Saturday, March 31, 2012


Villard Hall, the second oldest building on the University of Oregon campus, opened its door in 1886, 10 years after the school admitted its first student, and was home to the Film Studies Department when I attended Oregon 35 years ago.

Film Studies was a featured major when I attended the University of Oregon from 1977 to 1981. I was in the last class that graduated with a degree specifically in Film Studies; the following year the size of the program was reduced and coupled with the other prevalent media of the day to provide the opportunity for a degree under the combined banner of Telecommunication and Film. Another decade passed, and in 1992 the Telecommunications and Film Department shuttered altogether, seemingly putting an emphatic period at the end of the days when one could pursue an education at Oregon in a field which was still thriving academically in other, larger schools geographically closer to production hubs on the East and West Coasts. My own experience in the film department at Oregon was geared much more toward criticism, but not because I didn’t still harbor hopes/delusions of making films myself—I certainly did. The fact of the matter is, the production end of the department was seriously underfunded— we split probably three Bolex 16mm cameras, some lighting equipment and a few other items necessary for the DIY filmmaking of the day between the 20-30 students per term who needed access to them. According to the department’s own mission statement, the film studies program was never geared as a way station for artistic and technical grooming before hitting the road to Hollywood, and if you didn’t believe it before you signed up, you certainly would by the time you hit the production office in Villard Hall and tried to borrow a camera for a weekend shoot.

The student and the master: Dean Martin and John Wayne in Rio Bravo

But instead of fretting that I wasn’t at USC or UCLA, I took advantage of the fact that the department was enthusiastically operated from a history and criticism standpoint, and it was here that my lifelong relationships with artists such as Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Jean Renoir, Howard Hawks, John Ford and countless others were seeded and nurtured and a whole new way of seeing the world was opened up to me. And the absolutely crucial coexistence of the film studies department with the countless on-campus screenings and terrific programming available at Eugene’s premier art house, the Cinema 7, provided all the supplementary rounding out a green film geek could ever hope for. I was lucky enough to have terrific, intuitive professors like Bill Cadbury, Jean Cutler, Bill Willingham and Don Frederickson, and teaching assistants like Terrea Bryson, who were exceedingly good at guiding their students to connect the art of film to the experience of life. This pale, none-too-worldly-wise country boy sometimes had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of his safety zones during those classes in the late ‘70s, but I relish the memory of my resistance being broken down, not only by the dawning light as I got exposed to a more and more expansive universe of international film, but also by the patience of folks like Bill Cadbury in guiding me down the path to wrestling with and expressing ideas about all those complicated images and sounds. Sometimes I didn’t like what I heard, but that just made me try a little bit harder next time. And by the time we got to Coppola and Altman, I was in heaven for seeing familiar works from a rich, new perspective.

As fellow student Sean Axmaker (who arrived at Oregon two years after I left) told Bill and I in a recent Facebook exchange, the film education we got at Oregon was important because it threw light on “how form and style informed meaning, how films reflected their time and the artists who created them, and how art is always political, especially in the absence of overt acknowledgment of a point of view, and why we should pay attention to these things.” For Sean, for me, for countless others, seeing films with Bill Cadbury and the rest of the professorial staff in the Film Studies Department wasn't just about watching movies and getting credit for it. It was, as Sean so aptly summarized, “about paying attention to how we were told to really understand what we were told,” a critical difference in relation to a viewer’s assumed passivity that has only become more critical 30-some years later in a world saturated by film and other media that have, if we are honest, probably eclipsed film in terms of fusion with a general audience.

Fast-forward from 1992 to 2012. That’s 20 years, kids, without a viable film program at the University of Oregon, an unfortunate drought which has, as all things must, finally passed. I was thrilled when I opened my mailbox earlier this week and found a letter from Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, who received her Ph.D. from the Telecommunications and Film Department in that final graduating class of 1992, and who is now a Professor of English at University of Oregon as well as the director of the newly established Cinema Studies department on the Oregon campus. “During the nearly two decades between our programs,” Karlyn says, “film and television studies never totally disappeared from (the university).” Instead, students continued to push for advances in study programs that could meet their needs and interests, while faculty continued to form bonds with like-minded colleagues from all areas of the campus who shared scholarly interest in all aspects of media in the 21st century. As a result, the new Cinema Studies program now spans three separate schools—the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Journalism and Communication and the School of Architecture and Allied Arts, more accurately reflecting, it seems to me, the connection and influences that inform films beyond the age-old iteration of our most traditionally popular art as simply a technological variation on literature or theater. “(The program has) more than 300 majors, a state-of-the-art computer lab and screening space,” wrote Karlyn in the letter which was addressed to all alumni of the Telecommunications and Film Studies department, “and a critical mass of faculty members working in fields ranging from Japanese cinema and Bollywood to digital culture and new media.” And I thought a whole semester on Altman, projected on 16mm, was neat!

This is, of course, extremely welcome news, if perhaps a bit humbling when considering what comparatively little there was to work with when I was a student there. But then again, it truly is a different, more complex, perhaps more intimidating world than it was 35 years ago when I entered the program, and for all alumni and for all the students who stand to gain so much from the rekindling of the long, important legacy of film study at Oregon, this is a tremendously happy announcement. I cannot (and would never) degrade my own experience, much less begrudge the blessing of seeing film as a visual art, with all of its new technological wrinkles and manifestations, being represented so vividly as a field of study again, and by so rich and diverse a staff as this. Among those names listed if you click on the link is one Bill Cadbury, Professor Emeritus of the English Department and founder of the first film studies program at the University of Oregon some 50 years previous. In the flier accompanying Karlyn’s letter there’s a wonderful picture of Cadbury looking every bit as vital and engaged as he was when he accompanied me at three screenings of Nashville in a single day back in 1980. (When I get a chance, I’ll scan it and include it here.) And beside that picture is a quote regarding the field into which he has poured so much passion and energy at the University of Oregon for so many years: “I am ecstatic that film studies is taking its place in the way that it deserves. It’s marvelous that it is happening.” I can only second that with great enthusiasm, Bill, and look forward to the day when I can return to campus and tour the facilities and the program that I honestly never imagined I would see.



Wasn’t it just a month or so ago that all of Hollywood was falling all over itself, showering praise and awards on Hugo and The Artist, two movies directly concerned with preservation of the collective memory of the movies? One hopes that the same people who were so eager to honor these Oscar-winning attempts to make motion picture history and accessible to general audiences will be among the throng gathered tomorrow to protest the potential destruction of the legendary Pickfair Lot in West Hollywood, which was once home to Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and a host of filmmakers who helped create Hollywood magic there in the earliest days of the movies.

Director Allison Anders and a whole bunch of other important, influential and just plain concerned folks have been mounting an effort to save Pickfair from what appears to be certain destruction (or at the very least significant alteration and elimination of historically significant buildings), and it's hard not to want to shout praise for their efforts from the tallest Los Angeles skyscraper, none of which themselves are in any danger of being torn down, by the way. Those who want to join the protest can find all the information here, including suggestions for where to park your car while you are hoisting signs and making your voice heard. The protest begins at 1:00 pm off of Santa Monica Boulevard at Formosa Avenue, where the Pickfair offices are located; participants will gather in the hour or hours before then. Anders herself will be in attendance to lead all supporters, a group which is likely to include many high-profile faces as well as we average Joes and Janes who give a damn about what stands to be lost through this all-too-typical act of aggression against the landscape of Hollywood history.

Unfortunately, the plans to decimate Pickfair add up to just another example of the city of Los Angeles not being mindful of its own history and global cultural contributions, a symptom of a culture where nothing—not history, not art, not sentiment—means as much as the potential for profit. Whether or not you make it out to the protest, you can still sign the petition to make your voice heard and continue to follow developments in this latest attempt to disregard the legacy of the movies on the very ground that is synonymous with them. The battle to save Pickfair and other sites that may find themselves in the path of indifferent executives and their bulldozers is an uphill one, and it will surely remain one after tomorrow, but it’s one worth participating in actively in whatever way possible. The alternative is easy lip service to Hollywood history, the kind paid by taking the Universal Studios tour, or renting tributes to the bygone era of silent film and waxing nostalgic while yet another piece of our treasured past crumbles.



