Saturday, March 26, 2016

KARLOFF ENTERS! THE BLACK CAT (1934)



By 1934 Boris Karloff was certainly no stranger to great movie entrances. In 1931, under the direction of James Whale, he seared his image, and that of the monstrous creation of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, into the collective consciousness by shuffling on screen and staring down his creator, and of course the terrified audience, embodying and fulfilling unspeakable nightmares. Frankenstein, an instant phenomenon, was one of 16 pictures Karloff made that were released in 1931.

And in the following year, 1932, in addition of Howard Hawks’ Scarface, Whale’s The Old Dark House and Charles Brabin’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, Karloff had another terrifying entrance in cinematographer-turned-director Karl Freund’s horror landmark The Mummy. As the title fiend, Imhotep, Karloff is first glimpsed in full bandage, sarcophagus laid open behind an unfortunate archaeologist who, engrossed in the parchments he’s discovered, doesn’t notice the mummy’s arm slide down from its bound position. A withered land lays itself on one of the documents, the archaeologist turns, sees the full visage of Imhotep (which we, as yet do not), and slides straight into cackling madness. The last we see of Karloff, in this scene, is a trail of dusty, ruined bandages, dangling from his reanimated corpse, being dragged out the door of the ancient chamber and into the modern world.

In 1934 director Edgar G. Ulmer gave Karloff yet another bone-chilling introduction in his “adaptation” of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat. Ulmer arose from the German theater around 1910 working as a set designer and eventually made his way to the cinema, working on such landmarks of German cinema as The Golem (1920), Kriemhild’s Revenge (1924), Nosferatu (1927), Sunrise (1927), Spies (1928), City Girl (1930) and M (1931). Ulmer emigrated from Germany to America but found few opportunities to make his mark as a director—by 1933 he had only a few undistinguished westerns and a syphilis education film, Damaged Lives, to his credit.  The Black Cat was Ulmer’s big opportunity, a horror movie which teamed the stars of Universal’s biggest horror hits to date, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and Ulmer poured himself fully into it.

In reality, Poe’s name was appropriated by Ulmer mainly for its associative qualities, the director having cast aside several existing screen treatments in favor of an original tale that bore only the slightest hints of the author’s original text, claiming that “the Edgar Allan Poe story is not a story that you can dramatize.” Rather than attempting a literal adaptation of the 1843 tale of interior horror and psychological collapse, Ulmer reached back to an encounter he had during the filming of The Golem with novelist Gustav Meyrinck, who had told him of a French fortress that had been decimated by German forces in World War I. Some survivors of the devastation apparently did not emerge from the ruins for years after, and in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich Ulmer talked of the commander of the fortress, “a strange Euripides figure who went crazy… because he walked on that mountain of bodies.”  

That fortress became The Black Cat’s Fort Marmaros, upon which, high in the hills of the Hungarian countryside, Ulmer’s commander, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) has built a monstrous, modernist spectacle of 1930’s Deco architecture, Castle Poelzig, a cavernous mansion of sharp angles, vast spaces and harsh, metallic, chilled beauty that perfectly reflects the detached, vaguely inhuman posture of its central resident. Castle Poelzig is widely considered to be Ulmer’s finest achievement in production design, and some of its most outre, modernist qualities are reflected in Karloff’s physical presence and carriage in the film—his hair and brows are sculpted into sharp angles that resemble the clean, brittle design of the castle’s staircases and hallways, down and through which he glides garbed in minimalist robes and adorned with medallions sporting vaguely sinister patterns that hint at Poelzig’s darkest, as-yet-unrevealed machinations.

But about that Karloff entrance… Near the beginning of the film, Poelzig is summoned from his chambers late at night by the arrival of a pair of newlywed travelers (Jacqueline Wells and David Manners, Karloff’s costar in The Mummy) and Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi). Stranded after their bus crashes during a thunderstorm, the visitors seek refuge in Poelzig’s mysterious mansion, with only Werdegast, who shares a previous association with Poelzig related to the horrors of Fort Marmaros, aware of their host’s genuinely sinister nature. And Poelzig is introduced to us in brilliant fashion, a flourish of directorial style that entirely indicates Ulmer should have had a greater, more illustrious career than, critical reappraisals aside, the one he ended up with.


Ulmer starts on a close-up of a futuristic-looking intercom—it resembles a neon-girded porthole crossed with an old school drive-in movie speaker— through which the arrival of the visitors is announced, then pulls back to reveal a darkened bed chamber where lies a sleeping woman, lit for our benefit, the rest of the room in shadow. We suddenly realize the woman is not alone when her partner in repose—Poelzig, as it turns out--  rises purposefully, almost robotically, turns on the bedside lamp which, in a perversely beautiful touch, lights only the space behind the curtained wall behind Poelzig and keeps him entirely in crisp silhouette. He moves toward the door.

