Wednesday, May 22, 2024

A Biblical Wash

If you’re going to rewrite an ancient myth, you’d better hire a poet. 

There is no poetry — visual or verbal — in Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), a weirdly bland and boring remake sunk by piffling computer graphics and a script that is obviously one of those compromise-by-committee jobs without a personal voice (the kind that goes through endless rewrites by a variety of confused lackeys). I’m reminded of an old quote, variously attributed to Dr. Johnson, Lessing, Sheridan, and Daniel Webster: 

“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

The only idea in the script that inspires awe or dread is a Yahweh that shows himself to Moses (Christian Bale) as an East London street urchin with a demanding attitude. That conceit makes those few scenes with Moses and his God both chilling and comic, but the idea seems lifted from Harold Bloom’s interpretive conception of Yahweh as a temperamental, egotistic youngster who drags His chosen people into a covenant in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine and the earlier The Book of J. Bloom imagines Yahweh as a child who almost doesn’t know and doesn’t bother controlling His own strength. The young actor Isaac Andrews is perfect in the part; he owns it. When Moses speaks up to complain, Andrews cuts him off mid-sentence. There’s a seething resentment in the young boy’s eyes as he looks away from and then squarely at Moses before telling His servant-prophet what to do.

The screenplay is far weaker than the 1955 version by Cecil B. DeMille as a coherent narrative. It lacks the earlier version’s campy, stentorian dialogue — but there was poetry in that screenplay. In Gods and Kings, the script can’t even transition smoothly or keep track of who’s who. After two hours of this tedium, I still had no idea who Ben Kingsley was supposed to be. I knew he was an Israelite, but which one — Joshua? Moses’s father? Aaron? Which Egyptian princess in the earlier scenes was Moses’s adopted mother? Sigourney Weaver? Hiam Abbass? The Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani? I couldn’t remember a single quotable line of dialogue, either. Whose boneheaded idea was it to not give any of these mythic characters a memorably juicy line?

The rest of the picture is mundane and supremely tedious. Ridley Scott has no feel for this material. The computer graphics don’t stun or raise hairs on the back of the neck — they raise doubts about verisimilitude, as for example when locusts swarm toward Memphis at what appears to be jet aircraft speed. The film’s color palette is a sickly gun-metal green. The parting of the Red Sea was preposterous the way it was conceived: enormous tsunamis, tornadoes, and chariots moving across wet sand at cartoon speed symbolize nothing so much as the law of diminishing returns with today’s technology. DeMille’s Eisenhower-era version — with all its arresting squareness — is filled with color and storytelling power behind the special effects. Kids used to fight with their parents to be allowed to stay up long enough to watch the whole four-hour movie (lovingly parodied in a scene with Roy’s family in Close Encounters of the Third Kind), which has corniness and pageantry and, finally, majesty, like the scene of a defeated Rameses and Nefretiri in funereal robes, hissing at each other like the Macbeths over their dead son and the ignominious defeat of their empire. Young viewers at home would never bother nagging their parents to stay up late to see anything this dismal.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

The Evil That Welles Did

Hank Quinlan (Welles) dispatches Sgt. Menzies (Joseph Calleia)
The reconstructed cut of Touch of Evil (1958) is out on a new 4K UHD Blu-ray from Kino-Lorber. The 111-minute reconstruction has all the burn of the 98-minute version we saw in years past and something epic besides. If the boutique UHD industry (Kino, Criterion, Arrow, etc.) had rescanned only this one classic movie and not dozens of others, the industry would have proved its worth and paid for itself ten times over. About four or five dozen — roughly — old American movies merit a meticulous rescan like this (a good discussion could be had debating titles), but Evil is just about the moviest movie in that pool. Orson Welles created an H-bomb out of material that other noir directors (Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Andre de Toth, Anthony Mann) would have used to create an entertaining genre melodrama. You’d have to reach back to G. W. Pabst and the Russians in the 1920s to match the abundance of artistry here — the mise-en-scène, the montage, the crane shots, the baroque angles and perspectives, the tracking, the deep well of inventiveness. Some of what Welles did here is outlandishly visionary and grotesque, overshadowing much of the experimentation since him, even the handful of greats he influenced — Sam Peckinpah or David Lynch, for example (Welles went further with audio than Peckinpah or Lynch ever did). In the late 1950s, this movie must have hit audiences the way Eraserhead hit college students in the late 1970s. Remember what you thought when you first saw that? Both movies took years to find their audience.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023


