17th 11 - 2015 | 9 comments »

Jour de fête (1949)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Jacques Tati


By Marilyn Ferdinand

This is part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings.

Jour de fête was the very first film I saw that was directed by France’s comic master Jacques Tati, and I’m delighted to say that it began a love affair with his relatively few, but endlessly intriguing filmic creations that I don’t expect to end before I do. Our acquaintance was made in 1995, the year the color version of the film was restored and made available to viewers for the first time by his daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, and cameraman François Ede. It played the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and I can’t say that the restoration of the failed Thomson-Color experimental color process looked all that great—in fact, it was pretty dreadful, at least to someone who had never seen it in the black-and-white version, or should I say in one of the two spot-tinted black-and-white versions, one with and one without a painter character.


Still, nothing could hide the genius of Tati and the great love he had for cinema and France. Paying a visit to a one-day fair in a small French town and watching the hilarious misadventures of the local postman, played by Tati himself, was the most pleasant vacation I could take from my big-city woes—woes with which Tati would empathize and lampoon repeatedly in all of his feature films. Jour de fête, his feature debut, was his deceptively simple first volley at the giant maw of modernity.


The opening image of a caravan carrying merry-go-round horses down a snaking road to a town square, a young boy skipping behind in anticipation, conjures the idea that we are entering an enchanted valley that time forgot. We even have a fairy tale narrator—a severely bent old woman leading her goat and commenting on the people and activities surrounding her. Once in the village, we see nothing but horse-drawn vehicles and bicycles conveying objects and people, even elegantly dressed people come to town to attend the fair. Livestock and chickens walk and flap around the square and freely wander in the homes of their owners.


As the carnies unload their truck to set up their rides, midway games, and movie theatre, one of them, Roger (Guy Decomble), spies a lovely young woman, Germaine (Santa Relli), beautifully framed in a third-story window. The two flirt across the distance until his wife emerges from their caravan to give him what-for. Nonetheless, Germaine hurries down to the square, and in a sweet and ingenious scene, the two appear to carry on a flirtatious conversation with the dialogue from one of the movies to be played that day substituting for their voices.


We get an oblique hint that Tati’s entrance is imminent when Roger’s wife is shown to a mailbox where she can drop a letter. Soon, traveling the same winding route as the carnival workers, the real entertainment of the evening arrives. Like an old vaudevillian transferring his act from stage to screen, Tati arrives in the postman character from many of his short films, most notably The School for Postmen (1947), back straight as an ironing board, trousers fastened to his ankles with bicycle clips, and arms flailing to swat the wasp that dogs his descent.


For the rest of the film, Tati as François performs one gag after another with exquisite physicality. Around the village, he is a friend and helper, someone the villagers turn to as perhaps the only government official around to take a leadership position. For example, in one of my favorite gags in the film, the men of the village are trying to erect a pole in the middle of the square from which they can hang a banner with the French tricolors. The pole bobs precariously around the square until François is prevailed upon to lead the effort. He gets everyone organized, instructs a rope handler how to brace himself with the rope, and the pole gets raised. The cleat that will hold it in place still needs to be secured, but strangely, the man with the hammer keeps missing the spike. As François looks into his face, we get a close-up of his crossed eyes, a dead ringer for silent film comedian Ben Turpin. François moves one of the spikes to the left of the one on the cleat, and our man hits his target dead on.


However, this regard by the villagers encourages François to adopt an officious manner, causing those who meet him for the first time to make him the butt of their fun. Two of the carnies entice him into a café, get him drunk, and use a handheld kaleidoscope to circle his eye with black pitch. His staggering attempts to get on his bicycle and complete his route see him plunging helplessly into a thicket and attempting to ride a fence that has entangled his bike, scenes that play all the more hilarious for Tati’s uncomprehending distractedness.


When he finally returns to the square, he and the villagers are inspired by a preposterous newsreel of U.S. postal service efficiencies, including the use of helicopters and parachutes to get postmen through their appointed rounds. François decides to deliver mail “American style,” and devises methods to mount, dismount, and drop off letters with such speed that he even manages to outpace a cycling team on the road. (Is it possible that the USPS decided to sponsor a professional cycling team some 50 years later because of Tati?) The villagers cheer him on all the way as he skewers their mail on hoes, silently sneaks a package containing new shoes onto a block just as the butcher is bringing down his cleaver, and runs two cars off the road. When he finally speeds right off the side of a bridge and into a creek, our ancient narrator picks him and his bike up and rides them into town.


The ambition of the stunts pushes the film into surrealist territory. For example, a long sequence where his bike takes off on its own, forcing François to give chase, quite reminded me of the absurdist novel by Flann O’Brien called The Third Policeman in which a character steals bicycles when he believes their riders have exchanged too many cells with them and have become more than 50 percent bicycle. Tati filmed without sound, and his ability to play with the soundtrack to insert dialogue and diagetic sounds in addition to his gloriously quaint music allows him to orchestrate his humor precisely.


For a first feature, Tati has surprisingly strong control, calling on the conventions of silent films and vaudevillian stunts and recrafting them into a cinematic ecosystem all his own. While he was not able to achieve the color palette he so clearly wanted with this film, as indicated by the dialogue he wrote, his later films fairly vibrate with color. Finally, while the horrors of the modern, mechanized world would come in for more specific drubbing in such later films as Mon oncle (1958) and his crowning masterpiece Play Time (1967), his contempt for cars and Parisians gets its first voice here. Jour de fête is an auspicious beginning for a very distinctive and masterful filmmaker.

108708_frontThe Criterion two-disc set includes two alternate versions, a partly colorized 1964 version and the full-color 1995 rerelease version; “A L’americaine” (“American Style”), visual essays on the film by Tati expert Stéphane Goudet; Jour de fête: In Search of the Lost Color, a 1988 documentary on the restoration of the film to Tati’s original color vision; and the original trailer. The film is included in a box set, “The Complete Jacques Tati,” available in DVD and Blu-ray editions.

13th 11 - 2015 | 9 comments »

Crimson Peak (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro


By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers.

Since his debut with Cronos (1993), Guillermo Del Toro has stood as one of the few major arbiters of a near-bygone attitude in contemporary fantastic cinema. That attitude still floated to the surface even in his stabs at epic, vibrant crowd pleasers, including Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2009) and Pacific Rim (2013), where a delight in the colour and spectacle of blockbuster cinema blended with a fervent belief in melodrama as a form that demands no apology. The brand of pop surrealism apparent even in Del Toro’s action works saw machines of the superego take on the welling forces of the id. Crimson Peak, his latest, is a partial reversion to another strand of his cinema and another province of his obsessions—outright Gothic horror and classically contoured ghost stories. This streak was previously parlayed in his Spanish-language works, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), tales pitched in the keys of haunting loss and reality-transmuting fantasy mixed with bizarre and thunderous thriller plots that evoked political dimensions, as both of those films took place during the Spanish Civil War. Like many films these days, Crimson Peak blends homage with its own purposes, serving as a visual tour through the history of screen horror, evoking aspects of German expressionism, Universal and Hammer horror, 1940s gothic melodramas, and the romantic decadence of Italian horror. Del Toro declares his allegiances the moment you hear the heroine’s name is Edith Cushing.


The setting is turn-of-the-20th-century Boston with all its protomodernity of motor cars and typewriters as still-new but swiftly adopted technology. Edith (Mia Wasikowska) is the product of clashing social systems, the safe but cloying enclosure of a traditional ideal of femininity and her father’s “go get ’em” Americanness. Crimson Peak shifts territory from Del Toro’s earlier ghost stories, as it’s not about a child struggling in an adult world, though most of his protagonists are defined by similar experiences of being orphaned and left adrift in that world, a theme that also secured Hellboy, Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori, and even Blade to Del Toro’s personal universe. Edith certainly has the same quality of the innocent abroad about her, and she, too, is left alone to survive and finds herself in the midst of a situation she understands through the intuition of signs and distorted simulacra rather than from more worldly cues and hints. Edith, daughter of respected financier and former steel manufacturer Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver), has ambitions to become a writer, but faces rebuff by a sniffy, patronising publisher at the outset because her book has no romance and is a ghost story. “It’s not a ghost story,” she protests, “It’s a story with a ghost in it.” Edith has a peculiar affinity with ghosts, however, as her mother’s spectre appeared to her as a young girl shortly after her funeral, delivering enigmatic warnings about a place called Crimson Peak. The shade returns and renews its entreaties not long after Edith’s eye is caught by a darkly handsome stranger who approaches her father for capital: Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), an English baronet, trying to finance development of a digging machine he’s designed to revive his family’s clay mining business.


Encountering Thomas at her father’s workplace, where she labours during the day as a secretary, and then in local society, Edith falls under his spell. He encourages her out of her intellectual bubble and offers her a moment of metamorphosis as he dances a waltz with her at a society ball. Thomas is accompanied by his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), whose taciturn and boding manner manifests as she takes entomological interest in dying butterflies and runs frostbite eyes over Edith. Edith has a childhood pal, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), now an eye doctor setting up practice in the same building as her father who shares Edith’s interest in spiritualism. He only starts to recognise his deeper affection for her as she’s pulled into Thomas’ orbit, whilst his mother (Leslie Hope) looks down her nose at the unglamorous would-be writer. Carter takes an immediate dislike to Thomas he can’t quite account for at first, except that as a self-made American, he can’t stand Thomas’ air of slightly effete, quixotic inspiration and softness. Later, as it becomes plain that Thomas is pursuing Edith, Carter hires a private detective, Mr. Holly (Burn Gorman), to investigate the Sharpes. Holly turns up something disturbing enough to make Carter call the Sharpes to his office and confront them. He pays them off and orders them to leave town quickly, whilst also extracting a promise from Thomas to break off with his daughter in a suitably jarring and heartbreaking way. Thomas obediently does so, humiliating Edith in front of a dinner party’s guests by disdaining her writing and lack of life experience. The next day, as Carter prepares to shave in the bathroom of his club, someone sneaks in and kills him by bashing his head against a sink to make it look like he’s died in a fall. Thomas returns and marries Edith, and then he and Lucille whisk her to England and introduce her to the lugubrious grandeur of their family manse, Allerdale Hall.


This long first act proves one of the more surprising aspects of Crimson Peak. Del Toro flirts interestingly with a Henry Jamesian approach to milieu, a sense of the personal and the cultural intersecting, and commences in an essentially realistic frame whilst setting up a move into perfervid weirdness. The film continues in this vein even as that weirdness floods the screen, taking its characters with unexpected seriousness even as they perform archetypal functions to the point where the chief source of tension in the last act stems from anticipating where the twists of character loyalties will lead. Of course, James himself notably departed from his serious social tales with his famous ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which locates the source of horror in the strange and twisted psychological reactions of its repressed and rootless female protagonist. Del Toro isn’t interested in ambiguity of genre—he’s far too fond of the imagery and mechanics of spookfest traditions—but if it wasn’t for the ooky-kooky wraith that appears in the first few minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled into some classy literary adaptation. Del Toro turns the waltz Thomas and Edith take into a subtly symphonic moment of swooning romanticism with a touch of the sublime indicated by their ability to dance whilst keeping a clutched candle lit. Thomas’ mastery of courtly arts and aura of bruised poeticism let him sustain waning aristocracy with Yankee money, a phenomenon that was very real in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. There’s a meta touch to making Edith a penner of the kinds of stories she’s about to get herself into—I detect a hint, deliberate or not, of Joseph Mankiewicz’s lampoon The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), which likewise turned on a similar conceit of literary self-reference.


A number of contemporary ghost tales made for the cinema have been set like Crimson Peak in the first quarter of the 20th century—Haunted (1995), The Woman in Black (2011), The Awakening (2012)—because the era presents a telling, yet quaint, opposition between evolving modernity and the persistence of the irrational, and they often reference the actual explosion in interest in spiritualism of the period. Del Toro goes a few steps further. Just as he looked to the schisms of Spanish history to ground his dark fantasias in a real-life sense of angst and unhealed wounds, here Del Toro takes New and Old Worlds as a similar line of division and angst. The narrative immediately touches several essential aspects of gothic melodrama: the loss of a parent, the heroine’s aura of intellectual independence colliding with desire, the coming of the Byronic stranger and the triangle formed with a more parochially charming suitor, and the eventual shift to strange territory in the form of the grand old house that contains dark and potentially destructive secrets that the young bride must either defeat or be consumed by.


The 1940s were a high point for this mode of cinema, perhaps nudged on by the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940)—Mankiewicz’s debut Dragonwyck (1946), Robert Siodmark’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) and The Strange Woman (1946), the Gainsborough melodramas in Britain. By the finale, there’s a dash of Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), too. Wasikowska has already played the heroine of a classic text in this style, Jane Eyre, a few years back, whilst Del Toro, with his lexicon of influences, readily invites comparisons with Rebecca. Del Toro isn’t particularly Hitchcockian as a filmmaker, but he clearly has an intellectual kinship with Hitchcock’s general delight in tales of seething repression, covert truths, and subversive hungers. Hitchcock returned to gothic territory with Under Capricorn (1948) and ultimately transmuted it into something newer and stranger with Psycho (1960).


Once the film reaches Allerdale Hall, Del Toro takes a swift turn into the saturated colour tones and densely miasmic moods of mid-century horror cinema. Del Toro is undoubtedly one of the great craftsmen of contemporary film, and his filmmaking throughout Crimson Peak hums with a sense of cinematic largesse. Del Toro infuses Lucille with a characteristic close to his own heart, a fascination for insect life, and turns an allusive moment when Edith and Lucille chat about American and British species of butterflies and moths, into a visual aria of a scene: butterflies paralysed in the chill evening become prey for swarming ants, filmed in colossal close-up. The foreshadowing is obvious—Edith is the butterfly, Lucille the black ant—but the effect is eerily sublime. As is right and correct in the Gothic tradition, Allerdale Hall is a character in the film, a triumph for Del Toro and his production designer, Thomas E. Sanders, in creating a physical structure that has a quality of mimetic trap littered with remnants of past lives and decaying in synch with the psyches of its characters. Giant moths infest corners of the house. A great hole in the ceiling above the foyer lets snow collect on the floor, a rickety elevator connects the house with the basement and treacherous old mine workings. Mouldy, giant portraits gaze down on Edith and perverse spectres flit in the shadows and peer upon her. Thomas’s digging machine huffs and trembles like a great metal dinosaur hewing at the earth. The weird soil mixture in the hill the Hall stands on sees blood-coloured muck welling up, giving the hill its name; yes, this place is Crimson Peak.


Once safely ensconced again in their home, the Sharpes press Edith to sell her father’s estate to finance work on the digging machine. Meanwhile, Alan, troubled by the mysteries swirling around Carter’s death and the newlyweds’ swift departure, begins investigating, and thanks to information from Holly, begins putting together the terrible pattern behind the Sharpes’ activity—a truth that begins unfurling to Edith in a more urgent form. Edith keeps seeing spectres about the Hall, bearing signs of violent death. Although they terrify the hapless young bride, they seem to be trying, like her mother’s shade, to warn her about the hidden evil around Allerdale Hall. The early line about a story with ghosts in it seems an evident pitch on Del Toro’s part to gain a certain breed of critical favour, but it also helps make viewers aware of the way the supernatural and the corporeal interact in his story, with these ghosts operating more as totems of awful things, which is generally what tales of hauntings have traditionally served as, ways of preserving and communicating dread events and attaching them to places where they occurred in folklore. But Del Toro also loves spooks far too much to reduce them to the realm of the merely symbolic and the suggestive a la Val Lewton. This proves a major flaw, or at least superfluity, in Crimson Peak. The manifestations of the supernatural are both unnecessary and not terribly well handled (then again, I think the same thing about some of spooks in The Shining, 1980).


This is an odd weak point for Del Toro, who’s made a career out of his wholehearted love of the fantastical and his talent for illustrating it; perhaps that’s part of the problem, that it’s just too reflexive for Del Toro, who otherwise does a remarkable job here of blending multiple frames of reference. But the juddering, squirming, hissing wraiths that dog Edith are far too obvious, even clichéd displays of special-effects cinema, reminiscent of those in some of the rather lame horror films Del Toro has produced recently (like Mama, 2011). I get the feeling he and script collaborator Matthew Robbins (who once upon a time directed the interesting genre revision Dragonslayer, 1982) merely added ghosts to the film as a concession to presumed audience expectations, a way of sneaking them an uncool genre exercise in the guise of another. There’s a tension within Crimson Peak that doesn’t entirely resolve between the expansive showmanship manifest in Del Toro’s visual and conceptual approach and the stringencies of his story, which unfolds with a classical, near-leisurely interest in characterisation and mood, milieu and atmosphere. On the other hand, Del Toro resists turning his work into a mere haunted house ride. Crimson Peak probably counts as the first major stab at a true, unabashed gothic work since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), and it does have a surprising number of concerns in common with Burton’s Dark Shadows (2012), without the variable levels of humour: Del Toro is in earnest. That’s not to say Crimson Peak doesn’t earn any horror stripes either, it just belongs to a different branch. The scene of Carter’s murder references Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and nods to the common giallo ploy of playing games with the gender of the killer.


Argento’s predecessors Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava seem generally much closer to Del Toro’s thoughts than giallo, however, in the diseased romanticism of their gothic-accented horror works that took inspiration equally from Hitchcock and Edgar Allen Poe. Crimson Peakshares similar points of obsession with Bava’s Lisa and the Devil (1972) and particularly Freda’s The Horrible Secret of Dr. Hichcock (1962)—sexual deviance, piano playing, insidious presences, poisoned drinks, a house as all-but-organic presence. Ultimately, although both spooks and the equally insidious nature of money figure in this tale, boiling human passions edging into the realm of madness are the real stakes and drivers, as Edith is confronted by the true grotesqueness of perverted lives and psychopathy channelled into relished crime. Del Toro can face up to the sorts of fetid underlying motives that generally had to be communicated more discreetly in classic genre inspirations: he ultimately reveals that Thomas and Lucille, having grown up isolated and neglected in the tottering towers of Allerdale Hall, have long engaged in an incestuous relationship. It’s an apt, if icky, revelation; quite often in classical mythology, the dark secret at the heart of many a riddle was a similar revelation (e.g., Oedipus, the parentage of Siegfried). The siblings have developed a modus operandi of marrying Thomas to rich, solitary women for their money, and having Lucille murder them with the same brutal relish she turned on their mother. It’s not hard to guess the grim intent at the heart of the Sharpes’ plan, and I also guessed the dread secret they harbour, too. But the pleasure of the story here is wrapped up with both its uncertainties and its fervency, the emotions and conflicting desires that ultimately create a deadly situation Edith has to fight her way out of, and the way Del Toro’s superlatively conjured creative universe illustrates that psychic landscape.


Hunnam played the jut-jawed young hero of Pacific Rim, and here inhabits a role akin to the sort David Manners used to play in the early Universal horror films—the square, upright character who keeps matters rooted in a less bizarre reality and whose traditional brand of heroism seems weirdly pallid in such a context. In ’80s slasher movies, they usually turn up dead sometime in the fifth reel, but here his search gives Robbins and Del Toro an excuse to steal one of the cleverest narrative touches from Joseph Ruben’s thriller The Stepfather (1987) when the time comes for the storylines to collide. It’s in its last act that Crimson Peak finally slips its moorings and goes gloriously over the top, as the tensions sustaining the triangle of Edith, Thomas, and Lucille crumble after Thomas gives into his real affection for Edith and sleeps with her, driving Lucille into a fit of psychotic, vengeful violence. One of Del Toro’s most distinctive traits is his ability to find humanity in even the most bizarre figures, and he locates real pathos in Thomas and Lucille, who lesser filmmakers would probably have reduced to mincing caricatures once necessary narrative games were dispensed with. Here, Lucille and Thomas become all the more interesting and strange the more their crimes and their own sufferings become clearer, particularly as Thomas tries to prod his sister toward self-awareness over what their attempts to avoid change have turned them into—and, of course, that sort of awareness is exactly the hardest thing to countenance. Hiddleston has a gift for suggesting things shiftless and septic under the surface of his lean English charm has been exploited well by several filmmakers lately, and he does fine work here, chiefly because like Del Toro he enjoys the pathos of tortured figures. Not without reason, if also by accident, has his Loki evolved into the heart of the Marvel franchise. Here, his performance reminded me a little of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, particularly in the underregarded Psycho 2 (1981), a film that recast the former serial killer as a troubled antihero.


Chastain’s slow-burn performance, suggesting degrees of tightly suppressed feeling at the beginning and slowly unsheathing lunacy laced with relished villainy, most effectively channels the melodrama spirit, particularly as Lucille slips the few bonds that keep her restrained and sends the film spiralling off with her into delirious realms. She’s most enjoyable letting a sweetly psychopathic pleasure sneak into her manner as she enjoys the chance to finally squash Edith under her thumb like a bug. Chastain remains one of the most interesting performers around at the moment because she can adapt her performing style to suit her material, and here she’s required to keep her characterisation just on the near side of camp. The finale’s loopy force makes up for some of the problems in Crimson Peak’s unfolding, proffering the image of a thoroughly unhinged Lucille pursuing Edith through the dank confines of Allerdale. The gears not just of story, but also within the iconography of Del Toro’s images, snap at last into perfect alignment: the Victoriana dolly nightgowns flowing in the dark and splattered with blood, the bars of the elevator crashing on delicate flesh, Chastain’s eyes bugging with vicious glee as she hefts a colossal axe intending to plant it in Wasikowska’s head, the cellar with blood-filled pits and bobbing bodies, the flakes of fairytale snow flitting in through high places, and then, finally, the wasteland of ice and metal where the final confrontation takes place. It’s like some lost last reel of a fondly imagined Joan Crawford movie viewed through a prism of freaked-out cosplayer chic and Final Girl survival drama, one that lets the ladies get down to business. Here, Del Toro cashes the check his labours have written and caps Crimson Peak as a grand experience in spite of its hesitations.

2nd 11 - 2015 | no comment »

To Sleep With Anger (1990)

Director/Screenwriter: Charles Burnett


By Marilyn Ferdinand

A teapot filled with marbles that falls from the fridge and breaks. Leaves placed under the feet of a sick man confined to his bed. A broom brushing the tops of a man’s shoes, filling him with terror. These are the portents and prescriptions of the superstitions that drive the humorous, but still rather horrifying tale of a family plagued by the literal devil they know from L.A. Rebellion director Charles Burnett.


