December 5, 2013


The thinking—if that's the word—behind The Expendables 2 (2012) seems to be: "We're over-the-hill action stars who can no longer slam our surly carcasses around a movie set the way we used to, so let's play this for laughs."

The problem with the cast (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Bruce Willis, and Randy Couture) is that their self-referential shenanigans, which are supposed to be with-it and amusing, fall totally flat, while their earnest attempts at macho action (firing automatics and engaging in hand-to-hand combat) are pedestrian and embarrassingly tired. These lunkheads are too old and corpulent to be doing what they're doing: they stand with their feet planted in place and swivel their hips, like plastic action figures, hitting hundreds of bad guys in the chest and face with a barrage of expensive ammo. The interactive action figures in video games have more life than these movie "legends" do. The exceptions are the physically fit, scruffy Statham and a cardboard henchman named Scott Adkins, who every so often remembers to speak his lines with that phony Slavic accent that only young children and movie publicists love. What is it with cornball Russian villains in action movies? Adkins is a carbon copy of previous carbon copies, from Ivan Drago (Rocky IV) to Sergeant Yushin (Rambo) to Mickey Rourke's Whiplash (Iran Man 2), but he doesn't resonate at all, even when his skull is pulverized by a propeller.
Action savior. Jet Li

The only person who brings any class to this noisy imbecility is the prodigiously gifted Jet Li, who executes his one fight scene with panache, perfect timing, and genuine wit. He also wraps it up in a sophisticatedly brief fifteen or twenty minutes, and then he splits. Li seems to be in a different movie (actually, he was in a different movie at the time, the beautiful Flying Swords of Dragon Gate). He's a deft acrobat, like the great silent movie clowns, casually smacking each opponent in turn with a cooking utensil, and just when you expect him to knock out the one remaining opponent, Li gives him a quick jab with the palm of his hand to send him toppling, and then shrugs and wriggles his nose like Chaplin besting Mack Swain in The Gold Rush (1925). Everything about Li is elevated above this slop, and he gives moviegoers something back for the time they've invested.

The Western stock actors of the 1940s and '50s—John Wayne, Bob Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Ward Bond, Jim Davis, etc.—kept churning out Westerns in the 1960s and '70s, trying to keep their own outsized myths going despite saggy faces and widening girths, hauling themselves up on horseback with the finesse of walruses. The Expendables 2 exemplifies a superannuated genre, and like those late '60s Westerns filled with yesteryear's stars who were well past their sell dates, it has all the charisma of a ranchers' convention. I hate to see Jet Li associated with something like this, not because he unbalances the movie with his talent but because, by saving a movie with no other redeeming value, he's used sacrificially.

November 21, 2013

Staying Alive

Onibaba (1964), the Kaneto Shindo film I'd been meaning to see for ten years, isn't particularly terrifying or scaled to overwhelm. But its photographic inventiveness and shocks (which are both visual and sexual) have an atavistic creepiness; watching these famine-stricken peasants run through fields of Susuki grass, wolfishly chasing down mortally wounded soldiers, puts your nerves on edge.

Wolves. Nobuko Otowa, Kei Sato, and Jitsuko Yoshimura
Like the barren heath in King Lear, the setting is a Hobbesian marketplace of killing, pilfering from the dead, and exchanging the plunder for food. The Japanese countryside is a wasteland, bereft of a moral center. The social hierarchy (during a period of medieval civil war) is nothing more than an immediate function of who cooperates with whom, or who preys on whom. It's often the smaller, nimbler predators—like the two women—who maintain control. But the movie's point of view is that "nature red in tooth and claw" will out; alliances disintegrate amid a heated atmosphere of animal sex and betrayal. In the end, the two women and their male partner are revealed as opportunistic demons who have sacrificed their humanity.

Onibaba isn't as all-encompassing as Kon Ichikawa's masterpiece Fires on the Plain (1959)—the latter has a forgelike intensity that makes it a visionary, emotional experience. But the two movies have similar themes: the grisly horrors of war, cannibalism (figurative in Onibaba and literal in Fires on the Plain), and the black comedy of the superior strength of flesh over spirit.

