Wednesday, May 25, 2022

ON THE BOWERY - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011. 



Lionel Rogosin's 1957 film On the Bowery is a landmark of independent cinema and a key component in the expansion of the documentary genre. Shot over several months in New York's infamous skid row district, Rogosin adopts the ethos of the Italian Neorealists and applies it to the American experience. His movie, while not perfect, is an emotional document of a harsh reality, teeming with honest interest that goes far beyond mere voyeurism or common exploitation.


The son of a wealthy textile family, Rogosin turned to filmmaking as a response to WWII. He wanted to make sense of a world he thought had gone crazy and to use his family's riches for something more important than just making more money. It took him a while to suss out just how to make a film, and to assemble his crew from amongst New York's cinema population, but by the mid-1950s, he had it sorted. He spent six months by himself living on the streets of the Bowery, getting to know the men there. From amongst his new drinking buddies he pulled out several distinct personalities, including the two key players in the eventual movie: Ray Salyer, a handsome Kentucky boy on the sauce, and Gorman "Doc" Hendricks, an old salt who knew his way around the bar and flophouse alike.



On the Bowery is a loosely plotted assemblage of real footage and staged scenes. While they are easy to tell apart, one does not weigh heavier than the other. Salyer plays himself as a new arrival to the drunken streets, with Gorman both taking him under his wing and taking advantage of him. For many on the drink, another man's worth only extends as far as his bar tab, and the undulating patterns of a life spending nights getting soused and mornings fighting the hangover set a pattern for these lost souls that they can't get out of. Someone like Ray still means it when he swears he will kick the habit, but a guy with as much experience as Gorman knows otherwise. The best exchange of the movie is when Gorman says he has sworn similar oaths 1,000 times, and Ray counters that he's younger and so he's only tried it 800 times. It's meant to be funny, but there's not much faith put in the notion that one of those last 200 will be the magical cure.


Conversations like that one punctuate the "narrative" of On the Bowery, keeping Ray's basic story on track. His struggle to survive the skids was the sketch that Rogosin and his collaborators, cameraman Richard Bagley (he also shot Sidney Meyers' The Quiet One) and writer Mark Sufrin, put together to keep the film moving forward. In the midst of these controlled improvisations, they cut in footage of the real men on the street. Each chiseled visage implies its own sad story. Eventually, the faces move off the corners and into the bars, and when they've had enough to drink, the reality and the fiction merge. The party turns into a cacophony of arguments and come ons, and even fist fights.



Editor Carl Lerner is credited with helping Rogosin shape his hours of footage into a concise, cohesive movie, and it's to his credit that it all hangs together. (Lerner would go on to edit such classics as 12 Angry Men [review] and The Fugitive Kind. [review]) The bulk of On the Bowery never really feels manipulative or manipulated. Rogosin only strays into conventional fiction when he attempts to wrangle the ending into something of a message. Granted, Gorman's final act of kindness toward Ray is born out of guilt for ripping him off, and the good Doc exaggerates his contribution in his own retelling of it, so at least it's still honest about what motivated him. Rogosin pushes hope, but his fingers are crossed.


The archival print of On the Bowery, put together by the Cineteca di Bologna and archivist Davide Pozzithe and distributed by the fine people at Milestone Films, is exceptional. The image quality is fantastic, and Bagley's stark photography serves to preserve a history that might otherwise have been lost. The conditions we see are filthy, and yet, sadly, not all that unfamiliar. I was hit up for spare change as soon as I left the theatre, and I'm ashamed to say, my first response was to lie and say I had nothing to give. I thought better of it shortly after and gave the man what I had. I don't expect a pat on the back, I was as selfishly motivated as Gorman or anyone else in the movie; I just admit it here as a reminder to myself to maybe not be so quick to take the default position in the future. How else can I suggest you watch a movie like On the Bowery and listen to what Lionel Rogosin has to say? Critic, heal thyself.




Sunday, May 22, 2022

MOONTIDE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2008. 



Jean Gabin was one of the earliest stars of French cinema, sort of like the Parisian Humphrey Bogart. A man's man and an extremely physical actor, he played tough guys in movies like Pepe le Moko and Port of Shadows. When I call him a physical actor, I don't mean that he was doing stunts like Erol Flynn and jumping around, but that he acted with his entire body, becoming the role in full the way Gerard Depardieu would decades later (or, for a more contemporary reference, Javier Bardem). At the same time, he also had that classic Hollywood quality where, regardless of the role he played, he was always Jean Gabin. His gestures, his way of speaking, the very way he carried himself--all Jean Gabin.


Archie Mayo's 1942 suspense picture Moontide was Gabin's first Hollywood production after emigrating stateside when the Germans rolled into France. In it, Gabin is still very much Gabin, but this time in English. He plays Bobo, a carefree dockworker in his cups on the Southern California coast. Bobo sees life as a party, and he hits the whiskey pretty heavy to keep it going. The whiskey hits back pretty hard, too, leaving the seaman with many nights unaccounted for. One in particular may need more accounting for than others: an old salt that Bobo argued with early in the evening is dead by morning, having been strangled. It seems maybe Bobo has killed with his hands before, and he may have done so again. His buddy Tiny (Thomas Mitchell) might know, but Tiny may also be keeping his lips zipped just to keep the Bobo gravy train going. It pays to harbor a man's secrets.



