Wednesday, January 31, 2018


This review was originally written in 2010 for

"Never dismiss the legends, Pandora..."

The tale of the Flying Dutchman is a ghost story. A haunted ship travels through the night, its lonely captain cursed to sail the empty seas for eternity. Having committed an heinous crime against love, he must now roam the waters until the day he finds a woman who loves him so much, she is willing to die for him. Love, we are told, is measured by what you will give up for the person you hold most dear. Thus, the irony would be that if the Dutchman were to ever meet the woman who loved him enough to die on his behalf, he would likely love her in equal measure and thus will give up his own salvation so that she may live.

Albert Lewin's 1951 romantic curio Pandora and the Flying Dutchman takes place on a strange dreamscape somewhere just on the other side of the expatriate fiction of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is set on the coast of Spain, in a town called Esperanza--the name translating as "hope," which is all that remained after Pandora opened the box of horrors in the Greek myth. Lewin casts Ava Gardner as his Pandora, an American nightclub singer who leads a bored life by the beach. She is fawned over by the male transplants in the village, and they are all too ready to be manipulated by her. There is the drunk socialite Reggie (Marius Goring) and the renowned bullfighter Montalvo (Mario Cabré), and also a race car driver that is so taken with Pandora, he pushes his car into the sea on her urging. It doesn't matter that Steven (Nigel Patrick) is engaged to another, he's now engaged to Pandora.

Fittingly, Steven's car was named for his paramour, and the night the four-wheeled Pandora is dumped into the drink, so too does the two-legged Pandora see an unfamiliar yacht in the harbor. Intrigued by this fresh prospect, she leaves her new fiancé and swims out to meet the mysterious Hendrik van der Zee (James Mason). The Dutch sailor is alone on his boat, where he is marking time by painting a portrait of the mythic Pandora; only, she has Ava Gardner's face. It would appear that destiny is pushing these two tragic figures together, but we can tell by the way Lewin and cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Girl on a Motorcycle [review]) shoot their meeting that having that much tragedy in one place can only cause further imbalance. While they are on the ship, the image rocks up and down, subject to the caprice of the waves.

Since the basic premise of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman has its roots in classic literature, Albert Lewin gives his tale of doomed romance a literary framework. The main story is shown in flashback, narrated by a scholar (Harold Warrender) who is also caught in Pandora's web, but who has been relegated to the role of confidante and witness. He is the one who finds the old manuscript that purports to be the real diary of the Flying Dutchman, and so it is he who puts two and two together and realizes that van der Zee (whose name literally translates as "the sea") is the eternal wanderer from the folk tales. With the Dutchman swearing he will set sail the night before Pandora is to marry Steven, this realization is like the Dutchman's ever-present hour glass--it initiates a countdown to zero. The love of Pandora has unleashed all kinds of danger. Some suitors will survive, some will not, and it remains to be seen what either she or the Dutchman might give up in order to love the other.

Lewin is no stranger to literary films, having directed my favorite cinematic version of Dorian Gray in 1945. In that movie, he audaciously experimented with color, inserting full-color shots of Dorian's infamous portrait into an otherwise black-and-white film. For Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, the director goes all out, working with Cardiff to extend and expand upon the marvelous Technicolor landscapes the cameraman previously created for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in Black Narcissus [review] and The Red Shoes [review]. Those films dealt with passion, spirituality, and art in their own ways, making them sort of distant cousins to Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. There is a breathless unreality at work in these movies, and the effect is hypnotic. Watching them is like stepping into a painting depicting a particularly vivid dream.

Unlike the Powell and Pressburger films, however, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman never quite finds its narrative footing. It remains as off-balance as those early shots of van der Zee's boat. Though the movie is always impressive to look at, it does tend to wander. The pacing is often slow, lacking the feverish rush that the story demands. Likewise, for as beautiful as Ava Gardner is, her performance is far too morose to get too worked up over. For an irresistible leading lady, she's a lot easier to resist than one might think.

On the other hand, James Mason is quite good as van der Zee. He embraces the role with such utter seriousness, his performance almost turns campy. It makes it all the more sad that Lewin didn't get more ridiculous with this story. Mason's stone-faced delivery could have sold whatever the writer/director sent his way. The sillier the events, the more starch in Mason's shirts, the better for all of us.

Then again, Lewin may be playing it smarter than I am giving him credit for. By withholding the histrionics and playing the more fantastical elements close to his chest, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman perpetually feels like it has something waiting just around the next edit, that there is a strangeness just out of frame that one whip pan will reveal. And, really, the story does escalate as it goes. The bullfighter's mother adds to the anxiety by predicting that death is coming for the men in Pandora's life, and so every rash action they take could be their last. Steven pulls his race car out of the water with the intention of making it roadworthy again and setting a speed record, while the hotheaded Spaniard has a date with a hotheaded bull. They both want to show Pandora what men they are, but it's Montalvo who takes us into the third act by escalating events and clearing the way for Lewin to deliver on all the hints and teases with a delirious finish. Myth collides with fairy tale, making for some unequaled cinematic magic.

Sunday, January 28, 2018


Errol Morris’ influential 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line is both film as political activism and true crime. Like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood but with the journalistic rigor of 60 Minutes.

