Saturday, December 21, 2019


One could be forgiven for not suspecting that Hammer Films, known for their comparatively lurid and bloody, sometimes pointedly lusty, and otherwise vividly imagined (and reimagined) catalogue of horror classics, would be the first place to look if one were in the market for a low-key yet spirited take on a holiday classic to turn to once the perennial screenings of It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, Die Hard and countless other popular titles have begun to wear out their welcome. Yet the studio delivered just that in Cash on Demand (1962), a dandy and delicious suspense thriller directed by Quentin Lawrence, from a script by David T. Chantler and Lewis Griefer, itself based on a play by Jacques Gillies, which echoes of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the book and the countless movie and TV iterations which came before, to fresh and potent purpose.

Lawrence, a British TV veteran whose few feature film credits included The Man Who Finally Died (1963; itself based on a British TV series for which Lawrence shot several episodes), a Hammer follow-up to the infamous WWII potboiler Camp on Blood Island entitled The Secret of Blood Island (1965), and, perhaps most memorably for those of us well-versed in the Hammer output (though it was not itself a Hammer film), 1958’s The Crawling Eye, directs Cash on Demand with crisp efficiency and seductive simplicity that draws the viewer into its wintry setting with ease and assurance. But it is the players who populate this intense chamber piece—it takes place entirely within a small community bank located an hour or so outside London—who create the film’s most lasting impression.

One of the best things about Cash on Demand is the relative subtlety with which it references the Dickens classic—it’s possible to not even notice the resemblance until you’re snared in the movie’s novel web. But even though it’s not ultimately a full-fledged refashioning of Dickens’ familiar tale, this film most certainly has its own Ebenezer Scrooge, its own Bob Cratchit, and even a personification of a specter with less than honorable intentions who nonetheless nudges the Scrooge figure toward a self-realization that is entirely in line with the original story’s emotional denouement.  

The movie opens on a snowbound scene just outside the bank, where a man in a Santa suit is collecting for a local hospital charity, with the familiar carol “The First Noel” lilting on the soundtrack. But as the camera moves in on the metal placard just outside the bank’s door which identifies it as the City and Colonial Bank of Haversham, a musical strain is introduced that sounds at first as if it might be an orchestral ornament to the carol but which quickly evolves into a minor-key evocation of uncertain dread as the camera goes inside and moves through the empty spaces soon to be filled with employees and the occasional customer. 

Soon those employees begin to populate their workstations, led by Mr. Pearson, the head clerk who stands in for Cratchit. Pearson is essayed with palpable empathy by veteran character actor Richard Vernon (Goldfinger, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, The Pink Panther Strikes Again). The head clerk’s vaguely worn countenance bespeaks the weariness of a man stuck in a professional position which offers little reward other than vague security, yet also of a kindness that has probably carried him further with his own subordinates than it does with his immediate superior. 

That immediate superior is, of course, Cash on Demand’s Scrooge figure, the bank’s detail-obsessed, meticulously efficient manager Harry Fordyce, played with imperious reserve by one of Hammer’s greatest stars, Peter Cushing. When Fordyce enters the bank the already wintry atmosphere chills a few degrees further, each employee registering the degree of their boss’s daily, surely countless demands on their performance, and none more so than Pearson, whose professional competence and morality Fordyce calls into question almost immediately over a discovered imbalance in the daily books, the result of a charitable loan to a customer proffered by another clerk, which Pearson signed off on and which Fordyce inflates into a career-threatening charge of embezzlement.

Cushing, at least initially, offers no quarter against the impenetrable air of superiority Fordyce is able to indulge within his little realm. But unlike Scrooge, Fordyce appears to have no large wealth to claim as his own, which might make lording his power over his employees an easier path to take. Fordyce is, it’s fairly clear, a small man in his own right, without friends or connections apart from his immediate family, and embodying his pettiness is a task perfectly suited to Cushing’s wheelhouse. But as Fordyce is forced to confront the limits of his own worldview, and to come to understand how he has so frequently come up short in the humanity department, the shades of desperation, of isolation, of helplessness that are encased beneath Fordyce’s icy exterior begin to rise to the fore, and it’s here that Cushing, an actor able to imbue even his most extreme and ideologically entrenched characters with welcome shadings of understanding and clarity, begins to breathes real life into Fordyce and craft what I, as an unrepentant Cushing devotee, consider to be one of his two or three best, most compelling performances. (For another one of those, please see, if you haven’t already, his fanatical Gustav Weil in Hammer’s magnificent Twins of Evil, in which he gifts the religious zealot given charge over voluptuous twins who come under the influence of a vampire lord with a similar and unexpected sympathy.)

But what of Dickens’s ghosts? Fordyce himself first appears as an eerie reflection in that City and Colonial placard, an apparition which eventually takes human form and begins tending to an unoffending smudge on the placard’s shiny surface with a handkerchief. But in Cash on Demand, the real analog to those chain-rattling specters Dickens used to compel his protagonist into self-awareness takes corporeal shape as Colonel Gore-Hepburn, a cordial, if officious and perhaps overly self-assured gentleman who initially presents himself to the bank staff as an insurance inspector in order to get an audience with their boss and eventually reveals a more sinister purpose once ensconced within the confines of Fordyce’s office. 

