Thursday, December 31, 2020


This review originally written for in 2014.

Equal parts modern western and prototypical sports picture, Nicholas Ray's 1952 drama The Lusty Men is an interesting sideshow story about a particularly hard-living group of fellows and the consequences their choices have on the women in their lives.

Robert Mitchum stars in The Lusty Men as Jeff, a champion of the rodeo circuit who returns to his Texas hometown after an injury takes him out of competition. Looking to make a little money and maybe even save up to buy the house he grew up in, Jeff signs on at a nearby ranch. There, he befriends Wes (Arthur Kennedy), a newlywed who has designs on the old property himself. Wes and his wife Louise (Susan Hayward) have been content with the slow and steady path to homeownership, but meeting Jeff gives Wes an idea: he can start riding broncos and busting bulls and make the cash he needs quicker. Louise isn't so keen on the idea, she's scared her husband will end up with a debilitating injury the same way his new trainer did. She doesn't get much say in the matter.

The majority of The Lusty Men's running time takes place on the road, as the threesome hooks up with the regular rodeo caravan and go from town to town chasing prize money. Wes takes to it naturally and starts winning; he also takes to the nomadic lifestyle, partying after the big show, attracting the attention of groupies. Meanwhile, Louise attracts the attention of Jeff, who silently pines for the sort of life she's hoping to achieve. She takes comfort in his steady gait, even as she begs him to get her husband out of the game alive. It's an interesting love triangle, lacking in any real infidelity. Jeff only states his true intentions outright when Wes has taken things too far. The resultant showdown takes place in the arena, with each man looking to measure his masculinity by how long he can stay on a bucking horse.

The Lusty Men is refreshingly restrained when it comes to the melodrama, with Ray preferring the rough-and-tumble world of professional cowboys to any bedroom antics. The movie's heroes are adrenaline junkies who view settling down as a kind of selling out. That is, until they don't anymore. Mitchum plays it tough, but the actor also shows great empathy and vulnerability. He doesn't stop Wes because he knows he can't, the rider has to make his own choices; yet, he also recognizes the damage done to the wife. (If he didn't, the script provides the audience with multiple parallels so we can see places Wes might end up.) For her part, Hayward shows a nice balance, allowing the allure of the party life to distract her, but never losing her resolve.

Ray and cinematographer Lee Garmes (Duel in the SunNightmare Alley) capture all the thrills and danger of the rodeo events, working nicely with editor Ralph Dawson (Harvey) to meld the long shots of the actual horseplay with the close-ups of the actors both in and out of the stadium. It works nicely. The Lusty Men is reminiscent of many race-car pictures that would follow, not to mention a little bit like a western version of the traveling circus drama. The even emotional tone might disappoint some, but it fits the idea that these tough customers leave everything out there on the field. My only complaint is a rather abrupt ending that not only sews things up a little too neatly, but also left me confused and reaching for the rewind to try to discern whether what they suggest just happened really did.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020


This review was originally written for in 2013.

One assumes biopics about noted intellectuals and philosophers aren't exactly the easiest thing to sell to studio execs, much less an audience. Even Albert Einstein tends to only get movies when it's either a romantic comedy or an imagined fantasy pairing him with Marilyn Monroe.


So, hats off to German director Margarethe von Trotta (RosenstrasseThe Lost Honor of Katharina Blum [review]) for not only getting folks to back her movie about 20th-Century philosopher Hannah Arendt, but for also making it entertaining and provocative.

Co-written by von Trotta and Pam Katz (Remembrance), Hannah Arendt stars Barbara Sukowa (EuropaBerlin Alexanderplatz [review]) as the central character, a Jewish woman who fled from Germany during World War II. Arendt landed on her feet in America, where she began writing her many books exploring the relationship between individuals and the society in which they live, and how each is defined by the other (to be fairly simplistic about it, as my understanding of Arendt's actual writing is limited). She became a professor at the New School, and eventually became a naturalized citizen.


von Trotta's portrait picks up in the early 1960s, just after the arrest of Nazi fugitive Adolf Eichmann, who was abducted and taken to Israel by Mossad in order to stand trial. Arendt decided she wanted to see what this notorious individual looked like up close, having herself been separate from much of the atrocities of Hitler's rule by getting away during the war. So, she proposed to The New Yorker that they send her to Jerusalem to cover the proceedings.


Once there, the movie tells us, Arendt was surprised to find that Eichmann was not some larger-than-life personality, but a mere bureaucrat whose very averageness suggested a more insidious cruelty than she even imagined. He embodied what she called the "banality of evil." His terrible activities organizing the transport of Nazi prisoners to their deaths at concentration camps were not undertaken for selfish gain, personal hate, or any other strong conviction. His adopting the standard Nazi defense of "I was just following orders" was indicative of the truth: he had surrendered all personality to "the law." He was all the more disgusting for having just done his job instead of exercising some kind of moral imperative.



