Saturday, June 30, 2018


Is simplicity best

Or simply the easiest?

The narrowest path

Is always the holiest

So walk on barefoot for me

Suffer some misery

If you want my love
                 - Martin L. Gore, “Judas

It’s kind of nuts how well that opening verse from Depeche Mode’s 1993 album track “Judas” so fits what is going on with director Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past) and producer Val Lewton’s 1942 black-and-white horror film Cat People. It’s not just thematically accurate, but it’s also descriptive of the aesthetic technique. Cat People is about as unfussy a film as there has ever been. It’s the perfect example of how a filmmaker can effectively stoke the audience imagination by showing less, rather than more.

But it all starts with a script, and DeWitt Bodeen’s screenplay is itself spare. There isn’t much plot here. A young man meets a young woman at the zoo, and a romance is ignited. Oliver (Kent Smith) is intrigued by the pretty lass who is sketching cats outside the panther cage. Played by French movie star Simone Simon (La bête humaine [review], La ronde [review]), Irena is a strange girl, a Serbian immigrant who clings to folklore from the old country. Specifically, that once upon a time her people were vanquished by a righteous King, and those who escaped his wrath scattered across the world, their wickedness taking feline form. Even after they are married, Irena keeps Oliver at arm’s length, believing should they so much as kiss, she will transform into a leopard and tear her husband apart.

At first Oliver indulges these fantasies, but once he starts to worry she is taking these fables too seriously, he connects Irena with Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), who doesn’t believe these supernatural tales, but may not be on the up-and-up, either. And adding to this love quadrangle is Oliver’s co-worker Alice (Jane Randolph), that annoying sort of do-gooder who tamps down her own desires to make sure that the man she wants does what is right. Too bad she didn’t figure for the complicated, sociopathic emotional range of a jealous kitten.

Much of Cat People smolders slowly. In the early stages of their union, Irena’s wild stories don’t carry much threat. That’s because Tourneur withholds anything that would concretely suggest her claims are more than delusion. He ties the revelations of Irena’s truth to her jealousy. The more heated she gets about Alice, the closer we get to seeing her claws come out. In many ways, this little monster movie is a modern stalker story, the good guy unable to shake the troubled woman, and she strikes out at the one who would replace her.

Yet, that in itself is maybe too simple a reading. For as little as goes on above the surface, plenty can be gleaned from what lies underneath. Bubbling through all of this is a commentary on puritanical values, and particularly how they affect young women. Irena’s fear of her own sexuality is only warranted if her beliefs turn out to be true, but she has good reason to be scared of the masculine sex, and her fighting back against Dr. Judd is inarguably a justified defense. Here is a man in a position of trust who betrays the social contract. In the #metoo era, many might also gravitate to the fact that Irena is not believed, and that prevents her from finding a less deadly solution or obtaining real help. Wrapped up in all this, we can see a certain xenophobia, as well: Irena is different, and perhaps if she had embraced a more modern American lifestyle and been more like Alice, she’d be more comfortable in her own skin. Which is somewhat contrary to the beliefs of the time, but Hollywood was always progressive in its morals.

Good horror should be malleable in this way and stay relevant to contemporary issues, but I suspect Tourneur and Lewton were less high-minded than all that. Their primary focus was more likely just to scare filmgoers, and they seized upon relatable primal urges to create a vehicle for that. Most of the frights here are more unnerving than terrifying--though there is one pretty good jump scare, where the orchestra provides a screechy sound effect when the bus pulls in to pick up a nervous Alice*--but that’s okay. Tourneur is experimenting with the horror of the things that exist just beyond the reach of our senses--the things we can’t see, but think we do; the things we aren’t sure we hear. One of the most effective scenes is when Judd gets his comeuppance. Irena’s transformation happens entirely off-screen, but the doctor’s reaction tells us all we need to know--even if once again we only think we know what he is seeing. The tussle itself appears merely as shadows cast on walls, including one with a mural of a menacing panther (lest we forget, Irena is a cat!). We hear more than we see. Same with the earlier scene when Alice is at the pool. The echoes of her screams are more chilling than anything that might jump into the water with her.

It’s underkill, not overkill. It’s simplicity. Compare how light on its feet this Cat People is to Paul Schrader’s overdone, moronic 1980s remake for a quick object lesson in why less is more.

Or skip Schrader altogether and go with something more akin to a middle ground: the 1944 “sequel” The Curse of the Cat People, recently re-released on Blu-ray by Kino. In terms of follow-ups, Curse is in the vein of The Bride of Frankenstein for how it expands on the original and becomes its own weird thing. We can chalk some of that up to the movie originally being intended as a stand-alone feature with no connection to Cat People at all. It only morphed into a second entry in a series when Cat People became so successful.

