Monday, June 29, 2020

SUNRISE (F.W. Murnau, 1927, USA)


A swan song of two humans, a final pronouncement of love: one whose spirit is divided by the aching lure of modernity, and another whose devotion is drowned in the cold depths of despair. Amidst the angry breaking waves and shrouded moonlit rendezvous’, one man almost sacrifices his integrity for a brief respite from patriarchal routine, his thick hands that once tilled the fields of his lovely wife now weapons of her demise until his senses return and they attempt to rediscover the ethereal spark that will once again ignite fiery passion.

F.W. Murnau’s mute homage to human nature is one of cinema’s crowning achievements, both in substance and style. His use of deep focus photography, detailed rear projection, and fantastic tracking shots were years ahead of their time, with modest set designs slightly skewed to impart a distorted perception and busy long shots establishing fragile humanity lost amid the steel and concrete jungle. SUNRISE was the template that imbued future directors with a melodramatic and creative vision, raising popular cinema above puerile standards and into the realm of artistic expression: though not the first to achieve this goal, it certainly was one of the best. George O’Brien’s masculine pathos and Janet Gaynor’s angelic visage haunt the silver screen, reflecting desperation and adoration through the subtly of mirrored eyes while Margaret Livingston’s sultry femme fatale exudes an ominous sexuality. The nameless protagonist, his hunched shoulders revealing his murderous intentions like a monster stalking its prey, rejects temptation at the last possible moment while his frightened wife cowers at the stern of a tiny boat. Together they travel to the big city, the metaphor concerning our humanity reduced to clacking machinery and noxious fumes, the individual lost amid crowded scenarios, but together they find salvation.

Murnau’s sparse use of Title Cards allows the narrative to focus upon the characters and grandiose cinematography, communicating on a basic emotional level, uninterrupted by blank screens and intrusive text. The tempestuous story is also spiked with moments of tenderness and humor, such as the frenetic dance sequence and drunken pig chase to the slippery spaghetti straps barely concealing a woman’s bosom. Murnau’s classic is a shining accomplishment of silent cinema, a creation whose horizon has set the standard for contemporary filmmakers.

Final Grade: (A+)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

WALLACE & GROMIT: A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH (Nick Park, 2008, UK)



A madcap recipe of wondrous adventure whose ingredients include cheese, sweet cakes, infatuation, and murder whilst Wallace proves he may be the master…but Gromit the mastermind! Wallace and Gromit have opened a business called Top Bun, a dough to door delivery service full of timely humor and insane machinations baked with humor and sweetness. But a series of gruesome murders plagues the small town as local bakers are turning up dead: seems to be the work of a cereal killer.

Creator/Director Nick Park has once again introduced us to the heroic exploits of this dynamic duo, but this time casting a darker shadow upon their fate. Park understands cinematic language as he uses intriguing mise-en-scene and Hitchcock-like camera angles to build suspense and anxiety. Wallace falls in love with Piella and is led astray by his heart, like an untethered balloon floating skywards, soon to be dashed upon the hard reality of love. But Gromit discovers her dark secret and must save his master from becoming the last unlucky victim to fulfill her Hellish bakers dozen. The sincere and trusting Wallace and the silent but loyal Gromit are well-rounded individuals, each distinct and lifelike expressing their own unique characteristics. The creative stop-motion animation brings this clay to life, utilizing wonderfully intense close-ups to convey emotion (and devotion) through sublime facial expressions.

Nick Park also delivers the goods with rollicking action as the narrative is insanely propelled towards its doughy and violent conclusion. Pay close attention for homage to Donny Osmond, ALIENS, TOP GUN, GHOST and of course Powell and Pressburger’s epic. Though Wallace ends up safe and sound Gromit becomes a victim himself…of puppy love.

FINAL GRADE: (B+)

Saturday, June 13, 2020

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940, USA)


Alfred chases an elusive ink and paper fantasy, lost amid lofty ideals and imagination which are shrouded by the reality of his working class life. Director Ernst Lubitsch’s gregarious film brings these characters together in a believably adversarial sales environment full of Eros and Thanatos.

Jimmy Stewart suffuses Alfred with just the right amount of lovable despair, his haunting eyes the mirror to a lonely soul, and Margaret Sullivan as Clara is sometimes a spiteful woman but her beautiful visage belies the turmoil within. The supporting cast each fulfill an allotted role to carry the narrative tension and humor, but the acting is so good with taught pacing and scripting that all the pieces fit together creating a satisfying picture. The story reveals the pen-pal faux pas early in the final act and we feel the tension between Alfred who is testing Clara’s emotional depths: a women who is rather vicious in her condemnations of him. Lubitsch’s tender shot of Clara looking through the mail slot for a letter that we know isn’t there, her hopes and desires a vaporous dream, is a perfect reflection of cupid’s Cheshire grin. The film never becomes a humdrum melodrama and surprises with its honesty and pugnacious audacity, as lateral incidents include a cheating spouse, Alfred’s unjust firing, a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown and a fist-fight between “gentlemen”. Mr. Matuschek’s transformation is personably conceived: from cranky boss to humble man, whose heart melts during the frigid Hungarian winter. Finally, two disparate people reveal themselves truthfully, opening their hearts to one another to become victims of love’s fickle embrace.

FINAL GRADE: (A)

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (Jorge Grau, 1974, Italy)



George is an antiques dealer who discovers a new axiom: those who believe the past is dead and buried are doomed to be devoured by it. Writer/Director Jorge Grau evokes the spirit of both George Romero and Michelangelo Antonioni in this classic horror film, creating drama from the sludge piles and belching factories of RED DESERT, the ultra-cool and suave protagonist whose motorcycle rockets through the arteries of London, a reincarnation of Thomas in BLOW-UP, and the mystery of the rising dead and cultural clash the was so well defined by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

A chance encounter propels George and Edna upon a diabolical journey into the unknown, where they become trapped in a vault of horror. Grau devises a scientific premise for the reanimation of the recently dead as a local farmer is using ultrasonic radiation to destroy the simple nervous systems of insects: it seems to be less toxic than pesticide. But this has an effect on babies who become violent and the electronic impulses of the newly deceased…and the dead began to rise. The use of heart-thumping sound precedes an attack and creates a crescendo of fear, which is utilized to great effect. One chilling scene in particular has our protagonists and a police officer trapped in a basement while the dead begin to push aside their caskets: Tobe Hooper’s homage is evident in the Marsten House basement scenario from SALEM’S LOT. The police investigate these series of murders blaming the deaths on Edna’s drug addled sister and corrupting youth culture represented by George in his leather jacket and shaggy good looks.

As in classic science fiction films, the young hero discovers the source of the apocalypse but his pleas fall upon the deaf ears of his elders, so he must take matters into his own hands. These zombies think and move quickly, the core of some basic reasoning still existent in their gray matter, and the disease can be passed by blood: again we see another influence that haunts Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER. George fights his way through a demented hell to save Edna, a stranger only hours before, and the nihilistic vengeful finale is reflective of the culture and social temperament of its time: the dead shall inherit the Earth.

FINAL GRADE: (B)    

Monday, June 8, 2020

GUN CRAZY (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950, USA)



A gunpowder romance as Annie Starr is the bullet that loads Bart Tare’s pistol, an explosive orgasm of deadly lead that finally breaches his fugitive morality. An exceptional screenplay by Dalton Trumbo blasts the screen with thinly veiled sexual innuendo: Annie’s grip upon the steel erection and Bart’s boyish masturbatory fetish (“shooting my gun just makes me feel good inside”), leads to their descent into self destructive fantasy. 

As a young boy, Bart is arrested for Burglary while attempting to steal a handgun. As he and his friends plead to the Judge about Bart’s moral character, they keenly express that he never intends to injure living things…he just has an obsession with guns. In a flashback, Bart tells of killing a baby chicken with a pellet gun and this begins a path towards enlightenment where he respects all living creatures: this is the beginning of spiritual Ahimsa. He grows into a kind and gentle man, likable and friendly with a boyish smile and charm that is not a ruse. But his mania still exists and becomes fueled by desire for a sharp shooting queen he meets at a circus: a femme fatale who knows how to handle his gun. Soon they are married and on a cross-country crime spree but he refuses to harm anyone, and in one tender scene he overflows with guilt about shooting out the tires of a police car because an officer could have been injured. 

