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2017-09-30 08:35 am

Film Writing, July-September 2017

Apart from my Letterboxd and Twitter accounts, where I post daily (even if the latter feels more and more like I'm sending my 140-character missives off into the howling void), Crooked Marquee continues to be the main outlet for my film writing. To that end, I took a deep dive into the shifting group and power dynamics in Miguel Arteta and Mike White's Beatriz at Dinner.

Next, I turned my attention to "Hollywood's Proud Tradition of Mocking White Supremacists" -- a piece that was most cathartic to write.

Lastly, I marked the tenth anniversary of David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises with a close examination of it most revealing scene. And I've got two more pieces in the pipeline next month, so keep an eye out for them.

Meanwhile, for Werewolf News I covered Arrow's splendid release of 1975's Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope, the less-than-impressive Skinwalkers, and the 1972 TV movie Moon of the Wolf.
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2017-07-01 11:00 pm

Tell you what, 2017, I'll meet you halfway...

After writing for Crooked Scoreboard sporadically for the first few months of the year, I pitched my editor a five-article series covering the career of Michael Bay, a filmmaker whose work I had managed to avoid up until then. To my dismay he went for the idea, and thus the Michael Baywatch was born. Part I: Humble Beginnings takes in Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon. Part II: Sneak Attacks encompasses Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II, and The Island. Part III: Transform and Roll in the Dough covers the first three Transformers movies. Part IV: Gains and Losses goes from Pain & Gain to 13 Hours. And it all wraps up with my review of Transformers: The Last Knight, the last Michael Bay movie I ever plan on watching.

I also reviewed for Werewolf News 2014's Bubba the Redneck Werewolf, which is not the last werewolf movie I ever plan on watching.
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2017-05-11 11:00 am

Summer's almost here and the time is right...

...for a roundup of my writing for various websites over the past few months.

Working backwards, yesterday was a big one werewolf-wise thanks to the publication of Werewolves Versus Fascism, in which I have a short piece illustrated by my good friend K. Pease. The whole zine can cost you as little as $1 and it's for a good cause because all proceeds will benefit the Southern Poverty Law Center. I also reviewed The Werewolf Filmography: 300+ Movies by Bryan Senn. This was in lieu of my regular Full Moon Features column for Werewolf News, which so far this year has seen me tackle Neowolf, 2014's Beauty and the Beast, and the Ginger Snaps prequel and sequel.

Earlier this month, I Ran the Series of '60s Christopher Lee-starring Fu Manchu movies for The A.V. Club. This was my second Run the Series article for the site following the one I did on The Howling last summer. With luck, it won't be my last.

In the meantime, I've been steadily contributing articles to Crooked Scoreboard, starting with my appraisal of Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy on the occasion of its 20th anniversary. My other articles for the site include Bloody Valentines: 14 Blood-Soaked and Testosterone-Fueled St. Valentine’s Day Massacres, a roundup of Zodiac Killer Movies written in tandem with the tenth anniversary of David Fincher's Zodiac, and a tenth-anniversary appreciation of Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz. And I have a major project in the hopper that will keep me up on the Scoreboard for the next month and a half.

Lastly, for Oscilloscope Laboratories' Musings, I wrote In The Loneliest Place: The Allure Of The Homme Fatale In ‘Stranger By The Lake’, which links that film to Nicholas Ray's seminal noir In a Lonely Place. As always, a pleasure to write for them.
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2015-09-17 12:00 pm

Criterion Blu-ray Review: Island Of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932)

[Note: This piece was first published by One Perfect Shot in 2015.]

By all accounts, author H.G. Wells was appalled by 1932’s Island Of Lost Souls, the first official screen adaptation of his 1896 novel The Island Of Dr. Moreau, and he wasn’t the only one. Denied a certificate in England, it went unreleased there until 1958, and since the Production Code wasn’t yet being enforced, state censors took it upon themselves to removes scenes and dialogue they considered offensive or blasphemous. (And since the film is a brisk 70 minutes as it is, these cuts shortchanged ticket-buyers in more ways than one.) Funny how a science-fiction story that was intended to be read as an anti-vivisection tract was itself cut to ribbons by those unwilling to accept it in its altered form.

Part of the horror boom that followed in the wake of Universal’s twin successes with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, Island Of Lost Souls was one of Paramount’s fleeting forays into the genre. Directed by journeyman Erle C. Kenton, who went on to helm some of Universal’s monster mash-ups one decade later, this was a useful training ground for him since it features a menagerie of all kinds of beast men, many of which boast makeups that continue to impress today. As genre expert and noted “gorilla guy” Bob Burns says in one of the featurettes included on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray, “You bought these guys as real animal men.” High praise, indeed.

A film can have the greatest makeup effects in the world and still be unwatchable, though, if the writing and acting aren’t up to snuff, as was the case with subsequent attempts to bring Wells’s story to the big screen. (Richard Stanley, the original director of the infamous 1996 remake, channeled his disappointment with the creature effects in Don Taylor’s 1977 version into his own take on the story, the tortured production history of which he recounts in an interview that is essentially a capsule version of the 2014 documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey Of Richard Stanley's Island Of Dr. Moreau.) Island Of Lost Souls, on the other paw, excels in all departments, telling a streamlined version of the novel that barely pauses to catch its breath once shipwrecked traveler Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is deposited on the uncharted island where preeminent mad scientist Moreau (Charles Laughton, delivering a subtly sinister performance) has been carrying out his obscene experiments far away from prying eyes and the disapproval of the scientific establishment.

For the most part, what goes on in the House of Pain is kept from the viewer’s eyes as well. We just see the pitiable results of Moreau’s meddling with nature, from the hirsute Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi, bringing an innate dignity to the role) to the alluring Lota, the Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), described by Moreau as “a pure Polynesian” to Parker, with whom he hopes she’ll mate. Needless to say, that wouldn’t sit well with Parker’s fiancée, Ruth (Leila Hyams, late of Tod Browning’s Freaks), who charters a boat to find him, accompanied by an intrepid sea captain who isn’t just whistling “Dixie” when he says you can “see some funny sights in these islands.”

Thanks to Criterion’s restoration of the uncut theatrical version of the film, it’s possible to see those “funny sights” more clearly than ever before. Co-winner of the first Best Cinematography Oscar (for F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans, shared with Charles Rosher), director of photography Karl Struss accentuates the menace lurking around every corner and behind every tree on the titular island, whether he’s shooting interiors at the mad doctor’s walled-in compound or exteriors at the torch-lit encampment inhabited by his abominable creations. It’s in the latter scenes that Island Of Lost Souls earns its place in the cinematic pantheon since the call-and-response between the whip-wielding Moreau and the Sayer of the Law (“What is the law?” “Not to go on all fours. That is the law. Are we not men?”) is as frankly disturbing as the title characters’ chant after the wedding of Hans and Cleopatra in Freaks. (Moreau’s gruesome -– albeit unseen –- fate in the House of Pain is also reminiscent of the rough justice Cleopatra experiences at the hands of the freaks she unwisely derided.) Once the Production Code Administration got its act together and started cracking down on the studios in 1934, American horror films became a lot less interesting.

Special Features:

In addition to Richard Stanley and Bob Burns (who’s part of a roundtable discussion with John Landis and fellow “gorilla guy” Rick Baker), Criterion’s stellar release of Island Of Lost Souls is supplemented by interviews with film historian David J. Skal, author of The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror, and Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, who discuss the film’s importance to the development of the band’s mythology. Also included is Devo’s 1976 short film In The Beginning Was The End: The Truth About De-Evolution and a gallery of production stills. The best feature, though, is the commentary by historian Gregory Mank, who cheerfully makes note of every last cut that was made in the film. Much like the beast flesh that bedevils Moreau, though, it always creeps back.
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2015-08-11 12:00 pm

Criterion Blu-ray Review: Don't Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973)

[Note: This piece was first published by One Perfect Shot in 2015.]

Renowned British cameraman-turned-director Nicolas Roeg’s relationship with the Criterion Collection has been longstanding and fruitful for both parties. Not only did the company release two of his seminal films –- 1971’s Walkabout and 1976’s The Man Who Fell To Earth –- on laserdisc, but Walkabout was one of the very first DVDs Criterion put out in 1998, getting spine number 10. Seven years later, it was joined on DVD by The Man Who Fell To Earth and 1980’s Bad Timing, a film that would have likely languished in limbo without their intervention. Blu-ray upgrades for The Man Who Fell To Earth and Walkabout followed, with the addition of 1985’s Insignificance in 2011. That left two gaps in Roeg’s filmography, one of which Criterion filled this year by bringing back into print his 1973 masterpiece Don't Look Now, previously only available in the States on a bare-bones DVD from Paramount. (If the original director’s cut of 1983’s Eureka could be reconstructed, that would finish the job, but no one should hold their breath waiting for that to happen.)

Based on a story by Daphne Du Maurier (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, The Birds), Don't Look Now takes full advantage of the fractured editing style that had been a hallmark of Roeg’s features starting with 1970’s Performance, co-directed with Donald Cammell. In spite of its heavy use of flash-forwards, flashbacks, and seemingly unconnected inserts, though, Don't Look Now is Roeg at his most accessible. What grounds it are the performances of Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as Laura and John Baxter, a married couple reeling from the aftershocks of the death of their daughter Christine (seen in gut-wrenching detail in the film’s bravura opening sequence) while he’s in Venice overseeing the restoration of one of its many crumbling churches. While John buries himself in his work (indeed, he was researching the very job he’s on the day Christine drowned), Laura finds comfort in the words of Heather (Hilary Mason), a blind psychic passing through Venice with her sister Wendy (Clelia Matania) that they meet by chance –- or is there such a thing in Roeg’s universe?

Scattered throughout the film, which is chock full of mirrors, reflections, visual rhymes, and recurring images of water and breaking glass, are glimpses of a figure in a red raincoat similar to the one Christine was wearing the day she drowned. Since the color scheme -– dutifully captured by cinematographer Anthony Richmond -– is otherwise severely muted, these flashes of red (usually accompanied by a synthesizer flourish from first-time composer Pino Donaggio) never fail to catch the eye, putting the viewer on the alert even if John (a born skeptic) is unaware of the danger he’s putting himself in by ignoring Heather’s warning and staying in Venice, which has been experiencing a plague of unsolved murders. This is exacerbated when the Baxters’ son has an accident at boarding school and Laura flies to England without John, yet is seen by him in the company of the two sisters later that same day. In search of answers, John turns to the police, who are as helpful as they generally are in the giallo films Don't Look Now shares some of its DNA with, leaving him vulnerable to the forces he’s been denying all along –- including his own, underdeveloped second sight.

Above and beyond everything else –- including simultaneously being a chilling horror film and a startlingly effective portrayal of the long-term effects of grief and loss –- Don't Look Now’s main claim to fame is the sequence where Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford intercut John and Laura making love with the two of them getting dressed afterward, silently contemplating the connection they’ve just made. As Steven Soderbergh notes on one of the Blu-ray’s bonus features, it’s an idea he lifted wholesale for a similar scene in his film Out Of Sight, just as many other filmmakers have nicked things from Roeg’s films over the years. What allows Don't Look Now to hold up today is that even 42 years on, it still feels as bold and original as it ever did.

Special Features:

In lieu of the commentaries that graced Walkabout and The Man Who Fell To Earth, Don't Look Now is stocked with a wide range of interviews and video pieces. These include a featurette produced for Blue Underground in 2002 where Roeg, Richmond, and Clifford talk about the development of the film, and an interview from 2006 with Donaggio, who turned to film composing full-time after his melancholy score found its way to Brian De Palma while he was looking for a replacement for the late Bernard Herrmann on Carrie. Exclusive to Criterion’s package are a new piece featuring interviews with Richmond, screenwriter Allan Scott, and Christie and Sutherland, both of whom look back fondly on the experience of making the film, a post-screening Q&A with Roeg from 2003, and the aforementioned piece in which Soderbergh and Danny Boyle talk about his influence on them. The highlight, however, is the lively conversation between Clifford and film historian Bobbie O’Steen, which is illustrated by copious clips from the film. “Nick likes brave choices,” Clifford says. “He likes things to be unusual.” Happily, there was a window of about a decade where the things he found unusual had enough of an audience that he could keep looking for them.
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2015-07-30 12:00 pm

Criterion Blu-ray Review: Le Silence De La Mer (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1959)

[Note: This piece was first published by One Perfect Shot in 2015.]

A full decade before the writers of Cahiers du cinéma picked up movie cameras and started making features on the streets and in the cafés of Paris, a former member of the French Resistance who took the nom de guerre Jean-Pierre Melville (after American novelist Herman Melville) and decided to keep it showed how it was possible to work outside the entrenched French film industry. His proof of concept was Le Silence De La Mer, released in 1949 and based on the 1942 novel by Vercors, which had been clandestinely printed and circulated throughout occupied France. When Vercors declined to give Melville the film rights, though, the determined director went ahead and made the film anyway, arranging to show it to the author after it was completed. The gamble paid off when Vercors retroactively gave his consent and Le Silence was allowed to be distributed, making Melville’s name and reputation in the process.

Minimalist nearly to the point of abstraction, the film starts enigmatically with a secret rendezvous between two Resistance fighters, with one of the items handed off being a copy of Vercors’s book. The story itself plays out in flashback as its unnamed narrator, an old man convincingly played by thirtysomething actor Jean-Marie Robain, recalls the six months he and his niece (Nicole Stéphane) were forced to play host to a German officer in their farmhouse. This would be sufficiently distressing if the Nazi were an abusive bully, but from the moment he introduces himself, Lt. Werner von Ebrennac (Howard Vernon) is unfailingly polite, apologetic, and understanding, even as the old man and his niece give him the silent treatment. At the conclusion each of his visits to their library, where he typically finds the old man puffing away at a pipe and his niece intent on her knitting, the lieutenant always says, “I bid you good night,” fully aware he’ll never have a welcome to outstay, but respectful nonetheless.

As the days and weeks wear on, Ebrennac becomes more comfortable with his one-sided conversations, even going so far as to change into his civilian clothes to put his hosts at ease. Expounding on his love of French culture (before the war, he reveals, he was a composer), he looks forward to the day their two countries are “married” and looks meaningfully at the niece when he retells the story of Beauty and the Beast, which Jean Cocteau had put his indelible stamp on the year before cameras rolled on Le Silence. (It’s fitting, then, that Melville’s next feature was an adaptation of Cocteau’s novel Les Enfants Terribles, which also starred Stéphane.)

For a debut feature made piecemeal over the course of a year and a half –- Melville could only raise the money to shoot for a day or two at a time -– Le Silence is remarkably assured. A lot of the credit for this goes to cinematographer Henri Decaë, who went on to photograph several of Melville’s subsequent films as well as such foundational Nouvelle Vague entries as Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and The Lovers, Claude Chabrol’s Le Beau Serge and Les Cousins, and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Utilizing stark lighting and harsh shadows –- a look Melville gleaned from the contemporary American films he got to see in London earlier in the decade –- Decaë’s work on Le Silence lends each interior scene a brooding intensity that belies the casual nature of the characters’ interactions. No matter how cultured and well-intentioned Ebrennac may be, the brutality his fellow countrymen are capable of –- a reality he comes face to face with when he travels to Paris to witness France and Germany’s “wedding” –- reveals how much he’s been blinded by his own romantic notions about the war. Earlier, he had said to his hosts, “We must conquer this silence, conquer the silence of France.” As history bore out, though, France wouldn’t remain silent for long, and thanks to the efforts of Melville, Vercors, and many others, its cultural heritage would remain in place for decades to come.

Special Features:

As is frequently the case with Criterion, its release of Le Silence De La Mer is rife with extras that do a masterful job of putting it in context. Foremost among them is Melville’s rarely seen first film, an 18-minute short from 1946 entitled 24 Hours In The Life Of A Clown, along with a brief interview with the director from 1959 in which he discusses Le Silence’s genesis. This is also covered in detail in a new interview with film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, who has contributed commentaries and interviews to Criterion’s releases of a number of Melville’s other films, and the 42-minute documentary Melville Steps Out Of The Shadows from 2010. The package’s centerpiece, however, is the feature-length documentary Code Name Melville. Made in 2008 for French television, it delves into Melville’s war record and the long shadow it cast over his subsequent career, as well as his continuing influence on the filmmakers who came after him. To quote Hong Kong action director Johnnie To, “Even unconsciously, his films stay in our heads.”
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2015-07-24 12:00 pm

Criterion Blu-ray Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)

[Note: This piece was first published by One Perfect Shot in 2015, but since the reviews I wrote for that site disappeared into the ether not long after it was bought by Film School Rejects, I will be re-posting them here.]

For many a budding cinephile, the cornerstones of ’50s European arthouse cinema can seem forbidding, if not unapproachable. Whether they’re Italian neorealist classics like Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. and Federico Fellini’s La Strada or weighty existential dramas like Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries -- all of which have been doubly canonized by their inclusion in the Criterion Collection –- some films are intimidating simply because of the decades of baggage they’re loading down with. The most daunting one of all, however, may be 1959’s Hiroshima Mon Amour, which Criterion has given a Blu-ray upgrade just in time for the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, which helped bring the Second World War to a swift conclusion.

The debut feature for director Alain Resnais, although it wasn’t originally intended to be, Hiroshima Mon Amour began life as a documentary short about the atomic bomb, which had triggered a bevy of nuclear-anxiety films –- ranging from sober nonfiction treatments to sci-fi/horror quickies –- over the previous decade. After burning through a number of potential collaborators, including fellow Left Bank documentarian Chris Marker, Resnais eventually approached novelist Margeurite Duras and proposed moving the bomb to the background of a work of fiction, making it ever-present in the characters’ lives but no longer the primary subject. She responded with an enigmatic love story between a French actress and a Japanese architect who have an affair while she’s in Hiroshima to shoot an anti-war film and pack a lifetime of passion into the scant 24 hours before her departure.

Never identified by name, the actress and architect are played by relative newcomer Emmanuelle Riva, who had primarily been a stage actress, and Eiji Okada, who had been acting in films -– including a 1953 Japanese drama simply entitled Hiroshima -– since the beginning of the decade. Making an indelible impression in her first leading role, Riva –- recently a Best Actress nominee at the Academy Awards for 2012’s Amour -– brings a haunted quality to her performance as the time she spends with her new lover gives her fleeting reminders of her first, forbidden love with a young German soldier she planned to elope with as the war in Europe drew to a close. For his part, Okada is mostly impassive, a man defined not by where he was when Little Boy was dropped on his hometown (i.e. somewhere in the Pacific fighting the Allies), but rather by where he wasn’t.

Before the audience is introduced to them as individuals, Resnais shows Riva and Okada embracing in extreme close-up, the specter of nuclear fallout conjured up by the glittery dust they’re showered with. The first 15 minutes of the film juxtaposes these images of their sweaty, groping bodies with elegant gliding shots captured by Resnais’s Japanese cinematographer, Takahashi Mikio, in a Hiroshima hospital and war museum, as well as harrowing scenes culled from vintage newsreels and the 1952 drama Children Of Hiroshima. Following Duras’s Oscar-nominated screenplay to the letter, these are overlaid with the lovers’ disembodied voices as Riva recites what she knows about the city and Okada repeatedly rebuffs her, saying, “You saw nothing in Hiroshima. Nothing.” These sorts of echoes and repetitions recur throughout the film, even when it becomes more of a conventional narrative, albeit one with a radical sense of temporal dislocation.

The heart of Hiroshima Mon Amour is reached when Okada urges Riva to tell him about her wartime lover, which allows Resnais to provide context for the unexplained cutaways sprinkled throughout the first half of the film as Riva is bombarded with shards of her painful memories. Shot in the French city of Nevers by his frequent cinematographer, Sacha Vierny, these flashbacks take up a relatively small percentage of the film’s running time, but they include some of its most potent images and are key to understanding Riva’s character, if indeed that is even possible. As past and present, dead and living, and German and Japanese become conflated in her mind, Okada’s prediction that he’ll “think of this story as of the horror of forgetting” is answered by hers that they’ll “probably die without ever seeing each other again.” Luckily, fans of Hiroshima Mon Amour have the option of seeing it as many times as they choose.

Special Features:

First and foremost, the best feature of Criterion’s Blu-ray is its presentation of the 4K restoration done in 2013. It also carries over most –- but not all –- of the supplements from its previous DVD release, including an essay by film critic Kent Jones, interviews with Resnais and Riva recorded decades apart, and an informative commentary by film critic Peter Cowie, who places Hiroshima Mon Amour in the context of when it was made and talks about its continuing influence. New to this release are interviews with film scholar François Thomas, who discusses the film at length, and music scholar Tim Page, who talks about Resnais’s use of the music of Giovanni Fusco and Georges Delerue. Lastly, there’s a featurette about the challenges associated with restoring a 54-year-old film shot on two continents by two different cinematographers on two different kinds of film stock.