Pretty much everyone except Tourneur returns for The Curse of the Cat People. Gunther V. Fritsch originally took charge of the director’s chair but himself was replaced by Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, West Side Story). The new story features Jane and Oliver as the concerned parents of a young daughter, Amy (Ann Carter), who lives more in her imagination than she does in the real world. There is further cause for worry when Amy befriends the disturbed neighborhood dowager (Julia Dean) and starts talking to an imaginary friend that just so happens to be Irena.

The “cat” aspect of Cat People is completely dropped for this realm of gothic childhood fantasy, but that doesn’t make The Curse of the Cat People any less compelling. The dilemma of a child who is at odds with the world around her being put into peril by both her fantastical indulgences and the adults who won’t believe her has an inherent tension that will keep you guessing what will happen, while also hoping it won’t all go wrong. Fritsch and Gunther have a more up-front style--does Elizabeth Russell chasing Amy up the staircase remind anyone else of Kathleen Byron coming unhinged in Black Narcissus [review]?--but that works here. This time, what is “unseen” is actually witnessed by the little girl, casting the doubters in a whole different light.

Criterion’s edition of Cat People features a great cover and interior poster by influential comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz. Fans of the TV show Legion tangentially know his work as he originally created the character with Chris Claremont. And their legendary run on the New Mutants comic series is an inspiration for the movie that should be out sometime in the next year or so. Sienkiewicz’s work changed how artists approached a comic book page, combining painting and digital in fascinating ways. Look for his Elektra: Assassin graphic novel with Frank Miller, his own Stay Toasters, or if you can find it, his Classics Illustrated version of Moby Dick.

* This effect of a scare coming from the arrival of an otherwise mundane object is known as a “Lewton bus,” and perhaps the most perfect use of it was in the episode of The Simpsons where the Psycho theme is being played by an orchestra riding public transport.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


This review was originally part of a larger piece covering the Natalie Wood Signature Collection and published in 2009.

Trading heavily on Natalie Wood's screen persona, the self-reflexive, strange, and oft-times surreal Inside Daisy Clover, is a fictional tale about a child star in the 1930s. Wood plays Daisy, a 15-year-old tomboy who lives with her senile old mother (Ruth Gordon) on the beach, selling forged autographed pictures of movie stars to passersby. Daisy is an angry, expressive young lass, prone to cigarettes, graffiti, shouts instead of whispers, and reacting to situations with her fists. She also dreams of being a singer, and she cuts a record at a fairground booth and sends it in to Swan Studios for their talent contest, thus changing her life.

Daisy is shuttled off to the movie lot in a limousine. Her mother believes it to be a hearse and warns her of accepting rides from strangers, but Daisy does not listen. She is looked over by studio head Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer) and his wife (Katharine Bard) and given a screen test, a musical number about stardom and ambition (and the one time in the movie that Natalie Wood sings herself). Its lyrics foreshadow Daisy's oncoming success; in fact, both of the musical numbers in the movie, "You're Gonna Hear From Me" and "Circus is a Whacky World," both written by Andre and Dory Previn, work as funhouse mirrors, meta devices that break down the movie. By the time Daisy sings "Circus," she is a disillusioned star, the magic of Hollywood having been exposed to be as fraudulent as the forged photos she used to sell. Separated from her mother, married to a philandering leading man (Robert Redford) with a dirty secret, and generally turned into a cog in the machine, Daisy has been hoodwinked.

Inside Daisy Clover was made by the director/producer team of Robert Mulligan and Alan J. Pakula, who also made To Kill a Mockingbird and another Natalie Wood vehicle, Love with the Proper Stranger. As inside-Hollywood movies go, it's as savage as one might expect, the entertainment business loves to hoist itself on its own petard. In some ways, the mysterious tone of much of the back-lot action reminds me of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Last Tycoon, though unlike that book or the Elia Kazan adaptation from the 1970s, or really any of the more famous moviemaking movies, Inside Daisy Clover lacks any sense of awe or wonderment in regards to how films are put together. Normally, the on-set re-creations are given a tantalizing surreality, life reimagined as giant spectacle. In this movie, Swan Studios--which is actually the Warners lot--is a dark and empty place. There are no huge crowds, and the few stage pieces we see are lonely and almost appear to be on their way to the junk heap, like the bizarre totem we see on a crane when Daisy first arrives. In this portrait of Hollywood, put together by writer Gavin Lambert (adapting his own novel), the heavy fugue of moviemaking is in inverse proportion to the joy the movies bring the world.

Wood spends as much time with reactions as she does action in this movie, if not more. As the center of attention, she sometimes draws more by standing back and observing. She's very good at it, her doe-eyes soaking up what everyone else is doing. They are relying on her even as they demand that she rely on them. It's an important distinction, as well, because as soon as Daisy is accepted by Swan, she stops acting on her own and starts doing what she is told--even Redford's character orders her around. In the final moments, Daisy is taking back her action. She's through taking orders.

