Disobedience (2018)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in
The Los Angeles Blade

The recent Oscar win of “A Fantastic Woman” as last year’s Best Foreign Language Picture may have been at least partly in response to the impressive performance of its trans star, Daniela Vega; but since any film is ultimately only as excellent as the vision behind it, the bulk of the credit must be laid at the feet of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio.

Fresh on the heels of that groundbreaking triumph, Lelio returns with a new film – this one in English – that once again addresses the suppression of non-conforming identities.

“Disobedience” follows Ronit (Rachel Weisz), a successful photographer who comes home to the Orthodox Jewish community in which she was raised for the funeral of her estranged father.  Though her return is met with some initial tension, she is invited to stay with her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola) – a rabbi now married to her childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams), with whom she had once shared a “forbidden” relationship.  When the attraction between the two women reignites, Esti finds herself questioning her commitment to the role of obedient wife – as well as to the faith that has forced it upon her.

Adapted from a novel by Naomi Alderman, the screenplay by Lelio and Rebecca Lenkiewicz takes pains to keep the roots of the story firmly planted in the insular world it depicts.  Lelio reinforces these efforts with his sure-handed direction, capturing the characters’ environment with an almost sensory completeness while keeping their inner experiences at the forefront of our attention.

From its opening scene, in which Ronit’s rabbi father collapses while addressing his congregation on the subject of “choice,” the movie wraps itself (and the audience) in the deeply solemn, contemplative atmosphere of the church.  Its characters’ conversations never veer far from the traditions and tenets of their faith; even when discussing the mundane matters of day-to-day life, it’s clear their thoughts are still tethered tightly to the beliefs that inform every aspect of their existence.

Despite the specificity of its setting, and although the nature of its central relationship is particularly resonant for LGBT audiences, the conflict that drives “Disobedience” is universal.  Its leading characters serve as stand-ins for anyone whose inner life is at odds with the expectations of their cultural backgrounds, and their ways of dealing with that disparity reflect choices made by real-life individuals trapped in such a dilemma.  Ronit has severed ties with her past and built a secular life for herself, while Esti has sacrificed her personal happiness to maintain the connection to her faith – yet each is haunted by guilt and by longing, unable to completely let go of what they have lost or to fully embrace the life they have chosen.

In bringing these women to life, Weisz and McAdams are each superb (though it’s McAdams who gets the greater opportunity to shine, thanks to her character’s more visible journey); they share a rare and palpable chemistry that makes their onscreen love for each other burn brightly and believably.  Though these two rightfully dominate the film, however, it’s male co-star Nivola who may have the more difficult task.

As the third point of the film’s precarious romantic triangle, Dovid brings an even wider scope to the story; a pillar of the community’s religious life, he must confront the inadequacy of his own knowledge in a situation that is irreconcilable with the customs of which he is a guardian.  A lesser film might have presented him as a mere antagonist, an avatar for patriarchal hetero-normative society.  Here, though he may indeed serve those functions, Nivola brings enough depth and gentleness to the character that he is not only prevented from being unsympathetic, but even made genuinely likable.

Ironically, it’s this fair-minded treatment that somewhat weakens an otherwise powerful film.

“Disobedience” walks a delicate line in terms of representation.  It places its spotlight on LGBT characters – and because they are female, it also addresses feminist factors such as equality and empowerment.  At the same time, it explores these issues within a subculture that has itself long been the victim of marginalization, taking care to avoid disparaging the traditions or demonizing the representatives of the Orthodox Jewish community.  It’s an admirable stance, but it results in an awkward structural imbalance that the film does not altogether resolve.

The first two-thirds of the movie, which centers on the build of tension as the passion between the two women slowly reawakens, is riveting cinema.  Full of potent verbal and visual subtext, it proceeds at a pace just restrained enough to stoke anticipation without seeming slow or labored, culminating in a physical reconnection that feels as well-earned as it does inevitable.

After this explosive coming-together, however, “Disobedience” seems to drag as it dwells on the fallout and repercussions of the newly-rekindled affair.  The focus shifts to Dovid, giving him equal time in his double role as betrayed husband and community leader; though this adds a crucial facet to the film’s perspective, it feels like an extra chapter in a story that has already been told – providing necessary information, but diluting the effect of what has come before it.

More unfortunate, perhaps, is that this later portion of the movie carries with it a sense that “permission” is somehow necessary for the women to fully express their identities and fulfill their needs.  Within the context of the plot, of course, and in terms of the characters’ emotional arcs – particularly Esti’s – this is an important step towards resolution; the piece is titled “Disobedience,” after all.  It also conveys empathy and respect for those trying to reconcile their religious beliefs with evolving attitudes and changing times.  For those viewing the story from the perspective of LGBT or feminist concerns, though, it could be easily interpreted as a validation of sorts for an attitude which continues to be used as justification for the oppression of non-conforming individuals in a society still dominated by straight male privilege.

Despite this potentially divisive challenge to some audiences’ “woke” sensibilities, Lelio’s film is still a powerful statement.  Not only does it offer an all-too-rare narrative about same-sex love between women (particularly welcome in the wake of so many successful male-centric queer stories like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” and “Love, Simon”), it presents a message of reconciliation between the values of deeply entrenched tradition and the attitudes of evolving, progressive culture.

Though some might feel it pulls its punches, “Disobedience” nevertheless makes a strong enough impact to call it a worthy and important new entry to the ever-expanding catalog of cinema dedicated to expressing the voice of “otherness” in our popular culture.

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The Little Foxes (1941)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure is William Wyler’s Hollywood adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play about a scheming family of Southerners manipulating their way to financial domination of their small town, which was was made in 1941 and provided a vehicle for Bette Davis (already a double Oscar-winner) at the peak of her star power. She was reluctant to take the part – Talullah Bankhead had played it onstage, and Davis felt she had captured it perfectly – but she ultimately relented, and in Regina Giddens, the ambitious sister in a trio of ruthless siblings who is bent on beating her brothers at their own game, she found a role that seemed to perfectly match the intelligence, strength, and temperament of her persona. However, she plays the role with so much bile that she comes off as a selfish woman of no compassion, despite the strong subtext that suggests a character desperate to escape the stifling oppression of a life she has been locked into since childhood – a theme which extends to the story’s other female characters, Birdie (the faded southern belle married for her land and her social standing and now relegated to a life of irrelevance and misery by an abusive husband – played with heartbreaking perfection by Patricia Collinge) and Alexandra (Regina’s teen-aged daughter, slowly awakening to the ugly reality of her family’s predatory nature – played with believable idealistic zeal by a young and fresh Teresa Wright). Playwright Hellman famously disliked Bette’s performance, preferring Elizabeth Taylor’s more vulnerable approach in the much-later stage remount of the play to the outright villainy with which Davis infused the role; but Davis, in her defense, claimed to have been compelled into taking a different direction than Bankhead’s original, emphasizing Regina’s cold and steely resolve over a more empathetic interpretation. In any case, it seems clear that Davis, well-known to be a woman who held her own in a man’s world, was channeling her own steely determination into Regina – a character to whom she must have related, in that way – and it’s a treat to watch her work, whether or not her choices were in keeping with the integrity of the playwright’s intentions.

The rest of the cast – a staunch roster of supporting players, the best that an A-list studio “prestige” picture could hope to offer – are every bit up to the standard set by their leading lady (Charles Dingle, as Regina’s mendacious older brother, is particularly delicious), and director William Wyler, one of the great masters of the old studio system and a filmmaker capable of building a movie that could not only contain Davis but complement her over-the-top splendor (though on this project, they famously clashed over everything from her subtext to her makeup), ensures that the movie never comes off as a filmed play, but a confident piece of old-school cinema in its own right. He’s helped in that by the screenplay, which was penned (mostly, although there was additional dialogue contributed by Dorothy Parker, among others) by the playwright herself; Hellman seamlessly opened up the action to other locations to avoid a stage-bound feel, and managed to keep the film’s perfunctory romance (added at the studio’s insistence, no doubt) from detracting from the weight of the story by creating a new character in the form of a progressive young newsman (played by a handsome and lively Richard Carlson) who could not only provide a love interest for Wright but give voice to her own socialist sentiments.

In fact, it’s those political ideals that give “The Little Foxes” a weight and resonance today that make it hold up better than some of the other classics of its era. In this turn-of-the-century tale of greedy capitalists pursuing private gain by exploiting not only the community in which they live but also the people who are foolish enough to love them, it’s pretty obvious to see a direct thread running all the way from the era of slavery, through the carpetbagging of the post-Civil War South and the industrialist expansion of the late 19th Century into the dangerously fascist-leaning pre-WWII era which gave rise to both the play and the film – and by extension, into our own age of kleptocracy and corporate profiteering. Hellman was a fierce fighter against the commodification of humanity, and it’s no mere plot device that, in this piece, she made the Hubbard clan’s scheme dependent on the exploitation of workers – it’s central to everything she was trying to say. Because of this, even the dated, now-embarassing portrayal of the film’s many black characters (the descendents of slaves, still serving the children of their former masters) plays a subtle part in reinforcing the underlying radicalism of the theme; the cultural politics of their interactions with the white characters, presented without comment or irony, speak volumes, and while no doubt the studio (and most audiences) were oblivious to this undercurrent, it’s impossible to believe that Hellman and some of the other more socially aware members of the creative team were blind to it, or that it was not, in fact, an important piece of intentional messaging.

If, when watching “The Little Foxes,” one has any illusion that it is meant only as a “Dynasty”-style bitch-fest (an interpretation embraced and perhaps preferred by a generation of Bette-worshipers who want only to see their idol as an emblem of personal power claimed in the face of a hostile culture which denies it to those deemed “other”), the title alone should be a clue that there was much more on the mind of it’s creator. It’s a reference to a verse in the Bible, Solomon 2:15, which reads “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.” In other words, it’s a story about corruption, and how those who exploit the natural wealth of the world for their own benefit subvert and inhibit its growth. Seen this way, it’s hard to find any sympathy for Regina (especially the way Davis plays her), who is as complicit in the technically-legal-but-inherently-immoral machinations of her family as her brothers – no matter what her motivation or good intentions may be. In this light, she is fully deserving to be left at the end, as she is, utterly alone – with only the coldness of her wealth to comfort her against the prospect of a lifetime spent maneuvering to protect it from those as ruthless as she.

“The Little Foxes” was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It didn’t win any of them. Also, although it was a box office hit, thanks to the high percentage received by producer Samuel Goldwyn, its distrubutor (RKO Pictures) lost money on it. A few years later, Hellman wrote a “prequel” play, “Another Part of the Forest,” which chronicled the rise of the Hubbard clan and went on be made into another critically-acclaimed film in 1948, starring Fredric March and Florence Eldridge. Although the characters from “Little Foxes” all appeared as their younger selves, actor Dan Duryea (who played ne’er-do-well nephew Leo in the earlier film) was the only cast member who returned – this time portraying his previous character’s father, Oscar (played in “Foxes” by Carl Benton Reid).

The Happys (2016)

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Today’s cinema adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

There’s no shortage of movies about fresh-faced out-of-towners coming to “the big city” to make all their dreams come true, only to have their naiveté stripped away by a few hard knocks from harsh reality.   In a substantial percentage of those movies, the big city in question is, of course, Hollywood.

With so many such films already out there, it’s undoubtedly hard for any filmmaker to come up with a new angle on the subject.  Typically, even the good ones are predictable.

Going into “The Happys,” a new film about a young Wisconsin girl who moves to L.A. with her high-school-sweetheart-turned-fiancé after he is cast in a major Hollywood film, one might expect the same familiar patterns to be played out yet again.

At first it seems like pretty standard stuff; but writer/directors Tom Gould and John Serpe throw us a new twist almost immediately, when Tracy (Amanda Bauer) comes home to the couple’s new Los Feliz rental and catches Mark (Jack DePew) having sex with another man.  The two decide to stay together – they are too enraptured by their happily-ever-after fantasy to let it go; but though this seems to go well, at first, Tracy grows restless.  She begins to explore the local culture, developing a fondness for food trucks and striking up an intriguing new friendship with a reclusive neighbor (Rhys Ward).  Meanwhile, Mark finds himself struggling not only to keep his repressed sexuality from jeopardizing his relationship, but also from derailing his career in homophobic Hollywood before it has even begun.

Such a set-up could go in a lot of different directions.  “The Happys” could have been anything from slapstick comedy to bleak tragedy, but Gould and Serpe have chosen a middle path, and it suits their film admirably.

Establishing its identity squarely from the beginning as a “dramedy” with a comfortably quirky indie flavor, it floats between seriousness and humor at about the same levels found in your average rom-com.  It honors the struggles of its flawed characters by taking them seriously and treating them with fairness and dignity, but it’s not afraid of poking a little fun at their foibles, also.

It pushes furthest towards the direction of outright parody in its treatment of the movie business (an establishment which serves, after all, as the story’s only real antagonist) – but here, too, it works hard to avoid passing judgment.  Even Mark’s brass-balls agent (Melissa McBride), who pushes him to stay in the closet and use his girlfriend as a beard, is depicted with relative sympathy; she is, after all, only another cog in the wheel of the Hollywood machine.

“The Happys,” for all its overtures towards satire, is less interested in ridiculing the status quo than it is in overcoming it.  It gives us stereotypes we think we know – the devoted girlfriend who defines herself through her relationship, the closeted pretty-boy terrified of being found out, the mysterious recluse with a secret and a heart of gold – and makes of them a little community, letting them discover more about themselves through their interactions with each other and the larger world.  In the process, it opens them up and allows us to see parts of ourselves in each one of them.

In this way it bears more than a passing resemblance, both in form and in spirit, to Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City.”  Just as that book does with San Francisco, it revels in its Los Feliz setting (the film’s title is a reference to it), making the neighborhood itself into a character and ensuring plenty of enjoyment for locals who will recognize many of the locations.  There’s even an eccentric landlady – a former child star played to perfection by Janeane Garofalo – who acts as a sort of den mother, passing on wisdom and neighborhood history to her little family of renters.

It carries a similar message, too.  Each of its characters starts their journey with an identity dictated by outside expectations and spends the rest of the movie learning to recognize and embrace who they really are.  As one of the film’s minor characters sums it up, “the closer you get to your true self, the happier you are.”  One can imagine Mrs. Madrigal saying those exact same words.

“The Happys” inhabits a more confined space than “Tales,” though, with fewer characters, a less sprawling landscape (both geographically and culturally), and a lot less time to win us over.  As a result, some of it feels a little hasty; revelations come too quickly, as do realizations and reconciliations, and some of the plot contrivances stretch the willing suspension of disbelief a little too far (an unknown newbie actor from the Midwest landing a lead in an A-list Hollywood movie is just the first of several implausible plot points).

Still, it’s a movie with a lot of heart, along with a worthy and much-needed agenda.  Gould and Serpe address the issue of homophobia without being preachy or confrontational, opting instead to treat it with kindness and candor.  Mark, though he may be callous and dishonest, is also broken and unhappy, and the fact that we are led to empathize with him and even root for him raises this movie above the level of the many less-sincere attempts to confront such characters onscreen.

Likewise, in Tracy, the movie gives us a strong female protagonist whose growth from subservient mouse to independent woman presents her at every stage as a likeable, understandable person – not just some caricature of femininity.

Both these characters work, despite the occasional elision of their arcs, thanks to their heartfelt performances.  Bauer, in particular, gives a strong performance, carrying the bulk of the movie on her shoulders and making it look good as she does so.  The whole cast, in fact, does nice work.  Garofalo is a treat, as is McBride; Arturo del Puerto brings good-natured charm (as well as a dash of diversity, something the movie could have done better at including) as Ricky, a flirtatious Latino food truck operator; and young out actor Brian Jordan Alvarez has some memorable scenes as one of Mark’s co-stars, contrasting his openly gay persona against DePew’s tightly guarded artiface.

There are times in Gould and Serpe’s film when one wants it to go further – to sharpen its satirical teeth and bite harder into the toxic hypocrisy of the Hollywood system or to shine a harsher light on the psychology of the closet; but that’s okay.

Thanks the sincerity and positivity of its intentions, it offers up so many sweet and life-affirming moments that it is easy to forgive it for not making a deeper dive.

God’s Own Country (2017)

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When “Brokeback Mountain” arrived on the scene in 2005, it was almost unthinkable that a big-budget Hollywood film about a same-sex romance between two sheep herders could even get made, let alone go on to become a critically-lauded, multi-award-winning cultural phenomenon.  To be sure, it had its share of detractors, but the favor it gained within the mainstream was a clear sign that the tide was turning with regards to LGBTQ acceptance.

In those pre-marriage-equality days, its tragic tale of love thwarted by social intolerance was a somber testament of truth for the millions of queer people who had lived such lives through the generations that had come before – and make no mistake, it’s still a story that needs to be told.  Even so, there are many who felt that the film’s star-crossed lovers deserved a happier fate.

Now, twelve years later, they just might get a second chance – at least by proxy – in filmmaker Francis Lee’s quietly breathtaking debut feature, “God’s Own Country.”

Set in the bleak highlands of modern-day Yorkshire, it centers on Johnny Saxby, a young man who lives and works on his family’s struggling farm.  By night, he escapes from his grueling existence by drinking himself into a stupor at the village pub; occasionally, he finds temporary escape in anonymous sexual encounters with other men at the cattle auction or, presumably, from the surrounding area.  His routine is disrupted, however, when his father brings in Gheorghe, a Romanian immigrant worker, to help with the sheep during lambing season; though he is at first resentful and abusive of the new hired hand, a powerful attraction soon develops between the two men.

How things unfold from there is the main business of the movie, and it would be bad form to reveal how it eventually plays out; suffice to say that, despite the similarities in their subject matter, “God’s Own Country” is a very different experience from “Brokeback.”

It is, of course, patently unfair to define Lee’s heartfelt and highly personal film in relation to another movie, no matter how much the comparison begs to be made – but it’s hard to avoid pointing out at least one particularly telling detail.  In “Brokeback,” the two protagonists face homophobia from both without and within; but in the contemporary world of “God’s Own Country,” that homophobia is more of a phantom threat than a concrete one.  The people around Johnny seem to accept his sexuality; and although he himself struggles with internalized shame, it may have less to do with being gay than it does with a fear of intimacy.

It’s this that makes the movie as far removed from “Brokeback” in tone and attitude as it is in the time and place of its setting, and it makes all the difference.

Lee’s film is a patient, understated, and touching portrait of two men as they find the courage to break through barriers – not social, but personal – to reach each other.  It’s a struggle we’ve seen explored by heterosexual lovers in countless romantic dramas, but for gay couples on the screen the obstacles have historically been cultural or political.  Though such factors may lie at the root of Johnny and Gheorghe’s issues, there is no need for them to change the world to be together – only themselves.  In this way, their story is perhaps more closely related to Andrew Haigh’s excellent “Weekend” than it is to that other sheep wrangler movie.

Comparisons aside, “God’s Own Country” stands tall on its own considerable merits.  Inspired by his coming of age in Yorkshire (the movie was filmed in his own village, with the farm where he grew up only a short distance from the shooting location), Lee has written and crafted a lovingly detailed work, as rigorous in its painstaking authenticity as it is poetic in its cinematic expression.

There’s much to appreciate in Lee’s directorial approach.  He proves himself a master of visual storytelling, communicating some of the film’s most potent moments with little or no dialogue, and orchestrating a rich symbolic subtext with subtle visual cues throughout – like the muted reds and blues of Gheorghe’s knit sweater, which make it shine amidst the movie’s stark grey palette like a multi-hued beacon of hope.  He is equally shrewd in what he doesn’t show; he largely eschews the wide landscapes typical of such pastoral romances, instead keeping his camera – and the story – focused on the personal and intimate.

He also draws superb performances from his actors.  Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu make Johnny and Gheorghe, respectively, as genuine as they are endearing; their natural ease with their surroundings– Lee put them to work on a farm for several weeks before shooting – underscores and enhances not only the realism of their acting but of the movie itself.  Most importantly, they have a rare chemistry that wins the audience from their first meeting – and places their love scenes among the sexiest big-screen pairings in recent memory.

In the smaller (but crucial) roles of Johnny’s father and grandmother, Ian Hart and Gemma Jones give quiet, dignified eloquence to characters who, in a lesser film, might have been rendered as course and one-dimensional stereotypes.  Far from being antagonists, they provide a rich and fertile ground from which the film’s love story can grow.

It should be noted that “God’s Own Country” does contain some full-frontal nudity and relatively explicit sexual content.  This will doubtless be reason enough to entice many viewers within the film’s target audience, but there is so much more in this little gem of a British import to warrant seeking it out.

Though it may not attract much mainstream attention, “God’s Own Country” feels important.  When a movie about two men who fall in love with each other doesn’t feel the need to justify its own existence by advancing a social or political agenda, it’s proof that the turn of the tide signaled by “Brokeback,” not so very long ago, has carried us at last to an era in which a “gay movie” can simply be called “a movie.”

The fact that it’s also an excellent movie is a welcome bonus.

 

 

Blade Runner (1982)

zgfn3sotgl60bay4ftdnzqcxyiqWhen Ridley Scott’s dystopian neo-noir sci-fi opus opened in 1982, it was overshadowed at the box office – along with a number of other worthy films – by the juggernaut that was Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.”  Consequently, it was deemed by the then-reigning Hollywood pundits to be a misfire, and critics seemed to echo that sentiment; though praised for its imaginative visual design – now regarded as influential and iconic – and its provocative thematic explorations, it was greeted with middling reviews that, taken together, marked it as an “interesting failure.”

This lukewarm reception came at the end of a tense and difficult production process in which Scott, who had been far down the list of preferred directors for this long-awaited adaptation of Phillip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” went severely over budget and seriously past due – eventually losing creative control of the final cut and being forced to bow to studio executives’ demands to cut the running time by nearly half and add a voice-over narration to clarify what they felt to be a confusing plot.

Despite its painful birthing process (and perhaps, in part, because of it), “Blade Runner” went on to become a cult favorite, with an ever-growing legion of fans, and to be re-evaluated by critics – even making appearances high on their lists of the best science fiction films of all time.  Ultimately, thanks to its growing reputation, Scott released a series of alternate versions, culminating in “The Final Cut,” released in 2007, which restored several minutes of previously deleted material and dispensed with the much-hated narration, and which stands today as the definitive edition of the film.

To those new to it, “Blade Runner” is essentially a police procedural set in a future Los Angeles.  The title refers to the name given to special officers whose job it is to track down and eliminate “replicants” – artificial humans created as an off-world labor force who are now outlawed on earth.  One such officer, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), is tasked with tracking down and killing a renegade group of these beings who have defied the ban to come in search of answers from their creator.  Constructed as a pulp-fiction detective story in the nostalgic vein of Raymond Chandler, the plot winds its morally ambiguous way through a shadowy underworld – replete with femmes fatale, corrupt officials, secret alliances, and deep conspiracies – towards a final showdown that forces Deckard (and the audience) to question what it means to be “human.”

Revisiting this seminal work over three decades later, those who grew up with it may find it challenging to separate its authentic merits from their fond memories; likewise, those new to its affected mix of high-concept style and gritty action may fail to recognize its impact on a genre whose subsequent development owes it so much.  There are also those, in both groups, who might find its slow-moving plot and relative lack of action sequences less appealing than the genre’s bigger, splashier counterparts.

Nevertheless, there are a number of good reasons why “Blade Runner” has had staying power.

To begin with, there’s the incredible, immersive reality that Scott (along with production designer Laurence G. Paull and special effects supervisor Douglas Trumball) so painstakingly assembled to represent the Los Angeles of then-distant 2019.  Densely overpopulated with an ethnic blend of citizens (predominantly of Asian descent), lit by garish neon, and dominated by advertisements projected at massive scale in every available space, it’s a claustrophobic metropolis that is at once dazzlingly futuristic and depressingly familiar – the logical extension of corporate consumerism run wild and rampant urban decay left unchecked.  Though the causes for this state of affairs are never specifically addressed within the dialogue, the world of the film needs no words to express the volumes of social criticism inherent in its design.  It’s a magnificent example of one of science fiction’s primary functions – to serve as a warning against the worst tendencies of our own world – executed to perfection, and it has justly become a blueprint for world-building in countless films within the genre, ever since.

Then there’s the way it addresses the subject of artificial intelligence.  “Blade Runner” was certainly not the first movie to introduce the notion of an A.I. becoming sentient or developing emotion, but in its deeply philosophical treatment of the idea – and its portraits of its remarkable anti-hero, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his sidekick/lover, Pris (Daryl Hannah) – it goes beyond the usual cautionary approach to address the ethical dilemmas presented by drawing a line between human and non-human life.  These characters are vicious, violent, cruel – but they are not unsympathetic, nor are they without justification.  Rather, their behavior is easily understood as the result of exploitation, mistreatment, and disregard by a system that presumes their lives have no inherent value.  That they rebel against their oppressors is not only understandable, it is unsurprising; and the fact that, in their suffering, they have developed a sense of loyalty to each other and empathy towards others (whether or not they are governed by it) places them in stark contrast to most of the “human” characters we see in the film.  This concept of the misunderstood creation at odds with its creator hearkens back, of course, to that ancestor of all modern sci-fi stories, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but by placing it in the context of this grimly foreseeable future, “Blade Runner” reminds us that the questions it raises are perhaps more relevant than ever.

There are many other factors that contribute to the film’s lasting impact.  The commitment to its noir milieu is not only consistent, but brilliantly apt for a story set within this world of shadows (both actual and metaphorical), and the way this cinematic conceit is meshed with the stylish visual influences of the era in which it was conceived is, at times, breathtakingly artful.  Electronic composer Vangelis envelops the action (and the audience) with his lush, moody, and elegiac score, which evokes the epic scope of both the story’s setting and its philosophical ambitions.  Perhaps most importantly, the screenplay, by Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, provides a solid base for the entire package; it weaves complex ideas and implications into a story which both expands upon the source material and remains essentially faithful to it, and it does so through dialogue which echoes the hard-boiled style of the cinematic movement to which it pays homage.

Of course there are also the performances.  Ford, fresh from his first appearance as Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and in between his second and third turns as Han Solo in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, was at the peak of his appeal and popularity when he stepped into the title role of Scott’s movie (thought he, like the director, was nowhere near the first choice for the project); though at first his cocky persona seems somehow out of joint with the dreary world portrayed here, it is this that makes him a perfect fit for a character whose experiences will awaken the humanity buried beneath his cynical exterior.  Deckard is the direct extension of every smart-ass gumshoe portrayed by Humphrey Bogart in the classic film noir of the forties and fifties, and Ford – who rarely gets the credit he deserves for his acting skills – brings that same diamond-in-the-rough essence to the role.  His performance here may not be as iconic as the ones that cemented his status as one of his generation’s biggest stars, but it is just as engaging – and considering the complexity of Deckard’s emotional journey, maybe more impressive.

Sean Young, another star whose acting talents are often overlooked (particularly in the wake of the career-stifling reputation she earned – fairly or unfairly – in the years following her appearance here), is equally well-matched to her role.  More than just a love interest provided to add obligatory romance to the plot, Rachael turns out to be an important element in the film’s brooding meditation on the nature of sentience and humanity; revealed early on to be an advanced replicant herself, the attraction she shares with Deckard becomes central to the self-discovery that parallels his investigations, and much of what makes it believable comes from Young – ethereal yet grounded, distant yet warm, fragile yet confident, she provides a perfect complement to Ford’s energy and gives their pairing a resonance that reinforces its ultimate significance to the larger saga.  She deserves as much credit for the depth of her performance as she does for the stunning beauty she brings to the screen – particularly in her signature look, the forties high-fashion ensemble she wears in her early scenes, which has become emblematic of the film.

As Batty, the replicant ringleader bent on confronting the man who made him, Hauer – previously acclaimed in his native Netherlands – became an American movie star in his own right; his intelligence, intensity, and charisma burns from the screen, putting the audience on his character’s side from his first entrance despite the seemingly thoughtless brutality of his actions.  His climactic confrontation with Deckard, which ends in the sort of Messianic epiphany that might be a difficult sell for many actors, is electric – a powerfully moving star turn that gives “Blade Runner” its greatest weight and ensures its status as a work above the level of many more ambitious science fiction dramas than this one.

Another star-making performance comes from Hannah, whose portrayal of Pris – less advanced than her cohort Batty, but every bit as remarkable – conveys the perfect combination of little-girl-lost naïveté and subtly gleeful sadism, making her as appealing as she is lethal.  As the other two replicants on the lam, Brion James and Joanna Cassidy each have unforgettable scenes of their own.

William Sanderson is heartbreaking as the haplessly unwitting ally enlisted to aid and abet the fugitives in their quest for answers.  Joseph Turkel (as Eldon Tyrell, the powerful genius behind the creation of artificial humans) captures the aloof benevolence of the untouchable elite; a major player in two of the film’s key scenes, his performance makes them all the more memorable.

Though his role is a small one, Edward James Olmos also makes a deep impression as Gaff, the police lackey who serves as a watchdog for the chief (M. Emmett Walsh, also memorable, as always); speaking mostly in a hybrid street slang – derived from different Asian languages – and occupying his hands by making origami figures that provide mocking commentary of Deckard, his sinister presence exudes the hunger of a jackal waiting for its opportunity to pounce – yet he remains inscrutable enough for us to believe that he just might, in the end, turn out to be an unexpected ally.

Whether or not he does, of course, is one of the most enduring questions generated by “Blade Runner” – alongside the possibly related one of whether or not Deckard himself may unknowingly be a replicant.  The answers to those, and myriad others which arise within this unlikely jewel of eighties popular cinema, are ultimately left to the viewer.  This tantalizing ambiguity leaves us, like Batty and his cadre of artificial soul-seekers, with a powerful yearning that has proven strong enough to justify a sequel, 35 years later.

It’s also what has ultimately made Scott’s “interesting failure” an enduring legend that can stand alongside- and, in most cases, overshadow – many of the better-received films of its era.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Walking into the theater to see “Florence Foster Jenkins,” it’s a given that you are about to watch another tour-de-force by Meryl Streep.  I’ll waste no time in saying that she delivers on that expectation.  The story of a real-life society matron who realized her life-long dream of singing at Carnegie Hall despite a complete inability to carry a tune, this bio-pic is tailor-made for her talents; it can be no surprise that she gives arguably her most delightful performance in years.

What’s surprising is that nobody sharing the screen with her disappears behind her shadow.  On the contrary, her co-stars contribute just as much as she does to the movie’s overall charm, helping it to become much more than just a showcase for the talents of a beloved silver-screen diva.

To give full credit, it is necessary to recognize that this is not just a Meryl Streep vehicle, but the latest entry on the resumé of British filmmaker Stephen Frears, who first gained international recognition with his iconic 1985 gay romance, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” and who has helmed a number of prominent movies over the decades since- “Dangerous Liaisons,” “The Grifters,” “The Queen,” and “Philomena,” to name only a few.

No stranger to working with legendary talent, one of Frears’ great strengths as a director is his ability to enlist them in the service of his own sure-and-steady storytelling skills, allowing them to be actors instead of stars, and to enhance his work instead of dominating it.  It’s an approach geared towards the character-driven projects he prefers; his movies, though they often involve unorthodox situations or famous figures, are always ultimately about universally-shared human experience, and they benefit from the workmanlike performances though which he guides his players.
In this case, of course, the incomparable Meryl is front-and-center, as she should be.  Her Florence has all the hallmarks of a great Streep role.  She is a larger-than-life personality, almost cartoonish, but in Streep’s hands she is never anything less than completely, believably human.  She displays impeccable comedic abilities in one moment and slips seamlessly into heartbreaking pathos the next, without ever relying on clownish mugging or heavy-handed sentiment- and on top of it all, she does her own bad singing without sounding like she’s trying to sing badly.  In short, she gives the kind of performance that has put her in the echelon of such stars as Hepburn and Davis.

Even so, she is not the whole show.  The movie’s real surprise is certainly Hugh Grant.  Usually regarded more as a personality with a pretty face than as a high-caliber actor, he more than rises to the occasion here as Florence’s devoted (if not-quite-faithful) husband, who uses his connections in both the high and low strata of New York society to help her accomplish her improbable dream.  Carrying himself with the slightly-obsequious swagger of a ne’er-do-well cad, he undercuts that demeanor with a layered performance which never leaves you in doubt of his sincerity.  His aging-but-still-handsome features convey a depth of feeling which reveals “Florence Foster Jenkins” to be, at its core, a love story.

In the third key role, Simon Helberg (of “The Big Bang Theory”) portrays Florence’s reluctant accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, in a style which (in keeping with the film’s period setting) suggests the codified “sissy” characters of old Hollywood.  His homosexuality is never explicitly addressed, but the film derives some good-natured humor from his obvious orientation- which, rather than demeaning or marginalizing him, serves to place him, along with all such characters, in his rightful role as an integral part of society.  Queerness aside, Helberg gives us a marvelous serio-comic turn as a timid outsider who finds the strength of his own spirit through his dedication to his unlikely employer; he fully earns the right to share the screen with his two co-stars.

The rest of the cast, though their names and faces are less recognizable, are equally effective in portraying their roles.  In addition, the film benefits from breathtaking production design (by Alan MacDonald) and sumptuous costuming (by Consolata Boyle).  Finally, as is always the case for a strong film, the screenplay (by Nicholas Martin) is well-crafted, literate, and thoughtful, providing a strong foundation upon which the other artists can build their own great work.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is not a deep or ground-breaking piece of cinema.  It’s a refined crowd-pleaser, a serio-comic slice of life designed to touch and delight its audiences.  That’s not a bad thing.  In a summer filled with noisy blockbusters, it’s refreshing to be treated to a movie with such quiet class- particularly when it has as much talent on display as this one.  After all, when a Meryl Streep performance is just the icing on top, you know that has to be one delicious cake.

Anomalisa (2015)

ANOMALISA

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.

45 Years (2015)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride LA

Roughly midway through “45 Years,” there is a discussion about the buildup of melted glacial ice due to climate change, and how it will eventually break through the geography that contains it to come cascading down the mountainside and obliterate everything in its path.  It’s an ominous scenario which provides a vivid metaphor for the process of emotional devastation charted by out British writer/director Andrew Haigh in this, his latest slice-of-life drama about the complexities of a relationship.

Adapted from the short story “In Another Country,” by David Constantine, “45 Years” follows an aging couple, Kate and Geoff (screen legends Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), through the week before a party celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary.  As they go about the business of planning the event, Geoff receives a letter notifying him that a body has been found- that of his former girlfriend, who perished in a fall while they were hiking through the Alps together, 50 years ago.  Though Kate has known of this occurrence, the news triggers a resurgence of long-withheld memories in Geoff, and as they gradually come to light she begins to question everything she has assumed about her relationship with her husband, and to suspect that their long and seemingly happy marriage has been built upon a lie.

In a way, Haigh’s latest film serves as a companion piece to his previous feature, “Weekend,” Both are, at their core, about a relationship threatened by the emotional baggage of past experiences; in one, the ability of the couple to open up to each other allows them a hope of breaking through the boundaries between them, while in the other a lack of openness results in a gulf which may ultimately be impassable.  Though the former film features two young gay men at the possible beginning of their relationship, and the latter is about a mature heterosexual couple at the possible ending of theirs, they could essentially be bookends of the same story, each serving as a mirror in which we can find food for thought about the way we deal with our own baggage.

Once again,” Haigh’s screenplay relies heavily on naturalistic dialogue, allowing him to direct his actors towards emotional honesty and coax from them the nuanced performances required to reveal the layers between the lines.  It was this meticulously-crafted realism that brought acclaim to “Weekend,” and in “45 Years” it is perhaps even more tangible.  One reason for this, of course, is that here he is blessed with two of the most gifted film performers of their generation, both clearly still at the top of their form.

Courtenay, evoking memories of the young, passionate intellectuals he portrayed in the British social realism cinema of the early sixties, is superbly opaque as Geoff.  The qualities of those youthful characters are here transposed into an older iteration, so that the “angry young man” has evolved into a grumpy old one, and the aloof emotional distance now disguises itself behind the distracted dottiness of the aged; we never doubt the honesty of the feelings he expresses, but we are never sure how many others he obscures behind that benevolent mask, nor can we tell if he is hiding them even from himself.

As much as Courtenay is guarded, Rampling wears her heart on her sleeve.  With the likable but inscrutable Geoff as her husband, it is Kate’s perspective we must share, and the actress uses all her long-renowned intelligence and bravery to show it to us with absolute clarity.  Taking us on a downward progression, from the easy confidence of a woman in complete control to the insecurity of one uncertain of everything upon which she has built her life, it is up to her to provide the movie’s emotional center.  She is more than up to the task; her luminous performance is no less clear for its sublime subtlety than her beauty is diminished by the lines which grace her iconic face.

As great as both stars are individually, “45 Years” works because together they are incandescent.  The relationship they portray feels so heartbreakingly real that at times one almost forgets the film is not a documentary- and it is here that credit must come back around to Andrew Haigh, who has not only provided the collaborative freedom to cultivate the brilliance of his stars, but used a sure hand behind the camera to merge subdued realism with visual poetry in a way that asserts itself as pure cinema without ever being flagrant.  It is a rare movie that allows its major revelations to take place without a single line of dialogue to underscore the moment; “45 Years” is self-assured enough to do so, and Haigh is a strong enough director to pull it off.

Sing Street (2016)

SingStreet

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

Movie musicals are a rarity these days.  Every so often a Broadway blockbuster will find its way to the big screen, but an original musical, with a new script and songs, comes along about as often as a light traffic day on the 405.  The last one of any significance came nearly a decade ago in the form of Once, a bittersweet, tuneful romance from Irish writer-director John Carney that went on to be adapted into a Broadway show in its own right.  Now Carney has returned to the genre with a new effort, the semi-autobiographical Sing Street.

Set in Dublin of the mid-eighties, it focuses on Connor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), a teenager whose middle-class family has fallen on hard times.  No longer able to afford his private education, they send him to a public boys’ school where discipline is strict, teachers are indifferent, and bullies rule the schoolyard.  It’s a bleak environment, but he finds a ray of light in the form of  Ruphina (Lucy Boynton), an aloof girl who frequently stands on a stoop across the street.  To impress her, he tells her he is in a rock band; her interest is piqued, and Connor starts recruiting schoolmates to make the lie a reality.  What starts as an attempt to get a girlfriend soon develops into a journey of self-discovery- and, just maybe, a way out of the dead-end life for which he seems destined.

Sing Street, on the surface, seems like an implausible mix.  Carney, evoking the gritty social realism that British cinema has been mastering since the “kitchen sink” dramas of the early sixties, places his story in an economically depressed urban landscape and populates it with characters who have more or less given up hope of anything better, yet he uses this grim setting as the backdrop for an escapist flight of rock-and-roll fancy which seems straight out of the Hollywood dream factory.  It shouldn’t work- but it does.

It’s just this odd juxtaposition of moods, in fact, that gives his film its magic.  Carney tempers the desperation with humor and grounds the giddiness with melancholy.  He treats his characters with compassion- even when they serve as antagonists to our hero- and never allows the fantasy to lose its connection to the underlying reality.  As for the romance (deftly played by the two young co-stars), instead of adolescent wish-fulfillment we are reminded, to paraphrase a line from the film, that to be in love is to be happy and sad at the same time.  It’s this delicate balance of “happy/sad” that permeates Sing Street, and serves as the lynch pin that helps it maintain its own delicate balance, right up to the sublimely satisfying ending.

The cast -mostly comprised of unknowns- brings an infectious energy to the mix, performing with the kind of authenticity that makes you forget they are acting.  Although the charismatic Walsh-Peelo definitely deserves singular praise for largely carrying the movie, he is equally matched by the lovely Boyle, and all of their young co-stars perform at the same level.  Special mention should also go to Jack Reynor as Brendan, Connor’s older brother and unlikely mentor; he gives a heartbreakingly endearing performance which, in many ways, provides the emotional center of the movie.

Finally, there’s the music.  Composed by Carney (with Gary Clarke and Adam Levine), a series of period-flavored songs brilliantly charts each new development in the fictional band’s style (as they progress though various phases of eighties pop), as well as Connor’s growing maturity.  They work as integral parts of the story, but they also stand on their own merits- catchy, heartfelt, and imaginative, they make the band’s onscreen success all the more believable.  These original tunes are the heart and soul of Sing Street, but a number of familiar eighties hits are sprinkled throughout as well, just for good measure.

It’s worth noting that the generation which lived through the era depicted will find that Carney’s film strikes a particularly resonant chord.  The clothes, the hairstyles, the videos- all are skillfully and lovingly recreated here, and it gives the movie a decidedly nostalgic flavor.  That doesn’t mean it won’t also feel fresh enough for younger audiences.  Ultimately, what makes Sing Street so appealing is that, at its core, it’s about the promise of the future- no matter how hopeless the present may seem.  That’s certainly a message that has a place in the world today, and it might just make even the most cynical of movie-goers walk out of the theater with a little more lightness in their step.

