It’s a hard world for little things, in Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” (1955)

The Night of the Hunter is a perennial source of fascination for cinéastes, both as a singular oddity in Hollywood history but also as a masterpiece in the truest sense: not only is it the best of what it is, it’s the only.

“Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves”

The Gospel of Matthew

It’s difficult to divorce any analysis of the film itself from its remarkable trajectory from rejection to acclaim. Watching it for the first time is one of those shocking, startling moviegoing experiences that makes one want more, more from whomever made this — by the way, who did made this, again? And then when one finds out its director only made one film, this one… impossible! How could this have come out of nowhere? How can there not be more? What could have possibly happened?

Noted actor and stage director Charles Laughton sadly did not live to see his only film as director receive its complete reappraisal and entry into the canon. Luckily for history, he saved his sketches, memos, and critically, hours of rushes. Nearly five decades later, film archivist Robert Gitt assembled these materials into the feature-length documentary Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter(available on the 2010 Criterion Collection edition). No mere making-of, compilation of deleted scenes, or blooper reel; but rather a fascinating dive into the process that led to a masterpiece.

Charles Laughton The Night of the Hunter
Charles Laughton directs The Night of the Hunter

The two-and-a-half-hour treasure trove is perhaps a bit much for the casual fan to absorb, but it’s full of revelatory moments both extraordinary and mundane. In the latter category, it’s bemusing to watch Laughton struggle to coax a performance out of the very young Sally Jane Bruce, who was perhaps better suited to a Shirley Temple-like cutesy comedy. He seems to have also struggled to communicate with Shelly Winters (who, incidentally, between this and Lolita (1962), seems typecast as the doomed, sexually frustrated widow who makes poor choices when it comes to second husbands). Robert Mitchum delivered a remarkably un-vain performance, creating one of cinema’s most terrifying monsters in the sociopathic Reverend Powell. The documentary reveals that Mitchum essentially arrived with the character fully-formed, and Laughton didn’t have to give him much direction. But the film also pierces this bubble slightly: it’s disconcerting to see him josh around after missing a cue (“I would if I could remember my line”).

The Night of the Hunter is so gorgeously designed, lit, shot, and edited that it’s tempting to suspect that perhaps Laughton was great with actors but maybe less of a singular cinema auteur. History lionizes the fabled total control of the likes of Hitchcock and Welles, but Laughton’s single film tempts the suspicion that his collaborators were the true authors. It is true that novelist Davis Grubb provided concept art, but this documentary makes clear Laughton brought the full power of his theatrical staging talent to the Expressionist-inspired visual design of the film. But he did not merely draw upon the past, for his film is ahead of its time in its employ of bold jump cuts and striking aerial shots. He also modestly declined a deserved co-writer credit, and even acted offscreen throughout.

Shelly Winters in The Night of the Hunter
Like something out of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, even The Night of the Hunter’s crime scenes are beautiful

This exhaustive examination can illuminate the remarkable making of a classic, but the finished film itself retains its aura as something special, mysteriously powerful, and certainly more than the sum of the ephemera that Laughton left behind. Like its unforgettable antagonist, The Night of the Hunter is dark, pitiless, and gruesome. The initial list of ingredients is very film noir, with shoot-first cops and desperate robbers, escaped convicts and gullible widows, and a classic macguffin in the form of literal buried treasure. But the bulk of the action quickly veers into territory uncommon for noirs: a condemnation of insincere evangelical mania, and a surreal journey into hell by two homeless orphans pursued by a primal archetype, all while slowly starving to death.

The Night of the Hunter
The visual design of The Night of the Hunter drew from German Expressionism

In that respect The Night of the Hunter portends the similarly harrowing Grave of the Fireflies (1988). It does, however, pull back from the brink of pure nihilism with its concluding paean to the resilience of children to abide and endure, while allowing for a hint of lasting trauma in the famous line “It’s a hard world for little things”, and in a heartbreakingly sincere exchange of gifts.

In our #metoo era in which we are more conscious than ever of male abuse and gaslighting, including reexamining classic Hollywood film plots. The Night of the Hunter holds up well in our present, and it’s hugely empowering to see Lillian Gish as a formidable woman that isn’t fooled for one moment by the villain. She is the perfect archetypal mother figure, protector and nurturer of children, to counter and negate the masculine monster. She confronts him with the most emblematically male, violent, and dare I say phallic of movie props: a gun, but defeats him in the most emasculating way of all, by revealing him as pitiful.