Burnett is best known as a chronicler of the African-American experience in his home city of Los Angeles. His 1978 debut feature, Killer of Sheep, is a somber look at the soul-deadening effect of poverty on a slaughterhouse worker from Watts and his own temptation to sin. His vibrant second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), again focuses on an L.A. family, with the clash between a ne’er-do-well and his striving older brother providing another type of African-American story. To Sleep With Anger, Burnett’s third feature, is his first to use professional actors, but the thread linking it to his earlier works remains strong. The folklore his parents and grandparents shared with him during his formative years offered him a different template for exploring the African-American community, one that allowed him to tell a horror story of his own that can easily join other cautionary tales passed through the generations.


To Sleep With Anger opens during a nightmare. Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired transplant to Los Angeles from the Deep South, sits in a chair as though posing for a portrait like the one of his ancestor hanging on the wall behind him. Burning Bush-like flames emerge from a bowl of fruit sitting on the table next to him. Soon, Gideon’s feet are on fire as well, and the flames lick at the legs of the wooden chair that supports him. When he awakens, he complains to his wife Suzie (Mary Alice) that he can’t find his toby, an amulet his grandmother gave him to ward off evil spirits. He then invites her unsuccessfully to join him in bed for an afternoon delight; this is the last time we’ll see Gideon feeling so frisky. Burnett is about to plunge him, the rest of the characters in To Sleep With Anger, and us into a world of superstition, family strife, and earthly minions of the devil working to snatch troubled souls at their most vulnerable.


The monster in the story is a genial elderly man from “back home” named Harry (Danny Glover) who shows up on Gideon’s doorstep the day after his nightmare after 30 years’ separation. Gideon and Suzie welcome him with open arms and tell him that he can stay as long as he likes. They introduce him to their oldest son Junior (Carl Lumbly) and pregnant daughter-in-law Pat (Vonetta McGee). Every time Pat tries to shake Harry’s hand, her unborn baby kicks her—a sure sign to us, if not to her, that something is rotten in the state of Harry. Gideon’s younger son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), is a lazy, unstable disappointment to his parents and the cause of frequent family arguments. He is married to Rhonda (Reina King), a real estate broker who detests her in-laws’ homespun ways, but not their services as babysitters; Babe Brother and Rhonda keep late hours working and partying, and frequently fetch their boy Sunny (DeVaughn Nixon) from Suzie and Gideon’s in the middle of the night.


Harry’s appearance and the steady introduction of a slew of down-home cronies who are more than willing to abet Harry’s attempts to corrupt Babe Brother with corn liquor and dice reminded me of the return of the ghostly lover of the grieving protagonist and his increasing disruption of her life in another 1990 film, Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply. In the latter film, the emotional dysfunction that allowed in the supernatural mischief makers is obstinate, unresolved grief. In the same way, Gideon and his family are made vulnerable to Harry and his bad intentions not because of a lost toby, but because Gideon’s anger and disapproval fracture his relationship with Babe Brother and Rhonda and infect the rest of the family. It only takes Harry walking Gideon through a railroad depot, where Gideon has a vision of working like a slave to lay track, to awaken a deeper anger, one that lands him in a mysterious coma.


Burnett works slyly to illustrate how the accumulation of grievances or unintended consequences of seemingly harmless deeds can work like a magical curse to create an annus horribilis for anyone. Gideon’s fury with Babe Brother, as well as his sedentary lifestyle and fatty diet, suggest he is ripe for a stroke. Suzie’s nostalgia and overly compliant nature allow Harry to roost, and with Gideon out of commission, to decimate their flock of chickens and ruin their carefully tilled vegetable garden. Junior’s self-righteousness turns him from being his brother’s keeper to nearly being his brother’s killer. Babe Brother and Rhonda represent a couple who want too much too fast, easy pickings for a similarly inclined Harry.


Nonetheless, Burnett is serious about his fable. Harry, too, lost his toby decades before, and there’s no question that Burnett wants us to believe he is the devil. It is hinted that Harry murdered several people back home, and he proudly brandishes his weapon like an elderly Mack the Knife. He sets some very lascivious eyes on Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an old girlfriend from back home who has been saved and who advises Suzie to poison Harry if she gets the chance. Linda is like a beautiful, white-haired, avenging angel, singing gospel songs that cut Harry to the quick. Harry eventually is defeated, and Gideon’s family is healed in a hilarious denouement that closes this tale in a celebratory manner.


Danny Glover has Harry’s oily manners and menace down to an exact science. Burnett said Glover was worried about being typecast playing older characters (he was 44 at the time), but he asked to read for Harry unprompted after spending some time with the script. Brooks plays Babe Brother with all the pain and anger of a child who doesn’t know how to do what’s expected of him and is condemned for it. When he finally asserts that his name is Sam, Samuel, he finally lets go of his flailing adolescence. Mary Alice, with the face of an angel, is particularly good in a scene where her old beau Okra (Davis Roberts) suggests that she should marry him if/when Gideon fails to recover because they are lodge brothers—her widening eyes and tight mouth show the emotional depths that her warmly superficial character rarely reveals. I also really enjoyed Reina King, who could have come off as a bitch supreme after sitting in her car in front of her in-law’s house during Sunday dinner, but who brings a lot more nuance to her largely self-involved character when Babe Brother really starts going off the rails.


Cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s rich colors that somehow manage to suggest sepia add to the fairytale trappings of this fantasy, and film editor Nancy Richardson shows the great timing that would boost her to a major career in this, her second feature. Most of all, Burnett creates a fulsome community of saints and sinners, chicken coops and pigeon cages, gold watches and rabbit’s feet—a colorful gumbo of African-American life that was rare to see on screens in 1990 and that remains all too rare to this day.

1st 11 - 2015 | 2 comments »

The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

Director: Wes Craven


By Roderick Heath

Wes Craven’s career making horror films lasted over forty years, but he remained devilishly hard to contain or categorise. A former philosophy student and English professor, he often exhibited great conceptual intelligence in his work, utilising highbrow ideas like metatextuality and nested realities well before they became fashionable, as well as pursuing a definite satirical interest in confronting the violent and perverse impulses lurking under the surface of the modern world. But he also gleefully delivered the down-and-dirty pleasures of his chosen genre, and as he developed from the relatively straightforward rawness of his infamous debut, Last House on the Left (1972), he began to revel in a stylised, madcap, virtually slapstick version of horror. There was a strong dash of Looney Tunes to his horror – the villains reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote or Yosemite Sam in their braggart ferocity, the heroes fighting back with their Acme kit-like improvised methods. His sixth feature film, A Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), was the kind of hit every low-budget, ghettoised filmmaker dreams of, one that made mountains of lucre and impacted upon the genre significantly. And yet the director himself was forced to sell the rights to the film before its release, and could only stand and watch as his brainchild became a pop cultural phenomenon. Craven’s career would remain skittish, even after he finally found a degree of stature and mainstream success with the Scream series. In the phase following Elm Street, Craven did some of his best, most distinctive and vigorous work, but little of it was well-received at the time, including the would-be new franchise creator, Shocker (1989), the freakish, scabrous parable The People Under the Stairs (1991), and the ingeniously self-referential Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1993).


The Serpent and the Rainbow might have seemed at first glance a play for relative respectability. Craven took on a script by Richard Maxwell and Adam Rodman, adapted a memoir by researcher Wade Davis, recounting his investigations into tetrodotoxin, a chemical derived from puffer fish venom and used by Haitian voodoo practitioners in zombie creation rituals, with the hope of adapting it for medical use. Respectability seems the last thing on Craven’s mind when the viewer is confronted by the resulting film, however. Long before Charlie Kaufman made a joke out of trying to turn dry reportage into a popular genre movie in Adaptation. (2002), Craven beat him to the reality, creating one of his strangest, most defiantly individual films, as well as one of his best – ridiculous, weird, and riotously entertaining. The Serpent and the Rainbow arrived as a near-freeform assault on familiar narrative niceties, shifting through familiar modes at breakneck speed. It’s a travelogue, anthropological study, political thriller, surrealist fugue, blood-and-thunder horror yarn, and action blockbuster all at once. It looks back to Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s great I Walked With a Zombie (1942) in trying to seriously and even realistically encompass voodoo as a socio-religious tradition, with an aspect of a specific, very ‘80s brand of fashionable ethnographic study and Third World consciousness-raiser a la The Emerald Forest (1984) or Under Fire (1983). But it also shifts into utterly whacko B-movie shtick and haunted house ride-like showmanship when it feels like it.


Davis becomes Dennis Alan, played by Bill Pullman, a dashing young Harvard-trained ethnobotanist (!) who arrives deep in the Amazon forest hoping to find commercially exploitable herbal remedies amongst tribal shamans. One shaman (Evencio Mosquera Slaco) feeds him a hallucinogenic concoction as he thinks Dennis needs to perceive things beyond, because there’s some immensely evil force looming over him. Dennis, in his altered state, encounters a jaguar that terrifies him at first but proves to actually be his protective spirit animal. But the shaman is replaced in the fugue by a fearsomely leering sorcerer (Zakes Mokae), who torments Dennis with visions of being dragged down into the earth by dead and buried men. When he awakens from this grotesque trip, Dennis heads to his helicopter in relief but finds the pilot dead, killed by some malediction. Dennis is forced instead to hike out of the jungle, seemingly guided to safety by the jaguar spirit. When he gets back to the US, Dennis is hired by his mentor, Earl Schoonbacher (Michael Gough), who now works for pharmaceutical company boss Andrew Cassedy (Paul Guilfoyle): Schoonbacher and Cassedy want him to go to Haiti, to investigate a seemingly authentic case of somebody having been made into a zombie. The first scenes of the film have already shown this, as the evil magician of Dennis’s dream, actually Captain Dargent Peytraud (Zakes Mokae), oversaw the burial of the man pronounced dead but, Craven reveals, weeping in his coffin. The Captain works for the Tonton Macoute, the secret police force that did the dirty work for the government of ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier.


The unfortunate victim, Christophe Durand (Conrad Roberts), has since been disinterred and briefly sheltered for a time by psychiatrist Marielle Duchamp (the ever-excellent Cathy Tyson), whose report attracted outside attention. Dennis meets up with Marielle but Christophe has long since left the run-down, grimy asylum Marielle tries to administrate: eventually they track him to where he now lives, the cemetery where he was buried, lurking in the shadows as a distraught and disorientated shell of his former self. Christophe was a schoolteacher who was fighting the Duvalier dictatorship, and Peytraud targeted him for destruction. Dennis tries to get on with his job, approaching braggart gambler and alchemist Louis Mozart (Brent Jennings) to make some of the supposed zombiefying concoction he’s famous for, and Louis happily agrees for a few hundred dollars. Louis tries to cheat Dennis by giving him a batch of the bogus blend he sells to tourists, but Dennis spots the gag and forces Louis to put up the real thing. Louis eventually agrees but insists Dennis join him the long and complex preparation process for this mysterious concoction. Trouble is, the longer he spends in Haiti, the more deeply Dennis becomes involved with both the local culture and its marvels, and also the evil of the Duvalier regime, as represented by Peytraud, who uses both torture and voodoo to torment and terrorise anyone who attracts his sadistic interests.


Standing on the side of the just is Marielle’s friend, fellow resistance member, and voodoo priest Lucien Celine (Paul Winfield), who tries to use white magic to protect Dennis and Marielle as they tread on territory Peytraud jealously defends. In many ways Craven’s sense of style could hardly have been more different to the elegance and suggestiveness of the classic Universal and Val Lewton horror films: his camerawork, quite often utilising hand-held and steadicam shots that roam about his characters and vivid lensing effects that mimic the presence of unseen forces assailing them, is vigorous in a manner that suggests Werner Herzog’s work on Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) on crack, the special effects unrestrained, and the manifestations of primal and supernatural terror visualised with gusto. And yet in other ways, particularly in Craven’s obsession with dreams and visions as the bridging point between the concrete and the fantastic, The Serpent and the Rainbow maintains links with an older, more ethereal brand of horror; reality and dream, worldly power and magic are in such a constant flux that they become inseparable. A richly visualised, otherworldly elegance pervades parts of the film, particularly a magical sequence in which Marielle takes Dennis on a trek along with thousands of worshippers on a religious festival. Streams of worshippers flow through the jungle to a rock pool high in the mountains where they carry a statue of the Virgin Mary, camping at night along the way in forests bedecked with jewels and totems and guttering candles, and Dennis and Marielle make love in a cave with a sense of ritualistic fervour, capping a movement of deliriously sensual textures.


In the midst of this movement, Craven offers an interlude when Dennis has another of his prophetic visions, seeing himself visited in the night in the forest by Christophe carrying the corpse of a voodoo priestess in a white grave dress, which then disgorges a snake for a tongue that bites Dennis on the face. Such are the breakneck shifts of mood and effect in this film, which come so often as to become their own, weird form of lucidity in creating a world where just about anything can and does happen. Dennis is constantly assailed with similarly strange and often spectacular dreams hallucinations and Craven uses these to give a more pyrotechnic brand of horror. Dennis’ early vision of being dragged down into the earth sees corpses thrusting rotting fingers at him before plunging into a black abyss, as if the dread sins of the past buried however deep are about to claim Dennis. Later, when he’s retreated from the villains to a small beachfront cabin, he sees a burning boat drifting to the shore, carrying the voodoo priestess, before the cabin closes up, shrinks down, and becomes a coffin, blood filling it up like a bathtub. The idea that villain Peytraud fights his battles on both a physical level and on the spiritual lets Craven go to town in portraying the totality of this form of warfare. Peytraud also represents for Craven one of several attempts to create another Freddy Krueger, a trickster villain who respects no usual limitations of physical law and logic to attack his enemies. Mokae was a South African actor who first found repute working with playwright Athol Fugard, and his later acting career was usually split between politically oriented dramas and horror films. Here he had a chance to combine those two, and he’s an unrestrained hoot in the role, with his rolling, bugging eyes and gold tooth flashing matched by rasping voice of cruel relish, as if someone recast Robert Newton’s Long John Silver as a Blaxploitation villain.


Most of Craven’s films had a powerful undercurrent sense of absurdist black comedy, and oftentimes entirely explicit. That streak is certainly present here, particularly apparent in just how much abuse Dennis receives throughout the film. It gets to the point where this all starts to feel like a lampoon on both the usual travails of venturesome heroes in pulp tales – young Pullman’s square-jawed, all-American visage needs only a pith helmet to complete the picture – and also of white western anxiety in the face of dangers beyond the safe limits of home, like Midnight Express (1978) gone troppo. In one sequence Craven reaches an apogee of discomfort in mainstream cinema whilst somehow avoiding depicting any actual gore. Peytraud seeks to terrify and punish Dennis by having him arrested, strapped to a chair naked in the secret police’s favourite torture chamber, and hammering a nail through his scrotum. Before striking his relished blow, Peytraud matches any Bond villain as he responds to Dennis’ desperate question “What do you want?” with, “I want to hear you scream!” This moment ranks with the “Squeal, piggy!” scene in Deliverance (1972) in literalising a protagonist’s emasculation by forces beyond his control. There is a disparity at the heart The Serpent and the Rainbow between the thesis Davis was arguing, that the apparent manifestations of the supernatural were actually the work of a complex, puzzling but actually rational work of nascent chemistry, and Craven’s casual demolition of that concept by embracing ooky-kooky magic. Voodoo as a religion and cultural phenomenon has been a constant source of interest for storytellers interested in the fantastic, but very few investigate it with much depth or seriousness as a genuine cultural phenomenon.


Whilst The Serpent and the Rainbow throws out any pretences to being seen as a strict tract on the subject, it does find Craven with an anthropological bent, truly fascinated by the sights, sounds, and lifestyle of Haiti, considering it as a fully-fledged society present amidst but also cordoned off from familiar definitions of modernity. The eruptions of irrationality in the storyline literalise this schism and also lets Craven show his own sensibility, associating political tyranny with forces of evil. There’s an appealing casualness to the interracial romance of Dennis and Marielle that looks forward to Craven’s embrace of black heroism in The People Under the Stairs and fusion of horror with Blaxploitation lampooning on Vampire in Brooklyn (1994). The pilgrimage scene is a highpoint of this bent, amidst an immersive sense of place (although the production was forced to leave Haiti mid-shoot and was finished in other locations including the Dominican Republic), as is a brief but fascinating depiction of Lucien performing a wedding. The Duvalier government and the Tonton Macoute really did use the paraphernalia of voodoo as part of their arsenal of repression, although ironically Wade Davis himself had little trouble from them. Marielle, a modern rationalist by profession, is also famed for her performances when possessed by spirits, and Dennis witnesses this transformation with bewilderment: “There is no conflict between my science and my faith,” as she states.


Craven’s pointed sense of humour makes itself apparent when a tourist-friendly display of local performers for a hotel crowd is portrayed as a festival of the strange with a male performer getting female guests to shove spikes through his cheeks, another chewing on glass, until finally Peytraud, who looks on, announces himself by mesmerically compelling one of the performers to attack Dennis. This scene is mirrored later in a vignette that counts amongst the most Cravenish of Craven moments, when Dennis returns to the States with the zombiefying powder and is treated to a swanky dinner by Cassedy and his wife Deborah (Dey Young) in their mansion as reward. Deborah, possessed by Peytraud in spite of the many miles and supposed barriers between these places, suddenly turns strange and sneering, begins chewing on a glass, and then launches herself across the dinner table in an attempt to stab Dennis, forcing her husband and Schoonbacher to drag her off. This makes for a disturbing/hilarious image of posh, lily-white insularity turned into funhouse for chaos and vengeful lunacy. There are seeds here for Craven’s later, equally wild and loopy The People Under the Stairs, which would turn the mirror back on Reaganite America and accuse it of being essentially the same thing. Craven didn’t help write the script here, which points to why some of Craven’s favourite themes are channelled in slightly different directions to his usual work, particularly his recurring motif of good and bad families and their avatars who, in the course of the tale, become increasingly blurred: Krug and his cohort and the bourgeois parents of Last House on the Left, the holidaying family and the mutants of The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the suburbanites and their resurging tormentor/victim in Elm Street.


Here the oppositions are more political and national. The corollary to that theme, of the “normal”, “good” people becoming increasingly warlike and competent in facing their enemies, is more clearly present here too but it takes a long time before Dennis, reduced to a worm before the boot of Peytraud’s intent, finally turns. Peytraud frames Dennis for the murder of Christophe’s sister and uses it to ensure he’ll have him executed if he ever returns to the country, before sticking him on the next plane out. However Mozart sneaks aboard the plane and gives Dennis the batch of zombiefying powder for free, asking only that Dennis let people know about his talents. But Mozart is captured and executed by Peytraud, and after the incident at the Cassedys’ house Dennis feels compelled to return to Haiti as he senses Marielle will be in danger too. Lucien arranges to have Dennis brought to safety by some of his men disguised as cops, pre-empting the Tonton Macoute, so Peytraud has Marielle kidnapped, uses a hex to kill Lucien, and has an operative treat Dennis to a dose of the zombie powder. Dennis desperately begs bewildered people not to bury him as he folds him and seems to drop dead. In his paralysed state, Dennis is forced to experience his own burial.


This sequence sees Craven paying tribute to the famous dream of death and burial in Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932), shooting much of it subjectively from the view of the frozen Dennis as he passes under the eyes of friends and doctors, and his mocking enemy Peytraud. Just before he’s put into the ground, the Captain drops a tarantula into the coffin to keep him company, giving Craven a chance to stage a most iconically phobic horror image, the monstrous black arachnid crawling over Dennis’s stony face. Dennis is saved by Christophe, who knows very well what’s happened and digs Dennis out of his grave. The clash of aesthetic attitudes apparent in the texture of Craven’s filmmaking, and the ruthless way the original three-hour cut was pared down into a very peculiar 97 minutes, makes The Serpent and the Rainbow an experience that would probably seem to many perturbingly hectic. But it also finally exemplifies something rare about its maker and gives it force that refuses taming. The finale sees all hell break loose in both senses of the term, as the Duvalier government collapses, leading to scenes of explosive rage and rejoicing on the streets, through which threads the smaller but vital drama of Dennis taking on Peytraud for control of the nation’s spiritual as well as physical fate.


Here Craven goes all-out with a riotous assault of inspired, crazy images – the torture chair coming to life and chasing Dennis about the room, Dennis being assaulted by Lucien’s shade, his bashing his way through a door only to find gravity inverting as if he’s in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and dangling from the doorframe, and a nod to Lewton and Mark Robson’s Bedlam (1946) as Dennis enters a hall of prison cells from which prisoners’ arms reach, unnaturally long, trying to grasp him. Craven connects Peytraud’s relish of holding the captured souls of his victims, including Lucien, with the political oppression, as Peytraud uses his control over the apparatus of terror to turn victims of that oppression into weapons. Except, naturally, this proves a double-edged sword, as Dennis and Marielle smash the pots containing the souls, letting loose the magical wrath of the repressed on their tormentor, spirits massing to drive Peytraud into a fire and burn him alive, whilst Lucien’s released shade passes on his powers to Dennis. Peytraud is defeated in the real world but there’s one fight left on the spiritual plane. Dennis, invested with Lucien’s magic and utilising the fierceness of his jaguar spirit, is able to overpower Peytraud here too, whereupon he hoists Peytraud by his own petard, psychically tethering him to the torture chair and punctured through the balls before being shunted off to hell, complete with reversal of the “I want to hear you scream!” line. The spirits of the dead arise in rainbow colours whilst the populace celebrates and Dennis and Marielle limp away, bloodied but triumphant. This climax goes so far over the top it all but hits orbit, and I dare say the film as a whole is a litmus test, either sweeping you up in its mad thrust or leaving you totally cold. But it’s also uproarious and casually flings brilliantly staged filmmaking at the audience, a perfect encapsulation of Craven’s delight in his art. Horror film will miss him.

28th 10 - 2015 | 1 comment »

Them! (1954)

Director: Gordon Douglas


By Roderick Heath

The New Mexico desert, a vast, flat, seemingly sterile and vacant zone of the Earth, where it seems like nothing can hide for long in the glare of the sun. A police spotter plane contacts two cops in a patrol car, Sergeant Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Trooper Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake), and guides them in tracking down a small figure wandering in the gruelling landscape. This proves to be a young girl (Sandy Descher), clutching a doll, walking with a glazed and staring expression in a state of deep trauma. Heading to a car and caravan parked nearby hoping to return her to her parents, they instead find the caravan has been violently torn open by some great force, with no sign of the owners, later identified as a couple named Ellinson. Only a weird, unrecognisable animal is print left in sand nearby, and sugar cubes are scattered all over. Ambulance men and lab investigators arrive, take a cast of the print, and load the girl to be taken to hospital. For a moment Ben and a medic are distracted and puzzled by a strange, trilling sound that arises out of the swirling sands near the site – a sound that momentarily stirs the girl. Ben and Ed head to a nearby general store owned by ‘Gramps’ Johnson as a dust storm rises and night falls, and find the store has also been broken into and trashed with incredible ferocity, with a buckled Winchester rifle on the floor and Gramps’ corpse discovered at the foot of steps into the cellar, mangled and bloodied. Ben heads off to bring the investigators over from the caravan, leaving Ed alone. Just as the sound of the car disappears into the night, Ed hears the same trilling call, and heads outside to look for the source. We hear his gun fire and his terrible scream as something launches on him from the dark.


Them! is the greatest atomic monster movie. Made with machine-like skill and chitinous beauty, it’s one of the very few sci-fi classics of the 1950s that feels scarcely dated. Part of its rare value and specific force stems from adopting what was then a radical idea, starting off in a different genre altogether, and proceeding with remarkable swerves of story and expectation. Them! unfolds essentially as a police procedural. Early scenes carefully posit signs of something incredible and far beyond the ordinary, violent death and carnage falling under the provenance of professional lawmen, whose method is linked with that of scientific enquirers, sifting facts and winnowing out inescapable conclusions. Slender threads and long shots are followed, ridiculous suppositions and apparently lunatic stories taken seriously. Director Gordon Douglas only made this single foray into fantastic cinema. Most of the time he made rock-solid westerns and crime flicks. This armed him perfectly to approach this story, however. Them! has familiar elements of both horror and sci-fi, but leads stylistically with a tone of sunstroke noir, like Don Siegel’s The Big Steal (1949) or Dick Powell’s Split Second (1953), before segueing into the nightmarish scene at the store. Jack Arnold had tackled the desert as a setting of atmosphere and surrealist destabilisation in It Came From Outer Space a year earlier, and Douglas went one better. Here the wind howls through gutted walls and sets the overhead lights dancing, littered with broken bodies and signs of forceful intent at once superhuman in ripping out a wall and finicky in pausing again to steal sugar. The ripped bags and pooled grains are infested with tiny black ants, a coldly witty foreshadowing of where all this is going. White Sands, site of the first atomic bomb test less than a decade earlier, is not far away.


Douglas confronts the once-open American landscape as a place suddenly turned septic and deadly, riddled with monsters, and its taciturn, self-reliant inhabitants with their expert marksman eyes suddenly outmatched and their bones left strewn about, bleaching in the sun. Investigative method is at first is left utterly bemused, noting the damage done to Gramps, including shattered bones, pulverised flesh, and “the one for Sherlock Holmes – there was enough formic acid in him to kill twenty men.” FBI Agent Bob Graham (James Arness) is just as clueless in the face of the details. Wiser, more rarefied intelligences are called for. Soon an unlikely pair of big brains are flown in, chasing a suspicion based on the plaster print: Dr Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, fellow scientist Dr Patricia Medford (Joan Weldon). Bob and Ben smirk and gawk at the site of a good-looking female scientist and a cuddly, absent-minded old professor, but soon find themselves scrambling to keep up with their businesslike attitudes and cryptic suggestions of imminent disaster. Medford uses the scent of formic acid to stir the young girl from her catatonic state: suddenly the girl launches herself from her chair, screaming “Them!” as she cowers in the corner. Medford grows all the grimmer as he makes the lawmen take him and Pat out to see where the print was found, scouring for new prints. Pat finds one, just in time to have the thing that made it come up behind her: an ant, big as an elephant. Medford shouts for the cops to shoot at the creature’s antennae to render it senseless, but it’s not until Ben fetches a machine gun that they bring down this unholy terror.


Medford pronounces his worst suspicion confirmed: lingering radiation from the first atom bomb test has sparked mutation. The ant is the worst possible species to face blown up to hundreds of times its normal size, an animal with great strength, social organisation, martial intelligence, and “savagery that makes Man look feeble by comparison.” If Godzilla (1954) articulated Japan’s sense of being on the receiving end of the atom age’s horrible birth, full of images of soaring, impersonal destruction, Them! is the more paranoid companion piece from the victors. The towering, singular, city-flattening monsters of most atomic monster movies here are exchanged with large and threatening but more immediate and pervading enemies. Manny Farber’s metaphor of termite art never felt more appropriate. The fear articulated in Them! is less of the destructive force of the Bomb itself than of the more insidious threat of radiation. Soldiers were being marched through atomic bomb test sites even as Them! was produced, many later to fall ill. The giAnts could also be seen as a twist on a popular caricature of Communists – monsters with a warlike attitude and perfect, communal organisation, spreading out and infesting the nation. Douglas had already done his best for Cold War acclimatising on I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951).


As Ben and Blackburn explore Gramps’ shattered store, a droning radio in the story broadcasts news from around the world. Reports on diplomatic entreaties and success of vaccination programs, the instability of modern politics and the genius of modern science reported in close succession, investing the scene confront the cops with a portentous mood of diagnosis. Them! depicts the essential conflict between the Janus faces of the atomic age, the forces that created the evil – science and militarism – called in to clean up their own mess, with the moral leadership provided by civil guardians Ben and Bob. “This is the first time I’ve ever given orders to a General,” Ben quips to General O’Brien (Onslow Stevens) as they’re required to work together, because Medford insists on keeping the existence of the giAnts secret as long as possible. With the nature of the beast finally revealed, the job of tracking down the monsters requires searching the desert by helicopter, and Medford calls in O’Brien and aide Major Kibbee (Sean McClory). Finally they glimpse one of the great black beasts standing astride the entrance to the nest, a ribcage in in its mandibles. Medford counsels the need to both exterminate the nest but also to keep it intact and make sure every creature is killed. He comes up with a plan that the two lawmen and two soldiers carry out, firing phosphorous charges at the nest with bazookas to keep the giAnts at bay, and then gas their hive with cyanide.


Bob momentarily balks at having Pat, who needs to do what her elderly father can’t, descend with him and Ben into the nest to survey the damage, but she quickly dismisses his concerns: “There isn’t time to give you a fast lesson in insect pathology.” Pat’s introduction echoes that of Bella Darvi’s similar prodigal daughter of the savant in Sam Fuller’s Hell and High Water (1954): the first sight of her is a sliver of leg in a pump, descending a ladder, astounding the meatheads before quickly and simply laying claim to her place on the team. Fuller’s tone was satiric where Douglas is businesslike, for like Pat he can’t stand distractions and pointless arguments. It could be one of the most significant early rumbles of feminism on film: Pat does scream queen duty early on but after that is a model of cool and purpose, and as much as it makes Bob look gassy, he’s forced to concede Pat’s point. After that it’s never mentioned again. This aspect is perfectly contiguous with the film’s survey of a new landscape where the pace of change, and evolution itself, is outpacing comprehension. George Worthing Yates, who wrote the original story for Them!, would return to the same feminist slant, if more awkwardly, on It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955).


Descent into the ant nest sees the nightmarish tint of the store sequence shift into the realm of the truly strange and mythic as Ben, Bob, and Pat roam the labyrinth, where gas clouds swirl and demonic forms lie slumped and twisted. Two ants from a walled-up section of nest break out and attack, but Ben manages to cook both with his flame thrower, that great catch-all weapon of any self-respecting monster hunter. But the most disturbing and threatening discovery in the nest is an absence, as Pat recognises the importance of some large, empty egg shells. New queen ants and male consorts have hatched and left the nest, meaning that new colonies will be founded someplace else, and the cycle will start again. The film’s lengthy mid-section returns to the investigative theme as our small band of heroes rustle up government support, but still keep their operation small and low-key as they sift through leads extracted from an avalanche of reports encompassing weird and unusual events. In this situation, the more bizarre and lunatic-sounding the story, the more meaningful it is, one of the cleverest conceits of the script (by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes). The team get their best clue from a shaky Texan aviator, Alan Crotty (Fess Parker, pre-Davy Crockett), who’s been shut up in a loony bin because of his report of nearly flying into UFOs shaped like ants. More crucial leads come from a theft of a load of sugar from a parked railway car, and from a loopy alcoholic, Jensen (Olin Howlin), whose reports of seeing giant ants crawling about the LA River bed and flying about in model aeroplanes would be dismissed as DTs by most but set the hairs on our heroes’ necks standing.


Them! stands tall not just in the annals of monster movies but in movie history in general for the way it balances two qualities required for great storytelling which can seem contradictory: the concision of its storytelling, both visually and in its writing, with lean ferocity to the plot and pacing, coexisting with enriching distractions – comic asides, incidental vignettes, and moments of human intensity. The comedy is good: the railway security man who’s been arrested because he employers believe he must have been complicit in the sugar theft scoffing, “You ever hear of a fence for hot sugar?”, Crotty bleating that the staff in the hospital won’t even give him “anything to hold up my pants!” two old souses arguing the ethics of evening wear, or Jensen chanting “Make me a sergeant, charge the booze!” when he thinks Kibbee wants to draft him. The heroes and their motives are straightforward, with only Ben’s tight-wound desire to settle a score against the things that killed his partner and turned his beat into a war zone offered as an aside to the general business of social dedication, whilst romance between Bob and Pat is noted but not belaboured. Otherwise they get along with their jobs with the dedication of experts. Even with this terse attitude, though, Them! manages to be revealing, as with Medford’s habitual insistence on calling his daughter doctor when they’re discussing business, and Pat’s concern for the old man’s health. Gwenn, long a scene-stealing actor, delivers a peach of a performance, at once a source of frail but plucky humanity, as when he splutters irascibly at being lectured on how to use a two-way radio, and then delivers the regulation voice of pseudo-poetic wisdom beholding the terrors of a new age.


The necessity of the heroes doing that job is illustrated and made urgent by the repeated motif of interrupted lives, and children left endangered by the deaths of parents – the Ellinsons at first and then the two sons of Mrs Lodge (Mary Ann Hokanson). The hunt for the ants comes to Los Angeles in probing the sugar theft, and quickly a new ant colony in the storm drain system under the city is identified, in part because of an even more random lead, when Ben and Bob check out the body of a man who crashed his car but had clearly been violently mutilated beforehand. This man, Lodge, was a working man who took his children out on Sunday mornings, the only time he had for them, and it’s clear that this time it ended in violent tragedy. Finding what happened to Lodge’s children and where proves to the key to mystery and the stake for the finale. This aspect of the story does more than serve a plot function: it situated Them! in a real world that many such films never even graze, particularly in today’s genre film. The most powerful images here aren’t of battle and monstrosity but of human reaction. The first, of the Ellinson girl stirred from her traumatic bubble to jump up, face distorted by terror and proximity to the camera and screaming the title, is designed and executed as a perfectly iconic moment, capturing the leap from rigid anxiety to explosive, cathartic hysteria – the essence of the atom age conflated into a child’s face. Another moment, bordering on arch and yet remaining starkly serious, comes after the first giAnt is killed, with the sound of its fellows ringing eerily out of the dust storm, and Medford speaks a faux-Biblical quote that underline the mood of imminent apocalypse and primal threat: “And there shall be destruction and darkness come over Creation – and the beasts shall reign over the Earth.” The rhyme to the Ellinson girl’s violent display comes towards the end when Mrs Lodge hears her boys are alive, with Douglas cutting to a close-up as she buckles in sudden relief, a moment that packs emotional wallop no matter how many times I watch the film.


No monster movie is better than its monster, of course. As Steven Spielberg would to great effect years later with Jaws (1975), Them! keeps its beasties off screen for a long time – nearly a third of the film. The first appearance is a piece of brilliant mischief on Douglas’ part, as Pat kneels by a print she finds and scans her surrounds, unaware that a colossal monster is rising up over the sand dune just behind her, a giant something seeming to crawl out of infinite nothing, before fixing on the small, juicy human with beady eyes. I remember the first time I ever saw the film as a kid and being utterly bewildered as to what kind of threat was going to turn up until that most memorable reveal. The effects used to animate the giAnts aren’t always convincing, and aren’t as artful as the stop-motion work by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen. But the decision to eschew miniatures and use puppets and large-mock-ups gives them a sense of size and imminence, bristling threat and an aura of brutish savagery. When the ants do show up, just as importantly, they don’t shrink as threats – rather the opposite. Even when not seen that eerily memorable sound effect of their call (actually the massed sound of a species of tree frog) signals their presence and builds atmosphere. One of my favourite moments in the film, which feels to me again like an encapsulation of the era’s taut nerves and sense of dark wonder at the newly threatening frontiers of existence, is when a report comes through to the government about another ant nest having hatched out on a ship at sea. Medford cranes over the shoulder of a signalman typing up a furiously tapped Morse code message. Douglas zooms in on the signalman’s headphones, dissolves to a shot of the ship at sea, then to the hand tapping out the message – a hapless sailor trying to get out his message as the giAnts careen through the ship consuming men and bashing through walls.


Them! as an artefact vibrates with intimations of a novel and alien age, Douglas and Hickox seeking out odd visual textures to underline a headlong rush into an enclosing modernity and pestilential menace. When the first giAnt appears, the humans in the scene are dehumanised by the goggles they wear against the sand, making them look a bit ant-like themselves (whilst Weldon’s tightly cinched waist is insectoid as anything in the film), whilst the irradiated desert anticipates a post-apocalyptic world. LA’s vaulted roadways and cemented rivers, and the storm drains where the army ventures on the hunt for the ants, becomes a maze of blank and glistening concrete, like a rough draft for some futuristic city, the kinds seen on a hundred scifi pulp novel covers. Bronislau Kaper’s scoring mimics the churn of radio signals and the pulse of Morse code and singing telephone lines as the action plays out on arrays of communication that suck in all the information of the world in a new network to be disseminated by our heroes.


Them! benefits from its relative privilege, a long time before Star Wars (1977), as a film from a genre usually relegated to cramped budgets and expedient filmmaking in those days, made with something like the care and production heft of a top-line movie, apparent not just in the special effects but also the technical elements including Sidney Hickox’s photography and especially Bronislau Kaper’s thunderous music score. Whitmore’s performance as Ben anchors the film with his restrained humanity and everyman quality, a quality that makes him seem like a prototype for a brand of movie hero who was still to have his day in the future, whereas Arness’s jut-jawed company man feels more like a familiar type of the day, especially as he gets befuddled around Pat’s aura of competence. Ben is also a tragic hero, dying whilst saving the Lodge kids from an army of the ants in the storm sewer, managing to hoist the two lads to safety only to finish up mangled between two massive mandibles – a bloodcurdling moment remarkable not just in its cruel verve but in carrying through on the violent threat to its hero with a gutsiness still few films can claim. When, a few minutes later, Bob gets trapped by a collapsed roof in a section of tunnel with more of the beasts, the narrative’s rude and declared disinterest in the usual niceties makes the moment all the more thrilling, with Bob becoming the image of a frontline warrior with machine gun blazing in desperate last stand against the ultimate enemy – monsters of the id turned flesh.


Though the two films belong technically to the same subgenre, if Godzilla, released in Japan less than four months later, defined the giant monster movie forever, Them! has surely had as permanent effect on a smaller-scaled brand of man-versus-whatever drama – there’s something of its mutant DNA in films as diverse as Jaws and its many rip-offs, The Birds (1963), Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Aliens (1986), and the Jurassic Park films, both on the level of narrative patterning and on the crudely but effectively phobic level of exploiting the dread of being eaten by something with a lot of teeth and legs. But there are also the seeds of concerns filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, with Kiss Me Deadly (1955), John Boorman, with Point Blank (1967), up to and including Michael Mann, would later enlarge upon, surveying the wilderness of the new with anxiety rather than triumph. The enemy is defeated and exterminated in the very last moments of Them!, but not without a sense of both regret, as the human protagonists look down upon the last of a new species writhing in streams of fire, and also, vitally, a sense of menace contained but not quelled. As Medford’s hokey but effective last speech states and Douglas’ bleakly revelling images convey, it won’t be the last horror the brave new world will have to stare down.

25th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

The Mummy (1932)

Director: Karl Freund


By Roderick Heath

The series of horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s has long carried a specific mystique. The epoch of Expressionist horror that ushered the genre’s true arrival on screen had flowered in Germany but was waning by the time of the talkies. Whilst serious horror films were made in Hollywood throughout the silent period, jokey horrors were the most popular, lampooning the same dark and miasmic fantasias that the German filmmakers were revelling in. Many of the talented artistic progenitors of the Expressionist style, like directors F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Paul Leni, and camera wizard Karl Freund, decamped to Hollywood, which had already absorbed a lot of their style. A Hollywood horror revolution was officially kick-started by a native son, Tod Browning with Dracula (1931). Actually an adaptation of John L. Balderstone’s play taken from Bram Stoker’s novel, the film was charged with an enfolding sense of sonorous evil, and expertly exploited Béla Lugosi’s iconic charisma. Freund, who shot the film and helped meld the Expressionist ethic to the theatrical demands of early sound cinema,, emerged from the production with standing, as some felt he saved the difficult shoot, often filling in for the distracted Browning. Although more concrete than the intensely psychologised and symbolic Expressionist films, the specific power Universal’s approach was a dedication to making their horror films densely atmospheric and rarefied, close to cinematic mood poems and fables.


The great movies of their brand, including Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and a few others, defined the horror film in many minds, and still influence how many envision the classic roster of genre ghouls. Universal eventually turned successes into franchises and hammered those into the ground, although even their silliest later monster pile-ups like House of Dracula (1946) are exceedingly well-made and entertaining. But the earlier Universal work is far more powerful and still works even as many of the films show their age. Dracula proved a gigantic hit, and was quickly followed by James Whale’s brilliant take on Frankenstein, which although very different to Mary Shelley’s source novel, touched on a kind of fairy tale beauty and menace. Perhaps after a few years of the Depression, American audiences were in a mood not all that different to the struggling early days of Weimar; either way, dark, eerie, perverse and violent visions suddenly became wildly popular, an id to accompany the ego warriors of the gangster films soaring in popularity at the same time.


Universal, searching for another realm of the fantastic to explore, next produced The Mummy. It was an inspired and obvious recourse. Since Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb ten years earlier, things Ancient Egyptian held great cultural power. The Mummy was an original property rather than a well-worn literary classic, albeit strongly influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Ring of Thoth” and “Lot 249” as well much of H. Rider Haggard’s writing. Keeping recent success in mind, the studio gave Boris Karloff, who had rocketed to stardom in Frankenstein, the title role, and had Balderstone pen the screenplay. Barely days before the shoot was to start, the studio pressed Freund to direct. When Universal returned to the idea of the mummy as monster in the Kharis series, kicked off by The Mummy’s Hand (1940), the more familiar version was created, that of a lurching, raggedly bandaged zombie slowly and remorselessly tracking victims. In this regard the original The Mummy can be a surprise, as the notion of a walking mummy is only briefly touched on in the film’s famous opening sequence.


That scene sees respected Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple (Arthur Byron), his friend and colleague Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan), and young assistant Ralph Norton (Bramwell Fletcher) inspecting their latest discoveries on their 1921 field expedition. Sir Joseph, an old and wise hand, wants to carry on cataloguing in the order of discover as per usual practice, but Norton is too distracted by their big finds, a casket that proves to house a mummy, a high priest named Imhotep, and a box containing a hieroglyphic scroll. Muller, inspecting the casket, deduces the mummy was in fact a man buried alive, for treason or, more likely, sacrilege. “Maybe he got too gay with the Vestal virgins in the temple,” Norton theorises cheekily, getting closer to the mark than he thinks. Sir Joseph is momentarily shocked by the terrible curse inscribed on the box containing the scroll, which proves on inspection to be the mythical Scroll of Toth, inscribed with a spell for raising the dead. Muller, an occult expert, and Sir Joseph head out to argue the wisdom of prying any further into their find, leaving Norton alone, where curiosity proves far too powerful for him: he removes the scroll, transcribes and translates it, and reads the words quietly to himself. As he does so, the eyes of the mummy behind him slowly flicker open, its desiccated hands twitch and shift. The poor archaeologist is unaware until suddenly one mouldering hand reaches into the frame and lifts the scroll.


The walking dead disappears out the door, still only glimpsed only as a few trailing bandages, leaving behind the instantly mentally shattered Norton, who bursts into hysterical laughter and reports to Sir Joseph when he comes running, “He went for a little walk – you should’ve seen his face!” This opening is so arresting and memorable that it has long overshadowed the rest of the film. The technical limitations of early sound cinema, including sparing use of music, actually helped imbue the early Universal horrors with their power – these films work like stepping into some quieter, sinister antechamber of reality, in spite of the fact Dracula and The Mummy are both set in a contemporary world of motor cars and other noisy paraphernalia (even Frankenstein was set about 1900). Freund turns a static, all but eventless scene into a little minuet of delicate camera movements and judicious cuts. He privileges the viewer at first to the manifestations of something extraordinary occurring, but then cuts the viewer out from seeing the climax of the moment. He concentrates instead on Norton’s transgressive act as something nudging the edges of an unseen world as he silently recites the crucial text, and then his confrontation with something from beyond the bounds of human experience and sanity. The narrative jumps forward ten years and takes up again with Sir Joseph’s son Frank (David Manners) working with Professor Pearson (Leonard Mudie), on a new expedition on behalf of the British Museum that’s had a total flop of a digging season.


The events of ten years before are an enigma for these men, as Pearson ponders why David’s father vowed never to return to Egypt and David himself glibly theorises the boredom of digging in the desert broke Norton’s mind. A knock at the door of their base hut proves to be the strange, stalk-thin, brittle-skinned man claiming to be Ardeth Bey, who is of course is Imhotep himself, having cast off his grave wrappings and spent ten years practising Osiris knows what acts of dark magic to set himself up in the twentieth century and pass as a living being. Ardeth entices David and Pearson into facilitating his secret plan, by giving a clue to the location of the tomb of the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. Intrigued by this seemingly wild surmise and anxious for anything resembling a find, the archaeologists set their diggers to the task and locate the tomb, fully intact with a bounty of untouched relics. So sensational is the find that Sir Joseph breaks his pledge and comes to oversee the removal of the treasure, which is then shipped to the Cairo Museum as prize exhibit. Freund offers another brilliant pirouette of style here as his camera explores the museum like a restless, hungry spirit, eventually zeroing in on the face on Anck-es-en-Amon’s casket. Freund then transitions via a whip-pan and an odd, delightful effect using a scrolling, illustrated cityscape as if the camera is racing across the city, to then halt on the face of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), gazing out at the pyramids as if staring into the past – the subliminal connection between her and the dead princess instantly stated.


The scrolling effect is deliberately artificial; a nod to the roots of fantastic cinema in magic lantern shows and theatrical effects, with an echo of Freund’s work for Murnau. It also reinforces an idea in the dialogue, a sense of disconnection from the reality of “this dreadful modern Cairo.” Helen is the daughter of the English governor of Sudan and an Egyptian woman “with a family tree a mile long,” and is the repository for a memory of nations and wandering spirits. Helen is being watched over by Muller and his wife (Kathryn Byron), but can’t concentrate on the “nice English boys” because something’s stirring in the night. That something is Imhotep, who breaks into the museum with the Scroll of Thoth and begins chanting her name in a ritual to bring her soul back to her body. Helen is the one who obeys the call as the Princess’s reincarnation, and Frank and his father come across her in a daze banging on the museum door. They take her to her apartment after she faints whilst Imhotep is chased by a museum guard who meets an ugly end in the shadows.


One distinctive quality of the Universal horror brand was that it upheld the notion that horror as a genre was essentially tragic, by concentrating on monsters and antiheroes who are often essentially cursed with existence, doomed to exist outside of the world and often prey on it. This idea stands in complete opposition to the tendency that emerged in the 1960s and still dominates the genre where the forces of evil have become increasingly one-dimensional and symbolic. Whale’s Frankenstein monster captured this idea with such power that it became a recurring motif, whilst Imhotep, in his desperate, eon-long search for his great love, exemplifies it. Appearing like a sun-dried praying mantis in kaftan and fez, Imhotep proceeds with Mandarin cool, alternately effete and concerted, afraid of being touched (“An Eastern prejudice,” he tells Sir Joseph by way of explanation after asking him not to) in case his skin comes off in mouldy flakes. But his parched and brittle body is belied by the power emanating from his eyes and the fixity of his desires. Universal’s make-up wiz Pierce created both the overtly gnarled and desiccated look of the mummy when first discovered and a subtler look for the revived and rejuvenated Ardeth, who looks just normal enough to pass but whose face bears a thousand tiny wrinkles as if someone tried to shrink his head.


Freund returns more than once to a single, stunning shot of Karloff’s face, every rut in Pierce’s make-up inscribed by the lighting and his eyes in shadow, only for his eyes to suddenly light up and reveal a dread, piercing stare. It’s a very simple effect, and yet it turns the idea of Imhotep’s deathless passion and innate force into a singular visual. The Mummy also helped codify a now-common form of morbid romanticism popular in the horror genre. Nowadays even Dracula, a human-shaped leech originally, has become a deathless romancer in search of his reincarnated darling in many recent takes on his story. Freund’s channelling of the Germanic liebestod tradition into a Hollywood movie was still a relatively new and powerful notion, and even segues into a perverse joke when Frank, half-jokingly and half-honestly, confesses to Helen that he fell in love with Anck-es-en-Amon’s mummified body after rifling through her personal effects. Archaeology as pick-up art by way of stalking and necrophilia.


The Mummy’s mood of subliminal obsession is mediated through intensely rhythmic visual and editing patterns, particularly the recurring images of Imhotep, swathed in shadow, chanting Anck-es-en-Amon’s name or reciting killing curses, alternately pathetic in his longing or terrible in his malevolence. Music and image build to crescendos as Imhotep screws up a fist to drive home his maledictions like lances. He kills Sir Joseph this way and also almost kills Frank, who is saved only by clasping onto a charm given to him by Muller, who serves as the de facto Van Helsing character. Van Sloan gets to display even more impressive pith as Muller than he did as Stoker’s savant, as he proclaims his desire to “get my hands on you – I’d break your dried flesh to pieces!”, but knows he can’t even approach the deadly magician. That’s another unusual aspect of The Mummy, too, as most horror films invoke the supernatural but very few place so much emphasis on mysticism as a form of power to be invoked and resisted. Every character in the film feels or wields an invisible influence, locked as they are within patterns of fate, from Sir Joseph’s Sudanese servant (Noble Johnson) who falls under the influence of Imhotep like one his ancestors did to that fallen but still potent empire, to Anck-es-en-Amon whose spirit continues to wander and find new bodies eternally for having broken her vows as a priestess of Isis.


The Mummy is perhaps the most overtly dreamlike and ethereal of horror films made between the coming of sound and the work of Georges Franju. An otherworldly quality is sustained throughout, a quality glimpsed at its strongest in moments like when Imhotep shows Helen their shared past in a shimmering pool of sacred water, or when Helen, swathed in white nightgown, stalks a corridor in a trance-state, leaving behind Frank’s crumped form on the floor. One the film’s most genuinely weird and jarring asides comes when Helen’s dog, nervous in Ardeth’s house of dark magic overseen by the cat goddess of evil sendings, Bast, is killed off-screen with a horrible wail. Most mummy tales exemplify, and indeed are today the most recognisable version, of a story pattern popular in a lot of Victorian-era fantastic fiction (also crime fiction, a la The Moonstone and The Sign of Four). In that pattern, exotic, mysterious objects from alien cultures come into the possession of hapless westerners, who find out just how much deadly power there is in the taboo objects of ransacked cultures. The forbidden object stood for a certain suppressed, half-conscious anxiety at the possible surge of forces stirred by colonialism, and reminded of the necessity of a certain stoic acceptance of foreign customs and rules.


This The Mummy has an aspect of this but moves in different directions. Imhotep re-emerges to torment the despoilers of a cultural heritage but also uses them to accomplish his ends. He lets Frank and Pearson commit the heresy he won’t, for he himself is a rebel against the demarcations of the sacred. He also happily reclaims ancient status when he mesmerically suborns the “Nubian” servant: the bath ain’t big enough for two imperialist powers. Karloff played Fu Manchu the same year in The Mask of Fu Manchu, and there’s a distinctly similar note of paranoia over the possibility of an aristocratic man from a non-Caucasian society creating a different, if no less oppressive, power paradigm. Here that pattern is complicated by Helen’s status as inheritor of dual legacies and existing in multiple ages. A deleted addendum to the lengthy flashback followed Anck-es-en-Amon’s spirit through many ages and places, disseminating the flow of civilisation out of Egypt and into Europe as well as the progress of her spirit. Imhotep is the power of things past but not forgotten; Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon is the life force that graces and never dies.


The vision of their shared history, including his own downfall and terrible death, Imhotep shows to Helen in his mystic pool, glimpsing how Anck-es-en-Amon died and Imhotep, the high priest to her priestess who had fallen in love with her against all taboos, tried to use the Scroll of Toth to revive her, only to be caught and sentenced to be buried alive. This sequence, which was recycled several times in Universal’s later mummy films, is a delight as a throwback to the fast-receding ideals of silent cinema, like a lost reel from some lost Cecil B. DeMille historical epic. Freund, like DeMille, takes the rectilinear styles of Ancient Egyptian art as a basis for stylising compositions and the movements of the actors within them, creating a ritualised form to evoke the distant past. More interestingly, though, Freund also utilises silent film acting styles to suggest the bygone and archaic – Freund both tipping his hat to the art form that had defined him and other filmmakers but which was already fading into legend. The close-up of Imhotep being wrapped in bandages before burial is excruciating, as Karloff communicates his unutterable fear and suffering even as he submits to his fate: this is, in its way, one of the most violent images ever committed to film. Imhotep’s pathos as a lover and antihero, where before he was merely a menacing ghoul, emerges here and gives context to the priest’s incredible defiance, even of his own death, a character who triangulates the dominating stature of Dracula, the victimised pathos of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man, and the Promethean arrogance of Dr Frankenstein.


The Mummy hinges on Karloff’s ability to paint tortured depths in unlikely figures as well as sepulchral menace, his depictions of the alternations of hate, pain, longing, and a wry and haughty authority that drive the character making Imhotep one of the most genuinely interesting horror film villains. To have seen the film is to have his plangent chant of “Anck-es-en-Amon” forever in mind, reminiscent of that scene in Hour of the Wolf (1968) when the similar chant of “Pamina” in The Magic Flute is explored, the name as spell, love as transfiguring force. Indeed, Ingmar Bergman made that film in part as a tribute to his love for Universal’s horror films. Johann, a stage actress who was showcased as a potential movie star for a brief time but then retreated to Broadway and married John Houseman, is a fascinating presence. With her deep, silky voice and large-eyed beauty, she was at once able at once to seem the perfect flapper-age beauty but also evoked a timeless quality. Her Helen looks and sounds like a being detached from the hoi-polloi of the twentieth century, and it’s easy to imagine her adrift on the rivers of time. Indeed, by the finale Imhotep has regressed her until she is once again Anck-es-en-Amon. Johann projects an easy sensuality and an aura of emotional maturity that belies her standing as damsel in distress, and she constantly nudges the viewer to remember this is a pre-Code film we’re watching. “What girl could fail to make a conquest who collapsed at a man’s feet in the moonlight?” she prods Frank amusedly when he professes instant passion for her, before adding: “Don’t you think I’ve had enough excitement for one evening without the additional thrill of a strange man making love to me?”


Manners, who had played a drippy Jonathan Harker in Dracula, is similarly outmatched here in a way that points to the way familiar romantic heroes were all but incidental in this kind of film long before the days of final girls. But Manners also fares better in playing Frank, who’s a rather oddball hero, a handsome nerd, albeit one whose romantic nerve once touched is impressively ardent: “You can tell me to go to the devil – but you can’t laugh at me,” as he proclaims with impressive fixity as he falls for Helen. The Mummy is a flawed film for all its qualities. Balderstone’s script betrays something of the same stagy thinking that weighed down Dracula. Many scenes unfolds in the theatrical-like environs of the Whemples’ apartment, whilst Manners has deal with the lion’s share of unspeakable lines as romantic ingénue (“How I love you so!”). Freund’s last-minute hiring means that the filmmaking is flatly functional as often as it’s inspired. Freund was a profoundly gifted technician but only directed two horror films, this and Mad Love (1935). The degree to which he could take charge of material remained in question after the second film in particular was badly hampered by an unfocused narrative and excessive comic relief, and he stopped directing after that.


But The Mummy remains almost sui generis in its delicate sense of horror and tension, and resolves with a climax where the heroes, rushing to rescue Helen from Imhotep’s impending sacrifice and resurrection of her mortal form to remake her like himself, find themselves still outmatched by Imhotep’s power. Instead, aptly, it is up to Helen/Anck-es-en-Amon to defeat him by an act of prayer and contrition, calling on Isis to save her. Whereupon the statue of the goddess looking over the scene lifts a stony arm and strikes down the unruly priest with a curse that causes him to crumble to dust and skeletal remains, and Frank is left to try and drag Helen’s persona back from the murk of the past. This may well have influenced the similar deus ex machina punchline of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Although the staging of the finale is a bit awkward and rushed, it retains power for respecting the strange logic of this tale, where forces beyond rule all and love is an immutable force that distorts and rewrites reality. In celebrating this idea, The Mummy moves beyond Expressionist ideas into the realm of the authentically surreal.

23rd 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Sherlock Holmes (1916)

Director: Arthur Berthelet

2015 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

In past years, the CIFF set aside some of its programming for films from bygone eras of particular interest to film enthusiasts. That practice went a bit into decline in recent years, but happily, this year, filmgoers can see three films in new restorations: William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968); To Sleep with Anger (1990), in conjunction with the festival’s tribute to its influential director, Charles Burnett; and perhaps most exciting, the newly recovered Sherlock Holmes. The latter film was thought lost for nearly a century, but was found in 2014 at the world-famous Cinémathèque Française in Paris, a happy occurrence of the type that has become more common in recent years.


The significance of the find is immense, as it was the only film in which the great stage actor William Gillette ever appeared, preserving his famous, standard-setting characterization of the super-sleuth in his own highly successful co-adaptation with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of the writer’s first Holmes story to appear in Strand Magazine, “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891). Its significance to Chicago film history is even more noteworthy because the film was shot at the Essanay Studios at 1333-45 W. Argyle St. in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, which now serves as the Essanay Center, a division of St. Augustine College.

2015_02_Flickering_EmpireWhat? Chicago film history? Yes, indeed. For a short time, from 1898 through 1918, Chicago was the filmmaking capital of the United States. A fascinating history of this era written by my good friend Michael Glover Smith and his coauthor Adam Selzer, Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry offers a look at this crucible time in film history, with engaging profiles of the major players in the Chicago film industry, including Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson and George Spoor, founders of Essanay; Selig Polyscope founder “Colonel” William Selig; film distributor and producer George Kleine; and some of the directors and actors who answered the call of Chicago before they found warmer pastures in Hollywood, including Gloria Swanson, Orson Welles, Oscar Micheaux, and Ben Turpin.

Recently, I sat down to talk about the Chicago film industry and Sherlock Holmes with Mike Smith, whose other claims to fame include his charming indie film, Cool Apocalypse, set to screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on November 21 and 23, and his engaging blog White City Cinema. Our conversation ranged across a number of subjects, from film preservation to CGI.

Marilyn: Even though I knew there was a Chicago film industry, I had no idea how much was going on. What got you interested in doing this history?

Mike: The impetus was discovering how large the film industry was here, which I had no clue about even though I’ve always been really interested in early cinema. As a film history teacher, I always taught that era—the 1890s and early 1900s. But I mostly talked about Europe and the northeastern United States, Thomas Edison, Biograph, because that’s what the history books focused on.

I discovered by chance how large the industry here was when I went to the Chicago History Museum. They have a very small display devoted to film, TV, and radio, and they had an old Essanay camera on display and a little plaque describing Charlie Chaplin making a film here and the address of Essanay. I knew Chaplin had worked here, but I wasn’t sure when it was, where it was, how long he was here, or how many films he made. So I decided to do a bit of research, and I was surprised to learn he was only here for 23 days, and he only made one short film!

I went to Essanay and was amazed to find that it was intact, and when I started to learn more about the studio, I was surprised to learn that there was no book-length study of Essanay or the local film production scene in the silent era. There have been books that devote a chapter or two to the era, and there have been great biographies written of people like “Bronco Billy” Anderson and Col. Selig, but there’s never been a whole book devoted to just that era in Chicago film history. When I learned how crucial Chicago was to the developing film industry in America, I thought it was a worthy subject for an entire book.

I also think that the fact that Columbia University Press put out the book, which I’m still over the moon about, is that I think they realized that there was no other book devoted solely to this subject. Hopefully, Adam and I have helped to fill in a gap in early film history.

How did you and your coauthor get together?

Adam has been a good friend of mine for over a decade. We met by chance in line at a Bob Dylan concert at the Vic Theatre back in 2004. He is an author, historian, and tour guide and has a number of books out, primarily young adult novels. But he has some history books out, too, most notably The Smart Aleck’s Guide to U.S. History. So it was kind of a natural fit, because he knows Chicago history very well and I know film history very well.


You bring out the entrepreneurial spirit of Chicago. You can do anything here in Chicago, nobody will stop you. How did you feel about the characters you encountered?

I was fascinated by all of the major players and that entrepreneurial spirit really made researching this a lot of fun. I grew to really respect them as visionaries. This industry didn’t exist, so they were helping to build it up from nothing and they were coming from different backgrounds. Col. Selig was a phony medium who saw a kinetoscope and thought, ‘I want to get in on this.’ So the line between artist and businessman was totally blurred and also what it meant to be a filmmaker, a distributor, and an exhibitor. That was really interesting because in a few years, everything would become separate and regimented, but in the early days of cinema, they were selling cameras and they needed films that people could project. For George Spoor, certainly, filmmaking was an afterthought; he wanted to sell cameras.

I was really fond of George Kleine. He became my favorite character even though we write about him less that the others because he wasn’t a filmmaker; he was a distributor and he stood up to Edison the most and also, he was the only one who retired a success in the 1920s. He’s the only one who did not lose his fortune at the end of the local industry here.

Thomas Edison is someone I grew to grudgingly respect. Early on, Adam and I joked around about how he was going to be the villain of the book, and in some ways he is, but we also ended up sympathizing with him the more we looked into his point of view. I don’t think he was a super-villain trying to monopolize the industry out of greed. I think he truly thought that he had a case to make for patenting this equipment, and then the other thing to understand is that he didn’t understand how big the film industry was going to become. So when we look at what he did from today’s perspective, he seems really, really greedy, but if he had known how large the industry would become, he would have behaved differently. He was trying to make practical decisions to protect his own business interests by forming the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) and only licensing his patented equipment to nine studios, and he did do some positive things, such as getting fire insurance for all the theatres that showed his films. In the early 20th century, that was very progressive. We tried to be balanced.

It’s hard to predict the future, though some people seem to have a sense of it, like Selig, who was a very innovative individual.

Moreso than Spoor and Anderson.


But he didn’t have the business acumen or didn’t know how to realize his dreams the way that he saw them. That’s often a problem with visionaries—they need somebody else to do the grunt work. I’m curious about Selig, too, because I know him more for his work out west. Can you tell me more about his Chicago versus western work?

I don’t know exactly how many films he produced here versus there, but I would estimate that the majority of the films he made were here because he started in 1896, and he didn’t shoot his first films out west until 1909. They call him the man who invented Hollywood—that’s the name of the biography of him because he was the first filmmaker to use a location in southern California, but that was almost by chance. He shot part of The Count of Monte Cristo (1908) there, and realized it was so ideal for shooting, especially in the wintertime, that he decided to set up a second branch out there.

The mythology is that Hollywood became Hollywood because Chicago was too cold, which is partially true, but not the whole story. Do you think there was any way that Chicago could have maintained, if not the center of film production, some ongoing film concern here?

That’s an excellent question. It’s hard for me to imagine the industry continuing beyond what it initially was. I feel like it’s almost a miracle that it happened at all.

Film production had already begun in the northeastern United States. Thomas Edison was producing films prior to their public exhibition, and I feel like the only reason it sprung up here was because he stunted the growth of the film industry there. I think it was a combination of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the fact that Chicago was such an important hub for distribution, and a number of other factors that made it conducive to film production at that particular time, but I don’t think it was destined to last.

There was one really curious individual in this book—the censor, Major M.L.C. Funkhouser. What a great name! If anyone put the film scene in a funk, it was him. Obviously, there were a lot of bad business decisions that were sinking the industry, but do you think censorship was a contributing factor?

Definitely! Although we couldn’t get hard evidence against him, we tried to imply that he was in the pocket of Edison’s trust, the MPPC. The evidence comes mostly from the fact that he was a lot stricter about censoring independent films and foreign films than he was the MPPC films, especially as time went by. So I think that if he wasn’t in their pocket at the beginning, he eventually became that way. But he became that way at the wrong time because the ship was already sinking. Early on, when he did censor local films, he probably hurt the industry, and then later on, he was part of the sinking ship. Metaphorically, he was on the Eastland.


Metaphorically, but almost literally as well because the people most affected by that disaster were not allowed to see the films of it. I find that rather irresponsible and considering the history of the newsreel and how it became more codified here in Chicago, it seems like a real crime against Chicago cinema in that sense.

That footage could be seen in the suburbs but not in the city itself, which I agree is a tragedy. There are a few fragments of the film, all of which were found in an archive in Amsterdam, and one of them is unbelievably gruesome.


One of the amazing things about writing this book was witnessing the discovery of a lot of these old films. The Sherlock Holmes film was found just as Flickering Empire was going to press, so we were just able to add a footnote that it was going to be restored and rereleased. And now I’ve seen the film, and I love it. I think it’s wonderful. And there are a couple of other films that were either rediscovered or have been restored and are coming out soon in definitive editions.

I think we’ve hit into an era where film recovery and restoration is on the upswing. A lot of archives are opening and have the tools to finally see what they have, and I think we’ll see a lot more of these recoveries.

I think you’re right, and what I like is that a lot of these films have been discovered in an archive where they know there are films, but they’ve probably been mislabeled or the archive is in another country and the title was translated as something different so they don’t quite know what they have. So it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a cinephile, and it’s great that enough people care that there’s a market out there for this stuff. And that was another reason I wanted to write this book, because I’m always trying to show my students that film history is exciting. It’s not a boring, dry, academic endeavor. Just to watch films that are 100 years old can be a hell of a lot of fun. I think a film like Les Vampires by Louis Feuillade is as entertaining as a movie can be. Hopefully, my enthusiasm for this topic comes through in the book.

Telling this chapter in film history is really important if you’re going to get a true picture of how film developed in this country.

You’re so aware of the fact that this is the first time it was ever done on film. Maybe there are genre elements that come from literature and theatre, but when you see it on film, you realize that this is the beginning.

Like with William Gillette. Having his stage performance preserved for posterity, those opportunities don’t come along very often and it’s really a treasure to see that.

The last thing I want to say in terms of trying to capture this particular era is that I didn’t only want to transfer my enthusiasm for early film history to the reader, I also wanted to capture the excitement of the age, especially in the first chapter. That was the hook we wanted, to show how movies were sort of the climax of this flurry of invention that included other exciting breakthroughs—the lightbulb, the phonograph, and then there were moving pictures.

You really did that. The early nickelodeons, the idea of just being able to put your face down into the viewer and watch these moving pictures is revelatory to people. This wasn’t always here.

It’s hard to impress upon my students what the world was like before people saw moving pictures because today we’re just bombarded with moving images wherever we go. You’re at the gas station pumping gas and there’s a screen with people moving on it. There are screens in front of you all the time.

Lumiere Brothers

One of my favorite stories about early cinema is the Lumière Brothers had a film about a couple and their baby. They are in the foreground of the shot, and they’re outdoors. What made the biggest impression on audiences was not what was happening in the foreground, but rather the leaves blowing in the wind in the background. If you read contemporary reports of the screening, they talk about how that caused a sensation in the audience. And in a way, it makes sense if you think that people had looked at so many paintings and still photos of trees, just to see leaves blowing is revelatory.

There is a contemporary version of that with CGI, when you can see individual strands of hair moving, which I found fascinating because I was used to traditional cel animation.

I heard there was a hair physicist in Disney’s Tangled (2010) credited in that film. And that’s the great thing about film history, it’s a never-ending series of breakthroughs.

Sherlock Holmes screens Saturday, October 24 at 3:00 p.m.at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Treasure: Sly comedy about the pressures of capitalism in the new Romania and the pleasures of buried treasure from Romanian New Wave star Corneliu Porumboiu. (Romania)

Motley’s Law: Informative and inspiring documentary about Kimberley Motley, the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. (Denmark)

The Emperor in August: Fascinating, beautifully shot historical drama of the final days before Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

20th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: The Treasure (Comoara, 2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu

2015 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the brightest stars of the Romanian New Wave is Corneliu Porumboiu. His 2006 feature debut, 12:08 East of Bucharest, is a dead-on comic critique of finger-pointing at the dawn of Romania’s release from communist oppression and dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. In the years since, Romania joined the European Union, in fact, only one year before the economic meltdown of 2008. The EU and financial hardships that afflict modern Romanians and their response to them are the themes Porumboiu examines in The Treasure.

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Costi (Toma Cuzin) is a hard-working civil servant living in Bucharest with his wife Raluca (Cristina Cuzin Toma) and 6-year-old son Alin (Nicodim Toma). As the film opens, Alin is sitting alongside Costi in the family car scolding his father for being late to pick him up. Although he acknowledges that Costi is almost never late and that heavy traffic delayed him, Alin is still upset because he thought Costi did it on purpose and that he told Alin a story about trying to save people like Robin Hood, Alin’s favorite fictional character, to try to smooth things over. Costi apologizes.

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That evening, Costi is reading The Adventures of Robin Hood to Alin for the umpteenth time when his neighbor, Adrian (Adrian Purcaresco), asks to see him. Adrian, recently unemployed from a lucrative job, is far behind on his mortgage interest payments and about to lose his house. In desperation, he wants Costi to loan him 800 euros so that he can hire a metal detector to locate treasure said to have been buried by his great-grandfather on the grounds of his family’s country estate in Islaz; Adrian offers to split the take 50/50. Costi has to manage his money carefully to pay his bills each month and tells Adrian that he can’t help. However, the idea worms its way into his mind, and with Raluca’s belief that the story could be true—Islaz was the site of the Wallachian Revolution of 1848 that was bankrolled by some wealthy families—he scrapes together enough money to hire Cornel (Corneliu Cozemi) to scan the grounds.

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The Treasure is a sly little film that says a lot, especially about the European Union, without doing a lot. The golden dream of a democratic, capitalistic society to which Romanians clung while they were part of the Eastern Bloc tarnished in the oxygen of reality. Usurious interest rates combined with economic instability in the new Romania have our characters, Adrian and Costi, dreaming a different dream—in fact, a fairytale. Hilariously, Costi’s boss (Florin Kevorkian) learns that Costi used a work excuse to sneak out of the office. When Costi tells him truthfully that he left to meet with a metal detection firm to scan for treasure on a friend’s property, the boss nearly fires him for trying to play him for a fool. He insists Costi must be having an affair, and Costi, fearful of losing his job, complies with a made-up mistress and promises to end the affair to save his family.

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The actual search for the treasure is about as true to life as it gets. Cornel moves back and forth inside the ramshackle remains of the once-grand estate and the acreage surrounding it, has trouble with his sophisticated, deep-imaging scanner, switches to a screeching surface scanner until Costi effects a repair, and argues off and on with Adrian as the tedium of the long day grows more acute. It’s odd to share the experience of standing around doing nothing; it’s a little boring and causes one’s mind to wander, but the anticipation that Cornel will turn up something exciting underlies the experience. When he finally thinks he’s found something, in the spot Adrian predicted, the men must then set to the hard work of digging two meters below ground. It’s almost cartoonish to watch, through Porumboiu’s steady, clinical gaze, as the dirt flies out of a hole lit only by a set of headlights and a single bulb flung over a tree branch.

Treasure book

Porumboiu introduces us to a rich cast of supporting characters, from minor functionaries at the Islaz police department to a resourceful thief and some larcenous country neighbors. Adrian doesn’t seem trustworthy, with his tales of family riches, but the country home he split with his brother as their inheritance is real enough. Costi is a kind, law-abiding man in a happy marriage, and we want the best for him. In the end, I felt quite happy with the behavior of all involved. Despite the looming threat of state seizure and only a small finder’s fee should a treasure of cultural significance be found, Adrian and Costi pursue their dream fairly. The film comes full circle, back to the magic of Robin Hood, the fantasy of buried treasure, and a father’s desire to be a hero in his son’s eyes—in part, thanks to the EU and the prosperity of a former enemy. The Treasure is a funny, human delight for the whole family.

There are no more screenings of The Treasure. It may be shown during Best of the Fest on Wednesday, October 28 at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Motley’s Law: Informative and inspiring documentary about Kimberley Motley, the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. (Denmark)

The Emperor in August: Fascinating, beautifully shot historical drama of the final days before Japan’s surrender to Allied forces in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

19th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Motley’s Law

Director: Nicole Nielsen Horanyi

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The documentaries at this year’s CIFF lean heavily on portraits of influential individuals, including Chicago “Breakfast Queen” Ina Pinkney, Italian designer Michele De Lucchi, and architect Helmut Jahn, whose State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago may be facing the wrecking ball. I don’t deny that these and other individuals highlighted at the festival are interesting and notable, but I’d bet large that the most fascinating and arguably most important person profiled in a CIFF documentary is Kimberley Motley, the central figure of Motley’s Law.

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Motley is an American attorney and former Mrs. Wisconsin who is the only American allowed to practice law in Afghanistan. She first went there in 2008 as part of a nine-month legal education program run by the U.S. State Department and spends approximately six months a year in Kabul mainly defending foreigners caught up in the country’s legal system and pursuing women’s rights cases on a pro bono basis.

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Motley, half-black/half-Korean, proudly sporting her University of Wisconsin Badgers T-shirts and a dizzying array of dangling earrings, would be a striking figure anywhere, but in Kabul, she’s utterly singular. She never wears a veil anywhere, not on the streets, not at the prisons where she consults with her clients, and not in court. She’s forceful, no-nonsense, and relentless in pursuing justice under whatever laws apply—constitutional, Sharia, or tribal. She shakes off the fact that a grenade was thrown into her house while she was in the States and tells her assistant Khalil, who wants to bring her car into the courtyard, to leave it on the street. She prefers to be the intimidator, not the intimidated.

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We follow her as she visits a prison to see her client, a South African contractor who was convicted of what may have been trumped-up charges and has been in prison for six years. Instead of waiting however long the prison guards see fit before allowing her in, she simply breezes in through the open gates, blankets of barbed wire flanking her on either side. The South African has found ways to keep his spirits up, but he says he has reached his breaking point. He knows that if he pays a $5,000 bribe, he will be released—the two Nigerians who were convicted with him went free long ago, most likely because they paid up—but he refuses. He has already gotten a letter ordering his release from Afghanistan Attorney General Aloko, but the court officials want to keep bouncing his case around, perhaps hoping he will eventually pay them off. Motley isn’t exactly patient, but she hangs in there, restating her points over and over; finally, when she offers to help an official with a green card problem he has in the United States, her client gets his walking papers. “Every system is corrupt,” Motley says, “but this system is really corrupt.”

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Motley is very frank in stating that she came to Afghanistan for the money, which affords her, her husband, and their three children a very comfortable lifestyle in North Carolina. We see the contrast during the fall months when she’s at home celebrating Halloween with her family and neighbors. Horanyi takes her camera down a North Carolina street lined with trees and comfortable houses and then immediately contrasts it with a Kabul street, where a father, mother, and baby stand in the middle of the street, seemingly with nowhere to go, and children wade through garbage-filled water. The military roams everywhere.

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Although Motley lives in a very large, fairly luxurious house in Kabul, she is subject to power outages and leaking plumbing. When the lack of utilities becomes too much, she decides to move into the luxury Serena Hotel; 15 minutes after her check-in, gunmen arrive and kill nine people. She sluffs it off as just another attack to her husband—she likes to drive after an attack because the streets are usually clear—but he learns how serious it was from U.S. news reports. Ironically, her husband is nonfatally shot through the jaw when he visits his family in Milwaukee. Motley decries Americans and their guns, but she isn’t sure she’ll remain in Afghanistan as cut-ins of President Obama announcing the pull-out of U.S. troops in 2015 (now delayed) means decreased security for her and increased factional fighting.

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It’s hard to know what keeps Motley going in such capricious and dangerous circumstances, but one case she handles provides the best clue. A young, religious woman has been thrown in jail for running away from her husband. He took her to a party where he wanted her to drink and have sex with his friends. Motley points to the Koran to defend her and wins her release. The poor woman, practically a girl, is crying as she talks to Motley and says she would kill herself if she didn’t fear Allah. Motley may have been in it for the money, but it’s clear that she considers herself, as her banter with Khalil at the beginning of the film states, like a member of DC Comics’ Justice League.


I found Motley’s Law inspirational as well as informative about what life in Afghanistan is like beyond the dutifully reported attacks and counterattacks. While anarchy may seem to reign, people like Motley prove that the infrastructure of Afghan democracy, while shaky, still stands.

Motley’s Law screens Tuesday October 20 at 8:00 p.m. and Thursday, October 22 at 2:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

The Emperor in August: Beautifully shot, compelling, and updated telling of the final days before Japan’s unconditional surrender in World War II. (Japan)

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

18th 10 - 2015 | 6 comments »

The Martian (2015)

Director: Ridley Scott


By Roderick Heath

Mars, the near future. The members of Ares 3, the third manned mission to the Red Planet, pick at the surface whilst pursuing their scientific mission. The team consists of commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain), pilot Rick Martinez (Michael Pena), and a crew of highly competent supernerds, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara), and Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie). As Watney and Martinez trade their practised acerbic banter, the team are called in because a powerful sandstorm is heading for their mission base. Rather than weather out the storm and risk the safety of the rocket that will take them off the planet, Lewis orders the mission aborted and immediate evacuation. During the near-blind and floundering trek through the storm to the rocket, Watney is struck by a piece of flying debris and flung into the maelstrom. Lewis tries to find him but, faced with the evidence that he’s probably dead, and with the rocket in danger, she gets aboard and orders lift-off. The accidental tragedy, the kind that can befall such dangerous missions, is reported, and NASA boss Teddy Daniels (Jeff Daniels) breaks the sad news to the world’s press. Watney, however, is not dead. He awakens half-buried in the red Martian soil, a steel spike jutting from his chest, his pressure suit leaking but not enough to kill him. He manages to get back to the habitation unit, dig the jagged metal out of his body, and staple the wound closed. He is then confronted by the awful fact of his situation: the smart-aleck botanist and engineer knows he’s alone on Mars, his communications wrecked, and the rations left behind insufficient to last him the wait of up to four years until the next mission arrives.


Watney must improvise the best he can with the limited tools available to him, the limits of his existence reduced to a glorified tent on an alien alluvial plane. There’s nothing left to do but, in his words, to science the shit out of this. Watney is presumed dead by everyone on Earth for many months, and his survival is only discovered by accident when the NASA director of operations, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), asks permission to scan the site of the Ares 3 mission by satellite to check its condition. Technician Mindy Park (Mackenzie Davis) quickly discerns that someone is driving around the abandoned rover vehicle. Daniels refuses to pass on the news to the Ares 3 crew, who are already grieving his loss, but NASA snaps into gear to work out how to resupply Watney in a tight window of opportunity. Unexpected disasters soon begin to make the situation critical, as Watney’s crop is destroyed by a near-fatal rupture in his airlock, and the first rocket built to send food to him crashes during launch because of its hurried construction. The head of the Chinese space agency, Zhu Tao (Chen Shu), offers to help with his organisation’s new experimental booster rocket, but a young telemetry expert, Rich Purnell (Donald Glover, stealing scenes), has a better and less risky idea, and proposes turning the Hermes, the spacecraft used by the Ares crew, around and sending them back to fetch Watney after a resupply. Teddy nixes the idea, not wanting to risk the rest of the crew, against the heated disagreement of Mission Controller Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean), so Mitch secretly transmits Rich’s plan to them, essentially making it their call whether to turn around and trek back across space to save their friend. Meanwhile, Watney survives his ordeal with the only supply of Earthly culture left behind for him: Lewis’s USB collection of ’70s sitcoms and disco music.


Andy Weir’s 2012 novel The Martian had a very contemporary genesis. Weir, after dabbling unsuccessfully as a writer, started the story as a blog purely to amuse himself, but then the project developed much like the adventures it portrays: a solitary task that attracted like minds fascinated by the same ideas and problems Weir postulated. The ideas readers contributed via comments were woven into the tale. Weir placed most of his emphasis on the science part of science fiction, striving to create a believable depiction of survival on another planet. Weir’s narrative template was obviously Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe: as with Defoe, the nuts-and-bolts survival methods of a castaway concerned him first and foremost, tackling in abstract the very real and likely problems of survival as a mixture of thought exercise, best-practise thesis, and classical frontiersman narrative. For dramatic convenience, Weir eventually brought in other characters and viewpoints, including a collective of NASA brains and Mark’s own guilt-ridden crew. Weir’s novel was deliberately (in part) artless, most of it presented in the form of Watney’s daily log that suited the initial presentation on a blog perfectly whilst also reviving an old literary form, the epistolary novel. Watney’s yammering, authorial voice was replete with pop cultural references, sophomore sarcasms, and nerdy enthusiasms—pretty much the voice we’re all used to reading on a thousand fliply amusing websites. The blend of hyper-detailed procedure and antiheroic humour wasn’t great drama or deep contemplation, and yet it made for a very enjoyable read.


Ridley Scott’s film adaptation was destined to be a rather different creature, though screenwriter Drew Goddard, who handled the witty, if minor, horror genre riff The Cabin in the Woods (2012), follows the novel scrupulously in many regards. Scott, one of the few great maximalists left in cinema, couldn’t be much different to Weir in his approach to his art. But it’s not difficult to discern the appeal of the material for the director. For one thing, it lets Scott operate in several genres at once, most of which he’s tackled before, particularly in his restless late career. It’s a scifi vista about fighting for survival a la Alien (1979); a comedy about characters with weak social skills like Matchstick Men (2003) and A Good Year (2006); an epic pitting man against primal forces following on from Prometheus (2011) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014); and a tale of a searcher founding new worlds like 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005). The sequence in which Watney operates on himself suggests a prototype for Prometheus’ best scene, which depicts more sophisticated self-surgery. Prometheus was doomed to stay in the shadow of Alien because of a confused screenplay, whilst it also discomfortingly revealed how much more staid and lumpen much current big cinema often is compared to that from the days when Scott emerged. The mild disappointment of the experience seems to have stung Scott out of a relatively flat period. The Martian, excellent as it is, might also count as a decline from the gutsy strangeness of The Counselor (2013) and the epic vigour of Exodus: Gods and Kings, two films with completely diverse brands of ambition that few seemed willing to process.


Most vitally, though, The Martian allows Scott a chance to approach narrative entirely on the level of systematology, a notion he’s been dabbling with for most his career but started reflecting most seriously on his underrated crime movies American Gangster (2007) and The Counselor. In those films, he strove to do what most gangster flicks avoid and demonstrate the drug industry as a chain of cause and effect leading right down from kingpin to the most pathetic junkie. Even more impudently, he used a spectacular chain of logically metastasising events to illustrate that most illogical of things, divine intervention, throughout Exodus: Gods and Kings. Watney is Scott’s anti-Moses, and yet echoes his take on the mythic hero, partly signalled by Scott’s return use of Wadi Rum in Jordan as a location for the drama (whilst also tipping his hat again to Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, which also used the same location). Watney is forced to rely purely on his own invention, using happenstance advantages, like the manna provided for him in a package of potatoes shipped for a Thanksgiving feast that gives him the chance to grow enough crops to live, and then carefully manufacturing what he needs, including water, through risking chemical and mechanical processes. Weir’s book was obviously far more detailed and in-depth about the pure process of this undertaking, and to a certain extent Goddard’s script skates over the very business that is the essence of the tale. But then The Martian is a mass-market movie, and it’s already stretching the template by avoiding many regulation elements and clichés—only the very faintest hints of romance, little action, very little religion, and a bunch of eggheads for protagonists.


The Martian’s can-do poptimism strikes a refreshing note in the contemporary film landscape, following Weir’s lead in contemplating a situation where scientists get on with their jobs without political interference and the world’s populace looks on, riveted by the spectacle of how to do a lot with very little—a very now theme if ever there was one. The Martian belongs to a recent string of science fiction straining to be more accurate than the cinematic branch has often been seen as in the past, whilst also connecting to hallowed works of the genre’s history. The speculative problem-solving has roots not just in Robinson Crusoe but also in Jules Verne’s template of blending hard and soft science based in the best available knowledge and cutting-edge concepts of his time. Cinematically, Byron Haskin’s Robinson Crusoe in Mars (1964) is an obvious intermediary: Haskin’s film dragged in scientific improbabilities, like stones that give off oxygen when heated, and the outright fantastic, when aliens eventually appear. But it also evoked an eerie, distinctive, dislocated mood that anticipated the serious science-fiction filmmaking of the next two decades, including Alien. Haskin had worked long before that with George Pal, who had produced Destination Moon (1950), the first modern scifi film and one that was just as persuasively preoccupied with the true problems of space travel. Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars (2001), a controversial flop at the time of its release and another film made in the image of Stanley Kubrick’s tirelessly (and, increasingly, tiresomely) influential 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), helped reinvigorate realistic scifi with its elegant use of the authentic limitations of travelling in space, usually sidestepped readily by filmmakers, as the very matter of its drama—the danger of meteors, the tyranny of distance and scarcity, the exacting punishment attending the smallest of faults and miscalculations.


More recently, Gravity (2013) and Interstellar (2014) had delved into similar territory (The Martian shares Interstellar cast members Damon and Chastain). One thing The Martian has that those films conspicuously lacked is its scallywag sense of humour; Scott’s film is less pretentious than either whilst going well past them in actual, practical acumen. If it lacks the intermittent glimpses of unusual grandeur Christopher Nolan conjured in his work, it also avoids the bad wobbles of story and characterisation, and actually lives up to the promise of convincing use of a far-out setting on which Gravity failed so conspicuously to deliver. But actually, a closer ancestor to Weir’s novel was The Andromeda Strain (1970), Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel where almost all of the drama was found specifically in scientific exegesis. A lot of Weir’s more finicky process details are left out of the film, and Scott is more attentive to the physical level: Watney, as his ordeal continues over months, degenerates from a man blessed with Damon’s weathering but still very boyish features and sturdy physique, to scrawny, sore-riddled, malnourished remnant sprouting a ragged beard. Scott’s filmmaking is part of the great pleasure of The Martian: avoiding much of the mannered and assaultive lexicon of contemporary pseudo-realism (some of which Scott helped invent), Scott instead offers a work of classical filmmaking sweep, perhaps his most successful attempt: it somehow manages to be at once fast-paced and dashing, yet also curiously relaxed, a work of profoundly casual skill.


The filmmaking here is most memorable when regarding the Martian landscape itself, a vista grand and beautiful, but also utterly desolate. Watney’s journey across the planet to locate the escape ship intended for the next mission but now to be repurposed as his ark is an interlude of cinematic grandeur that again nods to Lawrence of Arabia’s Nefud Desert crossing sequence, alternating viewpoints both godlike and eye-level. Some have called Scott’s approach to the material distant, but I found it simply elegant, and perhaps that’s so rare these days, no one recognises it. The mix of old-school cinema and new-age humour, potentially awkward, works for the most part. Perhaps there was the seed of something shaggier and more genuinely oddball here, in the mould of John Carpenter and Alien collaborator Dan O’Bannon’s heady Dark Star (1974). But of course, that was never part of the mission statement. Weir resisted introducing much introspection on Watney’s part, with the suggestion that Watney’s detail-focused approach to his situation holds at bay existential angst. One of the best jokes transcribed here satirises a tendency towards heavy metaphysical ponderings in such fare, when Kapoor wanders what Watney must be thinking, before cutting to the stranded astronaut deploring the lyrics of disco music.


Scott, on the other hand, whilst not trying to graft something too weighty onto the material, doesn’t let Watney escape unscathed, simply utilising his filmmaking to acknowledge a sense of isolation and the tug of eternity, and finds a sense of wonder as much in the miracle of a sprout of living green, with all its scientific and poetic meaning, as in the vast reaches of an alien world. Watney is confronted with a landscape of perfect solitude, his status as pioneer, the first one to go just about anywhere on the planet, a space cowboy and tourist who has the technology-provided ability, familiar again to most of us these days, to define his own reality with the music he constantly blasts, and yet with the tug of airless infinities just beyond his cocoon of plastic and digitised music.


Scott and Goddard smartly dial back on some of Weir’s more awkward, populist-wannabe touches, like the clashes of temperament between Teddy and Mitch, aiming more for an interesting diminuendo where a confrontation of the two men after Mitch makes his risky play acknowledges consequences like grown-ups. It’s tempting, indeed, to read Mitch, with Bean in the role dampening his trademark machismo and playing up his intelligence, as Scott’s avatar in the film, a man long used to playing by a larger game’s rules but willing to occasionally remind everyone he doesn’t always sign on with the smooth, hierarchical, technocratic suppression of human instinct (Bean’s presence also presents an opportunity for one great in-joke for Lord of the Rings fans). I was also pleased that Chastain, who might have been prodded to overplay the fearless leader in a manner close to her charmless part in Interstellar and her steely-neurotic spymaster in Zero Dark Thirty (2012), instead offers a portrait in mature leadership that, again, feels rather rare in recent filmmaking. Chastain expertly handles the moments like when she holds herself accountable for leaving a very-much-alive Watney behind with pliant skill, registering both piercing reprobation and lucid realism. In fact, the cast is so generally excellent that many actors, like Kristen Wiig, must count as wasted.


The Martian isn’t perfect. I could’ve done with a few less rounds of NASA technicians cheering and cutaways to enthralled audiences in Times Square and other international locations. The theme of contact and cross-pollination between cultures is one close to Scott’s heart, and yet The Martian gets oddly stiff when contemplating an American’s butt being saved with Chinese aid. Yet something of the crowd-sourced joie de vivre of the novel’s genesis has slipped through into this film, one that invites the audience along and doesn’t talk down much as it explains the minutiae of growing crops on Mars and explores the method Watney has to use to strip down and repurpose the ascent vehicle in order to reach the Hermes, reducing to a “convertible,” as Watney quips, assaulting the craft to the point where it seems unsafe, and indeed this turns out to be so.


The climax is a particularly brilliant display of technique and visual power, ratcheting up tension but also finding weird epiphanies of motion that extend the film’s theme of seeing the beauty and wonder even at the outermost fringes of survival. The jokey yet fundamental theme of music as a basic human need resolves in a zero-gravity dance where the need to grip onto another human is quite literally a life-saving act of faith. Scott and Goddard go further than Weir for a postscript that underlines, amidst a mood of bouncy triumph, the notion that experience equals knowledge that then must be passed on in the same way a seed leads to a green shoot. Such uncynical epiphanies make The Martian one of the most charming big-budget movies of the year and one of Scott’s most entertaining works.

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13th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: The Emperor in August (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Masato Harada

2015 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

The story of Japan’s surrender to Allied forces on August 15, 1945, which unofficially ended World War II, is one of obvious interest to the Japanese people. In August 1967, director Kihachi Okamoto’s Japan’s Longest Day, the first major film to deal with this event, premiered in Japan (and showed at the 1968 Chicago International Film Festival), where it was a smash hit. Now we have a new film version of that story. Of course, remakes are standard operating procedure in Hollywood and something audiences around the world are used to, but some in Japan have wondered why The Emperor in August needed to be made.


Director Harada felt the time was ripe for a retelling, not only to reveal established and new information about the surrender to a new generation of Japanese indifferent to their country’s history, but also to correct some misperceptions about the emperor’s responsibility put forward in two American histories that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and 2001, respectively—John Dower’s Embracing Defeat and Herbert Bix’s Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. His approach eschews the melodramatic style of Okamoto’s film to reveal the workings of Japan’s constitutional monarchy and the real power behind the symbolic power of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito).


When the film opens, Japan’s war effort is on its last legs, and its government is faced with the decision of whether to accept the Potsdam Declaration Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender issued by U.S. President Harry S. Truman, U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Chinese Chairman Chiang Kai-shek or go on fighting. Harada focuses mainly on Prime Minister Suzuki (Tsutomu Yamazaki), the aged general who reluctantly formed a new cabinet at the request of the emperor (Masahiro Motoki), Army Minister Korechika Anami (Kôji Yakusho), and Chief Secretary of the Cabinet Sakomizu (Shin’ichi Tsutsum) as the main political players in deciding the fate of the Japanese nation.


Anami is a proud soldier who believes the Japanese could yet win the war through a coalition of all of Japan’s military branches and has the joyous support of the army in pushing for the “decisive battle” on Japanese soil, using the Soviet sacrifice of 20 million soldiers to win the war against Nazi Germany as an example of what can be accomplished. The emperor (Masahiro Motoki) implores Suzuki to persuade the cabinet to accept the Declaration, fearing that there will be no Japan if all of its people are killed; the “new bomb” has already been dropped on Hiroshima, and Nagasaki will be bombed within the film’s timeframe. Suzuki is old and mostly deaf, but he knows that if he presses Emperor Shōwa’s case, he could be executed for treason under the terms of the constitution, which grant no governing authority to the emperor. Sakomizu observes and records every cabinet meeting, an uncomfortable neutral party in a war of words and passions.


The 2¼-hour film is filled with politicians and military brass moving from meeting to meeting, securing the emperor underground after the Imperial Palace is destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo, and outsmarting the army, which is poised to stage a coup. Yet it is the more personal moments in the film that resonate most deeply. Anami is shown at home having dinner with his wife, daughter, and future son-in-law as they plan their marriage. Despite the material privations and bombing threat, Anami insists that they start the marriage right with a grand affair at the Imperial Hotel, though the venue will change when the hotel is burned in the firestorm. Anami is deeply touched when the emperor asks him late in the film whether the wedding occurred as planned—a show of concern from a godlike man that convinces Anami that his sacrifice of his political position and his life in the honorable ritual suicide of seppuku are in service to a worthy man and his cause.


The prelude to his suicide—the suicide itself is shown in semigraphic detail, including the politely refused offer of one of his retainers to “relieve (cut off) the head”—is intermixed with scenes of his wife walking for four hours to bring her husband news from a soldier who served under their beloved son, who died in battle at age 20. She arrives in time to see his corpse laid out carefully by his retainers under his uniform, and delivers details of her son’s service as though Anami were sitting across from her drinking tea. The decimated countryside through which she travels is the only time we see the common people of Japan, and their lot is desperate indeed.


Harada lavishes attention on the gung-ho young officers, focusing on Major Hatanaka (Tôri Matsuzaka) as the touchpoint for all of the young officers who refuse to accept surrender, the loss of national sovereignty, or a diminution of the position of the emperor. The emperor has made a recording for national broadcast in which he reads the Imperial Rescript on the Termination of the War. The officers seize the radio station, though quick thinking by Sakokmizu puts the recording out of their reach. They later try to coerce a general into signing a false order to continue fighting; Hatanaka shoots him when he refuses and forges his signature—an ink impression of his official seal. The passion of these nationalists is furious and intense, a reminder of why war and nativism stubbornly persist.


The film is mainly procedural and a bit confusing until all of the characters are firmly assigned in one’s mind; a quick review of the history of this event in an encyclopedia would help audience members make sense of some swiftly moving action. Harada offers some visually stunning moments, which include the glow of Tokyo burning to the ground and a vision of fully flowered cherry trees that Suzuki fears will never bloom again if the war continues. His landscape of faces front extremely impressive performances of all the principal actors, with Yamazaki and Yakusho particular standouts, the former full of shrewdness as well as decisiveness, the latter burning with pride and a surprising vulnerability. I hoped against hope that he would wait for his wife to arrive before gutting himself, perhaps allow her to talk him out of it, though, of course, she would never even try, military families being what they are.


Harada hopes that this film will help frame the debate in Japan about rewriting the country’s pacifist constitution. He wrote a line of dialog with this in mind: “Gun o nakushite, kuni o nokosu” (get rid of the military, save the country).” No one can say for sure whether The Emperor in August will provide the wake-up call Harada thinks his country needs, but his masterful treatment of a crucial historical moment should be must-viewing for any serious cinephile or student of history.

The Emperor in August has only one screening, on Sunday October 18 at 1:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Dégradé: Tensions both personal and political rouse a group of women trapped in a Gaza beauty salon by street warfare in a revealing look at life in a war zone. (Palestine/France)

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

12th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Dégradé (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Arab Nasser and Tarzan Nasser

2015 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

When most of the world hears about Palestine, it’s usually in connection with military or police actions, not for anything to do with art and culture. Indeed, for many people, it is hard to conceive of something resembling daily life, let alone artistic expression, in a country so battered by external and internal war and political strife. But, of course, life does go on for the people who make their home there whether by choice, necessity, or simply the inability or lack of opportunity to go anywhere else. With Dégradé, twin brothers Arab and Tarzan Nasser have offered the rest of us a window into what it’s like to live in a battle zone.


All of the action takes place inside Christine’s Beauty Salon or on the wide, dirt street that fronts it. Christine (Victoria Balitska) is a married Russian who has lived in Gaza for 12 years and has a 10-year-old daughter (Nelly Abou Sharaf) whom she keeps shooing away from the window to do her homework until her father comes to pick her up and take her home. The salon is stuffed with a dozen women waiting their turn with Christine or her assistant (Maisa Abd Elhadi). Christine is working on the hair and make-up of a young woman (Dina Shebar) who is to be married that very evening, and the assistant spends most of her time on her cellphone, crying and arguing with her boyfriend Ahmed (Tarzan Nasser), a gangster standing just outside the salon with his automatic rifle and a lion he has “liberated” from the zoo to serve as his pet. Night will fall without a single woman walking out the door with a new look.


As the women swelter all day in the salon—use of the fan is too much of a drain on the three hours of power the area gets each day—the inevitable arguments become the focus of the story. The mother (Reem Talhami) and mother-in-law (Hude Imam) of the bride clash about whether Christine should cut or put highlights in her hair, taking up their posts in the traditional war zone of familial merger. A chain-smoking, middle-aged woman (Hiam Abbas) who could have been inspired by the lyrics of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” keeps her scowl trained on the other women and especially on the assistant who is supposed to be giving her a full beauty treatment for her date later that night with the man to whom she coos seductively into her cellphone. A religious woman (Mirna Sakhla) trades barbs with a potty-mouthed woman (Manal Awad) stoned on Tramadol who may be her sister. What that pair is doing in the salon is anyone’s guess, but without their terrific comedy act, the film would be humorless and possibly unwatchable. To top the ensemble off, a woman days away from giving birth walks in with a friend or relative to add her imminent contractions to the party.


If this film had been made in almost any country other than Palestine, I would be trashing it for its sexist set-up and unoriginality. However, radical Islam is highly sexist, and the beauty salon is one of the few places where women can go and where they can dress as they like. Every time one of them leaves the salon—and that only happens two or three times in the film—she must put on a head scarf. The assistant dons a burka as well to tell Ahmed to move his lion away from the shop, only to get scolded for not completely covering her hair. We don’t learn the names of any of the characters aside from Christine and Ahmed, which emphasizes the marginalized position of native women in Palestinian society under Hamas. What a waste of human potential!

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Nonetheless, the Nassers give voices to the voiceless. The religious woman is no supporter of Hamas; she thinks that one ruling power is as bad as the next and that Hamas is not truly adhering to the ideals to which she has dedicated herself. Christine, interestingly, says she’s gotten used to life in Gaza, that it’s not much worse than Russia and much less expensive. The potty-mouthed woman can’t seem to stop talking and talking, saying one rude thing after another as her foil tells her to shut up, and finally assigning each of the women to a ministry in the government she would run if she could. The assistant is besotted with her gangster boyfriend who makes her miserable, but she can’t seem to give up on him—a metaphor for the desperate Palestinians who cling to hope through Hamas.

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The women’s endless wait to be served by Christine and her assistant seems a sad commentary on the failure of Hamas and the world to bring stability and a measure of freedom to Palestine. In fact, the salon will find itself in the middle of a firefight as Hamas attempts to retake the lion from the street thugs. What insanity is it to carry out a war in the streets to save face over the theft of a single animal! In the end, drunk on its own power and anger, Hamas destroys what it says it wants to defend. This film is not a pleasant one to watch, but it does put one’s own troubles in perspective and evoke a certain admiration for the people who carry on and have hope in the face of overwhelming misery.

Dégradé screens Thursday October 22 at 6:15 p.m., Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m., and Wednesday, October 28 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Chronic: Compassionate, unflinching look at a home care nurse who treats dying and gravely ill patients as he begins to come to terms with his own terrible loss. (Mexico)

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

11th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Chronic (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Michel Franco

2015 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Mexican director Michel Franco is a man whose creative brief is life and death. His clear-eyed look at grief, bullying, and retribution, After Lucia (2012), is something of a modern horror masterpiece made all the more terrifying because the behaviors on which it focuses are all too human. In his new feature, Chronic, winner of the best screenplay at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Franco again takes unblinking aim at a chronic condition of the human animal—mortality.


David (Tim Roth) is a home health nurse working for a Los Angeles agency catering to a wealthy clientele. When we first see him, he’s parked outside a house waiting for a young woman to emerge. When she does, he follows her car to a college campus. Then he takes off for work. Next, we see a wasted woman (Rachel Pickup) leaning motionless against a tiled wall as a handheld shower head positioned near her sprays water on her naked body. David steps into the frame and repeatedly squeezes soapy water from a sponge onto her body, as much for her physical comfort as to clean her. His cheerful efficiency and calm command are a balm to Sarah, who is his patient, and her sister (Kari Coleman) and her sister’s family when they pay what very well could be their last visit to her. When David goes home, he visits the Facebook page of a young woman named Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland) and scrolls through her photos, an action he will repeat several times during the film. Was this the woman he followed from her home?


Over the next few days, David sits with Sarah, fixing her a bit of food, helping her stand, putting her in a wheelchair, getting her into her nightgown. One morning, he arrives for work and finds that Sarah has died. Angry that the night nurse has not washed her because the family told her not to touch Sarah, he slams into Sarah’s bedroom, shuts the door, washes her lifeless body, and puts a nightgown on her—a rather grisly echo of our first encounter with the dying woman and her caregiver. That evening, after his usual run on the treadmill at his gym, he goes to a bar. A couple who have just become engaged buy him a shot to toast their good news. When asked if he’s married, he says he was but that his wife died quite recently. Her name was Sarah. The three toast Sarah instead of the engagement.


What are we to make of David? He seems like a man looking at life from the outside, as though some part of him is dead or on life support and using his work to connect with others like himself. Even more, the fact that dying people allow him the privilege of journeying with them to the end makes his declarations that they are members of his family quite plausible. It’s not easy for the actual families of the dying to make that connection, which arouses their jealousy, and one of his patients, Marta (Robin Bartlett), aware of the mutual dependency that has developed between them, uses it to manipulate him to help her die.


Franco reveals David’s backstory slowly, not allowing us to put the pieces together quickly or easily and not resolving questions that arise from our newfound knowledge. His is a fly-on-the-wall approach that uses static framing to observe actions loaded with meaning for the characters but that go unnoticed to anyone outside their circle. As with After Lucia, a hidden grief leads to psychological disaster and is at least partially responsible for David’s too-close contact with his patients—a stark contrast with the detachment of real caregivers similarly observed by documentarian Frederick Wiseman in his brilliant Near Death (1989)—as well as an estrangement from closer engagement. When Sarah’s niece (Maribeth Monroe) tries to talk with David about her aunt at the cemetery following her funeral, he refuses to speak with her—her need is more than he can bear.

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Tim Roth is beyond brilliant, containing his emotions behind a brittle wall that cracks only once, heartbreakingly. His quiet, compassionate approach to his patients makes death a bearable event. For example, as he washes Sarah, he doesn’t shrink from her limp, skeletal corpse, which requires his careful manipulation. When he helps Marta die, he works quickly and without hesitation to push four syringes of a drug that will arrest her heart into a catheter in her neck. I don’t know how Pickup was able to look so convincingly dead, but she betrayed not a sign of life, and Bartlett’s stillness was a model of how death can move gently, imperceptibly over life. Michael Cristofer, Bitsie Tulloch, and Tate Ellington were all terrific as stroke patient John and his grown children, the latter of whom are grateful and then hostile toward David.

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Finally, the ending of this film has been criticized by some as abrupt, unsatisfying, or a failure of imagination. It is abrupt, but it is entirely consonant with the theme of the film and the many ways that death is the ultimate leveler. In giving us films that make us think and help us negotiate the big questions of our lives, Michel Franco is an incredibly brave and committed artist. His films are priceless gifts to us all.

Chronic screens Wednesday, October 21 at 8:15 p.m., Thursday October 22 at 8:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

8th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Clever (2015)

Directors/Screenwriters: Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Divorce is never a joyous affair. While it may be a relief to both parties, there is usually an instigator who has the courage to throw in the towel and who can more easily move on. The ego blow taken by the discarded partner is not so quickly healed and often results in a quest for love or status of any kind to replace the feelings of unattractiveness and deflation.

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In psychological terms, it seems that cars are symbolic of the male ego, and that certainly is the case in the mordantly funny Clever, a new comedy from the Uruguayan filmmaking team of Federico Borgia and Guillermo Madeiro. The duo, who were both born in Montevideo and earned social communication degrees from the Catholic University of Uruguay, have worked together since 2005, honing their unique style in the process of making short films, music videos, and experimental documentaries. In this, their feature film debut set sometime in the early 2000s, Borgia and Madeiro take aim at machismo, chronicling the frustrations of Clever (Hugo Piccinini), a martial arts instructor who, in the opening scene, is sitting in court as the presiding judge grants a divorce to his wife Jacqueline (Soledad Frugone).

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Clever did not want the divorce, and soon after the court hearing, we see him persuade Jacque to get in his rusted, blue Chevette and then try to force her to kiss him. She fights him off and disappears behind a gated entrance to the home they once shared. When we next see the couple, it is six months later. Clever has completely shaved his balding head, giving him a tougher look, and painted his car orange. He is picking up his son Bruce (Santiago Agüero) for his weekend of custody. The exes talk to each other amicably, though Clever grills Bruce later about the new man in Jacque’s life.

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After a trip to the dojo where Clever teaches, he takes Bruce to his apartment, minimally furnished and very much a divorced man’s pad. Bruce isn’t much like his namesake and Clever’s idol, Bruce Lee, preferring to sit in front of the TV playing videogames on a cheap game console. When he wants to play with Clever’s model cars, Bruce must be very careful—this is a collection as fragile as Clever’s ego. Bruce does delight his father, however, when he notices a car painted with flames as they drive along a Montevideo street. After Clever’s friend and coke-snorting buddy Juez (Ernesto Borgia) strong-arms the car’s owner into telling him who painted it and where he can be found, Clever sets off for the sleepy town of Las Palmas to find the artist who can make his wheels the most badass at the city’s annual car show.

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Borgia and Madeiro’s shooting style, ably lensed by cinematographer Ramiro González Pampillón, favors extreme close-ups and slow horizontal pans that provide humorous juxtapositions. For example, we see only the stubbly mouth of the judge in the opening scene as he steams his glasses with his breath in slow motion and rubs them clean. We watch Bruce pumping small dumbbells, followed by a pan to his father pumping considerably more iron in one of many mirror images that dot the film. The directors use slow motion to suggest Clever’s emotions, as when he sees his car after Sebastian (Marcos Escobar), the body-builder/artist, drives it out of his shed; this priceless moment of ecstasy uses a corny love song about sex in a car performed in English by singer Ismael Varela to reveal the dragon-shaped flames along the side and the classic pose of Bruce Lee with hands at the ready painted on the hood.

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In the grand tradition of Paris, Australia, in Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974) or Werner Herzog’s Wisconsin in Stroszek (1977), Las Palmas is a place that reason forgot. When Clever stops to relieve himself in the bushes, a boy on horseback rides by and shoots his tire out with his rifle. His arrival in town along a long approach appropriately lined with tall palm trees lands him next to a cantina with a red popsicle painted on its side. Everyone near the cantina, including a man wearing a pageboy wig, is slowly sucking on a popsicle, a Las Palmas specialty made of wine from locally grown grapes. Police play pick-up sticks with a handcuffed prisoner and argue about whether he moved a stick. Clever incurs the wrath of the man (Néstor Guzzini) he was told was the artist by rightfully doubting he is who the villagers and he say he is (and slights are not forgotten in this small, possibly inbred town.) Finally, Sebastian and his mother (Marta Grandé) form quite a pair—a muscle-bound, religious mama’s boy who has “a 100 percent latin temperment” and possibly a hard-on for Clever, and a sexually frustrated woman who has decorated their home with hundreds of her paintings and drawings of nude males.

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Where Clever succeeds most spectacularly is in the offhand depiction of the masculine psyche. The man whose car sent Clever on his quest is a flabby, hair-covered, unattractive man who projects his desired self-image onto his car. Clever’s car, at the beginning, reflects the shabby state of his ego. He is assertive in Las Palmas, but can’t wheedle his way out of sleeping in Sebastian’s bed—feet to head—and finally simply abandons Sebastian near a small lake where they are shooting photos of the car when it appears that the artist is planning to make a major move on him. His impotence in the face of his wife’s rejection finally erupts when he bashes a large rock through his rival’s windshield, a perfect image of his shattered ego. In the end, he reveals himself to be very much the boy, as he and Bruce sit side by side wolfing burgers down at a sidewalk stand and playing in the cars most suited to them—bumper cars.

This film is filled with oddball moments, gorgeous frames, and most important, a central character whose confusion is touching and funny in equal measure. This is a film to treasure.

Clever screens Saturday, October 24 at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday, October 25 at 6:15 a.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Adama: An ingeniously animated coming-of-age story depicts a 10-year-old West African whose journey to save his brother takes him into the heart of battle during World War I. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

5th 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: Adama (2015)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Simon Rouby

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

Adama 6

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In a village in West Africa isolated at the bottom of a large, circular gorge, 12-year-old Adama (Azize Diabaté Abdoulaye) and his friends enjoy an afternoon swimming and diving into a water-filled depression far below a narrow path where some village elders and Adama’s brother Samba (Jack Amba) are standing. Although told to stay with them to prepare for his initiation the next day, Samba defies the elders and performs a perfect swan dive into the pool. His independent nature will prove a trial to the villagers, and especially Adama, when his initiation into manhood is interrupted by an evil omen that he is possessed—an albatross flying high above the village. When he is told he must live with the village shaman, who will try to cure his possession, Samba sets off in the night to join the people of the wind, the Nassaras, in the outside world who have tempted him with gold and adventure. Adama sets off to bring his brother home. Eventually, his travels land him in the middle of no man’s land during World War I’s Battle of Verdun, during which more than a quarter-million French and German soldiers perished.

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In his debut feature film, French animator/director/screenwriter Simon Rouby has turned to France’s past to tell a fable of sorts with flourishes of magic realism abetted in this animated film by a combination of 3D laser-scanned characters and 2D scenery and decors. While France’s colonial past is alluded to, as Samba is enticed to fight for France, while men in the coastal village to which Adama makes his way are conscripted if they don’t volunteer, the film’s main focus is the fish out of water adventure of Adama and his single-minded quest to save his brother.

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The look of this film is both beautiful and a bit disconcerting. The backgrounds in the African portions of the film are impressionistic, with all the beauty of a New Mexico desert. The high cliffs that surround Adama’s village are modeled on the landscape where the Dogon tribes live—North Mali, by the Bandiagara cliffs—though the actual location is left unspecified in the film. Ferrofluids (iron particles mixed with ink that can be manipulated with magnets) and a combination of live-action effects and paintings provide some stunning images, from ghostlike soldiers in gas masks to a sandstorm that pummels Adama on his trip to the coast. On the other hand, Adama and Samba, though designed by Rouby to look lifelike, look anything but. Perhaps in 3D, they accomplish his goal, but in the 2D I saw, they looked like rough CGI.

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Appearances aside, the action and voice actors are compelling and affecting. When Djo (Oxmo Puccino), the strong African warrior who protected Adama while they were crossing to France, is shown in a vast hospital blinded by mustard gas, it is a shocking and terrible moment. His dismay at being sent to a fight an enemy he never got a chance to see shows the gaping distance between traditional wars fought face to face and the mechanized, impersonal death that has grown ever more sophisticated since the beginning of the 20th century. Adama’s naïve wonder at the world outside his village, from the spreading ocean to the truck tracks that seem to line every road, reveals his disoriented curiosity. When he falls in with a French thief who arranges for them both to get to Paris on a truck and then steals Adama’s money, Adama’s tears of loneliness, fear, and frustration in a back alley where he is forced to spend the night are all too real and pitiable.

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Throughout the film, Adama is met with an effigy of a spirit or god that seems to keep him on his course to finding Samba. It appears that Abdu (Pascal N’Zonzi), a beggar Adama encountered in the seaside village who was forced to fight for France, is the embodiment of this spirit; Adama sees him on the Verdun battlefield cursing at the German planes that swoop down to strafe anything that moves. He provides Adama and Samba with the key to survival—to remember their roots—and finishes Samba’s initiation ceremony by making a small cut on each temple that symbolically opens his eyes to the world beyond childhood.