A long time ago, in a world much different from the one we occupy now, the owner of my hometown theater kept a copy of Charles “Chick” Lewis’s Encyclopedia of Exploitation at hand in his office. Bearing the subtitle “10,000 Show-selling Ideas,” Lewis’s was a tome intended for theater owners dedicated to increasing their business and the public’s awareness of upcoming attractions through means both conventional and not-so-conventional—it featured lots of advice about radio and TV promotions as well as contests and publicity stunts and the like. None of these ideas seemed to make an impression on my local showman’s management style-- he didn’t cotton to any dimension of fun in motion picture exhibition that required more effort than it took to turn on the lights, warm up the popcorn machine and thread the projectors. But he did subscribe to one bit of Lewis’s advice on double features, at least until the early ‘70s when he phased out double features altogether, and that was the pairing of two radically dissimilar movies on one bill. It wasn’t unusual at all to pick up one of the Alger Theater’s bi-monthly programs (we called them show calendars) and see something like The Odd Couple butted up against Rosemary's Baby, or Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter teamed with a scare item like Chamber of Horrors, its own exploitation gimmick (the “Fear Flasher” and the “Horror Horn”) apparently compatible with the mod stylings of Herman’s Hermits. It was Lewis’ philosophy that by putting two entirely different pictures on the same bill, the exhibitors theoretically eliminated resistance among dating or married couples, or any other groups who might have different tastes in movies, by pitching a broad appeal to both camps on a single program.

As logically sound as it might have been, however, that philosophy died out during the heyday of revival cinema. Even now, years past its most popular era in film culture, the repertory cinemas and film societies that are still in business tend to program movies that are thematically or tonally related, or tied to each other in ways that their presumably more discerning audiences might find illuminating or enjoyable. But I’ve talked to programmers who have said that they tend to avoid spanning too much time between features even if the movies reflect on each other thematically, for fear that the revival audience who might be up for a screening of 1997’s Face/Off would be intolerant or otherwise unwilling to stick around for, say, Joan Crawford in A Woman’s Face from 56 years earlier, and vice versa.

Which brings me to the Association of Moving Image Archivists at UCLA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the field of motion picture archiving and preservation. The AMIA was formally dedicated in 1991 after the efforts of hundreds of archivists from over a hundred local, regional and national institutions coalesced into the individual –based professional association that it remains today. As part of their ongoing efforts, next week the AMIA will inaugurate a screening series at the New Beverly Cinema called “Something Old, Something New,” whose purpose AMIA Student Chapter President Ariel Schudson says goes beyond that of a simple fund-raiser. “The idea of the series is to pair up older films with more contemporary matches based on theme,” Schudson says, “in order to bring out the more delightful aspects of both and introduce new audiences to the glories of films that they, perhaps, were not familiar with before.” The series, which will be entirely projected in 35mm, kicks off this coming Friday, April 6, on a “Reluctant Cat Burglars” theme—the high-style glamour and fizz of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch an Thief (1955) followed by Hudson Hawk (1991), a movie many hold as emblematic of a certain strain of Hollywood vanity and excess, but which has also been championed for its oddball mix of humor, suspense and musical numbers as being a much lighter, more graceful entertainment than it was ever given credit when it bombed upon its initial release.

Schudson is banking on the fun to be had in reassessing Hudson Hawk after 21 years and seeing just how much separation there really is between its larky, big-budget antics and the translucent lightness of Hitchcock’s Riviera affair. To that end, the film’s screenwriter Daniel Waters will be on hand Friday night (the double bill runs again on Saturday, both in the afternoon and the evening) to discuss Hudson Hawk and its relationship to pictures like To Catch a Thief, and he may be in for a surprise vis-a-vis the amount of affection held in reserve for his critically maligned baby. Full disclosure: I was one of the nay-sayers back in 1991. However I remain open to all possibilities-- after all, what was once considered obnoxious might just, after two decades of Michael Bay, suddenly seem sublime. Whether or not either Waters or I end up surprised, Schudson is convinced (and I’m in agreement) that the night should be a rare treat for filmgoers looking for a chance to indulge in a span of Hollywood history and support its preservation through the AMIA at the same time. She promises keen raffle prizes and the thrill of seeing beautiful prints projected the way they should be seen, courtesy of studio rep houses like Sony whose generosity and support groups like the AMIA and others continue to value and appreciate.

You can find out more about the event on the “Something Old, Something New” Facebook page and buy advanced tickets for either night right here. Schudson, as student chapter president, supervises the AMIA Blog and the organization’s Twitterfeed, both of which are excellent resources for further information on this and upcoming programs in the “SOSN” series, as well as all the other activities that keep the chapter busy. And for everything you need to know about the Association of Moving Image Archivists, you can visit their Web site here.


Monday, March 19, 2012


WARNING: The following piece was written without regard to the presence of "spoilers."

We see the interior of a quiet apartment. It is lit with the waning diffuseness of a grey afternoon, and there is a woman moving about its hallways with a steadiness of purpose. The camera which affords us this look into her living space is fixated at an angle perpendicular to the front door, gazing at eye level down the main hallway toward a closed door. The woman greets the man who walks in the front door with indifferent familiarity, with silence. She takes his coat, hangs it on a hook somewhere beyond the purview of the frame, and they both continue quietly toward the far door, completing the introduction to an encounter they have engaged in many times before. The camera remains motionless as they close the door, and we never see what happens once it shuts. Instead, there is an abrupt but sublimely smooth cut to another shot, the camera positioned in precisely the same place, the hallways of the house now shrouded in the evening dark. The man and woman emerge from the room, and still without a word she guides him to the front door, where he puts on his coat. The camera shifts position slightly so we may see them regard each other for a brief moment before he makes his way out. The woman turns away from the door and moves toward the dining room. She turns on a light, deposits some money apparently given to her by the man into a tureen placed on the dining room table and then heads to the bathroom, where we see the bath she gives to herself taken in real time. She then moves to the kitchen to begin making dinner for two, the camera never emphasizing anything more than her presence in whatever room she happens to be in, and of course the details of decoration and evidence of humanity within each of those rooms. We will see the preparation of the evening’s meal, the arrival of the woman’s son, their near-silent dinner together, the woman’s post meal clean-up, the two of them leaving the apartment together for some unknown purpose, their return, the unfolding of a hideaway bed on which the boy sleeps, and the woman’s methodical preparation for her own sleep.

This is the second half of the first of three days presented to us as a glimpse into the ritualistic routine of widowed housewife Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig), whose strictly determined movements within the walls of 23 Quai du Commerce, in the city of Brussels, Belgium, represent a psychological pattern of self-defense that will slowly be compromised over the next day and a half. The order in the physical space of the apartment is Jeanne’s entire world-- each chore, each errand, each neighborly visit, each meal a detached attempt to maintain civil contact with the structure of society, each clockwork sexual encounter, necessary to supplement a modest lifestyle after the death of her husband, adding to her disassociation from the messiness and demands of human response. That apartment, as we shall see, is the real fortress of solitude, and Jeanne's soul, housed in the actress's placidly rendered shell, occupies yet another. (Seyrig is astonishing in a meticulously observed performance that requires the utmost attention-- each gesture, each reaction, each non-reaction becomes another essay in miniature which illuminates with genuine feeling what could have become a simple conceptual exercise in fleshing out Jeanne's exile into suspended animation.)

In its own way, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976) is as stylized an examination of the emerging fissure’s in one woman’s icily-composed outer shell as Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Polanski imposes the disintegrating perspective of his main character, Carole (Catherine Deneuve), upon the film itself, warping and shattering the frame into shards of the protagonist’s twisted reality as the demons of her mind close in on her, forcing us to see the world as she experiences it. Akerman, on the other hand, steers the visual language of psychological representation in precisely the opposite direction, using long takes, a determined, precisely controlled camera usually placed at a fixed height and distance, and a painterly sense of graphic continuity to suggest the stasis and emotional confinement of this singularly dampened woman, whose attachment to the rituals of her mundane existence are both her slim tether to reality and the means by which she slips away from it. The director, who was only 25 years old when she made this masterpiece, is preternaturally confident in her design, in which she employs influences as disparate as Warhol and Godard to allow the audience not just to imagine the fragile disassociation of the title character but to experience it temporally, not as real-time but in such a way that we understand profoundly the implications of Jeanne’s freeze-dried condition, of which we only see what amounts to two days in a cycle that has been moving inexorably toward implosion, smooth on the surface, gears grinding underneath, for years.