Netflix’s Triple Frontier is aggro, macho horseshit

Triple Frontier

J.C. Chandor’s Triple Frontier, Netflix’s latest high-profile exclusive, aspires to be a serious Expendables. It draws surface-level inspiration from the likes of Heat and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but forgets that you need more than square jaws and gun porn.

There’s some dramatic potential in the premise of a heist orchestrated by veterans left behind by their country, fancying themselves a band of Robin Hoods robbing from criminals. Certainly none of them are Merry Men, and it fails to seriously grapple with what should have been interestingly conflicting motivations: moral duty vs. financial need vs. greed vs. vengeance. It instead becomes yet another macho gun movie where grim white dudes growl at each other and shoot Central Americans in the head for two hours.

Aggro, macho horseshit.

Brad Bird’s The Incredibles 2 traps superheroes in motels and courtrooms

The Incredibles 2 sure went down easy when I saw it in a theater a few months ago, but it suffers on rewatch on the small screen. And needless to say, it was shortly rendered wholly obsolete by the best animated superhero movie of all time, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

While the real (and best) story is of course the Parr family’s shifting dynamic and gender roles, the surface plot doesn’t hold together. For an animated family movie about a superpowered quintet, the stakes are weirdly low, and perhaps a little too abstract for little kids to grasp. The surest giveaway that its target audience skewed slightly older than Disney/Pixar’s wheelhouse is the subplots granted to the adult parents and teenage daughter, but no material for Dash, whom I would think little kids would most identify.

Instead, most of the narrative conflict revolves around some vague business about superheroes being outlawed, which seems inconsequential when the Parr family is nevertheless allowed to operate as a black ops team under government supervision. Public sentiment never turns against them, so there’s nobody to convince that superheroes are pretty great, actually. This plot point is likely a kid-friendly response to the story arc of the Marvel superhero movies (particularly Captain America: Civil War), but how many little kids worried about Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack’s legal status?

Rather than draw from contemporary Marvel movies for inspiration, I wish Brad Bird had instead cribbed from 1960s Marvel print comics. Forget the government or law, and instead borrow from Spider-Man the idea of a hero working for the common good even when the public distrusts him, or crib from the Fantastic Four a more cosmic setting. An adventure on an alien planet or in another dimension would be more fun than courtrooms and motels, while still allowing for the movie’s real themes: Elastigirl coming into her own, and Mr. Incredible learning to share in the nurturing and caregiving of their kids.

But of course, you can always rely on Pixar’s fine craft even when they are not at their best. The visual design and animation is superb, and the voice casting is perfection. Holly Hunter, Craig Nelson, Jonathan Banks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sarah Vowell all fully own their characters. I just wish all of this had been in the service of a movie that would stand for generations, like the best of Disney and Pixar’s works.

Geneviève Bujold fights the medical patriarchy in Michael Crichton’s Coma

Coma movie poster

A thriller set among medical professionals, with just enough scientific accuracy to temper its science fiction, and a craven corporation perverting science for profit? If only Michael Crichton’s Coma had been set in an amusement park, it would have been the most Michael Crichton movie ever.

More than just a dry run for his hit TV series ER, it’s also strikingly feminist — in some ways more than a similar thriller would be today. Not for nothing does an inciting incident involve an abortion subplot. Even Crichton’s own Westworld (1973) barely included any female characters at all.

Geneviève Bujold plays an accomplished female surgeon who discovers and exposes a criminal conspiracy. She is unable to break through the dismissive armor of the establishment bureaucracy, or even her mansplaining boyfriend (Michael Douglas) — an interesting character in that he is not so much an antagonist but an obstacle to her aims.

She is left to battle alone against an entrenched medical patriarchy that stymies her with variations of “don’t rock the boat”, “you’re being hysterical”, and “take a valium”. Even a sequence in which she removes her stockings is no sexy striptease, but rather a symbolic shedding of constraints in her pursuit of the truth.

Noomi Rapace shoots ’em up in the Netflix exclusive Close

Noomi Rapace was seemingly set for big things after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films, but was shortly thereafter cruelly written out of her starring role in Ridley Scott’s Alien prequels. I can only imagine how it must hurt for an actor to “appear” in a sequel only as a corpse, as she did in Alien: Covenant. Add to that the additional betrayal of the franchise’s thematic dependence on female protagonists, replacing the iconic Ripley and Shaw with Michael Fasbender’s mopey and boring male-presenting robots.

She’s since been racking up quite the filmography with Netflix exclusive movies. She was especially great in seven different roles in What Happened to Monday, but she was also unfortunately in the inexplicably awful Bright (which was pretty racist for a movie that was supposed to be about racism). Considering her action prowess, I wonder if she was considered for the Tomb Raider reboot that went to Alicia Vikander? Anyway, rooting for you, Noomi.

