Monday, May 28, 2018

Dreams With Sharp Teeth

Docurama, DVD, Release Date May 26, 2009
Review by Christopher S. Long

(This DVD review was originally posted in 2009, re-posted today on the occasion of Harlan Ellison's 81st birthday.)

When I first met Harlan Ellison in person at a Los Angeles Screenwriting convention, he had just plowed his car into some poor, innocent working-class family who were just minding their own business but, as you know, that Ellison cat has a bad temper. Fortunately, the family was also in a car and nobody was injured. The accident not only failed to rattle Harlan, it fired him up to conduct the most memorable workshop I have ever attended. Except that workshop isn’t the right word. “Floor show” is the closest I can think of. Or maybe I should simply call it a performance, the best live performance I have ever had the pleasure to watch. I literally had tears of laughter streaming down my face for the entire hour, and I wouldn't dare use “literally” to mean “figuratively” because that might piss off the ever-grammar-lovin' blue-eyed Ellison and I don't need to get run over any time soon.

For Harlan Ellison, the frenetic stand-up routine was just another day at work. He’s been giving the same high-energy performance for the better part of five decades now, one that combines the art of writing and the art of living into a unified product that can only be described as... Harlan Ellison (his name is, appropriately, a registered trademark.)

Actually, I had already met Harlan Ellison the way most people do: through his writing. At a very dark time in my life, I picked up a short story collection called “Angry Candy” and my life was (here’s that word again) literally changed. Stories like “Paladin of the Lost Hour” and “The Function of Dream Sleep” were seared into my consciousness and led me farther down the path to masterpieces like “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” “Lonelyache” and “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans” as well as his most famous and re-printed works like “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” and possibly the greatest short story I have ever read, “Jeffty is Five.” Say this for the man, he sure has a knack for coming up with some great titles.

What speaks to me most in Ellison’s work is his exploration of morality in a godless universe. He is an outspoken atheist but certainly no relativist. In a world without natural guiding principles, we must create our own. In Ellison’s universe, morality does not stem from a fear of eternal damnation but from the need for men and women to treat other well. We have to take care of each other because nobody else is going to do the job for us. This sentiment is expressed beautifully and terrifyingly in “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (talk about a hero making the ultimate sacrifice!) but also pervades much of his work. But let’s not overlook another appealing aspect of his writing, his sense of humor. Harlan is one damned funny son of a bitch. His vocal performance of his short story “I’m Looking for Kadak” is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever heard. It also contains the unlikely pairing of the words “farkakte” and “butterfly.”

Ellison is one of the most decorated American writers of the 20th century, but the legend of Ellison the man exceeds that of the author. The story of how a little Jew from suburban Cleveland became a big shot writer in Hollywood and elsewhere has been told and retold so many times it is impossible to separate fact from fiction which, I believe, is just fine with Harlan. 

Ellison, writing on display

When “Dreams with Sharp Teeth” opens, close friend Robin Williams grills Ellison about some of the legends surrounding him. Yes, he once mailed a dead gopher (fourth class, in the summer heat) to a publisher, but, no, he did not shove a fan down an elevator shaft. He once drove a dynamite truck and, even more daring, he once wrote an entire short story while sitting in a bookstore window in front of a crowd of gawkers. No wonder he has claimed that if he ever writes his autobiography it will be titled “Without A Net.” Harlan Ellison simply never stops. He has spent his life violating the laws of thermodynamics in every possible orifice. And that’s why he makes for a perfect documentary subject.

Director Erik Nelson avoids a dry overview of Ellison’s career and wisely turns his dynamic subject loose in front of the camera. Ellison reads from his short stories, relates personal anecdotes and launches into rants about the shortcomings of various members of his species. It doesn’t take much to work him into a state of high dudgeon. In Harlan’s words: “The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.”

Ninety minutes of pure Harlan would be more densely packed than a neutron star. Nelson alloys the splenetic performance with interviews from friends like Williams, artist Neil Gaiman and writer Peter David. We also get a brief overview of Ellison’s life from his youth in Paynesville, OH to his brief and unsuccessful stint in the Army to his early days as a writer and counter-culture figure in the '60s. There is relatively little archival footage but there are a few treats for fans, including appearances on the Tom Snyder show and a brief snippet from a 1970 college seminar. Most welcome of all is an all-too-brief tour of the fabled Ellison Wonderland, Harlan’s unique L.A. home which you can’t miss if you drive past it, believe me. Ellison is an obsessive collector of all kinds of memorabilia. He has so many books that he actually has collapsible library stack shelves the kind you have to open with a crank. Now that's just cool.

Nelson began shooting this very low-budget documentary more than 20 years ago and gradually pieced together enough footage until he had the bones of a solid feature which he then fleshed out with archival footage and interviews. The film feels all of a single piece, united by the unflagging energy of its subject. A bold creative decision to provide animated backgrounds behind Ellison as he reads from his work pays off for the most part. It is not, however, the most visually pleasing documentary you will ever see.

Harlan Ellison has the natural arrogance of a supremely talented autodidact. He does not suffer fools easily, and from his tight-rope walker’s point of view there are an awful lot of fools down there (another Ellison quote: “You are not entitled to your opinion! You are entitled to an informed opinion.”) His abrasive, unapologetic personality may alienate some viewers who don’t buy into his shtick. That’s OK. Harlan Ellison doesn’t care if you think he’s a mook. He wrote “Jeffty is Five” and you didn’t, bucko. What the hell more can you ask for? Tell me. Somebody please tell me.

The DVD is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. The interlaced transfer is adequate to the task. Image detail is mediocre and you'll notice the weaknesses more when you freeze frame the picture but it's perfectly acceptable.

The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. No subtitles are provided.

A WARNING to viewers who watch this DVD late at night and don’t want to disturb you neighbors: When you make certain selections from the main menu, Harlan will shout insults at you. What, this surprises you? Anyway, dial the volume down.

The DVD is loaded with extras to warm the cockles of any Ellison enthusiast.

Don’t let the title “Pizza with Harlan Ellison and Neil Gaiman” (40 min.) fool you. It’s about Harlan Ellison sharing pizza with Nail Gaiman. Relying on the same strategy that makes the film work, Erik Nelson just points his camera at Harlan and lets him go. The best part for fans is an epilogue to the dead gopher story.

“An Evening with Sharp Teeth” (21 min.) records the documentary’s April 19, 2007 debut at the Writer’s Guild Theatre in Los Angeles. Here’s how you know that you’ve followed a director closely. In the second shot of this feature, we see the back of a man’s head. I instantly thought, “Hey, that’s Werner Herzog.” It was. Herzog, whose documentary “Encounters at the Edge of the World” was produced by Erik Nelson, was in the same room as Harlan Ellison which I must admit sets my heart aflutter. It would be silly to pick just one artist in any field, but let’s just say that Mr. Ellison and Mr. Herzog are in the running for my favorite writer and director, respectively. Harlan shows off a picture of Herzog and him and all I have to say is: “Who do I have to kill and how soon do I have to do it?” I want that picture. Real bad like. (Ed. Note: Just an hour after I posted this review back in 2009, Erik Nelson e-mailed me a nice, high-res copy of the picture. Sometimes begging works.)

The disc also includes six readings by Ellison of his work. Five of them are short excerpts: “The Glass Teat” (1 min.), “All the Lies That Are My Life” (1 min.), “The Silence” (2 min.), “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie” (1 min.) and “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of Forever” (3 min.) 
Ellison, holding the relish

The one complete reading is a gem, “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” (12 min.) If you listen to Harlan perform “Myshkin” and you don’t laugh then you, sir, are simply an idiot.

I was holding out hope that the DVD would feature a tour of Ellison Wonderland, but I won’t complain too much.

Final Thoughts:
I’ve already had my say about the documentary. The DVD release offers some great extras though it leaves you wanting even more of Ellison’s readings. There are more available. I highly recommend the aforementioned “I’m Looking for Kadak” among others.

Also, happy birthday, Unca Harlan!

Monday, May 21, 2018


GRADUATION (Mungiu, 2016)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 22, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

At first, I was tempted to describe writer/director Cristian Mungiu's “Graduation” (2016) as a naturalistic film that unfolds at a leisurely pace while observing the details of the everyday life in modern Romania. Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni), the film's protagonist, wants to make sure his daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus) doesn't lose her upcoming scholarship to Cambridge, which he views as a crucial chance for her to escape Romania for a land of better opportunities. Via numerous long takes, he spends a lot of time driving around, speaking to various bureaucrats, and running chores.

It's so realistic it's practically a documentary... except for the fact that the melodramatic complications pile up as rapidly as in a soap opera. First, Eliza is sexually assaulted on her way to school just before taking her final exams, prompting the good doctor to call in some favors on his daughter's behalf. But that's just the start of it. In an approximately fifteen minute sequence in the middle of the film (spoiler alert, if you're the sort that cares), Eliza discovers (or reveals that she already knows about) Romeo's affair with a patient, Romeo's ailing mother has a grave medical scare, his wife kicks him out of their home, and law enforcement shows up out of he blue to investigate some of Romeo's previously mentioned dealings to help Eliza. And then things start getting really complicated, but still with plenty of long takes.

“Graduation” is structured around other contrasts as well. Romeo views himself as a morally righteous old-schooler nobly willing to sacrifice his virtue to navigate a corrupt bureaucracy and win his daughter a better future. Yet, one of the first things we learn about Romeo is that he's having an affair which also may or may not explain the fact that this ostensibly quiet film begins with the sound of shattered glass when a rock is hurled through the Aldea family's apartment window. A friend of Romeo's also reminds him of the time a man helped get them out of military service when they were teenagers, and how said man could really use a new liver right now and maybe the doctor could look into helping with that.

Mungiu doesn't overtly inject any sense of moral judgment on the proceedings, preferring simply to observe his characters and their circumstances closely, seemingly with a mixture of amusement and bemusement at the convoluted social structures these strange human creatures have built for themselves. The film never collapses into despair, however, no matter how much the noose tightens around Romeo's neck. This is due in large part to the fact that Romeo balances hard-learned cynicism with the still smoldering ashes of the optimism that led him to come back to Romania many years before. He bemoans the inability of his generation to make any real changes, but retains faith that his daughter's might still be able to pull off the job. He even defends the nosy investigators who try to bully him: “They're young. Maybe they'll make things better.” Romeo doesn't sound too convinced, but maybe surely beats a definite no. 

The film is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Nothing much to say here. “Graduation” is a recent film shot digitally and immaculately preserved in this 1080p transfer from Criterion. Looks great, as you'd expect.

The film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround audio mix. The lossless sound is flawless and helps convey the sense of space in many of the film's frequently visited locations. Mungiu rarely uses non-diegetic music in his films, but Romeo listens to classical music in the car, and that is treated well in this surround mix. Optional English subtitles support the Romanian audio.

Criterion hasn't packed this Blu-ray release with extras, but they've offered a few interesting features.

An interview with the director (2018, 29 min.) is recorded specifically for Criterion. Mungiu speaks in general about what motivated him to make the film, but doesn't delve too deeply into detail. It's great to hear from Mungiu, but there's not much revealing information here.

The disc also includes the Cannes Film Festival press Conference (2016, 42 min.) in which director and cast field questions about the film that netter Mungiu a Palme d'or for Best Director (shared with Olivier Assayas). These press conferences are seldom riveting enough to watch in their entirety, but, hey, you can watch it in pieces at your leisure.

We also get Deleted Scenes (7 scenes, 8 min. total) and a Trailer (2 min.)

The slim insert booklet features an essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri.

Final Thoughts:
“Graduation” is only Mungiu's second solo feature film since his breakout hit “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” ten years ago. I don't think it matches the high standard set by that film, but it's a potent reminder that Romania continues to produce some of the best films of the 21st century.


MOONRISE (Borzage, 1948)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 8, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Depending on your social (media) circle, Frank Borzage is either an all-but-forgotten figure from Hollywood's distant past, or a name that scrolls by on your Twitter feed every few hours accompanied by hagiographic hosannas. Borzage began his Hollywood career, first as an actor then as a director, during the heyday of the silent one- and two-reelers, and flawlessly navigated both the transition to feature filmmaking and then to sound cinema. Both a critical favorite and a commercial powerhouse, Borzage netted the first-ever Best Director Oscar for “7th Heaven” (1927 – he won for drama and Lewis Milestone won for comedy), and reeled in a second win just a few year later for “Bad Girl” (1931).

Borzage became widely admired for his earnest melodramas, but his romantic vision largely fell out of favor during the WW2 years, though his anti-Nazi film “The Mortal Storm” (1940) made a significant impact at a time (before Pearl Harbor) when Hollywood studios generally shied away from criticizing Hitler and all of that “European business.” By the end of the war, Borzage was slumming it at Republic Pictures, a Poverty Row outfit often celebrated today by cinephiles, but hardly viewed as a plum assignment by the former major-studio star.

While dutifully fulfilling the end of his contract, Borzage more or less stumbled into “Moonrise” (1948), a project abandoned by United Artists. Adapted from a novel by Theodore Strauss (who, gasp, doesn't even have his own Wikipedia entry), “Moonrise” tells the story of hard-luck Danny Hawkins, a small-town Virginian marked almost from birth for the sins of his father who was hanged for murder.

Borzage, working from a script credited to Charles Haas, makes the notion of “marking” quite literal in the film's moody, unnerving opening sequence. The camera focuses on several sets of feet trudging through puddle-drenched mud at night as the condemned man is marched to the gallows. The film then cuts from a silhouette of the prisoner being being dropped from the scaffold to a startling image of another shadowy body (a doll, it turns out) dangling over a crib, prompting the baby inside to wail.

Nobody shows up to comfort the crying toddler, nor will they for years, as Danny is taunted both in school (“Danny Hawkins' dad was hanged!”) and as an adult for his supposed “bad blood.” This alleged bad blood boils over when Danny gets involved in a fight (with a young Lloyd Bridges) that turns lethal, and he spends the bulk of the film trying to stay ahead of the law in his tiny Southern town.

The adult Danny is portrayed by Dane Clark, better known as a supporting actor and this role didn't vault him to leading man stardom. Clark plays sullen and withdrawn just fine, but generates little in the way of charisma, which makes the budding romance with school teacher Gilly (Gail Russell, shortly before alcoholism ruined her career) seem so forced it's almost tempting to view the whole relationship as a figment of Danny's desperate imagination.

The script vacillated in its argument both for and against the notion of “bad blood.” Danny may have been defending himself in his first fight, but he struggles constantly with impulse control, snapping at Gilly for no reason, and violently threatening the town's innocent mute (played by Harry Morgan!) Likewise, a late visit to his grandmother (Ethel Barrymore) suggests bad blood might run deep in this family's veins, when she argues that Danny's father may well have done the right thing by murdering a doctor who, y'know, just didn't give good advice. Then again, it might not be exclusively a family issue. Danny's friend and mentor Mose (Rex Ingram) comforts him with the story of a basically decent man who was sent to jail for fifteen years just “for bein' lonseome”, by which he means raping a woman. Ingram is great, as always, but yeesh.

Though the film's opening is by far its strongest part, Borzage also generates considerable tension in a nifty Ferris wheel sequence, and the whole movie looks great, suffering neither from its modest budget nor from being shot entirely on cheap studio sets. I'm not convinced that “Moonrise” is the late-career masterpiece Borzage boosters make it out to be, but with a strong supporting cast and rich black-and-white photography that evokes a distinct sense of time and place, plus an ending that probably doesn't go where you expect it to, the film certainly deserves to be (re)discovered seventy years after its initial and unsuccessful theatrical run.

The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. “Moonrise” is a public domain film and I'm sure it's had its share of spotty no-frills releases. Obviously, that's not the case with this Criterion release. This “new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution” and showcases rich black-and-white contrast throughout. Much of the film is shot at night (or made to look so) which perhaps makes it a bit difficult to assess how much fine detail the 1080p transfer shows off, but this is a typically strong Criterion release.

The linear PCM mono track is crisp and free of noticeable distortion. The mix doesn't have to do much more than present the dialogue clearly, and it does the job just fine. Optional SDH English subtitles support the English audio.

This is a relatively bare-bones release from Criterion.

The only extra on the disc is a 17-minute interview with film historian Peter Cowie and critic Herve Dumont, author of “Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic.” They provide historical background about Borzage's career and the production and reception of “Moonrise.” Fairly standard stuff, but useful since Borzage is probably unknown even to many Criterion fans.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by critic Philip Kemp.

Final Thoughts:
Though “Moonrise” is championed today by many fans and critics as one of Borzage's best, it was a commercial flop that did nothing to revive his career prospects. He wouldn't make another film for ten more years, and never recaptured his glory years, passing away in 1962 at age 68. Criterion hasn't included many extras, but has provided an excellent transfer of the film.