Jeanne Dielman… is a movie that has probably been quoted, consciously or subconsciously, by every filmmaker since 1976 who has pushed against the momentum toward faster pacing and voluminous exposition. Its absolute mastery of time and space has paved the way of influence for directors as diverse as David Lynch, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kelly Reichardt, Lee Chang-dong, Richard Linklater and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, to name just a few whose names and work crossed my mind while I was immersed in Akerman’s movie. The Warhol influence on Akerman is, of course, fundamental, but she shows a command of purpose and probing humanity that never much entered into Warhol’s experiments with temporal endurance. In fact, the movie’s length—it runs three hours and 20 minutes—is integral to its ultimate power. Surely a shorter movie (perhaps even an actual short) could have been made that would have conveyed the same information and made the same “point” about Jeanne’s crippling stasis, but it’s easy to imagine such a film coming off as more an intellectual exercise, empathy at arm’s length. But Jeanne Dielman… represents both an intellectual and an emotional commitment for audiences who choose to give themselves over to it, and even those willing to pay for a ticket (or buy the Criterion DVD) may find their patience amply tested. (There was plenty of uncomfortable giggling, sighing, rustling, and an indifference to cell phones ringing in the auditorium where I saw it last week.)

The astonishing thing about Akerman’s film is the degree to which we’re made to feel the crushing weight of Jeanne’s mundane day-to-day existence because of the passage of time, and each ripple in the routine registers like a psychic earthquake. (Again, it’s worth mentioning that only certain segments or shots are presented in real time—this is not a Rope-style masking of a basically theatrical presentation through means of cinematic trickery.) Whereas much of the language of cinema is predicated on the breaking down of experience, and then the piecing of it back together through judicious editing of image and sound, Akerman takes the experience in the opposite direction, experimenting with what the stretching of the boundaries of endurance can mean for the material and the audience. Its form is crucial to finding a way for us to understand what Jeanne experiences in a way that can go beyond simple platitudes or false empathy. When the film circled back to the afternoon of the second day and I realized the previous day’s-worth of existence, which had taken about 90 minutes to unfold, was about to play out again, I felt a sense of stifling horror, as much for Jeanne and her entrapment in a repeating pattern of certain emotional erosion as for my own uncertainty about whether I could sit through it all again.

Jeanne Dielman… is rooted in the specific pain of a woman for whom life has calcified beyond vitality and the unpredictability of human response, yet the movie is not a feminist tract. Akerman doesn’t use Jeanne’s prostitution and the unfeeling routines of her johns, or even the closed-off countenance of her bookish son, as easy points scored against the hegemony and oppression of a male-dominated society. (The director knows she doesn't have to underline these elements for them to register.) Instead, Akerman’s long wind-up sets us up for a profound shock. Cracks in Jeanne’s routines have become increasingly apparent—the slipping of a shoe brush, her sudden inability to comfort or adequately deal with an infant left daily in her care, the table she occupies in a local café suddenly taken by another customer. But it is our first glimpse behind the bedroom door during an apparently routine trick that sets the stage for Akerman’s blow to our collective gut. Jeanne’s unexpected awakening to sexual response, her tumultuous and (as it turns out) life-shattering orgasm underneath a passionless customer turns out to be the impetus not for fulfillment or self-awareness, as it might be (and has been) in similar tales of feminist awakening, but instead for complete psychic breakdown.

The movie retains its mysteries too—where do Jeanne and her son go at night, every night? And what is Jeanne’s relationship with her sister, who writes to her from Canada with concern for Jeanne’s situation and her state of mind, but with whom Jeanne struggles to write back a simple letter of response? It is Akerman’s approach to these unexplained elements of the film’s story, and the glancing attention to Jeanne’s life as a child living through the piecemeal survival of World War II, an existence whose ascetic qualities she clearly adapted as an adult, that adds to the richness, the fully felt tragedy which elevates Jeanne Dielman… beyond the status of experimental stunt and into the realm of film art. Akerman’s techniques might be seen as distancing, but the absorption one experiences into the mindscape of this tortured, inarticulate woman Jeanne Dielman is something to be reckoned with. Part of that reckoning is wrestling with the emotional residue the movie leaves behind; another is dealing with the implications and the incontrovertible evidence of a repressed, muffled soul sitting peacefully in a kitchen peeling potatoes, Jeanne's (and Seyrig's) face a rictus of affectless absence which suddenly gives way to the pleasure of mindless ritual, and soon to the siren call of madness.


For further reading, here’s Sam Adams’ excellent interview with Chantal Akerman and Sean Axmaker’s assessment of the movie on the occasion of its 2009 DVD release.


Sunday, March 04, 2012


My own year-end piece is likely to be delayed another week, as it does its annual teetering job on the brink of irrelevance yet again. But the Muriels are going strong, and the wrap-up continues, with the countdown to the Muriel Best Picture winner mere hours away. (The Muriels’ benevolent overseer Steve Carlson will be posting away throughout the day, with the reveal of the big winner coming sometime midday PST.)

The full account of this year’s Muriels vote can be accessed at the official Muriel Community website, Our Science Is Too Tight, but I’ve also got links here to the Muriel Awards for Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Cinematic Moment and Other Stuff We Liked That Didn’t Necessarily Win Any Actual Awards (parts one and two).

Then there are the year’s best pictures. A full list of the votes received are available, of course, but each year Steve commissions pieces on certain movies that gained a certain amount of passionate support amongst the voting body, and this year is no different. For instance, you can read Scott von Doviak on Bellflower (#63 overall), Michael Lieberman on Film Socialisme (#33), Glenn Heath Jr. on Raul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon (#23) and Christianne Benedict's piece on my second-favorite movie of the year, Lee Chang-dong's Poetry (#19), all available right now. And I finally get my chance to write at some length about my own number-one choice, Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, which came in at a respectable #26 in the Muriel voting. Here’s a taste:

By embracing the melodramatic splendor of the story of the bond between young Albert (Jeremy Irvine), his beloved horse Joey, and their journey of separation and eventual reunion across the impossibly gorgeous landscapes and ravaged, scarred battlefields of World War I, and then robustly channeling that splendor into his filmmaking, Spielberg finds the emotional power he often overreaches for when he approaches “mature” subject matter head on. Ironically, the director accesses a portrait of the human condition that bests even that of Empire of the Sun by following Joey’s journey of hardship and reflecting the experience of soldiers (British and German) not through Joey’s perspective-- as some have claimed-- but simply by the fact of the animal’s presence and how it affects those whose lives are most derailed and devastated by the war. Simply put, Joey reminds them of their own humanity.

Keep checking Our Science Is Too Tight for further updates as the announcement of the Muriel Best Picture winner draws near. There’s plenty of good writing to be enjoyed in celebration of the past year in movies still to be had courtesy of the finely tuned voices speaking up with the Muriels this year, and as always it’s a real honor to be counted among their number.



March Hammer Glamour comes to us courtesy of an actress who made her indelible impression on horror fans in only three films for the studio. Veronica Carlson was, famously or not-so-famously (depending on your awareness of Hammer lore), discovered by studio head James Carreras while thumbing through a newspaper. Carreras was so taken by her beauty and presence that he offered her a role opposite Christopher Lee in Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968),despite the fact that she had only appeared in a few minor TV roles, including an appearance with Roger Moore on The Saint. And whether the image used on it was that of Carlson’s or of a model who looked very much like her, she will be forever associated with one of the great one-sheets in horror movie history, created for the domestic release of DHRFTG, which certainly helped lure fascinated eight-year-olds like myself into the theater. As if the dangling carrot of a new Hammer Dracula epic weren’t already enough, a certain emerging curiosity about the female form was too much to resist, and for many a young prepubescent man of my generation Veronica Carlson became not only an icon of horror but of a curious new desire.

