Saturday, October 27, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


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

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

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

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

Monday, October 22, 2018

SHAMPOO - #947

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 20, 2018


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

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

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

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

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

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

But probably not.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2009.

For some reason, a lot of the women in my life, both ones who were simply friends and those who were something more complicated, have had a thing for Yentl. I've never quite understood it, largely because I had never seen the movie. I was eleven in 1983 when the film was released, and you'd have been hard-pressed to come up with a movie I would have wanted to see less than Yentl back then.

Though my tastes have grown more adventurous in the intervening years, and I've even made my way toward enjoying a musical now and again, the opportunity to delve deeper into this Yentl mystery never presented itself. Part of this is that the movie has never been on DVD...until now.

Yentl was the directorial debut of Barbra Streisand, who also co-wrote the script, produced, and starred as the title character. What's that make her? A quadruple threat? Quintuple if you count singing? Because Yentl is a musical, with songs by the great composer Michel Legrand (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg [review) and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, the trio behind "The Windmills of Your Mind" from The Thomas Crown Affair. The songs for Yentl aren't so much showstoppers as they are emotional flashpoints throughout the movie. Sung only by Streisand's character in her private moments, they track her growth and learning--intentionally so, in fact. The lyricists have stated that the songs are meant to reflect the structure of the Talmud, the sacred Jewish text that Yentl is studying, in that each song builds on the last, one lesson blending into another.

Based on an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, Yentl takes place in Poland in the early 20th century. Raised in a Jewish community by her scholarly father (Nehemiah Persoff), she has secretly been learning the Talmud under his direction despite Jewish law at the time forbidding women from study (just as, to hear the Hollywood legends surrounding the making of Yentl, it was illegal for a woman to direct a movie). When her father dies, rather than be reduced to a life of marriage and servitude, abandoning the world of knowledge she so loves, Yentl disguises herself as a boy named Anshel and travels to another town, where she joins a Yeshiva, a school for Talmud study. There she befriends the handsome and fiercely intellectual Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), who has recently lost his little brother and sees his fragile spirit reflected in this new and strange fair-faced boy.

Anshel and Avigdor become study partners and fast friends, and Avigdor even introduces his new pal to his fiancée, Hadass (Amy Irving). This meeting pains Yentl, who has fallen in love with Avigdor, a situation that is further complicated when the engagement is broken by Hadass' father (Steven Hill). Unable to bear another man with his beloved Hadass, Avigdor hatches a plan whereby she will marry Anshel instead. This puts Yentl in a moral quandary: does she reveal her true identity and risk losing everything, or does she stick it out and hopefully keep her secret long enough to put the intended couple back together? Or better yet, how can she hurt no one, keep studying, and still have Avigdor for herself?

Let's get something out of the way before we go on: "feminism" is not a dirty word, and if the idea that looking at a movie like Yentl as a piece of feminist artistry chafes your sensibilities, then you probably are going to have little use for the rest of this review, and even if you do end up watching Yentl anyway, you will miss quite a bit of the larger tapestry that Streisand is creating. As far as I am concerned, saying you aren't a feminist is akin to not being a humanist. To want to have full rights for women is no different than wanting to have rights for all humans. It's just too bad that we've let insidious forces twist that whole point of view into something it's not, finding it easier to maliciously discredit a way of thinking rather than engage it directly.

Ahem. Anyway...

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that most of my female friends who expressed a love for Yentl did so because of Barbra Streisand's feminist message in the picture. Now, despite my rant above, before you get the wrong idea, you should realize that just because there is a feminist message, that doesn't mean it is a political one. In my own recent review of The Sidney Poitier Collection, I touched on the fact that what made Poitier such a pioneer was that he changed the perception of African Americans simply by taking on roles that showcased real characters involved in honest human dramas. Likewise, the strongest statement that Streisand makes in Yentl is to present a story about a woman with as much vigor as any story helmed by a man and about a man; she need not call attention to what is already there, she lets the story speak for itself. Girls, you can have it all, and what that "all" is need not be what you've always been told it is.

Naturally, Yentl's subversion of the system is a round-about way of female empowerment, and the character's arc through the script is in discovering how to shed the deceit and learn to have the courage to be herself. A large part of this is in learning to have what her male counterparts do not: empathy and understanding. She must somehow entertain all points of view in order to challenge them, and the showdown between her and Avigdor when the secret comes out is a wonderful feat of writing and acting. Streisand and Patinkin trade a variety of emotional blows, as Avigdor rides his own tempestuous reaction to having been lied to. As an acting partner and as the character, Streisand must contain him, keep his emotions from veering out of control, and bring him back down to earth so that he might see the truth. He doesn't get it exactly, but that also makes Yentl more honest than one might expect from a romantic musical.

More tender and in its way more poignant is the marital relationship between Anshel and Hadass. In lieu of her inability to perform more traditional marital duties, Yentl introduces Hadass to the world of exploration that has so fascinated her. In doing so, she opens up a more broad line of communication, creating the ideal marriage of equals. Hadass, who has otherwise only been trained to be servile, now can air her feelings and thoughts and engage with her husband the way he engages with Avigdor. It's the seed of change, a theory put to the test.

What makes Yentl even better, however, is that all of the above is in the story without it overtaking the story. The message doesn't get in the way of the narrative, and in fact quite the opposite. At its core, Yentl is a story about finding one's own identity, something comparable to a collegiate drama, and it is also a love story. Really, it's a love story more than anything else, whether it be the love of books or the love of the opposite sex. All those other things are just accessories to the clothes the script wears. Yentl is a movie of heavy emotions, but never cloying or overly sentimental. The emotion is grounded in behavior.

As a director, Barbra Streisand is as assured of herself as she is as an actress. Her use of framing bears a similarity to how a singer understands her song. The way she might choose to move through a note or a line when singing dictates to the listener the emotion he or she is meant to feel. Likewise, by filming a wagon traveling at an askew angle, or capturing the golden light of a lakeside romp, she conveys a sense of feeling that goes beyond verbal exposition. Photographed by David Watkin, who also shot Help!, Chariots of Fire, and Out of Africa, Yentl is a beautiful film, full of rich detail and gorgeous fits of natural color.

Now, though I am painting glowing praise all over the film, it's also not without its faults. It was a little slow to draw me in, and at times, the plotting is a little obvious, treading well-worn paths taken by many other gender-switch stories, but these come off as minor in comparison to the overall effect. Yentl is a warm-hearted film, crafted with love by an artist who was intent on creating a movie she believed in exactly as she believed it should be. Thus, like a friend who sometimes makes you shake your head because she can't seem to avoid some obvious pitfalls, Yentl earns a pass. You can almost hear her as Anshel quote from whatever original source one would draw the axiom "To err is human, to forgive divine."

Not to mention that for a movie that works pretty vigorously at the old "knowledge is power" saw, it does give me a little further insight into what those ladies in my life had been talking about. I can't say for sure if they'd all still be around if I had taken a gander at Yentl earlier, but I suppose it wouldn't have hurt.

Thursday, October 11, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2014. 

Twenty-two years before George Cukor would remake A Star is Born (and even five years before William Wellman's original), the director would set the standard for the quintessential Tinsel Town tale with his entertaining pre-Code melodrama What Price Hollywood?.

A charming Constance Bennett stars as Mary Evans, who, up until her lucky run-in with perpetually soused film director Max Carey, is just another blonde actress making ends meet as a waitress at the Brown Derby. Carey, played with affable aplomb by Lowell Sherman (who soon went on to be a director himself), is working on slightly sobering up before heading off to the Chinese Theatre for his latest premiere. When the girl gets him home safe, she also gets herself a screen test, kicking off an illustrious career and a difficult relationship between two strong personalities--the nature of which seems to be a little more father/daughter until Mary gets married to Lonny Borden (Neil Hamilton), a millionaire playboy who doesn't get this Hollywood life. (Though, given his twisted courtship technique, I'm not sure Lonny's one to judge.) As the scales tip and Max needs Mary's help more than she needs his, it drives a wedge between the newlyweds and eventually propels everyone
into scandal.

Cukor mines some pretty dark material here, seemingly fascinated with the mechanics and mythology that had already sprung up around what was really a very young industry. The studio machine that churns out Mary's publicity--including the hands-on studio head (Gregory Ratoff) who goes so far as to plan her wedding--and the contentious relationship between the stars and the press appears no different then than it is now. There are even scary run-ins with fans, who literally try to tear the clothes from Mary's body. At the same time, the backstage efforts have their own magical efficiency. Cukor inserts shots of the technicians at work, a peek into the complicated choreography of a movie set. Gearheads should enjoy seeing the old cameras, microphones, and the like.

Constance Bennett is a dream as Mary, hitting on several notes that would become archetypical for this type of story--wide-eyed ingénue, a marquee-powered diva, frustrated wife and mother. She and Lowell Sherman make a fine pair. His performance here establishes him as one of the great on-screen drunkards. There is both comedy and tragedy in Max's descent, with neither side played so heavy as to ring false. He's the kind of guy you want to tip a few with, he's so much fun, but whom you also aren't surprised loses control. Naturally, the way What Price Hollywood? brings the starmaker and his protégé together casts them as the only two authentic people in an inauthentic business.

What really makes What Price Hollywood? sustainable, however, is that it manages to have its cake and eat it, too. Like the best behind-the-scenes exposés, Cukor's film loves and hates its subject. He subverts the emerging tropes even while reveling in them. Mary at one point complains that she has a baby in every movie the studio puts her in, to which the boss replies at least this time her character is married. It's the kind of knowing crack that would be censored once the Hayes Code was put in place, though in What Price Hollywood?, the joke holds true: Mary has a baby after her marriage has dissolved. And she gets her happy ending, too.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018


This review was originally written for in May 2009. It's being reprinted unedited with its original jokes intact...just because.

Of course, the obvious snarky question is why Enchanted April didn't come out on DVD until May, and I'd say the snarky answer would involve something to the effect that it felt like the 93-minute movie took a month to watch, so being a month late would just be par for the course.

Truth is, Enchanted April fans have waited much longer than that for the movie to come to disc in North America. Despite having won two Golden Globes in 1993 and getting nominated for multiple Oscars, this Mike Newell-helmed picture has not been on DVD before now. When I worked at a video store a couple of years ago, it was one of the most regularly requested titles amongst the customers. Perhaps this delay has built up too much expectation in me, given me too long to inflate my perceived appreciation of Enchanted April in my mind. I know I saw it during its theatrical run, and then at least once more on home video a couple of years later, but I'd wager it's been more than a decade since I last sat through it. The movie has gotten older, I've gotten older, and we've grown apart.

Enchanted April is a period piece set in the 1920s. It is the story of four British women and the Italian castle that provides them with a bucolic getaway for what is to be a month of no socializing, no husbands, nothing but the sea, the air, and the trees. The trip is initially organized by two bored housewives, Lottie Wilkins (Josie Lawrence), the wife of a gastronomically self-satisfied London-based solicitor (Alfred Molina), and Rose Arbuthnot (Miranda Richardson), who is married to a man (Jim Broadbent) who writes scandalous novels under an assumed name. To offset the costs of their holiday, the two advertise for vacation mates, eventually scoring a stuffy older woman (Joan Plowright) and a much-desired flapper (Polly Walker). As a little wrinkle of irony, the flapper, Lady Caroline, is trying to get out of town to escape the lecherous men who pursue her, and one of them is Mr. Arbuthnot. Uh-oh! Trouble's a-comin'!

Except, no, there will be no trouble. None at all. Rather, there will just be a month of relaxation and rehabilitation in the country, a month of quietly rediscovering oneself, and eventually of rekindling love. It's also a month of sheer boredom, a slow burn that never catches flame.

Enchanted April, even back when it seemed good, always came off as a bit of a sub-par take on Merchant Ivory territory. Written by Peter Barnes (the one-time much sharper writer of the satirically daring The Ruling Class) from a 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, the movie details the kind of humdrum, repressed lives that many a James Ivory character has so expertly burst in his many great movies, and given that Enchanted April originally hit the Cineplex somewhere in between Howard's End [review] and Remains of the Day, it tied many of us over in terms of satisfying our yen for costume drama. Peter Barnes is no Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, however, and I doubt Ms. von Arnim is in the same league as Henry James. Likewise, Mike Newell is certainly no James Ivory; rather, he is the director of such middle-ground material as Mona Lisa Smile and Love in the Time of Cholera. His best-known movie (not counting his time at Hogwarts) is Four Weddings and a Funeral, another film that may not have aged well. After Enchanted April, I'm a little scared to find out.

It's not that Enchanted April is simply god-awful. It has some truly lovely locations, and I rather appreciated its use of multiple points-of-view, giving each lady her own voiceover in order to chronicle her inner thoughts. Polly Walker is as alluring as her part demands, affecting ennui and managing to be irresistibly attractive while doing so, and Miranda Richardson gives a subtle and nuanced performance that brings far more to the material than the filmmakers could have possibly hoped for. Looking out at the sea, pondering her life, she says more with her face than any of Barnes' dry narration ever could. The actress was really the only thing that kept me watching to the closing credits.

The problem is that Enchanted April takes its dispassionate stance far too seriously. The women are all supposed to change, transformed by their new surroundings, their blood once again boiled by the shining Italian sun--and yet, even as they change, the movie remains bloodless. Lots of light, but no heat and so no boiling. I didn't find the changes to be believable, instead they just came off as predictable, relying on audience expectation that the metamorphoses must happen rather than making the effort to inspire similar feelings within everyone watching. This is Merchant Ivory by the numbers, a costume drama going through the motions. The end result is that Enchanted April turns into a dreary pit stop rather than a life-changing experience. Rather than being the good thing we were waiting for to transport us to a better place and time, it's just more impetus to keep looking.

Saturday, October 6, 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.

Short cinema--just like short stories--is a unique art form unto itself, employing different conventions, and bringing with it different expectations, but these pieces are no less worthy of consideration than full-length films. From time to time, I will take a look at a selection of what’s on offer. You can read the previous columns here: 1, 2, 3, 4.

A Gentle Night (2017; China; 15 minutes): When a thirteen-old-girl doesn’t return home, everyone but her mother is content to “wait and see.” As her husband sleeps, the woman (Shuxian Li) spends the late hours going to places the child might go, hoping against hope that she’ll be out there and not a victim of the dark.

Yang Qiu’s Cannes-honored short is a drama with a quiet restlessness. The feelings of dread, anxiety, and guilt that overwhelm the mother come through the screen to those of us watching. Details are scarce, but those that do emerge are important. Through dialogue, we learn that the father is overbearing, but the mother is also a disciplinarian. Yet, we also know from her public encounters, perhaps the mother is the only one in the whole world who has a real relationship with the missing girl. The daughter herself is the only one we never learn about. Which just adds to the guilt.

A Gentle Night lacks a definitive resolution, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Yang Qiu is peddling a feeling here, and our acceptance of it determines how we view the movie. Think about it when you’re done. You’ll have an opinion about what happened to the girl, even if you didn’t realize it. Somehow, in just a short time, A Gentle Night moves you toward your own resolution.

Hunger (1974; Canada; 12 minutes): Once a gluttonous man starts eating, he can’t stop, in this animated short from Peter Foldes. Set entirely to music, no dialogue, we watch as the skinny office worker grows into an obese shut-in, blowing through relationships and all trappings of regular life, until there’s no way to avoid his ironic end. Foldes works with an open line style, allowing for the characters to morph naturally, particularly his lead, who goes from stick figure to complete oval in the end. Nothing too surprising or enticing, but well paced and visually intriguing enough to sustain its running time.

Also notable as Hunger was apparently an early trailblazer in computer animation.

The Voice Thief (2013; Chile/France/USA; 22 minutes): A silly narrative poorly performed, this surreal drama by Adan Jodorowsky, working from a story written by his father Alejandro Jodorowsky, stars controversial actress Asia Argento (Marie Antoinette [review]) as an opera singer who loses her voice when her husband (Cristobal Jodorowsky) chokes her. Distraught by his actions, he searches for a replacement, using mystical means to extract the singing voices from three different people he victimizes. With each new voice, the singer takes on the persona of the victim.

Though lush in design and beautifully shot, The Voice Thief is a pretentious dud. Undercut by retro 1970s horror music and overloaded with indulgent symbolism, this is essentially a student film elevated via nepotism.

When We Lived in Miami (2013; USA; 13 minutes): Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) pulls double-duty as director and performer, portraying a woman facing potentially becoming a single mother while also worrying about the danger of an incoming hurricane. The narrative is strung together with small moments. The camera moves around the participants and the landscape, never quite settling, always searching, and along with the short scene cuts, it makes for an aesthetic that’s pleasantly reminiscent of Terence Malick, trying to draw the family back together even as the editing continues to separate them. Seimetz is incredibly focused here, the grief and the uncertainty permeating every frame.

Premature (2013; Norway; 16 minutes): Director Gunhild Enger creates a shifting, uncomfortable 15-minute car ride full of nervous pleasantries and bizarre social bumbles. A young Norwegian man is bringing home his pregnant Spanish girlfriend to meet the parents for the first time. She doesn’t speak Norwegian, the parents don’t speak Spanish, but they all speak English to some degree. Communication is halting, with different participants slipping into their native tongues for private asides, but since there are no subtitles, ingeniously, the audience is only privy to what they themselves can understand.

Many might recognize their own family here: the mother who means well but can’t stop from putting her foot in her mouth, the frustrated child, the peacekeeping father. Ultimately, though, you feel the most sorry for the girl, who clearly doesn’t know what she has gotten herself into. Premature takes a simple premise and a limiting technique and yet squeezes a whole hell of a lot out of both.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


This review was originally written for in 2013.

William Wyler's 1942 drama Mrs. Miniver is a rousing piece of wartime propaganda. The earnest and heartfelt family story has a very specific and extremely obvious purpose, and yet it still has the ability to engage and move audiences willing to check their cynicism at the door. Scratch that. That may be underestimating Mrs. Miniver's considerable personal charms. We need not change before entering the theater. The film, like its titular character, may rather have the power to obliterate one's cynicism and turn us all into true believers, much the way the lady herself causes the old woman to drop her selfish pretentions at the flower show midway through the picture.

Greer Garson gives an Oscar-winning performance as Kay Miniver, upper-middle-class mother of three. Hers is a sensitive portrayal, meant to illustrate the hidden strengths of British women and the determination and fortitude required in a time of war. Based on a book of essays by Jan Struther, Mrs. Miniver sets up a none-too-subtle contrast between pre-War living and the serious responsibilities of every citizen when their country is in conflict. It opens in 1939, with Kay buying a new hat and fearing telling her husband, an architect, of its cost. Little does she know that hubby Clem (Walter Pidgeon) bought a fancy car well outside his price range. "What's money for," he asks, if not to blow on extravagant things.

This tune soon changes. War is declared not long after, and the Minivers' idealistic first born, Vin (Richard Ney), joins the Royal Air Force. He also becomes engaged to Carol Belden (Theresa Wright, a year before Shadow of a Doubt), granddaughter to the town matriarch, the upper-class snob Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty). The romance blossoms (pardon the pun) out of a conflict between the two families. The beloved Ms. Miniver inspired the local station master, Ballard (Henry Travers), to enter the village's annual flower competition, and he has named his prize rose for her. Lady Beldon has won the championship cup for the last three decades unopposed, and she's none too happy about the competition. The squabble over a silver trophy seems frivolous in the face of world destruction.
Except it's not really, and that's part of the point of Mrs. Miniver. Life must carry on. Young people should marry, and though the men and women who stay behind should protect the home front, they must also continue with everything their enlisted men are fighting to protect. This is what Garson's Kay Miniver is really a symbol of: the brave face of life under the shadow of death. It's a mother's duty to care for her young, to smile through the heartache, and push forward with every reserve she has.

Mrs. Miniver has an episodic narrative, one that took audiences seeing it in its original run from their very recent past right up to their actual present. Amidst air raids, there are side excursions. Clem Miniver takes part in a home guard rescue at Dunkirk, while his wife stays home and captures a downed German soldier (Helmut Dantine), showing herself as the better person as she cares for his wounds moments after he held a gun on her. (The film takes the high road, too, avoiding caricaturing the enemy, or even resorting to extreme racial epithets to describe the opposing forces.) And, of course, there is the joy of the village festival, the much contested flower show. Tragedy follows almost immediately after, but it serves to remind everyone that there is a reason the world is taking up arms against the Nazis.

Wyler is adept at all aspects of his sprawling story. The opening scenes humorously satirize the complacency of modern living, and they are a far cry from the terrifying air raid sequence, when bombs hit a little too close to the Miniver home. While we don't really see combat up close, its presence in the distance, either as sound effects or the sight of fires burning on the horizon, serves as sufficient backdrop. The common terror most British citizens must have been feeling is shared without the filmmaker overselling it, and Mrs. Miniver managed to not only stir the sympathies of moviegoers across the ocean, but it continues to do so across time. A job well done is well done forever; Mrs. Miniver is still inspiring and effective. Garson gives the performance of a lifetime, creating a character that will remain meaningful over many more.