid, and was even identified as such up through a draft of the screenplay by the great Sam Peckinpah. The only problem was that, in historical contexts, Billy the Kid was inarguably a bad guy, and Marlon Brando never plays the bad guy. And so it was that the character’s name was changed, paving the gray way on a gray road where the bank robbing, lying Rio could be the hero of his own story.

A pretty good story it is, though a cynical one. Even in western terms, it takes a healthy dose of existential awareness to draft Rio as a hero. An anti-hero, maybe, despite the fact that he seems to stand for less than even Brando’s Johnny in the The Wild One [review], who you may recall was ready to rebel against anything you’ve got. But One-Eyed Jacks was Marlon’s show, and he fired not only Peckinpah but also Stanley Kubrick, who was set to direct the picture, and stepped behind the camera himself, enlisting Paths of Glory-screenwriter [review] and RamblingRose-author Calder Willingham to give him the morally ambiguous western he sought. An extended production followed, and a delayed release, and an eventual studio re-edit to get this thing out in 1961, allegedly excising some three hours of equivocation and nuance. Brando disowned it; your mileage may vary.

One-Eyed Jacks is a solid western, and a dark precursor to the revisionist history to come for the genre as the studio system crumbled and cinema evolved. Set in Mexico and California, One-Eyed Jacks has a decidedly Latino presence, and a pronounced racism to match (and that’s without considering whether or not Brando is intended to be a Mexican). The whites in the movie mingle with the people of color, but they don’t view them as equals. Not even Dad Longworth (regular Brando sideman Karl Malden), who married a Mexican woman (Katy Jurado, Under the Volcano [review]) and plays step-dad to her daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer), is all that convincing as a progressive dude. Not with the way he orders his wife around. Not with how he reacts to Louisa’s dalliance with Rio, the man he betrayed once upon a time. It’s tough to tell if the character is named “Dad” ironically or appropriately. As Rio’s father figure of record, Dad has a lot to answer for.

It’s the older man’s betrayal that sets the plot of One-Eyed Jacks into motion. After the pair rob a bank in Mexico, only to be chased down by federales, Dad takes advantage of Rio’s sense of honor and hangs him out to dry. Five years later, Rio escapes from prison and goes looking for the man who betrayed him. The search leads him to Bob (Ben Johnson, The Last Picture Show [review]), who is planning to rob the bank in the California hamlet where Dad has taken up residency and assumed the role of sheriff. If Rio helps Bob, he can also take his revenge. As it turns out, though, the job is not a simple smash and grab. The gang first settles in town, mingling with the locals while Rio makes a fake peace with his enemy--and woos the man’s stepdaughter. Then things go wrong, and everyone turns on each other.

Comparisons have been drawn between One-Eyed Jacks and film noir, and there are certainly thematic similarities. Plot-wise, one could compare this to Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross, with Brando taking Burt Lancaster’s role of the gangster who took the metaphorical bullet for the team and Dad playing the classic noir fall guy who looks to leave his past behind and set up a new, straight life away from his previous misdeeds. As any student of noir knows, however, the past never stays buried. The only problem is, Rio is not a clean crook whom you can root for the way Lancaster is in Criss Cross or Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past. Brando plays the outlaw with a quiet menace, his smirk ready to turn to a sneer at a moment’s notice, and real nasty mean streak simmering behind those piercing eyes. He appears to always be thinking more than he’s saying, and yet his expression is inscrutable. Is he pondering philosophy or simply dreaming of tearing the wings off of flies? Ironically, Rio is the worst to women, whom he outright lies to in order to get what he wants, but yet who also serve as his Achilles heel. He can’t stand to see them abused, and so he stands up for any female he sees getting pushed around, including an intense brawl with the eternally creepy Timothy Carey (The Killing). The anger blinds Rio to consequences. It brings to mind a rival to Brando’s The Wild One character in terms of teenage angst; Rio’s pathological need to act out has a similar cartoonish quality to James Dean going gonzo over being called “chicken” in Rebel Without a Cause.

Of course, we also can’t dismiss the other men in the movie in any easy fashion, which at least gives Rio some moral ground. Everyone here has troublesome motivations. Some are cut and dried, like Bob, who is just racist and cruel, or Slim Pickens’ Deputy Lou, the comical “good guy” who is really a sexual predator obsessed with his namesake, Louisa. (The humiliation he suffers at the hands of Rio is borderline grotesque, and yet all too fitting.) Dad ends up being the most complicated. On one hand, he is a father looking to care for his family and a lawman with an eye on his community; on the other, he’s a petty cheat suffering a terrible case of imposter’s syndrome. Malden’s clear eyes show conflict...and fury. His showdown with Rio will have to be primal. Biblical.