Fortunately, she was a very good actress too. Her role as Anna, opposite Peter Cushing and Simon Ward in the Hammer’s masterpiece Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed was an excellent showcase for her dramatic talents—she has not only a horrifying encounter with Cushing’s malevolent Dr. Frankenstein, but also one of the movie’s most memorable set pieces, in which she tries to keep some buried body parts unearthed by a garden’s broken water main hidden from the sight of intruders in Frankenstein’s hideaway. Her final Hammer appearance was in Jimmy Sangster’s rather odd, not entirely ineffective Horror of Frankenstein (1970). She went into retirement from acting five years later and despite a couple of minor appearances in the mid ‘90s has remained out of the spotlight.

Carlson currently lives with her husband and children in South Carolina where she enjoys the occasional fan convention appearance to punctuate her successful career as a professional artist. She may never have won an Oscar, and most wouldn’t even know her name, but for those of us whose lives and appetites as film fans were shaped in part by her brief time within the horror genre, Veronica Carlson remains a great monster movie beauty, one with a lot more strength and determination than your average distressed damsel. She holds a very special place in my heart—right next to the stake of horror movie love she helped drive through it, of course.

Peter Cushing and Veronica Carlson suck it up on the set of Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (Picture courtesy of The Peter Cushing Blog)

And here's a very good interview from 2011 courtesy of Mark Redfield's blog An Actor's Notebook in which the actress talks about her career as an artist and her unexpected rise to Hammer Studio stardom.


Thursday, March 01, 2012


The Choirboys, adapted from Joseph Wambaugh’s best-selling book about a brotherhood of Los Angeles cops and the ways they find to blow off steam, on and off the job, is an indisputable low point in the career of Robert Aldrich. Aldrich’s directorial achievements, his highs and lows, have long been celebrated and examined on this page and many others, and The Choirboys, crummy enough on its own, seems in retrospect to have also signaled the beginning of the end of the creative inspiration of a great, irascible character in American movies. The man who released both Kiss Me Deadly and The Big Knife in 1955 enjoyed one hell of a run beginning in 1962, when his deliciously vulgar What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, itself flowering in the long shadow of Psycho, kick-started a popular sub-genre of horror films that featured aging Hollywood actresses in plum, Grand Guignol-shaded roles. From Baby Jane straight through to The Longest Yard in 1974, Aldrich’s straightforward, muscular, no-frills aesthetic found all sort of avenues on which to stomp and parade with its uniquely anguished bravado. He still had great and near-great movies in him-- Hustle (1975) and Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)—but the Yard would be his last dalliance with a big audience. Gleaming is a terrific paranoid thriller of Cold War cover-ups and nuclear blackmail, and it’s a shame it’s still unavailable in the digital age, but it was mismarketed and did disappointing business. (Aldrich would tell Charles Champlin in an article for the Los Angeles Times published during the summer of 1977 that Twilight’s Last Gleaming was a complete failure: “It died; it was a disaster. It wasn’t the critics, wasn’t the (advertising) campaign. It just plain died because nobody damned well wanted to know.”)

Placed next to the hard-boiled, cold sweat-inducing mechanics of that movie, The Choirboys looks even more misguided, tone-deaf and incoherent. (The two movies were 1977 bookends-- Gleaming was released in February and The Choirboys, incredibly, was positioned as Universal’s big Christmas movie for that year.) It also bears telltale signs of manhandling by the studio in post-production, though Aldrich himself never copped to anything other than a WGA dispute in which Joseph Wambaugh, author of the book on which the movie was based, argued to have his name removed from the film (and succeeded). For his part, Aldrich claimed he and writer Christopher Knopf changed very little of Wambaugh’s screenplay. In their book Whatever Happened to Robert Aldrich? His Life and His Films, Alain Silver and James Ursini quote the director as saying, “(Wambaugh) wrote a dirty, tasteless, vulgar book, which I think I’ve managed to capture. But he would like to have you think that we changed the thrust of those scenes.”

So yes, The Choirboys as we know it may well be pretty much the movie Aldrich intended. And make no mistake, it is a bad, bad, ugly movie in almost every conceivable respect. I mean, what else really needs to be said about a movie in which Burt Young (playing, appropriately enough, the role of one Sgt. Scuzzi) emerges as the sole pillar of sensitivity and tolerance on view—he actually counsels a young boy arrested for prostitution with something approaching sympathy—and in which Perry King, as one of the beat patrol choirboys of the title, commits suicide out of sheer humiliation when his secret life as the bottom half of a leather-masked S&M couple is exposed to his comrades? It would have taken the glancing touch of a Robert Altman, whose M*A*S*H is a clear influence here, to suss out the ostensible charm in this drunken, boorish scenario which Aldrich presents at face value.

But is The Choirboys so bad as to put me off movies? Hardly. It may have had some other malign effect, however. The “On The Marquee” feature of this blog tracks what movies I’ve seen, accompanied by my own star rating and a link to some worthy piece of writing on the same movie (whether or not the opinion of the writer coincides with my own), and I update it constantly. And if you pay attention to this feature at all (and why wouldn’t you?), you may be forgiven for suspecting that after encountering The Choirboys over a month ago I just decided to take a break and not see any movies at all, so dispiriting was the experience of revisiting Aldrich’s folly. It’s been since that time since I’ve updated the column, even though I’ve seen several movies since then. What gives?

Well, Blogger, that’s what. Or more appropriately, it is Blogger what doesn’t give, in this case. Since right about the time I saw The Choirboys about a month ago Blogger, the free service that supports this and about a million other blogs, has been experiencing some technical glitches, over which I and other blogging friends of mine who also use this service have been commiserating of late. The problem that most sticks in my craw is the one that is currently preventing me (and many others, if cries for help on Blogger user forums can be trusted) from saving updates to “gadgets” like the list functions used to create sidebar features like “On the Marquee.” It’s a feature I trust many who do read this online publication enjoy keeping up with. Even so, at first I didn’t fret about the malfunction too much. How long could this drag on, right? But after a month in which I’ve received no direct response from Blogger about the situation (there is in fact no option for Blogger users to interface directly with technical support), I’ve begun to worry that this may be one problem that may go on in perpetuity. And since I’ve learned over the past seven years that keeping my thoughts to myself is just not as much fun as dumping them out into cyberspace, I’ve decided to backtrack and do a quick update in the brief style of “On the Marquee,” getting you up to speed on the movies I’ve seen in the past month and (briefly) what I thought about them. I’ll keep making updates like this until Blogger anoints us all from on high and restores the functionality to a feature that I’ve really come to enjoy making available to the users of this blog. And who knows? Maybe this is one of those moments of evolutionary panic that result in a long-term format change involving capsule reviews. Maybe. I never had the time to devote to this blog with the kind of consistency as would be required to pull a weekly capsule review feature off when I first started, and there’s even less time to dole out now. But stranger things have happened, a sentiment to which the very existence of The Choirboys bears harsh, hostile witness.

So, what have I seen since mid-January? Not much, as it turns out. Due to budgetary constraints, I’ve been out to a theater exactly four times since the beginning of the year—that’s a lot for some folks, but for me it practically constitutes a major lifestyle change. The good news is that, theatrical screening or not, what I have managed to see has certainly been worth seeing, even it wasn’t all good. In order of viewing, from furthest back to most recent, here’s what the movies and I have been up to for the last month or so:

KING KONG (2005) *** Revisiting Peter Jackson’s gigantic remake with 2012 eyes threw a couple of things into stark relief. First, overexposure to this sort of epic CGI spectacle in the years since its Christmas 2005 release has made this version seem less special, more ordinary. And then there’s the movie’s girth—it now seems too long by at least two supra-Dynamation-style action sequences, and it’s much clearer, now that we’re saturated with eye-popping spectacle seemingly every new movie weekend, just how much more a little less might have been. (And I watched the theatrical cut, not the extended version.) It’s still a terrific movie in many ways—no bloat in the contributions of Naomi Watts, Andy Serkis or even Jack Black as far as I can see. But it must mean something that when my daughter expressed excitement about watching King Kong I mistakenly assumed she meant the 1976 version, which was the one I was excited to see again. (She wasn’t thinking of the 1933 version, which apparently looks “boring.”) We enjoyed watching Peter Jackson’s movie together, but even afterward I was still pining to see Rick Baker in a monkey suit.

PARIAH (2011) *** This coming-of-age drama, told from the perspective of a young black teenager’s struggle with the emergence of her own sexual identity, is flawed, its storytelling sometimes wobbly and over-reliant on obvious metaphors, but it’s also strong enough to redeem (at least for 90 minutes) the shopworn notion of the coming-of-age movie. The performances (especially by lead actress Adepero Oduye, playing some 16 years younger than her actual age) are earnest and measured, giving both anguish and unexpected joy their due. And despite the mother-daughter conflict at its core, there’s not a whiff of histrionic Precious-ness about it.

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK (2011) ***½ A celebration, in intimate documentary form, of the eccentricity and all-consuming working methodology of Bill Cunningham, beloved fashion photographer for the New York Times. The movie is entertaining in the extreme. We listen to testimony regarding Cunningham’s unique genius, his relatively ascetic lifestyle (he’s one of the last occupants about to be evicted from a row of apartments- his is without a kitchen or a restroom-- nestled above Carnegie Hall) and his self-effacing manner, which shares the spotlight with some of the most stylish, outrageous and ostentatious colleagues and subjects imaginable. And the moments where we see him assembling the photos for his weekly column (accompanied by his assistant’s amused exasperation) are a fascinating glimpse into an essentially unknowable artistic process. But it’s also an unexpectedly emotional film, especially when its subject is prodded to ruminate on a past life that no one seems to know much about.

HIGHER GROUND (2011) **½ Movies that take fundamentalist religious conviction and identity seriously (and by that I mean with a respect to balance any kind of objective, or even subjective examination) are few, and Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut means to be one of them. Farmiga is also the movie’s lead; she plays a woman on a journey from blooming religious awareness in a tightly-knit, oppressive church community toward her own crisis of faith. The audience experiences a fascinating submersion into this culture— Farmiga sees a friend speaking in tongues and cannot understand why she can’t feel the same flush of spiritual fire—to her it sounds “beautiful,” but her own attempts to “speak in the Spirit” signal her increasing desperation. Unfortunately, Farmiga (the actress and the director) signals her own intelligence too stridently when the woman does break away from the church and the script affords her too many opportunities to do so by hitting its bullet points about male-dominated religious society a bit too squarely on the nose. Higher Ground maintains its respect for faith, but it doesn’t dig deeply enough into what it really means to lose it.

FINAL DESTINATION 5 (2011) *** Round 5 in the durable horror series doesn’t change much about the general formula other than a shift in chronology (the spoiler sensitive will get nothing more from me about that), except to suggest that it’s all in the way the mouse trap snaps—these “random” death scenarios have the wit and physical logic that was missing from much of the mayhem doled out on parts 3 and 4—and, of course, to prove beyond a very dark shadow of a doubt that Death has an impeccably nasty sense of humor, and in eye-boggling 3D to boot. The obvious knock on the Final Destination series is that the characters are cardboard and unsympathetic, which differentiates them not a whit from the bulk of horror franchises that routinely get a pass in this category. But there are laughs that catch in the throat and other existential fun to be had watching characters scramble from a destiny that awaits us all (some more ornately than others) while marveling at a series that has managed to franchise that inevitability in a way that appeals to our sense (our insistence?) upon some order in the universe, all without the help of a brainless killing zombie in a hockey mask.

SENNA (2011) **** A compelling and moving documentary on Brazilian Formula One racing superstar Ayrton Senna that takes the mechanics of the talking-heads documentary and turns it on its head. Director Asif Kapadia fashions existing home movie and television footage, through marvelous and intuitive editing (the year’s best, in either a fiction or nonfiction film), into a movie that more closely resembles a suspenseful character study than the usual dryly sincere documentary portrait. It’s a movie that will wrap you up in its concerns and its sympathies, whether or not you follow the world of racing (I do not), and leave you with a greater sense of the mark one man can make in a world where speed and the relentless movement toward the intangible, and away from God knows what, are the only things that matter.

13 ASSASSINS (2011) *** Takashi Miike’s visually stunning samurai epic is, of course, loaded with action and the director’s usual assortment of perversely violent preoccupations. But as the story becomes shoehorned into a more familiar structure, Miike’s obsessions take a backseat and the movie begins to feel a trifle routine. Still a strong action piece on any level, it’s missing the tremulous, transcendent passion that might have really made it stand out. It’s secondhand Kurosawa rather than first-rate Miike.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS (1988) **½ Were all ‘80s horror movies this chintzy-looking? Or are we now just so spoiled by our 1080p palates that everything that hasn’t gone through a digital buffing looks as though we’re glimpsing it through very weak tea? Freddy’s third trip out of the chute is still disorientingly effective, though I would argue that the characters are no less annoying in any of the movies of this series than those found in the worst Final Destination entry. I am less sympathetic to the level of acting in NOES3:DW however—everyone from Craig Wasson to Jennifer Rubin to Priscilla Pointer comes off bargain-basement, but poor Heather Langenkamp comes off worst, flatly inhabiting the husk of the least-convincing social worker professional to ever traipse through a nightmarish horror movie scenario. It’s the movie’s weirdly surreal visual ideas that hold up—Freddy walking a hapless patient on puppet strings invisible to everyone but us—and survive this serial killer character’s movement from genuinely transgressive icon to acceptance into the joke-filled mainstream of pop culture villainy.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) **** A hushed, brilliantly evoked world of espionage that turns on whispers and glances, featuring the best all-around cast of the year and the kind of acting that is utterly invigorating in its micro-efficiency. If you aren’t attuned to the kind of information skittering across the poker-faced resignation of Gary Oldman’s George Smiley like tiny snaps of static electricity, that poker face itself a mask on top of a mask, or the way the other actors submit to John Le Carre’s universe of deception, repression and hidden agendas in similar fashion, sparking bitter rivalry and revelations in subtle sideward glances, then the movie might seem just a confusing husk of jargon and pregnant pauses. But it’s such an evocative piece of filmmaking in large part because of how the actors embody and embolden that minimalist approach and become integrated with director Tomas Alfredson’s allusive conjuring of this tactile, lived-in, entirely non-nostalgic period piece.

FROGS (1972) *½ Some movies from your childhood just aren’t as good as you remember them. And then there are some that aren’t even as good as their advertising campaigns. Such is the case with Frogs, which appeared on the pop culture landscape in the wake of Willard (1971), the movie largely credited with igniting a Nature vs. Man horror movie craze that did good business but failed to make much of a dent in our collective psychology. (Well, maybe Sssssss…) It is disheartening to discover that Frogs is so turgid and bland. Its main claim to notoriety remains the memorable one-sheet image of a human hand reaching out from the clamped lips of one of the movie’s titular amphibians. But, kids, there are no giant frogs in Frogs, just garden (or swamp) variety snakes and other creepy-crawlies who rise up against the environmentally insensitive, wheelchair-bound industrialist Ray Milland and his none-too-bright family. Milland has far less fun here than he did attached to Rosey Grier, all the while himself looking far more reptilian than I found comfortable. Frogs did end up introducing the world to Sam Elliot, but I have no doubt the no-nonsense actor looks back on this one with perhaps only a touch more regret than the average viewer has over having spent 90 minutes with it.

HAYWIRE (2012) **** There’s a shot in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in which a man walks into a house and behind him can be glimpsed a scrawl of graffiti writ large on the side of a building: “The Future is Female.” In that movie it’s a wry comment on the insular old-boys’ network of cannibalistic subterfuge that, we know, hasn’t yielded much over the ensuing years to this sort of populist prophecy. But watching MMA superstar-turned-actress Gina Carano wield her body like a lithe and beautiful figure of physical and erotic force, one could be forgiven for believing, even if for just 90 minutes, that the prophecy had come true. Steven Soderbergh’s ultra-modern ode to ‘70s-style action balances almost perfectly along the razor’s edge between postmodern fragmentation (courtesy of Lem Dobbs’ wry, spare script) and a choreographer’s distanced respect for the marvelous abilities of his performer, all abetted beautifully by Cliff Holmes’ richly evocative action score, which references everything from Curtis Mayfield to Lalo Schifrin to David Shire without ever becoming precious. There’s a ton of fun to be had in Haywire, from luxuriating in the lead’s singular physical presence and the joy of a top-notch supporting cast-- including Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender-- gloriously slumming, to tracing the line sketched so ably by Soderbergh which leads from Pam Grier through Michelle Yeoh and right up to Gina Carano, who after this one movie convincingly demonstrates why she should be included among the company of these great female action icons.