November 2, 2013


Just about every venerated American institution takes it on the kisser in His Girl Friday (1940). Nothing is sacred—politics, marriage, motherhood, sentiment, patriotism, and the values of the Fourth Estate all get deveined and dunked in butter like shrimp. The prodigious Howard Hawks directs for breathless laughs; he and his actors (Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Clarence Kolb, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, and Regis Toomey) generate a mind-blowing tempo in the dialogue. This fast-talking high point of screen newspaper comedies raises the American movie vernacular to a Benzedrine-fueled art. His Girl Friday is the Menckenesque city of salty reporters, toadying careerists, gangsters, politicos, and simpletons—a modern commedia dell'arte with its character types. It shares with the Renaissance tradition an emphasis on character acting and an exuberance that reminds one of improvisatory theater. The reporters work for various dailies and travel in packs, which is weird considering they're all out to scoop the others. These guys have no patience for pretense or tender emotions, and they cut through the bull. Grant and Russell—a controlling editor and his independent-minded reporter—parry and thrust, and their erotic verbal jabs are a classic American mating. They were the screwball genre's best pairing since Fredric March and Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred (1937), another skewering newspaper comedy (accented by Walter Connolly's conniption fits). His Girl Friday is both knockabout farce and sharp, modern satire, and speeds along from start to finish on a solid track of one-liners, squib, and broadside. Thanks to the overlapping dialogue (a technique used before in movies), jokes whiz by you so fast that if you stall on any one to replay it mentally, you're liable to miss the next two or three.

In the 1930s, Hollywood comedies were at their toughest and most satirical. They were designed to get Depression-era America out of its funk, and these tart, springy romances, newspaper farces, and review-style musicals were huge successes. An intermingling group of 1920s newspaper columnists, critics, and playwrights on the East Coast gave American talkies much of their whiplash energy and smarts. In one of the great migration stories in the history of popular art, many of these wags wound up in Hollywood—year-round sunshine and easy money. The screenplays they wrote are filled with smart, sardonic dialogue—crude, quintessentially American poetry. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote The Front Page (the 1928 Broadway hit from which His Girl Friday was adapted) and Hecht wrote Nothing Sacred, Charles Lederer wrote the screenplay for the first movie adaptation of The Front Page in 1931 as well as the screenplay for His Girl Friday, Jules Furthman wrote the pre-Code Jean Harlow newspaper comedy Bombshell (1933) and two or three enormously entertaining Howard Hawks classics (1939's Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not in 1944, and The Big Sleep in 1946), Herman Mankiewicz co-wrote Citizen Kane (1941) and adapted the George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber play Dinner at Eight for the screen in 1933, Nunnally Johnson wrote the riotous comedy Roxie Hart (1942) starring Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou (who played the editor in The Front Page in 1931), Robert Benchley returned to Hollywood during the worst of the Depression to write features and star in several popular shorts, and Donald Ogden Stewart wrote The Philadelphia Story (1940).

News ink. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell
By the middle of the 1940s, the era of carefree screwball stories about newsmen, wisecracking society dames, and daffy heiresses was largely played out, and His Girl Friday was thus not only the greatest but also one of the last of its kind. American audiences turned their attention to events in Europe, and found there wasn't much left to laugh at. Movies got propagandistic and returned to serious, "noble" homefront themes, as in Mrs. Miniver (1942), Since You Went Away (1944), and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). The war sapped comedic energies and soured the public on its old urge to satirize its sacred cows.

October 23, 2013

Show Biz

Ruby Keeler, bless her heart. It's tough to say which aspect of hers is clumsier—her hoofing or her acting. But no matter, because her real job in Mervyn LeRoy's entertainingly dumb-ass Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) is to moon after Dick Powell. Powell's a young songwriter in a tenement room across the alley from Keeler and her girlfriends Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, and Aline MacMahon. The girls want to be in show biz, but it's the Depression and shows keep closing down because producers can't pay the rent.