Director Joseph Lewis creates palpable friction as he films a bank robbery entirely from the back of their car: Bart disappears into the building while a cop wanders by and Annie leaps out to distract him. The violent shootout and chase that follows is filmed on crowded streets (not a backlot or set), and the vertiginous perspective is not for those prone to motion sickness, making the audience accomplice to the crime. The cinematography is beautifully rendered in black and white and often tracks and moves with the action as it speeds towards the last fatal shot. Annie murders during their crime spree and relishes in the godlike powers of taking life: while Bart diminishes into emotional obscurity. Finally, trapped in the woods of his hometown, Annie is ready to shoot her way out and escape…but Bart breaks one vow while upholding another: till death to us part. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Friday, June 5, 2020

THE INTRUDER (Roger Corman, 1962, USA)


A stranger comes to Caxton to incite the townsfolk into a patriotic fever in order to protect their way of life from intruders. Roger Corman directs this volatile tale of desegregation in a fictitious Southern town with such brutal honesty that it seems more a contemporary document of racist propaganda than a pugilistic and dire fable.

The plot revolves around this white stranger in a white suite named Adam Cramer who steps of the bus and immediately begins to ingratiate himself with the locals. His smiling and friendly demeanor hides the demon beneath as he is in town to urge the locals into action against ten black children who are now allowed to seek competent education in the "white" school. But Adam doesn’t bring strange or foreign ideals; he unearths the racism and bigotry that is barely concealed and allows it to act in open defiance of Federal Law. Though Adam doesn’t openly encourage lynching or murder he is late in realizing that the mob mentality is beyond his control.

Director Roger Corman tells a taught story with little focus on melodrama. Though Adam seduces the lonely wife of a salesman it is not portrayed as merely exploitive; this actually becomes an important element in the plot as it reveals Adam’s inherent weakness and limited judgment. Corman does not censor or downplay the racist venom spewed from the mouths of Adam and the locals and it becomes very uncomfortable to hear the "N" word used to humiliate and degrade people. In one scene, after Adam rouses the crowd towards violence the mob stops an innocent black family who were just driving down the main street. The crowd screams hatred and epithets towards this man as his wife begs him to keep silent while the children cry in the back seat. This poor man is urged towards a violent reaction so the crowd can then tear him apart. The violence is allayed by Tom McDaniel the Editor of the local paper whose racism has already been measured in moderation. But when the Sherriff shows up we see that not all people have access to the same Rule of Law.

Corman doesn’t show the black characters as victims even though the story is told mainly from Cramer and McDaniel’s perspectives. In one scene Corman follows one of the black students into his home and we see a normal family dynamic. In an almost Documentary style Corman takes the camera into the Slum section depicting people living their lives on the outskirts of middle-class Caxton. He shoots in a POV style in a continuous and fluid motion as Adam takes a taxi from his Hotel in town to the "Black" section. It is shocking to see the town deteriorate block by block until Adam arrives at his destination. Without comment, Corman has just made his Mission Statement for THE INTRUDER. There is no self-righteous preaching from any white character to uphold the black's Civil Rights which always seems to diminish their importance, as if black people just aren’t smart enough to stand up for themselves. But Corman is concerned with moderate racists and shows McDaniel’s transformation from bigot towards an attitude of equality. In a powerful sequence McDaniel speaks with the children’s families and urges them not to give up and return to school the following day. He then walks to school with the children in a showing of solidarity against the white malignant hate mongers…which are his own friends and cohorts. He isn't speaking for the children, he's supporting them. Suddenly, McDaniel finds himself on the "outside" and is assaulted for his convictions.

Corman loses focus with the weak ending but the build-up is superb. After McDaniel’s young daughter is convinced by Cramer to accuse one of the black boys of Rape, a mob ensues that is only lacking in pitchforks and torches. We see realistic attitudes and responses from the school Principal and staff who try to protect the black student from the gathering crowd and are yet torn between the peer pressures of releasing him. Adam urges the crowd into a frenzy (actually, they don’t need much urging) and soon things get out-of-hand. The boy chooses to face his accusers (it’s his Constitutional Right after all) but this is no Court of Law. He is slapped and humiliated but doesn’t descend to their animalistic level. It is a brutal scene and one that makes you mad and keeps you on the edge of your seat at the injustice. The boy shows restraint which proves that he is growing into a manhood that these racist cowards will never attain! The group grabs the boy and ties him standing to a swing and pushes him back and forth…a lynching is only moments away. But the girl and the sympathetic salesman stop the assault as she confesses her part in the false accusation. The crowd hangs their collective heads in shame and disperses even as Adam tries to gain their affections once again.

