Val Lewton: A Master of Suspense

I have to give a plug to the folks at The Secret History of Hollywood.

I’ve spent the last couple of days listening to podcasts of their comprehensive, 6-part documentary on the life and career of an under-appreciated cinematic genius, Val Lewton.

After a lengthy apprenticeship to David O. Selznick, in 1942 Val Lewton was lured away by RKO Pictures to head up a new department specializing in horror movies. RKO had nearly gone broke backing Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons” and their board yearned to emulate the success Universal Pictures was having with their stable of movie monsters.

Lewton had little interest in producing such lowbrow fare as “Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman”, etc. but all of his life had retained a taste for the macabre. Working with a team of collaborators that included, at various points,  Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, Nicholas Musuraca, DeWitt Bodean, Ardel Wray and Robert Wise, Lewton reinvented horror cinema, employing shadows and “dark patches” with skill and inventiveness. During his tenure at RKO, he produced modestly budgeted gems like “Cat People”, “I Walked With A Zombie”, “The Seventh Victim” and “Ghost Ship”.

“Shadows: The Val Lewton Story” is diligently researched, vividly presented. Mark Gatiss does a magnificent job as narrator, but the entire production is a credit to all involved.

This podcast gets my highest possible recommendation.

You can find the first episode here.

This series of one of the finest podcasts I’ve yet encountered, a testament to the power of that medium.



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Best Movies of 2017

For the second year in a row I managed to watch over one hundred movies in 2017.

Here is a roster of my favorite cinematic experiences of the past year:

“I, Daniel Blake” (Directed by Ken Loach)

“Dogtooth” (Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)

“45 Years” (Directed by Andrew Haigh)

“The Saragossa Manuscript” (Directed by Wojciech Has)

“The Hourglass Sanitarium” (Directed by Wojciech Has)

“Blue Ruin” (Directed by Jeremy Saulnier)

“Kill List” (Directed by Ben Wheatley)

“Stalker” (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky)

“Le Corbeau” (Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot)

“Faust” (Directed by F.W. Murnau)

Honorable Mention:

“The Four Hundred Blows” (Directed by Francois Truffaut)

“A Touch of Sin” (Directed by Jia Zhangke)

“The Rover” (Directed by David Michod)

“Disorder” (Directed by Alice Winocour)

“Hell and High Water” (Directed by David McKenzie)

“The Lure” (Directed by Agnieszka Smoczyńska)


“Merchants of Doubt” (Directed by Robert Kenner)

“Muscle Shoals” (Directed by Greg Camalier)

“The Wrecking Crew” (Directed by Denny Tedesco)

“Kedi” (Directed by Ceyda Torun)

“Red Army” (Directed by Gabe Polsky)

“Twenty Feet From Stardom” (Directed by Morgan Neville)

“Lo and Behold” (Directed by Werner Herzog)

Honorable Mention:

“Bergman’s Island” (Directed by Marie Nyrerod)

“The White Diamond” (Directed by Werner Herzog)

“The Corporation” (Directed by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott)

* I had the great fortune to see both “Stalker” and “Faust” on the big screen, which only enhanced the genius present in those masterpieces.

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Silver Saucers & Bug-Eyed Monsters

Keep Watching the Skies: American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (21st Century Edition)
by Bill Warren (Introduced by Howard Waldrop)
McFarland & Company Inc., Publishers (2010)

A thoroughly remarkable tome. At once an invaluable, nay, exhaustive resource and a fun, nostalgic read, replete with reproductions of movie posters and plenty of stills from the literally hundreds of (mostly terrible) science fiction films released during the 1950s.

They’re all here, from the semi-classic–“Forbidden Planet” and “The Thing”–to the outright dreadful–“Mesa Of Lost Women”, “Voodoo Island”, “Robot Monster”, “Invasion of the Animal People”, (etc. etc.). Each film, regardless of its merit (or lack thereof), receives a full summary, including production notes and credits. There are many delicious details, amusing anecdotes from some of the people involved. Bill Warren knows his stuff and I doff my hat to him for compiling an authoritative, entertaining and dense (nearly 1,000 pages, including the Index) book that aficionados of science fiction and cult movies will absolutely treasure.

The retail price is a tad steep but Keep Watching the Skies would be a welcome addition to any cineaste’s collection, the kind of volume that makes geeks swoon in ecstasy when they find it under the tree Christmas morning.

Highest recommendation.

Essential reading.



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Film quote

“Could it be that some film directors (like Hitchcock), if they are to gaze with such longing, are safer and freer if they don’t ask too much about their own motives? Is it possible that a similar liberating restraint applies to us, the viewers? One of the charms of ‘I am a camera’ was always its insinuation that if you become that mechanical you may not need to think or question what you are doing. The same facility is useful in torture or playing golf.”

David  Thomson, The Big Screen

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“Kedi” (Turkey; 2016)


(Documentary; 79 minutes)

Director and Producer: Ceyda Torun

My wife and I spent ten days in Istanbul during the summer of 2016.

Despite arriving only a short time after an attempted coup, we found the atmosphere of the ancient city calm, though obviously its population had some misgivings regarding the schemes and mindset of the country’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That unease turned out to be more than justified as, sadly, Erdogan’s thuggish behaviour has only gotten worse. This is not the proper forum to discuss such matters, so I’ll only say that for the sake of the average Turkish citizen, we’ll hope and pray Erdogan’s tenure will soon come to an end.

In Istanbul, cats were everywhere we looked: in the narrow lanes and passages, tiptoeing along rooftops, sprawled on awnings, slipping through the smallest openings, mooching food at outdoor cafes. Locals not only tolerated the feral cat population, many of them left food and water for them, regarding them with rough affection. On a tour bus to Troy, we asked our guide, Mustafa, if cats were granted freedom of the city to reduce the rodent population but he insisted they were “blessed creatures”, deserving of special consideration and kindness. He seemed genuinely appalled when we described how strays were rounded up in North American cities and, in many cases, euthanized.

Film maker Ceyda Torun took it upon herself to document the lives of some of the felines inhabiting Istanbul since its creation, nearly two millennia ago. Displaying enormous ingenuity, she manages to give us a “street’s eye” view of their world and the humans they sometimes interact with. Her subjects are skittish, mercenary, cranky, urbanized; seasoned survivors. Fiercely independent and unlikely to accommodate intrusive cameras or a structured, controlled filming environment.

Nevertheless, the resulting movie is a delight, charming and thoughtful, a meditation on the relationship between people and their animal companions, a mutually beneficial co-dependency going back uncounted thousands of years. Among the city residents interviewed for the film are men and women who have taken it upon themselves to feed the many strays, spending hard-earned money on groceries, carefully preparing meals for their hungry charges…and they have done so as part of a healing process, serving a vulnerable population with no expectation of reward. Meanwhile bearing the haunted, shattered visages of most confirmed saints.

But it’s the cats who steal the show: “Deniz” and “Bengu” and “Duman” and “Gamsiz”. Ms. Torun and her cameraman, Charlie Wuppermann, reveal their secret lives and hidden places while, simultaneously, giving us the rare pleasure of experiencing one of the world’s eternal cities, the jewel of Byzantium, from a perspective previously denied us.

For that, we can only say to all parties involved: “Tesekkur ederim”.

ΩΩΩΩ (Out of 5)


Note: “Kedi” is currently playing at the Roxy Theatre in Saskatoon–you’ll find show information here.

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Best Movies of 2016: An Eclectic Roster

unknownI managed to squeeze in over 100 films in 2016.

A good mix of foreign and domestic releases (those looking for blockbusters, comic book flicks and eye candy should search elsewhere).

Here’s my list of favourites:

  1. “High Rise” (Director: Ben Wheatley) Sorry, folks, no other film came close. Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s bizarre novel is just about note perfect. Bravo!                    (Read my review)
  2. “The Valley of the Bees” (Director: Frantisek Vlacil) Czech New Wave; 1968            (Read my review)
  3. “Loving” (Writer & Director: Jeff Nichols) Nichols’ latest has “Oscar” written all over it. Wise and commendably understated.                                                                                    (Read my review)
  4. “The Big Short” (Director: Adam McKay) The 2008 financial meltdown, brilliantly portrayed.
  5. “Mustang” (Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
  6. “Inherent Vice” (Director: Paul Thomas Anderson)
  7. “The Hunt” (Director: Thomas Vinterberg) Mads Mikkelsen shines.
  8. “Christ Stopped at Eboli” (Director: Francesco Rosi)  A deeply spiritual movie.
  9. “Biutiful” (Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu)  Almost unbearably moving.      (Read my review)
  10. “Chevalier” (Director: Athina Rachel Tsangari) A movie that manages to be funny and insightful.
  11. “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (Director: Ken Loach)
  12. “Mother and Son” (Director: Aleksandr Sokurov)
  13. “The Celebration” (Director: Thomas Vinterberg)
  14. “The Lobster” (Director: Yorgos Lanthimos)                                                                         (Read my review)

Honorable Mention:

“Alps” (Director: Yorgos Lanthimos)
“The Secret in Their Eyes” (Director: Juan Campenella)
“The Witch” (Director: Robert Eggers)
“Four Lions” (Director: Chris Morris)
“99 Homes” (Director: Ramin Bahrani)
“’71” (Director: Yann Demange)
“Inland Empire” (Writer & Director: David Lynch)
“The Babadook” (Writer & Director: Jennifer Kent)


“The Wolfpack” (Director: Crystal Moselle) A film almost too good to be true.
“The Occupation of the American Mind”  (Writer & Director: Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp)  A courageous look at the real situation on the ground in Palestine.
“Dig!”  (Director: Ondi Timoner)
“Beware of Mr. Baker” (Director: Jay Bulgar)


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“Loving”–Now Playing at the Roxy Theatre (Saskatoon)

loving“Loving”  (2016)

Writer & Director:  Jeff Nichols
Cast:  Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Will Dalton, Alano Miller, Terry Abney, Nick Kroll, Bill Camp

Contemporary American cinema rarely produces a feature film of such undeniable excellence as Jeff Nichols’ “Loving”. These days, Hollywood is obsessed with spectacle, fantasy and escapism—serious, intelligent dramas only rarely making it past the “pitch” stage.

Somehow Nichols’ work has escaped the creative grinder and over the past decade or so he has presented us with a number of well-scripted, superbly acted films that, genre-wise, run the gamut from family drama to science fiction. “Mud”, “Shotgun Stories”, “Take Shelter”; quality movies that don’t stoop to please or pander to audience expectations. Even in “Midnight Special”, to my mind his least successful film, Nichols’ ear for dialogue and sense of character never desert him.

“Loving” is Jeff Nichols’ most complete, accomplished effort to date. Based on a true story (how I usually loathe those words), the movie tells of how Richard and Mildred Loving struggled to have their 1958 inter-racial marriage recognized by the state of Virginia, eventually winning their battle in a landmark 1967 ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States. Those are the essential “facts”.

The couple’s courageous efforts to overturn racist miscegenation laws was originally portrayed in a 2011 documentary, “The Loving Story” (directed by Nancy Buirski). Nichols saw the documentary and immediately recognized its dramatic possibilities (Ms. Buirski co-produces “Loving”).

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are perfect as Richard and Mildred, their onscreen chemistry apparent from the moment they appear in the same frame together. Viewers have no difficulty believing that these two have enormous affection for each other and will endure tremendous hardship to retain their union. The supporting players are equally believable and authentic, and here I call special attention to Sharon Blackwood, who plays “Lola”, Richard’s mother. She’s a rural midwife and healer, strong and tough as nails, her appearances brief and always memorable.

But, as ever, the real star of any Nichols film is the script and it’s here that he excels. By refusing to infuse his drama with ridiculous incident and overwrought sentiment, the film-maker shows a willingness to treat his audience as adults, a refreshing and welcome approach. There’s a remarkable scene about 2/3 of the way through “Loving”, when one of Richard Loving’s drunken companions, a black man who has suffered discrimination every waking moment of his life, taunts his friend: “Now you know what it feels like”. It’s an awkward, uncomfortable moment, a reminder that the Mason-Dixon line wasn’t merely geographic, it carved a jagged demarcation through the very soul of a nation, dividing human beings for the most specious and revolting reasons.

That separation is just as apparent, just as stark today. Black lives matter…and any written law or deeply ingrained prejudice that insists one colour or gender or religion supersedes another defames our entire species and diminishes any claims we might have that we have achieved a truly just or civil society.

“Loving” reminds us that though the times have changed, old attitudes linger.

Slavery, segregation, race hatred are historical traumas that will not go away and no interval of time will wash them from the collective consciousness.

Like any sin, they are eternal and can only be absolved by a genuine feeling of contrition on the part of the transgressor, and expressions of forgiveness from those we have wronged.

ΩΩΩΩ 1/2  (Out of 5)

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