Gore-Hepburn is played by the terrific and always-welcome André Morell, veteran of scores of Hammer productions as well as mainstream classics like Ben-Hur and The Bridge on the River Kwai, whose most indelible impression upon genre aficionados may have come as the persistently enquiring Professor Bernard Quatermass, who literally uncovers evidence of extraterrestrial life in a London Underground excavation in the original British TV production of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit (1958). As the ex-military man, Morell deals in unctuous insinuation as if casually breathing the icy Haversham air, and he relishes his power over Fordyce from his first words, when Fordyce still believes him to be who he represents himself to be. But when Gore-Hepburn pulls back the curtain and reveals his actual identity and agenda, the charm Morell has exuded, and which he will be required to occasionally tap into again through a more threatening veil, disappears in favor of a decidedly less welcoming persona. Gore-Hepburn is actually a career criminal who has been casing the bank for over a year and has begun executing a well-thought-out plan to relieve the City and Colonial of its holiday reserve of over 90,000 pounds, a plan which includes holding Fordyce’s wife and son hostage under threat of torture and execution if the bank manager does not acquiesce to his every demand. It’s a great role for Morell, who clearly is having the time of his life playing the greater evil against Cushing’s misguided man of appearances and procedures, and together they deliver one of the most formidable one-two acting punches in the history of Hammer Studios.

Through the procession of events in which Fordyce is forced to squirm and betray his own principled stature as a banker of apparently peerless standards at Gore-Hepburn’s relentless insistence, the dramatic twists and turns which propel Cash on Demand never seem only like overwrought dramatic contrivances, and much credit for that has to go to these wonderful actors. The push-pull between Gore-Hepburn’s dominion of the situation and Fordyce‘s increasing desperation play with theatrical artifice, to be sure, but then so do Dickens’s. However, within the framework in which those conventions and artifices have been refashioned, the Cash on Demand company artfully deliver on their conceit with palpable relish, and with awareness of just how to deliver Fordyce to his particular personal and professional epiphanies (which, for Fordyce, are most certainly and inevitably intertwined) in a satisfying minor key befitting the resolution of an otherwise nerve-racking cat-and-mouse scenario which must echo, but never blatantly ape, the Dickensian formula in order to arrival at its own particular destination.

The resolution that Cash on Demand does come to I daresay will satisfy connoisseurs of crime and suspense as well as those in search of the restorative holiday balm that Dickens’s tale has delivered for generations, yet without the need to insist upon itself within the trappings of a traditional holiday classic. Maybe that’s one of the main reasons why it has become exactly that for me.  


Saturday, December 14, 2019


Scottish director Bill Forsyth has a strange way, one for which audiences should be eternally grateful, of delivering a symphony of melancholy notes which register in his movies with a sort of blithe exhilaration instead of the customary patina of hopelessness they perhaps might otherwise be subject to in the hands of another filmmaker. One senses the discomfort, the confusion, the weariness some of Forsyth’s characters experience without feeling overwhelmed by them, and he infuses his best films with such lyrical, unexpected, transformative beauty that it’d be almost impossible to leave them with anything other than an entirely bearable lightness of being; suffocating ennui is not on this filmmaker’s palette. 

Pauline Kael said of Forsyth’s much-beloved Local Hero (1983) that the picture was “like one of those lovely Elizabethan songs that are full of tra-la-la-la-la-las,” a quality that most appreciate about the film but that some use as a way of ticking down the picture’s overall worth into a somewhat more trivial margin. (Kael herself seemed to slightly discount the picture, after spending her review accounting for its offbeat charm and perspective, by claiming that it wasn’t “any major achievement… but it’s true to itself.”) And beneath those tra-la-las, beneath the fog of contentment that the protagonist of the film, the local hero, experiences upon arriving in the strangely magical Scottish coastal village and subjecting himself to its casually odd cadences, one senses Forsyth’s melancholy, the tinge of regret that the whole world can’t be as special as this place, which only fully emerges over the film’s final shot.


Kael also said of the Scottish director in that review that “Forsyth seems to go where impulse and instinct guide him; he's an entertainer-filmmaker who gives free play to his own sense of the ridiculous and his own sense of beauty.” This may be even more true of Forsyth’s follow-up to Local Hero, 1984’s Comfort and Joy, than it is of its more-celebrated predecessor. Comfort and Joy tracks a complacent Glaswegian radio personality, Alan “Dicky” Bird, played by Scottish character actor and national treasure Bill Paterson (The Singing Detective, Traffik, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Witches), who is quite suddenly unmoored from his complacent life when his kleptomaniac girlfriend decides to leave him in the midst of decorating their apartment for Christmas.

Disoriented, saddened, longing for the pleasures of his lost love, yet constantly casting an eye toward possible rebound romances, he catches the eye of a lovely lass in an ice-cream truck one day while caught in heavy city traffic and decides to follow the van, buy a sweet treat and perhaps strike up a conversation with the entrancing young woman.  Up to this point the viewer, especially one unfamiliar with Forsyth’s other films, might have a sense of what’s coming next. But of course, as Kael observed, this director is rarely beholden to anything beyond his own curiosity and impulses, and in pursuit of a fresh perspective on midlife crisis Forsyth lands Dicky Bird, who being the host of a popular light-information morning radio program is beginning to rankle at the triviality of his own contributions to the societal good, in the middle of a violent (but persistently silly) confrontation between two rival ice-cream companies. 

Forsyth took inspiration from an actual, and far more seriously violent and criminal conflict that had been in Glasgow headlines for years, but though allusions are made as to the underworld influences present amongst the soft-serve butting heads in Comfort and Joy, the scuffles depicted in the film are more easily remedied by recipes, or a wry, quizzical comment, than a hail of bullets or crowbars applied to kneecaps. In one big fight scene, some of the assailants wield large wooden mallets that wouldn’t be out of place in a Wile E. Coyote escapade. And there’s that the incessant, inescapable jingle emanating from the Mr. Bunny ice cream van. It’s a musical joke, on Alan and on the audience, of course, that approaches earworm levels of pleasing madness and tempers the real-world consequences of vendor-on-vendor violence with the assaultive capabilities of a lighter-than-air melody. But that joke is topped when Alan finally makes his way into the Mr. Bunny stronghold and we see (though he barely notes it) the hilarious origins of its recording, which are themselves incessant and sublimely ridiculous— in the midst of a chaotic warehouse filled with damaged ice cream vans and the autobody specialists repairing them, a man stands hunched over a xlyophone, repeatedly picking out the jingle’s melody, while another man stands with a microphone recording the sounds, interjecting a never-less-than-jolly “Hello, Folks!” over and over again at exactly the right interval. There you have the perfect Bill Forsyth trajectory—where you think you’re going is never quite where you arrive. 

The film is shot by Chris Menges, who also conjured the visual poetry of Local Hero. And here Menges delivers what might be the most quietly, unexpectedly lovely visual portrait of a city that I’ve ever seen in a movie— his Glasgow is dazzling in its softness, in its ephemeral curiosity; in the compression of buzzing cars and hilly roads that are flattened against one another and yet somehow expanded free of traditional physical constraints; in the glow of distant lights illuminating structures and interiors in ways that emphasize an intangible mystery about what might be going on inside, as if they were Christmas ornaments in a diorama of a city which displays all indication of existing in the real world yet seems almost supernaturally beautiful; in the gray gloaming that seems to have settled over that cityscape and its old and ascendant buildings, not like gloom but instead a blessing. This brilliant cinematographer-magician’s dexterity and sensitivity with light imbues Dicky Bird’s wanderings through man-made constructs with mournful beauty; he distinguishes Glasgow in the same way he did the Scottish coast, not with picture-postcard platitudes, but with gorgeously integrated notes of solemnity and lightness that seem to leap directly from the discombobulated disc jockey’s modesty-scaled crisis of identity and purpose.

And in the modulation of their particular contributions, both Forsyth and Menges crystallize the humanity that descends on Comfort and Joy like a light snowfall, or the expressive, oddly cheering gray fog in which the city seems perpetually enveloped here. As writer-director Forsyth characteristically zeroes in and, abetted by Menges’s poetic expressiveness, encapsulates the absurdity of conducting dire business over diary-based sweets, he manages to never forget that absurdity has a human scale. When Alan scoffs at grown men fighting over something as inconsequential as ice cream, the almost offhand way the observation is redirected to him (“And what business are you in that’s so important?”) has an unexpected sting. Alan’s rediscovery of himself as someone other than Dicky Bird, besotted partner to a woman who finds him disposable, and his emergence from his cloud of depression over the dissonance between his sense of purpose and the simple human need set in relief by the lyrically decorative trappings of the holiday season, is compelled by his reluctant involvement as mediator between the two rival confectioners. But it’s in integral element to the film’s decidedly odd tone, its odd humor, its raison d’etre, that even though Alan may be moving toward an actual state of happiness, the melancholy he feels, and that we viewers sense throughout, is part of his nature-- yes, perhaps as a Scotsman, but also simply as a man-- a realization with which he eventually comes to terms. 

Happily, in the film’s final shot, as Alan settles into his radio station studio, with all of Glasgow floating just outside the window, to take the Christmas morning shift and accompany his listeners in his familiar way, one truly understands how that alchemic mix of melancholy and lightness is in the spiritual and visual DNA of the film too. Which makes Comfort and Joy, for me, an almost perfect Christmas holiday movie. 

Comfort and Joy looks to be a bit difficult to find in the usual streaming places, though Netflix or Amazon could probably set you up with a DVD for rent. However, I found it last night in a surprisingly robust 720p transfer on, of all places, YouTube. Click this link and you can see it for yourself for the holidays.

Sunday, November 24, 2019


During a year in which the world finds itself increasingly in the throes of totalitarianism and corruption, when institutions, traditions and good old common sense seems to be crumbling before our very eyes, when the world itself appears to be catching fire, a spirit of thanksgiving may be one that is hard to come by. But there are reasons to give thanks even in light of those realities, ones even directly to those realities, and I encourage you to seek out those reasons, be as grateful as is warranted, and find ways to express that gratitude. In other words, don’t let the bastards get you down.

And in the world of cinema, there was the usual degree of lousy movies, some franchise-related, of course, but some that were pretty shitty of their own accord. Yet at the same time, there were lots of reasons to justify gratitude. Here are some of my reasons to give thanks for the treasures that the movies offered audiences in 2019.

I am thankful…

…that it was possible to see the trailer for what’s gonna be the best movie of the year three or four times before actually seeing the movie and still have no idea going in where this wonderful creation was going to go.

…that there’s still a place in Los Angeles to see first-run films in a premier presentation for less than $10.

…that the fascination with the de-aging process used in The Irishman fades about a minute after you first become aware of it and is overtaken by a more seductive fascination with the story and the acting and how the director adapts his energetic style to telling the tale of men growing older and finding themselves increasingly impotent in a world of their own making.

...that I can watch TCM again, stress-free, now that I’ve dumped my rip-off cable provider.

…for the live version of “Isis” seen and heard in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.

…that documentarian Nanfu Wang had the creative and political intelligence to observe that though she grew up in a country (China) that for years mandated abortions, and then moved to a country (the United States) where abortions are slowly becoming more difficult to obtain, both governments were about removing the rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies, thus neutering the opportunity for certain factions which might have tried to reductively spin One Child Nation into a pro-life tract.

…for the glory of Linda Ronstadt’s voice as heard again in Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, but also for the look in Ronstadt’s eyes, one of pleasure mixed with trepidation and outright fear, as she attempts to harmonize with her relatives in the present day, with her Parkinson’s disease continuing to take its toll.

…for the discipline, wit and insight of the script for Dolemite Is My Name, written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. 

...that two Martin Scorsese movies will be in my top 10, perhaps my top five for the year.

…that it’s possible to actually tour Apricot Lane Farms, aka The Biggest Little Farm.

…that 2019 was such a good year for horror film, with Us, The Prodigy, Crawl, Midsommar, The Field Guide to Evil, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Happy Death Day 2 U already in the bag, and the possible addition of In Fabric to the list in the couple of weeks.