BRINGING UP BABY (1938) **** Frogs was bad in 1972 and remains so, whereas Bringing Up Baby, a riot in 1938, might just be even funnier now than it has ever been. And it has the advantage in the Nature Gone Wild department too, only here we’re talking about the whims of a baby leopard that reflects the undeniably wild spirit of Katherine Hepburn’s Susan Vance as she sets her keen sights on hapless zoologist David Huxley (Cary Grant), who wants only to reconstruct a brontosaurus skeleton with a bone that Susan manages to either hide, lose or otherwise keep from him for the duration of their hilarious slapstick courtship. Some classic movies can be talked about so much that they become museum pieces, our reactions to them prescribed by history and conventional wisdom. But Bringing Up Baby is authentically wild and as such resists any sort of attempt to classify it as harmless or otherwise cleanly palatable. It’s a genuine screwball classic that, 74 years after it was released, still has the power to expose what passes for modern romantic comedy as laughably tame.

IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958) *** This low-budget template for Alien (now itself a template for 30-plus years of movie monsters on the loose) has a thrifty integrity absent from the usual drive-in sci-fi fare of the period. Approached with an absence of presupposed snark (not an easy task, I know), this is a movie that, while not on the level of something like Christian Nyby’s (and Howard Hawks’) The Thing (From Another World), still packs scares and some workaday punch into its delineation of its mixed-gender crew (the women still serve coffee, however), allowing them to stand in clear relief from the astronauts-to-the-slaughter scenario in which they find themselves. Best viewed late at night with the lights off.

NO MORE EXCUSES (1968) *** A free-associative mockumentary from Robert Downey Sr. (A Prince) which accesses the antiestablishment sensibility he shared with the early films of Brian De Palma while presaging the anything-goes antics of movies like The Groove Tube (1974). Downey’s odd, endearing conceit is to mount an ostensibly straightforward man-on-the-street documentary inquiry into the burgeoning popularity of singles bars featuring real people (“Was it a serious relationship?” “Oh, yeah, for about three-quarters of an hour.”), and then to intercut it with slapstick recreations of the Garfield assassination-- complete with sober, PBS-style narration-- and a straight-faced PSA appeal against the proliferation of dog and cat nudity in American culture by the vice-president of the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. The very definition of a mixed bag, Downey’s irreverent, purposefully nonsensical antics pleasurably harkens to his very next movie, the equally riotous, borderline incoherent Putney Swope. (No More Excuses is part of an upcoming box of Downey’s films scheduled to be released by the Criterion Collection Eclipse Series on May 22, 2012.)

KILLER NUN (1978) ** Far tamer than most of the nunsploitation genre that would become popular in the time since its release, Killer Nun is yet another ostensibly lurid Italian sleazefest that simply fails to live up to the come-on of its advertising (”From the Secret Files of the Vatican!”) And it’s a great come-on—Anita Ekberg as a mentally unstable, morphine-addicted postulant with no shyness about her lesbian preferences (all the better then for her comely roomie, a young sister who seems to worship the ground Ekberg’s robes glide across) who may also be murdering the elderly residents of the hospital for which she toils. Alas, the filmmakers are more timid than the possibilities of their premise, and even the most devout Catholic (viewing this despite the condemnation of the Legion of Decency, of course) will have grown impatient with the movie’s lumpy pacing and anticlimactic striptease long before either the gore kicks in or the obvious element of mystery is revealed.

SHERLOCK HOLMES (1932) **½ Pre-Rathbone Sherlock Holmes entry, this one directed by William K. Howard from a screenplay based on a then-popular stage play. This one, which is thick with foggy London atmosphere and old dark houses (and basements), features Clive Brook as a rather more hostile-than-usual Holmes beset by the impatience of Scotland Yard while investigating yet another plot instigated by old nemesis Professor Moriarty (here played with google-eyed gusto by Ernest Torrence). I prefer Rathbone’s interpretation, or even Robert Stephens’, over what Brook does here, but this is still a fairly satisfying affair which, at a brisk 68 minutes, represents twice the entertainment value at half the running time of any Holmes directed by Guy Ritchie.

BREEZY (1973) *** Knowledge of Clint Eastwood’s directorial resume, even his late move toward Oscar-friendly material, left me unprepared for the pretense-free, rather sympathetic personality at work in this picture, a rare early effort in which he directs but does not star. The name “Breezy” may clue you in to a certain wide-eyed perspective etched into Jo Helms’ screenplay which tells the story of an unassuming May-December romance between a cynical middle-aged divorcee (William Holden) and the free-spirited hippie girl named Breezy (Kay Lenz) who ambles into his life, but that relative innocence shouldn’t be mistaken for pure and simple naïveté. The movie deals with the meaning of what a relationship bridging generational lines at this particular time in American history with a welcome seriousness, displaying little of the kind of judgment or embarrassingly dated qualities that are the usual baggage attached to any movie representing the freewheeling remnants of counterculture lifestyle in post-Manson Los Angeles. (The richly observed Laurel Canyon setting makes one sit up just to see if Jackson Browne or Joni Mitchell or Frank Zappa might be glimpsed somewhere in the background.) Apart from its sociological context Breezy remains a convincing romance, thanks to the unaffected performances of Holden and Lenz (never more charming than here), as well as Eastwood’s own particularly warm and generous directorial embrace.

PUTNEY SWOPE (1969) *** The sting of the social satire in Brian De Palma’s Hi, Mom!, particularly in its notorious “Be Black, Baby!” segment, may be more potent, but Putney Swope, with its positing of an advertising agency bequeathed to a black executive after the death of its reactionary owner, got there first and likely empowered De Palma’s filmmaking, as well as the prevalent comic irreverence of ‘70s movie and TV comedy. Downey’s satire is more scattershot and at times contradictory, and that’s surely the point— racial divisions are irrelevant as Downey’s puts us all in the position of being bent over by a radical sensibility at first railing against but inevitably maneuvered in service to good old American ideals of capitalistic excess and deception. The movie eventually implodes from the stress of being pulled in too many directions, but there’s a lot of hilarity on the way to that supernova, including genius-level parodies of contemporary advertising and the sheer exuberance of the bouncing female body in hilarious fulfillment of the orgiastic promise embedded in the once-famous query, “Coffee, Tea or Me?” (Putney Swope is the centerpiece of an upcoming box of Downey’s films scheduled to be released by the Criterion Collection Eclipse Series on May 22, 2012.)

PROBLEM CHILD (1990) *½ There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the blackly comic premise at the heart of Problem Child-- a slightly Damien-esque orphan becomes pen pals with a serial killer while wreaking havoc in the lives of his adoptive parents. Credit should be given to the late John Ritter for gamely trying to keep his head above water through repeated comic assaults, and Michael Richards for committing completely to every stain and smear in the seamy concept of his character, the Bow Tie Killer. (Little Michael Oliver fares less well in the titular role—he’s very stiff and has apparently been dubbed by a much older bad child actor.) But the screenplay, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, is ill-served by personality-free director Dennis Dugan, who shows none of the impishness or panache necessary to pull off the idea—he guides this impudently deviant concept in precisely the same rote fashion that has endeared him to countless cineastes who hunger for what surprises he can be counted on to bring to the next Adam Sandler bowel movement.