 A Fool There Was (1915) is one of the few Fox Studios silent pictures to have survived the 1937 Fort Lee, New Jersey, fire, and one of only a handful of surviving movies starring Theda Bara. This Edwardian melodrama, adapted from a play by Porter Emerson Browne, which was itself based on a Kipling poem, portrays Good just about how you’d expect, but the entire movie is energized by the kohl-eyed, fleshy Bara, who is listed in the credits as “The Vampire.” She’s extraordinary — a femme fatale viper who gloms on to men — hapless fools — and drags them away from the light of society and family down into her lair, draining them of their fortunes, jobs, and willpower. The vamp destroys them and their wives and children. The movie’s perspective — that these men are to blame for their own destruction — is encapsulated in numerous intertitles that quote from the poem (“The Vampire”). Evil isn’t specifically blamed, let alone punished. In retrospect, the movie feels like a firebrand’s response to male domination and misogyny.

Countess Dracula
In the earlier scenes of family life, the movie is a little draggy and the direction is uninspired — the camera sits and observes in static repose, with characters moving into and out of the frame in the style of stage entrances and exits. But Theda Bara has some sort of mad charisma — at times, she resembles Nazimova in Salomé (1922) — and when she’s on the screen, images and tableaux of immense sophistication and cruelty hit you between the eyes: the first “fool” (Victor Benoit) shoots himself aboard ship and his casket is carted up the loading ramp like baggage, the second “fool” (Edward José, who starred in Theda Bara’s screen debut the year before) turns into a hollow-eyed husk, rejects his young daughter yet again (the child, named Baby, is terribly underfoot in earlier scenes) and slithers down the stairwell like a wounded snake, and in the final shattering scene (a grotesque distortion of romantic love), the vamp, clad in a wispy nightgown, hovers over the moribund husband and drops dying rose petals across his face as he gasps for breath. These are decadent, erotic, warped images you can’t shake or explain outside of the work of German directors like Pabst, Murnau, and Lang. The best elements in this movie reach forward, across Edwardian domesticity and Christian homilies directly into the haunted desiccation of the Weimar era.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Boring Your Enemies to Death

François Truffaut screws around with tone so much in The Bride Wore Black (1968) that we’re alienated from the characters, and all there is to do is sit back and observe the revenge roundelay dispassionately while Jeanne Moreau knocks off the hapless, shallow men who mistakenly shot and killed her husband. I get the feeling that Truffaut was trying to replicate his own earlier triumphs with random narrative twists and disjunctive edits (as
in Jules and Jim and
Back in black. Moreau and Brialy
Shoot the Piano Player) or try his hand at Godardian displacement in a Hitchcock-like suspense thriller. But Hitchcock was never this blasé. Whatever Truffaut thought he was doing, he apparently didn’t have much feeling for human beings and emotions anymore or even how to generate a sustained arc of suspense. What happened to the director who showed such love and exuberance for the bohemian trio in Jules and Jim (also starring Moreau, gloriously) or for the neglected Antoine falling through Parisian society’s postwar cracks in The 400 Blows

In The Bride Wore Black (adapted from the Cornell Woolrich noir novel), a pulp sensibility prevails, but the director’s distancing techniques — heavy symbolism (black scarves blown about by the wind, the murderess posing as Diana, the goddess of the hunt), jump-cutting, bright lighting, and what can only be called Brechtian staging — kill most of the suspense. Moreau is monotonous (even her wig seems to be unnaturally weighing down her forehead) when she should seem driven by unhinged passion. Her victims all behave like oafs with stereotypically French male swagger, so we don’t feel any of the terror in their dispatching. The effect is a bewildering brew of overt cruelty and slapstick. With the exception of the first murder victim, pushed to his death off a balcony, most of the shocks are completely predictable because the setups are dragged out interminably; in the end, the movie feels like an affectless chore. A thriller black comedy that deadens one’s responses is a contradiction in terms.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Miss Show Business

By the time Presenting Lily Mars was filmed in 1943, the twenty-year-old Judy Garland had already mastered the clowning, fumbling earnestness in her character’s single-minded pursuit of stardom and, for the first time on film, was displaying some of the world-weary show-biz brass that would point the way to her concert triumphs in middle age — that voice like a Big Band trumpet with a mute on it, moaning low or careening into the stratosphere. Chronologically, the Andy Hardy bloom was just barely off her, but she had come into her own mature talent, inexorably and rapidly. She had made an excellent picture the year before (For Me and My Gal, with Judy and Gene Kelly doing their “Ballin’ the Jack” routine) and had even separated from her first husband by then (having had an affair with Johnny Mercer in the interim). The character Garland plays in Lily Mars is a typical Booth Tarkington teenager, a homely duckling with a pie-in-the-sky dream and the gumption to chase it no matter how many obstacles she smacks into. There’s a lot of Alice Adams in Lily, but it isn’t high society Lily craves — it’s the energy that stage performers lap up from audiences (Garland took that energy and apotheosized it in 1961 at her famed Carnegie Hall concert).