This became a central thesis of her articles and her eventual book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, though, as Hannah Arendt points out, the main controversy and criticism of the material was that, in looking at all the evidence presented, Arendt noted what she considered an error in judgment on the part of the Jewish leaders who cooperated with the Nazis. Their hope of lessening the damage by trying to go along, to her mind, only led to more deaths. In much the same way pundits tend to do today (and so it seems history repeats), seizing on and singling out such incendiary elements without acknowledging the totality of the work only proved to cause an uproar and derail any serious engagement with the topic by the populace at large.


Hannah Arendt deals with the full story, from the visit to Israel through to the criticism and defense of the articles. It features lots of heated debate, flashbacks to Arendt's college affair with Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), a little bit of political intrigue, and lots of wrestling with notions of what's noble and correct--or as Arendt puts it, "right and wrong, beautiful and ugly." The film engages with the ideas in a meaningful way, avoiding creating any "Ah-ha!" moments like we tend to see in biography movies about singers or artists, while also remembering to treat Arendt as a human being. Essential to her intellectual pursuits is her stable home life. Arendt had a very loving marriage with her husband, Heinrich Blücher (Axel Milberg), the man she fled Germany with and her most ardent supporter. The turmoil over her choices cost Arendt many friends, but Blücher held strong.


von Trotta presents the material clearly and directly. Outside of the flashbacks, she doesn't get fancy with structure or try to liven things up by making the movie slick or flashy. Rather, she lets her steadfast actress carry the narrative. Sukowa is phenomenal in the role, embodying Arendt's courage and conviction, but also understanding that such a stance comes with nuance. A true thinker allows for doubt and anxiety, and despite the many accusations to the contrary by others in the film, Sukowa shows Arendt to also be a woman who genuinely felt things. It's this compassion that maybe allowed her to strive for a greater understanding, divorced from her own feelings. (Despite thinking Eichmann was an unremarkable individual, she felt his crimes deserved the punishment of death.)


This mixture makes for an engaging example of how good biopics can be with a smart guiding force and a focused narrative. Hannah Arendt bites off exactly what its writer/director can chew, digesting the material in a way that is both illuminating and a pleasure to watch.

Saturday, December 19, 2020


 This review originally written for in 2011.

Marc Singer's documentary about homeless people living in the subway tunnels under New York City, Dark Days, was released at the turn of the new century.

 There is no hard sell or high-concept pitch for this one. Singer opens the lid on an entire community living below the streets of the Big Apple. Some of the folks went underground in the 1970s and had yet to move their lives back up top when the film crew went down into the blackness. Living in a state of perpetual night, these tunnel dwellers learn to cope with their surroundings, building homes out of scrap and finding ways to get along. Some of them are on drugs, some are clean, and none of them could have predicted they would end up here. Dark Days follows a select handful, getting a sense of their day-to-day, digging a little into their past, and in general acting as a passive observer, giving the participants a clean platform to express themselves.


We see a variety of activity. One of the subjects takes care of several dogs, another hustles on the streets to find trash he can sell. Another man talks about how he eventually conquered his crack addiction, while Singer shows us another lighting up. There is also Dee, the only woman the film follows for any length of time. Her shack gets burned down due to some disagreement with another addict. We never really learn why, and Singer never asks. There seems to be no whys or wherefores in Dark Days, just as after a while there is really no above or below. There are only the tunnels and the pervasive darkness. Forget ceilings or sky or even time. Living in the subway is an all-encompassing isolation. As one of the men explains it, he thought his life down there would be temporary...and that was five years ago. Basic human concerns keep them going: feed yourself, clean yourself, keep warm. And though most claim to be on their own, they all end up finding some companionship. This is a neighborhood like any other, no matter how unconventional.


Singer's choice to shoot in black-and-white only emphasizes this otherness. The world contained in the frame is contained even further by the limited light that Singer brings into the picture. Color would only remind us that this is an incomplete existence, which would fail to effectively communicate the exile. Color would point toward a ceiling, whereas black-and-white ensures that the "regular" world is forgotten. There is only the drudgery of this purgatory. One day looks like any other.


Change comes unexpectedly, giving Dark Days a third act where prior there might have been none. Amtrak succumbs to pressure to clean up the tunnels, and this opens the way for advocacy groups to negotiate a safe return to regular life for the homeless being displaced. Hope emerges in the darkness thanks to a government voucher program that sets up the subway's inhabitants in new apartments. The anger at this forced eviction quickly turns to elation, and Singer captures the cathartic demolition of the underground shantytown. For some of these folks, wielding the sledgehammer to knock down their make-shift walls is the first time we see them fully happy. The prisoners are destroying their own prison.


Even so, I can't tell if the coda of Dark Days is intentionally precarious or if it's my own cynicism coming to bear. It's hard not to wonder how well any of the individuals we've met will function in their new lives. Singer shows them in their assigned apartments--cooking, decorating, dreaming of decorating more in the future--and it struck me that in some weird way, they have only traded one enclosed space for another. It's like how addicts pick up other addictions to replace the ones they are getting over--alcoholics turning to coffee, or smokers turning to junk food. Have they emerged into the sunlight only to close themselves off? Ironically, the community has disappeared, now they are even more on their own than they were prior.