…for the folks you sometimes meet in line at the movies in Los Angeles.

…that even butchered and hobbled, Brian De Palma’s Domino was still clearly an improvement over his last movie, which was closer to the De Palma formula but seemed like it might be the last draining of any real passion the director might still have in reserve.

…and for the actors:

Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yeo-jeong Jo, Woo-sik Choi, Hye-jin Jang, and especially So-dam Park (Parasite); Mary Kay Place, Estelle Parsons, Andrea Martin, Diedre O’Connell, Joyce Van Patten, Phyllis Somerville, Jake Lacy (Diane); Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Anna Paquin, Stephen Graham, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Katherine Narducci, Ray Romano, Lucy Gallina (The Irishman); Flotence Pugh, Vilhelm Blomgren (Midsommar); Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper (Crawl); Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans and, really, the entire cast of Avengers: Endgame; Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson (The Lighthouse); Eddie Murphy, Keegan-Michael Key, Mike Epps, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and especially Da’Vine Joy Randolph (Dolemite Is My Name); Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts, Jon Bernthal, Ray McKinnon (Ford v Ferrari); Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Nora Navas, Julietta Serrano, Cesar Vicente, Asier Flores, Cecila Roth and Penelope Cruz (Pain and Glory); Brad Pitt, Tommy lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga, Loren Dean (Ad Astra); Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott (The Prodigy); Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Madison Curry (Us); Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Sally Hawkins (Godzilla, King of the Monsters); Gary Oldman, Antonio Banderas, Meryl Streep (The Laundromat); Adam Driver, Annette Bening (The Report); Adam Sandler, Eric Bogosian, Idina Menzel (Uncut Gems); 

Geraldine Viswanathan (Hala); Toni Servillo (Loro); Jillian Bell, Michaela Watkins, Lil Rel Howery (Brittany Runs a Marathon); Taylor Russel, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges (Waves); Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Austin Zajur (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark); Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie (Seberg); Michelle Dockery, Maggie Smith (Downton Abbey); Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood); Isabelle Huppert (Greta); Marisa Tomei (Frankie); Olivia Wilde (A Vigilante); Aldis Hodge (Brian Banks); Joaquin Phoenix (Joker); Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran (Doctor Sleep).

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.


Sunday, November 10, 2019


As we inch toward end-of-the-year awards and ten-best lists, I feel like it’s already game over in terms of picking what will end up at the top of my own rankings. I haven't seen too many movies for which I would even entertain the descriptive "perfect"... but I'm entertaining that word as I continue to think, after two viewings now, about just how perfectly modulated a social satire on class resentment Parasite is, not to mention how thrillingly entertaining and moment-to-moment unpredictable. It also has, in the work of actors like Boon Joon Ho veterans Song Kang-ho (The Host) and Lee Jong-un (Okja), as well as Jo Yeo-jeong, Jang Hye-in, and especially Park So-dam, the highest caliber ensemble performance by any cast this year. Do yourself a favor-- keep yourself in the dark about the details and rush to see this on the big screen as soon as you can. Bong Joon Ho (Mother, Memories of Murder) has made an exquisitely controlled, fiercely alive movie that ought to make just about every other director out there sick with envy and at the same time excited again for the possibilities when a great movie is realized. And this is most definitely a great movie.

The only movie I think even comes close to Parasite in 2019, at least as far as I’ve seen, couldn’t feel any more different than Bong’s masterful suspense comedy. It’s called Diane, and chances are good you’ve never heard of it. Mary Kay Place, as the sincere, and sincerely beleaguered title character, is in every scene, and no better news about movies in 2019 could be delivered. I came away from Diane wondering where I had to go to sign the Mary Kay Place Deserves an Oscar petition. She will be a revelation to those who haven’t known or loved her work for 40-some years, but it’s no surprise to me that she is as magnificent as she is in this, a movie that finally gives her a chance to shine in a great, still-waters-run-deep sort of role. And she’s surrounded by actresses like Dierdre O’Connell, Andrea Martin, Estelle Parsons, Joyce Van Patten, Glynnis O’Connor and Phyliss Somerville who match her every lived-in move with grace and humor. The movie itself is a masterful piece of unforced, beautifully modulated, formally engaging storytelling without an ounce of fat, written and directed by documentarian and former film critic Kent Jones, whose tone and confidence is so assured you’d think he had five or six narrative features under his belt already. (He directed the marvelous documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut from 2015.)
As a friend said to me before I saw this, there’s really no way to speak about what Diane is up to, it’s themes of social and familial responsibility, mortality, identity and inescapable guilt, without making it sound hopelessly depressing, or a chore of well-intentioned, kitchen-sink humanism. But if you’re like me, the movie will energize you instead of bring you down simply because it is such a rare example of unostentatious, yet intelligent style married to a whole raft of great acting, headed up by Place, of course. Such occasions are, as my friend also said, thrilling, and not a reason in themselves to adopt the despair and frustrations of the characters in the film’s purview. Try to see Diane, like Parasite, as I did, knowing as little as possible, and see if you don’t settle pleasurably into its beautifully rendered, sharply observed world of actual people and familiar textures with eyes that feel wide awake and open, your empathy sharpened and your sensibility heightened by actors and filmmakers at the top of their game.
(Diane is currently streaming on Hulu.)