Despite the promise and the larger issues at work here, Inside Daisy Clover doesn't entirely gel. Pakula and Mulligan are maybe trying a little too hard to be anti-everything, to be too unconventional, and the forced oddness creates a gulf between the film and its audience that is never fully traversed. Even so, it is a singular enough effort to warrant a look.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

OTHELLO - #870

Anton Corbijn made a music video for Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” back in 1988 that, whether he intended it or not, is reminsicent of the opening scenes from Orson Welles’ masterful 1950s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello. Which is an odd way to enter into an old, whispery black-and-white film, thoughts of one of Ian Curtis’ most doomy and gloomy songs hanging out in the back of my brain, but such it is. Welles was goth before goth. The sequence is a flash-forward to a funeral, all pomp and dark circumstance. The slanted angles are ominous, and they let you know this is not right, this should not be happening. The quick zoom on Iago in his cage is urgent, furious, frustrated--you know immediately that he’s the villain. He did this. It’s a crazy smart way to set up a story that the filmmaker can presume everyone knows. Because now you’re intrigued. You want to know who is dead and how that evil dude got stuck in that jail.

This Othello may be the least stagey film adaptation of Shakespeare ever made. Infamous in Welles lore for being shot over three years, with Welles pausing production to rush off and take bit parts in other movies to raise cash, and then returning to Italy to resume his work. Just look at those scenes once the story proper begins. The camera moves up and over the different levels of Venice, from the canals to the windows on the upper floors, then down spiral stairs chasing an angry mob carrying torches. It’s all inertia, all movement, and at the same time, there are indications of class represented via each player’s position in the construct. Later, there are spectacular fights and chases below ground. The violence in this movie is invigorated with the chaos of its production. So much so, in fact, that sometimes, ingeniously, the dizzying pursuits hide how the disparate pieces, shot months and even years apart, are stitched together. Welles never loses the plot--neither figuratively nor literally.

The balance of setting and the use of exterior vs. interior is also a reflection of the physical and the internal. Like in Roman Polanski’s Macbeth [review], the players are tiny in comparison to the architecture (though, I guess it should be that Polanski is like Welles). And to be fair, it’s petty concerns that set the tragedy of Othello in motion. For those who don’t know the story, Othello--played by Welles himself--is a general in the Venetian army. He is also a Moor--a term for Muslims living in the area in the middle ages--a fact that sets him apart from his comrades. When Othello elopes with Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), a politician’s daughter, eyebrows are raised. Othello’s lieutenant, the silver-tongued Iago (Micheál MacLiammóir), sees the opportunity for advancement and takes advantage of Othello’s position as an outsider, convincing him that Desdemona is cheating on him and setting everyone on a path of destruction.

Up until Welles made this film, the tradition was for white actors in the Othello role to wear blackface, a tradition Welles upholds--albeit not to the exaggerated fashion we tend to think of when we hear the term. The irony here is that despite such a regressive decision, Welles embraces the progressive subtext in the play. There is a fascinating racial commentary at work, particularly in how Othello and Desdemona defend their marriage to her father. And already, there is a suggestion that a black man must be even better than his white counterparts.

When we consider the dynamic between Othello and Desdemona, and the violent outcome of his suspicion, Shakespeare was ahead of his time in giving us a perfect portrait of toxic masculinity. Othello’s jealousy is fueled by pride. In his performance, Welles is deceptively two-note: repression of rage and rage. Yet, there is more to his control here; again, he is the black man who has to be better, who has to always show composure, even when the façade means he can’t have a reasonable discussion and ferret out the truth. As his foil, Iago is so matter-of-fact, eschewing the obvious mustache twirling and greasy machinations, pulling off his tricks by merely being present. There is a Zen koan about how water is the most powerful force in the known world because of how it gradually erodes rock; this is MacLiammóir’s Iago. His is not as sinister a performance as tends to be the norm with this, one of Shakespeare’s oiliest villains. MacLiammóir is more considered, passive-aggressive, almost as if he doesn’t care. There’s a hint of a sociopath in the portrayal, so little moves him.

While I am dazzled by the filmmaking overall, one downside of knowing Welles history and struggle is I am often too aware of his technique. My eyes drift from an actor to the artfully placed shadow on the wall, for instance, or to clock the depth of field, how close one element is and how far the other, seeing how expertly the shot was constructed. And, of course, there’s how many times you note that the dubbed voice of some bit player is Welles himself, making up for perceived bad performances or just poor sound due to shooting on the fly.  I suppose this isn’t really that tough a problem to have. There’s so much virtuosity in Welles’ mis-en-scene, one should never become immune to it. Just look at the construction and the edits when Othello returns home after first being incepted by Iago. The quick cuts and askew angles pull the whole thing together with such emotional kineticism, it’s like watching Eddie Van Halen play classical music on his guitar; you can’t help but notice that human hands should not be able to create art in that way.

In that scene, and throughout the film, Welles’ montage is about scale vs. intimacy. When Othello and Desdemona go to their marriage bed, they are rendered as just shadows on the wall, but their shadows are huge. We are at once with them and outside, but the marriage consummation casts a pall over everything else. Interestingly Iago is more intimate with Othello than even his wife. The framing gets tighter the deeper we get into his machinations. When Othello and Iago make their sinister pact, the close-ups are so tight, their conversation can’t even share a frame, they are too large within their individual screens. Then the next deal is made in a sauna, arguably a place where all are vulnerable, and where trust is meant to be at the utmost. I mean, where else do you go and get naked and perfectly relaxed around total strangers? (Answers neither requested nor required.)

It’s of no small significance that it’s in the sauna where Iago actually resorts to murder himself. Welles lights his eyes almost as if to give him a supervillain mask...or to suggest he’s enlightened? I mean, Iago has a curly white dog years ahead of James Bond villains popularizing cats, and decades ahead of Paris Hilton and other modern social scoundrels carrying around their pooches in purses. It also feels like 1950s shorthand for homosexuality, which could suggest much about Iago’s true motivations were we to take that onboard. His own love of Othello is even more forbidden than Othello’s love for Desdemona.

The most intimate moment in Welles’ Othello, however, is also the most  harrowing: the murder of Desdemona. The sheet Othello wraps over her face inadvertently highlights her whiteness, an intentional emphasis on her innocence, but also a horrific reminder of how black men are portrayed in the media. The last kiss between them, passed through the death shroud, appears more to suck out her final breath than connect her with her homicidal husband. It’s legitimately uncomfortable to watch. Immediately after, Othello imprisons himself, locking the door to their chambers, speaking to the crowd through bars--Welles visually shows his guilt before the character is ready to admit it. Or to modern eyes, we can divine that he knows this is the fate society has always imagined for him...

...and if there’s one thing Shakespeare’s tragic figures can’t escape, it’s fate.

MACBETH (1971) - #726

Blunt not the heart, enrage it!

If any line from Shakespeare’s Scottish play resonated with Roman Polanski when making Macbeth, the first film he directed following the murder of his wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Manson Family, it surely was this. Because if there is anything the director brings to the oft-told tale, it’s more passion, more violence, and definitely more blood. No dull emotions here, only fire.

It feels almost silly to review Shakespeare adaptations and haggle over the plot. The stories themselves are so well-known, we are better off looking at the choices the filmmakers settle on, the aesthetic they establish: the audacious modernism of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet [review], the remodeling of Richard III as a World War II cautionary tale by Sir Ian McKellen [review], or the outlandish whatever-it-is of Julie Taymor’s Titus [review] all spring to mind as films that dared to change the shape of the source material in ways we’d never seen. In my review of Orson Welles’ 1948 staging of Macbeth, I focused on his use of cheap sets from a cowboy picture to create a surreal horror film and a more impressionistic, pointed examination of the play.

By contrast, Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth is far more grounded. Realistic locations, sparsely decorated, provide the dirt and the grime of the actual times and marries them to 1970s filmmaking. Like Welles, Polanski also leans into the spookiness of the piece, complete with a supernatural dagger and a trippy hallucination that, once decoded, ultimately hoists Macbeth on his own hubris. These elaborate visual flourishes really stand out, given more impact by the director’s restraint most everywhere else. Likewise, the gore. When violence does erupt and blood flows, it can be shocking. Yet, being a student of horror, Polanski also knows when an off-screen atrocity can be more effective. This Macbeth’s most unsettling scene is the murder of Macduff’s family. Polanski isolates us with the mother and her favorite son while they listen to the terrified screams of those being slaughtered throughout the castle.

Jon Finch, whom that same year would feature in Sunday Bloody Sunday and Hitchcock’s Frenzy, plays Macbeth. He at first appears younger than expected, his long hair and chiseled features making him appear more like a Shakespearean pin-up than a grizzled warrior. He is a brooding, romantic figure at this stage, showing flashes of ambition, but mostly indecisive. The change that comes after his murdering King Duncan (Nicolas Selby) is most pronounced. Polanski chooses to show the actual regicide here, so we can see that when Macbeth does finally make up his mind, it’s in the spur of the moment. His transformative action is not a decisive one. Even so, when we do see him wearing the crown, he is a changed man. His clothes are brighter, his grooming more considered, and even his posture is improved. It’s like a 1960s heartthrob reverting to a classic Hollywood leading man. Finch gives the elevated Macbeth more swagger, more confidence. He does, after all, believe himself to be charmed, the words of the three witches who prophesized these events giving him the false hope that all tragedies thrive on.

The aftermath of Duncan’s murder is another great moment of Polanski’s. He uses the emptiness of the castle and the quiet of night to amplify the paranoia of the Macbeths. With everyone else asleep, every stray noise, every cry of a distant owl, resonates with an undeniable volume. As Lady Macbeth, Francesca Annis (who was also Lady Jessica in David Lynch’s Dune) matches Finch’s own uncertainty to start with a single-minded drive, only to switch with him later on when she descends into madness. The framing regularly places them in the foreground, but centered and low, so that the massive stone castle that surrounds them just goes to show us how tiny this royal pair really is.

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth is real achievement. It manages to present Shakespeare’s drama as contemporary and vital without sacrificing any of the source. It’s as faithful as you’re likely to get, and yet very much it’s own thing, which is why it still remains as engrossing and disturbing even now.

Saturday, June 23, 2018


This review was originally part of a larger piece covering the Natalie Wood Signature Collection and published in 2009.

I liked this movie better the first time I saw it back in 2004, when it was called Down With Love. I know, I know, Sex and the Single Girl was made nearly three decades before Down With Love, but it's almost like Peyton Reed saw this flick and thought, "Good idea, but done badly. I'm going to do it right!"

Natalie Wood stars as Helen Gurley Brown. Yes, the former editor of Cosmopolitan once wrote a book using herself as an example of how the unattached 1960s woman could live a full and scandalous life. If her book Sex and the Single Girl hadn't also inspired Candace Bushnell and Sex and the City, this 1964 film adaptation would be the worst thing to come out of her publishing success. As Maxwell Smart would say, "Missed it by that much."

Sex and the Single Girl is a tedious black hole that sucks all comedy into its gaping maw and leaves only a forced, feverish mess in its stead. Not even the fine cast of Natalie Wood, Tony Curtis, Lauren Bacall, and Henry Fonda could escape its suck. Hell, so far reaching was its gravitational pull, even non-Hollywood types like Count Basie and Catch-22-scribe Joseph Heller managed get caught in the vacuum--one appearing in the film, the other actually contributing to the tepid script.

In the film, Helen Brown is a doctor specializing in women's issues who has been sandbagged by Stop magazine. The cover story on her calls her sexual qualifications into question, and to prove once and for all that the sexpert is a virgin, the rag's editor, Bob Weston (Curtis), concocts an elaborate scheme to get Helen into the sack. Pretending to be his neighbor, panty-hose salesman Frank (Fonda), he unloads marital problems on Helen to try to take advantage of her puny female brain and seduce her. Forget her doctorate, she's still a lady underneath that diploma! Innuendo and mistaken identities and even a protracted car chase ensue; unfortunately, hilarity does not.

Sex and the Single Girl was directed by Richard Quine, the man responsible for the only bad movie Audrey Hepburn made in the first phase of her career, Paris When It Sizzles. That movie was a lumpen comedic deformity, and Sex and the Single Girl wades through much of the same swampy territory, right down to that car chase. The cast tries really hard, but they just can't get out from under the burden of Quine and the mishmash script. The sexy stuff isn't sexy (excepting just about everything that Fran Jeffries does in the movie; she is apparently impervious to black holes), and by today's standards, no longer scandalous; the romance is barely lukewarm; there is even a half-hearted attempt at satire regarding modern conveniences that never quite jibes with the rest of the movie. But then, why should it? No one wants to be the one guy who shows up at the nudist colony wearing a suit. What a waste of effort that would be!

Friday, June 22, 2018


This review was originally part of a larger piece covering the Natalie Wood Signature Collection and published in 2009.

Though billed as a romantic comedy from the writer of Executive Suite [review], one should not confuse this lightweight laugher from 1959 with Cameron Hawley's fast moving drama. Of course, that earlier effort was adapted to the screen by Ernest Lehman and Robert Wise, and Cash McCall only gets Joseph Pevney, director of Tammy and the Bachelor, and two writers with varied resumes (Lenore Coffee wrote The End of the Affair, among others, while Marion Hargrove was mainly successful in television). The hands dealt were unequal.

James Garner is the title character, a businessman notorious for buying struggling businesses, fixing them up, and flipping them for a profit. Normally, if Cash starts looking at a company, its employees start quaking in their boots for fear of losing their jobs, but this time around, Cash has a motivated seller. Grant Austen (Dean Jagger) has been bent over a barrel by his most important client, and rather than take it, he decides to unload his plastics business and retire. Cash immediately offers him his asking price, and once he's got his hands in the company, starts to build an uber-corporation.