The Thin Blue Line is the story of a 1976 killing of a policeman in Dallas, Texas. Just past midnight on Thanksgiving weekend, Officer Robert W. Wood pulled over a car driving without its headlights. When the office approached the driver’s door, the man behind the wheel pulled a pistol and opened fire. About a month later, just before Christmas, Randall Dale Adams was arrested for the crime. Though he insisted on his innocence all the way through, Adams was eventually convicted, primarily on the testimony of David Harris, a 16-year-old delinquent who claimed to be hiding on the passenger side of the vehicle that evening. Adams contended that Harris picked him up when he ran out of gas, and though he and the teenager spent the day together, he had returned to his hotel a few hours before the homicide and never saw Harris again. Adding weight to his defense: the kid admitted to having stolen the car and the gun that was used to shoot the lawman.

Despite a flimsy case, Adams was convicted and sentenced to death. Morris picks up the story nearly a decade later, and retraces all the steps taken that landed Adams in jail. He examines both the prosecution and the defense’s arguments. In addition to Adams and Harris, he interviews police investigators, lawyers, the judge, and key witnesses. The director approaches each aspect of the case from one angle, and then another, and then a third still--however many it takes to get all sides. Each interview subject is getting a chance to state their truth, and then Morris impeaches that truth or finds support for it. Other people editorialize, the director does not. While one can guess that perhaps sympathy for Adams is what inspired Morris to undertake The Thin Blue Line, one doesn’t get the sense that any of the documentary’s conclusions are considered foregone.

On the contrary, the thrill of watching The Thin Blue Line is how many twists and turns this narrative takes before finding its way to the closing credits. Morris’ camera is akin to a noir detective in that its always having to adapt to new information; every time it settles on one answer, a new question pops up, so it can never maintain a single line of interrogation. In terms of technique, Morris relies mostly on participant testimonies, which he illustrates via re-enactments. The central crime is shown over and over, but with each change in the account, we see it a slightly different way. The use of these staged sequences is engaging without being manipulative. The switch-ups have a Rashomon-like effect. Every version could be true, or none of them. In fact, as The Thin Blue Line draws to a close, the truth is still up to us. The audience, in this case, is the jury. In both approach and effectiveness, The Thin Blue Line is the granddaddy to the Paradise Lost trilogy and Making of a Murderer, both of which owe Errol Morris a huge debt.

There is a level of restraint here that is kind of remarkable. As David Harris emerges as a more intriguing character than initially thought, it must have taken every ounce of control that Morris could muster not to rush ahead, to expose all the secrets immediately, or convert his winding path to a more direct route. It’s a credit to what a good storyteller the filmmaker truly is. Because even if you go in knowing the outcome, you’ll still be completely drawn in waiting to see how Errol Morris is going to get us there.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


This review was written for the theatrical release of The Complete Metropolis in 2010 and published at

"There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator."

There are few films from early cinema that could even get close to touching Fritz Lang's 1927 masterpiece Metropolis in terms of its impact on pop culture. Lang's silent sci-fi parable is an imaginative, visually stunning piece of work. His creation of a future city and the lady robot that would bring it crashing down has influenced just about every future vision to follow, be it in movies, comic books, or even music videos.

All the more impressive, then, that this impact was achieved despite that fact that versions of Metropolis people have been seeing for the last 80 years are vastly different than the one Lang and his crew intended. The movie immediately ran afoul of German censors, who started making trims. Then Metropolis traveled overseas, and American censors and greedy exhibitors made even more cuts. Most of the footage that had been taken out was believed to be lost forever, so it was a gutted Metropolis or no Metropolis at all. If you can't quite grasp what that means, imagine if someone had taken a pair of scissors to da Vinci's Last Supper and cut out five of the apostles. It's a totally different painting, and one that's full of holes.

The story of Lang's film got a surprise happy ending recently when a nearly complete print was discovered in Buenos Aires. A restoration team seized upon this unearthed treasure and immediately got to work restoring more than 20 minutes of footage not seen since the movie's earliest showings. Though the title The Complete Metropolis is somewhat of a misnomer (we're still missing the showdown between Joh Fredersen and Rotwang, for instance), the new prints of the film that are currently touring arthouses is the closest to the full picture as we're likely to get, so I'm willing to go with it.

And my, what a difference this added footage makes! Metropolis is now a far more coherent and rich film, working much better as a narrative but without sacrificing the movie's legendary weirdness. Based on a novel by Thea von Harbou, who also worked on the script, Metropolis is the story of an industrial city in a far-flung future. The creation of businessman Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), this mechanized wonderland is built in correspondence with the social order. Fredersen and his rich pals live up high, their workers toil in the pits below, and all manner of life floats in between.

Fredersen is a widower, and his son Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) is living the life expected of a privileged heir. He frolics in a literal Garden of Delights, chasing potential wives through the foliage and around an opulent fountain. Things change the day Maria (Brigitte Helm) peeks into this paradise, bringing along a field trip of working-class children to see the world she believes they deserve. Intrigued by this luminescent beauty, Freder travels down into the lower factory in search of her. He ends up trading places with one of the workers (Erwin Biswanger) so he can experience what a common life is like, and once he is believed to be just another employee, his co-workers take him to a secret labor rally--led by none other than Maria herself.

Meanwhile, the scientist Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is working on a mechanical man that will revolutionize the labor force. He shows Fredersen his invention and promises he will make the robot resemble a real person within 24 hours. He has dubbed her Hel, and he is building her in honor of Fredersen's lost wife. There is a history between these three, and Rotwang holds a grudge over the woman's death. So, when Freder demands that the machine maker make his creation look like Maria so she can topple the worker rebellion, he doesn't realize he is giving his rival the means for revenge.

Metropolis is a movie that is many things all at once. It's a political allegory commenting on worker's rights and the dangers of industry. It's a science fiction adventure that, despite its high-tech trappings, uses traditional storytelling tropes--a chosen hero, a damsel in distress, a misguided king--to create a cautionary future. Metropolis is also a religious parable, riddled through with Christian iconography and echoes of Biblical tales. There is a whole segment retelling the story of the Tower of Babel for the machine age, and the above and below of Fredersen's city represents Heaven and Hell, with the humans caught in between. The great machine that powers the whole thing is even given a mystical personification. He is Moloch, and workers shall be sacrificed in his bloody maw!

Amazingly enough, Lang's narrative is still relevant, and his vision is still dazzling to behold. He builds his Metropolis using elaborate sets, models, and matte paintings, creating a city that is massive in size and scope. The actual design of the architecture used contemporary art deco but advanced it to incorporate more industrial elements. At the same time, Lang recreated Biblical images, such as creating a whole stage show for the whore of a Babylon to strut her stuff. We're talking about a movie that has both a pageant featuring Death and the Seven Deadly Sins as well as an android woman brought to life via diodes and Tesla coils four years before James Whale would jolt Boris Karloff into action in Frankenstein. We may be in the 21st century, but we still haven't made our world look this damn cool.

In previous cuts of Metropolis, the story jumped around at random points, and whole subplots were dropped in favor of a shorter running time. For instance, when Freder takes over the work station, the man he replaces takes Freder's clothes and goes off to spend the rich boy's money. None of those scenes were on Kino's 2003 restored DVD, they were only explained in expository title cards. Now we can at last see what Georgy gets up to, alongside other side plots and fill-in scenes that add greater nuance to the overall story. Other versions of Metropolis were like skies full of flying cars racing every which way with nothing to guide the traffic; The Complete Metropolis is like those same fantastical skies, but now the cars have road markers telling them where to go.

If you've never seen a silent film before, don't fear. The Complete Metropolis is as fresh and exciting as any talkie. This isn't some worn-out relic more interesting for its historical importance than it is the actual entertainment. I have a feeling that if they give it a chance, this film will surprise a great many people. It's like a cinematic time capsule that most other movies are still running to catch up to, an imagined future that could still turn out to be our tomorrow. It's the motion picture experience eight decades in the making! If you are lucky enough to have it come to your town, don't hesitate. Get in line right now.

Sunday, January 21, 2018


This review was originally part of a write-up of the High School Flashback Collection, released in 2008. Go here to read the full piece, including my takes on Sixteen Candles and Weird Science.

For his 1985 film The Breakfast Club, writer/director John Hughes would hone his perception of the class structure of high school into a perfect diamond. Like a version of Sartre's No Exit set in detention, The Breakfast Club brings together what Hughes saw as the five iconic "types" that make up any high school: the brain (Anthony Michael Hall), the athlete (Emilio Estevez), the basket case (Ally Sheedy), the princess (Molly Ringwald), and the criminal (Judd Nelson). All five have gotten into trouble for various reasons, and all five have been assigned a special Saturday detention. Though none of them are friends going into it, they do all carry their preconceptions and have relationships that exist based on those lines. Over the course of their incarceration, they will cross those lines, get to know one another, and eventually reveal who they are based on what lead them to that room in the first place.

The Breakfast Club is deftly constructed, setting up its thesis right from the start with Anthony Michael Hall's voiceover about the categories the group feels they have been put in, and then promising to break those down. Hughes looks for the truth in those categories and builds real characters that conform to them while also being rounded out enough to bust the conventional wisdom about each. He starts with the outer trappings--the clothes they wear, the food they eat--and expands from there to show that these accoutrements bolster the outer masks--Judd Nelson's bravado, Emilio Estevez's machismo, Ally Sheedy's freakish demonstrations. These masks inevitably clash, but each time they do, a piece breaks off. Though each character lies about themselves, the fact that they demand honesty from the other students means they eventually have to own up, too. The bonding happens slowly over the course of the day, bolstered by their common situation and their common enemy, the principal stuck watching them (Paul Gleason). Arguments and pranks lead to deeper conversations, and it becomes clear that all the kids have real problems, and that most of those problems stem from the same insecurities about who they are, where they come from, and where they are going.

The last of the barriers break down in an emotionally intense scene that begins lightly, with the five enjoying their buzz after smoking out, but Hughes isn't content with an easy bonding session. Again, it's all about respecting the characters and the age group he's portraying, acknowledging their problems are real and not to be solved by the easy platitudes of an After School Special. Hall's character, Brian, asks if anyone will actually say hello to him in the halls on Monday, and the truth, as it often does, hurts. Once the honesty starts, though, there is no stopping it, and it paves the way for some final transformations that we might otherwise find unacceptable. Hughes leaves himself the escape clause that it might all be another ruse.

The ensemble cast here couldn't be more perfect. Hughes really was a genius of casting, and he gives his actors enough room to explore that they all invest their roles with authentic pathos. Every viewer enters the movie with a preconceived allegiance to one of the five but then leaves with sympathy for all of them. Judd Nelson has the showiest role, and he tears it apart. It's sad that he never had another part to quite match it. Ally Sheedy proves herself to be the most inventive of the cast, having the weirdest character to play and quietly indulging in all sorts of comedic business. Even when she is saying nothing, she is always lurking about, always watching. As the compulsive liar, she sees through everyone's images first, and being the true outcast, has no social consequence to face by drawing them out--except having to be social herself, the greatest and most subtle transformation of them all. (Well, pre-Extreme Make-Over.)