But Vicky Jewson’s Close doesn’t seem to be the way forward. For starters, how do you pronounce it? Since I watched this in the Netflix app, I actually forgot what it was called, and more than once mistook “Close” for a call-to-action to close the Netflix app.

Since the action thriller genre depends more on tight plotting than anything else, Close is oddly structured and non-dramatic. A good chunk of the story is spent escaping a dangerous place, only for the characters to later decide to return, which is so easy that they literally just drive up to it. A key plot twist is fleetingly communicated through shouted dialogue during a shootout, denying what should have been the most significant realization (spoiler: Indira Varma’s villain was not really the villain, and instead just some generic evil corporation that barely mentioned prior). Two sequences are set in a luxe fortress-like safehouse in exotic Morocco, but the space is not taken advantage of in the way that, say, David Fincher mapped out the claustrophobic space of Panic Room.

Liam Neeson has a rough ride in The Commuter

The Commuter

I’m still laughing about the running joke of the Metro North running up the 4/5/6 line in Manhattan. Best comedy of 2018! If you find yourself on the Metro North Hudson Line, Make a quick stop in Beacon for a burger at Meyer’s Old Dutch Food & Such, honestly one of the best I’ve ever had.

Speaking of New York City verisimilitude, most Columbia students dress like J. Crew or Banana Republic catalogs. Gwen clearly goes to NYU, and Mike should have been instantly suspicious.

Between this and Source Code, has Vera Farmiga been typecast as Manipulative Conspiracy Lady on a Train?

I play a little guitar, and it might take me a moment to realize I’m looking at a left-handed guitar (it would be like looking in a mirror). Wouldn’t it have made more narrative sense for Mike to realize its purported owner is left-handed, but has a “normal” guitar? Nah, because plenty of lefties play right-handed, not the least being Jimi Hendrix. Never mind, it’s not worth worrying about this plot point, because it’s all worth it for setting up a pretty great fight scene.

Kinda dumb, but directed, shot, and edited with real visual flair. Exactly what I needed on a Friday night. The fragmented, time-hopping opening sequence deserves extra credit for overachieving within the genre.

Nicolas Cage descends into hell in Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy

Mandy movie poster

Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is what you would get if you crossed Straw Dogs with Hellraiser, co-directed by Tarkovsky & Jodorowsky. Do you think Clive Barker saw this and said “hey, that’s my thing”?

It’s also the rare movie where Nicolas Cage’s customarily crazed mania is juuuuuust right for the material. Whereas his… performative performance (shall we say) was hilariously incongruous for Neil LaBute’s 2006 Wicker Man remake, here he is uniquely perfect for the part of a haunted recluse who loses his hard-won love and descends deeper and deeper into a phantasmagoric hell to enact his vengeance.

Thought experiment: at which point in the plot was calling 911 no longer a viable option? Don’t do drugs, kids.

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome fracks it up

Battlestar Galactica: Blood & Chrome

“You get an E for effort and an F for fracking it up”.

That just about sums it up. I was a big fan of the mid-2000s Battlestar Galactica reboot and its sister series Caprica, but had somehow overlooked this pilot for a second prequel spinoff. Belatedly seeing it now, the plot seems too slight and insubstantial to possibly set the stage for an ongoing series.

Not only were BSG and Caprica thematically complex (grappling with war, terror, fanaticism, politics, ethics, artificial intelligence, etc.), it was also blessed with a knockout cast (especially the volcanic Edward James Olmos), but everyone in Blood & Chrome is as flat and affectless as the greenscreen virtual sets and digital lens flare.

Worse, Blood & Chrome is near-devoid of the big ideas that drove Caprica, which was probably too smart for its own good. The pop culture hill I will die on: Caprica was a smarter show than the similarly-themed Westworld will ever be. Discuss.

The genesis of Genesis in the documentary Together and Apart

This feature-length BBC documentary on the band Genesis comes with more asterisks than a typical rockumentary. First is the lack of occasion — there being no significant milestone in 2014, unless the band’s 47th-ish anniversary means something to somebody. Only further confusing things, the doc was released in different regions as “Together and Apart” or “Sum of the Parts”, accompanied by the hits compilation “R-Kive”, a trifecta of inexplicably terrible names.

Unlike previous reunion projects in 1983 (a one-off live performance), 1998-99 (a Behind the Music documentary and re-recordings of “The Carpet Crawlers” and “It”), and 2007-08 (individual interviews for a complete catalogue reissue), the only new material on offer here is a new on-camera simultaneous interview with core members Tony Banks, Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, and Mike Rutherford.