Ulmer transitions to another room where Werdegast tends to the injuries of the young woman, who was slightly injured in the crash. He and the woman’s husband are leaning over her bed when there is a cut to the door, a vertical line bisecting the screen which slowly opens, revealing Poelzig in all his malevolent imposition, glaring at these intruders with an ominous portent that rivals that of the first appearance of the Frankenstein monster. There follows a painterly medium shot of Werdegast on the left, the woman sleeping in center, her husband doting on the right, all from Poelzig’s point of view,  and then a most unexpected dissolve to a tight close-up of the unconscious woman as her husband tenderly brushes her hair from her face and then retracts his hand. 


Cut sharply to the same angle as before of Poelzig, who is no longer lingering in the doorway but has now moved fully into the room, still keeping his distance and having not yet made a sound that would alert the two men to his presence. He pushes the door closed with a slam. Cut to the same painterly medium shot, only this time the husband turns and recognizes that someone has entered the room. Ulmer then cuts back to Poelzig from the same angle, but instead of the static shot the camera is caught in movement, dollying toward the sinister figure as he continues to silently stare.

And just as the shot becomes a head-and-shoulders close-up, Ulmer shocks us with a cut to a position on Poelzig even further back than the shot that introduced him to the room, with the camera dollying once again toward him, this time ceding to a medium shot of the master of the house. He never breaks his stare, only moves his head to his left in acknowledgment of Werdegast, who enters frame right. Werdegast explains the situation in a series of statements, between any one of which the doctor (and Lugosi, of course) leaves plenty of space for Poelzig to interject. Instead, Poelzig continues to direct that menacing stare at Werdegast. After a moment, Werdegast turns away from Poelzig and back to his patient, and we see Poelzig isolated in a vanity mirror reflection, still staring, now imagined by Ulmer as an actual element of the castle in which Poelzig will entrap these visitors and subject them to the unspeakable evil that echoes from the past through his bizarre, self-constructed world.

The Black Cat and its sinister game of chess between Polezig and Werdegast, two men scarred and consumed by the horrors of the past and ones much more current, entirely lives up to that brilliant entrance. Ulmer lets fly with a pre-Code blast of sadism, Satanism, and even a climactic and vicious flaying, and it’s truly mind-boggling to see what he managed to get away with in regard to pushing the envelope of Hollywood standards of the time.

Even so, Universal studio head Carl Laemmle Sr. and producer Carl Laemmle Jr. were reportedly repulsed by the degree to which Ulmer indulged in these various horrors and demanded reshoots to tone down some of the (implied) violence and to make Lugosi’s Werdegast, himself driven by revenge for Poelzig having stolen his wife and murdered his daughter (or so he thinks), a more sympathetic character. Ulmer initially, and begrudgingly agreed to the reshoots, and then cleverly seized the opportunity to subversively deepen the movie’s depravity by devising a new sequence in which Poelzig gives Werdegast a tour of his castle’s prize trophies: a basement room filled with exquisitely preserved, quite dead and embalmed women, all housed in glass display cases which are occasionally opened to afford the master’s taste for necrophilia. (How this one made it past the scolding Laemmles is a mystery for the ages. And wouldn't you just love to get a look at Ulmer's original cut?)

Despite the huge success of The Black Cat, Ulmer was never afforded the career he might have had-- a romantic relationship with, and eventual marriage to the wife of one of Laemmle Sr.’s nephews, ensured that he would be ejected from Hollywood for the margins of the film industry. Instead of the mainstream Hollywood career he apparently hoped for, Ulmer would spend the rest of his career making microscopically-budgeted B-movies and independent films, including films made in Yiddish (Green Fields, 1937), a film cast entirely with African-Americans (Moon Over Harlem, 1939), a film made for Ukrainian immigrants (Cossacks in Exile, 1939) and several memorable noir-inflected melodramas like Bluebeard (1944), Strange Illusion (1945) and his Poverty Row masterpiece Detour (1945).

Ulmer enjoyed an auteurist-fueled critical reappraisal in the 1970s and is now considered, rightfully, one of the movies’ master minimalists of style, having routinely spun cinematic silk purses from the crudest of sow’s ears. But The Black Cat, his sole contribution to the legacy of Universal horror movies, would have emerged a classic no matter what, a masterful work of dread which gave us moving and nuanced work from Lugosi, as well as that absolutely memorable first appearance of Boris Karloff and the great performance that fulfilled it. Every time I see this movie I can imagine the twisted pleasures of audiences in 1934 and the screams that must have filled theaters when Karloff first rises from the shadows of that eerie bed chamber. They are easy to imagine, because they echo my own.

(Next week I'll examine Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, a brilliant novel about the movies which uses Ulmer’s strange career as a master stylist as a jumping-off point for a sinister story engorged with a decadent and whispered history of movies. See you then!)

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(My thanks to Bret Wood for some of the background on The Black Cat provided by his article on the movie published on the Turner Classic Movies Web site.)

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Saturday, March 12, 2016

GREAT DOUBLE FEATURES I’VE SEEN #1: SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT & CONVOY



(This is the first in an occasional series in which I remember some of the best double features I’ve been lucky enough to see projected in a theater.)

The New Beverly Cinema, the oldest surviving revival theater in Los Angeles, has this week dished up a time-capsule glimpse into America’s popular obsession with CB, or citizen’s band, radio and the largely mythological outlaw trucker culture through which it crackled. If you’re of a certain age (mine), and you ever cruised around town or down the highway jabbering to friends and strangers on an open channel frequency (I did—my handle was The Godfather!), given the opportunity I don’t see how you could possibly resist the chance to see the ultimate trucker-CB action-comedy pairing, Hal Needham’s Smokey and the Bandit and Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy. (I couldn’t!) As of this writing, the morning of March 12, there is still one more evening screening of this knockout combo, and if you’re anywhere near the intersection of La Brea and Beverly in Los Angeles, I urge you to check it out.


I never really thought much of Smokey and the Bandit growing up, maybe because by the time it arrived, near the end of May in 1977, I was already in the process of putting away childish things, only to be replaced by other only slightly less childish things as I transitioned to college life. I didn’t even see Smokey until the following summer, at the drive-in, and paired rather strangely with Taxi Driver. (This was not one of the best double features I’ve ever seen.)

As obsessed with CB culture and movie car chases as I was in high school, you would have thought I would have been first in line to see this Burt Reynolds hit—after all, I’m pretty sure I ran over a couple of people racing my way to pictures like Gone in 60 Seconds, Vanishing Point, The Seven-Ups, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Race with the Devil, W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings and many others at my local outdoor movie emporium. Instead, I turned my nose up to it, and for the life of me I can’t remember why. Once I did see it, I thought it was tacky and dumb and I remained, for the next 40 years, stubbornly disinterested in revisiting it. (The onslaught of awful Needham-Reynolds pairings in the late ‘70s and into the ‘80s—junk like the Cannonball Run movies, Stroker Ace and, of course, Smokey and the Bandit II—did nothing to make me consider changing my mind, although I would be willing to give Hooper another twirl.)


Of course, Smokey and the Bandit very much is tacky and dumb, and crass and silly and crudely pieced together. Would we really want a goofy comedy about running a truckload of bootlegged beer with a demented Texas sheriff in hot pursuit, to be anything else? In addition to subtle sophistication, Smokey and the Bandit is also absent much more than a hint of rudimentary filmmaking skill, which is, as it turns out, something different from the skill necessary to be a great stunt coordinator. Hell, with the exception of that nifty bit when the Bandit jumps his Trans-Am over a washed-out bridge and a sequence in which that same Trans-Am escapes pursuing bears (state troopers, for the uninitiated) by hiding in between fast-moving trucks (in the rocking chair) in a sympathetic convoy, even the stunts in Smokey and the Bandit aren’t really anything too memorable. (There always seems to be a pond or a deep puddle waiting those addled, brainless troopers when their cars go spinning off the road, choking on the Bandit’s dust.) Needham knew in spades how to choreograph cars and trucks in front of the camera, but he didn’t have much in the tank in the way of imagining for the camera ways to make those stunts expand and explode cinematically.


The shine on Smokey’s 18 wheels comes almost exclusively from its players. It was really fun, 40 years after the fact, to rediscover (or in my case, essentially discover for the first time) the playful chemistry between Burt Reynolds’ Bandit and Sally Field as Carrie, the runaway bride passenger Bandit picks up off the side of the highway. The two actors were romantically involved at the time and made three other pictures together— the Reynolds-directed comedy The End, Hooper and that crummy Smokey sequel—but they never clicked on screen the way they do here. A friend of mine, tongue planted at least partially in cheek, I suspect, describes Smokey and the Bandit as “deep-fried Sturges,” and from the minute Bandit loads Carrie into Bandit One, she begins to shed her bridal finery and toss it out of the speeding Pontiac and they initiate their tentative, high-velocity courtship, I could see what he meant. (My friend also reminded me that Smokey and the Bandit was the movie Alfred Hitchcock claimed to be his favorite movie of all time!)

The supporting players are funny too, from the strange symbiotic relationship between Big Enos (Pat McCormick) and Little Enos (Paul Williams) that puts the story in motion, to Jerry Reed’s genial crystallization of the Good Ol’ Boy archetype (Reed, with rock and roll pioneer Bill Justis, also wrote the movie’s music, including the immortal “Eastbound and Down”), George Reynolds’ put-upon Sheriff Branford (who, yes, ends up in a watery ditch) and Mike Henry’s numskull daddy’s boy, Field’s jilted groom, who spends almost the entire movie whimpering for his papa’s approval, one hand planted on the old man’s hat to keep it from blowing away in the breeze created by the sudden conversion of their police cruiser from a hardtop sedan to a convertible.


And about that old man. Jackie Gleason’s Buford T. Justice, the blustering, apoplectic Texas sheriff who crosses state lines in pursuit of that runaway bride and, eventually of course, the Bandit, is hardly a comic creation of great nuance, and thank God for that. Gleason’s slow burn frequently erupts into a raspy voiced rage against irreverence for the law and “what this world is coming to”— he’s squinting with contempt at you, African-American Sheriff Branford—and in the process he steals Quintessential/Stereotypical Redneck Southern Sheriff honors right out from between J.W. Pepper's sausage-shaped fingers. I once saw Albert Finney on stage in London, and he spent so much of his time in a red-faced rage that I seriously feared he might have a stroke. Gleason reminded me of Finney in that way here. But with Buford T. Justice that fear gets processed into laughs and makes you wonder just how far Gleason will go, even when one of his funniest moments, after a fellow officer calls his highway patrolling into question (“Who do you think you are, Broderick Crawford?!”) is a simple, seething sneer of contempt. I never thought I’d say it, but after seeing Jackie Gleason again as this unhinged, entitled and outraged lawman it’s clear to me that Buford T. Justice truly belongs in the company of the great Ralph Kramden.  


It was nice to see Smokey and the Bandit again and realize that I could finally appreciate this movie, which I’d pooh-poohed for so long. But the real attraction of the night was most definitely the chance to see Convoy projected on the big screen for the first time. I’d only ever seen it in terrible cropped presentations on VHS and HBO, and I’d never thought much of it until I stumbled upon it on the MGM HD channel several years ago. Enough years had passed that, offered such a beautiful-looking wide-screen transfer, I felt that it was an opportunity to see the movie as close to what it looked like in 1978. It was also a chance to assess it on its merits alone, divorced from the notoriety of its cocaine-and-madness-fueled production history and its insistent reputation as the nadir of a once-great director’s career, the penultimate act of an artist desperately slumming for a hit. (My nominee for that honor would go to the film Peckinpah made previously, The Killer Elite.)

I never thought I would ever see the movie looking better than it did on that HD channel, but fortunately I was wrong. The print featured at the New Beverly was spotless and pristine, struck from an original answer print which makes Convoy’s shimmering, grimy, hallucinatory imagery pop like it hasn’t popped since the day the movie first opened. I’m well aware of the movie’s reputation, but if you could ever see it the way I did last night you might be much more inclined to rethink the presumptions that have clogged Convoy’s tailpipes since August 1978.


I wish I could say that Convoy is a movie entirely misrepresented, like Mandingo, by a critical community blinded by conventional wisdom, one worthy of a complete reappraisal and repositioning within Peckinpah’s oeuvre. Alas, it is not a masterpiece. Some of Convoy’s dialogue scenes are marred by atrocious overdubbing and indifferent staging (usually the ones involving people standing around, talking at each other), and even some of the hand-to-hand action, like the truck-stop fistfight that opens the movie—Peckinpah’s bread and butter a mere decade earlier— is hampered by an overly deliberate editing scheme that looks pawed over, slapped together. (There is a good joke in there, though, involving a trucker who draws first blood in a coffee shop fight with a broken ketchup bottle shattered over someone’s head, which draws immediate comic commentary on the director’s reputation amongst lazy critics as an indiscriminate blood-letter. But honestly, it made me think not so much of Peckinpah past as Peckinpah parodied.)

But if Convoy isn’t a masterpiece, it certainly is a masterwork, and Peckinpah’s passion for camaraderie and obsession with the depths, and sometimes the shallowness of loner mystique come through this movie as clearly as anything he ever made, even though the passions and obsessions by this point may have been muddled by creeping desperation. (The director is even visible in the movie, next to DP Harry Stradling, Jr., ostensibly directing the camera crew of a news reporter who rides alongside the truckers, interviewing them on the fly. It’s clear, though, that Peckinpah wasn’t there as an actor—armed with his walkie-talkie, he’s on screen directing Convoy. The reverse shots of the truckers are often what is being seen by the 35mm camera seen riding in the pickup bed with the crew.)

The movie, based on C.W. McCall's novelty top-40 hit, was a smash, especially on the drive-in circuit, though Peckinpah’s on-set antics ensured he wouldn’t work again for nearly five years. No, it’s not a maligned work of genius, but it is goddamned entertaining despite its flaws, mainly because, in trolling for box-office gold by exploiting the then-popular CB craze, the director manages to pump a goodly amount of nihilistic steam into the idea of a political movement, a trucker’s protest convoy which gains populist momentum without anyone-- least of all its ostensible leader, Rubber Duck (Kris Kristofferson)-- seeming to have any coherent agenda or ability to agree on what it all means. For Rubber Duck, and for Peckinpah, the director desperate to shoot film who increasingly lost his grip on the reality of what to shoot and why, the only act with any meaning at all is the simple act of forward movement. 



It happens that forward movement through vividly rendered space is something Convoy does as well as any of the acknowledged classics of the genre, like Vanishing Point. And like Charley Varrick or Electra Glide in Blue, Convoy is one of those wonderfully tactile films from the ‘70s that seems kinetically, electrically connected to the landscapes on which its dramas take place. The soaking up of the spectacular Panavision vistas, deepened by darkening clouds, a line of trucks skating across the bottom of the frame silhouetted in the dusk, is as dramatic as any action set piece in the movie.

And one of the movie’s most memorable chases, a band of troopers pursuing Rubber Duck and company through blinding, back-road desert dust, is a beautiful, inexplicable evocative piece of surreal choreography. There’s nothing like it in any other action movie. And all of Convoy’s set pieces are shot and edited with an identifiable precision and poetry that is clearly derived from Peckinpah’s sensibility, this despite testimony to the effect that James Coburn and others were called in to direct shots and sequences when Peckinpah arrived on set too drunk and/or deranged to do the job himself. (Coburn has a credit as second unit director.)


The cast is more than game too. Kris Kristofferson has never looked leaner or better on screen than he does here; he seems to understand his genetic-level function as a laconic, graphic extension of the muscularity of his vehicle. And of course Ernest Borgnine’s mustache-twirling devilry as evil sheriff Dirty Lyle is memorable, as it’s played a little closer to Earth than Gleason's Justice and is all the scarier for it. The supporting cast are all welcome and worth watching; it includes Burt Young and Franklin Ajaye as fellow truckers Pigpen (whose cab bears the legend “Paulie’s Hauling”) and the ill-fated Spider Mike; Seymour Cassel as an opportunistic governor who wants to turn the populist support for Rubber Duck’s convoy into votes; and Madge Sinclair, whose 18-wheeler takes a hell of a spill around a tight curve early on and isn’t left with much more to do to hitch a ride in another cab, but who brings her customary warmth and generosity as a performer to the hot asphalt nonetheless. Only Ali McGraw’s well-documented nostril acting rubs the wrong way, but she’s hardly a stake through the movie’s engine.

Especially seen as the meal after a Smokey appetizer, Convoy emerges even more clearly as a pedal-to-the-heavy-metal, meat-and-potatoes Hal Needham action flick directed by an artist, or at least a man still enough of one to elevate even the genre’s hoariest conceits and lowest comic pitches into classifiably forgivable sins.  The movie and its milieu are both spectacular; it’s a dusty, greasy, sweaty testimony to the desperate beauty of the road, of trucks, and of desperate, disillusioned men.

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Sunday, March 06, 2016

MURIEL AWARD WINNER BEST FEATURE FILM 2015: MAD MAX FURY ROAD


And the winner of the Muriel Award for Best Feature Film of 2015 is...



Andrew Bemis on Mad Max: Fury Road:

"Fury Road also makes most other blockbusters look puny on a purely aesthetic level. In a movie filled with exhilarating images, one of my favorites is towards the beginning, when Max is trying to escape his captors. It's a dark, chaotic sequence that suddenly gives way to blinding light and silence as we get our first look at Immortal Joe's Citadel. It's a moment that has the same kind of power as Dorothy opening her front door and stepping into Oz. Mad Max has many moments like this, reminding that, though blockbusters offer plenty of loud spectacle, few even bother with trying to manipulate scale, perspective, light, sound or any of the other basic tools at their disposal to create a genuine sense of awe. For a movie that uses every state-of-the-art filmmaking tool at its disposal, Fury Road is surprisingly classical in its approach to visual storytelling."

Read the entirety of Andrew Bemis's  conversation with Justine Smith about Mad Max: Fury Road at the official Muriels Web site, Our Science is Too Tight.


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MURIELS 2015 COUNTDOWN TO BEST FEATURE: FROM #48 ALL THE WAY TO #2


Here's a guide to the Muriels Countdown to Best Feature Film as it stands so far, from #48 all the way to #2, the movie that almost made it to the top of the heap...


#48: Buzzard (Joel Potrykus) Essay by Patrick Miller



#45: Jauja (Lisandro Alonzo) Essay by Jaime Grijalba



#41: Horse Money (Pedro Costa) Essay by Michael Lieberman



#34: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson) Essay by Cole Roulain



#29: 45 Years (Andrew Haigh) Essay by Jim Emerson



#28: Mistress America (Noah Baumbach) Essay by Josh Bell



#26: Room (Lenny Abrahamson) Essay by Dennis Cozzalio



#20: Tangerine (Sean Baker) Essay by Scott von Doviak



#18: The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien) Essay by Sam C. Mac



#16: It Follows (David Rbert Mitchell) Essay by Jason Alley



#13: Spotlight (Tom McCarthy) Essay by Daniel C. Johnson



#10: Phoenix (Christian Petzold) Essay by Alice Stoehr



#9:  Inside Out (Pete Docter) Essay by Clayton Walter



#8:  The Duke of Burgundy (Peter Strickland) Essay by Justine Smith



#7:  Magic Mike XXL (Gregorgy Jacobs) Essay by Kenji Fujishima



#6:  Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johson) Essay by Melissa Starker



#5:  The Hateful Eight  (Quentin Tarantino) Essay by Simon Abrams



#4:  Creed (Ryan Coogler) Essay by Vern



#3:  Sicario (Denis Villeneuve) Essay by Luke Gorham



#2:  Carol (Todd Haynes) Essay by Donald G. Carder

And the winner of the 2015 Muriels Award for Best Feature Film is...

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MURIELS COUNTDOWN TO BEST FEATURE #26: ROOM



The movie that ended up at the top of my list for 2015, narrowly edging out Spike Lee's Chi-raq, is the #26 pick for Muriels voters this year. It's Lenny Abrahamson and Emma Donoghue's adaptation of Donoghue's best-seller Room, starring Oscar-winner Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay and Joan Allen. It was my pleasure to put down some words in praise of this wonderful movie for Muriel this year. Here's a smidgen of what I had to say:

"Room might be considerably less than it is were it not for the sheer, unaffected natural believability as mother and son, which is colored by exasperation and frustration as well as love, that radiates between Larson and Tremblay. The history of American movies is littered with plasticized, see-through portrayals of parent/child relationships, usually lathered with treacle or snark and absent a moment’s resonance with reality. On the other hand, Abrahamson’s movie is far more suited to a looser, more European-style sensibility—Abrahamson is Irish, and the movie was filmed in Toronto. It is no chore for an audience to almost immediately accept that these two are biological kin-- the body language and sense of intimacy with which Ma and Jack interact belie a mother and son who have spent five years in company and confinement, to say nothing of the even more intimate experience of having shared space within the same body. Ma and Jack’s is not a relationship concerned with a lot of chummy banter, and Abrahamson would seem constitutionally incapable of shooting a cute montage meant to sell qualities of familial bonding his actors have failed to suggest themselves."


You can read the entirety of my essay  on Room at the official Muriels Web site, Our Science is Too Tight.

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MURIELS 2015 COUNTDOWN TO BEST FEATURE #65: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.



The movie that ended up #10 on my year-end list kicks off the 2015 Muriel Awards countdown to Best Feature Film at #65, and given my enthusiasm for Guy Ritchie's splendid spy picture, the movie that was everything Spectre couldn't (or wouldn't) be, Paul Clark asked me to write about it. I accepted this duty. Here's a taste:

"Given the ugly hash he’d previously made of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective in two misconceived, cluttered and cacophonous features, the last thing I expected from Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was anything that could be remotely described as visual wit or elegance. But maybe even more so in this age, when bloated and degraded blockbusters are the multitudinous coins of the realm, a big-budget spy picture conceived initially as just another nostalgic cash cow has the capacity to surprise us when it looks to classic forms and attitudes not as something to be slavishly, crassly replicated but instead to be used as a comment on where the genre is now, and why it’s so often no longer as much as fun as it could be. Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies missed the point entirely by failing to trust that modern audiences could respond to Doyle’s characters without being bashed over the head with superfluous technique. But in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. he’s figured out a way to make technique speak and interact with the story, to use visual flourishes and strategies to enhance the comedy and the thrills that are part of the genre his movie lives in." 

Read the entirety of my essay on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. at Our Science is Too Tight, where you can keep up with all the Muriels Best Feature Film postings, one each half hour till we get to the top of the list.

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MORE MURIELS 2015: BEST LEAD PERFORMANCE (MALE), plus OTHERS ACTORS AND MOVIES WE LOVED



The march to glory has begun, but before we get to the countdown to Best Picture, here's some other Muriel posts worth looking at:

Best Lead Performance, Male: Third place, Paul Dano (Love & Mercy); second place, Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight; and the Muriel goes to... Michael B. Jordan, Creed. (Essay by Matt Lynch)


Muriel Awards Addendum #2: Other Performances We Loved, featuring juicy nuggets on Oscar Isaac (Bill Ryan), Charlize Theron (Jamie Grijalba), Samuel L. Jackson (Kevin Cecil), my beloved Nina Hoss (Jason Shawham), Jacob Tremblay (Christianne Benedict), Leonardo Di Caprio (Vern), Mya Taylor (Cole Roulain), Arielle Holmes (Adam Lemke), Bernard Pruvost (Jason Shawham), Ronit Elkabetz (Christianne Benedict), Tom Noonan (Marya Murphy), Sidse Babett Knudsen (Cole Roulain) and Jason Mitchell (Jason Shawham).

Beloved But Ineligible, featuring terrific pieces on Abel Ferrara's Welcome to New York by Peter Labuza and World of Tomorrow by Benjamin Lim.