The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy 1932 (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Mummy, Karl Freund’s 1932 horror classic about an ancient Egyptian priest, returned to life by the power of a sacred spell after his tomb is discovered by archaeologists, and his efforts to reunite with the reincarnated soul of the woman he loved thousands of years before. One of the three iconic monster movies- with Dracula and Frankenstein– made by genre-champion Universal Studios during its golden age of the early thirties- it was the only one not derived from a pre-existing literary source, instead being developed in a deliberate effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Egyptology and the sensationalistic popularity of the “Curse of King Tut,” of which rumors had been circulating since the discovery of the young Pharaoh’s tomb, ten years before, and the seemingly mysterious deaths of several of those who participated in its excavation. It was also intended to capitalize on the newfound stardom of Boris Karloff, who had been a virtual unknown barely a year before, but thanks to his success as the monster in Frankenstein was now so popular that he could be billed in the movie’s ads by his surname alone (“KARLOFF is THE MUMMY“) and still guarantee the film’s status as a box office hit.

Charged by Universal studio chief Carl Laemmle, Jr. with the task of finding a suitable story for an Egypt-themed thriller, story editor Richard Shayer came up empty-handed; drawing inspiration from the real-life history of Alessandro di Cagliostro, an 18th-Century occultist and charlatan who claimed- among other things- to have used arcane mystical practices to prolong his life for centuries, he teamed with writer Nina Wilcox Putnam to write a story treatment entitled Cagliostro. Laemmle was pleased with the essence of their narrative, but still determined to make his Egyptian picture, he brought in Dracula and Frankenstein screenwriter John L. Balderston to transform the idea into a script that suited his needs. The Italian magician became an Ancient Egyptian priest, and the rest of the details fell into place. The movie begins in 1921, at the base camp for the British Museum’s archaeological expedition in Egypt. Renowned Egyptologist Sir Joseph Whemple and his young assistant, Ralph Norton, have discovered the 3000-year-old Mummy of a High Priest named Imhotep, buried in an unmarked tomb with a mysterious box inscribed with a curse which promises destruction to any who open it. Whemple has called in his old friend, psychiatrist and occult expert Dr. Muller, as a consultant; the doctor recommends that both mummy and box be returned to the earth and forgotten, but while the older men debate the issue outside, the younger Norton cannot contain his curiosity, and he opens the box. There, he finds an ancient scroll, and as he begins to read out the hieroglyphs it contains, the mummy of Imhotep awakens. The sight of the ancient corpse come to life drives the young archaeologist instantly mad, and the mummy leaves him crumpled on the floor, hysterical, as it takes the scroll and wanders slowly out into the desert night. Ten years later, the disappearance of these artifacts is still a mystery, and a new British expedition, in which Whemple’s son Frank (who has followed in his father’s footsteps) is involved, is having scant luck finding anything of note in their digging- until Ardath Bey, an Egyptian scholar with an odd, aloof manner, arrives unexpectedly and leads them to the undiscovered tomb of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon. The British soon have the Princess and her relics on display at the Cairo Museum, reaping the scientific rewards of their find- but the mysterious Bey has his own purposes. He is, in fact, Imhotep himself, and he has spent the decade since his resurrection planning to use the stolen scroll to restore life to the Princess- his former love- so that they may at last be reunited. Using spells and incantations in the museum after hours, he summons the reincarnated soul of Anck-es-en-Amon- now inhabiting the body of young, beautiful Helen Grosvenor (coincidentally, a patient of Dr. Muller’s)- to come to his side. Muller, however, immediately surmises the truth behind the girl’s strange attraction to Bey, and with the help of young Frank Whemple, attempts to thwart the ancient priest’s dark purpose by taking her under his protection. Imhotep’s mastery of the scroll, however, makes him a powerful adversary, and with it he exerts his will to break down the mortals’ defenses, despite Muller’s vast knowledge and understanding of these archaic forces- and despite the love that is blossoming between Frank Whemple and the object of his millennia-old obsession.

I’ve said it before in relation to other horror films from this classic era, and perhaps it seems an obvious point hardly worth mentioning at all, but for today’s audiences- conditioned as we are to the oceans of gore and unspeakable violence that permeates the genre and so familiar with its standard conventions of plot and character that they have achieved for us the level of cliché- The Mummy offers little in the way of genuine thrills or chills. The script is laden with clunky exposition, the necessary conditions of the plot are unconvincingly established and accepted by rote, and the most directly terrifying moments are portrayed either by sound effects or reaction shots as they take place offscreen. Its plot is formulaic, borrowing more than a little from Dracula– unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering that this film is a product of the same studio, written by the same screenwriter, and directed by the previous movie’s cinematographer- with its scenario of an ancient horror using arcane powers to lure a young and vital female to the doom of an unholy union. Even so, The Mummy can scarcely be dismissed as an irrelevant or inferior work; indeed, dated though it may seem to the casual viewer today, it was and continues to be a vastly influential film, helping to define the genre at least as much as the others in the Universal canon and casting its dusty shadow over every archaeological fantasy film to follow, right on down to Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies and beyond. It is every bit the equal of Frankenstein and Dracula in terms of artistry and surpasses them in technical prowess, setting new standards in makeup and special effects. More importantly, in terms of lasting effect, its then-novel conceit of a resuscitated mummy has become an iconic pop culture trope, joining the ranks of such legendary monsters- with lengthier pedigrees- as vampires and werewolves as inspiration for imaginative tales and Halloween costumes the world over.This last item will no doubt be the source of most interest for the casual modern movie viewer, a chance to see the original incarnation of a much-loved and imitated celluloid spook that has terrorized everyone from Abbot and Costello to Scooby-Doo and his gang. Painstakingly executed by make-up pioneer Jack Pierce (who also crafted Karloff’s frightening countenance for his star-making role in Frankenstein), the mummified Imhotep was created in an excruciating 8-hour process involving clay, cotton, spirit gum, and linen. Karloff went before the cameras for another 5 hours, and then spent 2 hours having the make-up removed; the actor- who famously complained to Pierce that in all his attention to intricate detail, he had nevertheless forgotten to include a fly- later called it the most “trying ordeal” of his life. He had only to endure it once, however; Imhotep is seen in his fully-wrapped mummy regalia for only few minutes, during the opening sequence in which he is studied and inadvertently revived, and the character spends the rest of the film in the simpler- but no less effective- make-up required to give him the desiccated, shriveled look one might expect from a man who has spent three millennia beneath the desert sands. This brief appearance may disappoint those hoping for a whole movie’s worth of moaning, shambling, bandage-wrapped menace- a device not introduced until several years later, when the studio re-introduced the character for a series of inferior, unrelated pseudo-sequels- but it offers a classic look for this particular ghoul that has never been supplanted or surpassed, and it was enough to electrify audiences in 1932; indeed, the chilling moment when Karloff slowly opens his eyes for the first time remains one of the most singularly ominous few seconds in the history of the horror genre.

