Cotton Comes to Harlem

Raymond St. Jacques as Coffin Ed Johnson and Godfrey Cambridge as Gravedigger Jones in Cotton Comes to Harlem (dir. Ossie Davis, 1970).

Adapted from Chester Himes' novel. Davis directs it as a weird mixture of blaxploitation slapstick and gritty police drama. Redd Foxx has a supporting role as a proto-Fred-Sanford junk dealer named Uncle Bud. He has a "moving snapshot" bit that we simply can't talk about because no commentary seems appropriate. The footage of 1970 Harlem gleams with reverence throughout, lingering on the storefronts and market stands and nightclub neon. As if nodding to a source for its own oddball aesthetic, at one point the camera swoops across the marquis of a theater showing Putney Swope.


Criss Cross

Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo in Criss Cross (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1949).

Now this is a noir. Fatalistic, snarly melodrama played for maximum tailspin effect. Dan Duryea is his typical heel self, and even though the film's in black and white, you get the feeling his suit is yellow. A good Miklos Rosza score, and taut cinematography by Franz Planer, who breaks the Los Angeles background up into multiple diagonal swaths: modernist architecture, elevated trains, hilly sidewalks. The suddenness with which Lancaster's Steve is sucked into the crime plot never feels contrived; even though he's come off as a big decent lug in most ways up to that point, as soon as it happens it feels sickeningly inevitable. The corruption that sets in from then on makes emotional sense not only as a consequence of his involvement with the criminal element, but as an outgrowth of character traits that, in retrospect, have been visible all along: bullheaded selfishness and embittered entitlement. Everyone warns him that De Carlo's Anna is all wrong for him, but by the end it's clear: they are made for each other.


Ministry of Fear

Publicity still of Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds in Ministry of Fear (dir. Fritz Lang, 1944).

Much of Lang's genius for evoking atmospheric dread in crowded public settings as well as dark stairwells is on evidence in this pleasant-enough diversion, which would probably be more impressive if it weren't clearly an attempt to mimic the formula of The 39 Steps and other of Hitchcock's early thrillers--an attempt that is about 65% successful. It also doesn't help that one senses some material has been ruthlessly and clumsily edited out. I was excited to see Dan Duryea in the title credits (he's insanely great in Lang's Scarlet Street from the following year), but he's only in the film for a total of five minutes or so. He does have one nice little bit that comes when you've given up on him, however. The most memorable scene is the very last, about which I will only say that it tries to be funny and succeeds, but not in the way it was meant to. Ray Milland's delivery of the final line deserves an award for sublime (mis-)timing.


Mon Oncle

Jacques Tati between worlds in Mon Oncle (dir. Jacques Tati, 1958).

There's a good-naturedness in Mon Oncle that overrides any bitter satirical taste: even the insidious automated modernist home is presented as a quaint little domicile with a winsome personality underneath all the buzzing gadgets and pretentious veneer. That personality rears up at one point in the form of two huge round windows lit up at night and animated by two watchful silhouetted heads into a pair of cartoon eyes. Conversely, M. Hulot's own ramshackle apartment building is homely in more than one sense. It's an eyesore, made appealing only by the human community that thrives in and around it. Hulot's neighborhood may be romanticized in some ways, but it's not a utopia: the people there are just as silly and hapless as the nouveau riche across the crumbling dividers (in the scene above, Hulot reaches down with a gingerly hand to replace a brick he's accidentally knocked loose, restoring a smidgeon of order to the rubble), and dogs run through the streets peeing all over everything. On the other side, the shiny cars and factory complexes may be sterile, but you can tell Tati loves their lines. And during a generally painful party at Hulot's sister's air-conditioned nightmare, the bourgeois plant manager goes eagerly to work, nice clothes and all, repairing a broken water pipe in the garden so that the horrible stylized fish in the cement pond can spout water again. He climbs with a smile out of the muddy pit he has dug and declares proudly, at least it works again. Like Hulot with his brick, he's constructive in the face of entropy.

The Criterion Collection DVD also features L'ecole des facteurs (School for Postmen), a magnificently pointless 1947 Tati short with a dance scene I will store in my memory against bleak moods.


Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Keira Knightley and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2007).

The droll verbosities and narrative languors of the Pirates films (especially the last two) are not, as one might assume, out of sync with the relentless action sequences and special effects. This contrast is in fact the most successful gesture made by the series, a shrewdly calculated alienation device that will gratify enough of an otherwise uninterested audience to make up for the truly alienated contingent, a good portion of whom are too young at any rate to walk out of the theater unescorted. The least ethical thing about the films, in fact, is that the younger audience is so heavily targeted in the first place, considering the nightmarishly realistic quality of some of the violence: children are hanged, women are shot in the face, villages explode. Young viewers in the theater I was in were visibly disturbed.

Taken together, as indeed they were filmed together, the previous film (Dead Man's Chest) and this one form a single cinematic epic, complete with the requisite machinery: a controlling goddess, ocean voyages, great battles, monsters, trip to the underworld, catalogs of troops, the hero's nostos or return, etc. But this epic also strains toward the conditions of mock epic, its allegorical elements constantly redirected from the standard themes of heroism, virtue, love, and so forth, toward a weakly-conceived, self-reflexive acknowledgment of the franchise's roots in a corporate theme-park ride. The backwardness of this derivation is perhaps the most interesting thing about the concept: its novelty lies precisely in the fact that the ride spawned the story rather than the other way around, and the convincingness of the backtracking invention almost works against it. How many viewers of the current generation even know or care about this paradox? It's the boomers in the audience who laugh when the dog brings out the keys.

For the mock-epic approach to bear full fruit, there has to be a further deformation of the amusement-park trope, and we see faint glimmers of such a tendency in the Pirates films' half-hearted gestures toward political commentary--the inclusion of history in small doses, the imperialist East India Company being the bad guys and all, their chief villain proclaiming that "the immaterial is now immaterial" and that betrayal "is just good business." Disney's complicity in this capitalist history remains (surprise) underexplored, beyond some highly suggestive dreamwork in the form of reduplicated Johnny Depps and the aforementioned conspicuities of animatronic derivation.

All this said, did I enjoy it? Alas, yes. I am trying hard to convince myself that one major plot development involving Keira Knightley is a sly Kathy Acker allusion. I applaud the shameless casting of Keith Richards as Captain Teague. Like everyone else in the universe, I am defenseless against the addled charm of Depp's witty Jack. There is one shamefully inept moment, however, which comes at the very end of the film, after all the credits have rolled, and which I have to believe was added at the insistence of studio hacks: a moment which is not only saccharine and flat, but which serves to ruin any sense of romantic tension the closing moments of the story might have created. It suggests--and this may be a foregone conclusion for many--that there is no point in further sequels.


Cheyenne Autumn

James Stewart, Elizabeth Allen's legs, and Arthur Kennedy in Cheyenne Autumn (dir. John Ford, 1964).

"By golly, I did know her in Wichita."



Warren Oates in Dillinger (dir. John Milius, 1973).

An underrated gangster film. In addition to Oates, cast members include Harry Dean Stanton, Michelle Phillips, Cloris Leachman, Steve Kanaly, Geoffrey Lewis, Richard Dreyfuss, and--as Dillinger's nemesis, G-man Melvin Purvis--the incomparable Ben Johnson. The romanticization of the gangsters is an effective part of the film's theme, though it's a bit underdeveloped. It never quite breaks all the way through from knowing self-reference to actual insight, nor does it take much care to avoid gratuitous sensationalism in the process of commenting on gratuitous sensationalism. Some well-done newspaper montage bits.


The Racket

Robert Ryan and Lizabeth Scott in The Racket (dir. John Cromwell, 1951).

When Howard Hughes took over RKO, he remade this film, the silent version of which he had also produced in 1928. It's a lackluster hodgepodge for the most part. In addition to Cromwell, Mel Ferrer, Tay Garnett, Nicholas Ray, and Sherman Todd all directed sequences at Hughes' command. Robert Ryan acts like he thinks he's in a good movie, as does William Talman (who went on to play the DA in the Perry Mason TV series), but Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott make little effort to hide their boredom. I'm pretty sure Mitchum actually stifles some yawns. The best part is noir scholar Eddie Muller's engaging commentary on the Warner DVD: his ongoing observations on what a mess the film is are interesting in and of themselves, and when he occasionally points out things that are well done, it's almost exhilarating.



Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams in Dick (dir. Andrew Fleming, 1999).

The concept--a cross between Clueless, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, and All the President's Men--is promising, and there are some pleasures here. The leads are appealing, if not quite at the peak of their talents. Dan Hedaya is a funny Nixon, though it would have been better if he'd worn a fake nose or something, because you can't ever stop thinking "that's not Nixon, that's Dan Hedaya." Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch as Woodward and Bernstein: brilliant, right? Except that it doesn't really work. Ultimately, the flick's a flop. Still, it's interesting symptomatically as a Clinton-era revisionist historical fantasy, in which the conservative ogres of the imperial past can be safely clobbered by even the virtuously shallow nymphs of late capitalist liberalism (the heroines are nineties girls through and through). If you put ironic quotation marks around the whole production, it's actually amusing in a grim way. But you really do have to put them there yourself, I'm afraid.


Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot

Nathalie Pascaud and Jacques Tati in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot [M. Hulot's Holiday] (dir. Jacques Tati, 1953).

This film is often characterized as plotless, which isn't exactly true. It's storyless, certainly, but there's plenty of plot: the entirety of the film is a perfectly shaped series of linked emotional experiences, with its flawless transitions between successive intensifications of lyrical-pastoral slapstick vignettery. The culmination is the climactic sequence in which M. Hulot shoots off a shed full of fireworks, waking everyone at the seaside resort except for the lovely Martine, who in one brief shot lies angelically in her bed, her slumbering body lit up by the flashes of skyrockets through her window. This anarchic carnival of explosions retroactively transforms the serenity of every scene before it, and Martine's imperturbable peace, in turn, tempers this transformation, preserving the meticulous orchestration of balances and counterbalances that takes what is at base no more than a mobile arrangement of trifles and makes it feel like a profound philosophical sonata.

Included on the Criterion DVD: René Clément's 1936 short Soigne ton gauche, featuring Tati as a young farmhand who consults a how-to manual during his first boxing match.


In Old California

Check out the seahorse cutouts on the barroom doors: John Wayne in In Old California (dir. William C. McGann, 1942).

Most of this is standard-issue Hollywood oater--and there's nothing wrong with that! What's special is Wayne as an almost dandyish Boston pharmacist (he modeled the role after his father, who was a druggist in Iowa). Albert Dekker is a fine and hapless villain (Harvey Korman is basically impersonating Dekker in Blazing Saddles), and the two main comic supports, Patsy Kelly and Edgar Kennedy, are very winning. Kelly's Helga takes down her laundry by shooting the clothespins, and Kennedy's Bottom-esque Kegs claims that he's generally "gentle as a mooing dove," but when his chronic toothache starts acting up, he's "liable to throw you off a cliff"--the pain turns him into a "long-haired sea lion" who goes around "roaring." Wayne: "Roaring?" Kennedy: "ROARING!"


Phantom Lady

Ella Raines and Elisha Cook, Jr. in Phantom Lady (dir. Robert Siodmak, 1944).

I wish I had this on DVD so I could do a screen capture of the scene just before the one pictured above, wherein Ella Raines uses her whole body to encourage Elisha Cook's manic drum solo to its, er, climax. As she tells him, she's "a real hep kitten." This little noir-lite nugget, based on a Cornell Woolrich story (written under the pseudonym William Irish), makes up in inspired moments for what it lacks in consistent intensity. Franchot Tone and Alan Curtis are both kind of duds as the villain and hero respectively, but in a weird way their dudness works.


The Devil Rides Out

Charles Gray in The Devil Rides Out (dir. Terence Fisher, 1968).

Fisher does it old school in his third-to-last film, reviving the drawing-room drolleries of his fifties productions. Richard Matheson script from a Dennis Wheatley novel. Christopher Lee as the virtuous Duc de Richleau, a sort of Van Helsing to Satanists. And most strikingly, Charles Gray (Bond villain and Rocky Horror criminologist) as the evil Mocata.


Killer's Kiss

Parallel lives: Jamie Smith and Irene Kane in Killer's Kiss (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1955).

Low-budget city drama with some stunning camerawork (e.g., the famous scene in the mannequin warehouse, and the "Watch Your Step" staircase sequence). The most interesting thing about the story is the brittle relationship between the two leads: being your typically emotionally negligent noir protagonists, they are so not there for each other at a crucial moment; and yet, both are so able to get over it. Kind of a heartening life model, or an anemic one, depending on your standards.


Children of Men

Clive Owen and Danny Huston in Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2006).

Slavoj Zizek talks in one of the DVD bonus features about how this film is notable because of the way the main character functions primarily as a filter through which we apprehend the background, the socio-enviro-political details that are the "real" subject of the movie. The truth is, they're not really the background at all--the screen shoves all the topical markers in our face and makes sure we get their relevance at every turn. Nevertheless, Cuarón is a visually thrilling director, and some of those details--the minister's medicated brother and his electronic hand gadgetry, the tricycle-rickshaws in the London streets, the commercials for the suicide pill "Quietus" ("You Decide When"), and some of the least banal use of seventies rock on a soundtrack since Breaking the Waves--go a long way toward rescuing the picture from its more heavy-handed tendencies toward mythic posturing and elegaical jeremiadism.


The Mansion of Madness

The Mansion of Madness (dir. Juan López Moctezuma, 1973).

Moctezuma was a sometime collaborator with Jodorowsky, and it shows. Mansion is a loose adaptation of Poe's "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether," but it feels more like a cross between El Topo and a Hammer Film. It's the kind of movie where incongruous funny-sound-effect music pops up without warning, but some of the sets and shots really are striking. There's a primitivist-execution-squad dance number near the end that is one of a kind.


The Hound of the Baskervilles

Peter Cushing and Miles Malleson in The Hound of the Baskervilles (dir. Terence Fisher, 1959).

Cushing as Holmes. Perfect. Great scene where Christopher Lee is terrorized by a tarantula--for real, as he explains in the "actor's diary" special feature that comes with the DVD I watched it on. Miles Malleson, a character actor who appears in several Hammer films (including both Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula), is a hoot as usual, here playing an dotty old bishop/entomologist. Malleson was also an accomplished screenwriter: among his credits was the Ludwig Berger/Michael Powell Thief of Baghdad from 1940.


Brides of Dracula

Marie Devereux and Andree Melly in Brides of Dracula (dir. Terence Fisher, 1960).

No Christopher Lee in this one. Just a rather twerpy young vampire baron (that's another thing about Hammer--every other character is a baron!) and some undead ladies in nightgowns. Cushing's Van Helsing is gallant and dashing as usual, and there are some charming comic turns by supporting actors.

These Are the Damned

"Black leather, black leather, crash crash crash...": Oliver Reed and some Teddy Boys in These Are the Damned (dir. Joseph Losey, 1963).

Thanks to Lanny for coming down from Portland with the videotape of this, one of his all-time favorites and one of Hammer's most unusual and dramatically ambitious productions. It's one of those movies where you really don't want to say anything about the content because a big part of what makes it so engaging is the way it goes places you don't expect. But the first few minutes, with their intimations of A Clockwork Orange, are enough to let you know that it's going to be a stylish, worthwhile piece of cinema. Viveca Lindfors: "How could you be so cruel?" Oliver Reed: "I enjoyed it very much, milady!"

See also Kevin Killian's review at Amazon.


The Curse of the Werewolf

The beggar at the table of the great: Richard Wordsworth in The Curse of the Werewolf (dir. Terence Fisher, 1961).

It's set in Spain, but everybody says things like "'Ello, then, wot's this 'ere?" The color is magnificent, and the historical sets and costumes are pretty inspired in their gaudy unlikeliness. The whole first twenty minutes or half hour or so are like a separate little movie unto itself, and a very perverse, recherché one at that. A wandering beggar shows up at the wedding feast of a cruel and decadent baron, who makes him dance for table scraps. The baron's bride intercedes, asking the baron to show the beggar mercy, and the baron makes the beggar his bride's "pet"--except that she apparently forgets all about him the next morning, and the beggar languishes for years in the dungeon, long after the baroness dies and the baron himself becomes an even more foul (and syphilitic) old ogre. A beautiful mute girl (why do Hammer films have so many mute girls?) brings the beggar his food every day. The ugly gross old baron makes a pass at the servant girl, and she spurns him, incurring his anger. He has her thrown in the dungeon with the beggar. The beggar, now a subhuman bearded troll, rapes her! She is released, kills the baron, escapes through the woods, and is found by a kindly villager, who takes her back to his place where he and his wife care for her till she delivers a child and dies. The child will grow up to be Oliver Reed, who because he is born on Christmas and is the son of a mute servant girl and a feral beggar rapist, naturally turns into a werewolf sometimes. But all that's almost an anticlimax after that long, weird set-up.