Things go the other way the next night, however, when Bobo sees a young woman trying to drown herself and pulls her out of the water. Anna (Ida Lupino) is a waitress with secrets of her own, and Bobo refuses to hear what drove the lady into the water, instead letting secrets remain so. Though traditionally a wanderer, Bobo decides to settle down and run a bait shop with Anna. Naturally, Tiny doesn't like seeing his ship moored, and so he tries to make trouble for the couple. It becomes a game of who knows what, who is bluffing, and who will call those bluffs.


For his American debut, Gabin surrounds himself with a marvelous ensemble of actors, and he more than holds his own. Bobo is a character who takes whatever comes how it comes, and Gabin lets his body hang loose for the role, saying just as much with his graceful and comic hand gestures as he does through dialogue. He's excellent with Lupino, whose frail demeanor is perfect for the world-weary Anna. She goes from tentative to increasingly confident in Bobo's care, even eventually mustering the strength to stand up to Tiny. As the bad guy, Thomas Mitchell almost owns the whole show. The character actor is probably best known as Uncle Billy in It's A Wonderful Life [review] and the Mayor in High Noon [review], far cheerier roles than this one, and it's actually a shame he didn't get to be the heavy more often. Tiny is a real bottom-feeding weasel, the kind of guy you love to hate and whose mere presence adds tension to a scene. If you said that they didn't have to cue Bobo's dog to growl at him every time he came near, he just got testy because Mitchell made the canine believe he really was a lout, I'd not doubt it. He also brings an intriguingly obsessive edge to the role that lends some fire to the homoerotic undertones in the Tiny/Bobo relationship. Being gay would certainly explain why Bobo keeps taking off to go fishing or work on an engine rather than spend the night with his woman, which otherwise just looks like a clumsy device to clear the way for Tiny to victimize Anna.



Of the strong cast, only Claude Rains (Casablanca) seems to be playing under his usual caliber. Perhaps it's just the nature of his role, though. The character of Nutsy is more of an observer who occasionally doles out some barroom wisdom rather than being a completely active participant in the melodrama. That particular role certainly isn't the only thing undercooked in Moontide. Despite having such amazing actors and a narrative gumbo that practically demands Mayo pour on the spice, Moontide is a pot that never boils. The entire picture moves at an even pace, never speeding up to match the bloodlust or slowing down to enjoy any other kind. The direction is workmanlike, only mustering up any semblance of a style in a few of the late-night shots and one amazing, Dali-inspired drunken montage. Then again, how hard is it to get a dramatic image by backlighting an actor on a foggy coastline? Plus, we don't know how much of that was really Fritz Lang, who left the movie after two weeks of shooting, making room for Mayo.


Moontide is neither dark enough for a noir, nor histrionic enough to be a truly effective melodrama. The seas should rage, but instead, the waves roll in calmly with barely enough force to push a dead body ashore. Not a terrible movie, but not all that memorable either--just disappointing.





Saturday, May 21, 2022

BERNIE - CRITERION CHANNEL

 This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2012.



There's something about the way the title card declaring that Bernie is based on a true story that compels you to think that maybe you're being conned. Perhaps it's just that Fargo has made the moviegoing audience a bit suspicious of quirky films about a murder in a small town, but it's not helped that co-writer and director Richard Linklater and star Jack Black, who previously worked together on The School of Rock, don't even try to hide their tongues in their cheeks. They're pushing those suckers hard against the inside of their mouths. The bulges are evident.


And yet, Bernie is taken from real life. The story of an East Texas funeral director who killed his rich benefactor and then spent nine months pretending she was alive while he spent her money has already done the "true crime" rounds. Screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth wrote the article that is the basis for the film. His angle was to focus on the fact that many of the citizens in Bernie Tiede's community rallied around him and pushed for leniency despite his having shot a senior citizen in the back four times. Linklater makes much dark comedic hay out of this idea, attempting a light-hearted version of a docudrama by blending "real" interviews with "authentic" townspeople with the more traditional humorous staging of the events. The effort is noble, if not entirely successful.



Black is amusing and restrained as Bernie, a religious-minded funeral director who, by all accounts, took his job seriously and extended generosity to the families he aided above and beyond the norm. He had a particular ability to get along with the older widows, and he managed to charm the uncharmable. Marjorie Nugent, who is played with particular comedic aplomb by Shirley MacLaine, was a pretty mean old woman. Her husband owned the local bank, and both of them were notorious misers. Bernie and her became friends, traveling all over the world together, though eventually Bernie became more of an on-call servant. As Marjorie grew more and more demanding, he snapped and shot her with the "armadillo gun."


Or so he says. The county district attorney, Danny Buck, thinks otherwise. Buck is played by Matthew McConaughey, whose big break was back in Linklater's Dazed and Confused [review]. McConaughey has traded that film's feathered hair and tight T-shirts for a bad wig and ill-fitting suit, yet he has kept all the cockiness. Buck is convinced that Bernie is more of an operator than he lets on. Their neighbors think Buck is the operator, that he's just an opportunist with a re-election campaign to manage. All the money Bernie spent while hiding the body was to help out his friends, and no one liked Marjorie much anyway. Where's the harm?



Bernie strikes a tenuous balance between macabre humor and gruesome reality. The down-home values angle is a bit of a trick. One gets the sense that Linklater wants us to have some sympathy for Buck, who, for whatever his flaws, would rather see the law upheld than distorted by some kind of misguided sense of charity. The problem is, the writing is too wishy-washy, never really coming down firmly on either side of the argument. It's almost as if Linklater himself was charmed by the folksy wisdom and forgot that it's not as imbued with common sense as the tellers seem to think. They con the filmmaker, even in absentia, as much as Buck believed that Bernie conned them.


