Saturday, August 31, 2019


If they still made ‘em like the pre-Code drama Central Park (1932), I’d still be going to the movies every day instead of looking more to TCM and Netflix and the unwrapped section of my own DVD and Blu-ray collection for reasons to stay home. There are at least four bloated modern blockbusters playing at a theater near you right now at $18 a pop (I’m looking right at you, Hobbs, and you too, Shaw) which don’t have a tenth of the storytelling electricity and enthusiasm that this near-forgotten Hollywood programmer gushes in spades over the course of its 58-minute running time. The average 21st-century Hollywood action thriller, and even some of the more sincerely intended dramas pitched at adults, can leave you enervated and annoyed rather than satisfied, overstuffed with backstory and a heavy-handed approach to character, or simply overloaded on sensory input designed to distract you from the thinness of the material.  But as directed by journeyman John G. Adolfi (who only lived to make three more pictures after this one before dying of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1933), Central Park snaps to attention right away and crams so much juicy stuff in between the First National & Vitaphone Pictures title card and “The End,” all presented in the unpretentious style of a medium still feeling its way around synchronized sound, not to mention art, that audiences in 1932 had to have been thrilled at what they got for the 35 cents it cost them to get into the theater. Eighty-six years later, the movie is still fresh, funny, wild, sentimental, maybe even a little shocking, and it moves like lightning.

“Nothing ever happens in Central Park anymore,” says Eby, a Central Park zookeeper, to Charlie (Guy Kibbee), the beat cop who’s walked the park for his entire career. “People have even stopped trying to commit suicide around here,” he marvels. Maybe so, but there’s plenty to keep a guy like Charlie occupied, and only a slim chance he’d be able to see it clearly. You see, Charlie, one week away from getting his pension and retiring, is losing his eyesight, a fact he’d like to keep quiet from his superiors so he can finish out his week on the zoo beat without incident. He bumps into Dot (Joan Blondell) sitting alone on a park bridge and, perhaps with the reason of experience, assumes the worst. But it turns out Dot, a jobless drifter looking for a lucky break that’ll land her on the stage, is just waiting and hoping to reconnect with Rick (Wallace Ford), an unemployed rodeo rider from Arizona whom she met while both were drooling over hot dogs at a parkside diner which neither could afford. (While the owner argues with Rick about loitering, Dot slips in and lifts a frank for herself and this guy who she correctly figures is as desperate as she is.)

Dot gets involved with some shady gangsters claiming to be cops who rope her into a scheme where she’ll pretend to be the winner of a Fifth Avenue’s Most Beautiful Girl Contest, a fund-raiser for the city’s unemployed. Dot doesn’t know it, but she’ll literally be holding the key to the gangsters being able to bust into the locked box where the donations are kept and make off with the dough.

Meanwhile, ex-zookeeper and diagnosed lunatic Smiley (John Wray) has escaped from the “booby hatch” where he was committed a year earlier after exploding and slashing a fellow zookeeper who he observed not being kind enough to the caged animals. One colleague describes him has having an unusually friendly, perhaps even romantic attachment to the wild cats—“Only last week (Smiley) sent the black leopard a box of chocolates!”

The gangsters spot Rick talking to Dot and, assuming he’s somebody—maybe even a cop—who might interfere in their completing the scheme, kidnap him in an attempt to keep him out of the way. “If that mug tries to start anything,” the thug assigned to watch over the bound-up Rick assures the big boss, “I’ll spill him all over the rug.” You will not be surprised to find out it doesn’t turn out that way.

Achtung, pre-Code fetishists! Back at the zoo, the twirly-eyed Smiley shows up to exact a spectacularly gruesome demise for the zookeeper he tried to take out a year earlier. Smiley is spotted by the half-blind Charlie, who has stopped by the wild animal display to play with a new litter of tiger cubs, but Charlie, unable to see him clearly enough, mistakes him for someone else, allowing Smiley the opportunity to grab his cranky ex-colleague nemesis and drag him toward the lion cage…

Did I mention the mad lion that goes on a rampage through Central Park and a particularly unlucky nightclub soiree?

Central Park is packed to the rafters with wild dramatic developments like these and more, and there’s even room for the set-bound production to wedge in some stock footage of the actual park the way it looked during the time of shooting. That includes a spectacular (and spectacularly wobbly) aerial shot over the expanse of NYC’s biggest, lushest playground which opens the picture, leading to an opening montage of all the things you might have seen in the park at the time, including joggers, horse riders, buggy riders, bums practicing opera on a park bench, lovers lounging in a floating boat, and even a herd of sheep being guided across the lawns to God knows where.

The movie is a ton of fun as it spills out wild development after wild development, but the real charm of Central Park, however, lies in the talents of its players. Ford is a serviceable nice guy who manages to eke out some bona fide personality, despite the screenplay’s routine conception of his character, and he does find a way to put the lassoing skills of an ex-rodeo rider to use. Kibbee is a character actor who ought to be well familiar to fans who claim some experience with pre-Code Hollywood cinema (Taxi, 42nd Street, Golddiggers of 1933, anyone?), and he’s genuinely touching as Charlie, a sincere public servant who discovers that fate has a way of messing with the best-laid of retirement plans.

And though she is but part of the ensemble approach to storytelling that characterizes Central Park, this movie belongs to Joan Blondell’s wit and her inescapable eyes, which more often than not would tell the story of her character even if she wasn’t so deft with the wisecracks and sarcasm the writers supply to her. I’m always somewhat taken aback when I realize that Blondell, so good in so many crackling comedies and dramas of the period, never became the leading star she seemed destined to become, using movies like Central Park as a springboard. (See 1933’s Blondie Johnson, if you ever get the chance, to experience Blondell stretch her range and knock one out of the park.) No doubt she had great longevity and a prolific career as a character actress, but the way she wraps the audience around her finger in Central Park makes one think about the alternate universe in which she might have landed the sort of roles that would have put her in the same league with Carole Lombard or Jean Arthur, a starscape in which she surely would have been one of the brightest constellations. As it worked out in reality, at least we have her in this movie, and in many others better and worse. Blondell is a treasure no matter where you see her, but Central Park is one of her shiniest jewels.


Central Park is as yet unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray, though it would seem a perfect candidate for resurrection through the good graces of the Warner Archives. But it does show up on TCM occasionally, and when next it does you would be well-advised to have either your eyeballs or your DVR at the ready. Or you could go knocking on the door of the Library of Congress, which holds a nitrate print of the movie in its vast collection, one which might hopefully be the source of a possible physical media release sometime in the near future. 


Saturday, August 17, 2019


Pop quiz: A science fiction landmark; a beloved classic rescued from obscurity by public television; two screwball comedies directed by the same Hollywood master 15 years apart; an almost ethereally beautiful western; an apocalyptic sociopolitical parable; a disemboweled silent epic; two gorgeous and epically scaled tales both taking place where politics, social upheaval and romance converge; a nearly unparalleled humanist drama; a hugely influential surrealist fantasy/romance; and two of the greatest horror films ever made-- What do all of these films share in common?

Answer: They’re all inductees into the 2019 Muriel Awards Hall of Fame. 

The Muriel Awards, a group of critics and writers gathered together by Mssrs. Paul Clark and Steve Carlson some 14 years ago (I have proudly been among their number since the beginning), have been voting on the year’s best since 2006, and since 2013 our august number has been compiling inductees for our own hall of fame. This year the 100th film was inducted, making for a very robust list of must-see movies, all with links to the various pieces that have been written about them over the past five years in the name of Muriel, Mr. Clark’s beloved and long-deceased guinea pig. Muriel’s only requirement-- each inductee must be at least 50 years old.

And this year’s inductees are a grand bunch indeed. As I do annually, I’ve again gathered up all the films we ushered in for the class of 2019 and provided links to each of the individual pieces, along with a tantalizing tidbit from each writer’s essay, as an inducement for you, Dear Reader, to follow along and get acquainted with what Muriel thinks are some of the greatest movies in the history of the medium. Especially good, I think, are the pieces submitted by Odie Henderson (Bringing Up Baby), George Wu (Weekend), Sam Juliano (Greed) and Paul Clark himself (The Leopard). But this year the standout among all of them is Christianne Benedict’s eloquent and deeply personal response to the horror masterpiece Eyes Without a Face. It’s a must-read.

So let’s get started with Mr. Clark’s introduction to the Muriels HOF Class of 2019, and then if you keep a-scrollin’ you’ll find those links and tidbits I talked about. Enjoy, and if perchance there’s a movie or two on this list, or on the greater list of all the inductees which you have yet to see, do yourself a favor—stop reading, start seeking out those movies, and watch them as soon as you can. A world of great cinema awaits. And now, on with the show, in alphabetical order:


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946; Jean Cocteau) “The Beast wears glittering fineries, shot by Henri Alékan in inky blacks and luminous whites. His castle is a dreamland of surrealist effects work. Disembodied hands grip candles in its hallways; reversed footage and slow motion render bodies uncanny. The decor, like its master, is achingly vulnerable. Little else in film fantasy is as seductive as Cocteau's sui generis fairy tale.” (Alice Stoehr)


BRINGING UP BABY (1938; Howard Hawks) “The comedic impulse in Bringing Up Baby frequently reveals itself in terms of conflict, and Hepburn and Grant practically drown in conflict. Much of the humor stems from Grant’s exasperated response to whatever fresh Hell Hepburn tosses at him. Susan Vance is one of Hepburn’s most daring performances—she’s as exhausting and demanding as the slapstick in a Tex Avery cartoon. If viewers aren’t on the screwball level Hawks’ direction demands, Vance can be extremely off-putting, which might explain the original box office numbers. Yet several decades later, Bringing Up Baby has deservedly earned vindication: it appears on multiple AFI lists and has been designated a classic of its genre. In addition to ‘going gay all of a sudden’ thanks to Hepburn’s lingerie, Grant also engages his acrobatic talent for pratfalls and double-takes. Hepburn proves equally adept and limber with the verbal humor scripted by Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. Both actors alternate as the straight man in their comedic duo, and their flexibility is just one of the numerous, impressive feats performed by this bonkers contraption of a movie.” (Odie Henderson)


CHILDREN OF PARADISE (1945; Marcel Carne) “The epics by their nature become absorbed into the subconscious. They are part of the artistic world around us for long enough that their influence becomes something elemental, and the legacy supersedes the actual work. But here, not so. To fall under its spell is a phenomenon one never becomes immune to.” (Jason Shawhan)


EYES WITHOUT A FACE (1960; George Franju) “Certainly, continental directors spent a fair amount of time and energy making rip-offs of the film in the 1960s. The Spanish exploitation director, Jess Franco parlayed his own rip-off of Eyes Without a Face into a series of films about ‘The Awful Dr. Orloff.’ It borrows the plot and echoes the alternate title, but misses the poetry. It’s the poetry of Eyes Without a Face that lingers long after the bruise of its initial impact has faded. Its later imitators are more rarified (most famously, Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In and Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky). But even these are grasping after a phantom, an ineffable otherness that haunts the images in Franju’s film that cannot be replicated.” (Christianne Benedict)


GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953; Howard Hawks) “Much has been written by ‘Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend,’ the transcendent Monroe number with the star in an iconic pink dress surrounded by suitors under her spell. Many stars have paid homage to this glorious sequence, with Madonna's clever ‘Material Girl’ video perhaps the most memorable. Equally fun and vibrant is Jane Russell's hilarious ‘Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?’ which has her playfully delivering sports-punny lyrics about needing some affection while the aforementioned stoic jocks, dressed in nothing but their flesh-colored briefs, perform impressive gymnastics routines around her. Oh, what naughtiness do they get away with here!” (Brian Wilson)


GREED (1924; Erich von Stroheim) "No other film in the history of cinema fills us with such a sense of both awe and loss. Loss because of what the characters go through during the film’s duration, but even more for the loss of the director’s original intention. Greed was butchered like no other film was butchered, and unlike many such films of the modern era, there is no chance of a director’s cut ever emerging. Von Stroheim’s masterpiece was edited down from well over a hundred hours of stock footage to an original length of 8½ hours, from which it was cut to exactly seven for its premiere. When Irving Thalberg insisted he cut it down to a commercial length, Von Stroheim sent it to another artist on the MGM roster, his friend Rex Ingram, whose editor Grant Whytock helped him cut it down to 3¼ hours. Refusing to cut any more, Ingram handed it back, but it was then further cut by June Mathis to 2¼, as it survives to this day. It’s amazing it still stands as a masterpiece.” (Sam Juliano)


IKIRU (1952; Akira Kurosawa) “But the way Kurosawa approaches the dead man fills us with hope all the same. Maybe it’s the feeling deep inside all of us that we’ll be forgotten, or that we’re not living the lives we should. It’s nice to think that one last act might redeem us, but is that really the truth? Kurosawa has the perfect answer for that: the kids laughing and playing in the park Watanabe made possible. Their energy escaping into the air, filling the screen – it’s the breath of life itself.” (Jaime Grijalba)


IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946; Frank Capra) “In the face of a lost bank deposit and the possibility of financial ruin, it is spiritual forces and what-ifs that reset Bailey to recall a truth he used to hold sacred: it is through human kindness that life is made worth living, not money. Yet, one cannot ignore that ultimately money does play an integral role in reviving Bailey into seeing his future: individuals touched by Bailey’s caring hand raise high their hard-earned dollars to save the fate of his loan office. Constant selfless acts add to Bailey’s list of reasons to live but, in a scene of original crowd funding, he is upheld through the kindness of others waving the power of the almighty dollar.” (Donna Kozloskie)


THE LEOPARD (1963; Luchino Visconti) “One of the most celebrated period dramas in cinematic history, and for good reason – every set, every prop, every stitch of clothing looks and feels impeccable. What distinguishes Visconti’s film, adapted from a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, from so many other films like it is that the settings and costumes don’t seem glamourous or lush. Indeed, everything feels a little worn, as if one might pick up a random candlestick to find a discolored patch underneath, the tablecloth faded from too much sunlight and dust over the years. This is very much in keeping with the tale the film has to tell, that of an aging Prince in the autumn of his days, on the cusp of outliving the society he’s belonged to since before he was born.” (Paul Clark)


NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968; George A. Romero) “It's a destabilized film for and from a destabilized time, a work of narrative art in which the narrative is a series of shock waves meant to wreck the audience's sense of expectation. And within those shock waves lies its suffocating sense of dread, the mounting panic that stems from its eventual succumbing to the sense that everything is wrong and nothing will be okay. Cutting through the accumulated detritus around the film to find its core, this is the elemental truth to be found there - Night of the Living Dead works at a level most horror cannot hope to touch because, for any number of reasons relating to the time and place it was made, it posits a future where Nothing Will Be Okay.” (Steve Carlson)


ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968; Sergio Leone) “The stationmaster points the way toward the main street where she’ll catch a coach to take her to her new home, and as she and the station workers make their way toward the front door, the camera elevates toward the roof, Morricone’s beautiful music swelling in anticipation. That swelling builds to a perfectly choreographed moment, cresting precisely as Delli Colli’s camera lofts over the station roof to a grandiose wide shot of Jill making her way through the bustling main street and into a new world that will entirely justify the vaulting melancholy of Morricone’s theme. I have not been able to watch this passage as an adult without bursting into tears. When I hear cinephiles (especially young cinephiles) proclaim this moment as one of the greatest in all cinema, I quietly roll my eyes—yes, but how much have they really seen? And then I see the sequence and the movie again and think, if they’re not right, then at least they’re damned close.” (Dennis Cozzalio)


2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968; Stanley Kubrick) “Everything about it feels enormous, demanding the biggest screen available. A single edit spans millions of years, suggesting a story about the entire history of the human race, or at least a topic as broad as ‘man's use of tools.’ Yet it ends intimately, with one man alone inside the vastness of space, of time, of his mind. Maybe. I'm not sure. Luckily you don't have to be able to follow 2001 to feel it deeply. There doesn't seem to be a shelf date on the potency of pure cinema.” (Vern)


WEEKEND (1968; Jean-Luc Godard) “The movie is essentially a road trip delving into the hearts of darkness 12 years before Apocalypse Now with Weekend's forest dwelling revolutionary cannibals and animal slaughter. The latter portions of the film will divide most viewers as Godard foregrounds political polemics while becoming ever more abstract. The New Wave Godard finally disappears and the radical, militant Godard of his next period emerges. Though Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu's underrated and far more apolitical Happy End has a few similarities, there's nothing else in cinema quite like Weekend. It's Godard's caustic outburst culminating eight of the most fruitful years by any creative force in film history. (George Wu)

And the wrap-up, the Muriels Hall of Fame Class of 2019 FIN DU CINEMA(tic masterpieces) (for this year anyway).

The Class of 2020 awaits. See you next year!


Sunday, August 04, 2019


(The following piece isn’t so much a review as a gathering of thoughts and observations about that new movie everyone is talking about and can’t seem to stop talking about. As such, it assumes that the reader is familiar with the film and already knows what it is to which the writer-director is building and is no respecter of spoilers in talking about what happens in and around the controversial ending. So, if you haven’t seen the movie yet and would like to keep certain surprises intact, best to stop reading now and come back to this one later.)

There’s plenty to enjoy about the leisurely pace that characterizes Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, and in the anticipation leading up to its release it was wonderful to consider getting excited about a big summer movie that wasn’t a special-effects extravaganza directed by a sitcom director or some other techie dude you’ve never heard of. Tarantino’s new movie cruises with luxury through a reimagined Los Angeles during the infamous American summer of 1969, not so much telling the story but observing the story of a TV star (Leonardo Di Caprio) and his stunt double/best friend (Brad Pitt), both riding the down-crest of a changing business which is forcing them to confront their own obsolescence, the multiple ways in which they can’t seem to fit in to a world dissolving and rearranging without warning. That’s a fascinating subject, and one you would think would be enough to engage the writer-director on its own, one which fits in well with the unbothered Southern California vibe that makes OUATI…H feel like no other movie out there.
But there’s more. By now you of course know that Tarantino’s movie is populated by another drifting spirit, that of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie); known at this point in Hollywood history primarily as one of the characters (“The one who makes dirty movies”) in Valley of the Dolls (1967), Tarantino sees her as both the symbol of the last gasp of Hollywood the way it was and, of course, the sacrificial lamb whose awful fate forever marked a shift in popular culture and the end of a public perception of “hippies” as exclusively motivated by peace, love and understanding. OUATI…H attempts to unify its threads— aging Hollywood, ageless Hollywood, and a Hollywood symbol that would never get to age— by grafting and intertwining the fates of Tarantino’s TV cowboys with that of Tate and her houseguests on that infamous night in August 1969 in one of his now-patented alternate-reality fantasies.
I won’t explain just how, but in QT’s version it turns out that Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins head up a different driveway on Cielo Drive, and the director leads us along the path of another what-if scenario involving another horrendous moment in history. But, as film critic Odie Henderson observed in his comments on the film last week, “Melanie Laurent’s target was Hitler. Jamie Fox’s target was the institution of slavery. Brad Pitt’s target is a quartet of hippies who BY SHEER LUCK come to Leo’s house instead of Roman Polanski’s.” 
This is the crux of the disappointment of the movie for me— in the end, what the movie had been building toward has no real weight. It’s played to a certain degree as a farce of inept murderousness, and more disturbingly as a gruesome whack at a counterculture movement that is solely represented by the blank stares of the Manson Family. By the time the movie makes it to the canyon, its attempt to provide an alternative to the horror that ended up earmarking a huge cultural shift feels callow, grafted on, essentially unexplored. Does it all really come down to Rick maybe getting a part in Polanski’s new movie? I hadn’t thought about it until Henderson mentioned it, but the real meat of the movie— the creeping uselessness and pressure of being phased out of an era that Rick and Cliff feel— is a big, juicy hamburger of a movie right there, and Tarantino has enough at stake in it that it could have been compelling on its own. 

But the Manson/Sharon Tate reimagining stuff gives the movie a misshapen rhythm, a top-heavy structure that doesn’t build, that keeps the movie from ever truly catching fire the way Inglourious Basterds did. Even the buildup to that fateful night, with the sudden pile-on of narration, seems rushed and indifferently structured, and it pushes the movie away from the tighter, more slyly observant character study that seems to be dwelling inside all of its longueurs. (Is there anyone left who can say “no” to QT? Not the editor of his last three pictures, that’s for sure.) 
Tate/Robbie has a lovely moment in the middle of the movie where she delights at herself, and in the audience’s reaction, during a Westwood screening of The Wrecking Crew (1968),  a Dean Martin/Matt Helm star vehicle in which she had a small role. But that time spent with Tate really comes to nothing because even QT is uninterested in her as anything but an icon. The ending has a certain wistfulness for the fragility of how unpredictably paths can fragment, but no real emotional thrust, other than that generated by the at least partially comic charge one might get from seeing Tex Watson’s crotch get consumed by the world’s coolest pit bull, Susan Atkins get incinerated, or Patricia Krenwinkel’s face get mashed to pulp on a fireplace mantel. 
The movie left me with the feeling that QT is no longer capable of making a movie that doesn’t feature grotesque violence— he’s too in love with the shock effects (something Cronenberg had also always been accused of, but certainly with less reason, I think) and seems to think those shocks are what people really love his movies for. There’s too much else in his films to counter that, though, and I left OUATI…H mournful that there is no catharsis in Tarantino’s concept this time around, that Sharon Tate and the other victims (including the La Bianca’s) didn’t deserve either their awful fates or this audience-pleasing alternate take, and that had QT taken the time to shape his real subject and jettison the fantasy this might actually have been the movie some of the rapturous reviews are claiming it is.
In this movie of the moment, my favorite moment is largely a throwaway. Brad Pitt prepares for a physical confrontation with a supremely arrogant Bruce Lee (QT has taken heat for this scene). He sits up upon a metal table, and as he get readies to rise up, he sets the tiny, school-size half-pint carton of milk he’s been sipping on down on the table surface, and the carton, which couldn’t weigh more than a couple ounces, makes a loud, mysterious and very funny metallic “clonk” as it makes contact with the table surface. I laughed my ass off, and I don’t think anyone else did. This is not the sort of highlight around which to build a 160-minute movie, but I’m glad it’s there, and the director’s fascination with long scenes that seemingly go nowhere, or at least take a while to go where you would expect them to, at least make room for several more amusements like this one. Somebody said that the movie felt like it was made up of a lot of DVD deleted scenes that you’d normally have to access as a separate bit of value-added material, and I did appreciate the fact that the movie wasn’t in a hurry to mosey on down its road. I think maybe that’s another reason why when the movie careens into another Hateful Eight-style wallow in ultra-violence, it felt especially off-putting to me.
Maybe the best, most haunting moment in the movie is Tarantino’s dusk-side mini-tour of several recognizable neon signs in Los Angeles popping on in the dimming light of that fateful evening, a sweet observance given a grim patina of dread. And one great thing about all those cruising around LA scenes, besides observing all the detail that went into recreating the landmarks of the period is the fantastic soundscape of old jingles and authentic broadcast ported in from the golden past of LA radio station KHJ and its signature voice, that of Robert W. Morgan, who in OUATI...H functions similarly to the way Wolfman Jack did in American Graffiti. 
And of course, the rest of QT’s soundtrack makes for much fun, though it’s not quite up to some of his past collage-of-obscure-hits efforts. For instance, he uses The Mamas and the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon” to underline the unsettling image of the Manson Girls— unfortunately, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale beat QT to this particular sickening punch, and I think to greater effect. And really, the director’s use of the Rolling Stone’s “Out of Time” over images of a pregnant Sharon Tate innocently preparing for what, in the real world, would be her final night, is distractingly on-the-nose, and unusually so for a sly repurposer of pop culture such as Tarantino. 
But I am grateful that, of all the pop hits and marginal wonders that might’ve surfaced in this movie’s wake, a renewed life seems to have been given to Bob Seger’s completely awesome "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man," which is heard on the radio of Pitt’s yellow Caddy as it meanders its way through a Los Angeles that was and may never have been. I heard it myself on the radio in my car today, and for four-and-a-half minutes I felt I was riding along with Pitt, contemplating personal and career extinction in the sunniest way possible, in the alternate reality movie I wish Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood had turned out to be.