Genesis 1974
The classic Genesis quintet lineup circa 1974: Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett, and Phil Collins

The other main selling point is a smattering of rare or apparently unseen live footage, including at least one new to me: a tantalizing glimpse of the very young band live at The Atomic Sunrise Festival, at the groovy London venue The Roundhouse in 1970, where they shared a bill with David Bowie. Much of the rest the live footage will probably be familiar to any fan with access to YouTube. Looking back at all this vintage footage now, how much do you think Collins wishes he could have told his younger self to sit up straight while playing, considering his later back and nerve damage?

The only footage released so far from The Atomic Sunrise Festival, at London’s Roundhouse in 1970, featuring Genesis, David Bowie, and others

Compared to many of their infamously dysfunctional peers, Genesis has a relatively boring back story, with no salacious deaths, lawsuits, or arrests to whip up an exciting narrative. Well, with the exception of — trigger warning — self-aggrandizing original manager (and convicted sex offender) Jonathan King, granted a minute or two here to inflate his role in the band’s first recordings.

The story of a few driven young men who form a band, work hard, succeed, then retire, isn’t in and of itself very thrilling. This documentary plays up the drama by emphasizing the comings and goings of members as more earth-shattering than even they themselves seem to think. That said, the new group interview does reveal some lingering bad vibes and resentment. Banks speaks with warmth towards original guitarist Anthony Phillips, but still reacts with real negativity to the topic of Gabriel and Hackett attempting to assert themselves within Genesis in the mid-70s. In Banks’ defense, it must have been difficult to accept his school friend Gabriel simultaneously seizing the creative reins while also retreating into family life around the time of the ambitious The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway album and tour.

But Banks’ attitude towards Hackett seems out of proportion to the situation. Long story short, it seems Hackett had been writing a lot of music that the band vetoed, so he used it on a solo album. Shortly thereafter, when the other members didn’t have enough material to shape into a new Genesis album, they were pissed that he didn’t have anything. From the outside perspective of a fan, it sounds to me like Hackett was wronged. Especially so, as he is the one currently carrying the torch for classic Genesis material while still creating new music on his own.

Banks also snipes at Collins’ ubiquity in the mid-80s, but in this case he does seem to be joking (to paraphrase, he laughingly says something like “he was our friend and we wanted him to succeed, but not too much”). Gabriel seems the most diplomatic and positive, and the most relaxed and jocular during the group interview. Perhaps for him this is all ancient history after his rich and varied solo career, whereas Genesis was more of a lifelong investment for the others.

Genesis 2014
Genesis reconvened in 2014 for the documentary Together and Apart (aka Sum of the Parts): Phil Collins, Steve Hackett, Tony Banks, Mike Rutherford, and Peter Gabriel

As a longtime fan, I have certain strongly held opinions that don’t seem to completely align with fan consensus or the bands’ own self-estimation. Genesis is long-misunderstood and due for a reevaluation, but I’m not sure this was the right documentary at the right time. It pushes Hackett to the edges (sometimes literally cropping him out of frame), and leaves other significant members like Ray Wilson totally unmentioned. I also think it does a disservice by not placing the band in context; some influences are mentioned (particularly Gabriel’s love of Otis Redding and Collins’ appreciation of Grandmaster Flash), but it would have helped illustrate Genesis’ significance by showing how they fused the nascent progressive rock movement (I suspect The Moody Blues and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King loomed large in their minds when working on the Trespass album) with a real pop sensibility. Their aptitude for concise hit singles in the 80s is treated as an unexpected metamorphosis, when to my ears it’s the natural culmination of everything they were building towards since their earliest 1967 pop songs.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Mr. Rogers consoles the country in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

It’s a sad state of affairs when a documentary about one of the most simply good people to have ever lived must dedicate screentime to Trump, Brexit, and Fox News, but such is the world that conservatives have made. Even if no mention had been made of current affairs, Won’t You Be My Neighbor would have been a political statement. Much is said of Fred Rogers’ values as a Christian and lifelong Republican, but how many of today’s Christians and Republicans would recognize him?

Rogers’ famous message in times of crisis was to “look for the helpers”, but as noted by Jason Kottke and Ian Bogost (https://kottke.org/18/10/mister-rogers-look-for-the-helpers-was-not-meant-for-adults), this was intended to console children. After 9/11, he also had a call to action for adults: our duty is to be tikkun olam, “repairers of creation”.

%d bloggers like this: