Before Bogart Became Bogie

For that small number of gifted actors who become screen legends, the path to stardom is rarely predictable. Sometimes it’s a case of pure luck. Other times it’s achieved after years of honing their craft and screen persona through hard earned experience. I can’t think of a better example of the latter than Humphrey Bogart who made twelve films (two of them short subjects, 1928’s The Dancing Town and 1930’s Broadway’s Like That) before his breakout supporting role as the vicious gangster Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936). The irony is that despite playing that same character on Broadway where he won unanimous critical acclaim, Warner Bros. wanted Edward G. Robinson for the role. If it hadn’t been for the film’s star, Leslie Howard, who played opposite Bogart on Broadway and demanded that he be cast in the film or he would quit, Bogart might not be as famous today.  Continue reading

To Look or Not to Look

Have you ever had to look away from the screen while watching a movie because you couldn’t bear to see what happened next? Do you have a threshold tolerance level of what you will watch before you become outraged or repulsed and walk out of a film? There have certainly been controversial movies over the years – both art and exploitation features – that have tested the limits of what viewers will watch. Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002), Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1978), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (19776), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), and Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) are just a few of the more famous offenders that have provoked heated debates over censorship and creative expression. We now have a new test case – The Painted Bird (2019), Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul’s big-screen adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s dark masterpiece from 1965.   Continue reading

Vagabond Screwballs

Slither (1973) is a film of firsts in many ways. It marked the directorial debut of Howard Zieff, who would go on to become one of the most sought-after comedy directors in Hollywood during the ’70s (Hearts of the West [1975], House Calls [1978], Private Benjamin [1980]). It featured the first screenplay by W. D. Richter who would later pen the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the 1979 remake of Dracula, and Brubaker [1980] as well as direct the cult film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension [1984]. And it was James Caan’s first starring role after his critically acclaimed success in The Godfather [1972] and the beginning of his reign as a Hollywood leading man after struggling to break through in smaller scale movies like Rabbit, Run [1970] and T.R. Baskin [1971].   Continue reading

Pandemonium in the Dark

In Japanese cinema, the samurai film can be many things. It can be a ghost story (Ugetsu, 1953), a rousing adventure (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), a tragic romance (Gate of Hell, 1953), a sweeping historical epic (Tales of the Taira Clan, 1955), a Shakespeare adaptation (Throne of Blood, 1957) or even a revenge saga (Chushingura, 1962). The latter is my favorite sub-genre in the category and the best samurai revenge films are usually driven by the avenger’s sense of honor being defamed and/or moral outrage at personal injustice. This is certainly the motivation behind the heroine of Lady Snowblood (1973), played by Meiko Kaji, and its sequel, Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974). It is also the central premise of Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri (aka Seppuku, 1962), which is more doom-laden and brooding than the kinetic action of the Lady Snowblood films but nevertheless explodes in a bloody, sword-wielding finale. But if you want to go deeper, darker and crueler, it is hard to top Toshio Matsumoto’s Demons (aka Shura aka Pandemonium, 1971) for pure malice.   Continue reading

The Insect and Animal Conjurer

Stop motion animator and entomologist Ladislas Starewicz is busy at work on a new flight of fantasy.

Ladislas Starewicz is generally acknowledged as the first person to create puppet animation but he is barely known except among other animators, film historians and movie buffs. Yet this self-taught Russian entomologist might be the most brilliant stop-motion artist that ever lived.   Continue reading