Sunday, July 14, 2019


Yesterday, “the feel-fantastic movie of the summer” (Billboard magazine), jumps off from an undeniably juicy premise—What if you woke up one day and everyone had forgotten about the Beatles except you?—then proceeds to develop almost nothing about that premise, preferring to use the music, its meaning and its influences, as a Macguffin on the way to selling yet another cliché-cute romantic dramedy about getting out of your own way long enough to recognize the presence of your true love. (The screenplay is by Richard Curtis, who wrote Love, Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral, and by the time Yesterday was finished I had another prolific artist in mind whose work I’d like to suddenly lose all awareness of.) 

The problem with Yesterday isn’t its actors, though newcomer Hamish Patel, as Jack, the blessed/beleaguered singer/songwriter who decides to pass off the Beatles’ songbook as his own work, isn’t encouraged by director Danny Boyle to do much other than conjure an open-mouthed stare, as if confronting an oncoming bus, as the implications of gaining worldwide stardom on someone else’s genius begin to overwhelm him. As his manager/would-be-soon-to-be girlfriend Ellie, Lily James is charming, but on autopilot—you get the feeling she’d have a grand romantic comedy in her if someone could figure out how best to employ her instinctive comic flair, her ability to listen and be engaged by her fellow actors (who are frequently far less interesting than she), and that lovely, distinctive overbite, which allows her smile to burrow deep into whoever happens to be in its path. And Kate McKinnon flirts with overkill as Jack’s ingratiatingly snide manager—another performance or two like this might reveal that the talented comedian has fewer tools in her case than we once hoped, causing a once-fresh approach to turn stale in the same way that Jane Lynch managed when the sarcasm of Sue Sylvester congealed into overexposed routine. Fortunately, Danny Boyle approaches the film with his customary zeal, though the frothy nothing Curtis serves up as a script causes the typically frenetic director of Trainspotting and 127 Hours to too often break a visible sweat. 

No, the real fly in Yesterday’s ointment is that its juicy premise, courtesy of Curtis, hasn’t been even halfway thought through, by the writer or Boyle, and no one seems to even care as the picture barrels through to its inevitably triumphant conclusion. Incredibly, Yesterday reduces the music of the Beatles, which the film keeps reminding us is of 100% masterpiece status, to the background. Curtis and Boyle are either ill-equipped or uninterested in considering the actual implications of a world without the Beatles, a process of thought that would tend to derail the familiar notions of puppy love that are their actual aim. When Jack begins to reintroduce the music to the world in his bland singer-songwritery way, at first he concludes that his audience’s initial indifference has to be chalked up to him—a tough argument to refute, even as Jack’s/Patel’s sincere, if nondescript interpretations fail to muffle the limber beauty of the material.

But as Jack begins to gain fame passing off Beatles tunes as stuff he just conjures Mozart-like out of thin air, the movie sidesteps ever considering the importance of the social and cultural context of that music, that society as a whole was prepared to respond to it in a specific way. Absent that context, watching the fans in the movie respond to songs as varied in their style as “She Loves You,” “A Day in the Life,” “Carry That Weight,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road” as if they were instant revelations, bestowals of unvarnished genius laid upon the great unwashed, robs the songs of their power, their meaning. When someone asks Jack what is meant by the phrase “A Hard Day’s Night” and he offers a confused shrug followed by an “I don’t know,” the movie crystalizes its central problem with uncomfortable precision. A parrot can make beautiful noise, but absent an understanding of its purpose it’s just noise. Yesterday rather cynically counts on our own associations with the music of John, Paul, George and Ringo to fill in all the weird lapses of common sense that it blithely skates over in the name of feeling “fantastic.”

Frustratingly, the movie doesn’t even play by its own rules. The mysterious solar surge phenomenon that causes the mass memory wipeout, a blip meant to conjure ghosts of Y2K panic, eliminates the music in a blast of electromagnetic randomness. But also, if a cameo that occurs late in the movie is to be believed (and, like most of what happens in this movie, it isn’t), that electrical phenomenon ends up amounting to some ill-defined time-shift-warp, meaning that certain things which happened in Beatles history, and human history, did not happen—rendering the continued presence of artists like Coldplay, Ed Sheeran (who plays himself, without much wit), and Pulp, all of whom would probably not exist had the Beatles not also, a bit of a puzzling development. And Curtis can’t resist sacrificing logic to a cheap joke either—late in the game another citizen, like Jack, whose Beatles recall was not eliminated, commiserates with him on the importance of keeping the music in the world. She complains of not being able to remember the words, and is so glad that Jack is able to, but then proceeds to gently berate Jack for flubbing the words to “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” the words to which must be clear enough in her mind to justify a zippy one-liner. A nit to be picked, perhaps, but when enough nits build up, it’s an infestation and no fun for anyone, especially the picker.

The one thing the filmmakers inarguably do right by their audience is letting us hear the actual Beatles recording of “Hey, Jude” over the end credits. After two hours of listless interpretations and endless proclamations that the Beatles were the Shakespeares of pop music, experiencing the songs as they actually sounded when they captured the imaginations and the ardor of the world is intoxicating. Sure, if the last thing you hear before being shown the door back into the real world, where Beatles music is still known and revered, is Paul McCartney’s unleashed vocalizing over one of the Beatles’ most epically emotional tunes, then yeah, you’ll probably leave Yesterday feeling “fantastic.” But it’ll be because the Beatles did the work that these filmmakers couldn’t manage—making our spirits soar while bringing an understanding of why we loved, and love, not only these songs, but the performances, and why a world that never knew them couldn’t possibly be affected by them in the same way if they were served up entirely out the context from whence they sprang. Yesterday retrofits history to serve up a condescending compliment to its audience, while the emotional transportation and transcendence it aims to traffic in, and misses almost entirely, is nowhere to be found in the movie. Instead, to quote the Beatles’ contemporary, Pete Townshend, it turns out, no surprise, that it’s all there on the vinyl. Let it be.


Friday, June 21, 2019


(Editor's note: Wow. It's been over a month since I posted to this page? I'm either getting old or distracted, or both... But that's a question for another time...)

Well, as Dean of SLIFR University (that'd be Lord Hy Muckitymuck to you), I'm happy to announce that I'm off with my family on  a much-needed summer vacation, the vagaries and responsibilities of overseeing an institution like SLIFR-U being quite trying at times-- one of the younger film history professors on staff actually told her classes that "I suppose D.W. Griffith deserves a mention," before proceeding to dismiss further discussion of his work and suggesting that her students should rely on her testimony that The Birth of a Nation was reprehensible and feel no obligation to investigate it for themselves. I personally... corrected  her, and when she didn't show up in class the following session she was summarily dismissed from the staff. (Strangely, no one has seen her since. But I insist that I know nothing about what I suppose must be described as her sudden disappearance.)

One of our more reliable tenured instructors provides a more solid foundation for his journey of discovery with his students into the world of art history, and that would be the host of this most recent SLIFR U Movie Quiz, Dr. Jonathan Hemlock. When we approached Dr. Hemlock for his ideas for a new quiz, he was enthusiastic, especially since it had been such a long time since one had been published-- "It's a hell of a honor to be asked to kick-start such a grand tradition," the super-sexy and down-to-earth historian proclaimed, before excusing himself to discuss a poor assignment performance with one of his preposterously luscious female students, who was apparently much more fascinated by the possibilities of her art history class than her grades would indicate. Dr. Hemlock is indeed popular with his students, and a very busy man who somehow always finds time to moonlight as a mountain climbing instructor and guide, a side interest which is apparently a lucrative one, which would account for his possession of an extensive personal collection whose value would seem to far exceed the reach of a professor's pay grade, even one as esteemed as himself.

So hopefully you'll understand why we consider having him contribute to the SLIFR Movie Quiz canon to be such a coup. Dr. Hemlock invites you along to participate and expects you to get a good grade. If you don't, he's made it incumbent upon us to insist that those who score unsatisfactorily be made to accompany him on his next climb for a bit of instruction in the sport "which he sincerely hopes you will survive." (We have not yet determined exactly what Dr. Hemlock means by this vaguely threatening statement, but we feel sure you have nothing to fear. Perhaps he knows something about the disappearance of our film history professor. Hmm...)

At any rate, time to get to the new quiz, which hopefully you have been hankering for. The usual reminders are in order. You can post your answers in the comments column below, and when you do please copy and paste the questions as well as your answers so readers will know to what your answers refers without having to scroll back up to this post to be reminded. You can also link to your own blog page or Facebook page if you prefer to post your questions/answers there.

And please, don't feel you have to post short answers. For this quiz, as all SLIFR quizzes, the longer, more discursive answers are almost always more interesting to read. But short answers can be great too-- if you've got a witty, quippy reply, feel free to cut loose and run.

With all that in mind, submit now to Dr. Jonathan Hemlock's particular talent at compiling quizzes and have at his Artsy-Fartsy, Historical-Schmistorical Sanctionistic Summer Vacation Movie Quiz. Your grade, or your life, may depend on it.

* Questions submitted by Dr. Hemlock's teaching assistant, Emma Cozzalio


1) Name a musician who never starred in a movie who you feel could have been a movie star or at least had a compelling cinematic presence

2) Akira or Ghost in the Shell *

3) Charles Lee Ray or Freddy Krueger? *

4) Most excruciating moment/scene you've ever sat through in a film 

5) Henry Cavill or Armie Hammer?

6) Name a movie you introduced to a young person, one which was out of their expressed line of interest or experience, which they came to either appreciate or flat-out love

7) Second favorite Robert Rossellini film

8) What movie shaped your perceptions of New York City, Los Angeles and/or Chicago before you ever went there and experienced the cities for yourself.

9) Name another movie that shaped, for better or worse, another city or location that you eventually visited or came to know well.

10) Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee? *

11) Elizabeth Debicki or Alicia Vikander?

12) The last movie you saw theatrically? The last on physical media? Via streaming?

13) Who are the actors, classic and contemporary you are always glad to see?

14) Second favorite Federico Fellini film

15) Tessa Thompson or Danai Gurira *

16) The Black Bird or The Two Jakes?

17) Your favorite movie title

18) Second favorite Luchino Visconti film

19) Given the recent trend, what's the movie that seems like an all-too-obvious candidate for a splashy adaptation to Broadway?

20) Name a director you feel is consistently misunderstood

21) Chris Evans or Chris Hemsworth? *

22) What's the film that most unexpectedly grew in your estimation from trivial, or unworthy, or simply enjoyable, to a true favorite with some actual meat on its bones?