It is Karloff’s performance, too, that gives The Mummy its classic stature, for without his elegant presence in the title role the film would be little more than a stylish-but-hollow melodrama; though his character is less directly menacing than Dracula and less brutal than the creature of Frankenstein, Karloff nevertheless infuses him with a palpably terrifying power, exuding the absolute confidence of invincibility with every underplayed line. Always a master of physical performance, his brittle, slow and deliberate movement gives us not only a sense of Imhotep’s antiquity, but emphasizes a soft and careful gentility that contrasts the destructive intent that hides beneath his staid persona. It’s a difficult task to convincingly portray the ability to enslave and destroy with the power of a mere thought, but Karloff does so. More crucial than that, however, is his gift for revealing the tender soul that dwells inside the monster; though he makes clear the treacherous nature of Imhotep, and leaves no doubt of his callous disregard for the suffering of mere mortals, so too does he show, with utmost sincerity and simplicity, the deep and desperate pangs of love that have driven him across centuries and motivated him to defy the gods themselves in order to recapture the woman he has lost. Karloff gives us a villain who is, at his most private core, an almost touchingly naive romantic- something to which we can all relate, at some level- and therefore one we can feel sorry for, particularly in light of the vaguely smug sense of anglo-centricism, a product of the less-culturally-sensitive era in which the film was produced, projected by the protagonists. It’s a masterful performance, and one that takes its place alongside the other classic characterizations that made this gifted actor into a screen legend well-known and respected even today, when so many of his fellows from the early days of cinema have long faded into obscurity.

Sharing the screen with Karloff are a handful of other capable performers of the time, an A-list selection of actors who help, in their own ways, to make The Mummy stand the test of time. Most notable, of course, is Edward Van Sloan, the horror stalwart who here completes his triumvirate of monster-fighters (having previously portrayed the title character’s mentor in Frankenstein and the intrepid vampire-hunter, Van Helsing, in Dracula) as Dr. Muller; wise, intense, and steely at the core, he cements his own legend with a solid and believable performance that may not be as showy or compelling as those offered by some who have followed his footsteps in similar roles, but nonetheless sets the standard for this indispensable archetype of the genre. The most memorable supporting player, however, is perhaps Bramwell Fletcher, as the unfortunate and overly-enthusiastic archaeologists’ assistant who unwittingly speaks the words which return Imhotep to the world of the living; as the central figure in the film’s most famous sequence, he is burned into popular consciousness by virtue of the chilling, hysterical laughter into which he descends as the sight of the reanimated relic turns his mind to permanent jelly.

Much of the authenticity of the film’s conceit, though, hinges on the performance of Zita Johann, the exotic and beautiful actress with the difficult task of portraying Helen, a young woman rooted simultaneously in both the modern and the ancient world; she exudes warmth and intelligence even as she is convincingly mesmerized by her ancient lover’s mystical powers. and she successfully conveys both the sophisticated candor of a contemporary woman and the haughty formality of an Ancient Egyptian princess. She was no doubt aided with the latter by a deeply-held personal belief in reincarnation; indeed, she protested vehemently when a lengthy flashback sequence, portraying her character’s journey through the centuries in a series of lives during different historical periods, was cut from the film in an effort to reduce its running time- though sadly, her efforts to have the scenes reinstated were unsuccessful and the footage has been long-since lost. Even so, her contribution to The Mummy is a performance worthy of being matched with the great Karloff, from an actress whose screen career- abandoned after only five films for a life in the theater, working with then-husband John Houseman and his cohort Orson Welles- was all too brief.

The third corner of the movie’s bizarre love triangle is David Manners, a popular and respected stage-actor-turned-movie-star who had played essentially the same role in Dracula, a year earlier; while the character is not particularly compelling and is mostly required to perform the obligatory acts of passionate (if ineffectual) heroism inherent to the film’s formula, this handsome, likable actor gives him much more personality than many of the others who have played his equivalent in countless creature features. Manners, though primarily known for his twin roles in these iconic horror films, also appeared with Katharine Hepburn in her screen debut (A Bill of Divorcement) as well as several other important leading ladies of the time; he was a star in the making, well-liked by colleagues who spoke very highly of his professionalism and supportive attitude- but, like his female co-star in The Mummy, he retired young from Hollywood, saying it was “a false place.” He moved to a ranch in Victorville, California with his life partner, writer Bill Mercer, and returned to a successful stage career; at one point in the 1940s, he worked in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Cafe with fledgling actor Marlon Brando, who later said he owed Manners his “entire career.”

The fine cast and artful production values of The Mummy were supervised by director Karl Freund; a legendary cinematographer from Germany, where he had photographed such visually stunning masterworks as The Last Laugh and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, he had emigrated to Hollywood a few years earlier. Hired to lens Dracula, he had been left in charge of many of the scenes in that film due to director Tod Browning’s frequent absences from the set; consequently, Universal officially gave him the job of directing this follow-up. It proved a wise choice, for Freund approaches the story with a photographer’s eye; wisely recognizing the weakness of the narrative, he relies on mood and atmosphere to carry his film, using an elegant visual style- replete with exotic locales, majestic sets, sumptuous costumes, and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography (executed by Charles Stumar, no doubt under close supervision from Freund himself)- to give us imagery that transcends the plot and transports and unsettles our imagination almost independently of the script. Freund would go on to direct a handful of other films, and photograph many others, but his greatest success would come much later in his career, when he was hired by Desi Arnaz to supervise the photography on the series I Love Lucy; he developed a use of lighting that would allow multiple cameras to shoot the same scene simultaneously, eliminating the need for cutting the action to change angles and thereby allowing for an uninterrupted performance to be filmed in front of a live audience. It was a ground-breaking technique that changed the future of television sitcoms forever, and Freund received much well-deserved acclaim and respect for it, giving him a sizable feather in the cap of an already-illustrious career.

It would be overstating the case to say that The Mummy is a great film, in the sense of other early talkies such as The Public Enemy or All Quiet on the Western Front; it was, and remains, a piece of glossy pulp cinema, a sensationalistic crowd-pleaser aimed primarily at providing scares and making money. It did both in 1932, making it a successful film, whether or not it was a great one. Just because it is, essentially, schlock entertainment, however, doesn’t mean it is not also a fine example of the filmmaking art as it was at the time; indeed, the primal, timeless nature of its subject matter- and even its relatively lowbrow intent- means that it is more easily accessible to modern audiences, playing better today than many of the more prestigious “art” pictures of its day. If nothing else, it’s a treat to look at, but more than that, there is something intangibly resonant about it; perhaps it is its theme of undying love opposed by the inexorable march of time and the irresistible winds of fate, or its evocation of ancient memories buried deep within our psyches through its exploration of reincarnation and arcane magic, but The Mummy, creaky and corny as it may be to our modern sensibilities, still has the power to move us. There are lots of good reasons why this golden-age potboiler remains a classic, worthy of watching for those who have never seen it and of repeated returns for those who have; but the best of these reasons, and the one which makes The Mummy a truly essential piece of cinema, is Boris Karloff. The man had a rare ability to find the monster within us all, and show it to us with the dignity, honesty, and pathos it deserves; he did so many times- and did it well- throughout his long career, even in films far inferior to this and his other early classics. To see him here is to understand why, so many generations later, and despite his association with depraved, monstrous characters, he is still one of those rare actors who can genuinely be called “beloved.”

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