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Adults watching this film will find the coming-of-age story familiar, but the context unfamiliar and sobering. Despite the resemblance of the village to the isolated utopia of Shangri-La, the villagers are real people, with strict rules and rebellious youths. The blood ritual is mild in comparison to other types of traditional initiation rites, but the connection to the out-of-control test of manhood that was The Great War should have audiences wondering which way of life is more civilized. This film may be too intense for younger children, but should resonate with young adults. One of Rouby’s stated goals of helping Europeans and others understand the experience of immigrants from Africa is noble, but the remoteness of a film set 100 years in the past with folkloric content may not be sufficient to open eyes and hearts. Nonetheless, this film may be just good enough to pull it off.

Adama screens Friday, October 23 at 5:45 p.m., Sunday, October 25 at 11:30 a.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

2nd 10 - 2015 | no comment »

CIFF 2015: How to Win Enemies (2014)

Director/Screenwriter: Gabriel Lichtmann

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

Enemies 1

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Is Gabriel Lichtmann the Woody Allen of Argentina? Although Lichtmann has only made two feature films in 10 years, both deal with his Jewish identity in his big-city hometown of Buenos Aires, both are written and directed by him, and at least one—How to Win Enemies—has an intellectual, sexually bumbling nerd as its main protagonist. How to Win Enemies is, like his own description of his feature debut, Jews in Space or Why Is this Night Different from All Other Nights? (2005), also a sad comedy, and though rather predictable, it is still a well-executed film that holds one’s attention and sympathy for its duration.

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Like Jews in Space, How to Win Enemies begins during one of the more important rituals of Jewish life—a wedding. Max Abadi (Javier Drolas), an attorney in practice with his brother Lucas (Martín Slipak), is marrying another attorney in their firm, Paula (Eugenia Capizzano). We come in right before the end of the wedding ceremony and get to watch Max smash the wine glass underfoot as the guests yell “Mazeltov!” The film cuts to the wedding reception. A nervous Paula asks Lucas whether he can tell that there is a rip in her dress, and he assures her she looks fine and is too good for his brother. He delivers Paula and Max’s speech, which he has written, to the head table, and Max opens the envelope containing the speech, unfolds it, and says the first two lines: “How do you win enemies? By telling the truth.” Then the film flips back to two days before the wedding, when a series of misadventures turns Lucas, an Agatha Christie fan who has written a mystery novel, into an amateur detective.

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The film takes its time moving into the mystery portion of the film with a languorous introduction phase meant to acquaint us with likely suspects to a theft Lucas will find himself investigating. This phase does not proceed as it does in many mysteries I’ve seen because it doesn’t present these characters as having obvious axes to grind or hidden agendas. In fact, most of the suspects seem unequivocally innocent and delightful. The real pleasure of this film is not in solving a mystery, but rather in the perfect vignettes of the talented cast that reveal different aspects of life in Argentina’s capital.

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The mystery involves a set-up in which Lucas is the target. That he feels he was specifically marked and not just some random victim of an opportunistic thief comes from his instincts, not from anything the plot reveals. As he starts weaving the threads of information together from Facebook, to a library, to a seedy part of town, and then closer to home, we meet a very resourceful woman (Inés Palombo) with some muscle to back her up, a sarcastic librarian (Carla Quevedo) who may turn out to be the woman of Lucas’ dreams, and a professional criminal (Ezequiel Rodríguez) who seems to think Lucas isn’t entitled to enter a conference room in his own law firm.

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Lichtmann peppers the film with realistic vignettes that are sometimes comical, but really aren’t all that funny. For example, Lucas is trying to help a woman get an order of protection against her abusive husband, but his witness backs out of testifying. He goes to “Pelícano,” (Sangrado Sebakis) a large, curly-haired fixer to be his witness for hire. Pelícano asks for $3,000, Lucas counters with $600, and the deal is quickly struck—a little larceny in service to a good cause that plays with all the comedic humanity I’m sure Lichtmann intended. We also travel with Lucas through the streets of the city as he follows an attractive woman, very likely a hooker, to an elementary school to pick up her son and bring him back to an apartment complex with burglar bars over the windows. Yes, this is Buenos Aires, too.

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Max’s bachelor party is loaded with attractive hookers and a porn movie blares in the background, but this scene made me feel rather sad for Paula and for Lucas as well. Lucas seems disgusted with the throwback machismo Max displays with entitled ease, and we get the feeling that Paula will be turning to Lucas almost immediately after the ink on her marriage license dries, and that Lucas knows it.

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Most of all, we see Lucas and Max bickering and looking out for each other in equal measure. Lucas puts up with Max’s hooker-strewn bachelor party, while Max indulges Lucas’ reminiscing in their childhood home left vacant by the recent death of their mother. The latter is a scene to which many middle-aged people will relate, revealing an inventory of outdated furniture and decors, shelves of family photos, a kitchen crammed with a lifetime’s worth of gadgets and tableware, forgotten card collections and treasures crammed in the boys’ desk and dresser drawers. These moments of unity appeal to Lucas’ romantic side, while Max has little use for anything that doesn’t matter in the here and now.

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It doesn’t take Lucas long to figure out who Mr. or Ms. Big is—but I was way ahead of him. No matter. When we return to where the film began, the wedding reception, there will be a payoff and a payout. It’s not as satisfying a conclusion as I would have liked—I’m more vengeful, I suppose—but in a movie about Jews, it provides the Old Testament eye for an eye that is not only appropriate, but also inevitable. If Lichtmann is the Argentine Woody Allen—and this is a rather lightweight, conventionally made film in the Allen mold—he is nonetheless graced with a bigger heart and a better eye for the absurdity of human existence.

How to Win Enemies screens Wednesday, October 21 at 5:45 p.m., Thursday, October 22 at 9:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 2:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)

1st 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Women He’s Undressed (2015)

Director: Gillian Armstrong

2015 Chicago International Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

My 2015 Chicago International Film Festival coverage kicks off today, and the film under consideration is a real doozy from the brilliant Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong. Armstrong has largely abandoned the feature format she plied with such skill to turn out such enduring films as My Brilliant Career (1979), Starstruck (1982), and my favorite version of Little Women (1994), and turned to documentary filmmaking. While spending about the last 40 years creating her version of Michael Apted’s Up series featuring three girls from Adelaide, Armstrong has kept her focus on women’s experiences and her homeland. Women He’s Undressed combines these two concerns as Armstrong creates a hybrid documentary about costume designer Orry-Kelly, the Australian from the tiny coastal town of Kiama, NSW, who made it big on the other side of the Pacific dressing some of Hollywood’s brightest stars.

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Armstrong combines traditional talking-head interviews and clips from some of the nearly 300 films for which Orry-Kelly made costumes with depictions of Kelly, engagingly played by Australian TV star Darren Gilshenan, breaking the third wall to speak directly to the audience about his life from a stage, the place where Kelly first gained inspiration and experience in show business. As seems to be something of the norm with biopics these days, Women He’s Undressed starts with Kelly’s death, as eight young women dressed in red gowns carry a rowboat like a coffin. The dresses refer to Kelly’s most notorious creation, the red gown Bette Davis’ defiant character wore to the white ball in Jezebel (1938), and the boat the conveyance Armstrong uses throughout the film to propel Kelly away from Australia and through the episodes of his life. “When you grow up with the smell of the ocean, the horizon beckons you every day,” Kelly says early in the film.


Costume designer Ann Roth, who worked with Kelly, questions Armstrong’s project at the very beginning. “You say nobody knows who he is? Who doesn’t know who he is!?” A string of snippets showing the costumes he made on the backs of a slew of famous actresses, from Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942) to Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame (1958) and Natalie Wood in Gypsy (1962), confirm that even if people don’t know precise details about Orry-Kelly, they certainly know his work.

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The film proceeds roughly chronologically from Orry George Kelly’s childhood and takes liberal dives into his experience of being an out gay man in homophobic Hollywood. His nurturing mother, played by Deborah Kennedy, encouraged his art studies and theatrical ambitions, while his father, a tailor and reformed drunk, propagated a bright pink carnation he dubbed the “Orry,” in oblique reference to Kelly’s being “different” despite his father’s attempts to drum the tendency out of him.


Much is made in the film of Kelly’s “matehood” with Archie Leach when they were both struggling actors living together in New York. Through Kelly’s narration, we learn that the two had a lot in common and subsidized their anything-goes lifestyle in Greenwich Village by making and selling Kelly-Leach ties by the hundreds. Throughout the film, Armstrong returns to Archie’s transformation into Cary Grant, how Grant played the studio game by giving up his relationship with actor Randolph Scott to marry actress Virginia Cherrill; his subsequent suicide attempt, which Kelly blames on denying his true nature; and his later failed marriages. This throughline provides the private part of Kelly’s biography that producer/director Eric Sherman says he undoubtedly had but had been secretive about to the end of his life. Grant, who never answered any questions about his sexuality, doesn’t come off very well in the film, but this again would probably be true to Kelly’s undoubted sense of betrayal and abandonment.

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The main event, of course, is Kelly’s spectacularly successful career. He was hired by Warner Bros. to bring some gloss to their proletarian style of filmmaking, and he outdid himself. He worked with colleagues Adrian and Travis Banton to make Kay Francis Hollywood’s “best dressed woman,” and Ruth Chatterton, another Warner Bros. star, called his designs “well bred.” His gowns for 42nd Street show the energy of the unforgettable penny costumes and double-hooped skirts that he may or may not have had a hand in creating; the film suggests that he admired the creative volcano that was Busby Berkeley. It was his working relationship with Bette Davis, however, that provided him with his greatest challenge.


It’s fascinating to learn that Davis refused to allow Kelly to use a metal underwire to boost her sagging breasts because she feared the metal would give her cancer, so he had to design other foundations for her. Armstrong shows us clip after clip of Davis and the challenges her figure posed to Kelly. His tests of fabrics for the red gown in Jezebel were extensive and successful, as many people who have seen the black-and-white film swear it was red that they saw. Another figure that gave Kelly trouble was Natalie Wood’s. Her too-slender form did not make her the ideal candidate for the role of Gypsy Rose Lee, the world’s most famous stripper. Armstrong takes a peek inside one of her costumes for the film to show the padding Kelly used to fill out her breasts and hips.

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Angela Lansbury, who considers herself a character actress, confirms that Kelly’s skill went beyond making beautiful clothes to helping actors inhabit their roles and enhance their performances by matching the mood of each scene. This comment is illustrated through several of the films he designed. For example, clips of Now, Voyager (1942) show the transformation of Bette Davis from a dowdy, mentally unstable woman to a glamorpuss of classic elegance; however, the real touch of genius Kelly brought to the film was in the last scene, when he responded to Davis’ desire that her clothes not detract from the drama of the moment. He puts her in a simple blouse and skirt, allowing her face to register as the most important element in the frame. In another anecdote, we learn that Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis went into the ladies restroom at the studio in their Some Like It Hot (1959) disguises to see if anyone would notice them—nobody did!

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Kelly also liked to push the envelope of the stuffy 1950s. His designs for Auntie Mame allowed him to create flamboyant, colorful outfits for the outsized personality of the main character, a visual tweak to the Establishment that defined Mame Dennis. He was determined to bring all of Marilyn Monroe’s sex appeal to the screen in Some Like It Hot. Jane Fonda, who worked with him on some forgettable movies, is interviewed about this film and says that despite not being gay, she was transfixed by Monroe’s pregnancy-swollen breasts, which Kelly saved from censorship by some strategic beading.

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Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards, and his designs were knocked off for retail sale all over the world, a fact the film suggests galled him given that his own atelier went bust. In the end, his hope for a comeback from cancer was not to be, and his wish that, after years of estrangement, Cary Grant would be one of his pallbearers actually did come true, as Armstrong shows someone scrawl his signature in the funeral guest book that opened the film.


Gillian Armstrong brings almost as much design panache and ingenuity to her film about Orry-Kelly as he had himself. Her strategy of offering a theatrical setting for the imagined scenes with Kelly, complete with stage make-up and tinny sound effects, evoke the era in which he grew up and from which he claimed his influences. The film is hampered only by the familiar talking-heads format that may be necessary to offer detail but interrupts the flow of the film as told by Kelly himself. Where did this script by Katherine Thomson come from? The movie discusses an autobiography Kelly wrote but never published and shows one of his heirs holding it, under orders never to let it slip from her grasp. Did Thomson crib dialog from it? I don’t know. But I can say that as written, the outspoken, entertaining Orry-Kelly in Women He Undressed is as unforgettable as his costumes.

Women He’s Undressed screens Friday, October 23 at 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday, October 28 at 5 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

29th 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Paul Taylor Creative Domain (2015)

Director: Kate Geis

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

As an inveterate Paul Taylor fan, the prospect of a new movie about this master dancer/choreographer filled me with joyful anticipation. Taylor is one of the last links to the legendary Martha Graham—the “naughty boy” of her company, as she said of him—and is himself one of the last grandmasters of dance. Long retired from performing himself, he is still choreographing new works at age 85. That fact in itself is interesting, as late works of masters in the arts can often have a gravity that comes from their accumulation of experience. Yet, I wondered what director Kate Geis would reveal that hadn’t already been shown in what I thought was the definitive documentary about Taylor, Matthew Diamond’s Dancemaker (1998). Riffing on the title of Taylor’s autobiography Private Domain, Geis’s conceit is that she will reveal the secret of Taylor’s choreographic genius. This she does not do—nor do I think anyone can—but she nonetheless offers accumulative detail in showing how a dance is made, eschewing the more all-encompassing look at Taylor and his dance company in Dancemaker in a way that resonates more deeply for its concentrated focus.

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The film moves from the first day of working on a new dance to its premiere in 2010. Taylor explains to his company that he wants to examine a love triangle in a Rashomon-like fashion. It’s doubtful that the dancers have seen or know about Rashomon (1950) and its shifting points of view, but no matter. Taylor gets his point across and casting begins for what will become “Three Dubious Memories,” his 133rd modern dance. All of the dancers say they want to be a part of any new dance, hoping to be part of writing the history of the company and having the pleasure of working with Taylor. Amy Young, too, is anxious to be cast, and when she is given the principal female role of the Girl in Red, she is nervous about being physically and artistically able to give Taylor what he wants. He casts Sean Patrick Mahoney as the Boy in Blue, who disrupts the initial romance of the Girl in Red and the Boy in Green. He gives the latter role to Robert Kleinendorst, perhaps sensing that Kleinendorst and Young had started to see each other (they are now married).


Taylor has written out specific beats and dance patterns for the music he will use, but prefers to work without music as he evolves the piece. He manipulates the bodies of his dancers, offers them shapes to imitate, and verbally instructs them where to move. His plan is to allow the three principal dancers to move freely as full-bodied beings, but restrict the eight-member chorus commenting on the story to flat, angular movements reminiscent of Egyptian hieroglyphics to suggest two dimensions. His ideas sometimes outstrip the dancers’ ability to carry out the movements he wants, and we thus get to witness not only the strength, but also the fragility of a dancer’s body and the need for the artist to modify his vision to accommodate the “clay” with which he is working.

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Little in Taylor’s method has changed over the years, certainly not from what was shown in Dancemaker. Former dancer turned rehearsal director Bettie de Jong is still his rehearsal director. He still uses reel-to-reel tape to play the music for his dances. He still injects sexual ambiguity into his romantic pieces, as when the principal male dancers seem to reject the Girl in Red for their own camaraderie and possible romance, drawing a swift and powerful reaction from her worthy of the feminist model he had in Graham.

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When Taylor finally plays the music for the company—unusually, Taylor chose to use an unsolicited composition from Czech-born composer Peter Elyakim Taussig—the dancers’ interpretations of the moves they have learned gain force and fluidity. Taussig is delighted by what Taylor has created when he sees the dance for the first time in the company’s studio space. Then we’re on to Santo Loquasto’s costume designs and fittings, tech rehearsals with lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, and, finally, the premiere performance.

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What I like about Reis’ approach is that we get a chance to watch the dance as it is built, step by step, with little in the way of navel-gazing by the dancers or Taylor. The dancers say they really don’t know much about Taylor, and he deflects any such probing by saying that what he is can be seen in his dances. It is a little frustrating not to see “Three Dubious Memories” danced straight through in its entirety, but in a way, it really doesn’t matter that much. We’ve seen all parts of the dance at various stages and have an insight into what it takes to make and perform a dance that simply watching from the audience can never convey. Dancers are supposed to make it look easy, so the more grueling and painful aspects of the life are never fully understood, though this film is blessedly free of the litany of injuries and parade of deformed feet that characterized Dancemaker.


One the other hand, claims I’ve read that this film is the first to pull back the veil on Taylor and his process are nothing but marketing fiction. Nonetheless, even though it’s not the exclusive look the copywriters claim it is, it is a look, and a very good and well-shot one. If you’re a fan of dance, and especially if you’re a fan of Paul Taylor, Paul Taylor Creative Domain is well worth your time.

27th 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Everest (2015)

Director: Baltasar Kormákur


By Roderick Heath

Mount Everest has always loomed in my imagination, a behemoth of rock standing like some exposed bone of the earth, puncturing the sky. When I was a kid, I watched the documentary Conquest of Everest (1953), which depicted Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s triumphant ascent, fixated by the scale of the feat. Hillary’s photos of Norgay on the summit, wearing his mask and breathing oxygen, made him look like the first true astronaut, the pair of humans balancing on a pebble and touching the void. A lot of people obviously share this fascination, but some aren’t happy to just watch it on a screen. Forty years later, climbing Everest became a commercial tourist enterprise, professional climbers leading parties of variably rich and enthusiastic amateurs to the peak. The subject of Baltasar Kormákur’s Everest is the mountain’s dormant treachery, the danger always present when climbing its bulk to heights usually traversed only in jets.


In 1996, journalist Jon Krakauer had the painful and dubious fortune to join an Everest climbing party and find himself in the midst of a tragedy that he would report on in his book Into Thin Air. His account inspired a popular telemovie; a small industry of other accounts by survivors, some aimed at rebutting his take on the story; and now, a big-budget feature film. Recently, even worse disasters have struck would-be climbers of the great peak, lending timeliness to a tale that counsels respect for the power nature can still wield over us. Icelandic filmmaker Kormákur, began his directing career 15 years ago with a very different piece of work, the droll and raunchy Almodovar-esque comedy 101 Reykjavik (2000). He has been making movies ever since in both Iceland and in Hollywood, and here makes an overt stab at epic stature.


Mountain-climbing movies have a long pedigree, harking back to the craze for them in Weimar Germany, exemplified by Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst’s The White Hell of Piz Palu (1928), a film that defined a finite blend of wrenching physical intensity and spiritual romanticism associated with great heights where people can die and yet remain, frozen and unchanged, for ages. Mountain climbing is an innately cinematic activity during which even the most banal maneuvers can be charged with visual beauty and a sense of fraught peril. The Challenge (1938) depicted the first climb of the Matterhorn, whilst films over the years of varying degrees of seriousness and excitement, including The White Tower (1948), The Mountain (1956), Third Man on the Mountain (1959), Five Days One Summer (1982), K2 (1992), and Vertical Limit (2000), have all plied varieties of high-altitude melodrama. Everest, in telling a true and largely grim story, has no plot contrivances or great, driving stakes to lean on (like Vertical Limit, which was essentially 1953’s The Wages of Fear on a mountain), leaving Kormákur to create his sense of drama by paying attention to the contrasting spectacles of human-scale ambition and suffering, and the vast, dwarfing vista of the mountain, ignorant of the tiny creatures perambulating up its flanks. The chief players in the impending tragedy are professional mountain climbers Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) and Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), men who pioneered opening the mountain to tourism by acting as guides to small, relatively select groups of amateur climbers, who find themselves merely two of many competing operations.


Rob and Scott couldn’t be much more different as personalities: Rob is a sturdy, circumspect New Zealander who leaves his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) at home to ply his trade, whilst Scott is a scruffy, blissed-out Yank fond of a good drink until he snaps into action. Rob is described as a “hand holder” who does his utmost to get all of his clients, no matter how shaky, to the top. Scott prefers a more Darwinian approach, believing only people capable of getting themselves to the summit under their own steam should make the trip—those who can’t hack it can head back down. Both men are intrinsically aware of the disconnect between the mores of dedicated, experienced mountain climbers and the concessions to the people they’re now dedicated to aiding. Mountain climbing can be a group activity, but treats strong, prudent, self-sufficient people the best. The vagaries of nature are indifferent to the timetables and expectations of paying customers. Scott’s tough, terse righthand man, Anatoli Boukreev (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson), avoids climbing with oxygen, as he feels they lend an air of false security, preferring hard, fast ascents and descents. This approach, however, asks more of the less rugged and experienced types their business depends on than some can manage.


Michael Kelly plays Krakauer, who was going to make the ascent with Scott’s Mountain Madness team, but instead signs on with Rob’s Adventure Consultants outfit and their motley crew of experienced and hardy climbers. Japanese climber Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) is out to finish her project of climbing all of the “Seven Summits,” the highest mountain on each continent, by taking on the biggest of them all. Americans Doug Hansen (John Hawkes) and Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin) are two highly contrasting personalities unified by their dedication to conquering the peak after many frustrations in pursuing their love of climbing. Beck is a big-mouthed, wealthy Texan, whilst Doug is a wiry man who laboured at three jobs to put together the funds for the climb, and even then, still needed Rob to give him a discount. Rob’s regular team includes fellow pro climber Andy Harris (Martin Henderson) and loyal manager Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) and newbie team doctor Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki), both of whom provide support at base camp. Rob and his company transport their clientele to the foot of the mountain to begin the rigorous acclimatisation and training process before launching a proper assault on the summit. On arrival, they’re confronted by the army of other climbing teams, some of whom resent Rob’s air of authority as the pioneer of their business and habit of looking askance at shabbier practices, like littering up the camp site.


This competition starts to make the situation tense and dangerous, at one point creating a human traffic jam at a dangerous crevasse crossing point. Teams try to get across this before the rising sun makes the ice brittle, and the delays make it ever more dangerous. Beck has a terrifying moment dangling from the rickety ladder bridge that leaves him shaken and inclined to tear a few angry strips off Rob, whilst Doug shows signs of susceptibility to the lung problems that descend at high altitudes. Faced with the prospect of teams tripping over each others’ toes when making their final ascents, Rob suggests to Scott that they cooperate and make their ascent together. Scott is cautious, aware of the teams’ different styles and ways of handling clients, and the teams’ lead sherpas Ang Dorjee (Ang Phula Sherpa) and Lopsang (Pemba Sherpa) clash heatedly. But Scott eventually agrees to the pact, and they head off during a window of good weather. There are always calculated risks in this business, with a storm cell hovering in the Bay of Bengal that may or may not come their way, an array of bodies that may or may not withstand the strains of more than eight kilometres above the sea, climbing with a squad of men and women who may or may not be able to effectively work together. When a brisk wind that dogs the team up to the South Col dies off, leaving a pristine and perfectly silent moonlit view of the peak, the climbers seem set for a swift and lucky ascent.


Kormákur presents Everest as a blend of movie styles, matching a polished, imposing brand of Hollywood spectacle on the visual level and the cues of an adventure drama, like Dario Marianelli’s thunderous music score, with a finicky, detail-based variety of realism on the dramatic level, exploring not just the whys and whens of the tale, but trying to come to grips with things as subtle as how body language signals differences in people that can help explain how eventually they will die on a mountain. Kormákur doesn’t always elegantly mesh these approaches, in part because of the slicker pretences of his filmmaking and the screenplay by one-time Gladiator (2000) cowriter William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy, who has been selling the travails of ordinary people as multiplex fare as far back as The Fully Monty (1997) and who also penned 127 Hours (2009), a tale of similarly punished extreme sports hubris.


Everest is at its best when it sticks to studying the woozy, edgy camaraderie of these mountaineers, the sense of troubled awe found in the landscape, and the accumulation of minutiae that mean little in themselves, but add up to a deadly situation still being talked about 20 years later. Clarke and Gyllenhaal are particularly good as men bound by a certain code, but who approach it in divergent ways—the uneasy, assessing alertness that lurks under Rob’s affable, practiced demeanour, Scott’s tendency to play beach bum in the sky until duty calls and sees him push his body to a breaking point. Rob and Scott become, to a certain extent, victims and culprits in the calamity, men who sell their skills and their hard-won knowledge of the rarefied zones to others whose expectations and naivete, which no matter how hardy and experienced they are can’t entirely be shed until they venture into the deadly region above 8,000 metres, inevitably drive them to make perilous decisions.


Krakauer prods his fellow climbers over their motivations, but finds it hard to extract such nebulous, yet powerful drives from them; Rob fills in with that old standby, “Because it’s there.” The climbers’ overwhelming need to pit themselves against such a challenge and the feeling that they can’t rest until they’ve won against the mountain has no logical end, except perhaps the desire to not simply experience the extreme but to then share the experience. For Doug, it’s a virtually communal act, considering that he’s been partly sponsored by schoolkids and wants to plant a flag they gave him on the summit. Beck seems to be pushing against his own masculine self-image and fear of approaching middle age. Sam Worthington is shoehorned in as Guy Cotter, another climber who takes over communications when the team runs into trouble.


Kormákur emphasises the array of nationalities represented by these errant souls, people truly from every corner of the earth (and this is probably the first and last time in a major Hollywood film where a large percentage of the cast is playing Kiwis). The scaling of the mountain and subsequent events take up a bulk of the running time, and Kormákur handles this extended set-piece extremely well. The shoot was spread over a variety of locations, including some real footage taken near Everest ,but with most high-altitude footage shot in Italy and mixed with occasional, mostly seamless special effects. It adds up to a convincing, dizzying approximation of the experience of climbing the world’s tallest mountain and makes the film a must on the biggest screen you can find.


Kormákur holds a peculiar form of faith with the people he’s depicting. The act of reaching the peak is a maxim in their lives worth knocking on death’s door, and Kormákur follows them step by bloody step on a journey that is a stirring and noble moment in and of itself, but underscored by the anxiety that every extra second spent up that high brings these people closer to the disaster sneaking up on them. In this environment, tiny faults and minor delays become great big problems. Scott rushes down the mountain shepherding a wash-out, injects himself with dexamethasone to guard against pulmonary edema, the high-altitude equivalent of the bends, and heads on up again, pushing his body to the limit exactly when he needs reserves of strength and physical integrity. Beck, who had eye surgery years before, finds his vision going blurry from the altitude and cold and is left dazzled and lost by the trail. Crucial ropes needed to make the dangerous part of the ascent go missing.


Doug is halted by breathing trouble, but eventually he restarts and follows the party at a distance: when he proves determined to summit even as the rest of the party starts descending, Rob sticks with him, a seam of sentiment stirred by Doug’s agonised dedication—but with fateful consequence. A storm sweeps up the valley and slaps the mountain, and the people on it are immediately lost in a violent and freezing flurry that turns the operation into a hectic and lethal free-for-all where even the most experienced are readily overwhelmed. Those well-versed in these events or the various earlier versions will obviously know how these events play out, removing some of the tension from the familiarly constructed narrative, except perhaps for an immersive sense of the shock of the moment.


Kormákur captures the descent into chaos effectively, and makes the first death a particularly heartbreaking moment for not overplaying it: one moment a man is there, the next, nothingness. The grandeur remains, but has turned murderous. But Everest is hurt by a tendency to graze the obvious, like having Beck first appear wearing a Dole-Kemp campaign shirt to tell the audience he’s a bit of a good ole boy through period detail. Later, Beck has visions of his family, inspiring him to battle against the elements and begin an agonising trek, the kind of touch no filmmaker should be trying to ply in 2015. Kormákur has roots in a kind of oddball surrealism, but he would have done better sticking more purely to the docudrama template. The time-honoured desire to encompass a broad audience by appealing to basic reflexes of family relationships stretches a bit far. Actresses of the calibre of Watson, Knightley, and Robin Wright, as Beck’s wife Peach, are called upon to have their four or five minutes of screen time on the far end of increasingly distraught phone calls and do their wobbly-face emoting, in a business that is defined by a passing surreal disconnect between relative proximity and remoteness. This quality is at least drawn out by the pitiful strangeness of Jan’s attempts to contact her husband on the mountain as he struggles against soul and body-grinding forces of nature, proving that modern communications can reach anywhere, but still provide only an illusion of closeness and safety; that this scene is also true makes it especially poignant (also, kudos go for Knightley and Watson’s great Kiwi accents).


On the other hand, a scene in which Peach and her pals try to whip up action from diplomats and politicians from a coffee table war room sticks out for reeking badness, a cringe-inducing attempt to appeal to Republican mores where Peach stirs action with some mama bear growls, with Wright as the only caricature in the film. The final scenes, which depict a dangerous attempt at a helicopter rescue of one survivor at altitudes right at the threshold of the machine’s reach, feel rushed and flimsy, though again, this part of the tale is true. I also wonder why Yasuko’s story isn’t emphasised as much as the other characters, given that it’s just as dramatic and tragic as theirs: as a non-English-speaking woman, is she considered not as universally interesting? The straightforwardness of Kormákur’s approach gives the film crowd-enticing gloss, but also retards to a certain extent what should be a haunting study in stoicism and death. Only the very last shot, which is perfect, captures something of the same melancholy, spiritual grandeur, and vision of eternal stasis that Fanck and Pabst did so long ago.


Everest is ultimately an imperfect and perhaps slightly under-ambitious film, one that misses a chance to explore an obsession with the ethereal and the far reaches of experience in deference to remain a nail-biting hit. But it’s also the kind of big moviemaking with a human core that’s been desperately lacking this year, especially compelling to me when compared to blockbusters that are hollow displays of technique, like Mad Max: Fury Road and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, so I’m willing to forgive its faults. Most crucially, I walked away with a sense of healthy respect for both the living and the dead of Everest, and the mountain itself, which, however hazardous, still looms majestic in the mind, a place where dreams flow, for better and for worse.

21st 09 - 2015 | no comment »

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

Director: Mu Fei


By Roderick Heath

When we think of Chinese cinema, the dashing products of Hong Kong’s industrious studios or the works of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland filmmakers like Yimou Zhang or Kaige Chen probably come to mind first. The great flowering of filmmaking seen in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema is, by comparison, still an obscure and patchily known field. Often voted the greatest film ever made in China, Spring in a Small Town was, much like its characters, almost a victim of history’s heedless motion. One of the last works produced before the ascent of the Communist government, director Mu Fei’s movie was controversial right from its first screening because of its subject matter, and soon was buried and reviled as a petty, indulgent distraction for decades. Fei died barely four years after making it, when like so many others, he was trying to revive his career in Hong Kong.


The very subject of Fei’s film is the moment of its making, that brief period between the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the Maoist takeover. Fei strove to record that time on a psychological as well as external level, and he depicts it as a moment of collective exhaustion, disorientation, and yearning. For a film hailed as such an achievement, Spring in a Small Town is disarmingly modest and sparse on the surface, describing a chamber drama of finite emotions and domestic concerns. The essential elements of Fei’s tale could easily come from some transcribed Chekhov play, though the actual source was a short story by Li Tianji, who adapted it for the screen. The setting is a ruined mansion, the characters members of a once-prosperous and powerful clan now damaged and declining, their aging servant, and an interloper. The title announces ambiguous, counterintuitive purposes. Spring refers as much to the promise of postwar regeneration as to the turn of the seasons, but the drama’s cloying fixation is a single family’s interior lives rather than the community implied in the title. The implication is, that something like this drama was occurring in small towns across the country, and the film represents the spiritual story of the age.


The lives of the Dai family are defined by two ruins: the demolished old town wall, a remnant psychic boundary in the mind of the townsfolk and a signifier of the lost social specifics of Chinese social life, and the Dai mansion itself, a more recent victim of war, which sits like the discarded husk of a past and irrelevant existence that depressed scion Liyan Dai (Shi Yu) haunts like a ghost in his own life meditating on his lost inheritances, beset by ill health, which he thinks is tuberculosis and his wife Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei) dismisses as neurosis. Yuwen makes the trek each day into town to fetch groceries and medicines for her husband, usually taking a detour to walk along the ruined wall with the slight vantage it offers over the flatlands surrounding her world. Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui) is the old family servant who maintains what was once a standalone cottage in the estate, but which is now their refuge. He declares the mansion can be repaired if they tackle it piece by piece, but such resolve is beyond Liyan. The one bright spot in the family is Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Hongmei Zhang), a schoolgirl on the verge of her sixteenth birthday.


When not engaged in her pressing domestic duties, Yuwen, who can barely stand looking at her husband, retreats into Xiu’s room to work on her needlepoint. Liyan confronts his wife, trying to talk her into letting Lao Huang go to town instead because he worries about her and finally admits he’s pained she seems to have accepted the miserable situation they’ve all fallen into. The tenuous balance of tolerance sustaining that situation is disturbed when a face from the past climbs over the estate boundary. Zhichen Zhang (Li Wei), a former schoolmate of Liyang’s, left the distract before the war to become a doctor and now has returned to see his friend, who is stirred from his melancholy to greet his pal happily. What Zhichen doesn’t know at first, however, is that Liyan has married Yuwen, who comes from the same town as Zhichen and was his great love.


Fei’s unusual storytelling devices are in evidence from the outset, working like the title to create a faintly ironic, distancing impression, but which cumulatively help Fei gain a rigorous grip on the viewer. As each character appears on screen for the first time, he flashes the name of the character and the actor in the role on screen, diffusing the theatre bill-like precepts of movie credits from the 1930s into the texture of the film itself, as if to announce both that the identities of these figures and their nature as fictitious entities are vital to what Fei is trying to convey, another ironic touch. Yuwen narrates in the second person as though remembering and experiencing, dropping details like how Huang always tosses medicine out the back door because of a superstition, and noting the painful peculiarities of her marriage not by registering emotions, but facts, such as sometimes, when she’s walking on the wall, she doesn’t go back until night, often doesn’t exchange a word with her husband during their required daily contacts, and declares “I’ll never think about anything ever again.” Liyang tries to confront Yuwen about this elusive, resigned habit she’s developed, and suggests that they should probably split up, an idea that Yuwen, who in spite of everything takes her wifely duties seriously, can’t countenance.


Yuwen’s method of deploying details as devices of inference and implication is also Fei’s method. Zhichen arrives clad in western clothes as opposed to the Dais, who wear more traditional garb, signaling both the stagnancy of life in this small town as well as the attempts to maintain a link with traditions that have been shattered, and also Zhichen’s promise of the exotic. The doctor has been working as an army surgeon, following the war around as he rattles off all the cities he’s been to to Zhichen: he’s been engaged with the history that has rolled over the top of the Dais. Both world-weary Yuwen and fresh-faced Xiu signal their stirred desires for the doctor by giving him gifts: Yuwen has Lao Huang take him a potted orchid and Xiu a bonsai tree.


Fei was only in his early forties when he made his masterwork, but he was already a highly experienced and acclaimed figure on the Shanghai film scene. He had worked as an assistant to Hou Yao, a pioneer of early Chinese cinema, before his directing debut with 1933’s Night in the City. His creative verve as a distinctive and inventive artist with a deep interest in studying and celebrating the national culture in the face of a pummeling epoch was quickly acknowledged after he made Blood on Wolf Mountain (1936), seen by some as a metaphor for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Song of China (1935), a celebration of traditions that became one of the few Chinese films of the era to gain U.S. screenings; and the long-lost Confucius (1940). He filmed several Chinese operas and included elements of that form when he shot the first Chinese film in colour, Remorse at Death (1948). Here, too, he incorporates a musical aspect in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, when Xiu sings to her family and Zhichen as they row a boat along a river. This scene, a nominally festive interlude where the newcomer seems to have stirred the clan from their malaise, is reminiscent of the jollity momentarily patching over coming ructions in the snow sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), another film concerned with changing societies and the decline of aristocratic cultural mores, whilst the emotions percolating within each of the four boaters, obvious to the camera but not each other, are caught with exacting focus by the director. Spring in a Small Town is certainly on one level about the culture Fei wanted to buttress, seen as subsisting in a state of flux, with awful wrenches behind and ahead. The inconsistent power supply in the town means nightly blackouts, rendering the inhabitants time travelers moved arbitrarily between present and past, the jagged, inescapable immediacy of the light bulb and the floating dreaminess of candlelight. Yet the impossibility of recapturing the past or even cutting the losses of the present is constantly stressed.


Fei’s feel for placing his actors in settings attentive to the interplay of space and action, nature and human works, echoes Jean Renoir’s subtle, yet cumulatively forceful sense of mise-en-scene whilst skewing his visual effects close to the harmonic ideals of Chinese visual art ,where nature and structure are supposed to exist in balanced interaction. What is disrupted in the ruined mansion and the broken wall, the relation between the functional, resilient constructed form and the teeming, invasive strength of natural growth, is still intact in the less luxurious, near-ignominious, but perhaps healthier life in the cottage. The theme of a troubled marriage and the interloper who promises disruption bears a distinct similarity to one basic plot motif found in another postwar movie type, film noir. However, where noir’s exploration of the blasted and alienated mood out in the boondocks after the great conflict was sublimated into criminal parables, here it is in a domestic drama that violence is exchanged for emotional flurries and the spectacle of psyches twisting in on themselves. The closest western cinematic relative to Fei’s work here is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Both movies describe potential adulterous affairs, intensely personal, almost eventless tales all the better to unravel the tight wrapping on survivors of wartime, revealing the frustration wrought by subordinating personal desires to communal needs and faced with new choices completely at odds with the settled values all that fighting was supposed to defend and the habits of stoicism. Lean’s graphic, cosmopolitan approach where the repressed emotions unexpressed by the characters are enacted via the filmmaking is largely different to Fei’s style, which is mostly closer to the quietly observant humanism of Yasujiro Ozu.


The exception to this quiet, observant approach is the most unusual and celebrated device Fei deploys, during scenes of interaction between Yuwen and Zhichen: Fei breaks up the scenes with dissolves, sliding woozily from moment to moment, stance to stance, communicating the force of the couple’s restrained ardour where the structure of time and reality seems distorted, the disparity between psyche and exterior inside the characters registered as a stutter in the film technique. Here Fei’s formal experimentation anticipates New Wave filmmaking’s obsessive fascination for using the texture of cinema itself as a dramatic tool. (Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker who has often employed a similar technical idiosyncrasy. Of course, Scorsese took on a vitally similar theme of thwarted, honourably withheld passion in The Age of Innocence (1993), whilst many of Scorsese’s films deal with a similar notion of characters who feel entrapped by socially imposed identities.)


Fei’s work here has perhaps echoed through contemporary Chinese film since its rediscovery in the 1980s, with directors as temperamentally diverse as Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien visibly engaged with his legacy. A lengthy, one-shot sequence of the family dining as a vibrant unit resembles Hou’s experiment with sustaining transfixing interaction in long takes in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The focus on a pair of lovers whose affair must remain superficially chaste inevitably echoes Wong’s In The Mood for Love (2000), whilst the concept of life’s stages as akin to seasons was revisited in The Grandmaster (2014). The first encounter when Yuwen is called out of the cottage by Liyang to meet the guest, who has no idea that his friend married his former flame, sees Zhichen’s shock revealed in a sudden close-up, versus Yuwen’s slightly more prepared, fiercely dissembling glare. Yuwen is quietly transformed by the return of her lover, and not quite in the moony, readily pathos-stirring way of many a guilty romantic heroine.


Wei Wei’s brilliant performance communicates how Yuwen’s wiry energy and frustrated imperious streak as a waning former belle of the ball have been forcibly converted into their opposite, a languid torpor and an archly dutiful subservience to her role, as if the best revenge she sees for the life she is leading now is to lead it unimpeachably. It’s all in her fingers, as she constantly folds her hands in the proper stance of attention, but lets her fingers strangle each other in increasingly fretful and agitated repression as Zhichen’s tenure at the cottage continues. Although almost always a pillar of quiet, boding rectitude, Yuwen’s coquettish streak occasionally shines through her façade, as does her fearsome passion, which seems sometimes poised to manifest as aggression. Her tendency to seek solitude and seclusion, far from being an asocial or introverted quality, keeps her restrained, as she often seems on the verge of pouncing on the men in her life to break them to pieces or ravage them in frenzy. Fei repeatedly depicts Yuwen lounging on her bed or sitting, apparently immobilised but clearly fixated. Soon it emerges that Yuwen and Zhichen’s long-ago romance was stymied by his lack of standing and worldliness, not even knowing how to get a match made, and then his departure for university, leaving Yuwen to be snatched up by the upstanding and propertied Liyang, only for everything that made him a good match to fall apart. Liyang remains unaware of Yuwen and Zhichen’s past, and he hits upon what he thinks is a good way to make his friend happy and start building the family up again: marrying Zhichen to Xiuhe. The sprightly teenager seems charmed enough by the doctor to be open to the idea, while Yuwen covertly boils at the idea, but agrees to suggest the match to Zhichen. Meanwhile, Zhichen’s own ministrations seem to be working for Liyang, who’s able to leave the house and enjoy himself with the family.


The giddy, happy drunkenness of Xiu’s birthday celebrations becomes catalyst for tipping the characters closer to their moments of personal moral crisis. Yuwen seems to set out purposefully to seduce Zhichen in his room in a sequence charged to melting point with sexual tension that can only be squandered, the cloud-streaked full moon above a recurring image, as if dictating the strange tides of the human heart. The acme of the romantic longing comes when Zhichen suddenly sweeps Yuwen up in his arms, a few breathless paces away from the bed. He then slowly lowers her and detaches again, the moment gone forever. Zhichen flees, trying to lock Yuwen in rather than let her presence taunt him. She laughs at him through a glass pane in the door and then punches the glass out to release herself, erotic energy transmuted into sado-masochistic violence. Zhichen rushes to repair her wound, essentially reveling in his own grudging emotional impotence.


The promise of revival Zhichen brings with him as an emblem of a functional and modernising world beyond the river proves in large part illusory, as he stirs Liyang from his depression and gives hope of recovery. Instead, he can’t escape the roundelay of history any more than his friends, and the contradictions he represents sends his patient into crisis. Fei implies that, in the same manner, the confused and contradictory impulses of China’s entry into the modern, westernised world had done it more damage than good, unable to cleave from the pillars of old faiths and not yet able to erect effective replacements—the electric light still gives out at night, the medicine doesn’t always work. Liyang seems to become aware at last that something is going on between his wife and his friend, and the husband, always stringently honest and self-searching to the point of being infuriating, tells his wife he has to get better or he might as well die and stop burdening her.


The beauty of Fei’s filmmaking and his refrains to nature’s cycles are both ironic in counterpointing the septic tendencies of humans toward fruitless introspection, but also suggest that frailty is in itself a mere aspect of nature. The process of reconstruction has to be first accomplished on the interior level before the will can be found to start piling up the bricks and mixing the mortar. This is a process Fei reflects on early in the film when Liyang tries half-heartedly to do just that, plucking fragments of brick from the rubble of the mansion and stacking them. It’s a fleeting stab at action by a man of no skill or resolve who ceases when he notices his wife watching, perhaps with scorn or with pity or a mixture of both, from a distance. Xiu has the elastic resilience of youth, the promise of a new time living in her gawky limbs. Nihilistic temptations are before the older characters, with Liyang making overtures to Zhichen for the doctor to help him end his life, an act that could clear the way for him and Yuwen. Resisting the inducement to cross that line proves an unstated, but vital aspect of what Fei is depicting, as much as the doctor and the housewife resisting their emotional impulses in trying to reknit the fabric of a civil life in a way that’s more meaningful than mere habit.


Eventually Liyang attempts suicide on his own with his supply of sleeping pills—a classic version of the Chekhovian gun, as those pills are given allusive import throughout the film, to the point where Zhichen even replaces some with placebos, possibly anticipating such an act—finally bringing this quandary to crisis point. Xiu fearfully begs Zhichen to save her brother, and rather than being left to expire, Liyang’s act proves his friend’s and family’s devotion to him holds fast, his courting of death instead providing a perverse reason to live. Zhichen departs the small town for the sake of himself and the Dais. But whilst the final shots replicate the early ones, they come with pointed difference, dispelling the notion that cycles mean stasis. Yuwen had essentially raised Xiu, but Xiu’s recognition that Zhichen and Yuwen love each other has transformed their relationship. Zhichen walks the road out of town accompanied by Xiu and Huang, having reconnected with his society, whilst Liyang, leaning on a crutch but moving under his own steam, joins his wife on the ruined wall where she stood alone before, giving some hope that the spring really has arrived. The last line of the film, fittingly, is Xiu inviting Zhichen back for the summer. Spring in a Small Town finally offers a very hard-won affirmation.

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