23) I Am Curious (Yellow), yes or no?

24) Second favorite Lucio Fulci film

25) Are the movies as we now know them coming to an end? (


Saturday, May 18, 2019


Here’s what happens when the need to see takes over and I start pulling DVDs off the shelf with only my dark heart as a guide…

The sleazy, claustrophobic, catch-as-catch-can transience of the carnival world, with its ever-changing roster of freaks, geeks, disappointed con men and women with few options, all clinging to shreds of dignity and eyeing a better life while digging themselves deeper into the one from which they want to flee, seems a naturally cinematic subject. Yet there are surprisingly few movies that have ever captured the symbiotic push-pull of vibrant show-biz fakery and dark personal obsessions that lurk behind the curtain, beyond the barker’s call. Somewhere between the boy’s wish-fulfillment of Toby Tyler and the mind-wrenching funhouse mirror reflections of Tod Browning, Tobe Hooper and Rob Zombie, Edmund Goulding’s film of W.L. Greshman’s Nightmare Alley (1947), from a script by Jules Furthman (reportedly quite faithful to the novel), captures the attraction of the fairway for the suckers and the sham artists running the games, as well as the desperation to trade the sawdust floors of tented arenas for brighter, shinier halls where the sheep waiting to be fleeced have thicker wool and far deeper pockets.

Watching Nightmare Alley today, it’s plain to see that while the divide between the carnies and the upper classes awash in dough is as marked as ever (maybe more so), the desperation for recognition, for reward, is no longer a simple symptom of poverty. But in 1947 it must have been quite a shock to see a handsome star like Tyrone Power give himself over to a role for which audiences wouldn’t have been expected to have much empathy. Power’s opportunistic Stan Carlisle is so thoroughly at home amongst the shadows and hidden compartments of the carnival setting that it’s almost a surprise to hear that he has aspirations beyond it. However, his eagerness to expand his talents to more sophisticated scams for more sophisticated targets soon sucks in both the essentially good-natured Zeena (Joan Blondell) and the relatively innocent Molly (Colleen Gray) into a world where the lies get bigger, thornier, more perverse, and the inevitable fall back to earth is all the more devastating.

Cinematographer Lee Garmes brilliantly conjures the film’s first half in chiaroscuro patterns and recesses formed by the impermanent tents and wagons, all of which coexist almost subconsciously with the ballrooms and theaters of the slightly less compelling second half. But Nightmare Alley’s central power lies in the faces of its actors, the carnival life lived as painted in the creases on their faces, in smiles and banter meant to hide the truth, in haunted looks and, conversely, averted eyes. Joan Blondell is smashing as Zeena, accidentally widowed by Stan’s (subconscious?) enabling of her alcoholic husband. She carries the weight of an entire disappointed life in her big, beautiful, forlorn eyes. 

As for Power, he couldn’t have been, and probably never was better than he was in this movie. Critic Charles Taylor observes about Power’s towering performance that the actor conjures Stan’s essence in that “he manages always to look away from anyone declaring any tenderness for him… His gaze is always fixed on where he’s going.” The commitment which Power, Goulding and Furthman show toward Gresham’s concept of Stan’s corruption is that which Hitchcock could not follow through on in flirting with villainy for Cary Grant in Suspicion. The blasphemous blackness in Stan’s heart is given near full reign down the darkest nightmare-fueled alleys in the film; it sticks its chilling effect in our hearts like a stake pounded into soft ground, a stake meant to anchor a carnival tent in place long enough to provide cover while the movie takes us for all we’re worth.

Electra Glide in Blue (1973) has the trappings of an action movie, but the crime investigation at the center of its plot feels more like a Macguffin, a concession to genre that more effectively plays as a diversion leading toward the movie’s ambient incertitude. Its real subject is the tug of war internalized within John Wintergreen (Robert Blake), a Vietnam veteran who returns to life as a motorcycle cop and is (like we are) seduced by the cold sheen imagery and laconic bravado surrounding his post-war profession. Wintergreen is torn between sympathy for the freedom of outlaw bikers and structure and discipline of police work, and Blake’s well-modulated performance—gritty, funny, sympathetic, but hardly pleading—suits the humor and the toughened mettle of a man who may not be big enough (or paranoid enough) for the job.

The visions coaxed to life by Conrad Hall justify Wintergreen’s shifting self-regard— the celebrated director of photography conjures motorcycles cruising through air, warped by heat and compressed by long lenses-- images which have energy and forward thrust, but which are also powered by the ethereal beauty of strange, misplaced beasts in motion. Hall teases out the iconography of motorcycle-powered justice toward a much more ambiguous, unsettling end, intimating a very uneasy ride just ahead.

But director James William Guercio’s movie (his one and only, shot between gigs as producer of the music group Chicago, and featuring some of the band members in minor roles) finds just as much potency in immobility. It’s there in the looming monuments of the country through which those Arizona highways snake and wind. It’s there in the moments of repose when Wintergreen and his partner Zipper Davis (Billy Green Bush) are parked by the side of the asphalt, thinking and talking about everything and nothing. (Hall finds poetry in close Panavision glimpses of the hard gravel and sagebrush along the edges of the highway —you can almost smell the desert dust and feel the heat radiating off the pavement, warping the relentless sunshine.) And it’s there in the movie’s horrifying final image, in which a cop is installed on the road like one of those monuments looming behind him, perhaps as yet another reminder of a bloody American past and the many fallen, aggressors and victims who couldn’t reconcile themselves to a country bent on tearing itself apart. Electra Glide in Blue refashions the countercultural martyrdom of Easy Rider into a blunt blow toward an entire nation profoundly divided, the darkest fate reserved for those who see both sides yet end up in the middle of the road.

Maniac Cop 2 (1990; William Lustig) is mostly disposable junk—it has that signature blue steel sheen once fetishized by John Carpenter and James Cameron and a script that, to my tin ears and eyes at least, makes close to no sense. But even though it was partially shot in Los Angeles, it also makes good use of its nighttime New York City locations. It’s like a time capsule glimpse back to a city that no longer exists, at least not in precisely the same way, and it has a pleasurably scuzzy 42nd Street vibe. How could it not with Robert Davi’s gruff detective skulking around alleyways, investigating the apparent reappearance of the titular imposing figure of menace? (Davi is so tough, he smokes in hospitals!) 
Fortunately, there’s also Claudia Christian as Davi’s antagonist, a sympathetic cop psychologist who comes to believe the wild stories about a wronged, killed and resurrected cop who’s out there taking out innocents and baddies alike; Bruce Campbell reprising his role as the lead investigator from the first movie (he doesn’t last quite so long this time); Michael Lerner picking up a (small) check as the corrupt police commissioner; Clarence Williams III finding one good note and playing it into the sunset as a loony death row inmate; and Leo Rossi hamming it up as a bushy-haired serial killer who befriends Cordell, the Maniac Cop, essayed as always (there was a third one, you know) by B-movie stalwart Robert Z’Dar, he of the hulking frame and XXL lantern jaw. Z’Dar sports the worst scary makeup job of all time, but at least he-- or, more accurately, his stuntman-- gets in some top-notch asbestos suit time when he gets set on fire near the end of the picture. 

(Asbestos suit stunts are among my favorites, yet another harkening back to a more "innocent" age of filmmaking where if you wanted to show a guy on fire, you couldn’t decorate him with pixels, you had to really set him on fire… and all that protective outerwear still makes a giant like Z’Dar’s Cordell look like going up in flames somehow caused him to instantly gain about 75 pounds.)

Christian-- or, more accurately, her stuntwoman— also gets a rousing action set piece about half an hour in when the Maniac Cop handcuffs her to a steering wheel and sets the car in high-speed motion down a crowded boulevard. It’s easily the highlight of the movie, especially if you don’t stop to think about who’s keeping the car hurtling forward with their foot on the gas. (Answer: no one.) After that it’s pretty much downhill (the movie, not the car—that would’ve explained things) straight toward the rote gory shoot-‘em-up, stab-‘em-up, set’-em-on-fire conclusion, which is topped, as many thought-disabled genre pictures have been since Carrie White and Michael Meyers and Jason Voorhees rose from the dead, by the usual jolt that screams "Sequel!" 

Maniac Cop 2 isn’t even close to good, but it’s the most well-paced and acted of the movies in the Cordell saga made so far, and its violence, though ridiculous and once considered on the extreme side, now seems almost period quaint. (Rumors that Nicholas Winding Refn was set to direct a Maniac Cop prequel seem to have dissipated, maybe because the grue-minded auteur never figured out a way to one-up the original’s enthusiastic scuzz factor.) You could chuck a dismembered limb or flame-charred skull in any direction and hit a far better movie, but as brainless, gory action-horror hybrids go you could also hit far worse (like Maniac Cop 3, for example). For all its clunky echoes of The Terminator and scores of other superior low-budget action thrillers, Maniac Cop 2 does manage to leave some grimy stains and a not entirely unpleasant aftertaste of its own. It's the B-movie equivalent of a bong shot of Ripple guzzled near a Dumpster behind a strip bar, which at times, by the adjusted standards of the grindhouse anyway, gets within shouting distance of mean, dirty, stupid fun.

A night flight through a darkened wood opens Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face (1960) with a heightened pulse—a woman races down a deserted highway eyeing her rear-view mirror, fearful of the intent of cars approaching from behind but also keeping an eye on the passenger in the back seat. Soon the passenger, hidden in a too-big trench coat and hat, slumps forward, and the movie begins its steep descent into the interior of a twisted morality well worthy of being cloaked in a dark forest of secrets. A French-Italian coproduction released in Europe in 1960 (the same year Psycho was released) but not seen in the U.S. until two years later, Eyes Without a Face plays like a Grand Guignol fairy tale with imagery that, unlike the unforgiving slashes and sharp angles of Hitchcock’s landmark, seeps into the viewer’s subconscious with poetic assurance and smears the boundaries of our sympathies at the same time.

In an isolated mansion somewhere in that darkened wood a surgeon (Pierre Brasseur) familiar with past glories has instigated an escalating series of skin graft experiments in a desperate attempt to restore the face of his young daughter (Edith Scob), horribly disfigured in a car accident. The surgeon kidnaps young Parisian girls to use as unwilling epidermal donors with the help of his devoted assistant (Alida Valli), a former patient whose own successful facial reconstruction has blinded her to her savior’s madness. Given the elusive, seductive strangeness of the movie’s surrealist mise-en-scène, 21st-century viewers might be surprised at the film’s notorious centerpiece, a shockingly clinical surgical scene in which Franju’s camera barely glances away from the horrific procedure being performed, and then only to scan the landscape of moral conflict glistening like cold sweat across the faces of the doctor and his helper. But perhaps even more unsettling and ultimately frightening is the degree to which Franju allows us access not only to sympathy for the victims, but also for the daughter, whose dawning realization of what her father is doing might be as devastating as her own disfigurement, and even for the surgeon and his assistant, their genial manner and misguided, sincere love for the girl incapable of coexisting with their heinous deeds. 

The movie is a masterpiece of raised goose flesh. Even during the film’s most ostensibly placid moments Franju burrows under our skin with image and sound— over unadorned tracking shots of the girl moving aimlessly through the empty halls of the house a faint, insistent, inexplicable barking can be heard, soon revealed as coming from the basement of the house, where the doctor’s very first victims are still penned. If Eyes Without a Face ends on a note of release best suited for a fairy tale it is a grim tale indeed, tainted by blood, destroyed loyalties and the prospect of a bleak future of isolation, as if a masked, faceless sleeping beauty had escaped the evil queen and made her way into the woods to find only suffocating darkness where magic should reside.