Saturday, January 20, 2018


Dorothy Malone died this past week. A repeat performer in Douglas Sirk films of the 1950s, she was probably best known for her Oscar-winning turn in Peyton Place, or for her memorable scene as a bookseller in The Big Sleep [review]. Lauren Bacall, her co-star in Howard Hawks’ Chandler adaptation, was also her castmate in one of those Sirk releases, 1956’s Written on theWind--a textbook case where the supporting role is much juicier than the lead. Malone runs away with the picture.

The melodrama, shot from a script by George Zuckerman, centers on a wealthy Texas oil family. The Hadley’s are so rich, the town they live in was named after them. The company is run by patriarch Jasper (Robert Keith), a widower whose two children have not turned out as expected. Spoiled by their wealth, both Kyle (Robert Stack, To Be Or Not To Be [review) and Marylee (Malone) have taken more of an interest in liquor than oil and prefer carousing to work. Their best friend since childhood, Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson, Magnificent Obsession [review]), provides the only steadiness. He grew up with the Hadleys as a favor between fathers: Mr. Hadley hoped having a poor friend would keep Kyle grounded, and old man Wayne (Harry Shannon) believed it would provide Mitch with opportunities he never had.

The film starts with an engrossing flash-forward before jumping back a year, to when Mitch met Lucy (Bacall), the secretary to the head of the advertising agency that promotes Hadley Oil. Mitch tries to use Lucy as a lure to rein in Kyle, who has flown to New York on a bender--literally piloting his private plane--in search of his favorite steak sandwich. The scheme works, but it backfires at the same time. Lucy does get Kyle to straighten up, but Mitch himself has also fallen in love with her. His own plot causes him to lose the bride to his much more outgoing friend. After a quick trip to Miami, Kyle and Lucy are wed.

Upon their return to Texas, Mitch must stifle his feelings for Lucy while also fending off the advances of Marylee. The Hadley girl has loved Mitch her whole life, but he sees her as only a sister. Much of Marylee’s acting out is to try to get Mitch to pay attention to her. As we see in a spectacular barroom brawl, Kyle is ineffective in defending the family honor, it requires a bit more muscle. Dorothy Malone gets to show range here, from explicit seduction to pouty outbursts to genuine romantic despair. While Stack is a bit more exaggerated, Kyle’s daddy issues are also a bit underwritten; not so with Marylee’s hang-ups. She makes direct moves for Mitch’s affections, some of which likely pushed the strictures of the production code, but she also lays her feelings bare as necessary.

Not that Kyle’s predicament is all that innocent, either. After a year of sobriety, he goes off the wagon when his doctor leads him to believe he is unable to have kids. Here Sirk and Zuckerman’s drama takes on Tennessee Williams-level depths. Kyle has always had his manhood threatened by Mitch, and now he believes it to have a literal/physical manifestation. On the night in question, the one we entered the film on, the whole world adopts Kyle’s anger and anxieties, the Texas wind whipping up to a frenzy.

As is Douglas Sirk’s signature, Written on the Wind is colorful and emotional. His exquisite staging and remarkable sense of framing creates room for the actors to perform, but also the space for the drama to explode. You can tell how the relationships are faring by where the actor appears within the shot, like when Hudson is visible in a mirror that separates the newlyweds, Stack and Bacall. The four lovers are in a dangerous tango where two of the dancers are moving faster than the others--as symbolized in their flashy red and yellow sports cars. The script often swerves and kicks up dirt in much the same way the speedsters do. Written on the Wind may be Sirk’s tightest, most efficient narrative, rivaled only by Tarnished Angels, released a year after Written on the Wind, and also starring Hudson, Stack, and Malone, its black-and-white aerial theatrics providing a more knuckle-dusted sibling to its predecessor.

If there is any flaw to Written on the Wind, it’s maybe that it’s a couple of scenes too long. Sirk should have ended where he came in. While the final sequences do offer Marylee redemption--and Malone, naturally, handles the moment well--it cools everything down a bit too much. But so it goes...a classic doesn’t need to be perfect, and Written on the Wind is definitely one.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2009. 

The 2008 Irish film Kisses is a pleasant little surprise of a movie. Unassuming in its charm, it heightens the lyricism of youthful desire into a story of one night away from a painful reality, creating an urban fairy tale, complete with the bubbly highs and the prickly darkness that threatens to bring everything back down.

Kisses follows two kids on the brink of adolescence. Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) and Dylan (Shane Curry) live next door to one another in the housing projects on the outskirts of Dublin. It's Christmas, and both are stuck at home. Dylan's dad (Paul Roe) is a violent drinker, and Kylie fights with her sister (Stephanie Kelly) and avoids a creepy uncle (Sean McDonagh) whose monetary gifts come at too high a trade. When things get out of hand at Dylan's house, Kylie helps him escape a beating, and the two decide to run away. They head into the city with Kylie's secret money stash, blow the wad on silly clothes and candy, and go searching for Dylan's missing brother.

It's here that things get sticky again. The neighborhood gossip was that Dylan's dad killed his older brother and dumped him in the canal. The truth is, the boy just ran away, and it's been two years since they heard from him. He is no longer in the squat that he gave as his address, and the last person to see him thought he was living in a cardboard box at the riverfront. There is no one else to help the kids, and as the sun sets, the predators emerge. It's going to be a long night, and the pair only have the good luck kiss of a kindly prostitute to protect them.