These characterizations are the notable standout in terms of One-Eyed Jacks being a “different” kind of western. Unlike the more convention-busting cowboy pictures that were soon to come, One-Eyed Jacks largely looks and feels like a traditional western. As an actor, Brando may be an entirely unique presence, but as a director, he is beholden to the trappings of the genre. In both look and plot, this is no different than a big-budget Hollywood western of previous decades. It’s more Vera Cruz [review] than The Hired Hand or McCabe and Mrs. Miller [review]. Which isn’t a knock. I really loved One-Eyed Jacks, and can only appreciate how even though Brando put on a familiar cloak, he used it to smuggle in a subversive message. The languid pace of some of the more typically California scenes, and the wounding and redemptive healing process Rio suffers through, predict some of the aesthetics and tropes of spaghetti westerns, the next big thing in horse operas.

Which is probably why the movie garnered such champions as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, who contributed to the restoration of One-Eyed Jacks that made this splendid re-release possible. As Marlon Brando’s sole directorial effort, it perfectly encapsulates his position as a movie star, one foot in the old studio system, one foot in the new cinema school, but his head entirely in the clouds, above it all, pursuing his own dream.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


Akira Kurosawa is a filmmaker I discovered in high school, in the 1980s when VCRs and video stores made all kinds of movies newly accessible to budding cinephiles. Most likely fueled by Siskel and Ebert, whom I recall covering Ran [review] on their program, I was able to get a hold of that movie, The Seven Samurai [review], and others. It wasn’t until the 1990 release of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, though, that I first got to see one of his movies in the theater, and one of only two occasions where I could have seen the movie in first run.

It’s easy to remember the occasion. I was starting my first semester in college, and had been so eager to do so, I arrived at my dorm the first day they’d give me keys, a full weekend before classes started. Any illusions of being some part of an instant community didn’t materialize that weekend--nor, ever, if I’m honest--and I needed to find something else to do. So it was that I ended up at the Beverly Center in Los Angeles, watching Dreams in a shoebox theater with a handful of other people, taking in one of the Japanese director’s more unique works. It was good timing for me, I was fascinated by the concept of dreaming, so much so that I used to keep a diary of my own dreams, a habit I maintained for many years. As someone who has always been disappointed by the use of dream sequences in entertainment--they are usually cheap gags with an exaggerated level of nonsense and far too self-aware--I was curious how the master filmmaker would undertake such a personal subject.

Interestingly enough, Kurosawa’s approach to re-creating his own nocturnal visions has far less of the contrivances that we have come to expect from most film directors, and more to do with tradition and spectacle. From the opening segment of this anthology, Kurosawa establishes his aesthetic--a portrayal of a world that is so familiar and real, we have little cause to question the more fantastic aspects of the stories. And even as things do get fantastic, the use of practical effects and, in the case of the childhood visions like the fox’s wedding and the living tableau of dolls, costumes and masks reminiscent of kabuki theatre ground us. The mysticism and magic is transformed into recognizable pageantry. Kurosawa doesn’t surrender entirely to the dream logic--there are no sudden shifts in circumstance and place, and little that goes unexplained--but rather weaves that logic into the everyday.

Dreams is essentially eight vignettes, each detailing a dream Kurosawa actually had, sometimes combining them with classic Japanese folklore. The selection is seemingly random, but as you watch them all back to back, a structure and narrative pattern emerges. Not only do the chosen dreams arrive in chronological order, from childhood to adulthood and even potential images of the future, but in each, we are presented with a subtle moral complication. Choices that either Kurosawa makes, or that mankind decides on collectively, are leading us toward destruction. In the childhood dreams, a young Kurosawa (Toshihiko Akano and Mitsunori Isaki) either goes against tradition or is witness to its abandonment. The destruction of the peach orchard in the second dream is echoed years later, in the post-apocalyptic visions of a nuclear Japan in the penultimate vignette, “The Weeping Demon.” The titular devil (Chosuke Ikariya) notes that the charred wasteland they are meeting on was once a beautiful field destroyed by toxic waste. In one of Kurosawa’s most powerful images, they sit amongst the only plants that now grow: towering dandelions, more than twice the size of the human and mutant observers. Nature will come back with a vengeance if we fail to understand our folly.

This message fits a certain post-War philosophy also seen in the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Mankind is on the wrong path, more concerned with convenience and power than it is with recognizing and preserving what it has. Though Kurosawa teeters on the brink of being preachy, his simplest message is expertly embedded in what is probably the most famous portion of Dreams. Positioned at the center of the film, it features Kurosawa as a young man (Akira Terao, also in Ran and the director’s final film, Madadayo) entering the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. In a landscape decorated to look like some of Van Gogh’s paintings (and then actually turning into those paintings), Kurosawa finds the artist himself, appropriately played by Martin Scorsese. The American director brings his fast-talking, manic energy to the part, and it’s perfectly suited to the message Van Gogh is supposed to deliver: life moves too fast not to take in the scenery and transform your appreciation of the same into something more.

Which is really what Kurosawa is trying to tell us in Dreams, and is pretty explicitly stated in the final parable. We have all we need and our drive to conquer the elements and combat one another for dominance is only pulling us away from appreciating that. Look how quickly, for instance, the vivid colors of Van Gogh’s art transform into the deadly rainbow of the nuclear fallout in the dream that immediately follows. Rather than avoid death, we turn it into something aesthetically pleasing.

What keeps Kurosawa’s message from becoming overbearing or even maudlin is the wisdom the storyteller has gathered over his years, and his own ability to recognize the significance of his subconscious visions. This should be every artist’s mission, to communicate what he or she knows deep down in a way that both informs and compels the audience to further improve. Dreams isn’t an indulgent exercise in how weird Akira Kurosawa can get, rather it’s a marshaling of unavoidable emotions. Kurosawa had these eight dreams, and they stuck with him long enough for him to puzzle out their hidden meanings and then reconstruct them into a puzzle all his own.

Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams hasn’t been the easiest film to see in recent years. Since the 2003 DVD went out of print, it’s only been available through the manufacture-on-demand Warner Archive, working with the same outdated transfer. Criterion’s newly restored 4K print is exceptional, capturing all the painstaking details Kurosawa put into the film. (Sometimes too well. The animated crows in the Van Gogh segment now look a little obvious in high-def. Luckily, such unnatural effects work just fine in this kind of situation; dreams aren’t always perfect.) Accompanying the new transfer are multiple extras, including a long 1990 making-of documentary and a more recent 2011 appreciation of Kurosawa and the film, featuring Scorsese, Miyazaki, Bernardo Bertolucci, and more.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review. The images above are taken from a previously released DVD version and not the Blu-ray being discussed.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


There were 28 volumes of the Lone Wolf and Cub comic book series published over the first half of the 1970s. Each totaled a couple hundred pages and were all created by the same two men: Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. If you know anything about making comic books, that’s an insane accomplishment. In western comics, for one series, we might produce the equivalent of one of their volumes in a single year. They produced more than four times that, and on top of it all, the duo managed to maintain a highly addictive read. Pick up any of the Dark Horse-published English languageeditions, jumping in wherever, and see if you can put it down.

The Lone Wolf and Cub manga originally debuted in Japan in late 1970; the first movie version, scripted by Koike and directed by Zatoichi-veteran Kenji Misumi, was released a mere two years later. Six films were made in all, also released at rapid-fire pace, 1972 to 1974. The movies match the tone of the comics--fast-paced, violent, episodic, and with exposition dialed down to a minimum. The narrative follows Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama), a one-time executioner turned ronin, who chose the path of Hell after his wife was killed and he was framed as a traitor to the shogun. Hitting the road with his infant son Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), Ogami hires himself out to those who can afford a minor fee. He will kill as many as you need for the same price, but he will ask you the why of your assignment.

And so it is that this father-son pair travels Japan, Ogami pushing a tricked-out baby carriage filled with hidden weapons, dispensing his own weird version of justice while the child watches. He is an honorable man who took a dishonorable profession when the system failed him, drawing from classic samurai stories in the same way Hollywood westerns created their own cowboy myths, and also prefiguring the vigilante figures that were just around the corner in movies like Death Wish. The difference between Itto Ogami and good ol’ Chuck Bronson, though, is that he remains a heroic figure by taking no clear moral stance. His code is known only to him, and only he can be the judge of his actions. In one particularly effective scene in the initial Lone Wolf and Cub movie (subtitled Sword of Vengeance), when some cowering men dare criticize Ogami for sleeping with a prostitute on order of the thieves who have taken them hostage, the woman defends him, noting that he sacrificed his pride to save her life. Her evidence? If he was scared as they think he is, as they themselves are, how did he manage to maintain an erection?

As a writer, Koike had a knack for such scenes. There is a whiff of exploitation in all of his work (he also created Lady Snowblood), but there is also a matter-of-factness to it that suggests, whatever other prurient impulses might be indulged, this is the way a tough life is lived. Indeed, Ogami and Daigoro don’t really meet nice people on the road. The random strangers and not-so-random enemies they encounter are all too concerned about survival to succumb to social mores. Only the killer really maintains any sense of balance. So much so, he lets his son choose whether or not he wants to travel the journey of death with him. He places a ball and a sword in front of Daigoro, and only after the boy crawls to the sword is his role as sidekick assured. Had the infant chosen the ball, his father would have killed him so that Daigoro could join his mother in the afterlife, rather than be abandoned.

Yeah, I know, it’s totally nuts. But that’s part of what makes the Lone Wolf and Cub movies work. For as down and dirty as Koike’s writing can be, there is also a heightened sense of non-reality here. The over-the-top violence--severed limbs, bouncing-ball decapitations, fountains of blood--is both thrilling and ridiculous--though, the latter is partially due to the passage of time; the stunt work and practical effects seem so clumsy now, they are more pop-art than grisly. It’s a style that matches the expressionistic flourishes that Kenji Misumi adds throughout the film, be it in the garish opening credits or the arty sex scene. Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is a serious-minded B-movie, with a stoic star who is physically unlikely (a little chubby, not very agile or fast) but somehow totally perfect. Tomisaburo Wakayama completely inhabits Itto Ogami. There is no stray thought, no extraneous movement. He is the quiet death dealer who barely conceals his well-developed conscience.

