Saturday, 29 September 2012


Wayne White is the definition of COOL. This movie is about him. See it!
Beauty is Embarrassing
(2012) ****

dir. Neil Berkeley

Wayne White,
Mimi Ponds,
Paul Reubens,
Mark Mothersbaugh,
Matt Groening

Review By
Greg Klymkiw

David O. Selznick, the greatest film producer of all time, crafted a huge body of tremendous work, but he always feared that after his death, he'd only be remembered as the man who produced Gone With The Wind. (Not really too bad a deal, Mr. Selznick.)

In any event, it seems to me that the contemporary American artist Wayne White might have shared a similarly obsessive career lamentation. You see, in spite of all his achievements as an artist, would his epitaph, in Selznick-like fashion ultimately emphasize that he was one of the primary creators and designers of Pee Wee's Playhouse and most notably, for me anyway, that he was the brainchild of my favourite Playhouse character, "Randy the Bully"?

Well, for my money, I watched Pee Wee's Playhouse every Saturday morning for several years as an adult (albeit as a purported grown-up with a major case of arrested development) and if this had been Wayne White's sole contribution to humanity, I'd have been delighted to doff my cap to him with a hearty, "Great job, champion fellow!"

Thankfully, a wonderful new movie now exists that dives headlong into the myriad of artworks White has created and continues to create. In Beauty is Embarrassing, we are exposed to this mad genius in all his glory - or rather, glories. Like some perverse cross-pollinated spawn of Georges Melies, Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, Don Rickles, Henry Rollins, Spalding Gray, depression-era Ashkenazy junk collectors on the streets of Montreal (a la Ted Allan's "Lies My Father Told Me"), Guy Maddin ('natch), Drew Friedman and, lest we forget, that talented young banjo-picker in Deliverance, Wayne White has created an astounding body of work that is uniquely personal and provides an indelible portrait of an America laced with satire, laugh-out-loud funny humour and pure, unadulterated passion and imagination.

It's astounding to think that in the same year, Berkeley's portrait of White is unleashed upon the world along with the phenomenal Norwegian Pushwagner by August B. Hanssen and Even Benestadso - two films that are so geographically and culturally apart and yet, successfully deliver experiences that have the same goal - to joyously and delightfully celebrate art. Beauty is Embarrassing is one of the most entertaining and inspirational documentary portraits of an artist's process I've ever seen. So is Pushwagner. At some point, a double bill of these extraordinary works seems to be in order. This I assure you would deliver a cinematic fine art wet dream of staggering proportions.

Then again, why not just add Peter Watkins's epic Edvard Munch, Paul Cox's remarkable Vincent, Nik Sheehan's superbly crafted The Drawing Master, Ken Russell's clinically insane Savage Messiah and Guy Maddin's Odilon Redon or The Eye Like a Strange Balloon to the programme and you've got yourself a veritable electric Kool-Aid acid test of fine art on film.

A great deal of the credit for Beauty is Embarrassing's success must go to the extraordinary life, career and personality of its subject, Wayne White, a country boy raised in the great state of Tennessee who made the decision to take his talents to New York and then Los Angeles. Some might do so and "never look back", but White always looked back for inspiration and it's this strong sense of place, of memory, of reverence for who he is and where he's from which makes his work so rich.

Seen in archival footage - mostly home movies on film and videotape, and in interviews and live appearances, Wayne White is just so damn cool that it's impossible to take your eyes off the proceedings. He's the real thing with no airs and no pretensions. In fact, as a human being and artist, his cool quotient is only matched, and in fact, enhanced by his vast output as a designer, sculptor and painter during a period of over thirty years - art that the picture expertly details and wends through the narrative.

Now, much as I'm extolling the virtues of the film's subject, someone had to choose Wayne White to make a movie about, then shoot and conduct interviews so well that it inspired White to deliver a seemingly endless series of funny, insightful and touching responses.

Furthermore, someone had to assemble a fabulous cast of characters in White's life - from family to friends to colleagues - all of whom are so cool (especially White's Mom and Dad) that it must have been a nightmare going through the footage in the edit suite and deciding how much great stuff had to be turfed. After all, creating tight, compelling pictures that are going to have an important life - long after they've first been unleashed upon the world - is ultimately ALL about tossing fabulous material aside in service of the greater good.

Director Neil Berkeley and his team might be luckier than any of us on the end-user side in terms of all the time they spent with Smith and the other interviewees whilst shooting and cutting, but at the end of the day, they served up a cornucopia of delectable goods for our edification.

(I do, however, DEMAND that a Blu-Ray release include extended interviews, deleted scenes and, while we're stomping our tootsies, a hi-def photo gallery of White's art.)

Luckily for us, the audience, our feedbags are full of only the choicest of morsels. While we can envy the buffet table the filmmakers no doubt gorged themselves upon, we can ultimately thank them for their sacrifice to gluttony.

It allows us to dine, ever-so gracefully upon a Wayne White who is as passionately and meticulously crafted by the filmmakers for cinematic consumption as he, in turn, passionately and meticulously creates his art.

This movie is such a treat that I defy anyone to not be riveted throughout. Marvelling at this artist's great work, experiencing the ups and downs of his life, meeting all those who have been special to him and finally, in the movie's last few minutes, to have one's breath taken away by a sequence so joyous that you'll be squirting tears-a-plenty - these are but a few of the picture's considerable virtues.

Wayne White's art is bigger than life, but through the eyes of director Neil Berkeley, we see how White's approach to his own work is both humble and honest - kind of like Berkeley's approach to his subject.

A wise choice.

Too many filmmakers might have imposed overt stylistic flourishes to such pieces - the result of which, if done here, would have been overwhelming to a point of distraction. The film lets the artist (and his art) speak for himself (with a little help, of course, from his friends).

Euphoria is ultimately what comes to mind when recalling the effect the film has upon you. And that, cool cats, that is what they call style!

"Beauty is Embarrassing" is in nationwide release via KinoSmith. In Toronto it's playing at the Bloor Hot Docs Theatre. You should also visit Wayne White's website. It has lotsa cool shit on it. Some of it you can even buy! Click HERE

Friday, 28 September 2012

ARBITRAGE - Starring Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon - Review By Greg Klymkiw

If you were rich, powerful and married to Susan Sarandon, would you really cheat on her by boinking and bankrolling a shrill, obnoxious, overly-needy, grotesquely toothy, pretentious, vaguely unintelligent, perpetually pinch-faced young "artist"? Seriously, you can pretty much have any woman you want behind your perfect, loyal, gorgeous wife's back and you're going to choose a well-worn dishrag who is annoying you constantly while you're facing one of the most challenging financial crises of your life in which you might lose everything? I mean, seriously! Really?

Arbitrage (2012) **1/2
dir. Nicholas Jarecki
Starring: Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, Brit Marling, Laetitia Casta, Nate Parker, Stuart Margolin

Review By Greg Klymkiw

The financial crisis is yielding a number of high profile feature-length dramas. Some are genuinely great (Capital by Costa-Gavras), others are godawful (Oliver Stone's horrendous misfire Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), while a number of pictures are floating around amidst a middle ground of respectable watchability.

The good news in all this is that there appear to be a whole bunch of new movies that are not aimed at the ADHD-challenged youth audiences (most of whom have the symptoms, but not the actual disorder). The financial crisis pictures are, at the very least, endowed with some appeal to adults who come to the cinema equipped with something resembling attention spans and who might also be looking for movies that are actually about something.