Keep checking out Our Science is Too Tight, the official Muriels Web site, for updates throughout the day on the countdown to the Best Feature Film award!

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Saturday, March 05, 2016

MURIELS THROWBACK 2013: THE MUSIC OF INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS



The following is the fifth of five highlights from my nine years writing for the Muriels Awards, a consideration of the music woven through the Coen Brothers' Insisde Llewyn Davis, which won the Muriel Award in 2013 for Best Music (Original, Adapted or Compiled).

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The name of the movie is Inside Llewyn Davis, and from the moment Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is heard singing the folk ballad “Hang Me, O Hang Me,” like a plaintive admission of defeat, or perhaps a taunt aimed at the fates, one begins to suspect the interior geography explored in the Coen brothers’ movie will be rife with regret, longing, imperious self-regard and a fair (or unfair?) helping of frustration. It’s the second year of the ‘60s, when the entire country unknowingly teetered on the brink of seismic change, and Davis, a hard-luck folk singer milling about a downtown New York captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in free-wheelin’ amber, hasn’t a pot to piss in or even a place indoors where the pissing might commence. He stumbles from place to place, looking for those among his friends who haven’t already been repelled or otherwise detonated by his scabrous personality for an offer of a place to stay, and his search for satisfaction from a has-been manager or the booking of the odd, sustaining gig proves just as fleeting.

The movie is a bitter-pill character piece, hilarious and horrifying and incisive, often all at the same time -- a study in insular narcissism cast in a time when the meaning of the folk movement lay precisely in the sort of reaching inward (for truth in expression) and outward (to affect individual lives and, as a result, the machinery of social change) that Llewyn Davis no longer seems interested in. And Davis’ stifling narcissism, one of the Coens’ primary concerns here, dictates the meaning of the music as heard and seen in the movie. Despite the impeccable contributions of T-Bone Burnett as compiler and producer of the movie’s richly evocative folk music ambiance, we’re far from the bluegrass-infused world of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where the very presence of the meaning of the music as a spiritual and interpersonal conduit was inescapable.

Those expecting an earnest documentary approach to the cultural climate informing Inside Llewyn Davis, one which precisely lays out the scene and the means by which we are to understand it from a historical perspective, will inevitably be put off by the Coens’ typically perverse challenge to understand a landmark moment in musical history from the point of view of a fly on the wall. We are, after all, inside Llewyn Davis, a place where music has lost its meaning as a social tool, as a means of reciprocal human connection, or as anything other than the nearly abstract expression of pure talent and the desire to be recognized. (In this regard, it ought to have resonated more fully than it apparently did in the age of American Idol and instant, disposable fame.)


In this way it is perfectly, uncomfortably fitting that, among all the beautifully evoked and performed music in the film, one of the highlights is “Please, Mr. President,” a jaunty, corny ballad so silly that you just know it’s going to be a hit. (Another clue: Llewyn eagerly signs on to play guitar and sing background on the recording for the instant gratification of a signing fee, forsaking the royalties he can’t imagine the tune will ever generate.) The tune, performed by Isaac and Justin Timberlake, with Adam Driver providing unforgettable basso backup (“Outer... space!”), is a perfect mixture of satire and whimsical sense memory, of a time just before Vietnam became a household word, when one could conceivably worry more (even in a lighthearted sense) over being tossed against one’s will into orbit with the likes of John Glenn and Gordon Cooper than being conscripted into harm’s way in Southeast Asia. (The song reminded me of a 45 I used to play as a toddler, “Sing a Song of John F. Kennedy.”)

But the greatest, most potent sting is left for last. Near the end, Davis performs another traditional song onstage, “Fare Thee Well,” in his clear, tender, accomplished, unrecognized voice, and then gets a beating in the alley behind the club which we’ve already seen administered once. (There’s some nifty directorial sleight of hand at play which I won’t reveal here.) And as he leans back in the alley, stunned, recovering from the punches brought down on him, we hear -- and so does Llewyn -- the sound emanating from the performer who took the stage after Llewyn departed, the final blow. It’s another “Farewell,” this one sung (and derived from a never-before-heard recording) by a fellow whom we never hear introduced but whom we know can only be a young Bob Dylan. The camera holds on Llewyn’s face as he registers Dylan’s completely original phrasing, the lyrics that reverberate with Davis’ self-mythology yet seem true to an experience beyond his understanding. (“Oh, the weather is against me/And the wind blows hard/And the rain she’s a-turnin’ into hail/I still might strike it lucky on a highway goin’ west/Though I’m travelin’ on a path beaten trail.”) This is a punch that’s something new. He’s been devastated not by fate or bad luck, but instead on his own terms.


It’s in this profoundly personal moment, a moment during which a talented young man is reduced to a mediocrity, to just another folk singer, that the Coens choose to introduce the modestly presented but culturally deafening change that has hovered like a deep, dark, inviting shadow for the length of the film. As befits the Coens' entire glancing approach to the significance of the folk music scene, this moment of seismic change registers for the audience, but Llewyn never hears it. The guy now onstage is just another schlub, providing background music for Llewyn’s latest round of pain and woes. As always, Llewyn remains outside the club, while inside the times they are a-changin’. Inside Llewyn Davis there may be the persistent echo of the road not traveled, the life stubbornly not lived, but never much in the way of reflection, of self-awareness, of why being a musician is so important. And now, as he passes into anonymity within that shadow, where the likes of Dave Van Ronk and countless others wait to commiserate, there is a new sound, one that will refuse to fade away, one that will define Davis and the folk music scene from which he emerged in a way that his own music never could.


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MURIELS THROWBACK 2012: KATY PERRY



The following is the fourth of five highlights from my nine years of writing for the Muriel Awards, my left-of-center pick of Katy Perry in her concert film Part of Me as one of the best female lead performances of 2012. Nearly four years later, I'll stand by that.

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I don’t think I’ve ever had a more difficult time assembling five decent candidates for the Best Lead Performance (Female) category, for the Muriels or for any of my own lists, than I did this year. Only two of my own nominees came completely without hesitation -- Rachel Weisz for The Deep Blue Sea and Eva Green in the sadly underseen Perfect Sense. I hadn’t even seen four or the five nominated women in the running for the Best Actress Academy Award by ballot time, and what Quvenzhan√© Wallis does in Beasts of the Southern Wild, as utterly disarming as her presence might be, feels more like the latest manifestation of the Ponette Syndrome rather than actual acting.


My only slightly facetious solution to this dilemma: the eternally wide-eyed, super-sized (with cupcake bra to match) pop personality that is the front and center attraction of last summer’s 3D documentary Katy Perry: Part of Me. Mind, on the scale of significant music movies KP: POM hardly ranks as either a pop culture jamboree on the order of A Hard Day’s Night or a brutal generational dissection a la Gimme Shelter. The worst thing that happens during a Katy Perry concert probably occurs during the exuberant performance of “Peacock,” KP’s gonzo saber rattle at the doors of propriety -- a lascivious limerick of sympathy for a devil ragin’ full-on (“I wanna see your peacock-cock-cock/Your peacock”), probably amounting to little more than the occasional shocked soccer mom fainting into her popcorn over the ribald transparency of what barely qualifies as sexual innuendo.

But if the movie isn’t exactly a landmark, then fortunately neither is it a pretentious meditation on the ego-fueled angst and impatience underlying what makes Katy Katy, a Truth or Dare for the “Fireworks” set. No, what makes the movie fun, and what makes me think Katy Perry is a good candidate in the Best Lead Performance (Female) category, is not just the peek behind the elaborate construct that Perry presents to adoring fans but also the consideration of the daunting energy and craft put into the image itself and its constant, cheerful, remarkably anti-cynical perpetuation.


“I don’t think anyone can ever be too cartoony!” the singer gleefully exclaims while putting herself together for the first performance of her first worldwide tour. It’s a moment that makes you want to stand up and salute, a sentiment that distills Perry’s perfectly calibrated self-awareness and places her mix of shiny, candy-colored pop extravagance and (unthreatening) Vargas-girl sexuality well within the tradition of beloved animated icons Sweet Polly Purebred and Jessica Rabbit, both of whose appeal Perry seems to aspire towards. The movie pays only lip service to the greater weight of crafting such an image, but even if KP: POM is meticulously manipulated to present exactly the picture Katy Perry wants disseminated, it’s still a fascinating appraisal of what such a heightened level of pinup performance art might still mean to the audience. I don’t recall ever seeing a movie about a pop singer whose artifice is so up front which is then also so relatively unafraid of presenting the star at her most vulnerable, whether she’s crawling out of bed after a exhausting leg of the tour or laying immobile on a massage table, crippled with grief over her crumbling marriage.


And Perry’s walking the fine line between exuberant amateur and slick professional is itself cheerfully, endearingly enjoyable too. To paraphrase Lennon and McCartney, she may be a singer (with more #1 hits off a single album than even the Beatles), but she ain’t no dancer. Yet her indefatigable desire to connect with the fans is quite something to behold -- you’ll never catch her glad-handing a mom and dad and their goggle-eyed kids backstage, then turning to make a gagging gesture behind their backs. And the tunes, even though they are only largely sampled here, remain seductively catchy, playfully hedonistic, occasionally transgressive, supremely empathetic paeans to the optimistic energy of pop, much like Perry herself. (No wonder she made the Children’s Television Workshop nervous.) Katy Perry: Part of Me ultimately remains true to its title -- this is only a glossy reflection of a carefully selected portion of the star’s reality. But it’s one in which the effort and art of creating her persona is as much in focus as her relentless appeal, documenting the moments when the acting put into being Katy Perry, Pop Princess, merges seamlessly with the joy she takes, and the toll taken from her, as that princess commands the stage.

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