With the backstory established, Misumi could really lean into Koike’s bonkers plotting for the second entry in the series, subtitled Baby Cart at the River Styx. In the film, Ogami faces two different threats: one he is pursuing, and one pursuing him. While a small village that fears encroaching forces taking over their cash crop hires Ogami to stop the three deadly enforcers who are escorting their would-be master, the Yagyu Clan, whom Ogami defied in the first film when he became a ronin, charge a group of female assassins to take out the interloper.

The action in this second Lone Wolf and Cub is more delirious. Blood spurts and sprays, it turns to mist or pools in bright red puddles. Koike gets more inventive with the disguises and techniques Ogami’s enemies employ, and in response, he also gives the baby cart even deadlier devices. To match this, Misumi gets more experimental, framing some of the gore in extreme close-up, burying other instances in surreal effects. This includes a dizzying use of double exposure to create an illusion of speed and numbers when Ogami takes on a ninja squad all by himself.

Characterization in Baby Cart at the River Styx doesn’t necessarily go deeper, but it is more assured. Wakayama merges more and more with the role, portraying Ogami almost as if he were in a trance or sleepwalking: heavy eyes, blank face, no excess emotion. There is a bit of the Man with No Name to the performance, but even far more redacted, far less reliant on tics, a la Clint Eastwood’s sneer and scowl. We also start to see the assassin as heartbreaker. He denied the prostitute that would have traveled with him in Sword of Vengeance, and likewise here he rejects the head of the women warriors, Sayaka (Kayo Matsuo, Gate of Flesh), whom he has left with nothing but her sword, which itself has been proven ineffectual, since it never stopped Itto Ogami.

The Criterion Lone Wolf and Cub box contains all six movies (which I will likely review over time). There are also documentaries and interviews, including a new interview with Kazuo Koike. Comics fans will also appreciate the new package art by modern legend Paul Pope, the creator of Heavy Liquid and The One Trick Rip-Off (full disclosure, I was assistant editor on the latter and have worked with Paul many times since). The restorations on the discs are also quite nice, presenting a clear and vivid picture, with the lurid color schemes rendered to full effect.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, November 6, 2016


Doreen: “Our whole lives could have changed.”
Earl: “I wish something would come and change our lives.”

I spent most of my youth in and around Los Angeles, far enough from where the cool things were happening to understand for real what a sprawling, expansive city it is. Indeed, Los Angeles is even more than the city proper, it sucks in most of the other smaller townships around it. I got to know it a little better once I learned to drive, and am rediscovering much of it now that I’ve returned here after 20 years in exile in the Pacific Northwest. What I always tell people from out of town who can’t quite crack the nature of Los Angeles is you have to find your pockets. One spot may have nothing to offer you, but drive half a mile in any direction, and you might find a place to call your own. Or that you at least want to visit regularly. Los Angeles is incongruous and divisive, but it’s also undeniably alive.

It’s pockets that Robert Altman focuses on in his 1993 Raymond Carver tableau Short Cuts. Pockets of Los Angelenos, spanning class and profession, that bump up against each other, cross over, and then keep going, sometimes not even realizing a connection was made. Short Cuts both in the literary nature of the stories told, and in some ways, how these characters all chase after their goals. Sometimes quick actions lead to terrible consequences.

Ambition and desire tie the different groups together. And survival. The first two are necessary in Los Angeles if you want the third, but they can also screw up whatever game plan you think you have. So it is that Chris Penn’s pool cleaner Jerry resents his wife Lois (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for being a phone sex operator to make ends meet, jealous of the sexual attention she gives to other men, and turning his pent-up needs into rage. Or how Tim Robbins--playing a quintessential Los Angeles figure, the jerk cop--let’s his power trips lead him to make bad decisions. Note how when the shit really goes down, he ignores his family’s peril to make sure the neighborhood acknowledges his authority. His impotence is hilarious, striking a statuesque figure and shouting into the sky.

Penn and Robbins aren’t the only male characters to be driven by their libido, nor is Penn the only one who resents his wife for bringing in the dough. In the relationship between the two alcoholic enablers, Lily Tomlin’s waitress Doreen is the reliable breadwinner, whereas Tom Waits’ Earl is hotheaded and impulsive, going off the handle when the diner customers pay her too much attention. And man’s man Stuart (Fred Ward) is reminded more than once that he is unemployed. That it’s by his wife, Claire (Anne Archer), who dresses up as a literal clown to bring in the coin, probably stings a little. Or maybe not. It seems like Stuart enjoys working on his car and going on fishing trips with his buddies (Buck Henry and Huey Lewis and also Huey Lewis’ penis) and probably would equally resent having to punch a clock.

When the men do work, it adds to their sense of entitlement as husbands. Matthew Modine plays a doctor, Ralph, who is dismissive of his wife’s painting and has also held a petty resentment for years--the revelation of which gave Julianne Moore her star-making performance, infamous for the state of undress in which she finds herself during it. It’s less about openness in that moment than rage. It’s a roced exposure, not a vulnerable outpouring. Cross-reference this with how Tim Robbins and Peter Gallagher both interrogate the woman between them (Frances McDormand), and there’s a pattern here: men who don’t know how much they really don’t want to know. It’s no wonder that most of the wives can’t help but laugh at the antics of their spouse.

Gallagher and Robbins never meet--though they are both terrible fathers and ridiculous images of masculinity; Gallagher plays a pilot named Stormy Weathers who combs his hair like Elvis--but they have Frances McDormand between them. She is Gallagher’s (soon to be?) ex-wife and Robbins’ mistress. Robbins also pulls over Anne Archer in her clown car to flirt with her, and his wife (Madeleine Stowe) models for Julianne Moore. At one point, Archer, Gallagher, and Andie MacDowell--playing the mother of a child hit by Lily Tomlin in her car--all end up in the same bakery, engaging in no more than a polite hello. While plenty of the groups cross-pollinate and have more meaningful interactions, this is the true nature of connection in Short Cuts: the coincidence of locale. Because though Los Angeles is very big, its main internal contradiction is that it’s also very small. That fellow behind you in line at the coffee shop? Don’t be surprised if you see him again somewhere else. Maybe even on your TV!

Altman’s ensemble dramas would inspire many other filmmakers, but none of them would have the facility for juggling their many stories that he had. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is practically worked together from an outline of Short Cuts, but I’d contend stumbles under its own weight. Anderson labors each story, where Altman sees the jazz in his construction, favoring brief edits (a.k.a. short cuts) that keep the players working in tandem, only occasionally breaking the rhythm for solos when it counts. Some moves are so fast, you could even miss them, yet the great storyteller never loses his audience. I think the only ones who ever really got close to matching his speed are the Wachowskis in Cloud Atlas, but even there, it comes off as more of a device, despite how ingrained the idea is within the narrative itself.

Perhaps the difference is how Altman holds it all together by framing Short Cuts with two very similar situations. At the start of the film, we meet our casts as they rush indoors to avoid the pesticide being sprayed from helicopters--the official bird of Los Angeles--to kill the medflies. We could likely consider it an act of hubris, that man thinks it can stop the flow of nature, and does so even at the risk of poisoning himself. (And hey, where hubris is involved, send your cockiest individual; Stormy is one of the spraying pilots.) Nature gets its own back in the end, as an earthquake rocks each and every character at exactly the same time, uniting them in a potential natural disaster--not altogether different than the rain of frogs at the end of Magnolia or the tornado in Altman’s own Dr. T and the Women [review] but arguably more successful for its reality.

In the allegorical sense, that earthquake is brought on by the terrible and selfish actions of the characters in the film, most notably one eruption of primal violence  that seemingly triggers it. It’s as if the planet wants to shake us off for being annoying pests. When the shaking is done, however, each individual has revealed him or herself. The feuding couples who stayed up all night partying keep the party going, forgetting their troubles, and Doreen and Earl see that no matter how rocky things get, they are meant for one another. The most human of moments comes just before, however, and is more poignant for having happened spontaneously. The angry baker (Lyle Lovett) sees the error of his ways and makes up with Andie MacDowell, finding empathy and acknowledging how he’s wronged her. It makes the most sense then, that when the quake does hit, they help each other get to cover.

I suppose that’s Altman’s real message to Los Angeles. Short Cuts tells us that even if we live in one of the most vital and vibrant cities in the world, we still need each other to get along, and how we do that defines who we are as individuals and as a citizenry. It’ll break you otherwise. Or the blind eye you turn may break someone else.

The screengrabs in this review are from the standard definition release and not the Blu-ray.

This is my second review of Short Cuts; you can find the first here.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Sunday, October 30, 2016


Consider it a black comedy “meet cute.” José Luis (Nino Manfredi, I Knew Her Well [review]) is an undertaker charged with transporting the bodies of men killed on death row to the funeral home. After the aged executioner Amedeo (José Isbert) leaves his tools in José Luis’ truck, the undertaker has to chase the old man to his apartment to return them. There, he meets Amedeo’s daughter Carmen (Emma Penella, E amor brujo [review]). The two share an attraction, and bond over their similar predicaments. No one wants to date her because she’s the executioner’s daughter, and women are turned off by him because he’s an undertaker. Love doesn’t exactly blossom, but still, there’s something.

The Executioner is a 1963 feature from Spanish director Luis García Berlanga. Reminiscent of Italian films of the period--and, indeed, featuring a nod to Michelangelo Antonioni, alongside Ingmar Bergman, as if Berlanga wanted to state his influences outright (though I’m thinking more Pietro Germi)--The Executioner is one-part comedy of errors, one part family drama, and then something wholly unique unto itself. Though at first turned off by the little man who would become his father-in-law, José eventually falls completely under Amedeo’s sway. Even the marriage between José and Carmen seems orchestrated by the talkative death merchant. It’s less like they fall in love, and more like they want to make sure not to disappoint Amedeo--or at the very least get him out of their hair.

Our trio is a band of outsiders in Spanish society. No one looks upon Amedeo’s profession fondly. It’s not that there is a political debate anywhere in The Executioner, it’s more that people treat Amedeo as a bad omen. His hands have caused much death, and thus it follows him around. In terms of a family business, José could do worse than to have his father-in-law at one end of the supply chain, but as he’ll soon find out, there’s a lot more bureaucracy to be reckoned with than lives to be taken. When Amedeo’s impending retirement threatens to keep the new family out of a swank two-bedroom apartment, Amedeo pushes José into becoming his successor. The final third of the film is all about José’s reluctant acceptance of the job and his fear that he will actually have to perform his duties. How long can he skate by on pardons and happenstance before he has to kill a man for real?

Much of the humor here is situational, with José serving as the classic straight man pushed into situations far beyond his capacity to handle. What’s interesting about Berlanga’s pairing, however, is how neither José nor Amedeo are played to the extreme. They are both almost straight men. Manfredi never succumbs to hysterics, and though Isbert can be annoying, he doesn’t push it to comic excess. This is not, say, a Bill Murray-style pest whose persistence is both frustrating and charming. The stooped Amedeo is just undeniable. Not exactly bullish, maybe more like a billy goat. He won’t be dissuaded.

This makes for more quiet chuckles than huge guffaws, but that’s okay. The Executioner has a pleasant pace and finds its humor in how deeply the screws get turned on José’s life. Berlanga has a keen eye for character moments--the book signing where the other famous directors are namedropped or the scene where the prison warden casually counsels a panicked José have a sharp satirical age--that cause you to root for each character to turn against their own self-interests. It’s weird, because in a way, that ends up being a kind of support. Call it tough love. Or tough laughter. You’ve got to like a movie with a dark enough sense of humor to have a title song called “The Executioner Twist.” Its use serves as a good indicator of how far apart our core cast is from everyone else--something we also see via the stray details of more normal, frivolous lives going on in the background. The two things come together at the end with the well-dressed young people dancing on a sailboat as they head out to sea, and José Luis departs in the other direction, off to settle into the life that he is now unable to extricate himself from.

The Executioner was shot by Tonino Delli Colli, who also worked with Raffaello Matarazzo, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and later LouisMalle. His black-and-white work for Berlanga is clean and expressive, observant in a Neorealist fashion, but also appropriately tuned in to the humor. For instance, staging the scene where José and his fellow undertaker pick up their paychecks while wearing tri-corner hats and 18th-century uniforms from inside the accountant’s booth allows for a more visual gag. Both of them peeking through the tiny windows trying to charm the paymaster to hand over their checks makes them look simultaneously like strange intruders and also relics mounted on a wall. The costumes inspire further humor in the next scene when a nervous José tries to calm a fight out of fear one of the squabblers will get killed--and he’ll have to execute his killer.

Which he’ll eventually become comfortable with doing. All of Berlanga’s characters in The Executioner serve their roles, be it to society or to family, and the greater message here is to suggest we can’t help but be who we are, even when others might not be so keen on it. In the end, José and Carmen and Amedeo and the new baby make a solid unit that supports one another and gets by as best they can. It’s just that sometimes José needs a little more coaxing to get with the program.

This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, October 29, 2016


There is a lot going on in McCabe & Mrs.Miller, Robert Atman’s 1971 western, and a lot to admire, but I think what comes to mind first for me is the impossible construction.

I mean this in two ways.

First, there is the location itself, the mining town of Presbyterian Church, set deep in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. It is simply a place that should not be, higher than man should really be climbing at the time, arguably so high that they have surpassed the heavens and offended God. For certainly He is not present in this ironically named town. The lone church stands empty and unappreciated, which gives one cause to wonder by what providence it remains standing. How do its rickety shacks not go sliding down the side of the mountain? What prevents the even more rickety bridge from coming undone and plummeting into the water below?

Second, there’s the formless script, written by Altman and Brian McKay. It has a throughline or two--the new arrivals in town, their enterprises, and the efforts to shut them down--but there seems to be little blueprint. In a sense, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is episodic, but it is also one long endeavor, a drunken bender embarked upon the moment Warren Beatty’s McCabe climbs down from his horse and enters the cramped, rundown Presbyterian Church saloon. People come and go, they meet, they interact, but they don’t follow the dictates of an outline or turns of plot. Except maybe the villains, who trigger change. But then, they are also their own force, pushing through, not tied to any necessity but their own.

For all the talk of Altman’s facility with ensemble, as the title might imply, McCabe & Mrs. Miller is really a character double header. Beatty plays McCabe, the gambler turned barkeep and pimp, as a posturing space case. Like many of Beatty’s characters, he is rarely in the moment, he is always either one step behind or moving on to the next. Beatty has a regular expression that could either be read as confused or lost in thought. It’s his way of disarming everyone, to be more than the handsome leading actor. “That man? That man never killed anybody,” one of the heavy gunslingers opines in reaction to hearing McCabe’s reputation as an outlaw; yet, for some reason, we are inclined to believe the legend.

Legend or not, McCabe is no match for Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie, Billy Liar [review]). Mrs. Miller comes to Presbyterian Church with a proposition for McCabe: she will take over his budding prostitution business and be the madame of his whorehouse. The British woman doesn’t take no for an answer, not in anything. She sees a fixer-upper like McCabe and his business, and she goes about fixing things--a classic, if flawed and clichéd, male/female dynamic. Mrs. Miller brings sophistication to the town. We never quite learn what led her there, though we get the sense that she is outrunning her past as much as McCabe, a hunch in part confirmed by her bad habits. She’s looking for numbness through drugs by film’s end, an oh-so-modern condition. (And an oh-so-ancient one, but perhaps more interesting to consider in the post-Feminine Mystique context of 1971.)

This central relationship is a romance of sorts, but McCabe & Mrs. Miller is no more a conventional romance than it is a conventional western. The two leads are here to serve as examples of the independent minds ready to take advantage of the frontier spirit that defined America’s expansion. Naturally, this puts them up against other concerns. Corporate interests quickly encroach on Presbyterian Church. Whatever they are mining up there, the moneyed and powerful want it, and they won’t stand for a rapscallion like McCabe not playing by the rules. The agents of the unseen conglomerate--including the aptly named company man Roebuck (Altman-regular Michael Murphy, later to play his blundering politician Tanner)--embody the lies of free enterprise. The law (here represented by William Devane’s discouraging attorney) is no help, either. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is as much about the big man vs. the little man and how that fight crushes the American Dream as it is about anything. Right down to the simple fellow making his own way in life (Keith Carradine, Thieves Like Us [review]) who gets taken down by the blonde bully who doesn’t care for trust or fairness.

Altman’s touch here is easy. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is light on its feet, easy to watch, and not without its humor. Carradine’s “aw shucks” manner and René Auberjonois’ feckless saloon owner both get laughs, as do Beatty’s unfinished homilies. His repeated “is there a turd in your pocket?” inquiry is uniquely gross and strange. These characters and their odd ways set up a soft platform for the script’s commentary, which also infuses the movie’s genre-fulfilling finale. It’s fitting that the climax should hinge on the unfinished church, and that the abandoned preacher should cause our antihero such consternation. The church also somehow unites the community in a way the other common threat cannot, perhaps because that threat comes from outside and this one burns from within. Then again, what’s that thing about how if you’re being attacked in public you should shout “Fire!” instead of “Help!” because people care more about property than their fellow human beings? No one lifts a finger in aid of McCabe.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller offers no solution for its players. Both of its main characters arguably end the film worse off than they began, partially because their success gave them more to lose. Yet, that American spirit is still there, because at least they remained true to themselves. Push came to shove, McCabe didn’t just let them take him out, he stuck to his price even it the currency changed (your money or your life!), and Mrs. Miller ends up communing with the only person she can really count on: herself.

I’d be remiss if I closed this without touching on the visual style of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It’s designed to look natural, from the often ratty and ill-fitting clothes, to the precarious lodgings. Presbyterian Church is dirty and muddy and as foul smelling and uninviting as Deadwood would be years later, though here the raggedy aesthetic was very much reflective of the era in which the film was made. The 1970s strike me as a very brown decade, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a very brown movie. Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (The Rose; Heaven’s Gate [review]) shot the film in natural light, letting the dusty haze of mountain living give the movie life. There is a visible atmosphere in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. The air has grit.

Adding to the film’s disposition is a trio of songs by the great Leonard Cohen. His roving narratives and unconventional melodies give the montage rhythm. In as much as Altman avoids set-up/conflict/resolution in his storytelling, Cohen largely ignores verse-chorus-verse. His melancholy folk could have been anachronistic were it not so intrinsic in how McCabe & Mrs. Miller is cut together. It feels as natural as the ambient noise, the wind in the trees, the rain on the roof. Which is just how I feel about a classic Leonard Cohen record on a hungover Sunday morning--a sentiment McCabe could likely identify with himself.

The songs are perfectly in sync with the cadence and contradictions of Altman’s tale. They manage to be both intimate and expansive, and Altman uses the tunes to underline not only the personal, tracking private moments through close-up and observation, but he also lets Cohen’s mournful playing bring pause. As the internal dialogue of the movie itself goes quiet, Zsigmond’s camera pulls back and goes wide, allowing us to appreciate the scenery. Which maybe gives us more of a sense of what these travelers are all holding on for. It’s freezing and wet and grimy but it’s also lovely in a way only such an open, untamed area can be. The way only an Altman movie can sometimes be. The way McCabe & Mrs. Miller is.

Impossible, but true.

This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, October 21, 2016


Back when the original fairy tales were being written, folks like the Brothers Grimm had a lot more faith in kids than we do now. Their stories were dark and sinister, with grotesque imagery and real moral lessons. They knew that kids like to be scared, and they aren't the big sissies that we pretend they are now, neutralizing the older stories to make them safer.

Though he hasn't necessarily made Pan's Labyrinth for children, writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy I & II [review]; Pacific Rim [review]) definitely seems to have gone back to find that ancient well of inspiration. His original story is as dark and twisted, and thus just as magical, as the classic tales. He has made a scary and wondrous fantasy film seen through the eyes of a child, and it should by turns enchant and frighten any adult who sees it.

Pan's Labyrinth has more in common with del Toro's smaller budget ghost story The Devil's Backbone than it does his big effects Hollywood films. Shot entirely in Spanish, it takes place at a rural outpost at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. Franco is in power, and his troops are stamping down the last of the resistance. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) lost her father in the war, and her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil, Belle Epoque), has remarried a sadistic solider, Captain Vidal (Sergi López, Dirty Pretty Things). Carmen is pregnant with Vidal's child, and they are going to his isolated base camp so she can give birth near him. There, Vidal is tangling with a band of guerillas that is hiding in the mountains, and he's ruling the nearby village with an iron fist.

For Ofelia, a girl who loves old books with fantastic stories, her new home is a blessing and a curse. She is not fond of the man her mother wants her to call "father," but she is immediately intrigued by the old stone labyrinth in the forest behind Vidal's fort. Though the dutiful maid Mercedes (Maribel Verdú, Y tu mamá también [review]) warns her not to go inside, Ofelia is lured their by a small fairy. There, she meets the faun Pan (Doug Jones, the body of Hellboy's fish man, Abe Sapien). He tells her that she is a long lost princess who has finally come to return to her kingdom. All she has to do is complete three magical tasks. He gives her a magic book whose blank pages will reveal her missions to her when she is alone.

Her tasks aren't simple, and they have real consequences when not done right--both in the magical realm and the real world. Naturally, when Ofelia sneaks off to battle a magic toad, she is going to get in trouble for disappearing, especially when she returns covered in mud and toad spit. The pregnancy is making Carmen sick, and so insubordination isn't going to be tolerated. Vidal is not a reasonable man, and he doesn't like when things get beyond his control. His outbursts when fighting the resistance get more and more violent, and he cares less about Carmen's health than he does the birth of his son. If she dies, that's just collateral damage, and woe to Ofelia if that happens.

del Toro gives his audience two different worlds in Pan's Labyrinth. First is the brutal backdrop of the Civil War. He doesn't shy away from the killing that keeps the wheels of battle turning, and there are many gruesome scenes that will make even the most iron-stomached gore junkies cringe. The second world is Ofelia's fantasy kingdom. The adults never see what the young girl is going through, and part of the experience of Pan's Labyrinth is questioning whether Ofelia is really witnessing magic or if these scenarios are just the escape hatch she goes through to get away from her cruel stepfather. Either way, her fantasies bite back. Pan almost plays as a doppelganger for Vidal when he loses his temper over the girl's mistakes. Survival on either side of the reality line also requires sacrifice, and Ofelia is going to learn some real lessons about what that means.

Regardless of which explanation you choose to believe, the spell of Pan's Labyrinth is irresistible. Guillermo del Toro has written a multi-layered tale that will scare you, delight you, and keep you precariously poised on the edge of your seat. You'll cringe, but you won't want to look away lest you miss a frame of his gorgeously crafted alternate dimension. For the two hours that Pan's Labyrinth runs, the director reminds adults of what it's like to believe so thoroughly in your own imagination that anything is possible, while also reminding us that real heroism is fraught with human error and bought at a real price. Like the titular labyrinth, any adventure has a lot of twists and turns on its way to fulfillment. Sometimes the turns may be wrong and in others they are triumphantly right, but there's always something worth discovering just around the corner.

In addition to its beautiful new transfer, Criterion has built up its release of Pan's Labyrinth with plenty of extras. Of note to any who were intrigued of the talk of fairy tales and childhood above is a lengthy discussion between del Toro and writer Cornelia Funke on that very topic. There is also a new interview with Doug Jones, as well as the majority of extras from the movie's original DVD release.

You should also take not of the excellent Becky Cloonan cover art. Full disclosure, Becky currently works with me over at DC's Young Animal, where she does covers for Shade, the Changing Girl, but I wrote about her original horror comics ages ago on my old blog. She's a unique talent, and you can check out more of her work at her website.

Parts of this review were taken from my original review of Pan's Labyrinth when it was released theatrically.

The Blu-ray was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.