Arbitrage is a decent journey into the world of financial shenanigans. It hits a few annoying speed bumps, though, which always seem to keep it from soaring to the heights of something like the aforementioned Gavras picture (which has set the bar pretty high with respect to the financial thriller genre) or Margin Call with its bravura all-star cast engaging in all manner of corporate chicanery.

What drives Arbitrage is a dazzling performance by Richard Gere who, since his amazing turn as the evil cop in Mike Figgis's Internal Affairs, has been transforming - with each passing year - into a mature, complex and riveting actor. As Robert Miller, a beleaguered CEO of a major corporation, it's Gere's best role since his turn as the villainous Dennis Peck in the aforementioned 1990 cop thriller.

Here he plays a character who's got it all - a reputation for being one of the most fair and visionary corporate rulers in America, a gorgeous wife (Susan Sarandon) who devotes herself to charitable activities and a brilliant, mind-bogglingly sexy daughter (only natural given that the character Brit Marling plays is the progeny of Daddy Gere and Mama Sarandon).

Alas, Robert Miller's made a big financial gaffe and risked a huge amount of money on hedge funds. He's covered the internal losses by borrowing from a super high-end shylock. This is not a good thing. He's being investigated by the internal revenue service and his deception might unfairly implicate his daughter (the company's CFO) who has been shielded from his naughty dabbling.

The only thing that can save him is if he sells his company for a huge profit. Another corporation is definitely interested, but there are mysterious forces that seem to be working against him to make the deal work. The clock is ticking on his debt to the shylock and soon he's having the discussion with his lawyer (the wonderful Stuart Margolin) about what his minimum prison sentence might be if things go wrong.

Adding insult to injury, he becomes embroiled in a Chappaquiddick-like scandal that he's desperate to cover up. This, however, is becoming next to impossible since a pitbull police detective (Tim Roth) wants to nail his ass at all costs. Soon Miller's having additional talks with his lawyer about what degree of murder he might be charged with.

Director Jarecki has certainly fashioned a screenplay that piles on the endless conflict and he happily helms it so the barrage of complications never feel like a train wreck. His direction is far from stylistically flashy, but this is a good thing given the twists and turns he expunges upon us. The script is written to be covered with efficiency and he delivers that in spades.

Gere, no matter where the picture goes (wrongly or rightly), is always compelling throughout the proceedings. His character does a lot of bad shit, but he genuinely believes he's doing it for a greater good. Gere's performance is so mesmerizing that he allows us to swallow the "greater good" stuff hook, line and sinker. He's also so damned charming that we're with him all the way.

One of the more inexplicable subplots involves an affair Miller's having with a shrill, obnoxious, overly-needy, grotesquely toothy, pretentious, vaguely unintelligent, perpetually pinch-faced young art curator from Paris whom he's bankrolled completely to indulge her dreams of art world supremacy. Here's the rub, though. Miller can have any woman he wants behind his perfect, loyal and gorgeous wife's back. (I can only reiterate: It's fucking Susan Sarandon for Christ's sake!)

Somehow, we have to swallow that Susan Sarandon is reduced to a cuckquean for Richard Gere to choose a pushy, well-worn dishrag who is added-value-equipped with a penchant for annoying him ad nauseam as he faces one of the most challenging financial crises of his life. We can only hope she gives him tremendous head or something, because this harridan mistress is too busy sniping and complaining and we never get to see her delivering the goods to pay for the bankroll he lobs her way.

In spite of this, Arbitrage is a generally well-plotted screenplay with a nicely layered main character. That said, it sometimes feels so well plotted that it seems closer in style to a decent television movie or a straight to simultaneous VOD and home entertainment release instead of having the scope and punch of a genuinely theatrical big screen motion picture.

Thankfully, the picture has Richard Gere to raise it above the level of small-screen competency. With anyone else in the role, Arbitrage might well have been Garbage-itrage.

"Arbitrage" is playing theatrically across Canada via VVS Films.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Fritz Lang's SCARLET STREET with Edward G. Robinson - Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw - On Blu-Ray via Kino-Lorber

A timid cashier celebrates 25-rip-snorting-years of toil in a mens clothing store. Sauntering home to be with his harridan wife, he wonders what it would be like to have a young woman love him. He gets his wish. Sort of. A streetwalker cons him with expert assistance from her brutal pimp and lover. Can murder be far behind?

Scarlet Street *****
(1945) dir. Fritz Lang
Edward G. Robinson,
Joan Bennett,
Dan Duryea

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"I've been waiting to laugh in your face ever since I met you. You're old and ugly and I'm sick of you. Sick! Sick! Sick!"
-Joan Bennett to Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street

If you've never felt - even once - that dreadful, sickening, soul-sucking feeling of digging yourself into a deeper hole, then good for you. You must obviously live a charmed life. Most of us know, however, when we're already in one of those holes and instead of clambering out while we still can, we shove our respective spades into God's good earth and just keep digging. Why do we do it? Especially when we know we're digging ourselves deeper than we can ever possibly hope to clamber out of? Well, sometimes one just hangs on to a wisp of hope that the thing you think you need is, like some buried treasure, just a few more feet below.

Once in awhile, a hand will thrust itself down and offer you a way out of the depths. Sometimes you'll take it but oft-times you won't. Even those who do accept the helping hand will, most of the time, do so with regret. They allow themselves to be hoisted up just long enough to grab a few fresh breaths, grab a bite to eat and maybe think about packing a box lunch and then dive back down into the open jaws of the hole.

When we first meet Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson) in Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street, we hear a boisterous, heartfelt group of men singing "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" so loudly that their voices are spilling onto the wet, dark streets of New York. Once we're inside the brightly lit party room of a private gentleman's club, remnants of a sumptuous meal with liquor still flowing, the singing builds to a rousing climax of cheers. A meekly appreciative Chris, is clearly the recipient of this gleeful admiration. His boss delivers an extremely moving speech that extolls the virtues of honesty, loyalty and hard-work that Chris has displayed over the years as a cashier with the company - capping off the tribute by presenting his "old friend Chris" with a gorgeous gold watch encrusted with jewels.

It's when the boss departs early for the reason that one can "never keep a woman waiting", Chris looks out the window just as his employer exits the building and enters the awaiting limo below - its only other passenger being a stunning, young, platinum blonde.

Chris knows this is not the boss's wife and he wonders aloud: "I wonder what it's like to be loved by a young girl." Cue hole-digging just about here. Chris has picked up the spade and is eager to use it.

Later that evening, Chris walks the empty streets. He hears a scream. From a distance Chris sees a woman under a lamppost being slapped around by a man. Chris surprisingly bolts into action and rescues the beautiful young woman by beating the vile pig with his umbrella. The weasel scurries away, clutching the money he's robbed from the woman. Chris walks the young lady home and they stop for a drink in a basement dive. Anyone else would have realized that the sexy Kitty March (Joan Bennett) is a common streetwalker (and not a fashion model as she claims to be) and that the rat-faced thug who stole her money is not some random thief, but Johnny Prince (Dan Duryea), her pimp and lover.

That Chris is oblivious to this and swallows all her lies, exaggerations and vaguely disingenuous flirting is pretty much the beginning of the end. His spade plunges deep into the ground. The hole-digging begins in earnest.

It's also to actress Joan Bennet and director Fritz Lang's credit that we almost believe Kitty, too. She's packed tightly and curvaceously into her - ahem - Sunday go to meetin' time best and her straight, lush tresses that hang down to her shoulders, progressively unravel into schoolgirl-like curls and frame her soft, square face with a distinctively high forehead, pert nose, soulful eyes and ready-for-kissin-and-a-slurpin lips. Yup, she's Madonna and Whore, but discretely dolled-up like a teenage Catholic High School girl. Bennett's sultry voice and the dialogue (courtesy of the great screenwriter Dudley Nichols) veer from innocence to slutty, from genteel to crass and from surprising erudition to white trash street smarts. She's an incredible and indelible female character - a smart cookie in the wrong place at the wrong time and getting by as best she can in what is decidedly a man's world. Even more haunting is that there are more than enough hints that she's suffered a great deal of abuse over the short time she's been alive on this planet. She takes the foul Johnny Prince's beatings with a grain of salt since they're almost a small price to pay for his "support", companionship and first-rate cocksman-ship. In another instance, she only seems to be half-cracking a wiseacre when she describes her feelings about Chris, Edgar G. Robinson's staggering portrait of the jowly, hangdog white-knight-moneybags-meal-ticket in this way: "If he were mean or vicious or if he'd bawl me out or something, I'd like him better."

Robinson, of course, is great - an actor who's never delivered anything less than a brilliant performance throughout his long and distinguished career. In Scarlet Street, we're moved and repulsed by his character in equal measure. He toils away as a cashier at the high-end men's clothing store, surrounded by handsome, well-dressed colleagues who all seem content with their manhood and place in the world. Chris, on the other hand, goes home every night to his wife, a shrieking harridan who might best be described by quoting George about Martha in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf - she's neither a woman, nor much of a human being, but rather represents a kind of "slashing, braying residue that calls itself" his wife. Not that Chris is a prize catch. He admits to marrying her, almost in a whine, because he was afraid of being lonely. It's sad as all hell, but frankly, pretty damn pathetic. And God knows if Chris was even able to perform his husbandly duties in the boudoir when he admits with only the slightest hint of irony (so slight, it might not be ironic at all) that:

"I never saw a woman without any clothes."

Even more pathetic is that he's clearly a gifted artist, but creates his work in an atmosphere of his wife's verbal abuse and threats that she'll toss all his paintings in the trash. Granted his painting is the only escape he knows, but he thinks so little of his work that he doesn't even sign his paintings.

Worst of all, Chris displays inordinate stupidity and weakness when he allows himself to be duped by Kitty and Johnny. He not only keeps handing her scads of cash he's embezzling from his employer, but eventually allows her to take full credit for his artwork which eventually catches the eye of a prominent New York art dealer and visual arts critic. For all of this, he's getting no nookie and when he tries to hug or kiss her, she shrinks away in disgust.

One of the most complex, brilliant and emotionally wrenching scenes in movie history occurs when he realizes he's been duped and still professes his love for her. He begs her to marry him and Kitty's response is unbearably vicious. What's amazing about this moment is that we're moved by both characters (and performances). We're shocked and saddened by how mean she is to Chris, but at the same time, we sympathize with this young woman who's been dealt far too many bad hands in life and is surviving in way that stems directly from her social situation. Looking at the deep hurt in Chris's eyes is also profoundly moving, but we also want to slap that pathetic, jowly face of his and demand that he "man-up".

Scarlet Street is an American remake of Jean Renoir's equally wonderfully picture La Chienne, but for me, the main difference is that Lang's film descends even deeper than Renoir's into a pit of the most foul, ugly human behaviour. And even though it does, the film is infused with a high degree of humanity.

From dramatic beat to dramatic beat, Scarlett Street moves lower and lower on the rung of humanity's ladder. Just when you think the picture has reached the lowest depths, it plummets even deeper. As such, the film is both courageously relentless and astoundingly ahead of its time.

Recent Friedkin and Ulrich Seidl excepted, Fritz Lang - in 1945!!! - managed to pull off a picture that seems more fresh and vital than most anything made today. Scarlet Street feels like it could have been made just yesterday.

After many years languishing in the public domain, the movie has been digitally restored from materials on deposit at the Library of Congress and brought to Blu-Ray via Kino Lorber. The Bluray features a stills gallery and an audio commentary by David Kalat.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

MervynLeRoy's LITTLE CAESAR with Edward G. Robinson - Review By Greg Klymkiw

"Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?"

Little Caesar

(1930) *****
dir. Mervyn LeRoy

Edward G. Robinson,
Fairbanks Jr.,
Glenda Farrell,
Ralph Ince,
Sidney Blackmer,
William Collier Jr.

Review By
Greg Klymkiw

"For all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword." Matthew: 26-52

The words above dissolve from a title card to a lone highway gas station in the deep night. A car imbued with purpose sails into frame and rests before the pumps. A lonely figure from within the station gets up and saunters out to greet the driver who quickly leaves his car and beelines towards the entrance. The driver, with a handgun aimed at the belly of the solitary attendant, pushes him back into the light of the seemingly safe interior which immediately goes black. The quiet is shattered and the darkness is intermittently ablaze with short repeated blasts from the gun.

So begins the classic prohibition-era morality tale Little Caesar, a film that made a star of the late, great, jowly. pug-faced and portly Edward G. Robinson. With a unique nasal intonation and clipped delivery (punctuated with occasional feline-like drawls), Robinson dazzled anyone and everyone who laid eyes upon him. Rendering every one of his extraordinary line readings with a scowl and sneer, Eddie G. as Little Caesar led the Warner Bros. charge towards box office domination during the Great Depression with a series of tragic, violent, thrilling, melancholy and strangely romantic crime thrillers that took America and the world by storm.

Under Mervyn Leroy's crisp direction, this film adaptation of W. R. Burnett's grand pulp novel (and like many pictures to follow, inspired by the real-life exploits of Chicago's notorious gangster chief Al Capone), wastes no time getting to the action of the story.

The scene following the opening robbery has Rico (Robinson) eyeing a front page newspaper caption proclaiming the ironclad underworld rule of Diamond Pete Montana (Ralph Ince). Rico jealously admits to his pal and partner Joey Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) what a couple of small time hicksville hoods they are and that the city is the place to ascend to new and dizzying heights of power.

No more knocking off gas stations for Rico.

From this point on, the classic rise and fall of a hoodlum - replete with killing, dames, booze, double-crosses and more killing - careens full-tilt with the velocity of a gangster's Tommy-gun.

Little Caesar is 80 years old and while certain sequences and the technique might feel dated now, it's important to remember that outside of a few silent pictures (most notably, D.W. Griffith's The Musketeers of Pig Alley and Josef Von Sternberg's stunning Underworld), it was the first of three seminal gangster pictures in the sound era (along with William "Wild Bill" A. Wellman's The Public Enemy and Howard Hawks's Scarface: The Shame of a Nation). As such, it set the mould for all that followed.

Martin Scorsese, for one, has always revered early Warner Bros. crime pictures and we see many dashes and dollops of these works in Marty's work. When Rico, for example, seeks a toe in the door of Chicago's organized crime, he pays a visit to Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), a lower level mob boss and proprietor of the delicious den of iniquity, the Club Palermo. Upon welcoming Rico to his "family" and christening him with the "Little Caesar" nickname, we're treated to a nicely directed moment when an off-camera Vettori introduces our hero to a motley crew of hoods, pointing to each one individually round a table as they smoke, drink and play cards.

"There's Tony Passa. Can drive a car better than any mug in this town. Otero, he's little, but he's the goods, alright. Bat Carilla, Killer Pepe, Kid Bean, and this one here, Scabby, what a smart guy he is," says Vettori. During this speech, director LeRoy moves in on a series of extreme closeups, the camera whirling in a 360 degree dolly with a slightly tilted semi-God-shot as each man is introduced - some acknowledging the intro, while others do not. It's a less showy, but still effective inspiration for what Scorsese eventually did sixty years later in Goodfellas when he introduced us to the chief mobsters via the off-screen Ray Liotta in a series of brilliant singles.

Like all great artists, Scorsese borrows from the best, then makes it his own.

Edward G. Robinson borrowed, it seems, from nobody. As an actor, he was a true original. A Romanian-Jew who immigrated to America with his family when he was ten and growing up on the Lower East Side of New York, Robinson was groomed to be a Rabbi first, and when that didn't work out, a lawyer, but it was acting that ultimately beckoned. Though he worked regularly in silent films, it was theatre where he excelled. The stage was, and in fact remained his first love. He spoke numerous languages fluently and cut his teeth in Yiddish theatre. With the coming of sound, his career really took off. His swagger, style and adeptness with language served him well. His distinctive voice created many golden opportunities for him and Little Caesar provided the role of a lifetime.

While Little Caesar is a stunning, terrific picture in every respect, it's Edward G. Robinson who ultimately owns the movie.

As Rico, Robinson creates a character who is vile, cretinous, borderline psychotic and yet, from beginning to end we're with him. The script provides no literal obvious backstory for his ruthless ambition and the way he plays the role, we don't need it. Robinson fills in the blanks perfectly.

In one scene, when Rico is confronted by his pal Joe who desperately pleads to "get out" of this life of crime, LeRoy wisely and brilliantly keeps the camera over Joe's shoulder during his lengthy monologue and trained squarely on Rico. Robinson's look of vile ambition, utter disgust and pitiful envy over the fact that his friend has found love and purpose is skin-crawling. And all the while, we simply can't take our eyes off him.

Rico's deeply closeted homosexuality is also putty in Robinson's hands. At first, we wonder why he's so close to the fey, sensitive, handsome Joe, but when Joe reveals his penchant for public performance, ballroom dancing and the love of a good woman, the jealousy, disgust and yes, even heartbreak, is clear in Robinson's performance. He displays no real (or at least no overt) love, loyalty or compassion for anyone but himself - his only desire is to possess what he can't or doesn't yet have.

Robinson commands every scene, every shot he's in. It's impossible to look away, all the more extraordinary since Rico is so utterly reprehensible.

What Robinson seems to understand and convey so extraordinarily is the humanity in evil and by the time he utters his famous closing line, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Rico?" we even shed a tear for this hollow, vicious thug.

This, however, is no real surprise. Though Robinson played mostly gangsters sleazbags or cuckolds, he was in life, an extremely delicate, intelligent and cultured man. In fact, he was an inveterate collector of fine art and once said:

"Acting and painting have much in common. You begin with the external appearance and then strip away the layers to get to the essential core. This is reality and that is how an artist achieves truth. When you are acting, you are playing a part, you are being somebody else. You are also, at the same time, being yourself."

Now that's acting!

That's a star!

"Little Caesar" is available in a extras-packed and very reasonably priced new box set of four prohibition era gangster pictures from Warner Home Entertainment under the TCM Archives banner. The package is slender and the discs are flippers, but for movie lovers, it's one of the best deals around.




Tuesday, 25 September 2012

SUMMER INTERLUDE - Reviewed By Greg Klymkiw - Criterion CollectionBlu-Ray

Ingmar Bergman's passionate, heartbreaking tale of young love is quiet and delicate. Beneath the calm and warmth of a gentle summer, a heart waits to be broken while another turns to stone.

Summer Interlude (1951) ****
dir. Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Maj-Britt Nilsson, Birger Malmsten, Alf Kjellin, Georg Funkquist

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"He was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy. We used to go out together, walking . . . like the way they do in the country. . . O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!"
-Greta, The Dead by James Joyce
"Isn't that what love is, using people? Maybe that's what hate is--not being able to use people."
-Catherine, Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams
Sprinkled amidst the ups and downs of life, we encounter distinct periods of time that place the forward movements of our existence on pause. These interludes feel distinct from everything on either side of their beginning and end. They're often pleasant, relaxed or quietly pensive - allowing for reflection upon what has transpired and and consideration of what's to come. This is not to say the interludes are without actions which place the normal course of events in a sort of holding pattern, yet are in and of themselves representative of movements ever-advancing.

The same can apply even to interludes within the context of live performances of music, theatre or even in the early days of television when used as placeholders between regular programming during technical glitches or when there simply was nothing else to broadcast. That said, the events within the interlude are, more often than not, marked by actions decidedly different from what feels like the normal course of events. They're a transition period that allows growth (or stunting) to occur. They appear in individual lives as well as collective movements in world history; from the all-encompassing down to micro-and-macroscopic) progressions.

As a film, Summer Interlude is a sort of transitional moment in the career of Ingmar Bergman, perhaps the most influential filmmaker in all of film history. Bergman was 33-years-old when the film was released (the same year, amusingly, as Christ's crucifixion and, more importantly His resurrection). Bergman had already been working in cinema as a screenwriter (a damn fine one, at that) and had directed a few "gun for hire" items. This film - itself a story of one woman's interlude in her early years - feels like the first movie that's pure Bergman: the mad, obsessive, probing and deeply personal film artist who, more than any other, placed us so deep into the lives, thoughts, dreams and emotions of any number of now-immortal screen characters.

Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) and Henrik (Birger Malmsten) are two characters who probably deserve to take a place amidst that pantheon of indelible creatures Bergman has etched over his decades of making great cinema. If they take a less lofty spot than some, it's only because the Maestro had so many more years of life experience and artistry ahead of him. Marie is probably the one character closest in age to Bergman at the time. She's 28 and a prima ballerina with the Stockholm Company. Even at this young age, she's terrified of getting older and uncertain about what the future will indeed hold for her. These are clearly doubts Bergman would have understood, if not felt (in obviously different ways) himself.

He no doubt would have also had some experience with (and thoughts about) a character like Marie who shuts herself down emotionally to concentrate (at least seemingly) on her art. Her icy demeanour especially extends to the man who loves her (a journalist played by Alf Kjellin) and inspires a mounting desperation within him to be even more intensely insistent and demanding with respect to their relationship.

Finally, though, what really plagues Marie is an interlude from her past. As a teenager and burgeoning ballerina, she spent a warm summer in a rural area outside of the city. In a handful of extended flashbacks, rendered through a diary written by the shy, frail, teenage boy who loved her deeply during those long-ago days of idyllic summer frolics, Bergman renders a deeply romantic and ultimately tragic love story.

Overall though, Summer Interlude is a love triangle in duplicate. In the present, the triangle involves Marie, the journalist and her sudden reminiscence of the past - before she closed herself off completely to passion. In the flashbacks, the triangle is between Marie, the sweet Henrik and Marie's devotion to her career as a dancer. Though Bergman roots this in the world of an artist, it's certainly universal to anyone who has devoted themselves to their calling to the extent where "normal" human relations are stunted.

There is, too, a long tradition of telling stories - mostly from male artists - about women who feel responsible for decimating the hearts of their lovers in pursuit of their goals, dreams and talents. Bergman, however, takes his place here along with Carl Dreyer, James Joyce, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and (to a certain extent) his chief influence August Strindberg as an artist who is sensitive to the demands patriarchy places upon women to the extent that the female characters, and Marie in particular, are fraught with feelings of guilt surrounding their choice of freedom over traditional romantic roles - so much so that they seal their emotions deep within them.

Summer Interlude is replete with so many moments of visual beauty and emotional tenderness that it would be difficult to imagine an audience not being deeply moved by both the love story in flashback and the one which occurs in the present tense. And of course, it wouldn't be Bergman without a dollop or two of creepiness - best exemplified by Marie's loathsome Uncle (brilliantly etched by the almost reptilian Georg Funkquist).

It's what I always loved about Bergman. Just when things threaten to get too emotionally tender or even humanistically harrowing, he digs into his back pocket and tosses in some glob of grotesquerie. Uncle Georg is Summer Interlude's equivalent to Ingrid Thulin masturbating and mutilating her genitals in Bergman's Cries and Whispers. Uncle George is a bit tame compared to that, but all Bergman needed was a little time.

And some interludes.

"Summer Interlude" is available on an astonishingly gorgeous Blu-Ray from the visionary Criterion Collection. Replete with a new digital restoration, an uncompressed monaural soundtrack (my favourite!!!), a new English subtitle translation and an essay by Peter Cowie, this is definitely a disc any self-respecting Bergman worshipper will NOT be without."

Monday, 24 September 2012

John Huston's "THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE" - Review By Greg Klymkiw

Life's given Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) more than his fair share of hard knocks, but he’s not going to accept a fair share of anything, anymore. John Huston's great picture of B. Traven's book, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" gets better with every viewing.

The Treasure
of the Sierra Madre

(1948) dir. John Huston *****

Humphrey Bogart,
Walter Huston, Tim Holt,
Bruce Bennett, Alfonso Bedoya,
Barton MacLane, Robert Blake
and John Huston

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"The creative person should have no other biography than his works." - B. Traven

I have always believed that the best movies are made by filmmakers – more often than not – who infuse their work with a combination of life experience, style and craft. While good, if not great movies can be made with one or two of the aforementioned elements, the stuff that stays with you and, in fact, lives well beyond the mere ephemeral is endowed with all three.

When great lives yield great works of literature, the next logical step is for great filmmakers to fashion great movies based on said works. It doesn't always pan out, but some filmmakers have a golden touch with screen adaptations.

John Huston lived a great life and made his fair share of great movies. The notion of great lives translating into great art was something he probably believed in more passionately and abundantly than most other American filmmakers. In fact, he held onto this belief until his final breath.

John Huston's life was bursting with the sort of adventure most of us only dream of. In addition to working as a screenwriter, playwright, actor and film/theatre director, Huston enjoyed a life that included light-middleweight boxing, journalism and, remarkably, a stint as a soldier in the Mexican cavalry.

As a film director, Huston often used a film’s production as an excuse to engage in exploits of the grandest variety. Peter Viertel, the un-credited scenarist of The African Queen wrote the terrific fact-based novel (later made by Clint Eastwood as the movie White Hunter Black Heart) which detailed Huston’s insistence upon shooting on location in the Congo, just so he could participate in an elephant safari.

With an enlarged heart and kidney disease in his early life and suffering from an aneurysm in later years, Huston never let these ailments stop him. He even steadfastly fought a battle with emphysema to keep alive in his last weeks on Earth to render one of his greatest films, The Dead, based upon James Joyce's exquisite story from the book "Dubliners.”

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston’s classic film from 1948 is based on the magnificent novel by the mysterious B. Traven. Without question, one the great movies of all time, it owes much to its source material.

Traven, unlike the very public Huston, lived his life in almost complete anonymity, writing primarily about the "working man", the downtrodden and, in general, the disenfranchised. His books, often of the two-fisted variety, are endowed with observations on human behaviour that are so brimming with the stuff of life, that it is, in spite of the aforementioned quotation, a bit of a shame that the author chose a life free of the public scrutiny that most other writers chose and/or endured.

Other than a few pungent quotations, Traven did not leave a body of observations, ideas and thoughts beyond his work. Granted, the work spoke volumes, but Traven was, no doubt, an incredible human being who lived the sort of high adventure life that someone like Ernest Hemingway experienced. What little is known about Traven ultimately suggests that his work is, at the very least, semi-autobiographical.

Few credible sources can claim to have known Traven – not even his publishers had ever met him face-to-face. That said, it is highly conceivable that Huston and Traven, who engaged primarily through correspondence, did actually meet. Traven was scheduled to visit the set, but in his place, sent a mysterious figure with written authorization from Traven that this individual had power-of-attorney to represent Traven’s interests. He then proceeded to spend a good deal of time on location.

It’s widely believed this man was, indeed, Traven himself. If he privately revealed himself to Huston, the great director never betrayed this confidence. Huston, given the sort of stories he loved to tell as a filmmaker believed in the fellowship of men, and in particular, honour above all.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the great motion pictures about greed and as such, honour does indeed play a huge role in the proceedings.

Set in a small Mexican town during the mid 1920s, we’re introduced to Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), an itinerant down-on-his-luck labourer who is living off handouts, and in particular, more than one spare piece of change from a wealthy fellow American (played by a dapper and un-credited John Huston himself). When Dobbs encounters an amiable oilman and fellow countryman Barton MacLane (Pat McCormick), he and Curtin (Tim Holt), another downtrodden American, are hired as labourers on an oil-drilling rig.

After the backbreaking work, MacLane disappears and the two men are still penniless. Spending the night in a flophouse, they make the acquaintance of Howard (John Huston’s father Walter in his great Oscar-winning performance), a crusty, old prospector who fills the men’s heads with talk of gold - how with a modest stake and considerable elbow grease, a fortune can be found. Howard also declares that few people - especially honest working stiffs - can ever hope to keep their fortune since gold fever, once it sets in deeply, can instil both greed and insanity in even the best of men.

Though the tale has been plenty compelling to this point, it’s here that things get really interesting. One of the amazing things about the film is how our central protagonist quickly becomes an anti-hero and by a certain point, Fred C Dobbs becomes one of the most miserable, petty and reprehensible leading characters in film history. It takes a star of the highest order; one who is as great an actor as Humphrey Bogart to pull this off. (A recent example of this is Daniel Day Lewis in P. T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.)

Dobbs insists he’d never fall prey to such greed. Having recently scored a local numbers-racket lottery (he's sold a ticket by a grubby little boy played by future wife-killer Robert Blake), he even offers to add stake money to a gold prospecting expedition without recompense. It is, however, a steely obsessive look in Bogey’s eyes that betray his proclamations of generosity and goodwill. Even at this early stage we’re convinced that the contradiction of these assertions seem likely.

This, of course, is what makes the picture a fine example of storytelling. We’re sure from the outset that our hero will fall prey to greed, yet we’re rooting for him NOT to. And even when the worst happens and our hopes become so much dust in the wind, we're still hanging on to whatever wisp of the character's humanity that clings to him - praying that Bogey's going to turn around, but knowing all the while it's never going to happen. When Dobbs crosses an unmentionable line of foul behaviour much later in the film, he can only go down further than Hell itself.

Bogart is so great in this picture. He infuses the role with such personality – the tough, downtrodden workingman who just wants to score a fair buck for his labours that we’re also pulling for him.

After the night in the flophouse, Dobbs spies his erstwhile boss Barton MacLane. He demands his pay and when it’s clear he won’t get it, he beats the unscrupulous exploiter to a pulp (the brutality of this is still shocking). That said, when he retrieves the wad of cash from the unconscious profiteer, he takes only the amount owed to himself and Curtin and when he offers the bar owner recompense for damages, he takes it out of his share of the dough.

The actions after he beats Barton don’t seem like the actions of someone who will turn gold crazy against his partners - men who become the closest thing he has to friends. Again though, it is a combination of storytelling brilliance and Bogart’s extraordinary performance that leads us to believe that all will not be right. Bogart infuses the beating with such cool, nasty precision that he’s clearly not a simple working stiff with a clearly defined moral code – he’s a mean, two-fisted bastard. When push comes to shove, he doesn't just shove back, he'll cold-cock his opponent across the face with a two-by-four.

