Review: Diary of Forbidden Dreams (aka What?)

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

What’s being called Diary of Forbidden Dreams or simply Forbidden Dreams in its current run is actually Roman Polanski’s 1972 opus What?, being released in the U.S. for the first time to cash in on the director’s recent notoriety. Like Dance of the Vampires, which he made five years earlier and which also suffered a ridiculously obvious retitling for its American release, What? looks like a film on which the director emphatically did not have final cut. The English-language version, at least—dubbed by predominantly British voices and edited by people with British names—looks like less than what Polanski must have intended. Still, judging from the evidence (which is all one can do), it’s hard to believe there was much good in the film to begin with.

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Review: The Muppet Movie

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Muppet Movie is dedicated “to the memory and magic of Edgar Bergen,” who died shortly after doing his cameo role in the film. In that scene, Bergen and Charlie McCarthy are seen in the audience as fans attending a puppet show at a county fair—a puppet show within a puppet show within a puppet show, as well as an all-important nod to the immense influence of Bergen on the field of ventriloquism and puppetry. That kind of layered telescoping is typical of the film, which opens as the Muppets arrive at World Wide Studios to attend a screening of their new film. In a hall-of-mirrors effect (neatly reflected in a shot of hundreds of Kermits singing before a dressing-room mirror late in the film), what really happens is that we watch a movie in which the Muppets watch a movie about how the Muppets came to Hollywood to make the movie that they—and we—are watching. It’s not an original conceit but it is splendidly sustained, and frequently mind-boggling. When Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Camille Chicken arrive at the aforementioned county fair, we see a couple shots in which real chickens are prominent, and we fear momentarily that Camille may be in danger. As it turns out, she never is. In the same way, Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) is pursuing Kermit only to persuade the frog to be his publicist, not to cut off our hero’s legs for his chain of frog-legs restaurants. Kermit’s resistance to Hopper’s overtures is not a matter of life and death, but of principle: for no amount of money will he aid Hopper and betray his brother frogs. Thus even the darker entanglements of the film are lightweight. Kermit’s impassioned speech about frogs on tiny crutches calls to mind the famous Gahan Wilson cartoon of a legless frog begging in front of a restaurant advertising frog’s legs.

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Interview: Eddie Muller, the Ambassador of Film Noir

Author, critic, film authority and festival programmer Eddie Muller was branded “The Czar of Noir” by James Ellroy for his knowledge of and passion for the subject. Since publishing Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir and programming a film noir festival in Los Angeles in 1998, Muller has become not simply the most prominent film noir authority in the U.S., he’s become an ambassador for film noir as the organizer, programmer and Master of Ceremonies of the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco (and in the smaller traveling Noir City offshoot) and as the president of the Film Noir Foundation, the non-profit organization that puts on Noir City and uses the proceeds to fund film restoration. The Eighth Annual Noir City (with 24 films in 12 programs over 10 days) unspooled at the Castro in San Francisco in January 2010 and the Seattle incarnation (14 films over 7 days) opened on Friday, February 19. (The Hollywood incarnation at the historic Egyptian Theater, where Muller programmed his first film noir festival, is scheduled for April.) I spoke with Muller by phone between the San Francisco and Seattle series and we talked movies, noir icons, film preservation and the thrill of seeing film noir on the big screen. (My profile and preview of the series is at The Stranger here.)

Noir City 2010

This is the eighth year of Noir City, and the fourth road show edition of Noir City in Seattle. How have you been able to develop it into such a big annual event?

First off, it’s the eighth Noir City Festival we’ve done in San Francisco but I’ve actually been doing them, oh my God, this will be my eleventh year in L.A. at the American Cinemateque, which is where I actually started doing it. But those early ones at the Egyptian weren’t Noir City events, that’s a San Francisco thing, there’s where it was started. And it really was like the perfect storm, in a way. It’s a combination of showing the right kind of films in the perfect venue in San Francisco at the exact right time of year. Beyond that, I guess that somehow it works that people like to have a personality or a face attached to it that they recognize, so that has been helpful, it turns out, that I’m so associated with this festival and that I’m a San Franciscan, that certainly has helped in San Francisco. So that’s really it. There’s nothing else competing in San Francisco at that time of year, is winter, it makes sense for film noir, the Castro is the perfect place to show these films. People have turned it into a real happening and that’s really—besides the restoration work and all kind of stuff—it is fascinating to me that we have show, somehow, that you can draw a thousand people on a weeknight to watch sixty-year-old black-and-white films in a theater. It is pretty remarkable.

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Review: The Seduction of Joe Tynan

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Alan Alda is an unimpeachably right guy. He’s attractive, intelligent, multifariously talented, and probably good for the ecology. He is a model of sociopolitical conscientiousness, and a 100-percent masculine romantic icon without a touch of male-chauvinist-piggery. No matter how often or deservedly his talents (acting, writing, directing) are recognized, he manages to maintain a becoming modesty at the same time he displays an unabashed joy in winning (turning a cartwheel on the way to claim his Emmy for a recent M*A*S*H script). I’ll let go of the other shoe as soon as I insist that I like and admire him, too. And until The Seduction of Joe Tynan I tended to assume that it was base envy or some other character flaw of mine that led me to find Alan Alda just a tad smarmy. The physiognomy is part of it, ready to turn rat-faced if the sweetness ever left the smile and the warmth and intelligence deserted the eyes. It’s in the voice, too, a subterranean whine ever so faintly compromising the moral-ethical rectitude. Whether this hint of imperfection has any deeper locus I shall not speculate here, lest the lynch mobs begin forming in earnest. And look, I’m talking about just the merest tincture here, the shadow of a shadow.

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Review: Prophecy

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Prophecy is actually two films, one of which I like. In the first hour or so the creature that’s been terrorizing the Maine woods is posited as both victim and avenger, much in the spirit of the put-upon creatures of Jack Arnold’s monster movies of the Fifties. Prophecy’s creature, an outsized mutant bear whom the local Indians name Katahdin, is triply righteous: it is the victim of industrial man’s incursion into nature, it is a defender of the sacred forest primeval, and it is out to reclaim its stolen young. Its sympathetic position is reinforced by association with the same morally justifiable rage that characterizes the Indians, who assert their land rights and environmental concerns against the encroachment of an expanding timber company. Verne (Robert Foxworth), a public health doctor, on an ecological mission to seek environmental reasons to stop the timber company’s growth, finds himself in the middle of a series of bloody killings for which the timber people hold the Indian activists responsible, while the Indians attribute the slaughter to Katahdin, their avenger. The essential dishonesty of David Seltzer’s script is revealed in several too-pat occurrences that exemplify Seltzer’s tendency to give mere lip service to the metaphors and moral dilemmas of his plot, in favor of getting on to more sensational matters; and it’s here that the film turns sour.

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Review: The Medusa Touch

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

The Medusa Touch has had a most curious history. Richard Burton went into it hot on the heels of Exorcist II and Equus, but it took about a year to follow them into the cinemas, opening in London in June of 1978. Despite lots of names, a big budget and good notices, it then did what every film of above-average interest is likely to do in Britain: it disappeared totally from sight. (The remarks of RTJ in MTN 60-61 suggest the film got oblivion treatment in the U.S., too.) Nearly another year went by and then, blammo!, it was all over the place. Double-billed with an even older Paul Bartel movie, it got saturation bookings all over the country, and was even advertised on TV – very rare in Britain. One hopes that all this adds up to making it a hit at last.

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Review: Death on the Nile

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

In the drawingroom detective story—whether literary or cinematic or both—the central feature of the genre’s art is also its one great failing: the form gives away the content. We know we are witnessing a genre-piece, circumstantial evidence that in “real life” would be insufficient to damn instead tends to exonerate, betokening the red herring. Only persons with airtight alibis may be considered real suspects. Consequently one figures out the who in Death on the Nile fairly easily, while the how must remain for Poirot to reveal to our far weaker gray cells. Director John Guillerman never really plays the revelation of the guilty party for surprise; in fact, his formal, often symmetrical compositions betray his awareness and acceptance of a certain formalism in both the story and its genre that makes the identity of the murderer a foregone necessity: if it were anyone else. the neatness of it all would be quite spoiled. So we feel comfortable with the film’s array of guest suspects, regarding them as traveling companions on the journey toward the how. In contrast to the labored, artificial “nostalgia” of Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (with which Death on the Nile insists upon comparison), Guillermin’s film stresses place—and the movement from one place to another—more than time. While the costumes and production design are done with charm and integrity, they are never so imposing as the Egyptian landscape, which is far better integrated with the goings-on in the film than was the Orient Express’s snowy mountain passage in the Lumet film. Guillermin gives us a sense of movement through that landscape, a feeling of progress—however illusory—by repeated incidental emphasis on modes of transportation: cars, horses, carriages, boats, camels, burros; where Lumet’s stalled train tended to make Murder on the Orient Express bog down altogether in the mire of Geoffrey Unsworth’s thick-as-a-brick photography. And even if the who is a foregone conclusion, Death on the Nile stays filled with the excitement of the puzzle (much like scenarist Shaffer’s Sleuth, or the Anthony Perkins–Stephen Sondheim screenplay The Last of Sheila), where Orient Express never got beyond the turgid objectivity of an impossible but obvious pattern.

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Howling at the Screen: The Wolfman

That Universal’s visually sanguine yet emotionally bloodless revival of their most ferocious and most tragic movie monster is a complete stiff is beyond debate. The real question is how anyone can direct this story, at heart about a man under a curse that transforms him from a moral being into a beastly predator and then transforms him back with the knowledge of his deeds, without even accidentally stumbling into tragedy and pathos and the terrible torment of his ordeal?

Benicio Del Toros Lawrence Talbot, so repressed hes practically gets lost in the gloom
Benicio Del Toro's Lawrence Talbot, so repressed he's practically lost in the gloom

Curt Siodmak’s screenplay for the original 1941 The Wolfman is credited as the source for this Victorian-era retelling (there are elements also taken from the uncredited 1935 Werewolf of London) and, while great liberties are taken with the family history, it’s remains true to the basics and even begins by quoting directly from the source: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” This (purposely?) clumsy bit of doggerel sounds like some peasant folk legend by way of child’s rhyme but it is as much Hollywood invention as the story itself (while shapeshifters are common through folklore, the specifics of the werewolf legend—the full moon, the silver bullets, only a true love can kill it—were created whole cloth, or rather fur, by Hollywood). It’s both carved into stone and spoken aloud with a heavy gravity, ostensibly an effort to create a sense of foreboding. It merely elicited titters from the preview audience I was with and offered a preview of the pose of ominous mystery and gloomy Gothic drear that smothered any hint of personality, dramatic tension or fun.

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Review: The Thirty-Nine Steps

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Remaking a Hitchcock classic would appear to be prime foolishness (unless you’re Hitchcock himself), and remaking one a second time seems like evidence of a death-wish. However, the makers of this new version of The Thirty-Nine Steps do have a get-out clause of sorts: Hitchcock used almost none of John Buchan’s novel, and updated it from 1914 to the then-contemporary mid-Thirties. Ralph Thomas, for his vomitworthy 1959 version, pinched almost everything wholesale from the 1935 marvel (except such intangibles as wit, pace, charm, eroticism, ingenuity and suspense) and reduced the whole enterprise to a faded Xerox of the earlier film. Don Sharp and his team have made a great show of “going back to the original”, and the design department has gorged itself on Edwardian costumes, period automobiles, monocles, the whole eve-of-World-War-I razzmatazz. So it should look like a brand-new film, right?

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Review: Watership Down

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Establishing a mythology of creation and existence based upon the centrality of rabbits in the frame of things, Watership Down endows itself with a mythic sense that takes a familiar shape. It divides roughly into three parts: the first of these deals with the journey of a group of rabbits from an old, doomed warren to a new place of settlement; the second with their quest to secure females with whom to populate the place (a sort of Rape of the Sabine Bunnies); and the third with the final battle in defense of the new warren, a baptism of blood that seems to officially open the new world. Placing this leporine Aeneid in a genuinely cosmic context are the appearance of a creator, named Frith, and a “Black Rabbit” of death, a sort of grim leaper.

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Out of the Past: The Illustrated Man

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

Before anything happens in The Illustrated Man, a voice (Claire Bloom’s) warns us that those who try to see beyond their own times find themselves facing problems that cannot be explained in present-day terms. This gets reprised at the very end of the movie, by which time just about nothing actually has been explained. The Illustrated Man is a very odd movie indeed, and here and there a thoroughly frustrating one. I can’t decide how much of the obfuscation is genuine poetic mystery and how much a sheer cop-out on the part of screenwriter-producer Howard Kreitsek (not very active since this 1969 movie) and director Jack Smight. But the film, for all its many faults, stays with me and I fancy its inner workings are worth teasing out.

Time is of the essence. When and where are we? Ms. Bloom’s opening voiceover accompanies an image of a tranquil countryside lake. We hold on this and at long last the old Warner-Seven Arts logo inscribes itself on the screen. An old-fashioned automobile parks a naive-looking youth (Robert Drivas) by the lake and moves on; we never see its driver again. Willie, the youth, is soon joined by a surly fellow carrying a bag with a dog in it. The stranger, Carl (Rod Steiger), middle-aged, needing a shave, broken-nosed, seems to come from nowhere and is plainly needing funds. “You hoboing?” he asks Willie. The 1930s? Of course. But what’s a Depression bum doing with a Pekinese, of all dogs? And why is it cooped up in a bag all the while? “He likes it hot,” snarls Carl: “Like me!” He kids us not. Though the midday sun blazes and the sweat pours off Willie, Carl is begloved and booted, and covered in an enormous coat. Why? This question, at least, gets an answer, and swiftly.

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Last Call for Nearly 30 Criterion DVDs (and one Blu-ray)

Just in this week on the Criterion website: Criterion is losing the rights a number of titles in their collection in March. (See the original post on Criterion Currents here.)

The curtain is soon to fall on Criterion's lavish DVD of Powell and Pressberger's "The Tales of Hoffman"

The home video rights to a number of films from the StudioCanal library will go to Lionsgate at the end of March. The Criterion editions will go out of print (or on moratorium, as they say in the video industry) and will be unavailable commercially on the U.S. until Lionsgate puts out their own editions.

As you may know, Criterion has direct access to the Janus film library, a tremendous collection of international classics that makes up the majority of its releases, but they also license many films from other studios and collections. Those contracts last for a period of time and then are up for renewal, and in this case StudioCanal did not renew with Criterion. It’s likely nothing personal, just business, as they say, and perhaps not even something they have a choice over. Lionsgate has been releasing a lot of StudioCanal films (coming up later this month are Blu-ray editions of Kurosawa’s Ran, Godard’s Contempt and the Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers) and this just may be a contractual part of their relationship. (This is, mind you, merely supposition on my part and not based on any inside information.)

Regardless, a number of Criterion titles (including a couple of box sets) will be unavailable by the end of March (see list below) so Criterion is offering a deal through their website: an extra $5 off each of these titles while supplies last. You can also continue to purchase them through Amazon and other traditional merchants until the end of March (or until the current stocks are depleted, whichever comes first).

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The Way You Don’t Die: The Hurt Locker

[expanded from a review originally published on seanax.com, July 2009]

“Tell me something. What’s the best way to disarm one of these things?”

“The way you don’t die, sir.”

Jeremy Renner scans the terrain
Jeremy Renner scans the terrain

Set in the current Iraq war, after the proclamation of “Mission Accomplished” and the transformation of a battlefield army into an occupation force, The Hurt Locker follows the finals days in the rotation of a bomb disposal unit (the days count down with each mission) as it gets new cowboy team leader, Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a maverick who steps up to a bomb like a gunfighter in an old west showdown, tough and swaggering and on his own terms.

James doesn’t follow the rules. Every bomb is a challenge he refuses to back down from, even when the intelligence expert on the three-man team, Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), counsels him that he’s vulnerable to snipers. James simply tosses the headset and assumes his teammates will watch his back, scanning the windows and the roofs for any potential gunman, which in a busy urban street surrounded by apartment buildings and open roofs can be myriad.

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True Fiction: Kathryn Bigelow on ‘The Hurt Locker’

The Hurt Locker premiered in the one-two punch of the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2008 and then made the long march through subsequent film festivals until its theatrical release in June 2009. Director Kathryn Bigelow shepherded the film through each showing, giving interviews every step of the way. She knew it was a hard sell. There had still not been a commercially successful film of the Iraq war and the low budget, independently-produced The Hurt Locker had no stars and no obvious promotional “hook.” It was simply a brilliant film, and we all know that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the box-office.

Kathryn Bigelow in B&W
Kathryn Bigelow in B&W

I had the chance to sit down with Ms. Bigelow May 2009, when the film played at the Seattle International Film Festival. I had seen the film in Toronto and the shellshock had still not subsided, but I had been a fan ever since Near Dark and was thrilled to finally get a chance to ask her a few questions. Unfortunately time was limited and there was so much to discuss about The Hurt Locker that we never had the opportunity to talk about her other films. Maybe on my next rotation…

You start the film off with a quote by Chris Hedges: “War is a drug.” There’s a real simplified reading of that comment, which is that likes the challenge and he thrives on the thrill. But I think it’s more complex than that. He’s the best at what he does and he’s at his best under pressure. He’s in charge and, for all the danger, he’s as in control as he ever is. When he gets back, he’s lost.

That’s beautifully put. I couldn’t improve on that. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book that Chris Hedges has written, “War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” it’s a great book and required reading. He talks about that you’re looking today at a volunteer military and one of the many things he confronts is, war’s dirty little secret is some men love it. This isn’t everybody, it’s just a particular type of psychological state with some men, there’s a psychological allure that combat creates, some kind of attractiveness, and it does create an almost addictive quality that they can’t replicate in any other way and are lost in any other context. However, in the case of Sgt. James—and again, I’m not extrapolating and saying there’s hundreds of thousands of Sgt. James—but the case specifically with Sgt. James is combining that kind of bravado and recklessness in his swagger and demeanor, but with a profound skill set. He is perhaps not the best diplomat but he does keep everybody alive. So it’s exactly what you said, what enables him to do what he does so well. There’s a kind of attraction, there’s a kind of addiction, there’s what I would call a price to his heroism and what that sacrifice has been for him is a flight from intimacy. He can’t be a hero in the sense that he’s the perfect father, the perfect husband and the perfect bomb tech. That doesn’t exist. There’s a real cost to his ability.

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Black Arts

[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.

A jerry-rigged Bigelow family in "Near Dark"
A jerry-rigged Bigelow family in “Near Dark”

Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.

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