Saturday, November 10, 2018

THE PRINCESS BRIDE - #948


Yes, you’re very smart. Now shut up.

The above line is spoken once in The Princess Bride. It’s said by Peter Falk, who plays a grandfather reading the story of The Princess Bride to his sick grandson (Fred Savage). He says it when the boy thinks he has the plot figured out and insists on interrupting. But it could also be said many other times, by many different characters, as everyone in the story within the story is looking to outsmart someone else. Sometimes to comedic effect, sometimes with more sincere consequence.


This 1987 film by Rob Reiner, directing William Goldman’s screenplay of his own novel, is essentially a storybook come to life. As the grandfather reads, the movie becomes the book (or vice versa?), and the characters of Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright), her true love Westley (Cary Elwes), and all the rest all take over from there. The tale is a basic one: thinking Westley dead, Buttercup is to marry the prince (Chris Sarandon) of the kingdom, but on her engagement day, she is kidnapped by a political saboteur (Wallace Shawn) and his henchmen (Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant). That’s when a mysterious figure in black shows up to save the day. Three guesses who that is.


It’s all pretty straightforward. The Princess Bride is a family fantasy movie with a slight metafictional bend. The success of the film is largely dependent on Reiner’s balance of genre and comedy. The Princess Bride doesn’t take itself so seriously that it can’t mock the fairy tale tropes that fuel its romantic fantasy, but just seriously enough that the story still works at being the exact thing it’s sort of making fun of. The Princess Bride is charming as hell, and beloved by many, but I  wish it were wittier, honestly. The jokes come easy, and they don’t linger. There’s nothing in this movie that I’ll chuckle to think about tomorrow. The humor lacks the sharpness that Reiner achieves in other cinematic efforts--including This is Spinal Tap, a collaboration with Christopher Guest, who shines in a villainous role here--but that might just be down to demographics. Again, this is a family picture, so The Princess Bride is meant to be a movie for all people, tame enough to please the kiddies, but with enough of a knowing wink to entrance adults.

And for the true smarty pantses amongst us--who need to probably shut up the most--Goldman is having fun with the whole tradition of storytelling. The framing device exists to compel audiences to take The Princess Bride in the manner intended, but also doubles as a commentary on the relationship between a viewer and art. Fred Savage’s character at first resists the story, demanding it be more to his tastes, but surprisingly, when it takes him over, he becomes no less demanding, insisting the narrative stick to the clichés The Princess Bride is otherwise set up to mock. Moviegoers often want their say in all things: entertain me in special ways that will delight me, but don’t disappoint me by denying me what I want.


Which is where The Princess Bride succeeds the most. The movie should satisfy every romantic desire, every adventurous impulse, that you’re looking for in a feel-good flick. Reiner keeps things moving fast, and he pulls excellent performances out of all his cast. Patinkin and Andre steal the show most of the time, but everyone here holds their own. Even a Billy Crystal cameo works, the actor getting in and out before he wears out his welcome or otherwise derails everything. Likewise the whole of The Princess Bride. Clocking in at just 98 minutes, it’ll wile away a lazy afternoon, leaving plenty of time for whatever else you’re after, but also going by quick enough you won’t find yourself checking your phone in the final act.



Wednesday, November 7, 2018

MORNING GLORY/WITHOUT LOVE/UNDERCURRENT/SYLVIA SCARLETT - FILMSTRUCK

Katharine Hepburn is the lead Star of the Week for Filmstruck's final month. In honor of that, I am adapting my review for a 2007 boxed set celebrating her 100th birthday to focus on film's currently featured on the streaming service.


Katharine Hepburn is one of those rare individuals who can truly be said to have come from a different time. Yes, many historical figures are reflections of the particular social mores of their era, but it's something else altogether to be one of those figures that is so unique, there is no way to repeat the confluence of factors that made them. Surely, Hollywood couldn't come up with a movie star like her today. The way we view our celebrities has changed too much. The Golden Age of American cinema produced icons whose images were a mixture of their own personal quirks and studio spin. One gets the sense that one knows stars like Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart from watching their films, but at the same time, the flickering lights of motion pictures allow them to maintain a sense of mystery. For as personal as our connection to them, they have a sense of "otherness" that can never be fully erased. They are one of us, and yet they are something more.

Of the classic female stars, no one may embody this as much as Katharine Hepburn. The accent, the laugh, the strident intelligence, the incredible strength and the equally incredible fragility it keeps in check. She had parts in over fifty movies from 1932 to 1994, establishing one of the greatest legacies in American movies. Though she had her fair share of trouble spots, she always managed to pull out of them, and her pairings with the aforementioned Mr. Grant and the love of her life, Spencer Tracy, resulted in some of the best films ever made. Out of twelve Oscar nominations as Best Actress, she won four. Not bad, eh?