Dollar for dollar. Ginger Rogers
The movie, an early thirties Warner Bros. classic that certainly deserves its status, goes in a million different directions: it's a cascade of daffy visual non sequiturs, thanks in large part to a series of libidinous musical numbers concocted and shot by Busby Berkeley. James Agee wrote about a 1944 Preston Sturges movie that it "raped the Hayes office in its sleep," and there's plenty of pre-Code monkey business going on in Gold Diggers, too. This is undoubtedly the most manic, vivacious Depression you've probably ever seen in movies, and it's framed in a silvery Art Deco production design. Ned Sparks is the irascible, put-upon producer with faith in Powell's talents, Ginger Rogers is a superb camera subject (in the opening number she sings "We're in the Money" in pig Latin), and the excellent Joan Blondell, with her bee-stung pucker, adds fizz to this crazy champagne. Poor Ruby Keeler huffs and puffs her way through a pair of good songs with Dick Powell, but even her inability to keep up with her surroundings seems bizarrely right, and, as she manages to do in many of her '30s movies, she wins over moviegoers despite being a klutzburger. You're both amazed and amused by her—when she says her lines, she crinkles her face with pride at having remembered them. Aline MacMahon plays the wisecracking pragmatist with many of the best punch lines (the same role that stars like Eve Arden and Paulette Goddard played a decade later).

A huge hit in 1933, the movie must have sent audiences out feeling buzzy and lighthearted. In its uniquely American energy and its punchy, sexy tomfoolery, Gold Diggers of 1933 is emblematic of Hollywood's life-affirming inclination, at a time of pervasive hardship, to good-naturedly remember the nation's forgotten men.

October 19, 2013

The Greatness of Audacity

In answer to the question: What is the greatest American movie performance of the early sound era? Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) or Scarface (1932)? Chaplin in City Lights (1931)? Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931)? Marie Dressler in Dinner at Eight (1933) or the barely remembered Emma (1932)?

Mesmerizer. Jack Barrymore
John Barrymore (Broadway's Orson Welles) in Svengali (1931) unpacks theatrical traditions and his own sly, self-referential archness into a variety of grand gestures—the sing-song accents, interrogative upturns, and squeaky upper registers of the Eastern European Jew; the static postures and bearing of the angular nobles in the Eisenstein historical epics (Barrymore is made up to resemble Nikolay Cherkasov in Ivan the Terrible); and the tortured self-doubts and sadism of the Shakespearean villains. Barrymore is so audacious that all these styles blend seamlessly—he gets to the essence of the art of acting: creating a character that is both lifelike and larger than life. When his great death scene occurs, you're ready to go to the grave with him because you're sure he's going to spring uncannily back to life. And the special effects in the mesmerism scenes have sensual heat: Svengali's eyes glow like molten metal.

Watching John Barrymore spellbind in Svengali is like watching a fabled stage performance from some long-lost age of theater. He stalks the floorboards in high-heeled boots and overcoat, as gaunt as a vampire. But his voice and mien are so commanding that the gothicism never degenerates into camp. Like Karloff's terrifying, confused monster in Frankenstein or Sam Jaffe's nebbishy Grand Duke Peter in Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress (1934), the experience is too appallingly profound for camp.

October 5, 2013


The loose, romantic playfulness of Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) is lifted from screwball comedy of the 1930s. This laid-back romp gives Woody Allen and Diane Keaton an opportunity to be Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in Easy Living (1937), and Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche in Midnight (1939), and it has the most sustained tempo of any of Allen's movies of that time. (Alice, from 1989, is a lovely flight fantasy for the first hour, but gets bogged down in marital melodrama in the last half—its whimsical romance dissipates into sodden confusion that leaves moviegoers bummed out.)

Daffy detectives. Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
The movie's central conceit is the romantic gambol of the old screwballs: the girl (often played by Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck, or Jean Arthur, and later by Betty Hutton) is frisky and in the mood for an adventure, while the shy, straightlaced guy wants no part of it, but nervously follows her anyway because she's such a babe—Henry Fonda was the quintessential lovestruck nerd in The Lady Eve (1941). Here, it's Keaton, back to form, leading a constantly protesting Woody Allen around with a ring in his nose, sneaking into people's apartments and scouting for clues.