Yes, life’s given Dobbs more than his fair share of hard knocks, but he’s not going to accept a fair share of anything.

From here on in, working from his screenplay adaptation of Traven’s novel, Huston ups the ante. The following ensues with all the power and excitement one wants from such a tale;

- A thrilling gun battle from the train between our three prospectors and a group of bloodthirsty Mexican bandits (led by the grinning psychotically amiable Gold Hat and brilliantly played by Alfonso Bedaya),

- An arduous journey,

- The painstaking building of a mine,

- The retrieval of a fortune in gold dust,

- The growing paranoia and mistrust amongst the partners (especially the increasingly crazed Dobbs),

- The appearance of an interloper wanting a cut of the mine,

- The contemplation of cold-blooded murder (not once, but twice).

- Another thrilling gun battle with Gold Hat and his bandits,

- More paranoia,

- More violence,

- And last, but not least one of the greatest surprise endings in movie history and, for good measure – peace, hope and redemption - though not for one and all.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre simply cannot be beat as pure motion entertainment with heart, soul and a cornucopia of food for thought. Few American films deserve to share breathing space with it.

The picture is so great, I'm compelled to wonder: Where are our John Hustons, B. Travens and Humphrey Bogarts? Will we again see a time when our film artists will live great lives, write great stories and mount them for all eternity on the silver screen? Sure, there are a few out there still living, but they’re getting old. Who will take their places? Who will dazzle us with movies that will live for all time - movies that are the stuff of their own great lives?

"Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Entertainment. It’s jam packed with a whole mess of terrific extras. Oddly, while I cannot fault the pristine transfer to HD, I was occasionally disconcerted by a look that seemed untrue to the spirit of the picture. I find this happening more and with Blu-Ray and old classics. The transfers are great, but the fact remains that film negative was never designed for such close scrutiny and transfer – it was meant to stay as celluloid, be projected through light and thrown onto a huge screen. On occasion, a transfer manages (often by mistake and/or laziness and/or cheapness) to be more "cinematic". It’s not often enough, frankly, but if Blu-Ray transfers of classics in any form gets new generations thrilling to the material, I suppose that’s enough and the rest of us aging movie geeks can just shut up.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

AGE OF CONSENT - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Michael Powell delivers Helen Mirren - NUDE

Age of Consent (1969) **1/2
dir. Michael Powell
Starring: James Mason, Helen Mirren, Jack MacGowran, Neva Carr-Glynn, Andonia Katsaros

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Okay, I don’t mean to reduce this movie to the following, but how can one not? The very thought of Helen Mirren NAKED in anything is always a cause for rejoicing.

However, the fact that Mirren is 23 years old in this film AND nude, semi-nude or in skimpy, skin-tight attire for pretty much the entire running time means that even if one doesn’t like the movie, there is plenty – and I mean PLENTY – to admire!

Luckily, there IS so much more to admire here than Miss Mirren’s various states of undress, her seemingly naive and alternatively knowing character, her lips, her eyes, her milky flesh, her supple, delectable breasts and her exquisite, pillowy and utterly perfect rump roast.

In addition to the sight of Mirren's gossamer soft tissue, the picture stars a taught, tanned and terrific James Mason, a lovely supporting bit from Jack MacGowran (he played the ill-fated alcoholic director Burke Dennings in The Exorcist) and last, but certainly not least, it's the final work by one of cinema’s greatest auteurs, Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Peeping Tom).

Set against the stunning topography of the Great Barrier Reef, Age of Consent tells the slight, but entertaining story of a middle aged artist who, while financially successful, is at a crossroads in his creative life and feels he has yet to generate work that has any value beyond the purely monetary. Seeking solace, he decides to pack it all in and settle on what he believes to be a deserted island on the reef in order to get both relaxation and, perhaps, a spark of inspiration.

The island, however, is not bereft of a population – a ragtag group of hermit-like inhabitants soon rear their heads. Some of them are ugly. There’s a kooky middle-aged Miss Haversham type (Andonia Katsaros), starved for sex and a drunken old hag (Neva Carr-Glynn) who spends much of her time sucking back cheap booze and abusing her beautiful, young granddaughter.

This is where Mirren raises her head of perfection. As the granddaughter Cora, Mirren eventually catches the eye of the artist and before you can say “Humbert Humbert”, she’s dropping her clothes and providing him the muse-like services he so desperately requires. Inevitably, Cora provides services of the sexual kind, but Mason’s character is so self absorbed that he’s blinded by his genius and doesn’t realize just how much Cora begins to love him.

Powell always had a soft spot for odd, obsessive characters living in either the outer reaches of the planet (I Know Where I’m Going) or in worlds far removed from the daily life most of us know (The Red Shoes). One can see how he was attracted to the material Age of Consent provided him.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Norman Lindsay, it allows Powell the opportunity to train his lens on the stunning natural beauty of the Great Barrier Reef while at the same time, focusing almost microscopically on those who inhabit it – dwarfed as they are like just so many insects. Mason, who doubled as the producer always longed to work with Powell so when he brought the project to him, it was a match made in Heaven.

The supporting cast is also not without considerable merit. Appearing as Mason’s drunken, gambling-addicted old pal, Jack MacGowaran comes close to stealing every scene he is in. There are also two cameos that add considerable texture to the picture. One is the great Australian character actor Frank Thring as Mason’s haughty agent and Mason’s real-life wife Clarissa Kaye who plays his sultry, raven-haired beauty on the mainland. She’s so wonderful in her brief appearance that one wishes she’d had a career well beyond her devotion to Mason.

Sadly, this was Powell’s final feature. He lived for another quarter of a century after it was released and tried in vain to get other projects off the ground. Married to ace editor Thelma Schoonmaker, being the recipient of accolades, retrospectives, restorations and in particular, the adoration of numerous filmmakers including the great Martin Scorsese (who continues to cite Powell as his primary inspiration), Powell was only able to raise financing for two short works after Age of Consent.

As Scorsese movingly notes in an accompanying interview in the recent DVD release of Powell’s preferred cut (as opposed to the heavily butchered version that floated around for too many years), Powell never ceased to face a day without planning films he wanted to make. He was the ultimate filmmaker in that sense. As the world passed him by on some levels, he never gave up.

If the film falters slightly, it’s only in comparison to the considerable emotional and intellectual depth of Powell’s previous work. That said - Mirren’s Cora is a delicate, exquisite creature. There is both a passion and understanding beneath her supple youth and radiating from her soulful eyes that we are drawn to her as Mason’s character also is – with both yearning and passion.

It’s a lovely little film.

And did I mention Mirren is naked in it?

A lot!

“Age of Consent” is available on DVD in a package titled “Michael Powell, The Collector’s Choice” from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and double-billed with a restored version of Powell’s truly brilliant “A Matter of Life and Death” (AKA “Stairway to Heaven”)

Saturday, 22 September 2012

THE PUBLIC ENEMY - Review By Greg Klymkiw

The Public Enemy, William A. Wellman's seminal Warner Bros. crime picture from 1931 was one of the first of many rags-to-riches tales of gangsters who transform from young men making their way in a crazy world to virtually inhuman vengeance-driven psychopaths. 


(1931) *****
dir. William Wellman
Starring: James Cagney,
Jean Harlow,
Joan Blondell,
Mae Clarke,
Edward Woods

Review By Greg Klymkiw
"I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.
Fortune's always hiding,
I've looked everywhere,
I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air."
Not once in William A. Wellman's seminal Warner Bros. gangster picture The Public Enemy do we hear a single lyric sung from "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles", the famous Tin Pan Alley waltz, but we do hear the melody played as a main theme over the haunting opening titles and at other key points. And even without the lyrics, the euphonic melancholia of John Kellette's 1918 show tune takes us back, just as it would have for audiences upon the film's original release in 1931, to a time when men were men; romantically living and dying by a gun, when blondes were platinum, when Mother was sacred, when a halved breakfast grapefruit was ground into the face of a lover merely expressing her wishes and dreams - when the bootlegged booze that flowed so freely during the Prohibition period was tainted by the streams of blood from those who were brutally killed in the wars to control the illegal circulation of the devil's brew.

With a flourish that typified the best work of "The Vitaphone Orchestra", Warner Brothers' in-house music unit, staccato blasts of horns and percussion blare, clarion-call-like within the first few bars of the aforementioned song, playing over the titles on top of a bare, grey wall of bricks. Announcing a headlong plunge into a world of violence right from the opening frames of the film, the title sequence gradually switches gears when the music morphs from malevolence to a nostalgic sadness of days gone by and we're treated to a series of singles on every principal character in the film (accompanied by the name of the actor and the role they play). Each character/actor appears standing, often performing a distinctive gesture that occurs in the film and/or that best represents who the character is.

Action is everything in movies and for characters (and the actors who play them and the audiences who view them), actions indeed speak louder than words.

First to appear is principal character Tom Powers, the star-making role played by James Cagney. We get the sense that what we're seeing is Cagney as Cagney as Tom, without even a hint at the seething, psychotic we eventually come to know. Standing on a 45-degree angle, Cagney/Powers is all charm and smiles - adorned casually in a cap, black undershirt and unbuttoned grey and white smock-like garment with black stripes, he winks, wiggles his eyebrows and delivers what becomes a trademark play punch that he bestows upon those he loves as the film progresses.

Platinum blonde bombshell Jean Harlow appears as Tom's favoured moll Gwen Allen, garbed in virginal white with sexy 30s raccoon-eye makeup as she smiles pleasantly and also delivers a wink, but not as brashly as Cagney - it's subtle and ever-so come-hither.

Edward Woods as Tom's slightly dim-witted, but loyal best friend and chief partner in crime Matt, is poker-faced, with only the hint of a smile before he takes his big hand and wipes his mouth broadly.

The stunning Joan Blondell as Matt's girl Mamie, is all smiles and glitter - exuding the same warmth she displays throughout the picture.

Donald Cook as Tom's upright, honest war-hero brother Mike is completely in character - rigid and serious, adorned tightly and uncomfortably in his streetcar conductor's uniform. It's like a straight jacket.

The rest of the characters; Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton) the dapper mobster smiles and chews his gum, Ma Powers (Beryl Mercer) smiles radiantly as only a Mom can, Paddy Ryan (Robert O'Connor), bartender-turned-hood puffs his cigar pleasurably, while the Fagin-like Putty Nose (Murray Kinnell) chalks his pool cue with confidence.

These haunting introductions introduce us - not only to the characters, but the stars who play them - like odd still-life portraits that come to life. They give us a hint of the personality playing the character as well as the personality of the character. It's simple and, after all these decades since the film was unleashed, still unique. Sure, there were similar introductions to characters in silent pictures before The Public Enemy and many afterwards, but this was the first of very few instances where an introduction placed equal emphasis on character and player in a knowing and borderline cerebral fashion.

And, of course, all of these introductions are presented with the melancholy of Kellete's music. And those who would have been (or are) familiar with the lyrics - especially the chorus quoted above would have known they were about to witness a tale of those who reach for the heavens, only to have them snuffed out when the pretty bubbles of dreamland burst and all that's left is grim reality.

Like Warner Brothers' other 1931 gangster hit Little Caesar, The Public Enemy delivers a fast-paced rise and fall tale of a gangster. The difference, is that the former centres on a character who is right off his nut from the beginning and only gets meaner and crazier, while the former charts a character who is mildly irascible and becomes nastier and crazier as the thirst for power eventually leads to a taste of it and both gluttony and evil become comfy bedfellows.

While both pictures are great, the critical reputation of Little Caesar seemed to be overshadowed by that of The Public Enemy. Though both films were regarded highly as the true launching pads for stars Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney respectively, it was the latter film that garnered much of the hoopla, whilst the former was regarded almost solely for Robinson's performance.

This, of course, was nonsense.

Stylistically, the films are night and day. Though they both deliver similar rise and fall trajectories, Mervyn LeRoy's approach to Little Caesar is brilliantly, insanely relentless while Wellman takes the slow-burn approach with The Public Enemy. If one is to make any sort of contemporary comparison, Brian DePalma's crazed version of Scarface is to Little Caesar that Scorsese's brilliant, meticulous razzle dazzle of Goodfellas is to The Public Enemy. Ultimately, it's apples and oranges, save for one thing - all four pictures are iconic, separated respectively by 30 and 40 years.

Interestingly enough, we owe the gangster genre, not so much to the dabblings of Griffith and Von Sterberg within the silent era, but to the efforts of Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at Warner Brothers during the late 20s to early 30s. Zanuck, like all GREAT producers was no paper-pusher. He was a filmmaker. His skill and knowledge in all areas of making movies was equalled only by that of David O. Selznick and Val Lewton. They were all visionaries of the highest order. Zanuck, in particular, almost single-handedly established Warners as a true force to be reckoned with and, as a studio, one that bears a style and legacy that continues to this day. (All of Scorsese's great crime pictures - Mean Streets, Goodfellas and The Departed - are Warner Brothers pictures.)

This was especially remarkable since Zanuck's tenure at Warner Brothers was less than ten years and for most of his career that followed, he carved out a special niche at 20th Century Fox. At Warners, however, he was the man responsible for bringing sound to motion pictures - insisting that The Jazz Singer be the first true "talkie".

As a producer, Zanuck was not just a great filmmaker, but a storyteller par excellence. Not surprisingly, Zanuck began as a literal storyteller - a screenwriter. Even during the silent period, while most others were crafting tales of a historical nature, Zanuck was interested in the world around him and fashioned screenplays about contemporary American life. This is, in general, a marked contrast from his interest in historical drama once he took over 20th Century Fox - though even at Fox, he, like the young man he was when he ran Warners, was always interested in social issues and figuring on how to work them into drama.

This interest in contemporary social issues led to the production of Little Caesar and The Public Enemy. With these two films, not only was a genre born, but the style and approach to story - one that Warners maintained, even after his departure - had his imprint all over it.

The Public Enemy is extraordinary in a number of ways, but if anything, its success lies in creating a story that is, at first, rooted in history and nostalgia and gradually shifts focus to a contemporary social issue gangster picture. The early part of the film establishes Tom's rivalry with his do-gooder goody-two-shoes brother Mike, his brutal abusive father (a cop, no less, and enough reason for his hatred of law and authority), his love for his kind, gentle mother and his need to protect and shower her with riches and his friendship with the simple, loyal tag-along Matt and finally, his need for father figures whom he finds in criminals like the Fagin-like Putty Nose and Paddy Ryan, the patriarchal Irish barman-turned-hood.

After charting these early years, the story becomes as contemporary as the world in which the film itself was released into. Tasting money and power, Tom becomes more brutal with each passing story beat. His attraction to women is also interesting. Unlike pal Matt or brother Mike, both of whom seek and find steady women, Tom is drawn to the company of whores, or rather, ex-whores who eventually drop their attachment to easy money in exchange for sex.