This shallow ending of self-actualization rings like a broken bell and wraps things up too tightly, unsupported by the film’s Mission Statement. Not only do the locals seem to quickly feel shame over what they’ve done (and berated by another Outsider – the Salesman- no less) they do so without accountability which is the real problem with the film’s conclusion: without being held responsible for one’s actions there can be no Justice.

Final Grade: (B+)

Thursday, May 28, 2020

WINGS (Larisa Shepitko, 1966, Soviet Union)


Nadezhda has become an anachronism, an old colorless photograph displayed as museum exhibit to be gawked at and superficially honored while grounded forever. Though she was a fighter ace during the Great Patriotic War, her exploits still applauded, she is still a single woman in Patriarchal society, given only genial approval and denied the basic rights extended to lesser men. As a school principle, she lives a humdrum life of post-war readjustment, a single woman who never married and is not allowed to enter a restaurant unescorted, while one of her expelled male students is offered this intrinsic right. This feminist split from male entitlement is the dichotomy is at the heart of the film; the rights of women trampled beneath the boots of a sole-less Socialism where the dead male hero is more acclaimed than the living Nadezhda.

Director Larisa Shepitko gloriously frames the sharp beauty of her protagonist and seems to question her sexuality: in one scene, Nadezhda dances with another woman in a spasm of spontaneity that temporarily frees her from human bondage, while men leer ominously through a glass darkly. She is awkward in social settings, unsure of her role and boundaries, often being more aggressive and stern than her male counterparts. She had adopted a daughter but has no Motherly instinct, unable to emotionally or intellectually relate: she believed that raising a little girl will help her to assimilate but it only brings the pain of distance and regrets. Shepitko lets her heroine drift amid the clouds, the vaporous rapture embracing her like a lover before dissipating into memory. She was in love once and we experience her trauma through flashbacks with desperate freeze-frames, as he was killed in action…and she helpless and isolated, watching from the cockpit of her own plane.

Nadezhda is denied the privilege to fly again simply because she’s a woman and she often drifts back to the airfield to speak with her comrades. Finally, she claws her way into an aircraft and the students gather around, playfully pushing her like a child in a toy car, cheering for her last “flight”. This grim and debasing metaphor almost ends in the dark tomb of a hanger…before she takes control of the metal coffin and soars towards the heavens and her salvation.

FINAL GRADE: (A)

Saturday, May 23, 2020

DIARY OF THE DEAD (George Romero, 2007, USA)



“What does a camera see? I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a camera see into me- into us -clearly or darkly? I hope it does see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the cameras do better.” (From the Philip K. Dick novel A SCANNER DARKLY)

George Romero revisits the theme of his original masterpiece NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD: a small group struggles to survive in the first few desperate hours of the end of the world. Whereas NIGHT was a devious and challenging social allegory this version is crude, obnoxious, and as subtle as Hiroshima. This film within a film THE DEATH OF DEATH creates space, projects an emotional distance between the audience and the characters, which is (I believe) exactly what Romero intended. DIARY is a self-referencing post-modern look at an often creatively dead and buried genre and Romero attempts to resuscitate our interest.

Our protagonists are a small film crew working on their college thesis when they hear the breaking news. Of course, they are filming a generic horror film with all of the typical conventions: the shambling corpses, woman trips, monster rips her shirt revealing bosom, etc. These clich├ęs are put to rest in the final act but it’s not surprising, cunning, or ironic: it just seems mostly harmless. Romero falls victim to his own hackneyed contrivances as he must find a unique way to kill people: an Amish man puts a scythe through his own head or electric paddles zapped to the head with eye spurting gore. What was once fun is now tired and overused excess. The characters are poorly defined and the dialogue is insipid and uninspired: they just blather about the importance of documenting the apocalypse thus preserving the Truth. But the reality is altered when the camera is turned on; the composition of a shot absolutely changes viewer perception and we see only a representation…a filmmaker’s interpretation of what is real. And Romero’s camera sees darkly.