Like those earlier screwballs, Manhattan Murdery Mystery has its classic sequence: Allen, Keaton, and friends (Alan Alda and Anjelica Huston), a quartet of intrepid amateur detectives, concoct a plan to blackmail the suspected killer by playing prerecorded dialogue on cassette tape over the phone to simulate an actual conversation; naturally, the tapes get all jumbled and the "conversation" hits an abrupt snag. The last scene is kind of a dud—an anticlimactic shootout amid a maze of mirrors and projection screens (during the scene, The Lady From Shanghai is playing on the screens just in case you couldn't quite figure it all out by yourself). But all in all, the movie is a plush, snug recliner: you can settle yourself in and have a pretty good time as old movie references fly back and forth, and cobblestone streets gets soaked with rain. Things are a lot closer to the spirit of the '30s here than Peter Bogdanovich's mostly witless What's Up, Doc? (1972) or even several of the 1980s Allen comedies. In Manhattan Murdery Mystery, Woody Allen got his groove back.

October 2, 2013

A Capricious Masterpiece

Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu (1939) was voted the third greatest film of all time by an international group of critics for a 1962 Sight and Sound poll, and the fourth greatest film of all time by a 2012 panel of critics and scholars brought together by the British Film Institute. This fabled masterpiece is widely regarded as the greatest French film by the greatest French director, and decade after decade hangs on to its hallowed place at the summit of world cinema.

The hunt. Mila Parely
I love this movie more than almost any other. Seeing it is as rich an experience as you are likely to have in a theater. Renoir and his team infuse centuries of high comic tradition into a Modernist farce that only appears as if it were spinning out of control. In fact, it's a completely controlled tragicomedy in which chance, or fate, is the prime mover.

Just about every social or cultural anchor—love, honor, class, even classical distinctions between literary genres—is dismantled in La Règle. The title is doubly ironic: The social classes abided by their rules in pre-war Europe, love had its rules, comedy and tragedy had their rules. Renoir smashes these rules into pieces. La Règle in 1939 points the way to the absurdist strain in Modernism. The animal hunt is a deft visualization of the slaughter during the Great War and the slaughter to come—warfare on land (the rabbits) and in the air (the birds). The idea of the disintegration of class distinctions, of relationships teeming with infidelity and jealousy, had been around since Musset (whose Les Caprices de Marianne Renoir used as a springboard), Beaumarchais and Molière. In La Règle, ignobility is society's great leveler (the way all cats seem to be the same color at night), much as you find it in Enlightenment theater traditions. But the movie pounces on the modern: civilization itself becomes a witches' sabbath in which sentiment is juxtaposed with raunchy sex chases, heroes (like the hapless aviator) are turned into victims of mischief, and the intricate organizing impulse of society itself crumbles into a mayhem of poaching (both animal and sexual). In earlier literature, the immoral was the moral, but in La Règle it's the revelrous commingling of the immoral with the amoral. That's what makes the movie so absolutely modern, and so sustaining.

October 1, 2013

The Boom

Boulevard of broken dreams.
The Great Gatsby (2013) is a brashly kinetic adaptation of a literary landmark. Filled with flaws of taste, it nonetheless has a primal power, balancing F. Scott Fitzgerald's lyricism with a eurotrash sensibility. Baz Luhrmann's direction goes beyond realism—beyond hyperrealism, even—into a garishly ornate romanticism, a jewel-encrusted, stylized vision of the 1920s as distant from reality as a fairy tale. Luhrmann makes the florid hysteria of Ken Russell (The Devils, The Music Lovers, Savage Messiah) seem tranquil by comparison. But Fitzgerald's poignancy and homespun longing elevate this movie above Russell's emotional barrenness.

Except for Leonardo DiCaprio (who's looking a little pudgy around the jowls), the cast was too tightly controlled by the iron-clamp production to be able to create human beings with believable idiosyncrasies—the kind of imperfections that allow a performance to breathe. The actors are largely props in marvelously explosive tableaus (New York looks like a Jules Verne creation, and the Art Deco mansions are steely, cartoonish Studio 54s). DiCaprio is able to do more than adopt Jazz Age poses. He navigates the mega-technology and whiz-bang camera successfully, and he steals a great many scenes (except perhaps those with his gorgeous Duesenberg, whose shimmering yellow coat of paint mirrors Gatsby's tailored suit). Gatsby's self-made man (in post-Horatio-Alger America—serendipitously mentored, financed, and launched) pulls you in deeply enough that you're fixated on the boulevard-of-broken-dreams corrupted hope theme, which could be the green light of our collective movie past.

September 29, 2013

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Sidney Lumet, who died two years ago, directed Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. It's his best movie. Like Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Mean Streets, and Lumet's own Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon plays its themes with compelling vigor: crime, crowds, police action, the media, and the enervated realism of a New York afternoon in post-Watergate America.

Watergate hero. Al Pacino
The movie is hugely successful at what it sets out to do: it drops you into a Brooklyn bank right before a robbery, immersing you in the comedic tension of a day on the job. This may be the first movie ever to mine equal amounts of humor and pathos from a couple of bozo bank robbers. Sonny (Al Pacino), the more decent and pragmatic of the two, needs the cash for his lover's sex change operation. Everything goes wrong for him: he's like a Polish Alvy Singer, a bumbler whose good intentions get him kicked around, and the movie makes him a comic hero of the Watergate era. (The character is based on the actual bank robber John Wojtowicz.)

Lumet and his team combine just the right amounts of asphalt realism and expressionist distortion of smoggy sunlight as it sinks into an Edward Hopper evening. As night falls, beads of sweat drench everybody's face: the negotiators, the hostages, Sonny and his friend and accomplice, Sal. The air conditioner in the bank chugs noisily, its condensers and coils rattling with exhaustion. Everyone and everything in the movie grows exhausted and frazzled. It's a comedy of errors as the action moves between the two sets—the bank and the street outside, where the boys in blue spend the day trying to keep the crowds from crossing the crime barricades as they chant "Attica! Attica!" The tone alternates between the frantic, the comic, and the exhaustedly placid, but stays completely lifelike.

Dog Day Afternoon is unusual for 1970s movies because the police (the establishment) are treated sympathetically; the movie's point of view is that the street crowd's response to Sonny's plight—treating him like a celebrity and political hero—is nutzo and obstructionist. How did Lumet know that, decades later, we'd actually be willing to feel ashamed of our own corrupted '60s youth?

September 26, 2013

Fast Food

The Bank Job (2008) is a cheap buzz, neither likable nor memorable. This heist thriller fulfills the most superficial purpose of movies: you get a slight kick out of the twists and folds, and then easily walk away from it. There's practically nothing in the way of humor, let alone wit, and the silly business with the head burglar and his estranged wife comes out of nowhere, trying to evince a smidge of poignancy, but it's a no go. A neurasthenic action film is a bummer for moviegoers.

That subplot wraps up in the lamest scene in the movie—only a child or a dunderhead would fall for it. Not a single performance stands out, either as especially skilled or as notably bad. In fact, nothing stands out at all. The guy who plays the porn mob boss looks like David Suchet, but I didn't even care so I didn't bother to look it up. Everything goes down quickly, without eliciting love or disgust—any strong response whatsoever—for any of it. This movie isn't watched, it's consumed.

September 25, 2013

Poop Deck

Titanic (1997) is, in Shakespeare's phrase, "too much of water." The movie sinks long before the ship does. If the dewily pubescent love story doesn't interest you (in other words, if you're older than 16), there's not much else to do but observe the cold impressiveness of the production. The set design is pretty, but you're not sure what's real and what's CGI, and sooner or later you give up trying to figure it out. An awful lot of people are running around onscreen, but they're just a lot of mice against the gigantism of the movie's megaproduction (although a group of them later drown like rats below deck).