The other problem with Bernie is that, like its main character, it's almost too nice. The storytelling is elevated by a genial comic touch, and I never got the sense that Jack Black is making fun of the man he's portraying; at the same time, I started to wish everyone involved would stop being so damned polite and start getting more invasive. We never get to really know Bernie Tiede, we never figure out what makes him tick. Sure, there are segments questioning whether he and his victim were ever romantic or if he was actually gay, but these notions are treated as so silly as to almost be immaterial. It's quite possible that Tiede's mercurial personality is what makes his story so fascinating, but if that's the case, that's something the film needs to own up to. Danny Buck almost touches on it in his closing arguments, but then Bernie shies away again.


Linklater has made a movie that is hard not to enjoy, but it's also equally hard to love. I like a lot of what he has done here. Playing the fake documentary element with such a straight face while at the same time letting the dramatization be more loose and carefree is kind of an interesting take on the genre--though, if I'm going to watch a mockumentary about a delusional theater person in a small rural town, I'm going to go with Waiting for Guffman. It's a better film. The kind of better film Bernie should have been. Instead, Bernie's just all right.





Saturday, April 16, 2022

THE ROBE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2009.

 


But...were you...out there?! 

 

No, it's not a Dennis Hopper line from Apocalypse Now or a hippy come-on from one of his buddy Peter Fonda's biker gang movies. It's the strange religious tic bestowed upon the morally conflicted Roman tribune Marcellus Gallio, effected with the appropriate amount of disbelief by Richard Burton, apparently counting his money in the pauses. It's meant to ask the sinners that surround him if they were there when he drove the nails into Jesus' hands, or whether they are amongst the untouched and unaware. 

 

Luckily for Christianity, this sales pitch has long since fallen by the wayside since it was entered into the brochure back in 1953, when The Robe sucked in gobs of money and lost five Academy Awards. Unless Jesus' message of everlasting peace is meant to refer to the extended nap this non-historical anti-epic will make you long for, because The Robe is more suitable for selling a comfy pillow than a religion. At one point midway through the first act, a rather bewildered Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone), searching for an answer as to who gave him this icky script, declares that he needs to wash his hands. It's a rather obvious Biblical allusion, one the nearby servant has probably heard too many times before. He slouches against the wall, arms folded, barely able to muster the energy to tell Pilate, "You've already washed them." If that actor had put that clip on his audition reel, he'd have been sure to get a part as an extra in The Wild One [review] playing Juvenile Delinquent #5 standing by the jukebox and finding nothing worth rebelling against. 

 

I mean, seriously, if the actors in the movie are this disinterested in it, what hope do we have? 

 


For those looking for the summary, here it goes: Marcellus Gallio, a rival of Caligula (Jay Robinson), pisses off his more powerful enemy to such a degree that he is banished to Jerusalem to learn his lesson. He takes along his muscular and tanned Greek slave Demetrius (an appallingly bad Victor Mature), who immediately upon stepping foot in the Holy Land meets the Messiah's gaze and is instantly converted. (Jesus, too embarrassed by this production, never allows his face to be seen.) Sucks to be the slave, then, whose master is the dude wielding the hammer up on Calvary. Heartbroken, Demetrius absconds with the dead Christ's frock, which burns the flesh of Marcellus when he tries to wear it. Demetrius flees, and Marcellus, feared to be mad, is sent on a quest to find the cursed garment and destroy it. He finds religion instead, leading the crusade back to Rome and reclaiming his betrothed (Jean Simmons, who was much luckier when Hamlet sent her down the river). 

 

Now, before you fire up your hate mail, don't get this twisted: I have no problem with the religious content of the movie, as hamfisted as it is. I've done my time in Sunday School, and sure, if there is a maximum on eye rolling that gets one condemned, they are preparing a place in Hell for me right now. Even so, if a story is told well, I don't care what religion or philosophy it peddles. Dazzle me with your skills, kid, and I'll listen to whatever you're hawking. Such is not the case with The Robe

 

 

 

Directed by Henry Koster (Flower Drum Song) from a script by Philip Dunne (The Agony & the Ecstasy) and Albert Maltz (The Naked City [review]), adapted from a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas (Magnificent Obsession [review]), The Robe is a drag from start to finish. The cast seems uninterested because the script isn't interesting. If the medium is the message, the writers decided to stop at the message and let the rest sort itself out. There is no tension, no passion, all of the converts walk around like blissed-out zombies, and there is no sense of their savior's majesty. Apparently this party was BYOB: Bring Your Own Belief, because no one is going to bother to explain theirs. Just trust that what they are doing is important, m'kay? 

 

Where there is a sense of majesty in The Robe, and what makes it still enough of a curiosity to recommend a viewing by cinephiles, is its use of the massively wide frame of Cinemascope. The first picture released using the 2.55:1 aspect ratio, The Robe gave Henry Koster a cinematic canvas never before available. As Martin Scorsese says in his introduction to the picture included on some home videos releases, you have to imagine the curtain opening ever wider while you're sitting at the theatre, exposing new dimensions to the screen than you had seen previously. Koster packs his frame with detail, be it a two-shot close-up or a wide panoramic shot of ancient Rome or the crucifixion up on a distant mountain. Sure, his camera pretty much never moves, so it's all static shots from start to finish, but still, you have to appreciate just how much movie there is to gaze upon frame by frame. 

 

Just remember that for every moment where your breath is taken away, there are at least five more opportunities to steal it back. 