Luckily these concerns are answered by some of the bonus features presented on video editions of Dark Days over the years. Bac at the 10th anniversary [when this review was first written], Mark Singer went back to visit the tunnels for a new twenty-minute documentary featurette called "The Tunnel Today." It's amazing how different it all looks years later. For one, we are seeing many of the locations in color; for two, the tunnels are now open and the sun can come in. Singer finds strange remnants of the lives that were once here: fading graffiti, indications of now missing huts and train tracks, spliced wires, scorch marks from when Dee's shack burned down.


Singer clearly has a melancholic nostalgia for his time spent in the tunnels, living with his subjects, immersed in their experience. This is more evident in the "Life After the Tunnel" featurette, a collection of stills from the movie with Singer narrating. The documentarian has kept in touch with most of the people in the movie and tracked their journeys. For the most part, the main people featured in Dark Days have gotten on well with their lives above ground. They got clean, got jobs, and rebuilt their existences, flying in the face of conventional cynicism and the misconception that people living on the streets don't want change or help. Granted, the move wasn't 100% successful, but nothing ever is. Even so, humanity is perhaps the most resilient natural resource we have.

Friday, November 20, 2020



Is there a more elegant genre mash-up than Jim Jarmusch’s turn-of-the-century film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai? It’s more than just a marriage of mob and samurai movies, it’s an urban drama about a neighborhood, touching on both race and class in its depictions of Blacks and Italians. And on top of that, it embraces hip-hop, with RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan both providing a groundbreaking score and showing up in a cameo. 


Even with all that, it’s light as a feather. Ghost Dog has the usual laconic Jarmusch feel, despite scenes of incredibly precise action. For fans of Jean-Pierre Melville, you will see his influence all over this, from the snippets of philosophy taken from the Hagakure warrior’s code to the calculated assassinations Ghost Dog performs. Quiet, patient, and deadly. 



The origin story of Ghost Dog is a classic trope. As a young man, Ghost Dog (played with a calm forcefulness by Forest Whitaker) is rescued from a beating by gangster Louie (John Tormey). Over the next several years, Ghost Dog devoted his life to training to be a samurai assassin, shedding material things, living on a rooftop with his pigeons (shades of On the Waterfront). That is the backstory, at least, told in short, repetitious flashbacks. The here and now of it features Ghost Dog acting as Louie’s retainer, serving in the background, killing people Louie needs killed. Ghost Dog has done this twelve times perfectly, but at the start of the film, we see the thirteenth go wrong: when performing a hit on a gangster (Richard Portnow) who is sleeping with the boss’ daughter, the warrior is surprised to find the daughter (Tricia Vessey) is in the room. She was supposed to be gone. 


Of course, Ghost Dog does not harm the girl, but the indiscretion raises the ire of her old man (Cliff Gorman), not just because his baby girl was in harm’s way, but also because this leaves a loose end that can trace back to his having ordered a hit on a made man. Thus, Ghost Dog must be removed from the equation. 


Things don’t go that way, naturally. Ghost Dog is more than a match for the aging, overweight mafia killers. There is a subtle change of power at work in the New York of Jarmusch. Young Black men work the streets stealthily. Ghost Dog has compatriots everywhere. We never see them in action, but they are acknowledged. They have moved in. The Italian mob, on the other hand, could be seen as aging out: ineffective, comical, caricature. Jarmusch doesn’t lean on it, but it’s there. 


What’s also there is the smaller world of misfits that Ghost Dog relaxes in. His best friend is a French ice cream man (Isaach De Bankolé) who plays chess with Ghost Dog. They converse, despite having no common language--the running gag being that they often say the same things. There is also a little girl, Pearline (Camille Winbush), whom Ghost Dog trades books with. She is like a small version of him, and indeed, Ghost Dog fans have been waiting for a Pearline sequel just as much as Kill Bill fans have been clamoring for the child of Vernita Green to grow up and take revenge. 


See? There’s a lot going on. But it never seems like too much. Not under Jarmusch’s care. His hand is steady, his approach both easy and concise. He knows each move he needs to make, but he also isn’t afraid to breathe, to let a moment be loose. It’s a pretty impressive act, all said and done, and one could argue he’s applying all the lessons of the Hagakure to his modern Way of the Samurai, being nothing and being everything at once. 


Fun aside, back in 1999, I was editor in chief of Oni Press and we were asked by the studio releasing Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai to do a one-off comic they could use as promotion. My business partner and publisher, Joe Nozemack, had the great idea of hiring Scott Morse (then doing our book Soulwind, currently a story man at Pixar and recently the author of Dugout: The Zombie Steals Home) to bring to life one of Ghost Dog’s perfect hits. We never interacted with Jim Jarmusch, alas, but it’s still an effort we are all very proud of. You can still find it here and there if you care to seek it out. 


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

Saturday, October 31, 2020


This review was originally written for in 2010.