A star is born. Judy Garland, Faye Bainter
I’ve always thought that Garland’s core was comedic rather than dramatic, despite her intelligence and honesty in serious roles like Esther, in A Star Is Born (1954). Garland was always at her loopiest and least self-conscious in movie comedy (she said that she learned how to put a song across from Sophie Tucker). She would have made a dazzling farceur in screwballs, with her verbal and physical gag skills and her short stature and elongated limbs (she looks like a Tex Avery drawing from his 1941 classic “Hollywood Steps Out”), but the genre had all but died out by the early 1940s. Joe Pasternak and Norman Taurog, who made Lily Mars, should have done so much more with her comedy savvy here, but they didn’t have the burn and drive that her better directors often did (Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, or Busby Berkeley). Pasternak and Taurog misinterpreted her appeal and kept her suspended in the bland Jell-O of wholesome “family” entertainment. Instead of giving her energetic modern numbers to sing, the Pasternak machine saddles her and her irrepressible quiver with mopey love ballads. It’s a huge relief when the movie finale moves from a starchy “Where There’s Music” into “Broadway Rhythm,” but songs like “Every Little Movement Has a Meaning All Its Own” or “When I Look at You” don’t exactly help build the Garland legend. Lily is supposed to be the antithesis of the starched-collar “perfection” of Marta Eggerth (whose operetta swill makes your head drop), much the way Garland herself was the swinging antithesis of the ridiculously popular Deanna Durbin at MGM. 

Despite the family-market machinery and misconceptions, Garland swings through and maps out a route forward for her career in Lily Mars, even if she wasn’t fully aware of it at the time. Her triumph in Lily Mars was a blueprint for Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968), which re-created several gags from it in the “Lovely Bride” and roller-skating numbers. By 1943, Garland, who would make Meet Me in St. Louis the following year and dispense with the last of her childhood pudge, was paving her own yellow brick road.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Moldy Camp

Death warmed over.
  Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz
The Mummy (1999) is a stab at camp, a remake of the shlocky Valley of the Kings (1954) with Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker, and the tasty adult adventure movie King Solomon’s Mines (1950) with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr. This version has nothing at all to do with the arch, creepy, Teutonic 1932 version directed for Universal by Karl Freund, an Expressionist chiller whose troubling imagery is like being entombed with moldy corpses in a graveyard. This version can’t meet any of its humble, imbecile obligations: even the character actors (the movie saviors and scene stealers of the past) are awful. 

The jocularity is so broad and cringe that twenty minutes of it puts you in a sour mood. At over two hours and five minutes of frenetic stupidity, you might come out of it convinced that movies have never provided charm or magic.

Another unintended bit of residue of The Mummy is that it makes you hate the affable Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Industrial Light and Magic, CGI, Egypt, and even bandages. How can it be ethical — or even legal — to treat the Bronze Age this way? 

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

East and West

Toshiro Mifune and Keiko Awaji
Stray Dog (1949) is Akira Kurosawa’s tenth film and only his third with the charismatic young actor Toshiro Mifune (his seventh film role). It is one of the rewards of movies to be able to see a budding genius director so openly display his love of American directors: Ford, Welles, Huston, Walsh. Kurosawa takes the police procedural form and inventively expands it in various directions: a buddy picture, a psychological–existential drama, and an Expressionist morality play. The movie is bursting at the seams. It’s a Bildungsroman by a director who is finding a new language to express everything he can in a humanist spirit. Stray Dog has a purity of purpose. Kurosawa directed his first movie in 1943; by 1948, in Drunken Angel, and 1949, in Stray Dog, he was already the greatest master of pastiche and action technique in the world. You can feel the simultaneous forces of the East and the West, yet there is no unease with the material: the tableaus of the desperately hustling, naïve young cop (Mifune) in the ramshackle side streets of Tokyo are both triumphantly personal and universal. Takashi Shimura, a Kurosawa stalwart from Rashomon (1950), Ikiru (1952), and The Seven Samurai (1954), plays the mentor detective. He was an old pro even by 1949. Kurosawa here is right on the cusp of surpassing his American idols. The following year, with Rashomon, those same American directors had the opportunity to see how they’d been topped by this Beethoven of the East.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022


Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022) is a saccharine atrocity. Virtually all the characters are back from the final TV season, but they’ve had the blood squeezed out of them. The script leaves no one any dignity; the actors aren’t just actors anymore — they’re cardboard symbols of the resilient English spirit, diamonds of the Empire with stiff upper lips. This lame, pointless rip-off of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is presented earnestly, as if nobody had ever heard of the silent-to-sound transition, and despite the fact that the film studio in the current story is the London-based producer of “quota quickies,” British Lion, all the characters keep mysteriously referring to their surroundings as “Hollywood.” What can you say about the writing in a movie that shamelessly treats all these dowagers, lords, ladies, and lackeys as wooden tokens of British class divisions and old-movie stereotypes (This Happy Breed [1944], Mrs. Miniver [1942], The White Cliffs of Dover [1944], and so on, where the only humor in the dialogue is inadvertent), or that relies on piled-up happy outcomes? I don’t remember a single moment in the two-hours-plus romance that was sexy or passionate, and when a baby is carried in at the end, I was baffled as to how it got there. At a time of our current upswing in erotic dramas in streaming programs, Downton Abbey: A New Era is presented as a chaste throwback to the sexless “family” entertainment of Joe Pasternak and Henry Koster. It’s a shame there isn’t a singing nun in it somewhere.

Static pose. Maggie Smith
The directing is truly primitive; scenes aren’t shaped for dramatic action or montage but for static tableaus. The camera pans slowly across each grouping of primped, posing characters while they deliver measured, mechanical dialogue: “We got through the war — we can get through this.” “You’ve been everything to me. Everything.” Lady Grantham sums it all up patly, in case anyone missed it: “Individual Crawleys come and go, but the family lives on.” This is the sort of sludge that E. F. Benson and Evelyn Waugh were making fun of in the thirties. Nobody raises his voice or spills his tea in this celebration of fortitude and tradition, and even Maggie Smith’s peppery dowager dragon from the TV show is defanged. (Where are all her tart one-liners? The director turns her into a snookums.) All the youngsters are paired off and squared off with clinical precision (the butler gets snapped up by a visiting movie star), but Dame Maggie is left spending most of the time in bed, thinking of an incandescent girlhood love, and we’re not sure whether she’s nobly remembering or just dotty. Dozens of details are either entirely phony or contrived to show off the landscape (the movie closes with a funeral procession that has rarely been equaled in the movies for frosty grandeur). Even the jazz band on the terrace is all wrong — it’s 1927 but the playing and singing sound like a contemporary cruise ship act. Downton Abbey: A New Era isn’t a family saga — it’s a commercial trade name, and Julian Fellowes makes a terrific living by appealing to his audience’s craving for wholesome blandness.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021


Before he directed and starred in his marvelous Henry V in 1944, Laurence Olivier made several propaganda films for the war effort: That Hamilton Woman (1941) with his wife Vivien Leigh, in which Napoleon is a clear stand-in for Hitler, The Invaders (1941, 49th Parallel in the UK), with actual Nazis as Nazis, various Ministry of Information shorts, and The Demi-Paradise (1943). The latter, directed by Anthony Asquith, was intended to rouse British support for the Soviets in the wake of the 1941 German invasion, which abruptly terminated the German–Soviet non-aggression pact. (The title is from John of Gaunt’s deathbed speech in Act II of Richard II.) Olivier plays an Englishman’s idea of a Russian: officious and overwhelmingly critical of British reserve and “cruelty.” The screenplay (by Anatole de Grunwald) turns the proletariat Soviet engineer into a bourgeois provincialist — what has always been said about Englishmen — but Olivier is strangely listless. He overlooks the comic potential of the character, which is odd, considering Olivier’s triumphs in so many comic roles in the theater, from Sir Toby Belch to Sergius (Arms and the Man) to Justice Shallow. The artist who so successfully tapped the wit in a madman like Richard Gloucester should have, one would think, been inclined to play up the humor in Ivan Kouznetsoff. Olivier’s halting, overstudied delivery is perhaps a miscalculation. The effect on his characterization turns an engineer into an artistic temperament and gives the impression that Olivier has forgotten his lines. This may have been Olivier’s idea of Slavic dispiritedness.