Still, when his whores want more, Tom turns into a nasty, rage-ridden magma head. The iconic grapefruit he shoves into Mae Clarke's face during the famous breakfast scene is the direct result of her having dreams and wishes of normalcy. Tom doesn't want normal. He wants more money, more power and more instant gratification. Tom is only truly happy when he gets in with Gwen, a tough, sexy streetwalker who makes it clear that although she loves him, she too has a desire for money and power (the only kind she can wield, the power of her pussy). Somehow, though not surprisingly, this makes Tom love Gwen even more.

Finally, loyalty means more to Tom than anything. When loyalty is betrayed, he becomes a vengeance-ridden psychopath and it's loyalty and the need for revenge that leads to his downfall (and one of the most grotesquely, grimly powerful endings in movie history).

There's no two ways about it. The Public Enemy is a corker! One brilliant set-piece after another delivers a tale hell-bent on destruction and it's either going to be everyone and everything in Tom Powers' path or Powers himself. Redemption is never in the cards. It's all about the here and now and getting more - taking whatever one can from the trough until one explodes.

There's something brilliantly and uniquely American about all this. One of the great set-pieces has Tom hosting an opulent dinner in his mother's home with a huge keg of beer in the middle of the table (like Little Caesar, we're smack in the middle of Prohibition). The food is plentiful, of the highest quality and prepared by Ma's own hands. Tom and his pal Matt fill themselves with food and beer voraciously while brother Mike picks at his food and glares at his gluttonous criminal sibling. This silent juxtaposition slow burns into an explosion of emotion. When Mike points to the beer and suggests it's tainted with the blood of those Tom has murdered, Tom responds with disgust that Mike is surely no matter than him - that he must have enjoyed killing just as much - that all those medals won in battle came from the blood of German soldiers.

This, of course, is one of the more brilliant aspects of the story - brothers who are rivals, who detest what each other represents - Tom is freedom attained through crime, Mike is the chains of incarceration afforded through being one of the working poor - and yet, they are "both part of the same hypocrisy" (to quote the line Michael Corleone utters to Senator Geary in Godfather II). Tom kills for his family in gang wars. Mike killed for his family in war. Both are products of America. Both are America.

Thematically, The Public Enemy (in addition to many of the Warners gangster pictures) is so ahead of its time. Stylistically, it's an original and most importantly, the model for every subsequent examination of crime in America to follow.

And like our fictional counterparts, we're all part of the same hypocrisy.

Or like the song says, we're all "forever blowing bubbles..." and ultimately, all of our dreams, "they fade and die".

"The Public Enemy" is available in many editions, but the best value is an extras-packed and very reasonably priced set of four prohibition era gangster pictures from Warner Home Entertainment under the TCM Archives banner. The package is slender and the discs are flippers, but for movie lovers, it's a great deal.

Friday, 21 September 2012

END OF WATCH - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Terrific Cop Picture now in Theatrical Release via VVS Films

Tough-as-nails cop thriller with 70s sensibilities, all the nasty mega-brutality one could ask for and a pleasing, saintly, sentimental Joseph Wambaugh-like approach to police on the killing fields of South Central Los Angeles. 

End of Watch **** (2012) dir. David Ayer
World Premiere: TIFF 2012 - Special Presentation
Now in theatrical release via VVS Films
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick

Review By Greg Klymkiw

My Dad was a cop for ten years. When I was a kid it was always fun seeing movies with him - especially cop and crime pictures since he always had more than a few things to say about the "Hollywood bullshit" or happily, the lack thereof. Curiously, it was the crime pictures like Scorsese's Mean Streets and Peter Yates's The Friends of Eddie Coyle that Dad always gave high marks to for capturing the side of life he spent a decade of his life fighting.

Most cop pictures left him cold save for their occasional entertainment value, but a handful of pictures stand out as movies he loved on several levels. Richard Fleischer's adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh's The New Centurions was one that Dad always felt came closest to recreating "the life" of cops behind the scenes while Friedkin's The French Connection captured the dull, dirty, mundane aspects of police work and finally, how Don Siegel's Dirty Harry came closest to showing the frustrations inherent in the job and how sometimes, a good cop just had to say, "Fuck the system," and do what needed to be done.

Somehow, I think Dad would have liked David Ayer's End of Watch a lot. Hanging by the slenderest of plot threads, this mostly episodic nosedive into every harrowing moment street cops face, makes for an always jolting ride through the dangers our boys in blue face everyday. The other plus to this very fine picture is both the writing and playing of the two loyal partners Brian Taylor and Mike Zavata - beautifully rendered by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña.

A cop's partner is his lifeblood. It's become a cliche in movies and TV, but in reality, the level of loyalty, trust and love a cop has for his partner is treated by most filmmakers in cliched or archetypal ways. It's a testament to writer-director David Ayer that he captures this camaraderie by leaping beyond the by-the-numbers mismatched-partners-who-learn-to-love-and-respect-each-other. From the start, we know these guys are made for each other. If anything, their love deepens and becomes even more demonstrative as the danger and violence in the film intensifies.

Ayer achieves this by using a storytelling technique that in and of itself has become a cliche in recent years, but he pushes it to such extremes that as the movie progresses, we become less concerned with form because of the form and Ayer's clever use of it. The opening few minutes, for example, are shot via a windshield-eye-view of the mean streets of a patrol car, accompanied no less by a portentous reality-TV-styled voice-over. At first you briefly think Ayer's gone nuts until he reveals that cop Brian is a part-time law student putting himself through university as a cop and is studying filmmaking as an elective. As such, he is shooting everything on the job to make a documentary as a class project.

I bought this hook, line and sinker.

When Brian's character is not shooting (and sometimes even when he is on-camera with his rolling camera), the rest of the film is mostly pieced together with a variety of surveillance cams and even through the cams the young electronically obsessed villains use. Add great dialogue, superb realist detail, actual locations plus magnificent performances and it all adds up to a terrific neo-realist-styled slice of life.

Ayer's writing for the cops is dead-on, but what's especially great is how he does not shy away from the banalities and cliches used by the South Central villains who do the dirty work for the cartels. Criminals at this level are boneheads of the lowest order - raised on dreadful television in cultural isolation of the lower order. Ayer takes a big chance here - allowing loftier than thou critics to point fingers at his less-than-balanced portraits of these disgusting thugs. Just as many cops are "dirty", an equal number (if not higher) of the vermin infesting our city streets like rats are zero-brained followers with no minds of their own save for the crap they've ingested in popular culture and from each other.

The narrative itself focuses upon the close friendship of the two cops, their love lives and the importance of family in all its forms - blood, community and crime. Taylor and his Hispanic partner Mike, go about their day-to-day exploits until they happen upon a group of deadly local dealers who are tied to vicious drug cartels. The two cops begin investigating until they get so close to the source of criminal power that the cartel orders hits on them.

So many films in recent years (including those Ayer has written and/or directed) have focused up the "dirty" cops. Reversing this trend with End of Watch is not only welcome but, I think necessary to bolster those in the force who genuinely embrace the protection of the citizenry.

To be a good cop in a world where crime is escalating and when administrative shackles are getting tighter and where cops are even forced into plying their trade by the powers-that-be in ways they know are unfair to those they're supposed to protect is narratively and politically satisfying as it is savvy.

It's the best cop picture in years!

"End of Watch" premiered in a Special Presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival and is currently in wide theatrical release via VVS Films.