Cash has more than money in his sights, however, when it comes to Austen Plastics. As it turns out, he had a very brief romantic encounter with Austen's daughter, Lory, the previous summer. This affair has haunted the girl (played by Natalie Wood), leaving her melancholy and broken-hearted. At first, she is angry at seeing Cash again, but he woos her in the way he would close any business deal, and just as business deals get complicated, so does the lovemaking.

The flashback to the summertime meeting of Cash and Lory is probably the best example of why Cash McCall never really gets its engines running. This event is meant to be the crux of the entire story, but Pevney renders it as a bloodless, passionless embrace. Shot with the edges blurred and full of inexplicable close-ups, the flashback is like a dream half-remembered rather than an active motivator. There is no dialogue, Cash tells the story in voiceover, and so we are cut off from Lory's perspective--meaning Pevney sidesteps the enflamed desires of a young girl, the real heat of the moment. Not even the sight of a trembling, naked Natalie Wood can bail him out--particularly since Cash covers her up and sends her on her way. Is this a romance or propaganda for abstinence programs?

Pevney's direction is equally pedestrian throughout. He doesn't make much use of his widescreen framing, using mostly static shots and only really pulling out when trying to show the full group of gathered moneymen. Yawn. If I want to see that, I'll go to a banker's convention. Most of the acting is equally one-note. James Garner is all bluster, and Wood vacillates between brooding and feisty (okay, so maybe two notes, though, honestly, she is a feisty brooder, so they kind of blend). Only the always-wonderful Nina Foch gets a show-off scene. Playing the aging assistant manager of the hotel where the tycoon lives, her spurned advances, which border on the stalkerish, earn her a harsh dressing down from Cash. In response, she gets drunk and flings herself around her pink-hued apartment, hilariously stoking the fires of suspicion in the Austen clan.

I will admit, I was a little charmed by Cash McCall by the end. As a romantic comedy, it is serviceable enough that I was rooting for Lory and Cash to get it together, but the obstacle course on the way to love lacks the challenge of superior entries in this genre. Best to look elsewhere.

Sunday, June 17, 2018


What to do with a movie like Bowling For Columbine sixteen years after its initial release?

So much has changed, so much more has happened to the United States as a nation, that Michael Moore’s shlubby shtick seems positively quaint. Oh for the days when a jokey documentary about gun culture would seem necessary and important, but not entirely imperative. At the same time, seeing how little has changed, we can’t call Moore’s cinematic efforts too little, too late--more like too little, too early. Hell, we can’t even look at the standard DVD extras on this new Bowling For Columbine release with the same political naïveté. An excerpt from Moore’s 2002 interview with Charlie Rose? Well, I guess this was at least before Harvey Weinstein became Moore’s producer.

Here’s the quick history on Bowling for Columbine. It was put together by Michael Moore following the terrible 1999 school shooting in Colorado that left thirteen people dead. The documentarian decided to look into what makes America a place where, culturally, guns are not just prevalent amongst the citizenry, but are used more frequently for violence than other comparable nations around the world. Topics range from how guns are sold to dissecting arguments looking for a causality between entertainment, poverty, and other common bugaboos and gun-related deaths. Moore employs some of his trademark truth-to-power techniques to challenge KMart on their policy of selling ammunition and tracks down Charlton Heston to ask him about holding an NRA rally in Flint, MI, following the shooting of a six-year-old girl by one of her fellow kindergarteners. Upon release, Bowling for Columbine was critically celebrated, became a commercial hit, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the next Academy Awards.

Much of Bowling for Columbine still works. Moore is a quality storyteller and, at heart, an entertainer, so his anecdotal explorations almost always have something intriguing at their center. His approach is pretty simple: start with levity--the absurdity if getting guns in banks, or ammo in barber shops, for instance--and let it lead the audience to something more serious, like hard stats and cold facts about U.S. military intervention around the world. A spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down. His news anthology structuring, complete with humorous asides, movie clips, and even original animation, has been copied by many documentarians since. Likewise his tendency to put himself front and center, becoming part of the story itself. That said, the most effective choice here is the one that doesn’t involve Moore at all. The sequence where we watch security footage from Columbine while listening to audio from 9-1-1 calls made that morning is chilling. It was a smart move for the filmmaker to step back and stay out of the way.

With this kind of collage approach, it stands to reason that not all routines would hit the mark. The sidebar with South Park co-creator Matt Stone adds little insight to the question of why teenagers are alienated, and the South Park-like animated history lesson follows (but is not by Stone and Trey Parker, as many believe) is annoyingly simplistic. Then again, Moore himself shows very little insight on camera. While the best parts of Bowling for Columbine are how he knocks down straw men with a montage of juxtaposition, when confronted with people he genuinely disagrees with, but whom could provide him with the opposing point of view, he makes scant effort to empathize or understand. Despite painting himself as a folk hero for the common man, he begins most interactions with said common man under the assumption that he’s an idiot. Just look at how stymied he is when the one Littleton resident shows genuine emotion when discussing Columbine. Moore doesn’t know what to do. He was just there to make the guy an object of ridicule for overreacting in his home security measures.

