Monday, November 25, 2013


Behind creaky, forbidding entry gates more befitting a haunted house than an undertaker’s chapel, Simms (Clarence Williams III), a somewhat menacing, maybe even mentally unhinged mortician, is being pressed by a trio of gang-bangers who have busted into his parlor looking for some drugs they think are hidden there. As thunder and lightning crash outside, one of the young toughs points a pistol at the freaky funeral director and demands that he produce “the shit.” Simms' drawn-out, insinuating response, which earns both laughs and a strange chill, is a pitch-perfect intro to the four tales he’ll soon spin which make up Tales from the Hood:

“Don't worry. You'll get the shit. You'll be knee-deep... in the shit.”

Writer-director Rusty Cundieff (Fear of a Black Hat, Chappelle’s Show), under the auspices of Spike’s Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks production company, puts a spirited twist on the lurid, cheerfully disreputable EC Comics/Amicus anthology horror anthologies of old: he grounds his supernaturally-tinged tales in horrors that were heavy on the minds of its “urban” demographic in 1995, when the persistent echoes of Rodney King, the Los Angeles Riots and the legacy of LAPD Chief Daryl Gates were still reverberating perhaps only slightly louder and more persistently than they still do today.

What’s interesting is how in each tale the movie makes a case for a form of art as folkloric warning and even as the means for exacting retribution for evil—a wronged anti-drug crusader, murdered at the hands of racist cops, beckons from a giant graffiti mural to set his revenge in motion;  a young boy, beaten mercilessly by a cruel stepfather, not only uses his crayon drawings to alert a concerned teacher to his peril but also to fight back against his very personal monster; and a David Duke-esque politician incurs the wrath of a voodoo priestess, who releases the souls of murdered slaves-- in the form of anguished, very scary dolls-- from the canvas of a painting hung over the mantel  of an old plantation house. As if to drive home the point, the final tale (one notably free of supernatural evidence) draws a parallel between outrageously baroque behavior modification montage techniques (headed up by the imposing, imperiously beautiful Rosalind Cash) and Cundieff’s own modest filmmaking, both tools employed to battle the horror of self-directed, black-on-black genocide.

Tales from the Hood is an intermittently effective horror movie in the classic sense of the term, but more to the point it mostly avoids strident preaching while ably demonstrating how everyday horror can be reflected and addressed within tales of deadly dolls, brutal monsters, the relentless, righteous undead and, of course, the smoldering fires of eternal damnation, the ultimate terrordome. The best advice for any audience would be to heed the sinister mortician’s cackle, not to mention the satanic gleam in his eye, and just dig this shit.


Friday, November 22, 2013


On the day that starts the weekend before Thanksgiving, all is well, relatively speaking-- there is work to be done and the spirit in which to do it. With that in mind, a couple of items relating to the work of one of the masters, a man who made comparatively few films, but made up for his lack of proliferation with the sheer density of cinema contained within each of the features he finished.

First, take a look at this erudite, almost mathematical breakdown of the gloriously magnified graveyard showdown that caps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), a smartly composed 14-minute video essay by Max Tohline.

Tohline is a Missouri-based film scholar and lecturer who has clearly spent a lot of time looking closely at what Leone has done to heighten the ending of this masterpiece with as much sheer cinematic bravado and intelligence as he could muster. Many thanks to long-time SLIFR  reader Gonzalo Jimenez for tipping me to Tohline's fine piece.

And then there's Scott Rollins' nifty collection of photos chronicling the director at work on the sets of Once Upon a Time in the  West (1969; top), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (above) and many others. The entirety of his gallery, Sergio Leone: Sul set, is part of his project The Scott Rollins Film and TV Trivia Blog, which features information and photo-intensive posts on actors and filmmakers from throughout pop culture. Many thanks to him for collecting these shots, two of which grace this page today. Now, for me, back to work.


Thursday, November 21, 2013


Esse est percipi (To be is to be perceived)” – philosopher George Berkeley (1685 – 1753)

The path that winds through movie history is paved with fruitful collaborations between actors, actors and directors, directors and screenwriters, directors and cinematographers, et cetera, the grand ambitions of which have sometimes resulted in landmarks of cinema, but more often simply in memorable works of popular, marginal and even disreputable art. For every masterpiece emerging from the union of sensibilities like Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, or those of Orson Welles, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Gregg Toland, there are artistic associations, just as unlikely in their own ways, which have resulted in movies like The Elephant Man (producer Mel Brooks and director David Lynch), Shadow of a Doubt (director Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Thornton Wilder) and Altered States (director Ken Russell and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky). The making of these films wasn’t always friction-free, but the final results were completely unique to the chemistry, and sometimes the incompatibility, of the creative forces behind them.