Morning Glory (1933) was directed by Lowell Sherman (She Done Him Wrong) and adapted by Howard J. Green (I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) from a play by Zoe Akins (The Greeks Had a Word For It, a.k.a. How to Marry a Millionaire). It features the young actress, appropriately enough, in the role of a young actress, the hopelessly naive but fiercely determined Eva Lovelace (a stage name, as she's quick to point out--do you like it?). Eva has come to New York City from her home in Vermont to try to make her way treading the boards. Walking into the office of Louis Easton (Adolphe Menjou), one of the most successful producers on Broadway, she talks a blue streak that makes her seem alternately crazy, endearing, or inspiring, depending on who you ask. The other actresses think she's pathetic, but the men around are caught in her spell, particularly the writer Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).

What transpires is a slightly skewed take on the rags to riches rise of a Broadway star. While the title, Morning Glory, refers to the glow of overnight success, it might also refer to the post-coital glow, the dirty curve Easton throws Eva that could only be talked about in a roundabout fashion in the 1930s. Given Eva's precarious mental state, the situation takes on a decidedly dark pallor, and so it's strange when Easton's cruelty is fairly easily bypassed in the climax. In fact, the whole movie has a kind of strangeness about it. It suffers from a staginess that deadened a lot of pictures from the period, making it all the more discomfiting that Fairbanks performs in a loose, naturalistic style that feels out of place next to his colleagues' more demonstrative approach. There is also a jumbled sense of time in the narrative. Part of it is intentional, since at least one character makes a point of how Eva speaks of weeks as if they were years, but it's an incongruity that eventually affects the timeline of the entire script, making it difficult to gauge just how much time has passed by the end.

Really, without Katharine Hepburn, we'd probably not even still be viewing Morning Glory today. Her take on Eva suggests more than a passing knowledge of obsessive-compulsive psychoses. When Eva starts on one of her talking jags, Hepburn freight-trains through it, barely breathing but still hitting the right marks, shifting into the various tangents as if they were the most logical choices for where to go next. The speeches are revelatory, not just as pieces of great acting, but for the character, revealing her vulnerability, her intelligence, and the power of her singular belief. It's the most complicated kind of denial, as Eva believes her own rationalizations even as she betrays them by calling them false. Hepburn never rings a bum note. She's just splendid.


Jumpoing twelve years forward to 1945 and Harold S. Bucquet's Without Love, by this point the Katharine Hepburn persona was pretty well-established, and her romantic comedies were becoming a staple of cinemas. It was her third movie with Spencer Tracy, a most winning combination and perennial exception to the rule that off-screen chemistry is supposed to yield on-screen fizzles. In fact, a kind of repertory had gathered around Hepburn in the intervening years. The screenplay for Without Love was adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart, who had also written the scripts for Holiday [review] and The Philadelphia Story, and all three movies were taken from stage plays by Philip Barry.

The deliciously improbable plot casts Tracy as scientist Patrick Jamieson, a citizen contributing to the wartime effort by secretly working on a high-altitude oxygen mask for pilots in the U.S. army. A chance meeting leads him to the basement in the house of Jamie Rowan (Hepburn), a wealthy widow whose personal loss has made her never want to love again. Pat is of the same mind, but for the opposite reason. Rather than having experienced the greatest love of his life, he's experienced the greatest frustration--a French socialite who keeps him dangling by a heartstring. Another thing the pair has in common is that their late fathers were both scientists, and so they share a hunger for knowledge and discovery. Seeing the perfect opportunity for a coupling, they decide to get married. It will be a union of convenience, built on true friendship without any of that troublesome love stuff mucking up the works.

It wouldn't be a Tracy/Hepburn picture, of course, if this plan didn't go horribly awry. Two people so perfect for each other will perfectly fall in love. Not without their obstacles, of course. Jamie will have to get over hang-ups, and Pat will have to finally let go of his French pastry. Comedy ensues along the way, including gleefully silly montages of the two at work in Pat's lab. There is also some funny business involving Pat's sleepwalking and the little dog he's trained to stop him from wandering too far. Running parallel to the action is another comic couple, played by a young Lucille Ball and Keenan Wynn (Royal Wedding). It's nearly a case of the supporting cast running away with the show. Though Ball is more restrained than we'd come to know from her, I've never seen Wynn be funnier. He's marvelous as the perpetually drunken Quentin, equal parts clown and cad.

As a Tracy/Hepburn fan new to Without Love (in fact, I hadn't seen any of the movies in the box before this viewing), the film fits right in with what I like about the acting duo's comedies. Hepburn's character is never any less than her partner's equal, which is not always the case in 1940s romantic comedies. She is always smart and active in her own power, and her specialness is never neutralized. Rather, both lovers usually have to move either up or down to find a common ground that will allow them to be together. For me, what sets Without Love apart from the rest of their team-ups is the final scene, where Jamie and Pat admit their love without ever admitting it out and out. They do a little verbal dance, saying what they feel in a roundabout way. It's both clever and smart, and the two actors come off as remarkably sincere while still keeping it light. (In reality, they weren't stepping too far outside themselves, as they had years of a very public private affair.) Their last embrace is surprisingly sensual. Hepburn looks particularly hungry, like she's just about to bite a chunk of flesh from Tracy's head. It's enough to inspire the vapors.


1946's Undercurrent is a tense thriller that stands out as a kind of oddity in Katharine Hepburn's career. Undercurrent was actually kind of a departure for several of the people involved. Director Vincente Minnelli was known for his frothy musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis, and co-star Robert Mitchum was usually the tough guy, not the more sensitive soul he is here.

Hepburn is cast as Anne, the daughter of a widower scientist (Edmund Gwenn). Her father is about to sell his greatest discovery to Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor), a famous industrialist who invented a revolutionary navigation system for airplanes. Though Anne is convinced she will live the life of a spinster, when she and Alan meet, it's love at first sight. They are quickly married, and Anne is removed from her safe, academic world and placed amongst Washington politicos. She takes well to high society, but always feels out of step. Part of the problem is that her husband seems to be hiding something. The circumstances of his mother's death and the disappearance of his brother Michael (Mitchum) are closely guarded, and Alan loses his temper at the mere thought of them. Too many coincidences and almost psychic feelings keep bringing Michael to the fore, however, and Anne is convinced she must find out the truth if she's ever to know her spouse.

Undercurrent has started to pick up a bit of a reputation as a film noir. I first heard of the film in 2006 when it played as part of a noir festival at the Northwest Film Center. I'm not really sure it qualifies, however, unless we can establish a subgenre of women's noir. The plot has more in common with Victorian melodramas like Wuthering Heights and the work of Daphne Du Maurier (and her frequent adapter Alfred Hitchcock) than it does the moody expressionism of Fritz Lang or Jules Dassin. Genre hair-splitting aside, however, I found Undercurrent to be absolutely riveting. Minnelli creates a palpable sense of foreboding that lingers over the picture, ratcheting up the suspense each time Anne finds something new to cause her to doubt her husband's story only to be placated by his wily explanations. You just know that eventually one of these things is going to be too large for him to erase, and then Anne is going to be in real trouble.

It's rare to see Katharine Hepburn portray a character that is as lost and confused as Anne. Normally, her characters are merely misguided, blinded by their own hubris or stubbornness. She's quite good in this sudsier role, enough to make me wish she had made more genre pictures. Minnelli also shows a great facility for the style, using what he learned about using his environment from shooting more pastoral pictures to give the couple's ranch a sinister bend.

I'd say my only complaint about Undercurrent is that Robert Mitchum is barely in it. Like Harry Lime in The Third Man [review], Michael Garroway is more of a pervading presence than he is an active participant. When he does show up, it has a much weightier impact. So, this isn't really a fault in the story. I just really like Robert Mitchum.


Katharine Hepburn made ten movies under the direction of George Cukor. He cast her in her first film, Bill of Divorcement, in 1932. They paired for the last time forty-seven years later, in 1979, for The Corn is Green [see original review], a television production of a play by Emlyn Williams. Hepburn was 72, Cukor was 80. The Corn is Green was not a bad showing for two mega talents late in their careers, but a little too safe to have a lasting impact when faced with the grandeur that had come before.

Such as 1935's Sylvia Scarlett. This film has a bit of a checkered reputation, having been a much derided flop on its initial release, leading to Hepburn being labeled "box office poison." Though Cary Grant would emerge from it having proven his skills as a romantic funnyman, it would take years for the movie itself to get a proper reassessment. (In the Cukor documentary on Warner Brothers' 2005 double-disc Philadelphia Story, the director comments that it had become a cult hit and a favorite whenever a retrospective of his career was put together.)

Having finally seen Sylvia Scarlett, I can kind of see why the original audience didn't know what to make of it. It's definitely off-kilter, and it may run a little long, particularly in its screwball turn in the final fifteen minutes. Other than that, though, I found it enchanting.

Hepburn is Sylvia, a dour French-English girl who has just lost her mother. Adding insult to injury, her father (Gwenn again) has gotten into trouble from gambling, and the only cash they have to fund an escape is intended for Sylvia's dowry. Believing she'll never be married anyway, Sylvia cooks up a plan for them to escape to England. Fearing the police will be looking for a father/daughter duo, Sylvia decides to dress as a boy to throw the cops off their scent. The newly dubbed Sylvester takes exceedingly well to his new gender, so much so that his moxy impresses a slick Cockney conman by the name of Jimmy Monkley (Grant). He forms a criminal trio with the Scarletts, igniting Sylvester's sense of adventure. His sense of right and wrong won't let him keep stealing, though, so the three then team up with a chambermaid (Dennie Moore) and become traveling clowns.

And that's just the first half. Cukor packs a lot of story into Sylvia Scarlett. It's more than just a simple cross-dressing-for-comedy picture, however. Sylvia becoming a boy is actually a clever device employed by the writers to show how naïve the character really is. Hepburn is credible as a boy, and so she manages a convincing, athletic performance of a girl pretending to be one. It's almost like some weird version of method acting.

The second half of the film is concerned with the romantic entanglements that come out of this arrangement. Papa Scarlett chases the maid, Monkley's affection toward Sylvia after she reveals the truth is never clear, and Sylvia falls for a rakish artist (Brian Aherne, The Best of Everything) who exposes just how unprepared for womanhood Sylvia really is. A female once more, she's has few defenses to protect herself from his cad-like behavior and the emotional games his girlfriend (Natalie Paley) likes to play. Being a boy was easier for her, because the disguise allowed Sylvester to keep the world at arm's length. The revelation of Sylvia's true sex uncorks everything. Tragedy strikes, and the film's cynical heart is exposed, as well. This is perhaps what makes the final scenes of Sylvia Scarlett a little unconvincing: Sylvia and Monkley have already told us not to believe it.

Even so, it's not enough to fell Sylvia Scarlett. The charms of the rest of the film hold strong. Cary Grant is smart and funny, and when you stop and think about it, Sylvia's predicament is really the Katharine Hepburn image taken to the extreme. A woman fights so hard for her liberation, she neglects the things about herself that are honest and warm, and the lesson she must learn is to somehow have both. It didn't matter how many times we watched Katharine Hepburn go through it, she held us in her thrall. It didn't matter if the material let her down, because she'd always pick the script right back up.



Saturday, November 3, 2018

SELECTED SHORTS VI - CRITERION CHANNEL

With Filmstruck shutting down, I thought I’d squeeze in one last shorts column. If there is a way to resurrect it at a later date, naturally, I will, but without the Criterion Channel, the label doesn’t really have any other venue to showcase random short films--I guess unless I just watch ones that are bonus features on their discs, reviewing them separately from the main feature. I’m sad to see Filmstruck go. It was fun while it lasted. While I imagine that the Criterion Channel will get resurrected again, hopefully with the same level of curation, I doubt we will get another one-two punch of also having the added bonus of the Turner Classics library.

You can read the previous columns here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.


My Josephine (2003; USA; 7 minutes): Moonlight-director Barry Jenkins creates a collage-like narrative about two Arab immigrants running a laundromat. The man is in love with the woman, whom he compares to Napoleon’s first wife, and he ponders the nature of devotion, longing, and assimilation. It all works on a symbolic level, expressing their joint--and disjointed--experience through suggestion and metaphor, and yet is also effective as simple drama.


Bath House (2014; Sweden 15 minutes): I’ve reviewed a couple of films by Niki Lindroth von Bahr in previous installments, but this is by far the one with the most coherent plot. Featuring the director’s usual stop-motion style, it portrays a public pool where several animal characters intersect: the horse who is working at the bath house, a gay feline couple who go their to swim, and a trio of bunnies looking to rob the place. Things go wrong for each outing, leaving all six critters stranded on the street, unable to swim, as the pool itself starts to disintegrate.

Less surreal and abstract than Tord and Tord or The Burden, Bath House manages a quiet humanity, finding intrigue in everyday life, suggesting individual conflict through tiny actions. It’s also charming to look at.


Incident By A Bank (2010; Sweden; 13 minutes): This short by Ruben Olstund, the director of Force Majeure and The Square, is an impressive piece of film choreography. Shot in one continuous take, it captures two inept bank robbers trying to pull a heist, but from the vantage of a non-participatory observer. Remaining outside the bank, the camera probes the street, looking for action and reaction, as bystanders comment on the events, jump into the fray, or even move through the scene oblivious to what is really going on. It’s all rather fascinating both in execution and in drama, putting us in the position to judge the voyeurs who do nothing--while literally doing nothing ourselves.


The Horse in Focus (1956; Sweden; 17 minutes): Staying in Sweden to dip into the Criterion 100 Years of Olympic Films collection, this colorful documentary is both quaint and erudite, kind of exactly the sort of thing you imagined a couple of years back when Mitt Romney was made fun of for participating in “dressage.”

The star here is the commentator rather than the performers, with his clear bias for his home country and flashes of dry wit, tossing zingers at riders when they make errors. There is little suspense in the proceedings, particularly as much is left on the cutting room floor and often the commentary jumps ahead to tell us what happens next. But what makes The Horse in Focus interesting is how it approaches the athletes, with neither the horse nor the rider really given any prime attention. Rather, they are a unit, rising and falling, quite literally, together.


An Act of Love (2018; Australia; 11 minutes): Writer/director Lucy Knox packs a lot into a very short time. A pair of identical twin black girls has their afternoon out at the mall swerve from light-hearted fun to a deep interpersonal drama, testing their sibling bond. When a capricious older boy decides to separate them by turning his flirtatious attention on one sister, leaving the other behind, it stirs up a variety of conflicting emotions in both girls, ultimately requiring a drastic measure of solidarity to repair the damage. In all of this lingers questions of identity and an outcry against the extensive damage of casual racism and misogyny. Knox’s narrative is minimal, but her meaning complex.


Night Mayor (2009; Canada; 14 minutes): The auteur Guy Maddin is up to his usual visual tricks in this black-and-white film evoking 1930s sci-fi and horror. A Croatian immigrant sets out to convert the aurora borealis into music, but his efforts succeed far beyond his imagination, going beyond simple melody and instead broadcasting evocative images across Canada’s phone lines. Though he believes he has tapped into something that shows his fellow Canadians glimpses of themselves and their own national character, there is an underlying menace to his invention, particularly in how he exploits his family.

Night Mayor is an evocative mood piece, with Jason Staczek’s avant-garde music doing a lot of heavy lifting to make the titular pun a cinematic reality. (Say it out loud a couple of times, you’ll get it.)


Home (2016; England; 20 minutes): Is there more going on here than I am seeing? From what I can surmise, Daniel Mulloy is executing a simple reversal technique, showing us the struggle of European refugees by making the focus a middle-class British family trying to get through a war zone. Or is it that they are getting into one, rather than escaping to safety? No matter, the approach is so straightforward, Home is wholly ineffective. It only succeeds in shining a light on the actuality of white privilege: if you need to recognize the skin and accent as similar to your own in order to empathize with such tragic situations, then you’re as shallow as this film.


Swallowed (2016; USA; 17 minutes): Lily Baldwin pulls triple duty here as writer, director, and star, creating for herself a trippy yet ultimately baffling horror film. Centering on a young mother who begins to have bizarre hallucinations while breastfeeding her child, this short quickly descends into a lot of surreal nonsense, a couple of special effects away from being body horror, but never quite settling into any clear realm of meaning. My guess was that this had something to do with food anxieties, particularly that of women, who are expected to not just give of their bodies, but in more traditional (read: outdated) scenarios, to also cook for everyone. In that, Swallowed finds little victory. Baldwin’s perception of reactions others have to her food--dancing, writhing, convulsing--look like parodies of cliché acting exercises. “Pick an animal and pretend to be that animal vomiting.” Swallowed is like someone saw the last reels of Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and failed to realize he spent a good 45 minutes setting everything up.

Reading the official description of the film, though, it appears that Swallowed is not about any of that, but more about the feelings its main character tamps down, Marge Simpson-style, in order to maintain a brave face. More telling than even that, however, is the fact that the screenplay was based on someone’s dream, proving once again that dreams are boring when they aren’t (a) either contrived to fit into some narrative and thus don’t reflect real dreams at all (see 99% of all movies with dream sequences) or (b) lacking the personal interest that allows one to either be fascinated by what they don’t understand or somehow decode it. Thinking about it, though, the only thing that might be worse than watching Swallowed would be listening to the dreamer/director try to explain it. Whatever the code, continue to keep it to yourself.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD - #909


What’s there to say about Night of the Living Dead that hasn’t been said a million times? The seminal horror indie has been one of the most influential genre pictures of movie history, dissected by critics for the last 50 years, explored from every angle, praised for its technique, innovation, and deeper political subtext. There have even been full-length documentaries made about the production, including 2015’s Birth of the Living Dead [review], which featured Romero himself. And, of course, scores of sequels, remakes, and imitators.

Give Night of the Living Dead a spin and it’s easy to see why the hullabaloo persists. Made on a shoestring budget in the late 1960s, it’s a clever pressure cooker of a zombie film. Most of its running time takes place in a single house, as would-be survivors of an undead apocalypse hole up in hopes of some kind of rescue. It starts with two, Ben (Duane Jones), an African American man, and Barbra (Judith O’Dea), a white woman gone nearly catatonic after seeing her brother attacked before barely escaping herself. They are soon joined by a young couple and a family of three who were hiding in the basement. While the night draws on, arguments ensue about how best to get out alive, as radio and television reports present an increasingly bleak picture of the spreading doom.


It’s not hard to see the political metaphors when you’re looking for them. The optics of a black man and a blonde woman facing an onslaught of mostly white men hell-bent on destroying them are sadly as relevant in 2018 as they were in 1968. It’s also hard to ignore how when the older white man (Karl Hardman, looking like an early demo of Rob Corddry) arrives on the scene, he immediately tries to take charge, barking orders without considering any alternative point of view. When his wife (Marilyn Eastman) points out how important it is for him “to be right, everyone else to be wrong,” you can feel the pent-up frustration, born of years of listening to him blather on. Tellingly, when it’s time to decide whether to stick with her husband or listen to Ben, the wife is paralyzed with doubt. It’s hard to break a pattern.


Romero is employing a classic technique here. Plenty of low-budget character studies used a confined space to (a) save on location costs and (b) trap their subjects together so they can’t escape one another. See, for instance, Hitchcock’s Lifeboat [review] or countless Twilight Zone episodes. The one I most think of is “The Shelter,” where one family with a bomb shelter has to fend off their neighbors, who scoffed at the notion of such a thing but are now desperate to get in when there is threat of a nuclear attack. When examining Night of the Living Dead, we can talk race or gender, or we can also just study the personalities as the drive for self-preservation overtakes any desire to help one’s fellow man. Is it that different when the living people inside the house start tearing each other apart verbally than when the zombies outside literally feast on the flesh of the fallen?


One has to give Romero credit for pushing the boundaries in that particular scene. The stone-faced actors chewing on a turkey leg or playing with fake entrails paint a pretty grisly picture of a society that has broken down. Though it comes only midway through Night of the Living Dead, it’s really the beginning of the end. It’s when the hordes taste victory and get the strength to carry on, and the last vestiges of civilization fall.

But Romero really saves the best for last. The most unsettling moments in Night of the Living Dead come at the very end, when we learn the fate of Ben. If there is any remaining resistance to the political reading of the movie, that should all vanish here. Romero chooses to show these last shots as a montage of grainy stills, resembling news footage, focusing as much on the uncaring, self-satisfied faces of Ben’s unwitting attackers--who think they are doing the right thing--as much as the sad outcome of their actions. Anyone seeing Night of the Living Dead on initial release would have, unfortunately, found images like these far too familiar, far too similar to what they had been seeing in newspapers throughout the Civil Rights Movement. And the power to provoke has not dulled. (Spike Lee made a similar move, pulling in current events to upend his own entertainment in this summer’s BlacKkKlansman.)


This is what good horror can do: create a commentary on the times, delivering uncomfortable truths in the guise of seemingly unthinkable, frightening events. There’s a reason that the genre thrives when the real world is going through tumultuous times. A good scary movie can make us reflect on the current situation in ways that are obvious (the analogues for the Reagans in Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs) or subtle (the triumphant #metoo parable of David Gordon Green’s recent Halloween sequel, the stifled voices of good people in John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place). For most of Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero goes for the subtle, saving up that sucker punch for when it really counts.



Wednesday, October 24, 2018

ANNIE OAKLEY - FILMSTRUCK

This review was originally written as part of an overview of the Barbara Stanwyck Signature Collection in 2007.


Released in 1935, this early starring vehicle for Barbara Stanwyck is like a backwoods A Star is Born, with Barbara playing the titular Annie Oakley, a.k.a. "Little Sure Shot," the riflelady that joined Buffalo Bill's traveling show in the early part of the century and made a name with her dead-on aim. Directed by George Stevens, this Annie Oakley is the hokum version of the story, fixed up for the movies in order to hit as many emotional chords as it can and fill seats.

Young Annie hunts quail to earn money for her family and earns a reputation for her clean shots. A misunderstanding puts her in a shooting match with trick gunman Toby Walker (Preston Foster) and garners the attention of Buffalo Bill's recruiter, Jeff Hogarth (Melvyn Douglas). Annie joins the show, begins to rival the preening Walker, and then eventually falls in love with him. A heroic accident--Toby saves Sitting Bull (Chief Thunderbird) from Indian haters, though someone should have saved all of these Native American actors (and the African American ones, too) from this picture--hurts Toby's eyes and his pride. This gives Hogarth his chance to move in, as well as setting George Stevens up for a three-hankie ending. For as cheesy as the last scene is, you have to give these old films credit, because it still works. For as much as you start out laughing at a silly film like Annie Oakley, it's hard not to be completely invested by the time the ending rolls around.

A lot of credit for that has to be given to Barbara Stanwyck. She is so very charming as the deceptively naïve young Annie, able to stifle her own pride in order to look out for the fragile ego of her peacock boyfriend. Even as her confidence grows, she manages to hold on to that girlish quality, a strength that is partially bolstered by a genuine small-town innocence. Yet, we also see hints of the Stanwyck that can joke around with the guys. Her performance is a complete portrait of the real woman, even if the story itself is more like a cartoon.



Monday, October 22, 2018

SHAMPOO - #947


Shampoo is easily the most Warren Beatty of all of Warren Beatty’s movies. A political and interpersonal comedy, it says as much about Beatty as it does the world. The writer/actor/producer lets his point of view be known, but he also embraces a certain image of himself as the pretty playboy, simultaneously reinforcing and undercutting it, creating a complex portrait of a man who knows what he wants but is often derailed by either his baser desires or what other people perceive of him. In many ways, it’s a prototype for a character and a movie he would revisit/remake more than once. Is George in Shampoo all that different from Jay Bulworth in Bulworth? What about Joe in Heaven Can Wait? Are their journeys that different?

Though Beatty didn’t direct this one, he had a hand throughout the production. He also had the confidence to place the great Hal Ashby (Being There [review]) behind the camera. Shampoo was released in 1975, but its story takes place in 1968, the day Richard Nixon is elected President. The election hangs over everything in the picture, a foregone conclusion not just to contemporary viewers, but also to the men of wealth whose wives go to George to get their hair done. The rest of the participants don’t seem to realize the change that is coming, but they are already starting to feel it. By the morning of the next day, an era will have passed. Ashby uses the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to bookend the picture, and it goes from a sweet, hopeful anthem of youth to an ironic remembrance of false promises.


Election Day is also the day that George has decided to meet with the bank to talk about opening his own hair salon. George is popular in his profession, and he believes his customer base would follow him if he had his own shingle; unfortunately for him, the bank sees through his lack of business acumen. George is too scared to tell his girlfriend Jill (Goldie Hawn) about this failure, but he does end up spilling the beans to his mistress, Felicia (Lee Grant), who is also a top client. Knowing George’s skills, Felicia sends him to her husband, Lester (Jack Warden). Even though Lester doesn’t sign on immediately, he sees the adulation George receives first-hand, since Lester’s own mistress, Jackie (Julie Christie, Beatty’s dance partner in McCabe and Mrs. Miller [review]), can also vouch for George’s magic hands. Little does Lester know, George and Jackie also used to date, a tidbit that might have dissuaded him from hatching an ill-fated plan: he asks George to accompany Jackie to an election night party, acting as cover for them while Lester attends the same shindig with Felicia. Oh, and Jill will be there, too, because she’s schmoozing a film director to get a part. (The director is played by Tony Bill, who did go on to be an actual film director, helming My Bodyguard, Five Corners, and one of my all-time favorites, Untamed Heart).

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, Beatty and co-writer Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Chinatown) never lose track of all the players, nor do they ever leave the audience hanging. In may ways, Shampoo seems like it would have been a perfect match for Robert Altman, who could have juggled the massive ensemble and the crisscrossing scenes without breaking a sweat; that said, Ashby shows no perspiration himself. Shampoo is complicated, but never messy, and watching all these things converge ends up being a delight.


For all the trampled feelings and missed connections that happen as the various participants travel from the election event to a large Los Angeles soiree, and then off into the night, most everyone here has similar needs and ambitions. Everyone in Shampoo is after something that they likely can’t have, and for most of them, they can’t have it due to some fault of their own. The clash between George and Lester could have easily been a celebration of a free spirit and the excoriation of a corporate fat cat, but when the two men finally compare notes, they both appear to be just as stranded in a world of their own making. Maybe today is the day they can make their change. Maybe not. Maybe Nixon will change it for them.  Knowing what we know, things will probably change more for George than Lester. Then again, I bet if we had a sequel to Shampoo set in the Reagan era, we’d see them both thriving in the excess of the Me Decade.

Don’t confuse Shampoo for a polemic or a message picture, however; the film is quite funny, both in its quirky rhythms (which is where Ashby probably trumps Altman) and in some of its broad contrivances. Julie Christie getting drunk and wicked provides many a good laugh, as does Lester’s utter confusion over George. Warren Beatty loves to play his characters as befuddled, a little off vibration from the rest of the world, somehow always one step behind but still looking at his next move. He’s great here, especially in the later scenes when George finally opens up. “You’re the only one I trust,” he tells Jackie, and we are with her when her heart breaks for him, knowing that soon he will be all alone. And, of course, watch a very young Carrie Fisher steal the show as Felicia’s randy, vindictive daughter.


Shampoo is also quite sexy. Again, the film leans into Beatty’s ladies man image. Every woman in the movie approaches him projecting an aura of sex. Amusingly, through most of the movie, he is either just missing the moment or we, as the audience, are shut out. So, when we finally do see George in action, it’s a scene that is first met with applause and then uncomfortable laughter, both from within the narrative and from without.

It’s interesting that Shampoo is a mid-’70s Hollywood production looking back at the tail end of the 1960s. The nostalgia is both wistful and disappointed. One gets the sense that Beatty knows how ridiculous some of George’s outfits look, or that choosing to have him ride a Triumph motorcycle is meant to mock him as a false rebel. All these flamboyant, fashionable choices--from having George be a hairdresser to his own artfully messy mane--seem to be intended to provoke a certain segment of the film-going public that probably had a lot of disdain for Beatty (mainly guys like Lester). Nothing on the surface of Shampoo will change their minds. Thus, shoving the cliché in everyone’s faces--fans and foes alike--only to bust it apart, transforms the screen idol into an enduring symbol of the idealistic decade that Shampoo is eulogizing, dashed hopes and all.


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

Saturday, October 20, 2018

SCANNERS - #712


Back in high school and on through college, I worked a story called Lords of Order, first writing it as a graphic novel and then a screenplay. Intended as the opening of a trilogy (and predicting the three brothers structure of my eventual prose novels), the story was a gritty fantasy about teenagers with psychic powers being preyed upon by an evil corporation that may have had a hand in their creation. It was a John Hughes version of the X-Men, in its way, but now I see it was also quite a bit like an adolescent version of Scanners.

Released in 1981, Scanners was David Cronenberg’s fourth movie, and essential in his emergence as a prominent auteur. Scanners set the groundwork for both Videodrome [review] and The Dead Zone in terms of approach and theme. It’s effective for what it is, a B movie with a firm grasp of its own schlock, highlighted by impressive practical effects. One of the film’s earliest bits of gore, when a man’s head explodes, has found new life on the internet as an animated gif. Its bloody climax, however, may be the most effective, if not easily the grossest. If you want to talk about the psychic travails of puberty, I am pretty sure anyone who had any kind of acne problem can relate to the squirting pustules growing on Michael Ironside and Steven Lack’s faces.


The two men lead the film, both playing the titular “scanners,” the name Cronenberg gives to people with extraordinary mental powers. Their main ability is telepathy via direct linkage of their nervous system with another’s. Once connected, they can read minds and also influence the other person’s actions--but at great physical expense for themselves and their victim. They also seem to be able to inspire spontaneous combustion in a manner that is never explained, and hack into computers in a manner that shouldn’t have been.


Lack plays Cameron Vale, a scanner who is taken into custody by a nefarious corporation and its lead scientist, Dr. Ruth (The Prisoner’s Patrick McGoohan). The company is trying to cultivate scanners for espionage and other unsavory purposes, but they find themselves at odds with a rogue scanner, Darryl Revok (Ironside). Revok is looking to unite all known scanners, and killing the ones who refuse. Ruth and his cronies dispatch Vale to find the bad man, though the more he looks, the more Vale realizes not everything is on the up and up.


Cronenberg’s script is scrappy, but also threadbare. There is actually very little to the plot, and many scenes slam together without much connective tissue. Vale’s investigative skills seem to rely more on psychic predictions than real detection, and the gunmen who follow him around are never adequately accounted for. Scanners feels as if Cronenberg either didn’t have the budget to shoot more story, or simply didn’t care about why or how he’d get to the scenes of exploding heads and cars. The truth may be somewhere in the middle, as reportedly the filmmaker was rushed into production before there was a complete script with instructions to finish in time to qualify for a tax break.


Fans of blood-and-guts horror probably don’t care, however, and one could probably make some pretty good critical hay out of the political implications of weaponized genetics, particularly as science continues to learn more and more about how we are put together. For me, Scanners could have used with a bit more character work. The choice to make Vale a blank slate means we never quite grasp his motivation. Likewise, Revok is never permitted to preen in his villainy. Surely there was some Thanos-like justification for his mission Cronenberg could have injected here, but much like my bad adolescent writing, the only real driver seems to be possessing the power itself. Which isn’t really all that relatable and exciting for us normal folk out here in the audience. Though, maybe now I can resurrect that old script and fix it based on the lessons I gleaned from Scanners.

But probably not.