If there is such a thing as a match made in heaven, the animated movie The Illusionist just may be the most convincing evidence of it we'll find here on Earth. This delightful movie is the latest effort by Sylvain Chomet, the gifted director responsible for The Triplets of Belleville. For this new feature, Chomet is adapting an unproduced screenplay by master French filmmaker Jacques Tati. Tati was a comic figure in the mold of Charlie Chaplin, playing the befuddled Monsieur Hulot in a series of films he wrote and directed, including Mon Oncle and what I consider to be his masterpiece, Playtime [review].

The central character of The Illusionist is a magician who looks and acts very much like Hulot; which is to say, Chomet has modeled the stage performer Jacques Tatischeff on Tati--tall, thin, a bit of a hound-dog face. The Illusionist is as Chomet imagined the author would have made it, rejigged slightly for the cartoon format, but otherwise very much in the spirit of the tale's originator.



The Illusionist is set in the late-1950s (the movie's most concrete reference to a specific time is a newspaper with a headline about the chilly relationship between Nixon and Khrushchev, which would have been during Eisenhower's Presidency). An aging stage magician, finding himself out of work in France, hits the road in search of a new gig. In London, he is upstaged by an hilariously effete rock band before being reduced to playing an outdoor party. There, a drunken Scotsman invites him out to his village, where the magician sets up in the local pub. His act goes down a storm. His tricks have a particular effect on the poverty-stricken, teenaged barmaid Alice, who isn't aware that the objects the man makes appear out of thin air aren't actually coming out of thin air. She believes magic is real and that the conjurer can make anything he wants.

Enchanted as she is by Tatischeff, Alice follows him when he leaves for Edinburgh, and touched by her devotion, the magician takes her under his care. Her appetite for new things is too hard for him to keep up with, however, particularly in light of his profession's flagging popularity. New technology and new sounds are pushing out the old music hall routines--Alice and the magician live in an apartment building with acrobats, ventriloquists, and clowns, all of whom are having trouble keeping their acts alive. Eventually, Tatischeff has to start moonlighting doing other jobs just to make ends meet.

Describing the basic plot of The Illusionist does it little justice. Tati emulated silent comedy, and he was more interested in humorous scenarios, quiet slapstick, and elaborate scenic concoctions than he was in traditional narrative. His movies rarely had dialogue--and indeed, there are only a handful of complete sentences spoken here, and most of those are either in French or Gaelic (I believe). In the same way Chaplin resisted talkies because they restricted which borders a movie could cross, so too did Tati strive for the universal by favoring behavior over banter. Laughter knows no language, and he communicated more with a gesture than most do with whole paragraphs.



It is to Chomet's supreme victory, then, that he so perfectly conjures his own illusion: the essence of Tati. The magician is an exact replica of Hulot, and yet doesn't exist as some mere carbon copy. This isn't another soulless digital manipulation made for a cola commercial; rather, this is more like an animated séance, of bringing the legend back from beyond the grave, and by using traditional hand-drawn animation (with just a smattering of digital effects), Chomet creates a supernatural dreamscape for Tati to once again perform his pratfalls, huff his harrumphs, and fill new audiences with laughter. The Illusionist is beautifully rendered. The backgrounds teem with a warm nostalgia while the portrayals of everyone from a sad-eyed French chanteuse to a greedy booking agent meld Tati's perception of human nature with the incisive wit of caricature. Chomet also takes liberties with the animals that occupy his world, giving them their own personalities far beyond what Tati could have achieved with the real thing. (Though, I must say, I would have loved to see the flesh-and-blood actor messing around with an honest-to-goodness rabbit.)

As traditional hand-drawn animation continues to become just that, "tradition," it's hard not to greet every movie that bucks the trend as the last of a dying breed. Fittingly, Tati's screenplay already had plenty to say about changing tastes and the obsolescence of old-style entertainment. This gives The Illusionist a surprisingly bittersweet tone in its final act. As his peers drift into other things or have their souls crushed, so too does Alice find other distractions, losing her need for the old man. For Tati, who was as fascinated and amused by technology as he was concerned about its effect on society, the ending is surprisingly concrete. Perhaps this contributed to why he never made The Illusionist himself, it would have required his saying good-bye to an art form he wasn't ready to let go of. Instead, Chomet has made that farewell for him, and done so as tribute. The Illusionist is its own long-distance wave goodbye to a one-of-a-kind performer, a wonderful ode to all that could have been.

Saturday, September 12, 2020


Criterion has always been kind to Jules Dassin, not just keeping many of his best films in print, but consistently upgrading them as new materials and technologies become available. The latest to join the Blu-ray ranks is the 1947-48 double-dose of Brute Force and The Naked City. This aren’t just cursory reissues, however, even if the external packages look the same; these new BDs, coming over a decade after their first editions, have brand-new 4K restorations that are, in a word, exceptional. The black-and-white photography has been fully cleaned-up, utilizing all the best sources, to bring every detail to life in a matter befitting the dark, gritty reality of Dassin’s world.