Which actually brings us to the real problem in evaluating Bowling for Columbine in this day and age: how we feel about Michael Moore. While I would say his skills as a filmmaker are unimpeachable, and within the film’s running time, he gives us no reason to doubt his sincerity, his choice to be the main character of all his movies means we can’t really ignore what he does in them or even outside them. In my view, at least, in more recent years, especially with the advent of social media, Moore has become more self-righteous and self-involved, and his most recent movie, Where to Invade Next, lets the jokes run away with the proceedings. The longer he continues to work his “regular Joe” routine, the less convincing it becomes.

While I have enjoyed several Michael Moore movies since Bowling for Columbine (see my enthusiastic review of Sicko, for instance), I’d posit that you can see the turn from lauded crusader to questionable blowhard beginning here, especially as the movie completely falls apart in the final half hour or so. Bowling for Columbine takes a wrong turn when Moore ambushes Dick Clark to try to unnecessarily connect him to the Flint shootings. And when the prank goes wrong, Moore throws a pity tantrum. He’s so out of joint, you’d think Clark’s van ran over his foot.

Not much that follows lands the way Moore intends. Taking two Columbine victims to Kmart headquarters may have gotten results, but as a tactic, it’s callous towards the regular people just trying to do their jobs whose day the camera crew makes harder. Worse, though, is the sit-down with Charlton Heston, where Moore fails to engage the man in an intellectual conversation. His interview appears designed to make the aging actor lose his cool so that Moore can resort to the cheap shot and mawkish sentimentality that ends the movie. I remember finding it oogey back in 2002, and it remains oogey now. If only Harvey Scissorhands had produced this movie and demanded the back portion been lopped off.

Still, even with those complaints, the final point tally is in Bowling for Columbine’s favor. This time capsule of where we were at the turn of the century is still mostly relevant and worthwhile. Considering that, however, our next question is why now?

I know some have theorized that Criterion and Moore rush released this to capitalize on the February 2018 shooting at the Parkland High School in Florida, but given that the Blu-ray was announced merely a month later, and knowing what it takes to produce a product like this, I find that highly unlikely. But even if that were true, is there a better time to re-engage with the conversation Bowling for Columbine started? If anything, the trouble with this Blu-ray is that they didn’t capitalize on recent tragedies enough. Where are the supplemental features about what has happened since the documentary came out? Most of the extras are from the time of release, including that aforementioned Charlie Rose bit and a truly unwatchable “comedy” segment from Moore’s The Awful Truth television show. The only new supplement, a doc that clocks in at a little over half an hour called “Michael Moore Makes a Movie,” is more of a backslapping exercise celebrating the genius of the production than any kind of treatise on the film’s effectiveness in the real world. I’d rather have seen Bowling for Columbine land as a special edition BD later this year with bonus content that spent some time answering the question of what the movie means now. Is there new insight to be had as to why guns are still so prevalent and why the mass violence increases? What about debunking conspiracy theories regarding crisis actors?

In a weird way, by avoiding any such updating, Bowling for Columbine and its participants come off as yet another irrelevant generation telling us how great it once was with no interest in what’s wrong with today. Which is exactly what the Parkland survivors have been trying to warn us about. Perhaps Moore should have taken the advice Marilyn Manson gives in the documentary: now is the time to stop talking about yourself and start listening again.

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

Sunday, June 3, 2018


The biggest strength Peter Weir’s 1985 adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock has going for it is its air of mystery, and that atmosphere manages to sustain itself due to the succinctness of Cliff Green’s script and a steady restraint at the helm. Picnic at Hanging Rock has a trim 107-minute running time in which a lot happens, little is explained, and yet we get just enough. Capturing a similar dread would likely be the biggest challenge of Amazon’s current long-form remake. Sure, they likely can extract more from Joan Lindsay’s novel, but will it be at the sacrifice of Weir’s persistent ambiguity?

The story of Picnic at Hanging Rock begins on Valentine’s Day 1900 at an Australian boarding school for girls. As a celebration of the holiday, the students head out on an excursion to a mountainous wilderness marked by its volcanic rock formations. Only one girl, the quiet and brooding Sara (Margaret Nelson), is forbidden to go, held back by the sadistic headmistress (Rachel Roberts) and her strange assistant (Kirsty Child). Late in the afternoon, four of the girls, including Sara’s roommate Miranda (Anne Lambert)--whom Sara and seemingly everyone else is obsessed with--go off exploring on their own. Only one returns, and one of the accompanying teachers (Vivean Gray) likewise vanishes when she goes to retrieve the missing pupils. No one saw a thing. The girls were all napping when the this went down, and perhaps in no small coincidence, the explorers also took a nap at the same time, surrounding a flat rock next to several large totemic outcroppings, like effigies abandoned at Stonehenge. Were there mystical shenanigans going on? Surprisingly, no one ever really suggests it, but there is an aura of a haunting hanging all over Weir’s film.

The rest of Picnic at Hanging Rock is concerned with the lingering questions: where did the girls go? How could there be no clues? The young son of a wealthy General becomes obsessed with the case. The boy (Dominic Guard) and the family servant (John Jarrett) were the last to see the girls before they headed into God knows where. Another teacher chaperoning the trip, a French woman (Helen Morse), tries to hold everyone together, but she starts to see the darkness lurking in the corners of the school. It’s not quite Suspiria-levels of intrigue, but there is something untoward happening behind closed doors all the same. Is this event perhaps some kind of karmic retribution? Or did the girls merely escape a troublesome fate for some kind of unknowable liberation?

It’s easy to see the influence Picnic at Hanging Rock had on Sofia Coppola and The Virgin Suicides [review], from the brown and blond color palette to the way we get to peek behind the veneer of the seemingly trouble-free lives of teenage girls. And that both films fade out with their greatest mysteries still unsolved, they similarly suggest we can never uncover the whole truth. (That is, of course, unless we are one of them. I mean, teenage girls know the whole truth, right?)

Weir’s light touch as a director makes for a fully immersive dream state. Visually, he forces very little, and as a storyteller, he is loath to explain. Often he places his camera at a vantage point that keeps us from fully seeing what is going on. As the young ladies climb into the hills, we peer at them through cracks in the rocks, almost as if Weir is implying that there are spooks and specters--or perhaps just the natural creatures of the Australian outback, which do wander across frame from time to time--keeping watch over the doomed children. Yet, even as we return to civilization, and as the failure to solve the central mystery causes other secrets to be revealed, we always remain just a step outside, as if in a drunken haze, or dreaming ourselves, trapped in the witness position, unable to break through the membrane of our subconscious to become an active participant. Subtly, Weir shifts his colors from the virginal white of the school uniforms that fills every frame of the earliest scenes to much darker colors, the headmistress dressed in black, a symbol of mourning, but also an outward projection of her own sins. It’s interesting, because American school stories would be shifting from spring to summer as the school term ends, giving way to the hopeful promise of a brighter tomorrow, but this is Australia, so the school year ends as winter approaches, suggesting only more dark and cold on the other side. (Though, to be fair, the sunny climes of the continent are nowhere near the bleak winters we’d see in England or on the American east coast.)

The only aspect where Weir nearly pushes things from the ambiguous to the obvious is the music. The score alternates between Zamfir’s pastoral pan flute and ambient electronic music by Bruce Smeaton, the latter of which particularly vibrates with its own sense of “ooooh, isn’t this weird.” Weir’s employment of these tones are often used to shine a light on particular moments where things are supposed to go wrong, or we are supposed to be unnerved; the cues are mostly unnecessary. 
While the girls’ disappearance in Picnic at Hanging Rock has the direct result of exposing shady goings-on at the boarding school, there is also a more broad exposure of how society tries to stifle young women entering adulthood. Whenever discussing the health of any of these girls, the first concern is whether or not they were sexually assaulted. The doctor describes them as being “intact.” Yet what do the repressive policies, and the fear of these girls’ emerging sexuality, contribute to the overall scenario? There are the two young men who leer at the girls as they enter the untamed wilds, or the details like the missing teacher seen wandering off without her skirt, or the fact that one girl returns without her corset. Or the strange punishments visited on Sara. How much of this is a result of the prim and proper social mores stifling natural impulses? These are layers that only start to reveal themselves the more you watch, when the details of the disappearing act start to matter less and you can start to appreciate everything going on around it.

Judging by the first episode of the Amazon Picnic at Hanging Rock, there will be some of this subtext at play--but it looks likely to be made overt text. The production looks likely to leave no stone unturned, beginning its initial outing with Mrs. Appleyard (hear played by Natalie Dormer as a much sexier widow) buying the estate that will become her school while confessing to her own false face in voiceover. Oh, goody, an origin story! With a shiny modern style, the series amps up the drama and the adolescence CW-style. The pilot is all preamble and portents, including Edith getting her first period (“You can now have a baby!”) and Appleyard underlining how dangerous the Hanging Rock can be. Jury’s still out if this Picnic at Hanging Rock is any good in its own right (and still out on whether or not I’ll even keep watching; I didn’t feel compelled to hit the “next” button), but for those looking for a similar creepy excursion to Peter Weir’s original adaptation, keep looking.