Dewy young love. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet
There are good guys and bad guys, bar-room brawls, fiery sunsets, Irish rogues, snooty Brits, a plucky American gal named Molly Brown, and a Hallmark-weepy framing device: the lovely young woman is now a sentimental old woman telling her story to a science team exploring the wreck. She throws her keepsake into the waves and watches it sink. It's all a big blur. Nonetheless, I was able to collect my thoughts during several of the scenes, including the awesome moment of impact, when shards and chunks of the iceberg catapulted onto the ship and skidded along the deck. The two young lovers make love in an automobile in the cargo area, and my memory flashed back to the same scene in Now, Voyager (1942) which, despite that film's exhausting length, was much more to the point. Just too damn much water everywhere: I got queasy when the young lead spit into the wind and it blew back in his face. The passengers who stayed aboard ship after it struck the berg were singing Nearer My God to Thee, in unison, as the vessel slipped beneath the icy waters. I'd have been singing a rousing rendition of Put On Your Old Grey Bonnet in an attempt to keep my body temperature up.

The thing about movies like Titanic is that they're so conventional-minded in their aesthetics & so calculating. There's nothing playful in the entire picture—nothing that isn't worked out precisely and mechanically beforehand. It's an entire universe that exists digitally. How can a story about large-scale human tragedy be so machine-tooled and impersonal? That's what I mean when I say a movie doesn't breathe—the pores are clogged with contrivance. What's wrong with a little surprise, a little idiosyncrasy in the telling, especially in such a long film? Every last element—camera work, dialog, acting, lighting, directing—has had the life squeezed out of it. When the poor ship sinks, it's like a symbol of the entire movie sinking under the weight of its own production.

A Passage From India

Indian summer. Riz Ahmed (left) and Freida Pinto
Trishna (2011) is the most intelligent sort of literary adaptation—a luminous resetting of Hardy's Tess of the D'urbervilles that transforms externals into inspired new forms and retains the sweeping sexual power of its source. I have no end of admiration for Michael Winterbottom, the director, who paints vividly in short takes. He builds momentum using the techniques of classical montage (one scene, of an auto accident on a dusty road, builds until the portentous edits feel like something out of October), and pays homage to movie antecedents ranging from De Sica to David Lean. Winterbottom knows where to put actors in the frame and how to structure cuts to give the excellent dialog its due.

Winterbottom's palette is as mature and varied as that of any other big director working today in English-speaking movies, including Mike Leigh and Wes Anderson. A Cock and Bull Story (2006) is one of the freshest and most innovative comedies of the new century, and Genova (2007) dabbles in mystical sentiment. Like both of those movies, Trishna gathers power in the telling and casts an uncanny glow over the memory.


Hip depravity. Juliette Lewis and Benicio Del Toro
The Way of the Gun (2000) is worse than aggressively sick—it's diseased. Take all the really foul stretches from the Quentin Tarantino bloodfests and the insipid humor in the Richard Donner Lethal Weapon movies and string everything together—that's The Way of the Gun. But in terms of craftsmanship, it's marvelous: the lighting, the color, and the sound are expert, and the soundtrack comes truly alive. The actors do some excellent work and elicit the audience's admiration: Dylan Kussman as the doctor is an amazing little performer who effortlessly rises above his surroundings (as he did in Dead Poets' Society). Benicio Del Toro and Ryan Phillippe are two of Hollywood's more talented actors at generating a steady sizzle. The two bodyguards, Taye Diggs and Nicky Katt, give clever, rousing performances, but Diggs really comes alive only when Katt is killed.

On the debit side, Juliette Lewis is a repellent presence with unfortunate physiognomy and style, and her constant screaming makes you want to force feed her glass. James Caan shows up and I thought, "What a drag to see that mannerism-infected old fart talking and moving as if he were revisiting scenes from The Killer Elite." Caan always wears Eddie Bauer windbreakers in his movies, and sure enough he's wearing one again here. The cutting during the final shootout is astounding—technical mastery of the medium—and the montage is the work of a film master. But the movie's vision is awash in moral crud. The Way of the Gun is a repugnant work of art.

September 24, 2013


I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1969) is largely a bummer because every one of its classic scenes—the blocked car, the Mexican family with whiplash, the brownies, the funeral—occurs in the first 30 minutes. Once Peter Sellers (Harold) turns hippie-beads, the funny bits dry up and so do the themes (the discrepancy between, first, Harold's establishment boringness and his brother's counter-culture idiocy, and secondly between his mother's caricaturish L.A. Jewishness and both her children's apostasy).