Burt Lancaster leads Brute Force [original review] as Collins, a desperate convict whose ailing wife has no idea he is in prison and is refusing medical treatment until he returns. This puts pressure on the hoodlum to find a way out, especially since he knows he’s not getting released by any legal means. He is resented and despised by the top guard at the prison, the sadistic Captain Munsey. Hume Cronyn exudes genuine evil as the mean-spirited screw. One scene in particular, where he tortures a man while playing classical music, dressed in only his undershirt, prefigures the greasy malevolence of Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List many decades later. A Nazi connection to this kind of cruelty wasn’t lost on Dassin: the war is very much on the minds of the prisoners, especially the one nicknamed Soldier (Howard Duff), whose tales of combat will provide the blueprint for the breakout.

Soldier isn’t the only other inmate we get to know. Dassin and screenwriter Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood [review]) give each of Collins’ cellmates their due. As with The Naked City [original review]), Dassin is interested in all the stories, not just those of his main protagonist. How each man got to prison, and what they left behind, is important to why they want to get out. Especially since the picture morphs into an existential metaphor. As the alcoholic doctor reminds us in the end, all want escape, but it never comes in a manner we expect. 

There is a similar theme present in The Naked City, particularly in the final scenes when the cops are closing in on the criminal, but the message of producer Mark Hellinger’s narration, and the script by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, is one of good over evil. While Brute Force is a dramatic hellscape where order is being imposed on the chaotic, The Naked City is a law-and-order environment where chaos is doggedly stamped out by the forces of justice. The film, famous for its documentary style and pretty much setting the template for television police procedurals--including its own namesake in the 1960s and eventually the entirety of Law & Order--is about solving one murder, because every life matters, even when that life is embroiled in crime.

Except it doesn’t, does it? Not really. Hence the bittersweet closing shots, and the classic declaration “There are eight million stories in the Naked City, this has been one of them.” Just one, of just one person, now ready to be forgotten. Because this is what we really can’t escape, while also being the only escape: oblivion.

These discs were provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Friday, August 28, 2020

TONI - #1040

is the 1935 drama from revered French director Jean Renoir. By his own admission (as seen in the intro included on this disc), Toni was Renoir’s attempt at Neorealism--though well before such a term existed. A story based in fact, shot in the town where the event happened, using people from the region--it’s not as raw as De Sica or Rossellini, but it is different from your classic Renoir. It’s sharper, less adorned, and more candidly honest about the lives it depicts. 

The titular Toni, as played by Charles Blavette, is an Italian who has come to a remote French community that is home to many migrant workers. Toni works in the quarry, has an affair with the woman running his boarding house (Marie, played by Jenny Hélia), and lusts after the sexy farm girl Josefa (Celia Montlaván). Toni has big romantic notions, but more along the lines of his own success than of the lovemaking kind. Sure, he imagines a future with Josefa, but it’s also part of his bigger plan to take over the quarry and improve his status. This takes on an even more macho cadence when his rival Albert (Max Dalban) also decides to pursue both tgose things. A scant few minutes separate Albert’s encounter with Josefa and Toni’s arrival, enough time for Albert to force his affections on her. Disheartened, Toni marries Marie, leaving Josefa to a less-than-ideal union with Albert. 

But, of course, it doesn’t end there. Josefa’s uncle ties Toni to his niece further by insisting he be the godfather to her child. The twists and tangles this causes marginalizes Marie, exposes Albert’s greed, and basically turns Toni into a weird white-knight stalker.
It’s interesting to consider this material and how Renoir might have approached Toni at a different time. This is really a melodrama in Neorealist clothing. Yet, instead of milking the script for the big emotion, Renoir’s mission aesthetic strips the story of its grandiosity and gets down to the nitty gritty of human desire and selfishness. Toni is no hero, and Josefa is no princess waiting to be rescued. If she has any real affection for either man, it’s never stated. And that kid that Toni is so concerned about protecting? You never really see it. 

Renoir seems fascinated by these sordid affairs. It’s like he’s wound up all these toys just to watch them go. And he inserts innocent bystanders like Toni’s older pal Fernand (Édouard Delmont) to play a little bit of devil’s advocate, to probe on behalf of the filmmaker and his audience, and be a voice of reason when Toni offers none; also, there is a Greek chorus of traveling minstrels reminding us of the macabre ballads that told these stories once upon a time. There is an even keel to the proceedings, the laser focus of Toni’s mission not really allowing for bigger swings, he’s all about what he can make his own. Even Marie’s bold decision in the final third is absent of any exaggeration. She is just as determined as the man who spurned her, and Toni’s heart rate only rises after he realizes the truth too late. (Though, really, it’s Fernand, who himself loves Marie, that pieces it together.) 

This seems by design. By going small, somehow things feel big. One love triangle crumbles, workers disappear, and a new train pulls into the station, unloading those that will come next, to either repeat this squalid history or make their own. The human tide beats on. 

 The new 4K restoration on Toni brings Renoir’s intentions to life, delivering a crisp black-and-white picture that gives sharp life to Claude Renoir’s photography. The location shooting looks amazing in this format, adding to the realism that the cameraman’s father was aiming for.

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

Saturday, August 22, 2020


This review originally written in 2008 for as part of The Stanley Kramer Collection.

For this early production effort from Stanley Kramer, the pioneering producer enlisted the burgeoning talent Dr. Seuss to pen a surreal children's story about a young boy, Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig), who hates playing the piano so much, he dreams of a world where his piano teacher, the nefarious Dr. T (Hans Conreid), is starting an institute where he will enslave 500 young boys and force them to tickle the ivories 24-7. Not only does this dream take on the childhood anxiety of being stuck in a life of boredom, it also addresses Bart's familial loneliness, imagining the nice plumber (Peter Lind Hayes) who has been working in his home as a father figure who will rescue Bart and his widowed mother (Mary Healy) from a life alone.

More of a cult hit than a children's classic, the clunky 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is most remembered for its enormous sets and bizarre villains, which bring Dr. Seuss visions to life in an overtly physical way. Made decades before digital effects, the gigantic locations were all built by hand, and it's fairly obvious. Watching the movie, you feel like you could reach in and pound your fist on the colorful walls. This gives the film a certain quaint charm that makes it possible to look past the barely-there story and wooden acting. Also of note is Hans Conreid, ever so delectable as the villain. He's largely familiar from Disney movies, particularly as the voice of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. It's a real treat to see him ham it up as the diabolical piano maestro.

Sunday, July 19, 2020


"And when I'm lying in my bed 

I think about life and I think about death 

And neither one particularly appeals to me.”
     - The Smiths, “Nowhere Fast”

People don’t like to talk about suicide. They just don’t. They barely want to talk about death and the afterlife as it is; therefore, you know if you’re bringing up ending your own life, it’s going to get uncomfortable.

So Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi) quickly finds in Abbas Kiarostami’s 1997 Cannes-winner Taste of Cherry. Hell, he doesn’t even want to talk about it. He doesn’t wish to share his reasons for getting out, he just needs a practical hand to double-check that he’s carried it through. And thus he drives through Tehran looking to hire someone dependable. He tries three men--a rookie soldier (someone who just does the job), a religious scholar (a man of philosophy and ethics), and a taxidermist (the preservation of the deceased)--all of them immigrants--a Kurd, an Afghani, and a Turk--presumably chosen as such to display Kiarostami’s acknowledgement of a universal experience. We are all passengers on Spaceship Earth.

Badii’s proposal is simple. He has picked out a spot and dug a hole to lie down in. As night falls, he will take all the sleeping pills he can swallow and go to sleep in the hole. At dawn, the man he hires shall go there and call his name. If he does not rouse, the fellow just needs to bury him and a good sum of money will be waiting. Seems easy enough, but the proposition causes reactions. The soldier is scared, the scholar concerned, and the older man, the taxidermist, resigned. Through their responses, Kiarostami crafts a debate around the notions of self-determination and our duty to others, both in terms of what Badii’s actions might mean to those around him and  the potential helper’s duty to stop their fellow man from inflicting harm. Ironically, Badii doesn’t recognize the most concrete example of man’s kindness when he drives his truck off the road and nearby workers rush to push him out of danger. Presumably, there could be relief should he choose. Or is his problem truly without solution, as he would suggest?

Though Taste of Cherry is a movie that thrives on conversation, it is also a film of perpetual motion. A vast majority of the picture’s running time takes place in Badii’s truck as he drives around looking for candidates and then pitches them the plan while taking them out to see where his final resting place is intended to be. This, one can assume, is Kiarostami’s metaphor for life, or at least a representation of how Badii feels about it. Life never stops, there is no rest. The closest Badii gets is a poetic scene where he sits down amongst the rubble of a quarry and watches dirt and rock be churned and ground down. Kiarostami stages the sequence as a kind of shadowplay, the dusky image of the rocks covering the shadow of the man, foreshadowing the peace waiting for him in just a few hours. I think it may be the only time we see Badii smile. In truth, he’s kind of a prick, and his secrecy makes it hard to empathize with him; it’s only in these moments, as emotion shows through, that we find an individual we can sympathize with. When roused from this reverie, Badii will not rest again until his deal is made.

Kiarostami has very much crafted a film here. Taste of Cherry is as rich in visual splendor as any other narrative film with a more complicated plot. The story here is small, but the world is expansive, as we are constantly reminded by the camera’s regular positioning outside the truck. We peer down from the mountains, from the godly perch of the audience, and see Badii driving through the hills, see the towns beyond. We aren’t just with him when we are in the truck, but we are observing him as he moves through the day. We are aware of his place in some kind of ecosystem, and privy to his impact on it. When Badii leaves a man, we do not, we get to stop and see their thoughts the moment after he exits their lives. It works just like any other movie, even if its tale is not standard Hollywood fare.