These are grandiose ideas and worth exploring but here it falls flat, here we don’t care about the characters and they just putter about in a small land full of zombies. Romero leads us by the nose and asks the obvious question: Are we worth saving? But we shouldn’t be directed to his manifest answer…the film should be ingenious enough to let us discover our own.

FINAL GRADE: (C)

Thursday, May 21, 2020

THE DEVIL, PROBABLY (Robert Bresson, 1977, France)



Charles cannot see the forest for the trees, lost in a philosophical conundrum: it is not the absence of compassion to be considered, but rather the absence of awareness of compassion. Director Robert Bresson creates a cerebral tempest of ennui and disillusionment, a militantly nihilistic drama of a young man imbued with Nietzschean superiority, whose invisible humanity is like vibrations that disturb the air around him…but makes no sound because there is no receptor.

This utterly bleak and pessimistic worldview could be the genesis of Michael Haneke’s emotional glaciation trilogy: we see the world through frozen eyes. Bresson’s characters wander through the story with a pretentious lethargy, teenagers purposely severed from their bourgeois lineage, a cruel bloodletting that becomes a ritual of apathy. Charles is surrounded by a few acquaintances and he is cold and shallow, manipulating them to fuel his wants and desires…but even this leaves him empty like a sputtering prayer in a deserted church, dying embers upon an altar of despair.

Bresson often crosscuts between Charles’ indifference and two students who view caustic films of pollution and extreme violence: the modern reality of oil spills and baby seals being clubbed to death, while a neutral voice narrates this apocryphal documentary. Bresson contrasts one extreme with the other, unconcerned with the plot’s linear structure but focused upon the montage’s fervent denouement. Charles haunts the streets and homes of his friends, and though his cohorts like him he is unable (or unwilling) to reciprocate. This dichotomy shows the lower depths of his palsied morality: the others offer kindness without charge or attachment while he can only take advantaged of their good will.


Finally, Charles agrees to seek enlightenment from a psychiatrist but all he understands is the money exchanging hands, his counsel written on blank checks. He steals a gun and convinces a drug-addled acquaintance to shoot him, because Charles lacks the nerve to kill himself. The murder’s rapport cracks the night open and another young man palpitates with a heart of darkness. And what is the cause of this spiritual malaise, a parallel concerning creation’s fall from grace into the gutter of chaos? Just a cynical mantra…the Devil, probably. 


Final Grade: (B+)

Sunday, May 17, 2020

DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST (Robert Bresson, 1951, France)



A nameless unassuming priest tries vainly to understand the contempt of the local parishioners, courteously bearing his physical and emotional cross. Director Robert Bresson’s subjective narrative is like gentle penmanship upon the blank pages of the soul, giving concrete relevance to abstract ideals and misunderstandings as if salvation is self-evident in the cryptic Book of Life.

The priest’s young visage is tormented by a painful stomach condition that allows him to only digest bread and wine, a virulent Eucharist that slowly consumes him. Bresson begins the film with the priest framed through the iron bars of the small church, a prisoner in a strange land, as a man and woman gaze with disgust at this intruder, like a judge who just witnessed their mystic tryst. He often seeks advice of his mentor, an older and more pugilistic priest from Torcy who admonishes him for wanting to be liked: he should be more concerned with punishing his flock to gain respect.

He soon discovers that a local woman is wasting away in grief and he confronts her, strong in his belief and convictions: to give her comfort he must burn away the hardened veneer that separates her from the Word, and he succeeds though she dies happily the following day. But the family and townsfolk blame him for her death, believing he was too harsh for her weakened condition…and he never shares her letter that would set him free of their judgment. The knowledge is between him and his god. He questions his faith when a local doctor commits suicide, and seeks guidance, which is cruelly denied him.

Actor Claude Laydu is wonderfully subdued as the passive priest, conveying little emotion except the gentle repose of his piercing eyes, dark prisms of his soul. Bresson often films him through windows and framed in doorways, a rigid and inflexible character contrasted by right angles, a victim captured in a static portrait. He suffers greatly for his god and it’s ambiguous if his condition is bad luck…brought upon himself purposely or unconsciously because of his unhealthy diet, as if being closer to death will bring him closer to divinity. Like Job, he suffers the torment of the righteous: If god is not a torturer, it’s a least a sadist. Bresson dictates a bitter journal of hope and despair, an elemental liturgy of malignant salvation.

Final Grade: (B+)