If you’ve ever marveled at the way a movie looks—hell, if you’ve ever seen a movie—then the sublime and fascinating documentary Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers, now screening on Turner Classic Movies, ought to be a must-see. Directed by Daniel Raim (Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story) and written by the esteemed film critic Michael Sragow, the movie deftly chronicles the literally visionary work of men like Billy Bitzer (The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance), Roland Totheroh (City Lights), Charles Rosher and Karl Struss (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans), William Daniels (Anna Christie, Grand Hotel), Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Best Years of Our Lives) and James Wong Howe (The Thin Man, Hud), as they create poetic imagery, forge new paths in technique and technology, and virtually define the possibilities of American and world cinema going forward from its earliest forms. It’s the sort of nuanced, intelligent documentary that ought to, if there’s to be any real education in film history perpetuated for future filmmaking generations, become an essential text. You’ll find it at various times throughout the month on TCM. Consult their monthly schedule to find out just when.



I’ve spent the last 39 years trying to love, or even like, Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film version of Stephen King’s The Shining, but my perhaps heretical confession must be that I haven’t had much success. I don’t, as King himself does, have issues with the fact that the movie differs in significant ways from the novel—they are, after all, two different entities produced from the minds of two very different artists. But the movie has always felt like an intellectual exercise undertaken by someone who isn’t engaged by the genre he’s chosen to play with, the product of a director who is profoundly bored and needs to create an elaborate landscape of puzzles and design to distract from his fundamental disinterest. (Before the comments start, it could very well be that The Shining meant the world to Kubrick; my response is based not on some insider dope, but the vibe that I personally feel from the movie itself.) I think the movie’s deliberateness masks a certain listlessness as Kubrick pokes around the edges of the story; what registers as a profound rumination on haunted house tropes for some feels to me like a hodgepodge of perspectives, as if Kubrick himself hadn’t quite decided what was really going on, only that he wasn’t buying King’s version.  And it doesn’t help that Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance starts at nuts and has nowhere to go but through the Overlook roof. He’s surpassed by Shelley Duvall’s all-too-believable despair and exhaustion as Torrance’s terrified wife Wendy-- her every gasp and scream cut mighty close to some very real bones.

I haven’t read Doctor Sleep, the novel King brought forth some 40 years after The Shining was published, but it’s hard not to suspect that the new(er) book, which chronicles the trials of young Danny Torrance as he becomes an adult still haunted by ghosts and ghastly pursuers, exists in some respects as an attempt to wrestle The Shining back from Kubrick’s dominant influence. And that’s the way writer-director Mike Flanagan’s film of Doctor Sleep feels too, up to a point. Flanagan, who directed competent, occasionally inspired horror pictures like Hush, Oculus and Ouija: Origin of Evil  before making a terrific film out of King’s ostensibly unfilmable, interior-based nightmare Gerald’s Game, has an unhurried style that gives Doctor Sleep a weird mix of urgency and, if not outright somnambulism, then at least a deliberate pace that might, for some, be as off-putting as Kubrick’s intellectual dithering is for me. 

The movie establishes the Kubrick connection early on in scenes with Wendy (Alex Essoe, the lead in 2014’s Starry Eyes, who is made to resemble and sound like Shelley Duvall’s Wendy to an almost disturbing degree) and young Danny in the days and months immediately following their traumatic escape from the Overlook Hotel. But young, traumatized Danny becomes older, still traumatized, still shining Danny (Ewan McGregor), who soaks his adulthood in alcohol-and-drug-fueled fury as he attempts to flee the supernatural demons still nipping at his heels, and Flanagan’s movie begins to find its own , oddly inflected rhythms and timber. 

Danny eventually establishes a connection with a young girl, Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran), who shines brighter and stronger than Danny ever did, and the two of them end up the focus of a cult of psychic energy-absorbing vampires led by the seductive Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson, in top form), a pursuit which will ultimately end at the entrance to a dark, forbidding place that Danny would rather remain in his past. In what is probably Doctor Sleep’s most impressive and lyrically sustained set piece, Rose projects herself across the country in search of signs of Abra’s supernaturally potent psychic signal, and Flanagan visualizes that projection as an eerily beautiful nocturnal journey through the clouds along the visible curve of the planet’s surface, until Rose finds what she came for and ends up hurtling backward toward her original point of departure, dazed and confused and genuinely threatened, and more furious at Abra’s superior power over her own than ever before. It’s a genuinely unsettling moment in the middle of a picture which has no shortage of rhythmically distinct sequences capable of producing the sort of pleasurable dread found wanting in the average modern American horror film.

The first two-thirds of Doctor Sleep feel like the product of an original sensibility, which in this day and age might be enough to land it in murky waters, commercially speaking. But in the final third, Flanagan, apparently pursued by the sinister pull of the Overlook Hotel himself, can no longer avoid Kubrick’s influence and, as if by either studio mandate or a crushing sense of inevitability, the movie becomes a sort of greatest-hits recap of the 1980 film’s designs, strategies and visual motifs, with all your favorite weirdo Overlook party guests popping in to repeat their most famous quips. If, in 1980, you loved the man in the tux hoisting a drink and intoning “Great party, isn’t it?” while blood from his forehead threatens to drip into his tumbler, Flanagan is hoping you’ll love it again here. And, yes, the little girl twins, that bleedin’ elevator, and especially the old naked crone from Room 237 all appear and reappear to ever diminishing effect. Even Jack Torrance himself pops in for some fun, though this time from the other side of the Gold Room bar—no, Nicholson doesn’t make a digitally de-aged cameo, but you might be surprised, as I was, about who has been recruited to step into his loafers. (Check the end credits.) They all add up to a whole bunch of stunts that ended up throwing me out of the movie emotionally, even if the narrative hadn’t already begun to fizzle, as King’s climactic confrontations often do, all on its own.

There’s a lot to like in Doctor Sleep, and for a 151-minute movie that hasn’t been edited and assembled to current industry standards of predictable beats and jump scares, it doesn’t feel flabby or overstuffed… until that third act, when the ritual bowing and genuflecting to Kubrick’s entirely arguable “masterpiece” replaces the clever nods to its enduring presence that have populated its shivers up to that point. Clearly, in the universe of the movies it’s Kubrick’s vision that holds dominion over King’s, whether the original author or the audience likes it or not. It’s just a shame that in the pursuit of something more original, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep takes a path not unlike that of a nightclub performer doing an impression of, say, 1980-vintage Jack Nicholson, and along the way ends up losing its own voice.


Sunday, October 27, 2019


“One of us! One of us!”

That three-word mantra is, of course, the perversely welcoming chant offered by Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) as the titular group of circus performers, trodden-on by fate and circumstances but also proud and protective of their community, bring a distinctly unwilling new member into their fold. The movie is perhaps the most singular declaration of unity in the history of the horror film, and over the years that chant has become shorthand among horror aficionados, perhaps popularized during the generational influence of Forrest J. Ackerman and his labor of love, Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, for identifying and accepting not only those who were different, who were misfits, but specifically those who grew up loving the world of monsters and classic horror and felt they were, at least initially, alone in that love.

A significantly more benign frequency of that cry can be heard at the beating heart of a new children’s book, Maury the Miserable Vampire, written by Jeff Roland and illustrated by Adamah Vanarsdale, a delightful allegorical tome for tots and their parents who would seek entrance into the world of classic monsters in the most inclusionary and empathetic manner possible.

Maury is a vampire whose experience with being undead, despite the outward appearances (fangs, cape, a coffin for a bed, an eerie castle on the hill for a home), has, in Roland’s conception, less to do with leeching the life from unsuspecting victims a la Lugosi and Lee and more to do with the existential isolation of the vampires in Jim Jarmusch’s exquisite Only Lovers Left Alive, in which those cursed by immortality must face a future of endless time essentially alone, carried by the tide of time while all else inevitably becomes history, tethered to mortality. If that sounds a bit heady for a book aimed at kids just learning to read, well, it probably is. But in Maury, Roland envisions a vampire whose perpetual existence is defined not by his desire for blood, but by his at first latent desire for a connection to others who might understand his feelings, his interests, his needs—someone, in other words, to talk to, to share with. The author assumes, and rightly so, that an age-appropriate introduction to all the other good stuff that turned him and countless others into fans of the horror genre will all come in good time.

But for now, what Maury really needs more than a plasma cocktail is a friend, and he finds one in Barry the bat, who comes to the window of Maury’s castle one dark night (presumably invited in) and becomes a friend, caretaker, and especially a sounding board for our pessimistic protagonist. Barry has, it seems, an inexhaustible capacity for listening to Maury’s complaints about his life and the world; he is, as Roland writes, “exactly the kind of friend most people would want,” even if Maury himself doesn’t exactly return the favor.

One evening Maury, expecting Barry to lift his coffin lid and greet him into another dark night, finds that his companion is nowhere to be found. Once again faced with the prospect of wandering through a dank and vast castle of loneliness all by himself, the agoraphobically inclined vampire reluctantly leaves his home in search of his only pal. Upon exit from behind the castle walls, he is of course greeted by a mob outside his door. But this mob isn’t bearing torches and demanding justice. Instead, they’re a group of children who can always be found parked at the foot of the hill beneath Maury’s gothic digs, offering an imploring message of friendship which Maury has always fearfully ignored. He trips down the steps, humiliating himself in front of the gathering of mortals, and flees, thus beginning a globetrotting adventure in which Maury hopes to find Barry, to be reunited with the one soul who seems to understand him, to really care about him.

Roland and illustrator Vanarsdale provide plenty of evocative, but pleasingly rounded and kid-friendly images of the monsterverse through which the miserable vampire will travel, and they approach Maury’s quest with lots of good humor and empathy. As Maury searches for his pal, he discovers a world he had no idea existed, one populated by mummies, werewolves and witches, all of whom help him in his purpose and guide him toward a better understanding of cooperation, empathy and, perhaps most importantly, how not alone in the world he really is. This is a message that will resonate with anyone, but perhaps especially young, nascent horror fans, as well as those of us who started out believing our love of monsters and horror was what separated us from all the “normal” folks and who discovered an entire world of kindred spirits through the auspices of Ackerman, Famous Monsters, favorite horror movie TV hosts and, later, Fangoria and other dedicated periodicals and websites worshipped by self-proclaimed weirdos.

And the author and artist quite literally provide maps detailing Maury’s discovery of that world which punctuate the tale with wit as the distraught vampire crisscrosses the globe in pursuit of his lost buddy. The maps begin by marking the continents with relief descriptors of some of the more earthbound horrors one might encounter on a journey around the world—“PIRANHAS” tattooed on the South American jungle, “SCORPIONS” over Eastern Europe, “UNCLE VLAD” set upon Romania and, presumably in a nod to the Silent Night, Deadly Night franchise, “SANTA CLAUS” over the North Pole. 

But as each new map appears, the locations of more transcendent monsters begin dotting Vanarsdale’s global landscape, detailing where one might encounter “NESSIE,” “YETI,” “SASQUATCH,” “SEWER GATORS,” and “MOVIE MONSTERS” (in the Southwestern portion of the United States, of course). The effect of these maps, beyond their comedic value, of course, is to unify Maury’s world and illustrate it as more far-reaching in its capacity for containing monsters, benign and otherwise, than a cloistered denizen of the land of the undead might have previously imagined. And it bolsters Roland’s point that for those looking for unity and companionship within the world of horror fandom, and in the world at large, one need not feel for long like a freakish outcast, that sympathetic souls (and even the soulless) are out there waiting for those who might be seeking them.

It will comes as no surprise that Maury’s nocturnal pursuit of his missing friend works out for the best—Roland, as many horror dads and moms I know, eventually found his own way toward the community of like-minded genre aficionados, and he infuses that spirit of the fulfillment of discovery into the conclusion of his tale. It all ends with a big monster party, one that includes even the aforementioned and decidedly non-monsterish mob gathered outside Maury’s castle digs, that will look like a top-notch Halloween party to the old as well as the young. The long-shot celebratory illustration in Maury even rather reminded me of a similar and cherished image from one of my own childhood favorites, the climactic party scene from P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog, Go, and Vanarsdale’s teeming tableau is packed with similarly delightful details, of mortal and undead guests intermingling with glee and humor.

There’s even a cameo appearance by Roland’s toddler daughter at that monster party—my daughter and I met them both for the first time this past summer while standing in line to see King Kong vs. Godzilla at the Vista, a storied Los Angeles movie theater. Little Ms. Roland was dressed as a tiny Godzilla and approached us with warmth and eagerness, proving that Roland, like a genuinely good horror dad, practices what he preaches and can see it blossoming in the way his own child embraces not only the world of monsters, but the world as a whole.

Just in time for Halloween, and for all seasons beyond, Maury, the Miserable Vampire is a charming tale that will satisfy toddlers, young readers, and even the parents who will likely find themselves reading it to their children before bedtime. In fact, the only solid complaint I have about this lovely little volume is that Roland didn’t concoct it 15 or so years earlier, so I might have read it to my own kids before sleep on a dark and stormy night. 


(Maury the Miserable Vampire is on its fourth printing as a traditionally bound book, and this Monday, Oct. 28, Roland is launching the digital e-book version, usable on any device that can display a PDF. That digital version, as well as the physical book and a whole coffin-load of Maurymerch (T-shirts in kids and adult sizes, shopping bags, coffee cups, et al) are available now at the Maury the Miserable Vampire website.)  


Sunday, October 13, 2019

ROBERT FORSTER 1941 - 2019

By all accounts, at least the ones I’ve heard, leading man/character actor Robert Forster, who passed away this weekend, was, despite his tough exterior, an unfailingly polite and exceedingly nice guy who betrayed not an ounce of Hollywood pretense and would engage with fans who approached him, on the street or at the movies he loved to attend, with sincerity, humor and, surely, patience. It’s a measure of just how much he meant to those of us who love movies that the social media outpouring of grief upon the announcement of his death, and the stories from those who were lucky enough to encounter him in the real world, was fairly overwhelming, especially for someone who was never a marquee player with the sort of worldwide stardom which demands an involuntary giving-over of a huge chunk of one’s life to an audience and media swarm who slavishly follow, worship, and occasionally torture their beloveds. And that ease with people, that patience and politeness, that genuine impulse to engage with his fellow actors and humans, were not qualities that were smothered by the smooth, stoic exterior he projected on screen.

Robert Forster was an actor who worked consistently, yet perhaps apart from his work with Quentin Tarantino or Haskell Wexler he never got the sort of roles he deserved, and he was one whose appeal endured despite the fact that he was never a box-office draw, the reason a mass audience left their houses and headed to their neighborhood movie theater.  He projected seriousness, implacability, and a measured intolerance for bullshit in his roles that would occasionally break down, but never fully explode into fits of “Look, Ma, I’m acting!” histrionics. For instance, in what turned out to be his signature role in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown  (1997), Forster, in a career moment when most actors would flail for attention, delivered one of his most affecting and interior performances. You never doubted that when Max Cherry needed to put the pressure on an offender operating outside the limits of his bond, he could and would turn on the physical pressure. (He was, after all, well acquainted with the proper use of a stun gun.) But beneath Cherry’s patient resolve lay the inherent humanism that allowed him to function in his profession without becoming an automaton, that allowed him to sense that his attraction to Jackie (Pam Grier) went beyond his appreciation of her physical beauty. He delivered strength, compassion and humor in a performance in which he allowed access to depths of vulnerability without ever sacrificing that sense of toughness and resolve that were hallmarks of the performances he gave in less-celebrated projects, ones that were often far less well written and conceived.

And he had, at least among the ranks of Hollywood actors, a unique way of undercutting his own vanity. In tribute to Forster, last night I watched Jackie Brown and then followed it up with a screening of Alligator (1980), a snappy, low-budget B-picture Jaws knockoff (written by John Sayles and directed by Lewis Teague) that achieves an almost perfect equilibrium between smart and silly. And in watching them together, among the many things there are to admire, I was struck by how both movies managed to make a commentary on the actor’s personal attempt to battle male pattern baldness with hair plugs part of the foundation of the characters he plays. In Jackie Brown, there’s a lovely scene midway through in which the 56-year-old Max, having come to Jackie’s apartment the morning after he’s delivered her from jail to retrieve a gun she stole from his car, casually talks with Jackie about aging. Max admits, with little fanfare and even less worry about how it’ll make him look in her eyes, that years before he saw his hairline beginning to creep back, decided to do something about it, and was glad he did because it allowed him to see himself in the mirror again. And almost as soon as the notion is introduced into the subtext of the film, it’s never mentioned again. 

Seventeen years earlier, when Forster was in his early 30s and implementing hair plug treatments for himself, he, Sayles and Teague put the procedure front and center in Forster’s character, allowing Forster to showcase his lack of embarrassment, but also use his character’s attempts to rectify his receding hairline as a visual signature of his own insecurity as a cop implicated in the loss of one partner in the past who will lose another before the movie ends. For someone engaged in a procedure usually received as an indication of laughable self-regard (“They’ll never notice, and I’ll look 20 years younger!”), Forster’s enthusiasm for using what was obviously going on in his life as part of his work, right beside a refusal to make excuses for it, puts him in a pretty rarefied place in the annals of Hollywood film when it comes to male actors and how they deal with the image that will forever be their bread and butter.

When I heard of Forster’s passing at age 78 (he was the same age as my own parents are now) I was saddened, of course. Then I started thinking about how much I enjoyed in the short-lived Quinn Martin TV series Banyon (1972-73), in which Forster played a hard-boiled Los Angeles detective in the 1930s. (Tarantino has cited his love of the show as one pf the primary reasons why he was moved to cast Forster as Max Cherry.) I knew of Medium Cool  for years before I ever saw it—it was one of only two officially X-rated features (the other was The Best House in London) to play in my hometown movie theater. And when I finally did see it I was impressed by how well this actor, who I knew primarily from his more expected turn as Banyon, fit into Haskell Wexler’s more naturalistic mise-en-scène (including full-frontal nudity), which would eventually find Forster and company shooting on the run as history began exploding all around them at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Forster is also great in the opening (it’s his only moment) of a so-so western called Damsel (2018), worth a look, but almost entirely for the stoic implacability Forster brings to the role of a disillusioned man of the cloth faced with defeat and the endless desert. He provides the film a haunting beginning that it never lives up to. 

Oh, yeah, and he was also quietly moving in Twin Peaks: The Return as mournful Sheriff Frank Truman, brother of the mysterious absent Sheriff Harry Truman (once played by Michael Ontkean). If you haven’t seen him in Michael Schlesinger's wonderful Biffle and Shooster short "The Biffle Murder Case," flexing his deadpan comedy muscles, you really must. And in the wake of Forster’s passing, I have heard from reliable sources that his performances in films as varied as Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1968), Noel Black’s Cover Me, Babe (1970), George Cukor’s Justine (1970), Richard Fleischer’s The Don is Dead  (1972) and Joe Mantegna’s Lakeboat (2000) are all worth pursuing. They  are now, for me, subjects for further investigation. The end result of all this memory and recommendation may be that I’ve realized I’m going to miss Robert Forster far more than I ever realized I would.

But for many who were lucky enough to meet him and talk with him, it’ll be Forster the man as much as Forster the actor who will be missed. My friend, film historian Richard Harland Smith, told a story upon hearing of his passing about encountering Robert Forster in the wilds of the Hollywood Hills, and he’s given me permission to retell it here. Here’s what Richard wrote:

“I met Robert Forster once, maybe five years ago. My wife and I had taken the kids to the Hollywood Reservoir to ride their bikes and just as we started on the trail he was there, walking alone and reading a script out loud. I don’t approach celebrities, I just don’t, so he must have said something to me, probably just a friendly hello. With the ice broken, I mentioned that he had made a movie years ago with a friend of mine, Victor Argo. He admitted that he didn’t really remember working together but asked if he was still around, and I told him that Vic had died in 2004 but that our son was named after him. Forster made a point of coming over to meet Li’l Vic and saying hello to the family. We spent a couple of minutes talking, he talked a little bit about the script he was reading, and while we were standing there some folks came by on Segways and offered to let us ride them. Forster and I declined, politely, but then he asked a couple of questions about them and the offer was repeated so he said, “Ah, what the hell,” hopped on, got the hang of it, and rolled around a little bit on one. I got a kick out of his enjoyment of the experience and walked away touched by his humility and generosity. He was a good fella.”

I’d like to think it’s the spirit of adventure, of “What the hell!” that was an inextricable part of what Robert Forster brought to his roles, great and not-so-great, that will be what people remember, that is what they are missing as much as the performances themselves as they think about him being gone. It’s that “What the hell!” that characterizes Max Cherry going out to buy a cassette of some unfamiliar music recommended to him by Jackie Brown, popping the cassette in his car stereo, and tentatively beginning to move his lips in rhythm with the lyrics. I’d also like to think that somewhere in the world right now someone’s playing the Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time?” either in tribute to Forster, or just because they love it, and that somewhere else, far, far away, Robert Forster is still listening and singing along.


And speaking of alligators (we were, only a few paragraphs ago, remember?), nine out of ten dieticians would probably agree that I didn't need to buy a medium popcorn on my way in to see Crawl when I saw it in a theater. But it was a fortuitous purchase, because after polishing off about a third of the contents I lost the urge to munch, and that newly cleared empty space inside turned out to be a good place to hide. With the bag placed over my face, the occasional scream that erupted from this 59-year-old was conveniently absorbed too. All of which is my way of saying that I thought Crawl was just about as grueling, claustrophobic, gory, snark-free, gator-phobic fun as it could have possibly been. And given the price I paid to see it on a big screen ($2.50, not including that medium popcorn), it's probably gonna turn out to be the movie bargain of the year for me too.

I really appreciated the movie's smash-and-grab efficiency-- the expertly paced scares come on schedule, but their timing is expert too, and almost always off the beat enough to make you hit the deck even if you think you know what's coming-- but also its surprising humanism. Gone is the rampant misanthropy of much of director Alexandre Aja's oeuvre, and in its place I was relieved to discover a well-established father-daughter dynamic that ends up generating some honestly earned emotion and providing a solid foundation for all the cleverly paced and choreographed chomp-chomp thrills. As a bonus, the context of thhe oncreased fireceness of Mother Nature, and man's lack of control in the face of it, is relatively sly, and it places Crawl within an admirable tradition of horror films which address the real-world fears of their audience with almost subliminal, yet palpable fury.

But it's the fear of nature-- gators and, of course, hurricanes-- that you come for, and the barely-90-minute-long Crawl comes at you like a sleek fright machine that resists every temptation a lesser thriller might have to insult your intelligence. It's Jaws set in the flooding crawlspace of an old dark house, every bit as much unnerving fun as that description implies, and it joins The Prodigy and Us as one of my fvorite horror movies-- in fact, one of my favorite movies, period-- of the year so far. Crawl arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming this week, and my sincere recommendation is that you hit all the lights, make yiour house as dark and scary as it can be, sit back and get your scare on. It won't be the same experience as seeing it in a theater, but the movie will rattle you, I've no doubt. And don't forget the big bag of popcorn if you want to keep your screaming to yourself. See ya later (this week), alligator!