Which almost makes the coda of Taste of Cherry unnecessary. When Kiarostami exposes the crew, shows us the actors and the cameras at work, he reminds us that this is a motion picture, that no one actually lived or died. Which, we are smart people, we know this. Yet, Kiarostami wants us to stop and think about it, to question how and why we engaged. Much like in his experiment with showing reactions and not the movie being reacted to in Shirin [review], the Iranian director refuses to let the audience be passive, or to leave Badii behind when the lights go out...and come back on. 

Sticking to that theme, Criterion has included a short film called The Project that shows Kiarostami’s process, cutting together footage where he acts out scenes with his son followed by clips of him directing those same scenes with his actors. The raw material shows how passionate Kiarostami is about getting to the truth, and is reminiscent of similar films with Ingmar Bergman, particularly The Making of Fanny and Alexander [review]. It’s amazing to see how the auteur finds the spontaneity in repetition. 

A quick note regarding the new Blu-ray of Taste of Cherry: as a Criterion release with a very low spine number, Cherry was overripe for an upgrade. I’m happy to say that the new 4K restoration has done wonders for the picture quality. The image is sharp and vibrant, full of nuance and detail. Viewers in 2020 and beyond can see all the aspects of that wide world Kiarostami is looking to show.

Sunday, July 12, 2020


This review was written for in 2011.

Had I seen A Separation just a month before, in its year of original release, it would have been amongst my top films of 2011. And it's good enough that I might have to bend the rules when it comes time to pick my favorites of 2012. The Online Film Critics Society, of which I had been a member, voted it the best non-English film of last year. If I could, I'd definitely throw my weight behind it now, too. It's really that good.

A Separation is a narrative drama by Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi. It begins in a courtroom where an unseen judge officiates divorce proceedings between Nader (Peyman Maadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami). Simin has secured a visa to leave the country, but her husband does not want to go. He feels he must stay and take care of his ailing father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi), whose age and Alzheimer's make it impossible for him to travel. He also doesn't want their eleven-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi) to be uprooted. The girl doesn't want to go either, though Simin suspects she's digging in her heels thinking it will keep her parents together. It works to a degree: Simin doesn't leave the country, but she does leave the house and moves back in with her mother.

To help around the apartment and take care of his father while he's at work, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat). She is a devout religious woman who, despite thinking the pay is too low and the commute brutal, must take the job in order to support her family. Her husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini), lost his job at a cobbler's and has not been able to find another. He would disapprove of his wife working for a "single" man, so she and their young daughter, Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini), take the gig in secret.

This is just the tip of Razieh's iceberg-sized problems. She's over four months pregnant and Hodjat's creditors keep putting him in jail. The woman isn't equipped to deal with all these things, and Nader's father proves to be a bigger handful than she expected. When Nader comes home one afternoon to find Razieh gone and his father on the floor, barely alive, he naturally gets upset. When Razieh appears, they argue, and he physically expels her from the apartment. What happens next--and really, how all of this went down--becomes a bone of great contention. Razieh miscarries, and she blames Nader. The baby was far enough along that, under Iranian law, he is charged with murder. Nader countersues for the abuse to his father. A long and heated battle gets underway.

Asghar Farhadi has created a complex and complicated human drama. The length it takes to describe A Separation's central conflict is indicative of just what a tangled mess these people's lives become. Though the split in Nader and Simin's marriage is the inciting incident in this story, it's not the only separation on display. The separation isn't even limited to being between the two families or their religious ideologies, there is at least one additional separation on each side. Neither husband nor wife is on the same page for either family. There is also a severe separation between perception and the truth, between what each person thinks happened and what really went down.

As the arguments grow heated and the contested facts pile on, our own personal take on what is happening becomes as knotted as the emerging explanations--and my stomach became knotted, as well. Farhadi creates an extreme tension by creating realistic characters and putting them in realistic situations. Both Razieh and Nader could go to jail, and maybe Hodjat, as well, and we fear for all of them equally. Though each participant in this mess can be irritating at different times, it's difficult to take any one side. Farhadi avoids creating any clear heroes or villains. These are all essentially good people trying to keep their lives from falling apart. Nader stubbornly clings to his belief that he's not at fault, even when it might harm his daughter's life, because her image of him is more important than an easy solution. Likewise, Razieh has no other way to deal with her loss, nor much option for how else to see her family through the financial crisis that grips them.

In terms of performances, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better ensemble of actors than this one. Each performer, from young to old, and regardless of how many lines they have, is compelling and believable. There is no one overriding emotion that defines their role. Shahab Hosseini as Hodjat, for instance, could have easily been boxed in as a hot-tempered loser, but instead he is shown as a proud man whose life failings have made him vulnerable. On the flipside, we get to see what a good father Nader can be, but that devotion to his family is also responsible for his having to make moral compromises. Or, at least, think he has to. Peyman Maadi portrays him as a man who is losing strength, and the more doubts he allows to be voiced, the harder it is to maintain his self-belief.

As is often the case in life, there is no satisfactory resolution for anyone caught up in A Separation's drama. There is no great victory to be won here, nor any singular, overriding truth. Farhadi stays true to the naturalism of the piece and let's the things that can't be known, that could not be witnessed or proven outright, remain just as ill-defined at the finish as they were at the start of the dispute. These schisms here can't be traversed or closed. This isn't to say A Separation itself is not satisfying, because it is very much the opposite, even if some of the feelings the ending inspires might be mixed. I still can't quite get at what I want to say about it. Is it that there being no winners or losers provides more comfort for the audience because this means that all of these characters that we have become so invested in will be able to carry on somehow? Or is it the universal feeling of disappointment, that regardless of background or philosophy, we all struggle? It could be that it's meant to shake us to our cores, and it's not positive at all. Regardless, one can't leave A Separation without being effected by it. Just as all of the players in its narrative touch one another, the film touches the audience in profound ways that can't be easily resolved.

Saturday, July 4, 2020


This review was originally written for in 2011.

Man, I'm like...what?

There are times when this job is just a pain. When I probably would have stopped a movie before it was done and just walked away. When I can't, and so I have to instead come into my office and try to figure out something to say, and it's just not there.

The Future has inspired one of those times. It's the new film from performance artist/author Miranda July, who made half a good movie back in 2005 called Me and You and Everyone We Know. That movie chronicled the twee romance between two average people and the growing pains of a pair of children, and it had moments of true insight (the kids) and other moments of contrived oddness (the romance). But it was all right, nothing too baffling, nothing too unctuous.

July's sophomore effort is a whole other matter. The ratio of what works to what doesn't has gotten a lot more lopsided, and though I wouldn't call The Future bad, it does lack focus and seasoning.

The script portrays a couple in their mid-30s who have decided to adopt a stray cat they have found. They named it Paw Paw and took it to an animal shelter where it is being treated for its hurt front paw (I guess that's where they got the name) and other health problems. At first they were told that Paw Paw would only live six months, but now the vet says it could be several years if they take care of it. So, instead of six months of adult responsibility followed by a lifetime of freedom, the couple sees the thirty days they have to wait for Paw Paw to be healed enough to come home as their last month to live. Jason (Hamish Linklater from The New Adventures of Old Christine) decides that they need to go nuts now and sow any remaining wild oats before they become parents, so he quits his tech-support job answering distress calls in their apartment and encourages Sophie (July) to give notice at the dance school where she's an instructor. Having loosed the shackles of employment, they can do anything they can dream up.

Except they don't dream big. Jason volunteers for an environmental initiative selling trees door to door; Sophie decides to record a dance a day for the full thirty and upload them to YouTube. As it turns out, Jason isn't cut out for sales and Sophie isn't very creative. So, he pretends to go to work and instead spends the day with an old man (Joe Putterlik) who turns out to be himself from the future while she sneaks out and has an affair with a single dad (David Warshofksy) they randomly met at the vet.

Yeah, you read that right. Jason meets himself from the future. There are funny things with time in this movie. There are also scenes where the cat Paw Paw speaks to the audience, explaining his (her?) changing life, anticipations, and disappointments. Surprisingly, these are the best parts of The Future. The tricks Jason pulls make for a neat pay-off, bringing up questions about fate and how much of our lives we waste and what it might take to wrest control back from the universe. Even the talking cat is endearing, despite the voice Miranda July gives Paw Paw being pretty damn terrible. You can forgive her lack of vocal chops because it's kind of cute and, somehow, the cat ends up being the most emotionally honest character in the whole film.

The rest of The Future, however, is pretty underwhelming and tainted with a forced oddness. July seems desperate to maintain a labored indie cool, which maybe she could do if she were a better actress. The writing is fairly sharp, but her affected screen presence is tiresome. Hamish Linklater spends the entire movie outclassing her, and it gets embarrassing. He is so natural and heartfelt in front of the camera, you can't help but wish he were in a different movie. It's like July keeps trying to push The Future one way and no matter how much her lead actor points her the other way, she refuses to listen. Even the music by Jon Brion (Magnolia, I Heart Huckabees) is overly contrived, nearly spoiling the movie's most surprising scene by spreading a sickly organ underneath.

There's a Pet Shop Boys song called "Being Boring" where, essentially, they play with the old phrase that if you're never boring, you won't be bored. It came to mind a lot while watching The Future. Sophie and Jason are people who don't really do anything because they aren't very interested in what they set out to do. I suppose this is Miranda July's point: they don't know what they want, and the movie represents a divide between their purposeless younger lives and what may possibly be a new beginning. Or not. She goes back to bed, he sits and reads a book, that's not very interesting either. It's ironic, but ennui needs more flair than this. The Future lacks any pronounced style, and its magical moments have the same drab look of the everyday life that makes up the rest of the picture. If you're going to be weird, Ms. July, be weird, don't settle on quirky; if you're going to track your characters crawling out of their boredom, shoot it like you care. Or are at least trying.

Because it makes it hard for me to care or try when you don't. And it makes it not just hard to start reviewing your film, but also hard to finish. I've come up with a lot to say, but no clever way to wrap it up, no cohesion. Call it "giving as good as you get."