Kisses is the third film from writer/director/cinematographer Lance Daly (The Good Doctor [review]), though his most recognizable credit on IMDB is probably "Kid with Harmonica" in The Commitments. For this tale of young love on the run, Daly conjures magic out of the everyday, using a child's point of view and color tricks gleaned from The Wizard of Oz to create an overnight journey that looks large in comparison to its small stars. Ice rinks become idyllic playgrounds, strip joints turn into underworld passages, and the threats mothers tell their children to scare them into being good--in this case, the Sackman, who comes and steals unruly brats from their beds at night--have real-life analogues. Even Bob Dylan might show up to spread a little good cheer around.

Staged on location on the streets of Dublin, Kisses has the appearance of a film shot on the fly, a verité exploration captured at the moment of its happening. The script is a little too structured for that illusion to hold if you look close, but the natural manner of the two first-time leads are so good, you won't spend much time worrying about it. O'Neill and Curry give completely unaffected performances, and yet never have lapses of character. They are always Kylie and Dylan, and they handle laughter, fear, and even a small trace of romance as if this whole acting thing were nothing to get too concerned about. Some of the best sequences are dialogue-free montages of them messing around, and though Daly maybe pushes the music a little hard in these scenes, he can never overpower the born charisma of his stars.

Sure, Kisses heads to some expected places, but Daly avoids putting a cherry on top. There are no guarantees made that any of what was learned overnight will hold true the following day. Still, there is hope. Maybe the magic will stay alive, maybe it will become a memory. The importance is that it happened, and their lives have already changed.

Note: If you notice that the movie goes to final credits well ahead of its indicated running time, that's because there is one last small bit hiding at the end. It comes after the credits, and even then after several frames of black screen. So, let the movie run.

Sunday, January 14, 2018


Steven Soderbergh is 55 today. That puts a solid decade between us. Not that it matters. With ten years less on his life he’d still have done ten times more than me. The man is prolific to say the least. Since “retiring” from theatrical film, he’s made two television series (Mosaic debuts on HBO this month) and...well, one feature film, the 1970s-style character piece Logan Lucky, a singular and pleasing gem of 2017. He’s one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, reminding me of classic studio men who could adapt to any style, tackle any genre, and still maintain his unique vision.

To celebrate this day, I decided to review the last Soderbergh movie in the Criterion Collection needing coverage on this blog, the Spalding Gray documentary Gray’s Anatomy, released in 1996 and seen by Soderbergh, alongside Schizopolis [review], as part of a creative reset. Years later, the auteur would also make And Everything is Going Fine [review], a more traditional documentary about Gray, but Gray’s Anatomy is a performance piece, not a reporting. It’s Steven Soderbergh capturing one of the monologists most famous shows, a lengthy one-man narrative describing an extended medical condition and his coming to grips with treatment.

Spalding Gray was diagnosed with a “macular pucker” in his left eye. As he describes it in the monologue, it’s essentially when the cornea develops a crinkle, not unlike a loose spot in a piece of cellophane stretched over a bowl. The pucker caused visual anomalies, and there were a few potential courses of treatment, with the most recommended being actual surgery. Scared of the potential side effects of a botched procedure--including blindness and even losing the eye itself--but also knowing it was not an operation that had to happen right away, Gray opted to seek out alternative methods. Gray’s Anatomy details his explorations of mysticism, nutrition, and even psychic healers (think Andy Kaufman going to see the Filipino charlatan in Man on the Moon), before finally settling on the original course of action. (Footage of the actual surgery is included as an extra on the disc, if you’ve got the stomach for such things; I do not.)

Soderbergh doesn’t dress up the performance too much. Breaking the mo nologue down to anecdotes, a sort of equivalent of scenes, he shot Gray acting out the material for the camera, no audience, using different backdrops and occasional camera tricks to add a little visual flair to the staging. To round out the piece, he also interviewed regular people about their eye injuries and quizzed them on whether or not they would try the same things as Gray. These interviews break up the monologue here and there, but are never intrusive. In fact, none of Soderbergh’s set-ups are too showy or complicated; he knows better than to draw attention from the man himself. Gray’s Anatomy succeeds or fails on Spalding Gray’s charisma and rapport with the viewer.

The version Gray presents of himself is interesting. While the central theme of Gray’s Anatomy is fear--fear of not just the potential disaster of medical error, but fear of making a decision. Yet, for all his trepidations, the Gray at the center of these stories is also a man open to experience, who is willing to try things less for the hope of their curing his vision, but because he’s never done them before. Hence the seemingly unconnected anecdote of the time he cleaned the yard behind a synagogue. He’s telling us that he is a man that will do things despite not knowing the outcome. For all his anxiety, he is actually quite daring. I mean, consider that public speaking is one of the most common fears of average people, and yet this guy gets up before an audience and shares his life as a career. You can’t dispute his courage.

One thing that surprised me about Gray’s Anatomy is that it doesn’t finish with any great revelation or profound statement about life. Gray doesn’t appear to think he has any big answers to share; rather, it’s the simplicity of his efforts that make them relatable, and the journey he describes is no less fascinating for not concluding with an epiphany. Quite the opposite, Gray’s Anatomy would have probably fallen flat had Spalding Gray (along with co-writer Renée Shafransky) decided he was illuminating us to some new wisdom. It’s too intimate for that, the confidence he is placing in us is not just trusting us to know his secrets, but to know what to do with them, as well.

