Monday, February 22, 2010

Night of the Hunter

In “Night of the Hunter,” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is conning his way into the lives of some naïve small town folk when he notices out of the corners of his shifty eyes a boy staring at his hands. He has the words “love” and “hate” tattooed across his knuckles.

Harry’s a real smooth talker. He says, “Ah, little lad, you're staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand, the story of good and evil?” He then begins one of the most memorable speeches in movie history.

And it’s truly one of those scenes that you have to see to get the jokes that have been tucked away in so many movies since from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” to the “love” and “hate” brass knuckles in “Do the Right Thing” to “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Harry is a “Bluebeard.” His hobby is marrying widows, killing them, and stealing away with their money. He shares a jail cell with a condemned man who talks too much in his sleep. Harry prays, “Lord, you sure knew what you were doing when you brung me to this very cell at this very time. A man with ten thousand dollars hid somewhere, and a widder in the makin’.”

He’ll worm his way into the hearts of that soon to be widow (Shelley Winters) and her two children. And he’ll terrifyingly stop at nothing to get those tattooed fingers around that loot.

Later, in a frightening moment, Harry chases the two fleeing children. They’re trying to reach a boat to float away safely down river. But everything moves – or doesn’t move – as in a nightmare where you run, but your feet refuse to move, as the monster gets closer. Harry emerges from the brambles and lunges at them.

But he sinks into the mud and the children make a narrow escape. Frustrated, he screams. It’s not a human scream though. It’s an anguished and desperate scream, a sound that seems to gurgle and the roar up from the depths. It’s a scream you’ll never forget.

The children find refuge with a woman named Rachel Cooper (silent movie star Lillian Gish) and her home is like an awakening from a bad dream, an idyllic shelter. Unfortunately, Harry is a creature who never sleeps.

Harry and Rachel, evil and good, come face to face, but don’t expect a typical showdown, not in this movie. Think more like dueling hymns: “Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms; leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.”

“Night” – actor Charles Laughton’s first and only movie as a director – is a movie of extremes, of bright sunlight and stark shadows, of youthful innocence and aged corruption, of God and the Devil. It’s a crazy sort of fairy tale movie that flirts perilously with both the sublime and the ridiculous.

It’s a movie that’ll certainly have the eyes of our audience both wide with fear and rolling with disbelief. It’s exciting to see an immensely talented director, also as naïve as the town folk he depicts, charging headlong through darkness toward his idea of light.

“Night of the Hunter” has not been rated by the MPAA. It is probably too strange and too scary for kids. For everyone else, it’ll be unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, March 4 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hobson's Choice

Henry Hobson takes his final draught and gets up to leave. Then, just for a moment, he has second thoughts. Before him, he sees two of each of his drinking buddies. Not being a man to hold second thoughts for long though, he spins around and heads for the door – or is it two doors? Missing both, he bounces halfway back to his table.

Once outside the pub and refreshed by the chill night air, he has a moment of semi-clarity. The street is dotted with rain puddles and the nearest holds a reflection of the moon. He heads toward it as if drawn by its magical powers, but his changing perspective causes the reflection to shift to a different puddle. He splashes about in frustration before doggedly continuing on his illusive quest.

This scene wonderfully conveys Henry’s character. He’s a man of great determination and, as played by Charles Laughton, a great man in other senses of the word as well. Yet, he’s so drunk on his own hubris that he fails to notice the times are changing for masters of the house such as him. The women are taking over.

I first saw “Hobson’s Choice” about twenty years ago as part of a David Lean retrospective. There I was watching epic classics like “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia” and waiting, not terribly anxiously, to see this little comedy on the final night of the series. Now, this little gem is my fondest memory of the bunch.

The story centers on Hobson, the owner of a London boot shop; his eldest daughter Maggie; and his star boot maker, Willie Mossop (played superbly by character actor John Mills). Willie is a shy man content to spend his life creating beautiful works of boot art obscured by Henry’s enormous shadow. Maggie though has other ideas.

Forbidden by her father to marry – he needs her to keep his life in order – Maggie rebels and sees the talented and handsome Willie as the perfect way to defy her dad and strike out on her own. She proposes both marriage and a business relationship. They’ll start their own boot shop. She’ll manage the money. He’ll keep making boots.

That’s the story and it’s skillfully told. But it is the character of Henry and the performance of Laughton that has loomed large in my memory for all these years. Re-watching it recently, I was astonished once again by this extraordinary actor’s virtuosity. Nobody, and I mean nobody, has ever played intoxicated so memorably huger than life.

And as his hubris is gradually stripped away to be transferred over to Maggie, he becomes increasingly pathetic. His character arc is perfectly rendered. Finding himself under Maggie’s thumb and squirming, he is as memorably huge in his begging and pleading as he once was in his ordering and demanding.

Our next movie shows a very different side of Charles Laughton, as director of one of the most singularly dark and strange masterpieces of American movies, “Night of the Hunter.” He was every bit as “bigger than life” as a director as he was as an actor.

“Hobson’s Choice” has not been rated by the MPAA although it did, once upon a time, gain approval by the British Board of Film Censors in 1954. It is a classic in the very best sense of the word and should be a delight for everyone in the audience.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, February 25 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Encounters at the End of the World

“The National Science Foundation invited me even though I made it clear I would not be making another movie about penguins.” Thus begins the narration of German director Werner Herzog in his documentary “Encounters at the End of the World.”

He definitely approached his portrait of Antarctica with a “’March of the Penguins,’ somebody’s already been there, done that” attitude. Much more interesting to Herzog was the question: What sort of people choose to live in such a harsh and frigid environment five months out of the year? Well, he found plenty.

Before I get to the people though, I must say he was unsuccessful. Penguins did find a way to slip into the movie. A few are shown heading from the breeding grounds to the sea, the two places they naturally should be. One penguin though – Herzog thinks it’s deranged – stops as if pondering the meaning of life.

The penguin turns ninety degrees and heads toward the mountains. Its posture with wings spread, the music playing over the scene, and the sheer solitude of that lone creature becoming a tiny speck as it journeys toward certain death all work together to create one of the cinema’s most mesmerizing moments.

So, what sorts of people choose to spend time in Antarctica? As it turns out, all sorts. The common denominator seems to be if you aren’t tied down you’ll tend to fall to the bottom of the Earth. And there’s no place farther down than Antarctica.

Herzog himself is the cinema’s greatest professional drifter. He’s the guy who spent a year in South America dragging a ship up and down a mountain between two rivers in “Fitzcarraldo.” Not a model ship, mind you, but a real, full sized steamer ship. I figure it was inevitable that he tumble down to the South Pole some day.

Then there’s Peter Gorham, a physicist from the University of Hawaii. He finds himself at the bottom of the world studying neutrinos. When Herzog asks: “What’s a neutrino?” Gorham gives him a mini-lecture on metaphysics that sounds like Obi Wan Kenobi. I don’t know what Herzog anticipated Gorham to say, but he probably didn’t expect neutrinos to be the Force that surrounds us and binds us.

Also memorable is Samuel Bowser, a scuba diving cell biologist from San Diego. We first meet him in a contemplative moment, considering the meaning of life as deeply as that deranged penguin. He’s at a crossroads, having done everything he set out to do, and today’s dive beneath the ice will be his last. He goes out with a bang and celebrates by performing an open air electric guitar concert for an audience of, well, none.

Of course, Antarctica is the ultimate locale for those who just want to be alone and marine ecologist David Ainley proves a perfect Garbo. He’s spent 20 years in solitude studying penguins and the only way Herzog can get him to talk is to ask him questions like: “Is it true that penguins can be gay?” Maybe his wayward penguin heading for the mountains just wanted to be left alone as well.

“Encounters at the End of the World” has not been rated by the MPAA. If it had been, I predict either a G or PG. It’s a clean movie with lots of gorgeous footage of scuba diving under the ice, of peering into volcanoes, and, yes, of penguins.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, February 18 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.

Monday, February 1, 2010


“Munyurangabo” is one of the rarest movies Cinema 100 has ever brought to town. It has been screened only a handful of times outside of film festivals and when it plays this Thursday, its Cinema 100 audience will be one of the largest it has ever attracted.

I saw it last summer in Seattle during a “one week only” engagement. That Saturday night screening, in spite of a rave review in the Seattle Times, had only two people in attendance. I’ll never forget the other person turning to me when it was over and saying, “Wow, that was fantastic! Why are we the only ones here?”

I didn’t have a good answer for her. We had just experienced one of the most beautiful, mysterious, and unique movies I’ve ever encountered. It’s a movie that I instantly summed up in my mind by one word, “honesty.”

The movie follows two young men, Ngabo and Sangwa, as they travel to the home of a man who allegedly killed Ngabo’s father. They, or at least Ngabo, intend to kill the man.

Along the way, they visit the home of Sangwa’s parents. His father is bitter, angry. He considers his wayward son to be thoughtless, useless. Much of the movie centers on Sangwa’s attempts to reconnect with his father. Essentially, “Munyurangabo” is the tale of two sons and their fathers.

The movie was filmed by American schoolteacher Lee Isaac Chung who was visiting Rwanda to teach a filmmaking class. It is most memorable in two ways: its scenes – based on improvisations using regional non-actors – feel very much alive and full of the unexpected and its visuals of the Rwandan countryside are eye-popping, vivid, and vibrant.

Everything about the movie feels like a natural, organic creation by people simply telling about their lives and about their reality. This truthfulness about the life and people of Rwanda is what I initially described as “honesty.”

The movie is also enigmatic. The first scene shows us a young man stealing a machete from a street market during a scuffle, but we don’t know why he does so until much later. The final scenes involving the killer of Ngabo’s father are puzzling. Why do we see Ngabo standing in the road holding the machete and moments later in the same stance without the machete? I expect interesting conversations following the movie.

Director Chung also had the courage to do something quite startling and unusual. As the climax draws near, the movie suddenly stops instead of racing toward the expected. After spotting the machete in Ngabo’s backpack, a man recites to him a poem in a musically rhythmic cadence. It is a plea for a new Rwanda as a land of freedom, unification, and equality – and free from slaughter. It’s an amazing moment.

I’m dedicating this review to the finest movie critic in the English language, Robin Wood, who passed away recently. It was his passionate review in “Film Comment” magazine that first brought this beautiful movie to my attention. He memorably – and accurately – summed up the movie with three words, “intelligent about life.”

“Munyurangabo” has not been rated by the MPAA. It is suitable for all ages although it is deliberately paced and requires some fast subtitle reading during one crucial scene where a poem is recited.

The movie shows at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, February 11 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 Film Society series. Tickets are available at the door.