Culture clash. Peter Sellers and Leigh Taylor-Young
The rest of the movie is dead on arrival: inchoate scenes of Sellers and Leigh Taylor-Young making love in an old car when the police show up and kick them out (the scene just crumbles before your eyes); the law-firm partner, who's a tiresome letch, propositioning Harold's ex-fiancee; a middle-aged cross-dresser coming into the dress shop and asking for a mini-skirt to try on, etc. There's so much comedy going bust that you start squirming for the actors, because they were all so amusing in the first half hour.

The Jewish jokes fizzle, too, and the shtick gets careless. Why are there flowers at the Jewish butcher's funeral, and why is his casket so fancy? Why is the Lohengrin march played at Harold's wedding? Elmer Bernstein may as well have not even bothered, either. He just repeats the theme song for two hours. Peter Sellers droops and gets confused by the dearth of gags, Mrs. Fine (the skillful Jo Van Fleet) doesn't get any more funny lines, either, and the butcher's widow keeps wailing hysterically. Were the writers smoking too much dope?

September 23, 2013

Reanimating the Dead

The scenes in I Walked With a Zombie with that warm, moist wind wafting through the plantation garden seem almost an antidote to the cliche of the howling storms of other horror movies. This Jacques Tourneur "B" classic turns the gothic Romanticism of studio classics like Frankenstein and Island of Lost Souls into an island pastorale. It's a memorable Hollywood voodoo movie because of its transformed vision.

Sunrise in the West Indies
TV zombie drama reached its high point in the horror-comedy hit series The Night Stalker in the 1970s. One of the best episodes was "The Zombie," which combines a scruffy, crusading reporter, a gangland turf war, and a frightening Haitian corpse that won't stay put in the cemetery.

Kolchak: "I suppose you're wondering what I'm doing here."

Crime Boss: "Hmm."

Kolchak: "Well, I-I-I think, Mr. Possati ..."

Crime Boss: (deliberately, calmly) "Sposatti."

Kolchak: "Sp-sp-sposatti, of course."

Crime Boss: "I remember you. Vittorio, this is the guy that crashed my daughter's wedding, remember? He took all those pictures!"

Thug: (looks at Kolchak) "Yeah, he's right."

Kolchak: (wide-eyed) "No, no! Horrible mistake. No, you see, you're thinking of my brother ... uhh, SIDNEY Kolchak. He writes a society column."

Crime Boss: (laughs) "I remember the two-dollar hat, Kolchak. I got a memory like a steep trap. I never forget anything. Ask Victor."

Thug: "That's right. Photographic."

Crime Boss: "Mr. Kolchak, ever been to Mercy General Hospital?"

Kolchak: (wide-eyed) "No, I ... uhh ... never have."

Crime Boss: "They got a great gastrointestinal man—one of the best in the Midwest."

Thug: "Vincenze?"

Crime Boss: "Toto Rosetti ... Vittorio, why don't you make an appointment for Mr. Kolchak with Toto Rosetti, eh?"

Kolchak: "NO!! No-no-no!! Wait, wait!! I can tell you ... I can tell you who's been knocking your men off! I know! I can give you a NAME."

Crime Boss: (sotto voce) "What."

Kolchak: "He's a Haitian numbers runner by the name of Francois Edmunds."

Thug: "Why?"

Kolchak: (nervously) "Why? I-I-I don't know why. How do I know why? Maybe he ... uhhh ... got in Willy Pike's hair? and Willy Pike sent him through the system and he got knocked off by the Musso brothers? I don't know ... maybe?"

Crime Boss: "Well, Mr. Kolchak, you're partially correct. But you see, that guy now lies in St. Lucy's Cemetery. But it was a very nice try" (rolls up the car window on Kolchak's nose).

Kolchak: (pushing the window back down) "No-no! See ... that's where they keep putting him. But ... I'll bet my life—and I'm not saying that loosely, gentlemen (laughs nervously)—I will bet my life that he is not—there—now!"