Laurence Olivier
Planting her feet apart and adopting martial poses, Margaret Rutherford seems to have taken the propaganda mission much too seriously. She plays the town busybody who makes “stirring” speeches and chews through everything around her. Rutherford’s amateurish histrionics obliterate the casual humor of most of the crowd scenes. (Rutherford was always impossibly broad — she can’t deliver a throw-away bit of dialogue without jerking her head from left to right.) 

Despite its occasional warm charm, including a lovely performance by Penelope Dudley-Ward and a brief bit by Leslie Henson in a music-hall number, the movie is prosaic and at least thirty minutes too long. A year later, Olivier’s heroic phase reached its artistic and commercial apex with Henry V, Shakespeare’s emblematic patriotic achievement and the British film industry’s glorious tribute to English empire.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Robert Altman’s Flying Machine

Brewster McCloud (1970), Robert Altman’s second feature film, is wildly fluid. Even fans of M*A*S*H (1969) might not be completely tuned in to this movie’s disjointed counterculture lightness. Scenes of episodic, oddball humor, visual shocks and sexual arousal (the movie was originally called Brewster McCloud’s Sexy Flying Machine) butt up against each other like pinballs, and Altman, who heavily rewrote the Doran William Cannon screenplay, is tilting the machine.

In M*A*S*H, the satire was equally manic but a lot clearer; scenes were constructed to puncture bureaucracy and skewer the military officers and aides who peddled it to the American troops. We know what’s going on in Brewster McCloud and we can catch all the often very funny movie references and in-jokes, but we don’t often know what those references are doing there or why a disparate group of Houstonians are being strangled. The movie doesn’t ever tell us why these particular victims were targeted or even who the killer is. It could be the sensual but mothering older woman (Sally Kellerman), the dimwit tour guide (Shelley Duvall, whose eyelashes are painted in Raggedy Ann spikes), or the taciturn Brewster himself (Bud Cort, who played several of his movie roles as if they were on the spectrum). Are the victims Brewster’s persecutors, establishment materialists threatening to derail his desire to fly, or are they only in the wrong place at the wrong time? The victims are all found contorted in grotesque shapes, with bird droppings on their bodies or faces, but if Altman is attempting to make a deeper satirical point and not just a scatological one, that point is lost. The comic visual scatology is everywhere, in fact: bird shit is constantly being dropped (by unseen birds) on important papers, wallets, badges, and windshields. The movie is practically awash in it. The freedom that Altman gives his cast to improvise dialogue saves a lot of the non sequiturs in the script — for example, while the suave detective (Michael Murphy) is examining one of the victims at a zoo, an enormous tortoise lumbers into the frame, nudging the detective’s right elbow, and Murphy, without losing character, says, “Somebody get this turtle out of here.” Moments like that reinforce the improvisational personality without adding to the confusion.

Weirdos. Shelley Duvall, Bud Cort
Most of the earlier scenes — the farcical police investigation, the bonehead car chases, a runaway wheelchair, the whacked-out accidents and close calls — may not be linked logically to the movie’s climax, but they are, miraculously, linked emotionally, and that inevitability is probably the movie’s chief virtue and triumph. Altman is brilliant enough to loosen plot threads and abandon linear dialogue and still fulfill an audience’s emotional needs. Brewster’s exultant flight in the Astrodome is scored to Merry Clayton’s lovely rendition of a John Phillips song about the emotional abandon of spreading one’s wings and letting go. One of the great reprises in American movies of the seventies, the scene is a metaphor of the entire movie and its spasmodic narrative, the oversize contraption flapping its aluminum bones in order to climb dizzyingly higher and higher. But the emotional strength of that uplift is real, and the conclusion is devastating. The boy with the dream is the only one in the movie whose death is treated with tragic irony. The movie destroys him to liberate him. The audience knows it has lost something it can’t quite articulate, and Altman is compassionate enough to give us a final set piece of distancing theatricality — a circus of the stars and a Felliniesque view of life-as-theater (a sign saying “Greatest Show on Earth” hangs across the stadium seats). If that’s Altman’s point, he certainly takes a roundabout way of getting there, but the side roads are richly inventive, like early Fellini. The framing device alone is sophisticatedly, bizarrely witty enough for ten movies: a professor (René Auberjonois) lecturing on ornithology grows progressively more birdlike in his squawky speech and body movements each time the camera cuts back to his classroom. Once you see it as a hip, modern fable, Brewster McCloud may seem the giddiest flight fantasy since Miracle in Milan (1951).