And Soderbergh, whose eye for detail is equal to Gray’s, knows yet again not to get in the way, and instead just plays it as it lays.

More reviews of Steven Soderbergh movies, of the non-Criterion variety:

Saturday, January 13, 2018


Back in my earlier days as a reviewer, when I was more ambitious, if I had reviewed a movie in its theatrical release, I would re-watch it and write a new piece if I later was assigned the DVD. At times, it was interesting, because I might find different things on each viewing. For instance, Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding: my first take was in some ways contradicted by my second take.

Below are my two reviews of Joel and Ethan Coen's 2007 Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men--recently added to the Criterion Channel--written for DVDTalk about four months apart. 


There is a dread that lingers long after No Country for Old Men has gone through its closing credits. Long after Tommy Lee Jones speaks his final lines, long after you've realized that this movie is not about what you thought it was, but about something else entirely. That dread is what another character, the El Paso sheriff that shares a meal and some wisdom with Jones, calls "the tide." It's not one thing that changes the world for the bad, he says, but the whole tide of things that will overwhelm you.

No Country for Old Men is adapted from the 2005 novel by Cormac McCarthy. It has been brought to the screen by the Coen Brothers, and despite the fact that they worked with their long-time cinematographer Roger Deakins, it doesn't really look like a Coen Bros. movie. It doesn't feel like one either, it doesn't move like one. In fact, had you played me this movie cold and told me nothing about who was involved, I wouldn't have guessed in a million years. I'm a big fan, too. I even liked The Ladykillers, which most people rip on pretty freely. It's been three years since that movie was released, and No Country for Old Men suggests that the famous filmmaking duo thought long and hard about how they would return to the Cineplex after that failure. For two guys whose early reputation grew fat on stylistic innovation, this quiet reinvention of what they are about is no less than astounding. Gone are the visual tricks and the hyperactive cameras, and in their place is something mannered, complex, and foreboding.

The plot of No Country for Old Men revolves around a satchel of money. While out in the Texas desert hunting, straight-laced welder Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) happens upon the remnants of a drug deal gone bad. He finds the $2 million in cash that was intended to be the buy money and makes a rash decision to take it home, leaving the lone survivor of the bloodbath to die on his own. Feeling guilty, he returns to the scene in the middle of the night, only to be spotted by bad guys who want their money back. Barely escaping alive, Llewellyn sends his wife (Kelly Macdonald) off to her mother's and goes on the run.

Too bad for him his pursuer is a one-stop death machine. Anton Chigurh, played with a seething menace by Javier Bardem, started his killing spree before he even got to the mess in the desert, so Llewellyn is just going to be another notch in his belt. The simple act of filling up his stolen car with gas is like an existential exercise in flexing his muscles. There is nothing Anton does that won't end in someone bleeding out on the floor.

Add to the mix Tommy Lee Jones as the local sheriff and you have the three main ingredients in this Texmex recipe. Though no one would blame you for thinking Jones is once again playing the same role he's been playing for the last ten years, it's been a long time since he's been this good. His take on Sheriff Bell could have been just another run-through of the actor's good humored cynicism and cornfed homilies, but Jones rightly sensed that he was the true emotional center of No Country for Old Men, the spiritual avatar of its deeper themes; as a result, he sheds the skin of easy comfort that he's worn through most of his recent films and lets his soul back out. Just as the Coen Bros. appear to be blazing new trails for themselves, dropping their old tricks for serious storytelling, so Jones seems to have wearied of his homespun image and has decided to put that weariness on film.

Essentially, No Country for Old Men is a four-pronged chase picture. Bardem is on the trail of Brolin, the money men and dealers team up to chase them both, and Jones is chasing all three. When they do catch up with one another at different times in the picture, the results are unexpected and harrowing. Yet, each twist of the plot strides in on a very comfortable gait. The Coens don't rush it when it doesn't need to be rushed, and they never inject a scene with an inflated sense of peril. There is time enough to get where they are all going.

Or so it would seem. The ironic thing about the pacing of No Country for Old Men is that ultimately, despite the lack of panic, time is running out. It's a eulogy for a particular way of life, a lament for dying values. Anton Chigurh, with a name that sounds like the sweetest confection, is a force of nature that has come seemingly out of nowhere, and he represents the future less than he represents the divide. He twice lets his victims gamble on their life, the call of a flipped coin determining if they win or die. The old sheriff is heads, a thinker who follows a code and predetermined ideas, whereas Llewellyn Moss is tails, running on instinct, making choices that his counterpart would never make.

Even with all the dead bodies that litter the road these men travel, the most devastating part of No Country for Old Men has nothing to do with blood, guns, or any of that stuff. Those are not the things that linger. Hell, most of the more surprising bends in that road (and there are several near the end) eschew those elements altogether. The true brutality is the passage of time, in our awareness of it, and in the inevitability of the countdown. Like Chigurh, it can't be stopped. Not by pure stubborn action, not even by the capriciousness of chance. Perhaps it's better to be like Llewellyn and try to remain ignorant of what lies ahead, because when it's all down to the wire, there is no comfort in acceptance.

DVD RELEASE, 3/11/2008

My take on this year's Academy Awards was that it was a tough year to get it wrong. Except for a few glaring exceptions (*cough* Atonement *cough*), the major categories were packed full with amazing talent. This embarrassment of riches meant no film scored a clean sweep, though the Coen Bros. masterful rumination on time and tide, No Country for Old Men, came close.

It's an interesting film to ponder, because it seems to me that its fan club is populated with just as many people who misunderstand the film in the same way its detractors misunderstand it. I realize that interpretation of any art form is subjective, and I definitely subscribe to the theory that any explication is valid as long as it can be backed up, so I am not saying that these people are wrong. Even so, let me tell you why they are.

Most complaints hinge on the now infamous climax interruptus and the following tumbledown denouements. In short, some viewers have been upset by what was not shown, the point in the movie that conventional wisdom and Robert McKee would likely suggest is the proper ending. In truth, if this action had been shown on screen, it would have been the only conventional element in an otherwise unconventional picture. If No Country for Old Men was the kind of western/crime picture it is regularly painted to be, I would think the dissenters were on the side of the angels; however, the contrary is true, and the movie, like the best rock 'n' roll, is running with the devil.

Adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men is less a tough-guy genre story and more of a lament for the same. McCarthy and the Coens have come to bury Clint Eastwood, not to praise him (much less save him). (And, for the record, the absent scenes are also absent in the book.) It's not about the crimes or the getaways, it's about what these events represent.

As a good indicator of where some of the well-meaning attention No Country has garnered has taken a wrong turn is the overwhelming amount of ink devoted to Javier Bardem's performance as Anton Chigurh. Don't get me wrong, every ounce of praise heaped in Bardem's direction is deserved. His portrayal of the amoral Chigurh is one of the most carefully wrought and fiercely scary portrayals of a bad guy ever put on celluloid. Yet, there is a reason Bardem won for Best Supporting Actor and not as the lead. To consider Chigurh the lead is like giving the Death Star top billing in Star Wars. Chigurh is a force of the times, a catalyst for change, the unerring and unbending agent of fate who forces the hands of the men who run from him and the ones who pursue him. We've all seen that coin toss scene a million times now, and it's an important moment in the movie. Win or lose, you have to play, and if you don't know that, get out of the way, you're already done.

Though No Country for Old Men is an ensemble piece, if I had to pick a lead, I'd say it's the Tommy Lee Jones character, Sheriff Bell. He's the old man that the country has abandoned. He represents past values, the guy who got things done a certain way and had certain unassailable beliefs that he never thought would be rocked. Chigurh is the powerhouse that is pounding at the Sheriff's foundations, while Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is the modern man caught in between. He doesn't have the history of Bell to rely on, nor has he fully sussed out what the new system of values will be in Chigurh's future. He's running from Chigurh's deathly vengeance while Bell is trying to embrace him, to keep him safe. Neither position is Moss' place, and thus he must keep moving. The alternative is stagnation and death.

The beauty of McCarthy's metaphor is that it comes dressed in familiar armor, and thus the film adaptation shows up in the trappings of genre. One can easily enjoy the movie in that sense, but if you aren't watching for the way the Coens are dismantling genre, removing each piece of armor one by one, then you are likely going to find some disappointment when your expectations are subverted.
Funnily enough, all of the characters in the movie are going to learn essentially the same thing about expectations. Their belief in the order of the universe holds little weight, as the universe is wont to spin at its own accord. Even Chigurh, who attempts to destroy order by imposing his own concoction of chaos, is forced to learn what real randomness is. Moss' wife (Kelly MacDonald) is the only one willing to call him on it. His coin, as she explains, has no say in his actions, it's really just him, he will act as he will. His last scene in the movie is when one of the few truly random acts occurs, the one thing he doesn't make happen.

So, what then does a man do when the universe fails him? Keep soldiering on, it seems. Sheriff Bell finds no satisfaction in surrender, and the dreams he shares with his wife, of the inconsequential material world being lost and the hope for some light in the darkness, are suggestive of the only absolutes he can be sure about.

Saturday, January 6, 2018


I pulled My Beautiful Laundrette off the shelf for two reasons. One, it’s directed by Stephen Frears, and it would make a nice companion to my reposting of my review of his 2009 effort Chéri. Second, I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread last week, and Daniel Day-Lewis’ intense performance was so quietly astonishing, it made me want to look back and see what he was like as a younger man. This is my first time viewing the 1985 film, despite being aware of its reputation and also having been a fan of other work by both the director and his performer.

It was a misguided adventure.

Honestly, I’m not sure why My Beautiful Laundrette was so critically lauded back in the day. My guess is the progressive subject matter being unlike anything else in the cinema at the time, and also because even in this small indie, Daniel Day-Lewis still stands out.

But I’m ahead of myself...

My Beautiful Laundrette is a British drama set in a poor London neighborhood where a family of Pakistani immigrants have set up several small businesses. One of the younger family members, Omar (Gordon Warnecke), is trying to get out of the house so he can escape a father (Roshan Seth, Gandhi) paralyzed by grief. To do this, he enlists the help of an uncle (Saeed Jaffrey, Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures) who is willing to give him a job. After Omar proves his worth, the uncle gives him a rundown laundry to run.

Being back in the ’hood, Omar runs into Johnny (Day-Lewis), a friend from high school who now runs with a tough crowd. Omar enlists Johnny to help him out, hatching a plan to skim drugs from Omar’s gangster uncle (Derrick Branche) and use the profits to fix up the laundromat. In the midst of these shenanigans, Omar and Johnny also give oxygen to a long smoldering physical romance between them--a relationship Johnny has to hide from his thuggish friends and Omar has to conceal from his family, who want to arrange a union with a nice girl.

There is interesting stuff here, but screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (Buddha of Suburbia) mostly dances around it. Part of the narrative is that both boys are in denial about certain things, and so it takes a while to learn that they stopped hanging out in their younger days because Johnny became a skinhead--a great character detail--but rather than that revelation leading to an outpouring of emotion or delving into what that meant then and what it means now, why the boy changed, it’s mostly glossed over. Likewise, the full implications of their relationship is never really explored, Kureishi and Frears resorting to the old cliché of an interruption of violence bringing the two together.

Perhaps more disconcerting than the thin writing, however, is Frears trying to disguise amateurish filmmaking and adolescent impulses as quirky style. From the broad character comedy to the cartoonish music and sound effects, the filmmaker tries to imbue My Beautiful Laundrette with an off-center sensibility, but it never quite works. Stage this same story as a grimy kitchen sink drama, shot on the same locations with the same shoestring budget, and you may have a rather challenging story of sexuality and race. Instead, My Beautiful Laundrette is a goofy culture clash send-up without much genuine wit.

This isn’t helped by the mostly inexperiencde cast. They are all game, but few have the actual chops. Seth and Jaffrey are both confident older performers, but they appear to be in different movies--one is working for Merchant Ivory, the other auditioning for a sitcom. And then there’s Daniel Day-Lewis. His unwavering commitment to character, not to mention his shock of bleach-blonde hair, causes him to stand out in every scene. He’s on a whole other plane than his castmates. It’s as if he is the one adult at a children’s birthday party, and he’s too busy thinking about death to clown around with the kiddies.

Again, I assume My Beautiful Laundrette felt bold and fresh when it was released, a sideways critique of Thatcher’s England that was frank about immigrant issues and homosexuality, but the intervening decades have not been kind. What was once sincere now seems naïve, and what had been deep insight just appears shallow.

Friday, January 5, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2009. 

Chéri opens with a jocular recounting of the history of courtesans, using a slick presentation to detail some of the more famous kept women of history complete with vintage photographs and Toulouse Lautrec artwork. It's a fun sequence, lively and full of cheeky humor. Director Stephen Frears supplies his own voiceover, and he sets the stage for the last lady of the evening on the list, Lea de Lonval, as played by Michelle Pfeiifer. It's an entertaining beginning, and it announces a movie that I would really like to see; unfortunately, the movie it announces is not the one that follows.

The basic story of Chéri is that Lea is a high-priced prostitute who is getting on in years, and having just lost her latest long-term client, is finding her prospects have changed. Having earned many a big ticket over the course of her career and, as we learn, invested wisely, she is nowhere near destitute, but the game is changing. Rather than going out and finding a new sugar daddy, she adopts 19-year-old Chéri (Rupert Friend, The Young Victoria [review]), the son of Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates, Titanic [review]), another old whore. Already bored of debauchery, and bereft of an inner life to the point of being soulless, Chéri slips easily into the role of a boy toy kept by a beautiful older lover who takes care of his every need.

Jump ahead six years, however, and Momma Peloux has decided that she wants the one thing Lea can't give her: grandchildren. She has arranged Chéri's marriage to another of their colleagues' daughters (Felicity Jones, Like Crazy [review]; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). Understanding that this is the way the cookie crumbles, Lea accepts her bitter fate with a stoic resolution, but in private, her heart is breaking. While Chéri and his bride are honeymooning in Italy, she disappears to a private resort to chase muscle-bound youngsters. It's quite possible that her move is intentional, that she knows by taking the treat away from her young pup, he will go looking for it, but if such is her motivation, it's never spoken. Were Lea's plans and schemes made more obvious, or if we even knew more about her anxieties, Chéri would be a much more interesting film; instead, the tug of war with Lea and Chéri's heartstrings ends up just being surface and predictable.

The lack of clear plotting is surprising, given that Chéri reteams writer Christopher Hampton with director Stephen Frears. The pair covered similar romantic ground a couple decades ago with the delicious and wicked Dangerous Liasons. The secret motivation of lovers should be their stock in trade. Likewise, one might expect something sensuous and sexy from them, particularly when adapting a writer like Colette, an author known for the steam heating the spaces between the lines in her stories. For all the swallowed tears and ailing hearts in Chéri, the movie is cold and dispassionate, and for all the talk of sexual affairs, there's not much lovemaking on the screen.

I was actually surprised to see that Chéri was not based on one, but two novels by Colette, because there didn't seem to be all that much story there. I asked a friend who I know has a fairly substantial knowledge of the author, and she said that the books weren't really plot oriented, that mood and internal conflict is more important than story points. This makes it all the more shocking, then, that Hampton and Frears were so reluctant to delve deeper into what was going on under the surface, to get at the heavy feelings behind the steely expressions. Michelle Pfeiffer would surely have been capable of handling more nuanced material. You can see her trying to add to her scenes, to communicate what the dialogue does not through her face and her startling blue eyes. It's a performance absent of vanity, with the actress unleashing outbursts of emotion that are almost embarrassing in how clumsily true they are.

By the time of the big emotional climax of Chéri, I should have been all fired up, but I was just sleepy. For such a short film, it started to feel like it was going on forever, and for as long as it felt, it's all the more annoying that Chéri turns out to be a film that's hardly about anything at all. Is it just that they were scared to sell us all of the fire and passion of a May/December romance? If so, that's just ironic and sad. Squandered potential, really. Like the returning voiceover informs us at the end, the biggest tragedy of Lea and Chéri is that had circumstances been different, they could have had so much more. So, too, could this film.