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creature features: cat people (jacques tourneur, 1942)

Many years ago, when we would have a party at our house, I got the idea of replacing all the light bulbs with colored, low-wattage bulbs. The idea, I would say, was to make the party more festive by adding color. The real reason, I wouldn't say, was that the low watts made it hard to see clearly, which meant I didn't have to be so careful about cleaning the house.

Val Lewton is a legendary film producer. Some years ago, Barry Gifford wrote an appreciation of Lewton that was given the title "The prince of Poverty Row", and that just about gets it. The story has been told enough times that it might actually be true, rather than apocryphal, that Lewton saved RKO in 1942 when he was put in charge of the studio's horror films. RKO, which had lost money on the Orson Welles classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, hoped to emulate the success of Universal horror pictures, like the franchises for Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. The story goes that RKO gave Lewton $150,000 and the title Cat People, and told him to bring in a short picture that might make a little money. The subsequent film was RKO's biggest box office success for the year, which meant Lewton was given many more chances to work his magic, although as far as I can tell, he was still held to the $150k budget, and still had to work with the titles the studio gave him. (They never forced a plot on him, just a title.)

Lewton is admired for his ability to crank out artful films on a low budget within the studio system. Cat People is an excellent example of this. Ironically, the lack of money meant the movie was filmed in part on leftover sets from Ambersons. Many of Lewton's film are similar visually, and that similarity means Lewton is seen as at least partly the guiding force behind the films, rather than the directors, many of whom worked with him multiple times. I think the power of Cat People comes almost entirely from its use of light and shadow, which grew out of the low budget, so I would be remiss if I didn't mention the name Nicholas Musuraca, an amazingly prolific cinematographer who worked on several of Lewton's classic movies.

The swimming pool scene is often cited as the peak of the imaginative, inexpensive power of Cat People.

The scene was so effective that it was copied quite closely in the 1982 remake, although changing times meant that in the later version, Annette O'Toole managed to get her top off before she dove into the pool.

Cat People is a marvel to look at it, and its ability to frighten through suggestion was trendsetting. But I find myself agreeing with Kael, who wrote, "Lewton pictures aren't really very good, but they're so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary." I wouldn't go that far ... I think I Walked with a Zombie is very good, indeed. But for all its imagination, Cat People still suffers from things like weak casting (Kent Smith as the male lead,  Tom Conway as always seeming not quite as good as his brother George Sanders, and Simone Simon, who admittedly works OK because she comes across as just odd enough to be an actual cat person). I do have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Randolph, whose last credited appearance came in a favorite of mine, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Director Jacques Tourneur helmed other pictures I prefer to Cat People, especially Out of the Past. Cat People is striking and important for film historians. But I don't think it's a classic.

african-american directors series: black panther (ryan coogler, 2018)

I'm not sure I'm up to the task of writing about Black Panther, which is so much more than "just" another Marvel superhero movie. Just to address the Marvel-ness of it, I am marginally conversant with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I mostly like the movies I've seen ... well, I didn't think much of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but the rest, sure, they're OK. But I usually only see them because my wife is a fan. Personally, I prefer some of the TV series, especially Agent Carter. So one thing that set Black Panther off from the rest is that I wanted to see it; I didn't wait to be dragged into the theater. And my desire was justified, because Black Panther works on its own as a movie, separate from Marvel mythology.

I was delighted to see how much Oakland love was in the movie. We saw it at a theater less than a mile from the Oakland border (in Emeryville, home of Pixar, who are always putting animated local landmarks in their films), and right at the beginning, when a title tells us we're in Oakland in 1992 while Too $hort's "In the Trunk" plays on the soundtrack, the crowd erupted in applause, a tangible example of how audiences see themselves on the screen when watching Black Panther. (It wasn't shot in Oakland ... I think Atlanta was the location ... but given that director/writer Ryan Coogler was born in Oakland, the visuals are on target.)

Black Panther serves its function as an origin story, and since we're told at the end that the character will be featured in Avengers: Infinity War later this year, it is clear that Marvel is in this for the long haul (it doesn't hurt that Black Panther is already one of the biggest grossing films in history). But Black Panther didn't leave me wanting to see Infinity War, even if my wife inevitably gets me to watch it. I suspect this is because, as I noted, Black Panther works as a movie ... it made me want to see the next Black Panther movie Coogler works on, which isn't the same as wanting to see Infinity War because Black Panther will be in it.

Much has been made of the political statements the film is making. Black Panther wears its political heart on its sleeve. The message of the movie is messy, which accounts for the various disparate explanations of what is going on. But you don't have to dig very deep to start the discussion.