One of the most audacious and unlikely of these collaborations in the annals of film history must certainly be that of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot, Endgame) and the pioneering director of silent film comedy Buster Keaton (The General, Seven Chances). Beckett’s spare, deliberate and sometimes elastic use of language, combined with his often blackly comic and despairing subject matter, would seem at first glance to be the oil to Keaton’s water, composed of equal parts deadpan, fluidly graceful presence, undeterred pursuit of mastery over his circumstances-- often seeming to bend physical laws to his purpose-- and his clean, persistent, personal filmmaking style.

And somehow, despite the reflectively conversational, argumentative bent of Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, it’s always been easy for me to imagine Keaton’s professionally mute personage, as full as it is of yearning and the restless spirit of the eternally unsatisfied, as somehow fitting into Beckett’s vision of an unyielding, incomprehensible universe of unresponsive humanity.

Beckett must have thought so too. He wrote his only work as a screenwriter, Film, in 1963 with Charlie Chaplin in mind, but that casting vision evaporated when Chaplin’s secretary reportedly informed Barney Rossett of Grove Press, who commissioned Beckett’s screenplay and eventually published it, that "Mr. Chaplin does not read scripts." Beckett and Film’s director Alan Schneider pursued both Zero Mostel and Jack MacGowran (who had a long association with Beckett’s work), but when they were unavailable Schneider, at Beckett’s suggestion, convinced Keaton to participate.

The entirety of the movie (it runs 20 minutes) is a study of the perspectives of two “characters,” designated in Beckett’s script as “E” (the objective camera) and “O,” the subjective perception of the Keaton figure, who moves about the movie’s strange landscape in his customarily beleaguered and unsettled manner. As Beckett himself put it, “It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver – two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.” Schneider, the film’s director, described the script, in a 2010 piece chronicling the making of Film, as “fairly baffling when not downright inscrutable”:

Along with pages of addenda in Sam's inimitable informal style: explanatory notes, a philosophical supplement, modest production suggestions, a series of hand-drawn diagrams. Involving, in cosmic detail, his principal characters, O and E, the question of "perceivedness," the angle of immunity, and the essential principle that esse est percipi: to be is to be perceived. All composed with loving care, humor, sadness, and Sam's ever-present compassionate understanding of man's essential frailty. I loved it even when I wasn't completely sure what Sam meant. And I suddenly decided that my early academic training in physics and geometry was finally going to pay off in my directorial career.

Indeed, it would seem that the story of the making of Film, which was released in 1965, might indeed be as compelling in its own way as the film itself, the opportunity to see and reflect upon the essentially contrapuntal styles of two major artistic presences engaged in the act of creation. And it seems now that such an opportunity might finally be realized.

While recently at work on a restoration of Film, UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration expert Ross Lipman had occasion to visit Rosset at his New York City apartment, and while it is unclear as to what led him to it, there in Rosset’s kitchen Lipman made a fortuitous discovery. Under the kitchen sink were stashed multiple reels of film that had apparently been languishing amongst the cleansers and containers of roach spray for decades. He also found long-forgotten audio recordings elsewhere in the house. When he threaded all this material up he discovered footage long thought missing, documenting never-before-seen camera tests and outtakes, as well as unreleased audio recordings of production meetings in which Beckett was present, and many other fascinating and rare archival elements, all of which shed new light on every aspect of the creation of this unique collaboration.

Now Milestone Film and Video, under the guidance of Lipman and Milestone founders Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, are mounting an effort to create a crowd-funded documentary which will marshal all these newly-discovered elements into a new documentary about the making of the influential and rarely seen Film called Notfilm, to be released alongside the restoration of the Beckett/Keaton short. Lipman has been instrumental in realizing critically acclaimed and widely appreciated Milestone restorations of classics like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles and Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, and much like their recent release of the restoration of Shirley Clarke’s compelling documentary Portrait of Jason (which was the first partially crowd source-funded restoration project), Milestone is envisioning a similar trajectory for the funding of this proposed new work.

All the details can be found at the IndieGoGo site dedicated to the funding of the documentary. You can also find the project on Facebookwhere updates on the status of the projects and new details about the production will be forthcoming. At this writing there’s a little under a month (29 days) left to gather the remaining $75,000 needed to ensure that these new documents are revealed in the most opportune and instructive manner possible. It’s a chance to not only see Film again, but to make sure that we can all see film, as in the cinema, from a bright, new perspective and illumination. And surely a foot-candle or two of that perspective would radiate from new insight into the personalities and working methods of Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton, provided through the efforts of Lipman, Schneider and the multitude of creative forces working to bring Notfilm to a theater near you.  


Sunday, November 17, 2013


If you have a “smartphone” (I realize that the term is probably now part of the official lexicon, but I still can’t resist putting it in quotes), you probably already know that Turner Classic Movies has launched a keen new app called Watch TCM, an extension of the “Watch TCM” streaming feature on their Web site. In conjunction with your own cable or satellite provider, you can now access the live West Coast and East Coast feeds for the Turner Classic Movies network, play up hundreds of movies currently on the TCM schedule on demand, and access a keen interactive schedule for planning your obsessive classic movie binges, among many other features.

As far as I can tell, DirectTV is not participating in the app as yet—each time I attempt to sign in I’m given a list of providers that are taking part and the satellite giant, which brings TCM into my home, is not listed as one of my options. (I have heard from a couple of other people who have said they do use Watch TCM with DirectTV, so maybe it’s just me that’s being frozen out.) TCM suggests that if your provider is not among those listed and you want to use Watch TCM on your phone to the full extent of its capabilities, it may just be a matter of time before they show up on the list, so you (and I) should just keep checking.

The knowledge of one other thing that got me pretty excited about Watch TCM this morning came courtesy of film critic and virtual pal Tony Dayoub, who sent a note out on Facebook this morning to me and fellow film writers David Cairns (Shadowplay), Glenn Kenny (Some Came Running) and Ivan G. Shreve (Thrilling Days of Yesteryear) asking us if we knew that the app was “syndicating” our blogs as part of an post aggregation feature called the TCM Blog Reader.

Well, it turns out that David, Glenn and Ivan had all been contacted by TCM earlier this year with the news, so it came as something less than a shock to them than it did to me-- I heard nothing about it until this morning. According to the official release for the TCM mobile app, The TCM Blog Reader “explore(s) great blog writing from across the Web featuring the latest news and great writing on classic film, personally selected from TCM staff writers.” Since none of us four are TCM staff writers, I guess what that sentence means is that the TCM staff writers have deemed our sites worthy of being featured in the reader, which publishes the first paragraph of the latest post, followed by a direct link to the blog in question for further reading. Even better, if you click on the icon for each specific blog rather than a specific story link, you will then be directed to a cleanly formatted, easy-to-navigate directory of recent posts for easy back-tracking—the one for SLIFR stretches back to June 2013.

Needless to say, this is not the sort of naked content grab many of us in the doin’-it-for-free blogosphere have witnessed (or been victimized by) in the past. TCM is not snatching our words and passing them off as their own; full credit is being given, as well as a nice avenue for potential further exposure of our writing sanctioned by a reputable and distinguished voice in the world of classic film and film preservation. There’s no reason not to be honored, and for me surprised, by our inclusion here. I am thrilled to be in the company of fine writers like Glenn, Ivan and David (for whom I will be returning to the world of the blog-a-thon next month at Shadowplay). I hope and full expect that we will help make watching TCM on Watch TCM even more exciting and entertaining and useful through the work that we do to convey our love of film from our own unique perspectives. Thanks, TCM, for inviting us to the party.


Monday, November 11, 2013


There’s one explicit reference to The Wizard of Oz in Martin Scorsese’s bleak 1985 farce After Hours, based on a script by Joseph Minion, a movie which was made on the rebound after the director’s first well-publicized attempts to finance a film of The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart. The movie Scorsese did end up shooting isn’t set on anything like Technicolor over-the-rainbow real estate, or even the skuzzy neon-lit urban hellscape of Taxi Driver. Instead, it takes place on the streets of an ominously under-populated bohemia, Soho as an abandoned studio back lot, a concrete, rain-drenched garden of Gethsemane where gloomy pit stops like the Terminal Bar seem to offer comfort but lead only to convolution, misunderstanding and betrayal.

In the wake of his frustration over Last Temptation, it’s not difficult to imagine what appealed to Scorsese about Minion’s premise—set during the late/early hours of one nightmarish New York City night, complacent yuppie Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) impulsively pursues a date with Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), a woman whom he meets in a coffee shop. Their tentative relationship starts off well enough, gets inexplicably weirder and then ripples into ever-increasingly disastrous consequences, ending in a rebirth (of sorts) for Paul, but precious little catharsis. Paul, like the Scorsese who found himself with this movie navigating a dark, ostensibly farcical narrative, seems out of his comfort zone immediately. During a careening cab ride downtown toward his late-night rendezvous with Marcy, all of Paul’s money (a single $20 bill) ends up flying out the cab window, leaving him cashless (and apparently credit card-less), at the mercy of the various whimsical and inexplicable influences that will shape his rough journey down the rabbit/sewer hole as he tries to make it back to something like home. 

On the surface, After Hours feels like a lark, though a particularly joyless one which offer few tension-relieving laughs. It has, however, an enviable cast, headed by Griffin Dunne, who manages to carry the movie while barely displaying an impulse that isn’t either whiny or self-serving. Terrific character actors like Fiorentino, John Heard and Verna Bloom make their own impressions, but the movie is highlighted by a pair of not-exactly-lethal blondes who exact sweet, squirming revenge on Paul for his various trespasses.

Catherine O’Hara shows up late, and very happily, as an ice cream truck driver who heads up a mob which mistakenly pegs Paul as a serial thief. But it’s Teri Garr as a disgruntled bipolar waitress (“I have trouble figuring the taxes on checks! So what??!!”) who fixates on Paul and gives off the movie’s best comic buzz. Garr’s impeccable timing was largely taken for granted during the ‘70s and ‘80s, so her brief, fizzy appearance makes revisiting this movie worth the wait. (Stoner icons Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong also pop up as the real burglars, less organic to Soho’s Spring Street than they were making a similar cameo appearance on the Laurel Canyon Boulevard of Joni Mitchell’s 1972 Court and Spark album.)

If After Hours is on one level an expression of Scorsese’s sundry frustrations, then it must also be considered in the light of the derailed career of its screenwriter. According to Vanity Fair contributing editor Andrew Hearst it was hinted, in a 2000 profile of NPR monologist Joe Frank for Salon-- but never reported on in the industry trades during the production or after the release of the film-- that Joseph Minion, whose script for After Hours was presented to Scorsese by producers Griffin Dunne and Amy Robinson, plagiarized many of the details in the film’s first half hour from Frank’s 1982 monologue Lies. Frank apparently sued, and successfully. (Hearst briefly documented the history of the circumstances in 2008 on his personal blog.)

Minion went on to write the inventive screenplay for one of Nicolas Cage’s most notorious films, Vampire’s Kiss (1988), but he has worked only sporadically since then. Is it only coincidence that the character of Paul carries throughout the movie’s second half a very real sense of guilt resulting from the tragic fate of another character, or that there is also a competing theme of Paul’s assumed guilt and pursuit by a neighborhood vigilante group over burglaries which he did not commit? Now seen in the light of the movie’s possible meaning for both its primary creators, what once struck me as an unsettling scenario realized by a director who may have approached it as career filler now feels more personal than ever. As a coffee shop owner played by Dick Miller says when Paul and Marcy finally step out into the Soho night together, “Different rules apply when it gets this late. You know what I mean? It’s, like, after hours.”


After Hours plays the 2013 AFI Fest in Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 13, 11:00 p.m. at the Egyptian Theater as one of the featured selections of AFI Fest Guest Artistic Director Agnes Varda


Wednesday, November 06, 2013


Nicolas Winding Refn would like you to know that Only God Forgives, a quasi-martial arts crime thriller that has style to spare but barely a pulse, is some serious, genre-twisting, hard-ass shit. (He says so in an interview featured on the DVD, and bearing such a title one would hope the movie would be all that at the very least.) Limbs are separated from trunks, blood sprays majestically, great big bruisers are tortured (unconvincingly). But apart from that expression of the writer-director’s intent, which the glowing red-and-blue-lit cinematography, murky, rain-moistened setting and ominous sound design sell like the world’s gravest carnival barkers, there’s precious little evidence in the film of the vitality that must have drawn Refn to hard-boiled thrillers in the first place.

Instead, Only God Forgives plays like a very solemn boys’ game where the social and political context of the action has been boiled away, leaving only a crusty residue of attitude and a bunch of big kids acting out by rote scenarios that they barely seem interested in. One thing about the movie is marvelous, however, that being its sort-of astonishing quality of remaining a muddled act of storytelling even after everything about it, including the skeletal narrative upon which all the useless beauty of its design has been wasted, has been abstracted almost to the point of evaporation. It’s all just too silly to take with anything but a roll of the eyes. As it turns out, one overinflated directorial genius’s "serious" is this man’s "po-faced," all of the labored "genre-twisting" feeling much more like "genre-deadening" to these eyes and ears. (We can agree on the "shit" part, but perhaps we should change "hard-ass" to "lame-ass.")

It’s all revenge upon retaliation upon vengeance in Refn’s dark Thai underworld, where every shadow lurker looks like he has a secret that neither he nor the filmmaker will be sharing anytime soon. The psychotic brother of an American expatriate drug dealer, Julian (Ryan Gosling), rapes and murders a 16-year-old prostitute. A grim ex-cop turned grim, murderous crime lord (Vithaya Pansringarm) provides justice for the girl’s father by permitting the man to bludgeon and eviscerate his daughter’s killer, this before exacting a price for such an allowance by lopping off the father’s hands with the warrior’s blade he keeps tucked down the back of his khakis, apparently quite comfortably. (The "action" is interrupted occasionally when the crime lord takes time out to croon karaoke very sincerely to the corrupt policeman under his evil sway.) Julian tracks down the newly-stumped father but eventually lets him go, sensing, I suppose, that his anger should now be directed toward the nasty sword-wielder who usurped his own position of righteous wrath.
But Julian has his own troubles, in the personage of his bizarrely aggressive, sexually twisted mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has flown in from America for some reason—ostensibly it is to take care of the body of her first son, whose cock she explains without warning was much larger than Julian’s, though she never seems to actually do anything but glower, smoke, prod her still-living son to further vengeance, and call Julian’s lovely Thai hooker girlfriend nasty names. The inexorable slow-motion of what passes for the movie’s forward thrust, fighting as it does against the gravity of common sense, sputters, slows and becomes slower still, until everything seems like an elaborate tableau, a frozen, intellectually pompous View-Master perspective on action cinema.

Thomas at least livens up the proceedings a bit, even if her provocations are in their own way just as studied and predictable as all the dead-eyed stares surrounding her. She benefits from her character’s arrogance, the tilt of the woman’s ridiculously imperious eyebrows, and the advantage gained from the energy of flying so far over the top of an already fatally stylized movie where every other motivation is so neatly and perversely tamped down.

But what Gosling does can barely even be termed a performance-- it’s a joylessly smug, heavy-lidded pose, Gosling being the empty vessel, the willing repository of Refn’s every dour, abstracted notion of the antihero’s moral code and even of what constitutes "action." The fact that, outside of one puzzling outburst directed at his girlfriend, Gosling’s expression never changes for the entirety of the movie-- even when his countenance becomes a pasted landscape of cuts and bruises-- begins to almost seem like a perverse dare, a stare-down contest between collaborators and their audience, one which the audience cannot help but lose.

Movies like Only God Forgives, or Jim Jarmusch’s only marginally more tolerable The Limits of Control (a title which certainly suggests an element of self-awareness), traffic in drawing attention to tired tropes and implying meaning through the stretching of those tropes into useless shapes, all of which seem to congratulate audiences for seeing through the phony original models while simultaneously doling out criticism for lazy responses to the previous forms. But "meaning" is as sparse as the dialogue in Only God Forgives, and mining for it is the most listless of fun that can be derived from Refn’s relentless style, which carried me up to and past the boundaries of patience. The director sins against that which he fetishizes such that even the Almighty might hold back pardon.


Friday, November 01, 2013


And now, the answers you may not have been waiting for, the key to the 2013 SLIFR Halloween Classic Horror Frame-Grab Quiz. Most of those who took part and sent in answers got a goodly portion correct on the first pass, and then managed to figure out most of the rest on a piecemeal basis later. And some complained that, hey, it was just too damn hard this year. Ones that particularly perturbed even the most stalwart of contestants were numbers 10, 11, 23 and 29. Scroll down to scratch those persistent itches and any others that may still be bothering you. Hope you had a wonderfully warped and weird Halloween and that this quiz was at least a small part of your holiday enjoyment!