CATCHING HELL (2011) **** Illustrating with agonizing clarity the very essence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Alex Gibney’s brilliant ESPN documentary dissects the circumstances behind and the reaction to the ascent (or more accurately descent) of Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman into the white-hot spotlight of baseball infamy—by reaching out for a possible foul ball, did he or did he not set into motion events that would result in one of the most devastating collapses in baseball playoff history? Gibney’s talking-heads format is familiar; it’s the passionate surgery upon the apparent facts surrounding the notorious 2003 NLCS game 6 which is invigorating and ultimately, when considering Bartman’s continuing status as MLB’s uber-goat, disheartening. (The movie also tells the compelling parallel story of Bill Buckner, long held responsible for an ostensible error that wreaked havoc with the fate of the Boston Red Sox in a similar situation back in 1986.) When examining the videotape in an attempt to clarify the position of Bartman (and the fans surrounding him) to the ball, Gibney employs visual techniques that isolate Bartman from the crowd, making clearer what actually happened but also accentuating the existential loneliness of a man driven into hiding in the city he loves and made, by reactionary fans and the media that fed off of them, to pay for the misfortunes of an apparently eternally hapless ball club.

ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992) ** In 1987’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn Sam Raimi found a nearly perfect balance between comedy and horror, and in the process highlighted the inseparable intestinal connection between the two forms. But in this relentlessly noisy follow-up, the scales are tipped in favor of the Three Stooges with witheringly mediocre results. Army of Darkness is far more tonally akin to an average episode of Raimi’s Hercules series than to any of the horror or Harryhausen references he tosses into this none-too-bitchin’ brew. And Bruce Campbell, beloved of fanboys everywhere, redefines postmodern broad in his third go-around as the intermittently helpless, often inexplicably heroic Ash. The actor faces an endless parade of shrieking demons (all equipped with the requisite green contact lenses, bad hair and worse teeth, but possessing absolutely zero ability to scare) with nothing but a shotgun, a chainsaw and an equally endless stream of bad puns and lame would-be catch phrases. If only there was anything resembling fun to be had here. But alas, Raimi ends his handmade-looking trilogy on a note of tiresome desperation, signaling little more than a dearth of good, original ideas and a defeated shrug as pitiful replacements for the eerie and inventive comic gross-outs of the previous chapter.

MIMIC 2 (2001) *½ Guillermo Del Toro’s original 1997 monster movie was imperfect but compelling (a new cut recently released on Blu-ray is purported to have buffed out some of its problems), but this straight-to-video turd adds only incoherence and maddening inconsistency to the franchise’s muddled legacy. The visual scheme is a dimly-lit, disorienting hash made worse by one of the least appealing casts in horror film history, led by Alix Koromzsay, survivor of the Judas Breed cockroach plague in the first movie, now all grown up and consummately annoying as a high school biology teacher fighting a new generation of humanoid bugs who have an unseemly, and inexplicable, attraction to her. Strictly for sampling and abandoning during insomnia-inspired channel surfing.

TROLL HUNTER (2011) ***½ The “found footage” format may simply be a stylistic dodge, as much the last refuge of scoundrels (The Devil Inside) as a clever conceit a la Paranormal Activity, but Andre Ovredal’s terrific movie, a goosebump-raising search for mythical creatures of destruction amidst the grey beauty of the Norwegian countryside composed entirely of footage recovered from a lost expedition intended to document the last of the modern-day troll hunters, offers grand validation for the form. The movie revels in the collision between modern atheistic certainty and incongruous fairy-tale style horrors; it’s a beautiful modulated comedy-thriller in which Christian faith offers not safety or salvation but sure death when those meat-eating monsters get a whiff of the blood of a believer. Troll Hunter is replete with old-fashioned looking effects that are actually quite up-to-the-minute in execution and capable of a most unlikely reduction of sophisticated audiences to the equivalent of giddy children in thrall to the telling of a ripping good yarn.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011) ***½ The Planet of the Apes mythology, as started by Pierre Boulle, continued by Franklin Schaffner, Rod Serling, Charlton Heston and company in 1968, and extended far beyond reason and logic into four more movies, and two TV series (live-action and cartoon), has never made much evolutionary sense. But by retreating backward, to a place in the chronology roughly equivalent to that of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the series’ fourth theatrical entry, director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, achieve an unlikely goal—they construct a compelling back story that sends the series off on the path toward the inevitable decimation and sublimation of humanity to a dominant and intelligently evolved ape population with surefooted compassion and purpose. Their ace in the hole is most certainly actor and motion-capture specialist Andy Serkis, who imbues Caesar, the wronged chimp who will lead the revolution against the human race (and whose pain is anchored in the real-life drama documented in James Marsh’s magnificent Project Nim), with considerable empathy and moral outrage, certainly enough to momentarily fog up the realization that the movie puts the audience in the curious position of rooting for its own downfall. The rest of the cast, including James Franco, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox and David Oyelowo do good work with underwritten characterizations—John Lithgow’s unsubtle work as Franco’s Alzheimer’s-besieged father being the exception—but the real pleasure in this franchise kick-starter is in its slow burn toward the inevitable, and the way it rather impishly traces the trail of planetary destruction while we’re still basking in its ostensibly upbeat conclusion, looking out over the San Francisco skyline with a freed Caesar as he surveys a cityscape he once feared and admired but will soon own.

UNITED (2011) *** There might be a more artful way to convey the telling of the Munich air disaster that in 1958 decimated the legendary Busby Babes, Manchester United’s beloved football team. But when such a relatively square endeavor, anchored as it is by a spectacularly empathetic performance by Doctor Who’s David Tennant as coach Jimmy Murphy, hits as many solid, respectable emotional notes as this movie does, and with a relative grace absent from most real life-derived sports dramas, such quibbling over style becomes irrelevant. United captures the commitment and investment of the Brits in their scrappy team without pushing the point into obnoxious nostalgia or unearned, roughly jerked tears, and it’s smart enough to know that the result of the game, either before the crash or after the recovery from it, isn’t nearly so important as tracking how the lives of the victims were lived and how those of the survivors were changed.

INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA (1995) *½ The Brothers Quay have fashioned a queasily fascinating career out of making inanimate objects take on extraordinary, unsettling life in their brilliant short films. But in their first feature, they also show an unfortunate talent for turning live actors to something resembling puppets. This attempt to translate their surrealist stylization to a live-action format is suffocating, and not always in the ways they surely intended. The absurdist scenario involves a young man (Mark Rylance) arriving at a mysterious boarding school institute run by a brother and sister (Gottfried John, Alice Krige) who put him and several other students through an increasingly bizarre series of exercises intended to prepare them for a life of servitude. Creepy strains of incest begin shadowing the already strange behavior of the headmasters, but by the time the inevitable madness fully flowers I was only perturbed, not fascinated, by the Quays' claustrophobic fatalism. Any movie that can make me annoyed at the sight of Alice Krige has subterranean problems far deeper than the Quays are capable of plumbing.

PINA (2011) **½ Perhaps the most startling use of 3D yet in a movie not designed to make you duck at flying asteroids or dodge body parts and gushers of arterial spray. Wim Wenders’ sensitivity to space and depth make for a movie loaded with astonishing, lyrical imagery. I only wish that Pina was able to break down my resistance, or somehow augment my appreciation of the kind of avant-garde dance pioneered by the late choreographer Pina Bausch that it celebrates. The dance moves are almost always beautiful, sometimes comic, sometimes silly, but they aren’t capable of expressing to me much more than the glory of movement, which perhaps is enough for some people. And in this context it almost is. But as I thought about seeing Pina without stereoscopic enhancement I could imagine growing tired of its metronomic format, alternating dance segments with voiceover commentary, segments that would for me be far less rapturous absent the technological illusion of depth. The movie is a brilliant exercise, but it never spoke to my heart.

THE IRON LADY (2011) ** Hardly a Mamma Mia-sized bomb, but a pretty lifeless dud nonetheless, this gloss on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, one of the most controversial (read: reviled) politicians of her age, reunites the director and star of that grotesque musical hit, Phyllida Lloyd and Meryl Streep, and the new movie’s political complexity is perfectly aligned with the minds who shipwrecked the popular ABBA-derived musical on screen. (It’s easy to imagine Streep mounting another wacky karaoke session over the end credits, perhaps a reprise of “The Winner Takes It All” in full-on Thatcher regalia.) Streep engages not in acting so much as a waxworks stunt performance—it’s all in the hair and the stiff clothes and the exquisite overbite, courtesy of the movie’s Oscar-nominated makeup designers, but she never once gets close to examining the interior life of this notorious figurehead. It got to the point where I couldn't separate Thatcher's egoism from Streep's-- every movement, every processed inflection, all products of surely countless hours of research and study and dedication, seems designed to call attention not to the character portrayed so much as the actress’s own famous attention to detail, her own status as acting’s Iron lady. It doesn't help at all that the movie glosses over Thatcher's politics and reduces her rise to power and dominance on the world stage to a sorry patch of platitudes about the sacrifices an ambitious woman has to make in a man's world.

RANGO (2011) **** Gore Verbinski’s sly masterpiece of slippery identity and reinvention on the fly , animated with bizarre brio from John Logan’s script, is so smart, so strange, so well-acted (Johnny Depp is perched securely on my list of the two best male performances of the year) and so tactile that I’ve almost come to think of it not as artificially imagined but instead as a wide-screen transmission from a vaguely recognizable but separate world where lizards and cats and dogs are living with each other and acting out a peyote-buzzed alternate version of human (movie) history. On my initial viewing, and over the several times I’ve seen it since, Rango has made me consistently giddy with a cinematic sensibility so far left of Pixar as to be located closer to the realms of Hunter S. Thompson, Carlos Casteneda, Robert Towne, John Huston, Roman Polanski and Sergio Leone, hardly the average animated fare’s go-to list of inspiration. But then this is no average CGI cartoon. It’s an instant classic. Yeah, that’s what I said!!!!

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011) **½ Hollywood hogwash masquerading as an inquiry into the mythology of a great movie star, its one great triumph, apart from the spectacle of watching Weinstein-approved British awards bait like Kenneth Branagh and Judi Dench battle for the status of Smokiest Ham as Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Sybil Thorndike (respectively), is the opportunity it gives its own rising star to assert her own magnetism and allure while wrapped in the legend of perhaps the movies' most outrageously attractive female star. And even set beside the gravitational pull of Marilyn Monroe’s legacy Williams makes it clear she doesn’t have to rely on the tics and mannerisms of the average MM impersonation to make us believe in her own talent. What’s most gratifying about My Week with Marilyn is certainly not its standard-issue plot—young assistant director (essayed by the unerringly bland Eddie Redmayne) bonds with the star during the tumultuous shoot of the Olivier-directed The Prince and the Showgirl-- but instead how Williams manages to locate the human being who existed between the extremes of Marilyn Monroe's giggly public persona and her well-documented pill-popping devastation. She consistently and delightfully transcends the middlebrow cobwebs of her own starring vehicle and gets as close to a comfortable truth about what made Monroe both fragile and irresistible as another actress is likely to ever illuminate.

A SEPARATION (2011) **** Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s wrenching drama might on its surface look like a conservatively paced domestic drama, but it doesn’t take long to get swept up and absorbed into the movie’s deceptively powerful undertow. A young couple, whose faces are familiar from the film’s stark advertising, argues over whether or not to leave the country, and the man’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted father, behind for a better life. Unable to come to agreement, the wife petitions for divorce and a series of events are set into motion that don’t escalate so much as steadily, inexorably topple the tenuous construct of their lives and that of another couple. A Separation maintains a gripping fascination with the rather mysterious machinations and procedures of the Iranian legal system, but it’s the movie’s understated empathy for all the parties battered by what amounts to a very believable, personalized chaos theory that sets the movie apart. There are pleasures to be had in tracking the complexity and sometimes frustrating authenticity of the human behavior on display here, even as the gradual tide of devastation takes its toll on the characters and us. This is a potent emotional thriller that understands just how fragile any societal framework really is, but also how the dynamics of religious and interpersonal dogma dictate fear and stigmatization within the scope of Iranian law. As such, the setting and the legal ramifications may seem unfamiliar to some members of the audience, but so may the quality of the storytelling, which is masterful and far beyond the level of the histrionics we’re used to from family dramas, which so often mistake grand gestures and noise for dramatic power. A Separation maintains the courage of its emotional convictions right up to its exquisite cliffhanger of an ending.

TAKE SHELTER (2011) *** Coming during the same release year as Melancholia, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ nightmarish character study is queasily effective as a portrait of one man’s descent into schizophrenia, but it’s on shakier ground when it becomes increasingly clear that the director can’t seem to decide whether or not the delusions of apocalyptic storms he and star Michael Shannon have so effectively portrayed as projections of an interior crisis are in fact real physical portents of looming disaster. (It’s the opposite of Von Trier’s movie, which posited the actual oncoming destruction of Earth as a manifestation of the crippling depression of its lead character.) Shannon is faultless in a role that might have benefited from the casting of an actor who doesn’t so easily exude mental instability, and the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain adds another brick to the foundation of her emergence as the next real big deal amongst American actresses as his beleaguered wife. But Nichols undermines the movie’s power by playing tricks of ambiguity with the ending for which he has ill prepared the audience. Is Shannon simply sick, or is he a modern-day Noah tricked by the wisdom of man into turning away from what amounts to God-sent warnings about another disastrous deluge? In order for this to be a fair move, the audience would have to be constantly debating the grounds for reality in the movie, that what we were seeing could be either the result of either a medical condition or a prophetic epiphany. But Take Shelter never belies any reason to suspect divine interaction-- even those magnificent flashes of lightning skittering across ominous swirls of clouds suggest nothing so much as the electrical patterns on a giant brain canvas in the sky, or perhaps inside the head of the man who stares at them from a patch of sparse Ohio countryside, himself wondering what the hell is going on.

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) *** I haven’t got much nostalgic baggage invested in this opulent Disney adaptation of Jules Verne’s novel, but 58 years down the line it still satisfies the hunger of big-budget adventure in a very old-school manner; in fact, its very studio-bound effects and production design are paradoxically a major part of its appeal. There’s something very comforting about being allowed to exercise one’s capacity for suspension of disbelief on a chunk of studio magic like this. At a time when computers are doing more and more of our imaginative work for us, it’s rather fun to slide back into a movie that is dominated by physical effects which accentuate either the production’s handmade quality, its fairy-tale grandeur, or both. (Some of my favorite effects in the movie are the obvious miniatures of the exploding ships in studio tanks, and especially the eerie green glow of the Nautilus as it skims just below the surface toward its prey.) And no matter how a modern studio exec might drool at the possibility of a 20,000 Leagues redux complete with an awesome, photorealistic CGI squid, it is comforting to know that no bronzed, computer-enhanced actor could ever match Kirk Douglas’s outrageous seafaring countenance, or Peter Lorre in not-as-spineless-as-all-that sidekick mode, or the singularly demented purr of James Mason’s murderous Captain Nemo, maintaining the appearance of manners and politesse one minute and ramming his submarine into the hull of an unsuspecting ship the next. These actors, superb hams all, end up being the movie’s best effects.

-30- (1959) ** “Inch by inch a rumor grows into a roar... word by word the teletype starts ticking like a bomb... moment by moment the suspense builds headline-high to a new peak of motion picture excitement!” So goes the tag line for Jack Webb’s ostensibly exciting, but desk-bound newspaper drama, which purports to be a look inside the workings of a big city paper. However, this ain’t exactly Park Row or His Girl Friday or All the President’s Men. The movie fritters away most of its screen time on scenes of the editors and staff, including Webb, an over-the-top William Conrad and even David (son of Ozzie and Harriet) Nelson, bantering, arguing about trivia or otherwise engaged in wacky activities we’re supposed to find amusing. They’re trapped inside (with us), waiting for word on stories that are left to develop outside the newsroom, in the real world, where life just has to be more interesting. And then we’re left to twist over whether Webb will consent to adopt a six-year-old boy despite the fact that his wife seems determined to go through with it whether he wants to or not. (Somebody get Legal on the horn! Doesn’t adoption kinda require mutual consent of the adopters?!) But never does the famously robotic writer-director-actor (who at least smiles once or twice here) ever create a sense of urgency or even the slightest professional realism. “-30-” turns out to be code which marks the end of the story in a string of copy, and it may appeal to a certain strain of nostalgia for the old days when people actually read newspapers. But as an impassioned drama -30- falls short. This Dragnet fan prefers a night in at the receiving end of a mighty Joe Friday harangue.