I have read some convincing arguments that Black Panther is ultimately something less than revolutionary in its narrative (the plethora of black filmmakers and actors in the film is revolutionary in itself, of course). Much of the film's thrust involves deciding who will be King of Wakanda, and that decision is based more on hand-to-hand combat than on a reasoned confab on politics. Since Erik Killmonger, who proposes that Wakanda should be sharing its wealth to help liberate the oppressed all around the world, is presented as "The Villain", his revolutionary position is attached to a "bad guy". Supposedly, this taints the radical politics of Killmonger, and I understand why it seems that way.

But people have been rooting for the bad guy for a hundred years of movies. Jack Nicholson's Joker is evil compared to Michael Keaton's Batman, but Nicholson's acting in the film is much more enjoyable than Keaton's, and Batman is a bit of a fascist in that movie anyway, so I didn't have any trouble "rooting" for the Joker. It is true that Keaton's low-key approach to his character allows Nicholson to take over the film, but it is also true that without Nicholson, Burton's Batman would be even darker than it already is.

A comparison of Joker/Batman and Killmonger/Panther doesn't completely work. In Batman, not only does Nicholson dominate the movie, entertaining the audience in the process, but Batman is not a benign leader of men, but instead a fascist. In Black Panther, we are led to think of T'Challa as a good ruler ... he is easier to root for than Bruce Wayne. And while Nicholson overwhelms Batman, Black Panther is full of strong characters (many of them women) and thrilling performances. One reason it's hard to root for Killmonger is that Chadwick Boseman is himself charismatic ... he makes us want to accept T'Challa's way.

Yet I would argue that Michael B. Jordan overcomes Boseman's excellence. I am a longtime fan of Jordan's, so I may be too biased. But he is so great as Killmonger that he breaks through the attempt to make the character into a villain. Yes, Killmonger is a sociopath, but ... OK, I know there is no "but" for some people, but like Nicholson's Joker, Jordan commands the screen with such intensity that I found myself rooting for him, despite the way in the end the film denounces Killmonger. It is like those 30s gangster movies, where the bad guy had to die in the last scene, but when you walked out of the theater you remembered the excitement of the film's first 85 minutes, not the required comeuppance.

Of course, those gangster movies weren't making explicit political arguments. It's a sign of the greatness of Black Panther that it is not only a great spectacle (we saw it in IMAX 2D, which I much prefer to 3D), but it inspires discussion after the fact.

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)

music friday: 1974

Bob Marley and The Wailers, "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)". Natty Dread was the first Wailers album without Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. A hungry mob is an angry mob.

Kraftwerk, "Autobahn". Rolling Stone ran a picture of these guys in one of their books, with the caption, "Is this the face of rock and roll's future?"

Labelle, "Lady Marmalade". When this came out, the women were all pushing 30, having been around singing doo-wop and the like for many years. They even sang backup on a Laura Nyro oldies album. Then they put on space suits and recorded this song, which had been released earlier by someone called Eleventh Hour.

Cluster, "Hollywood". More krautrock.

Betty Davis, "He Was a Big Freak". One of a kind funk singer who, during her one-year marriage to Miles Davis, introduced Miles to Hendrix and Sly. The title "Bitches Brew" was her idea.

Queen, "Killer Queen". Their first big hit.

Al Green, "Take Me to the River". For much of the 70s, Al Green had an unmatched run of great music. He had a greatest hits album in 1975 (a desert-island disc if ever there was one), then put out volume two in 1977 ... and he wasn't scraping the bottom of the barrel (Volume Two had this song, "Love and Happiness", "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy", and more).

Joni Mitchell, "Help Me". Joni wasn't messing around in the early-70s, either: Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses, and Court and Spark (which included this song).

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet". According to the never-wrong Wikipedia, Randy Bachman claimed "the song was performed as a joke for his brother, Gary, who had a stutter".

