Tuesday, July 31, 2018


This review was originally published in 2006 as part of a piece on the second Humphrey Bogart Signature Collection.

In the wartime send-up All Through the Night, Humphrey Bogart plays Gloves, a too-cool gangster with his hands in everyone's cheesecake. When his favorite baker goes missing, Gloves' mother (Jane Darwell, The Devil & Daniel Webster) gets worried and asks her baby boy to investigate. Before he knows it, Gloves is up to his neck in murders and Nazis.

Directed by Vincent Sherman (The Damned Don't Cry), All Through the Night gets a little too rah-rah in its second half, when the normally selfish Gloves joins the war effort and gets all of his underworld pals to join in, but the movie stays fun thanks to a relentless comedic pace and a tremendous supporting cast. Gloves' crew is massive with comic legends like Phil Silver, Jackie Gleason, and William Demarest. The bad guys are also as bad as the crooks are funny. The two main Nazis are played by Bogart's future Casablanca co-stars Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt. The climax, with Bogie stopping Veidt from blowing up a docked battleship in the New York harbor, is definitely over the top, but it's still a blast, both literally and figuratively.

Saturday, July 28, 2018


Man, I’ve been waiting a long time for A Matter of Life and Death to get the Criterion treatment. If there ever was a movie to deserve its own spine number, this is it.

Released in 1946, A Matter of Life and Death is a post-war fable made just after the war had ended, when the rebuilding had only just begun. The concoction of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, also known as The Archers, their movies sometimes described as Disney for adults, A Matter of Life and Death is their most original production, spawned fully from their own imaginations as writers, directors, and producers.

A Matter of Life and Death stars David Niven as Peter Carter, an RAF officer who, at the beginning of the film, is in the process of crashing his bomber following what must have been a pretty nasty firefight. His crew has all escaped, except for his communications officer, who lies dead in his lap. Carter does not have a parachute, and as he tells June (Kim Hunter, A Streetcar Named Desire, the American soldier on the other end of the radio, he’d rather jump to his death than burn in a crash. The two share a moment, knowing it’s meant to be his last.

Only it isn’t. Instead, Peter washes up on the English coast. Cut to Heaven with a capital H, where they are waiting for him to arrive. The aforementioned communications man, Bob (Robert Coote, Scaramouche), has even delayed procuring his own angels wings, knowing his pal is due any moment. When this particular soul fails to materialize, it’s an unprecedented glitch in the system. The French conductor (Marius Goring, The Red Shoes [review]) meant to ferry him through the pearly gates missed Peter in the English fog. Luckily, retrieving him should be easy. Peter Carter was just lucky enough to receive an extra day of life. No harm, no foul.

Except, as fate would have it, in those intervening hours, Peter found June, and the pair fell in love. Peter insists it’s not fair for him to have to let that go, as he’d never have known such romance had the celestial world not screwed up. Peter demands his day in court, the chance to appeal his own death. Divine justice being what it is, Heaven agrees.

A Matter of Life and Death is split between two worlds: reality and...well, Powell and Pressburger don’t put too fine a point on it. I call it Heaven, but there is no mention of Christianity or Jesus, and the filmmakers take a rather cheeky, almost subversive approach to establishing their particular afterlife. This is a movie, after all, that opens with a view of the universe and an explanation of what each cosmic illumination represents delivered via an unseen narrator--one who implies he lives on Earth, too, and doesn’t claim to be a supreme being. His intro isn’t exactly a direct path to the mystical realm, unless we choose to accept science and religion as one. That said, A Matter of Life and Death pulls a reverse Wizard of Oz in that the Earth-based sequences are in color, and the afterlife sequences are black-and-white. If one rides the lengthy stairway to heaven, the film is monochrome; coming back down, even with heavenly bodies in tow, Technicolor!

This choice alone would suggest that the Archers consider the real world and its concerns to be the more important. In fact, they kind of lean away from the afterlife as being a fantastical environment, instead suggesting it is just one big administrative bureau. All of this is less a critique on religion, though, than it is a device to encourage us to question whether Peter Carter is hallucinating the whole thing. On Earth, he is prone to headaches and, of course, sounds a bit crazy when he tells June what he believes is going on. She enlists the help of Dr. Reeves (Roger Livesey, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp [review]), a neurologist. Reeves is a man of science, but one that also enjoys poetry, and the closest to a God-like figure we get in A Matter of Life and Death, in so much as he sees all from his attic, which is outfitted with a 360° viewer that lets him look across the entirety of their village, allowing him to diagnose the problems of his subjects from afar. Livesey gives a spirited performance, projecting a natural optimism, and showing the good doctor as capable of adapting to anything, eager as he is to figure the whole thing out. Reeves quickly diagnoses Peter, believing him to have a rare neurological condition that so disrupts the senses, it only stands to reason he thinks these visions of another world to be real. Every part of his body says so.

A Matter of Life and Death offers no absolute stance on what we should believe, it champions no one internal truth. Peter goes on trial and has his day in Heavenly court, but is that really happening, or is the eventual verdict a product of the surgical operation he is undergoing on the ground? Narratively, I’d argue that the only proof we need is that the story regularly leaves the main character, so unless his brain is even writing the chapters of the story he is not supposed to be privy to, the other side is really looking to take him as their own.

As with all Powell and Pressburger films, A Matter of Life and Death is a visual treat. The large stairway to Heaven has the cosmos as its backdrop and statues of famous figures from history as decoration. Heaven itself is a space-age design, all curves and clean surfaces, well ahead of the space age. Gorgeous matte paintings and elaborate models are used to give the wide view of paradise. Cinematographer Jack Cardiff (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman [review]; subject of Cameraman [review]) gives the black-and-white sequences a sort of internal glow, as if it is suffused with light; alternately, he makes the earthbound scenes bright and colorful, creating the exaggerated reality that is the Archers’ stock in trade.

For all its heavier questions--including a debate about the virtues of freedom, and how they manifest differently and sometimes the same in both Britain and America--A Matter of Life and Death is another of P&P’s fantabulous fairy tales, full of romances and comic touches. (The arrival of a crew of American pilots to check into the hereafter is a particularly funny aside; likewise, the dig at James Cagney in the Midsummer Night’s Dream rehearsal on the military base.) It’s an enchanting mystery, more movie magic than genuine mysticism, and perhaps one of the best examples of how cinema can transcend the everyday. I saw it for the first time some two decades ago, during a revival and restoration championed by Martin Scorsese, knowing very little going in. Needless to say, I was mesmerized. Back then, I was watching it on a big screen with an audience, and I have since seen it on the smaller screen with friends and now on my own, and the change in venues by no means diminishes how spectacular A Matter of Life and Death really is. In fact, this current high-def restoration may be the most magical its every appeared. It’s an essential purchase, and so good I wouldn’t have blamed Criterion if they had waited to release it so it could have been #1000 rather than #939...but I’m glad they didn’t.

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

Saturday, July 21, 2018


The Criterion Channel, in addition to hosting a plethora of feature films, also has a varied collection of short films--live action, animated, fiction, documentary; comedy and drama; silent and talkies.

Since this will post while I am attending this year’s San Diego Comic-Con International, I decided to select this month’s films according to an appropriate theme. Namely, all of these shorts are animated.

Old Man (2012; United States; 6 minutes): Director Leah Shore takes a recorded phone call between author Marlin Marynick and an imprisoned Charles Manson and brings it to life via a mish-mash of animation styles. The technique is impressive, but the intent is questionable. These morphing images defang the malice and sick ideas inherent in Manson’s rant, which may be the point, but it doesn’t sit well with me to see his ramblings treated as if they were a piece of innocuous found audio or an internet meme. The lack of editorialization more or less suggests that he’s a harmless old coot and his stream of consciousness is at best humorous and at worst normal. Which may be overthinking it, but that’s my impression nonetheless. 

The short is accompanied by a 5-minute introduction by the director, which failed to change my mind. While Shore does give some insight into her own creative process and explains how she stitched this six minutes together from hours of interviews, it also reveals a lack of insight into the source material and a strange divorcement from everything loaded into the Manson persona. Art for art’s sake is fine, but callous kitsch is just lazy.

Call of Cuteness (2017; Germany; 4 minutes): Brenda Lien uses a tiled animation style to spotlight our obsession with cats and the memes their opportunistic owners spawn before moving into more grotesque areas that call into question just what the hell we are doing to these animals. Both alluring and unsettling, it’s just the right kind of media consumption indictment, not entirely what it critiques, but just enough that, when it’s all said and done, we feel like a pile of garbage for so easily being drawn in.

Pussy (2016; Poland; 9 minutes): This one is not about cats. But it does have a vagina that detaches itself from its owner and becomes sentient. I was disturbed by it, but I don’t think director Renata Gasiorowska intended me to be. Which probably says enough and maybe I should just stop right here....

Begone Dull Care (1949; Canada; 8 minutes): Set to the jazz of the Oscar Peterson Trio, this abstract animated film from Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart is a joyous explosion of sound and color. Bending lines, morphing shapes, the texture and groove of film itself dances to the rhythm, bringing improvisational modern art together with two of the most popular art forms of the time--film and music. A delightful confectionary.

Asparagus (1979; USA; 18 minutes): Suzan Pitt’s animated experiment was often paired with David Lynch’s Eraserhead in its early years, the two playing art houses together as a dual course for adventurous filmgoers.