 


 

Saturday, April 9, 2022

THE LAST WALTZ - #1118

 


I used to have a Thanksgiving ritual involving The Last Waltz. I am not unique in this. If you google “Thanksgiving movie,” Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary is pretty much the first thing to pop up. And I didn't even invent my ritual, I stepped into it.


Years ago when I still lived in Portland, OR, I would spend most holidays on my own. It started when I was originally a comic book editor and was essentially looking for any time where I might have peace. Holidays proved a good option. Everyone's attention was focused elsewhere, and so I could be by myself, uninterrupted. This meant dodging invitations and making excuses to family, but it was worth it if it meant I could stay home and get drunk with my cat and marathon movies all day. It wasn't me being antisocial so much as being pro-Me. Ron Swanson would understand. 

 


When I had moved into the upper Northwest in the early '00s, it put me within blocks of a place called The Stepping Stone Café. They were open for the holiday breakfast shift, and I would take myself down there and grab a seat at the counter, order a fat stack of pancakes they called “Mancakes”--no joke, the triple stack was over six-inches thick and the size of the whole plate--and just gorge myself. Most of the time my actual holiday meal later would be something like a turkey sandwich with cranberry, or whatever diminutive version of a Thanksgiving spread I could find in the store that was easy to prepare, so I could eat as much as I wanted for breakfast, I didn't have to keep room. Not to mention this would be the base I would pour whiskey on for the next 10-12 hours.


Those Thanksgiving mornings, the Stepping Stone would play The Last Waltz. Now, if you haven't seen it--or even if you had and your memory is just poor because you got totally blotto after doing so--you might be wondering how a documentary showcasing the final concert of 1970s roots rockers The Band is a Thanksgiving film. The answer is simple: they recorded the show on Thanksgiving. And guitarist/singer Robbie Robertson at one point thanks the audience for spending the day with them. Pretty straightforward.

 


You could tell the staff at the Stepping Stone knew the movie by heart, and they each had their moment where you could see them paying attention. Like if it were me I'd perk up when Neil Diamond came on, and I'd take a bathroom break when it was Van Morrison, who looks and sounds like a troll, let's be honest. (It's okay to hate him now, right? His caustic old age has vindicated me, yeah?) Whatever chunk I'd see was the chunk I'd see, it was not planned, it was reliant on when they hit play versus when I arrived. That was my exposure to The Last Waltz. Playing the soundtrack in the background as I type, I can actually smell the maple syrup.


For those not really in the know, stumbling on this review wondering if this Criterion disc is worth picking up or if you should rent/stream the film somewhere, The Last Waltz is a combination concert film and denouement. Scorsese interlaces interviews with members of the group with performance footage. The songs we hear are not just from The Band, but their collaborations with famous guests like the aforementioned Diamond and Morrison, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, and many more. It's a celebration not just of this particular combo, but of a certain era of rock-and-roll. Scorsese's cut is joyful and funny, and slyly introspective, cherry-picking moments that reveal what the music has meant and what is passing.

 

 

Of course, having established themselves as the backing section when Dylan went electric, whatever these guys did would get attention, particularly from the peers who agreed to pop up for this farewell. Not to mention the clutch of solid records and handful of genuine hits--“Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” “Ophelia,” etc.--that followed, legitimizing them as a songwriting force in their own right. This set is all killer and no filler.


That said, I, for one, agree with drummer/singer Levon Helm that there is too much Robertson. But I also got a shitty email once from Robbie Robertson so maybe I am biased. I was trying to get him to write an introduction for a comic book I was editing called Skinwalker that I felt he'd have an affinity for. He declined via his assistant, whom he instructed to mansplain what a skinwalker was. Which clearly showed he hadn't even looked at the comic. Call me Team Levon.


Come on, though, let's be fair, when you think of The Band, the first voice you hear in your head is Levon Helm. His verse on “The Weight”? Top of the heap!


And then the next voice you'll hear is that of bassist Rick Danko. So Robbie Robertston isn't even top 2.


Team Levon.

 


Funny thing, I am not entirely sure I had ever watched the full run of The Last Waltz in one go before this Criterion edition. I may have only just seen pieces at The Stepping Stone, despite owning a previous release as part of a Scorsese boxed set. The Band isn't really the sort of thing I listen to on the regular; I've never owned their music as a piece of physical media beyond that DVD and now this Blu-Ray. But I saw random 45 minute hunks of it so many Thanksgivings in a row, it feels like it's in my bloodstream, and I love it regardless of my personal fandom otherwise. Granted, the picture and sound here are both so sweet, it does feel like the first time regardless. Technology has a weird way of making the familiar seem revelatory.

 


2014 was the last year I was in Portland, though I did visit the city for the Thanksgiving weekend a couple of years back and made my way from my hotel to that old cafe to get my Mancakes and my dose of Levon, Rick, Garth, and the rest (including Robbie). Even if I am a guy not often prone to nostalgia, it still felt pretty good. No idea if they were playing the same copy of The Last Waltz that I had seen so many years prior or if they will now upgrade to a Criterion disc, maybe even 4K who knows--it doesn't really matter. The first time or the fifth time or the time that feels like a second first, it's all of a piece, it's ingrained now, the maple syrup always tastes good. 

 


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

 


Sunday, February 27, 2022

MILLER'S CROSSING - #1112


Miller's Crossing is a perfect film.


Critics hesitate to say that. You are more likely to see us write “almost perfect” than “perfect” because the latter can be hard to justify. What are you going to do? Go through it frame by frame and make sure no one left their coffee cup in the shot?


Miller's Crossing resonates with craft. It dazzles with its turns of phrase and plot alike. It gets more intriguing the more often you see it. Every performance crackles, right down to the tiniest cameo – Sam Raimi's guffaw just before he gets gunned down; Frances McDormand's flirty, high-class secretary – everyone is on point. It's endlessly quotable to the point that the IMDB memorable quotes section should just be a pdf of the full screenplay. The damn thing is perfect.



Released in 1990, Miller's Crossing is the second stab at noir homage from Joel and Ethan Coen (the first being their marvelous Blood Simple). This one is set in the 1920s, the first era of the American gangster (in cinema, at least), away from the big city, somewhere in the semi-rural U.S. It tells the tale of an avoidable gang war between an Irish boss, Leo, (Albert Finney) and an Italian boss, Caspar (Jon Polito). The Italian is mad that a bookie, Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), is undercutting his fixes by stepping on the odds. Leo is dating the bookie's sister Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), so he's loathe to do anything against the brother and risk displeasing her. His gunman, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), advises him to put business before pleasure and give Bernie Bernbaum* to Caspar. Tom doesn't think Verna is on the up-and-up, and he should know because he's sleeping with her, too. 


(*Never just “Bernie,” always “Bernie Bernbaum.”)



I am not sure if Tom and Verna's infidelity is the first double-cross in Miller's Crossing, but it's one of the earliest amidst countless. So many double-crosses they likely double back on themselves and cross again. You could map them out if you want to, but this chaos is by design. It's moving faster than Tom can keep up, and part of the thrill of watching the film is to see how Tom manages the sharp turns and wondering if he can ever get ahead. (Hint: he does, but that's not necessarily by design.) Gabriel Byrne is a cool customer, and he makes for a worthy noir protagonist, always ready with a quip and maybe a little too slow with a punch.



Modern takes on noir can be a real mess. Many filmmakers mistake style for substance and imitation becomes parody. I think the only American entertainment institution that seems to get more misses than noir is The Twilight Zone. In both cases, the mistakes are similar: it's not about the plot twists, it's about the humanity. (Sorry, Jordan Peele.) The Coens are often criticized for allegedly being cold or distant, but I think this is a misreading. Their characters function within the story as who they are, with little need for side trips into maudlin backstory. Nothing would slow Miller's Crossing down more than a flashback to Tom Reagan's childhood. He's moving in the here and now. Boil it down and the cast of Miller's Crossing is all after the same thing: survival. And they all are looking for the partner that will get through with them, be it a business agreement (Leo and Tom, Caspar and Eddie Dane (J.E. Freeman)) or romantic (Dane and Mink (Steve Buscemi, Mink and Bernie Bernbaum; Leo and Verna, Verna and Tom). When you get down to it, all the betrayals are personal. Only Tom steps outside that to make alliances of convenience, ones he may not mean; whereas the ones he does mean, there is no going back on. Hence his being alone in the end.


To type that all out...well, it's just as knotted as the more visceral plot of Miller's Crossing. The punching and the shooting. The lethal wisecracks.



What makes Miller's Crossing so endlessly watchable, though, is not the precise scripting or Barry Sonnenfeld's lively photography or even the endless questioning of where it will go next, it's the glee with which the Coens embrace the genre. This is what works for them every time they try mimicking something new, be it the Preston Sturges delights of Intolerable Cruelty or the energized staging of Joel's recent foray into Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth: the gusto with which they immerse themselves in the form. In Miller's Crossing, they are re-living their favorite gangster pictures, and as a result, something fresh and new is born.



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


Friday, January 21, 2022

LES VAMPIRES - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2012.



Long before there were "comic book movies," and indeed, some time before comic books really became what they are today, French filmmaker Louis Feuillade was making silent film serials that predicted the best of true comic book storytelling. His films Fantomas and Judex [the 1916 version, not to be confused with this] told stories of masked figures getting involved in impossible adventures; silver-screen epics broken into episodes, released over a period of time, with each new chapter escalating the peril. These lengthy soap operas were pulp fiction for the cinema set.


In addition to those films, Feuillade also made Les Vampires, a ten-part movie released over the course of 1915 and 1916. Now considered one of the crowning achievements of early moviemaking, Les Vampires is a salacious crime picture, full of twists and turns and a deliciously freeform sense of storytelling. It can be rickety at times--there is definitely a downside to the "anything can happen" ethos--but it's also addictive, each segment ending on a note that makes us want to know what will happen next. Feuillade is anything if not a master of cliffhangers.



The hero of Les Vampires is Philipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé), a reporter for Paris' leading newspaper. Guérande has been working a long-term assignment, trying to expose the inner workings of an underground criminal organization that goes by the name "Les Vampires." These are ordinary hoodlums who use masks and secret identities to pull all manner of crimes. They are not the supernatural bloodsuckers the name implies--sorry, no Draculas here--but they do employ extraordinary techniques and deadly gadgets to get their work done. Feuillade also flirts with Stoker-like imagery. For instance, one segment involves a ballet dancer to whom Guérande is engaged. She is dancing in a production that dramatizes the sordid lives of the Vampires, and thus puts her in their cross-hairs. Her costume, based on one of the actual villains of the piece, looks every bit like a bat-winged succubus, and her murder is carried out in a particularly macabre fashion. Feuillade was giving the horror fans a knowing wink. These evildoers have taken on this name for a reason.


Of all the varied elements of Les Vampires, the facet that has found a permanent place in pop culture is Irma Vep. The name is an anagram for "vampire," and she is both a cabaret performer and the top lady crook in the Vampires organization. Played by one-named actress Musidora, Irma Vep came to embody the image of the vamp, a particular kind of femme fatale--though vamping also means to play up certain seductive traits, to exaggerate one's own sense of desirability, much as Musidora does in the film. Her black body suit, the one mimicked by the ballerina, would inspire many larger-than-life ladies that followed, fictional and otherwise, and the character would be paid homage in other movies, on album covers, and, of course, comic books. (Most notable, Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep with Maggie Cheung [review].)



Despite the revered critical status that Les Vampires has acquired over the last century, it's necessary to note that it is an imperfect effort. The lengthiness of the film, which on one hand makes it such a fascinating cinematic endeavor, can also be its downfall. Individual sequences feel drawn out, with the acting in particular overemphasizing things that the audience is likely to grasp much quicker than Feuillade apparently anticipated. The performance style in Les Vampires often veers very close to the cliché that comes to mind when many think of silent film. Édouard Mathé in particular is exceedingly demonstrative and seems to be mugging for the camera, displaying the kind of exaggerated pantomime that his better contemporaries learned to avoid.


That said, there is still so much to like about Les Vampires, it's easy to ignore its faults and just go with it. The ridiculous scrapes that Guérande finds himself in pile on one after the other. Each new chapter brings more colorful characters, as well as regular visits from the comic relief, the silly but charmed Mazamette (Marvel Lévesque), with his seemingly endless string of children and the equally endless string of jobs to pay for them. He is like the Wimpy to Guérande's Popeye. And, of course, the true appeal of Les Vampires is the cliffhanger stylings, the way Feuillade teases out the suspense, leading the viewer through the pretzel-like plot with both confidence and, despite the aforementioned laboriousness, an invigorating spontaneity. There is always a sense of discovery at work in this tale, and the fun is in sticking around to see how it all pans out. Will the rival gang ever get the upper hand and take out the Vampires? Will Guérande ever expose the full story? And what of Irma Vep...? Hit the next button, go to the next chapter, it's the only way to get your answers!




Thursday, January 20, 2022

BRIGHT STAR - CRITERION CHANNEL

 This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2009.



As a moody, death-obsessed writer whose genius has yet to be recognized, Jane Campion's portrayal of poet John Keats in her new film Bright Star hit a little too close to home. Depressed, misunderstood, doomed romance--hey, John, I can identify. Just tell me how I can be lucky enough to get tuberculosis, and I'll follow you all the way down. Damn my parents and their stupid vaccinations!*


Bright Star isn't an all-encompassing biopic of the Romantic poet, but rather, it follows Keats over a couple of specific years, beginning in 1818 when the young writer met the love of his life and the tragic turn that soon followed. Keats is played by Ben Whishaw, who portrayed the antagonistic, on-trial version of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' I'm Not There (he was the one in black-and-white who wasn't Cate Blanchett) [review]. He's getting pretty good at this broody poet thing. Alternately cocky, self-loathing, and frightfully charismatic, he makes Keats a dark and dreamy apparition. Thus, it's no wonder that the pretty young seamstress, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish, Elizabeth: The Golden Years [review]), is attracted to him, despite having no understanding of poetry and thinking that wit and smooth moves on the dancefloor are the two best traits in a man. Opposites do attract, though, and both the poet and the girl have an intensity to their personalities that somehow makes them a perfect match.


Not that everyone would agree. Socially, John Keats is a pauper. His books don't sell, and he has no viable prospects, so as a candidate for marriage, he doesn't lead the pack. He's also friends with another poet, Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider, All the Real Girls and TV's Parks and Recreation), a crank who is protective of Keats' talent and also distrustful of women, especially girls he sees as flirty and frivolous. Fanny fits this category as far as he is concerned, and the two spare no opportunity to express their disdain for one another. Ironically, Charles is probably more along the lines of what Fanny expects of a male suitor, even if his humor is much darker and pointed than she would like. Paul Schneider, whose previously been best known for his David Gordon Green collaborations, gives the best performance of his career as the sardonic poet. I've never seen him so comfortable in his own skin and so at ease with his lines. His previous performances often relied on a quirky naturalism that is all but gone here, replaced by a more forceful presence. Some of the film's strongest scenes come as Brown is revealed to lack the moral purity that was so valued by the Romantics. He is not John Keats, and he knows it, and he can live with it as long as no one else points it out.



Campion, who also wrote the screenplay for Bright Star, establishes a fascinating social order in the movie. No one here is entirely well off, and though they are members of polite society, there is some funds-stretching going on. One trick is apparently moving house a lot, following the changing seasons in search of cheaper lodgings. This puts the Brawne family--Fanny's widowed mother and her two siblings--in the other half of the house where Charles Brown is renting and where he lets Keats stay for free. Being in such close proximity, the romance between the poet and his new muse, which previously has consisted largely of poetry lessons, misunderstandings, and a gentle touching of hands, can take full bloom. Soon it's kissing in the forest and touching the wall that separates their beds night after night, feeling the heat of love pass between. Fanny becomes entirely wrapped up in Keats, which can feel just as bad as it may feel good since he is prone to mood swings. If he writes a line about butterflies in a love letter, Fanny catches every butterfly she can and creates an oasis for them in her bedroom; when he selfishly ignores her, she demonstrates her ineptness at suicide. Abbie Cornish is very good as Fanny. The actress understands the melodrama of adolescent angst, and she manages to make it real without overdoing it. Her most enthralling moments, however, are when she lets herself be an empty vessel silently letting Keats fill her up.



There's something refreshing about seeing a romantic relationship on film that doesn't involve sex. It's not that Campion isn't comfortable with it--she did direct In the Cut, after all--it's that she is aware here, as she was in The Piano [review], that the greatest passion often lies somewhere beyond physical expression. Though there is no crossing over to the other side the way the characters did in The Piano, Bright Star is more intensely realized for it. Why not a love affair that involves reciting poetry and quickly stolen glances? Brown encourages Keats to bed the girl and get it over with, hoping it will cure his friend of his crush, but Keats won't even consider it. Perhaps he sees the consequences Brown fails to consider when he knocks up the maid, but I doubt it's anything as crass as all that. Poetically, to take their relationship further would spoil it. Campion sees Keats' life as one of extremes: the butterflies and the punctured veins, dazzling beauty and dark lows. She and cinematographer Greig Fraser capture both sides beautifully. They infuse the warm summer with color and light, and yet they shoot the snow of the chilled winters with as much clarity, letting each flake stand out under a dark sky. At the same time, there is a softness to everything, as if a very thin veil of muslin had been placed over the camera lens. This faint yet ever-present whiff of grey reminds us that there is a sadness that can't be escaped in this story. Bright Star is young love on a deadline.


John Keats' death at 25 is well known. He contracted tuberculosis, which also took his brother from him not long after he and Fanny Brawne had met. Keats foreshadows this regularly by talking about his own death even when he is healthy, something Campion never portrays as ironic or dramatic, but something Keats firmly believed. Any biopic that ends in such a way is always faced with the challenge of overcoming the audience's knowledge of the inevitable, and the fact that Bright Star doesn't worry about getting around that is both one of its greatest strengths but also its only weakness. The movie does drag a little at the tail end when the closeness of death is more obvious. Perhaps had Campion not let Whishaw be so earnest in his doom and gloom we might not feel it as heavily--which could have been a bad choice all on its own. As it stands, it's a small point, and the benefits of that choice far outweigh any of the failings.



When it comes down to it, Bright Star works because it inspires the viewer to take part in the tenderness and the sorrow. In explaining poetry to Fanny, John Keats likens the act of reading to jumping in a lake. You don't dive into the water just to do so, to go under and then get out; you jump in to experience the water, to be in it. So, too, must one linger on a poem, spending time within it, experiencing its language and images and not just reading it line by line. The same could be said of a biopic, that a good one lets you walk a mile or two in its subjects cinematic shoes. Jane Campion achieves just that with Bright Star, making us part of Fanny and John's world for two hours. To watch it is not to stand at a distance, but to step right into the middle of it and feel it all.



* 2022 Update: Jokes! I am totally pro-vaccines.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

THE WOODMANS - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2012.

 


The question of why an artist is chosen to create and how he or she divines ideas from the ether is one that will never be answered to any real satisfaction. That is the mystery of artistic expression; if we knew how to nail it down, everyone would be artists. Likewise, we aren't really sure why one person might be born with skills that allow him or her to cope in the face of any adversity, and why some find life to be a brittle, fragile, depressing endeavor. Sure, there is the chemistry of the body and other medical explanations, but the ephemeral question remains: why can't I be like you? Why am I automatically sad while you maintain and stay happy?


These are questions that, in some way, drive C. Scott Willis' documentary The Woodmans, whether they are asked outright or not. This sensitive, intensely empathetic portrait of an artistic family is all tangled up in the whys and wherefores of expression and the unknowable impulses of depression. The Woodmans are an artistic family cursed equally by talent and tragedy. Father George is a painter, and mother Betty creates pottery and ceramics. Their eldest child, Charlie, is an accomplished multimedia artist working with video projection and music. Their youngest child, Francesca, was an influential photographer and is by far the most famous of the Woodman clan. She also killed herself in 1981, an event that will never be separated from the rest of the family's story, regardless of what they do.


Despite the heavy draw of the more sensational aspects of the tale--even Francesca's work is the most magnetic of anything we see in The Woodmans--Willis endeavors to create a level playing field. His movie is as much about how a family like this functions, and the fascinating reality that, though all were drawn to different disciplines, all four Woodmans had a desire to create. What effect did the artistic environment have on Charlie and Francesca? What about the fact that their family spent every summer in Italy? Is it important that Charlie's diabetes caused his early life to be regimented, while Francesca enjoyed added freedoms? These are all avenues that Willis goes down, and he uses whatever he finds there to build as comprehensive a portrait as he can before pursuing the largest elephant down the most troubling side road.



There could be a whole sidebar here about what it means to create a portrait of a person that is not around to speak for herself. It even comes up as part of the documentary's narrative. George and Betty can give their impressions of their daughter, while her friends can tell us about the Francesca they knew--a woman who is often at odds with the perception her parents had of her--but who she really was is as open to interpretation as her art. Willis gives us her perspective where he can, quoting generously from her journals and showing her own videos of her process, but even these things are curated by the director. They aren't the same as if, say, we sat and read Francesca Woodman's journals front to back. Then again, wouldn't that too be an experience beholden to our subjective interpretation?


This is something that Willis grapples with in The Woodmans. George and Betty both wish that their daughter's extraordinary photographs could exist without the tragedy of her life being a part of the dialogue. Betty even goes so far as to try to reject the notion that the photos, many of which are self-portraits and expressive compositions that feature the photographer in the nude, are in any way autobiographical. This is a statement that she barely even seems to stand by when she makes it, though we also get the sense that she pushes back just as hard at applying any analysis to her own process. All Willis can do is show us the photographs themselves, which he does in copious amounts. I was not familiar with Francesca Woodman prior to firing up this film, but I now feel I have a pretty good grasp of her central motifs and her technique.



In trying to show us the artists behind the art, however, Willis transcends even these accomplishments and gets at something that is more meaningful and far deeper than a lot of documentaries are willing to go after. The final third of The Woodmans is an intense exploration of the effect that Francesca's suicide had on her family. Her first suicide attempt was in 1980, and she succeeded in 1981. In many ways, she has created a void that her family has never been able to close. Charlie has largely stepped away from it, determined to make his own mark, but the very act of rejecting his sister's biography and her impact on the art world (at the time of her death, photography was still struggling to be accepted as a fine art) must have its own defining quality. Both father and mother saw their own means of expression change via their grief. George, who was closest to Francesca, has basically picked up where she left off, moving from abstract painting to photographing subjects that carry on the tradition of what his daughter was doing (although he is seemingly reluctant to accept this). For her part, Betty stopped making practical pottery and instead has started making abstract installations. In a sense, she has taken over what George had been doing previously.


The most heartbreaking statement in The Woodmans is not any of the many anguished quotes that come out of Francesca's diaries, but the extended silence that follows Betty repeating the question, "How did I deal with the guilt?" Her answer eventually is that she did not, that she only dealt with the pain. One gets the sense from watching Willis' documentary that, above all else, this is the lasting legacy of how Francesca ultimately chose to express herself. Her family will never really understand why and will probably never get past the worry that there was something more they could have done. This ongoing reverberation of mourning is something that Willis appears acutely sensitive to, and it colors how delicately he handles the whole film. The Woodmans is a deeply moving piece of cinema, one that fearlessly tries to understand the conflicting impulses of creation and eradication, something that many artists wrestle with, and that I think has more far-reaching applications in other walks of life, moreso than most would care to admit.




Friday, January 14, 2022

RADIO ON - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2007.



Christopher Petit's 1979 independent feature, Radio On, is a brittle portrait of the despair and ennui of 1970s Britain. Rather than indulge in chronicling any particular scene from the time or resort to the usual ripped-from-the-headlines tactics, Petit instead chooses to follow one man over the course of a few days as a portrayal of the feelings of hopelessness many were experiencing. With bleak black-and-white cinematography by Martin Schäfer, who regularly worked with Wim Wenders (one of the producers on the film), Radio On offers a Britain that is perpetually gray. Come, Armageddon, come.


Robert (David Beames) is an all-night DJ in a factory who spends his own boring nights trying to alleviate the tedium of workers on the graveyard shift. He sets aside their banal requests and plays his own choices in hopes of giving them "something better." When his brother mysteriously dies, Robert goes on a road trip to Bristol in search of answers about what happened. Only those aren't the answers he really wants. The questions that loom over him are more existential. Though he never says so out loud, Robert is really searching for some kind of meaning in his dull existence.



Along the way, he meets other people who have been set adrift. There is the Scottish soldier (Andrew Byatt) whose pain at losing his friend on a tour of duty in Ireland has left him emotionally crippled and defensive. Then there is the pair of German women, one who hates all men and the other who is trying to find her ex-husband and reclaim custody of their daughter. Like Robert, these people feel that something has been taken from them, that their life is absurd and pointless. As the grieving mother explains, she feels homesick in England, stranded in a world where no one speaks the language she was born into. For her it may be a literal language barrier, but she might as well be speaking metaphorically. Robert borrows her phrase book and tries out different sayings in both English and German, and she kindly corrects his pronunciation. It doesn't matter that they are saying the same things, the sound of it will never match up.


If there is anything that provides comfort in Radio On, it's music. The DVD box quite loudly trumpets the soundtrack, listing the bands and the songs featured. The tracks are so important, Petit even lists them in the opening credits, rather than sticking them at the end like we're used to. The chosen cuts fit perfectly, the disaffected tones of the music emerging from the ashes of punk echoing the disaffection of Petit's script. Featured here are David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Robert Fripp, Ian Dury, Lene Lovich, Devo, and more. Regardless of what Robert is doing, he always returns to the music, turning on the radio in the car or playing a jukebox in a diner. It comforts him, acts as a friend when he has no one else to share the moment with.



At the same time, music also provides a bridge between people. The last message Robert received from his brother was a birthday present of an envelope full of Kraftwerk tapes. On the road, when he meets Just Like Eddie (Sting) at a gas station, they find common ground by singing Eddie Cochran songs, whereas when the soldier rejects what Robert puts on the stereo, you know their relationship will quickly end.


Petit builds Radio On out of lengthy, languorous shots, letting the landscape pass without comment, the periods of time where there is no dialogue stretching as far as the patches of road traversed. Schäfer keeps his camera at a distance rather than going in for the traditional close-ups, favoring two-person shots over cutting back and forth in the rare conversations. The viewer is kept far enough away as to feel that he or she is on the outside looking in, not unlike how Robert feels. We're the foreigners in his existence. Robert may not be engaged in what is happening, but there is turmoil, poverty, and moral decay all around him. The same radio that provides him with music also delivers the news of society's ills. These problems don't touch him, but they contribute to the dread that permeates the air.



By the end of Radio On, Robert has driven as far as he can go--quite literally. Parked on the edge of a deep hole, his car dies. Rather than fight against it, he opens his car doors and cranks up the Kraftwerk, the last gift from his brother and the DJ's last gift to the world he knew. He walks away from the site and starts walking back toward civilization. What he will find there is the Rorschach test Petit gives to his audience. What do you see in the ill-defined shapes of Robert's future? Has he rediscovered hope, or does the final shot of a train departing mean it's too late, any chance for humanity has already left the station?