Bob Dylan, "Dirge". We saw Dylan for the first time on the tour with The Band after the Planet Waves album. I'd link to a video, but that's usually impossible with Dylan, so you'll have to go to the Spotify Playlist to hear it. At least I can post the lyrics:

I hate myself for lovin' you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down Suicide Road.
The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel,
I hate myself for lovin' you and I'm glad the curtain fell.
I hate that foolish game we played and the need that was expressed
And the mercy that you showed to me, who ever would have guessed?
I went out on Lower Broadway and I felt that place within,
That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin.
Heard your songs of freedom and man forever stripped,
Acting out his folly while his back is being whipped.
Like a slave in orbit, he's beaten 'til he's tame,
All for a moment's glory and it's a dirty, rotten shame.
There are those who worship loneliness, I'm not one of them,
In this age of fiberglass I'm searching for a gem.
The crystal ball up on the wall hasn't shown me nothing yet,
I've paid the price of solitude, but at last I'm out of debt.
Can't recall a useful thing you ever did for me
'Cept pat me on the back one time when I was on my knees.
We stared into each other's eyes 'til one of us would break,
No use to apologize, what diff'rence would it make?
So sing your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine,
The naked truth is still taboo whenever it can be seen.
Lady Luck, who shines on me, will tell you where I'm at,
I hate myself for lovin' you, but I should get over that.

 Bonus: "Lady Marmalade" updated for Moulin Rouge.

film fatales #37: on body and soul (ildikó enyedi, 2017)

On Body and Soul marks the return to feature films for Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi, who has spent the last 18 years working in television and on short films. Her prior features played at festivals around the world, and I can't find anything to explain her absence from the big screen. (She won a couple of Best Director awards for her last feature, Simon, the Magician.) This is her film ... she not only directed, but wrote it as well.

The IMDB description hints at the oddness of the setup. "When slaughterhouse workers Endre and Mária discover they share the same dreams - where they meet in a forest as deer and fall in love - they decide to make their dreams come true but it's difficult in real life." Enyedi never shies away from this oddness, but the movie and its actors underplay to such an extent that you don't always remember how much the plot resembles a fantasy. There is a suggestion of magic realism, but it's not like the deer show up in the slaughterhouse ... they stick to the dreams of the two protagonists, and the only real fantasy element is that they are sharing the dreams, and that the dreams are bringing them together.

It's actually a perfect setup for the budding romance of the two, who have a big difference in age (Endre is roughly twice as old as Mária) and share an awkwardness in public interactions (Mária is borderline autistic). You get the feeling the two would never find each other if they didn't share dreams about deer. The relationship itself is awkward, given their personalities and age difference ... in fact, for most of the movie, it barely qualifies as a relationship. The plot devices required to bring them together are rather clunky, and not at all magical.

Still, stars Géza Morcsányi, who had never acted on screen before, and Alexandra Borbély, by comparison a seasoned veteran (she won a Best Actress award at the European Film Awards for this film, joining a list of stalwarts such as Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, and Charlotte Rampling), are excellent. Throughout, On Body and Soul threatens to emerge as something great, but it never quite gets there.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

dunkirk (christopher nolan, 2017)

Dunkirk is a success in almost every way. I've liked every Christopher Nolan film I've seen (Dunkirk is my 7th), with Insomnia and The Dark Knight at the top, but here, I think he uses his bag of tricks not just to show off, but to help the audience along, which turns out to be an excellent idea.

There are three basic stories in this telling of the Battle of Dunkirk, land, sea, and air. The sea is the most famous part of the story ... the civilian boats coming to rescue the troops are iconic reminders of the event. The troops waited on land ... meanwhile, aircraft provided cover for the boats. Nolan's structure for telling those stories is fascinating and effective.

I tend to get lost in plots, and in something like Nolan's Memento, well, confusion was partly the point, wasn't it? But I never got lost in Dunkirk, despite the fact that Nolan diverges from "real" chronology. The soldiers were on the beach for a certain amount of time, the boats took a certain amount of time to arrive, and the planes had their own timetable. Nolan mixes and matches in order to emphasize the importance of each story, perhaps most clearly in the flight of the fighter pilot played by Tom Hardy. Nolan doesn't worry about making Hardy's story match up correctly with the others in terms of chronology. Instead, he matches the dramatic arc for the pilot with the dramatic arcs for the other stories, so that Hardy's adventures make dramatic and emotional sense, even if they are not "correct". This video from The AtZ Show does a fine job of getting at this:

Dunkirk is intense from start to finish ... I think it benefits from a relatively short running time (at 107 minutes, it's Nolan's shortest feature). And I'd like to give a shout out to Hans Zimmer, whose score got an Oscar nomination (the film got 8 nominations total, and all of them are reasonable).

A couple of notes I couldn't fit anywhere else. Tom Hardy is a favorite of mine, and when we first see him, almost his entire face is covered. All we see are his eyes, yet I immediately thought to myself, hey, it's Tom Hardy. And I didn't even know he was in the movie. Also, when I think England, I think tea drinking, and there is a lot of tea drinking in this movie.