The colorful visuals perfectly bring to life late 1970s psychedelia, looking like an underground comic strip animated by a Monty Python-era Terry Gilliam. Pictorially stream of conscious, Pitt’s narrative is made up of images melting and transforming into the next thing. It is both mind-bending and sexual, with the image of the asparagus plant itself serving as a proxy for both male and female sex organs.

Edmond Was a Donkey (2012; Croatia; 15 minutes): An office prank inspires an outsider to reject the conformity of his co-workers and embrace what makes him different; in this case, his desire to have the simple, contemplative life of a donkey. Franck Dion’s 3D modeling has the feel of a modern storybook, making the surreal seem solid. Edmond’s journey is one of perception. Is he sick? Is he crazy? Or does he just know more than everyone else. The ending is appropriately ambiguous in some ways, but also allows the viewer to feel a sense of satisfaction by leaning in favor of Edmond getting his wish.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


Midnight Cowboy is a movie about identity and denial, but it’s primarily a movie about failed expectations, how those first two things being in confusion fosters false hope for people looking for a way out. For a way to be themselves. From Joe Buck’s first hustle in New York--he expected to be paid, she expected a younger man to see her obvious beauty (provided she’s not a con woman looking to hustle him back)--to the finale and the trip to Florida, nothing turns out as the characters would choose to believe.

Released in 1969, Midnight Cowboy caused quite a stir. Its frank views of homosexuality and New York street life earned it the first ever X-rating. It’s hard to see now what all the fuss was about, this movie is surprisingly tame by today’s standards, but even as the controversy dims, the actual character drama remains as sharp as ever. Written by one-time blacklisted screenwriter Waldo Salt (Blast of Silence [review], Serpico) and helmed by British director John Schlesinger (Billy Liar [review], Sunday Bloody Sunday), Midnight Cowboy is a film that dares to be human, making no apologies for its characters’ foibles--something that always scandalizes those who might otherwise be inclined to look at those who are different as “less than.”

Though essentially a New York story, Midnight Cowboy not only ends in Florida, but it starts in Texas. That’s where the dumb-but-handsome Joe Buck (Jon Voight, Coming Home) hails from. He is heading to the Big Apple to make his way in the world, but also to bury some bad memories. His life comes to us in a series of increasingly surreal flashbacks, including being exposed to sex at an early age, abandonment, and later, assault and arrest. When he arrives at his destination, decked out in a fancy western shirt, fringe jacket, and hat, he looks more like a movie serial version of a cowboy than a legit frontiersman and, as he soon discovers, has chosen to present himself in a way that appeals more to gay men than the wealthy women he hoped to bed. After a series of mishaps and downright screw-ups, Joe Buck has no bucks. He’s broke. The resultant desperation leads him back to “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate [review]; Tootsie [review]), the grifter who screwed him the most. Probably fearing a beating from the big guy more than displaying any real contrition or compassion, Ratso helps him out. They start pulling cons together, making quite a pair--the short and sickly dark-haired Ratso, with his club foot and rodent-like vocal patterns, and the deceptively squeaky-clean beefcake Joe Buck. No reason to look twice when they walk down the road, not at all!

Modern audiences will have an easy time seeing through this partnership. There is a lot more going on below the surface, past the mutual parasitism and bickering. Ratso’s constant railing against homosexuals suggests a man who protests too much, and while Joe Buck’s confusion about his own sexuality is likely for real, his new friend draws out some kind of empathy. The two men alternately take care of one another. When Ratso’s street smarts prove poor medicine for his failing health, Joe Buck becomes caretaker. Sure, if you wanted to, you could see it as just two men finding a mutual benefit with one another in rough times, but that’s ignoring a lot of signs and signals.

But again, let’s talk about expectations. What is it that Joe and Ratso expect from each other? It’s easy to see what Joe wants from each of his johns, and also how they in turn can’t allow themselves to follow through--be it Bob Balaban’s young student who becomes ill after going down on Joe in a movie theater (and seems to want a beating), or the older man (Barnard Hughes) that can’t even get that far (and gets a beating). It’s also clear how Brenda Vacarro’s party girl Shirley expects Joe to be an animal in bed and ravish her, only to have to take matters into her own hands and savage him instead. We also see how Ratso dreams of a better life where he is healthy and respected, and Joe is his best friend. (My favorite detail is how Ratso is so beloved by old women in those dreams. And how he is celebrated for his the cooking Joe previously criticized harshly.)

The expectation of Joe and Ratso as friends, however, is not so obvious. It takes a bit more reading between the lines. If you watch, you’ll note that their big arguments come when one slights the other--Ratso making fun of Joe’s clothes, Joe denigrating him for the winter coat Ratso stole for him--the way would-be lovers might react when they aren’t getting the proper notice from their respective objects of desire. There’s a lot of hurt and self-recrimination in there, especially in Ratso, who tears himself down by proxy. Credit where it’s due to Hoffman, who makes the oily little creep so easy to empathize with. The look on his face in the scene where he stands across the street and watches Joe try to pull a job in a women-only hotel is heartbreaking. There’s a real sense of relief when it doesn’t work out and Joe is tossed out the door. Ratso grabs him and runs him away from danger, his turn to be the protector.

As integral as they are to Midnight Cowboy, especially as they give Richardson the means to make explicit all the things that can’t be said, the pervasive dream sequences are a little dated. The psychedelic quick cuts predate Nicholas Roeg, and are about as effective, looking more ragged than controlled. (Also, shades of Ken Russell’s Tommy, particularly in Ratso’s Florida fantasy.) Though, full disclosure, I am primed not to like dream sequences, even when they are daydreams. And as a crutch, some of Joe Buck’s exhumed memories seem a little convenient and obvious. More effective to me are Richardson and cameraman Adam Holender’s on-the-street shots of New York--oh, that famous image of Joe Buck walking in the crowd, his hat high above all others!--and the way editor Hugh A. Robertson assembles the images, working with the singer Harry Nilsson, composerJohn Barry, and harmonica player Toots Thielemans’ music in a way that also prefigures MTV. The montage creates a dizzying effect akin to being a rube in the big city.

Which is what we are. Rubes. Our “innocent” laughter as the naïve Joe Buck that wanders onto 42nd Street at the start feels a little mean spirited and even dirty at the end, as we watch that same innocence drain from his eyes. And here is where Voight shines as an actor, because even as it’s clear that those eyes have seen too much, the actor also communicates that for all the distance he has traveled, the cowboy is still as lost as he ever was.

Monday, July 16, 2018


I’ll admit, until the Criterion Channel paired Wes Craven’s 1972 debut The Last House on the Left with Ingmar Bergman masterpiece The Virgin Spring, I had no idea it was a remake of the Swedish original. Upon learning this, the fact that one of the more influential touchstones in modern horror had been inspired by an allegorical art-house flick suitably intrigued, and I had to give it a try.

The Last House on the Left firmly positions itself between the radical culture of the 1960s and the more straight-laced older generation that would have never allowed such a film to be made and likely still railed against it once it was. Craven at once indicts and satirizes both sides of the divide, while maybe tipping his hand toward the establishment just a teensy bit. He may not approve of all the old folks’ choices, but they at least still had a moral center and can get shit done.

Mari (Sandra Cassell) is the young daughter of an upper middle-class couple. When she and her friend Phyllis (Lucy Grantham) want to go see a rock concert, the parental units aren’t exactly for it, but given that it’s Mari’s birthday, they decide to extend her the trust and let her go out on her own.

Big mistake. On the way, the girls stop to buy some marijuana from the wrong dude. Junior (Marc Sheffler) is really procuring the girls for a trio of fugitives looking to get their murderous jollies. They kidnap the girls and eventually take them to the woods, where they intend to rape and kill them. Ironically, they do so just down the hill from where Mari lives, and where her parents wait with a birthday cake for a party she will never attend. So close, and yet...not.

Craven’s production is a ragged affair, shot on a shoestring and featuring mostly untrained actors. This lends The Last House on the Left a griminess that helps the horror by offsetting some of the writer/director’s more indulgent elements. Namely, the ineffective police officers who serve as comic relief in a movie that maybe shouldn’t be going for laughs. Especially since their presence in the story never really pays off.

Far better are the characters the writer/director takes seriously. He has three main bad guys--David Hess, Fred Lincoln, and Jeramie Rain--all of whom manage a distinct menace, each different from the rest, but all serving their purpose. They very nearly step over the line into broad caricature, but Craven grounds his actors in their particular kinks--Hess’ Krug is a brute, Lincoln’s Weasel is a knife-wielding sadist, and Rain’s Sadie is just plain crazy. The true MVP of The Last House on the Left, however, is Grantham, who as the more worldly best friend tries to steer the violence away from her innocent pal. It’s a smart, tough performance, and one that rings true.

Craven himself tiptoes up to the edge of exploitation in this picture, catering to the grindhouse and drive-in crowds while still trying to adhere to something more substantial. He doesn’t play the assaults as sexy, nor does he linger on the victims’ naked bodies. In a way, his use of the setting--particularly the lake where both girls meet their fate--and contemporary music that celebrates the outlaws reminds me of Sam Peckinpah, specifically Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. One could even compare the loaded gender politics that often make Peckinpah a bit harder to grapple with.

That all said, The Last House on the Left hasn’t really aged that well. Its queasy shocks don’t quite shock anymore, and Craven never captures the gravitas of his source. The last act turn where the parents have their revenge heats up the proceedings by a couple of degrees, but that’s actually because Craven unleashes a bit more of his gonzo instincts. The talent and the vision is there, it’s just going to require a little more experience and even a little more budget to fully mature.