Finally, here's another great video explaining something I couldn't come close to putting into words: how Zimmer and Nolan add to the intensity of the movie using something called ... well, watch this:

#269 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

music friday: 1973

Stevie Wonder, "Living for the City". The single version was dark enough; the album version takes the hero to New York ("New York, just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything!"), where he almost instantly gets thrown in prison.

Iggy and The Stooges, "Search and Destroy". Originally mixed by Bowie ... Iggy did a remix that purposely sounded even more distorted. The YouTube link is to the Iggy version.

Ann Peebles, "I Can't Stand the Rain". Peebles working the Hi Records sound.

Pink Floyd, "Us and Them". Antonioni said it was too sad.

Bob Marley and The Wailers, "Get Up, Stand Up". Marley and Peter Tosh wrote it. The Wailers recorded it ... Marley and the Wailers recorded it ... Tosh recorded it ... Bunny Wailer recorded it.

Gladys Knight and The Pips, "Midnight Train to Georgia". Songwriter Jim Weatherly says this song was inspired by Farrah Fawcett.

Aerosmith, "Dream On". Rolling Stone writer in 1976, regarding Steven Tyler: "He's the mutant bastard offspring of Jagger and Iggy Stooge." Aerosmith manager's reply: "Only he's better than both of them."

Roberta Flack, "Killing Me Softly with His Song". Since I'm quoting old rock critics, here's Christgau's complete review of Flack's Killing Me Softly album: "Q: Why is Roberta Flack like Jesse Colin Young? A: Because she always makes you wonder whether she's going to fall asleep before you do. C"

Paul McCartney and Wings, "Band on the Run". Paul remains the only Beatle I've seen live. The video is from the same tour we saw him on.

The Rolling Stones, "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)". Goats Head Soup was the end of the great Stones run, but this song stands with those great ones. From Billy Preston's clavinet to the horns to the "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo" chorus, everything about the song embodies the catchiest pop music. The lyrics tell a different story, taking us back to Stevie Wonder's New York City:

The po-lice in New York City
They chased a boy right through the park
And in a case of mistaken identity
They put a bullet through his heart
Heartbreakers with your forty four
I want to tear your world apart
You heartbreaker with your forty four
I want to tear your world apart
A ten year old girl on a street corner
Sticking needles in her arm
She died in the dirt of an alleyway
Her mother said she had no chance, no chance!
Heartbreaker, heartbreaker
She stuck the pins right in her heart
Heartbreaker, pain maker
Stole the love right out of your heart
Oh yeah, oh yeah
Want to tear your world apart
Oh yeah, oh yeah
Want to tear your world apart

by request: three billboards outside ebbing, missouri (martin mcdonagh, 2017)

It's easy to point out what is great about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as is evidenced by its 7 Oscar nominations (and not in categories like Special Effects ... the film got 3 acting nominations, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture, among others). The acting nominations, in particular, are worthy ones. Frances McDormand is the emotional core of the movie, while Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson will likely cancel each other out for Best Supporting Actor. McDormand's Mildred Hayes is fired up, at times unlikeable, in just the ways that resonate today when women are fighting battles that should have been won long ago.

While I was unimpressed by McDonagh's first film as a director, Six Shooter (which won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short), I liked his feature debut, In Bruges, which was also carried by the acting, especially Brendan Gleeson. After that, Seven Psychopaths was a terrible disappointment, not because McDonagh emulated Tarantino but because he emulated bad Tarantino. Three Billboards is better than all of these.

A lot of people seem to have been transformed by the movie. I feel a bit funny, because I liked it quite a bit, but my reaction wasn't really emotional. So I'm puzzled by the reactions of others that I read on a Facebook thread I started. "Loved it but took me awhile to get my brain back." "Great movie, rough movie, and still working through the reactions/thoughts/feelings engendered by it. We talked about it much of the night last night and again several times today discussions have been triggered." "It definitely brings up complex emotions." "It blew me away!" "Startling and fine film."

None of these people mentioned the backlash that has formed against Three Billboards. Several writers have written powerful essays on the topic of the movie's approach to race, including Alison Willmore and Alyssa RosenbergHanif Abdurraqib was especially eloquent, speaking of Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist and abusive cop. Dixon's character arc is unique in the film, since it's pretty much the only such arc. As well-written and acted as Mildred Hayes is, she doesn't change much over the course of the movie, nor does Woody Harrelson's sheriff. But Dixon's character achieves the beginning of redemption. Yet, as Abdurraqib notes,

The first thing we learn about Dixon is that he was responsible for the torture of one (or more) of the town's black residents while questioning them. There are no details given, and the viewing audience doesn't actually see the torture, but the understanding is that Dixon has tortured black people and kept his job as a police officer....

The failures of the film are not in the performances of the actors, but rather in the script, which presents a conclusion that left me frustrated, given the way it turns a portion of its focus from a grieving and determined mother to the redemption of a racist and abusive police officer....

It is asking a lot of people to watch a story in which we root for a racist and abusive police officer in the name of his own redemption, but it is asking even more of the audience if Dixon himself does no actual work in the name of earning that redemption.... 

Black people in this movie largely exist as victims, seen and unseen, of the town's violence, and as I watched I found myself wondering why they existed there at all.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri absolutely crushes the things it is good at. McDormand is as good as she ever has been, and while there are problems with the character of Officer Dixon, it must be said that Sam Rockwell does wonders with the part. For many, the movie will elicit a strong emotional response. Whether that response is positive or negative depends on what you think of Dixon and the black characters of Ebbing. #485 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


music friday: 1972

Stevie Wonder, "Superstition". The early-70s were a great time for conscious R&B/soul. Stevie's playing pretty much everything you hear except the horns.

Lou Reed, "Walk on the Wild Side". Lou makes the pop charts, singing about transgender actresses, drugs, blow jobs, and Warhol's Factory.

Carly Simon, "You're So Vain". The big mystery was who Simon was referring to. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger proves to be a very hard-to-conceal backup singer.

The Rolling Stones, "Rip This Joint". A classic in the tradition of "She Said Yeah". It was at least 30 years before I had an idea what the lyrics were to this song.

Curtis Mayfield, "Freddie's Dead". Just how good were the early-70s for soul? This track missed the Best R&B Single Grammy because "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" was the same yea'.

Joni Mitchell, "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio". According to the all-knowing Wikipedia, she wrote this after her label asked her for a hit record.

Wings, "Hi, Hi, Hi". Sadly, I can understand the lyrics on this.

Al Green, "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart". The best thing anyone ever did for The Bee Gees.

Gladys Knight and the Pips, "Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)". This one did win a Grammy.

The Carpenters, "Goodbye to Love". Me, a long time ago, on Tony Peluso's guitar solos: "It's as if John the Baptist suddenly showed up in Target and grabbed shoppers by the throat, saying 'there's something going on here!'"

by request: star wars: the last jedi (rian johnson, 2017)

As I once said about The Empire Strikes Back, "It’s time to admit that I am not the audience for these films." And that's one of the series that I liked.

The Last Jedi is 2 1/2 hours, and I won't say that's too long, but it's too long for a non-fan like me. The Last Jedi didn't stink, and the supreme annoyance that is C3PO thankfully didn't get much screen time. But I don't really care about these characters, and not a lot of effort is made to convince me otherwise. Adam Driver is a very fine actor, and his face lends itself to tortured emotions that live just under the surface. But it was him that interested me, not his character. It's nice to see John Boyega of Attack the Block, and Daisy Ridley's spunky Rey is a good idea, although I wish the franchise wouldn't be so self-congratulatory about featuring an ass-kicking female character when there are many other good examples (Starbuck, Buffy, Furiosa). Hell, the original Leia is a more important cultural landmark than Rey.

So I don't care about the characters, and the plot is too obviously serviceable in the way so many second-in-a-trilogy movies are. That leaves the action, and if CGI is your thing, this is some great stuff.

As I watched The Last Jedi, I found myself thinking of several other productions. Two were television series. Battlestar Galactica had its space battles, and it had its archetypal characters. But the battles were always secondary to the rest of the show, and the archetypes quickly offered depth, more so as the series progressed. Battlestar Galactica was about identity, and politics, and religion, and the military ... Star Wars is about parent-child relationships and space battles. I also thought about The 100, which doesn't really have the budget for a space opera, so they concentrate on other things, regularly surprising us with how far they are willing to go to blow past whatever stereotypes you might have about a series on The CW where the title refers to teenagers. As showrunner Jason Rothenberg said, "Remember, you signed up for a post apocalyptic nightmare. Don’t be surprised if that’s what we give you."

I also thought about the Mad Max movies. Compared to Fury Road, the action scenes in The Last Jedi aren't all that. And face it, lightsaber fights are boring, especially when you consider what is being done in movies like The Raid films.

I realize there is an audience for the Star Wars franchise, which is why the only relevant point here is that I am not that audience.

Here is the trailer from my favorite John Boyega film: