Monday, December 29, 2008

Film Review #185: White Dog
Director: Sam Fuller
Cast: Paul Winfield, Kristy McNichol, Burl Ives

Early in last fall’s Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee’s much under-rated homage to the all-Black 92nd Infantry’s role in the Allied Italian campaign of 1944, a group of Black US troops wades across a freezing Tuscan river at dawn while the Fascists on the other side broadcast a personalized message over loudspeakers. Through the fog, a woman’s heavily inflected voice taunts them about their choice to risk privation and death for a nation that still allowed segregation and worse, and urges their defection.

Lee’s long-standing feud with Clint Eastwood about screen portrayals of race issues generally and Black participation in past US wars in particular notwithstanding – I await the next volley since Gran Torino opens here in Syracuse next week – a strikingly similar but smaller-scale scene occurred decades earlier in Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951).

The first US movie set in the Korean War, shot and rushed into theaters well before that conflict ended, The Steel Helmet was hardly your usual war-time propaganda flick. Instead, a captured North Korean Communist officer first taunts the Black American medic Thompson (James Edwards), in perfect English, about riding in the back of the bus back home, then moves on to remind Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo) about World War II-era West Coast internment camps for Japanese-Americans. These conversations occur beneath the inscrutable gaze of a giant gold Buddha in the temple where the US troops have taken refuge, a statue behind which they literally take cover when the shooting starts.

For Fuller, who earned a Purple Heart for infantry service during World War II, the Korean War was pivotal for portraying US race relations because it could dramatize the shift from segregated units to an integrated US Army, especially for “re-treads” like The Steel Helmet’s Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans’ first screen role) – World War II vets who went back for another hitch and then grappled painfully with changed comrade demographics.

A dozen years later and into the New Frontier, Fuller set Shock Corridor (1963) in a locked mental ward populated with casualties of mid-century American life. A Korean War vet, now believing he’s Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, confides in a lucid moment that his Southern upbringing derailed him more than combat (“My parents fed me bigotry for breakfast – it was a cancer they put in me.”) But Shock Corridor’s real bravura performance belongs to Hari Rhodes as Trent, the delusional Black man who proclaims he founded the Ku Klux Klan and, pillowcase-clad, provokes a violent attack on the ward’s elderly Black janitor “before he marries my daughter.”

Among the juiciest of B-movie-makers, Fuller began as a tabloid crime reporter and pulp fiction novelist. He wrote and directed 29 movies of his own between 1949-89, as the studio system waned and its loosening allowed for the first indie projects. Fuller made full and bracing use of film noir’s lurid, sensational, free-wheeling style to portray social ills in confrontational ways. He took on war, crime, prostitution and, repeatedly, racism.

None of Fuller’s films was more controversial than the 1983 feature White Dog, in which the kindly old grandfather of two golden-ringletted little girls with ice cream cones trains man’s best friend to attack Black people and is terrifically proud of it – all to the melodramatic, spaghetti-Western-like strains of an Ennio Morricone score.

Here, former child star Kristy McNichol plays the itinerant actress Julie, whose car hits the white German shepherd late one night on a mountain road above L.A., takes him to a vet, and bonds with him after the dog intercepts an intruder. Paul Winfield is the trainer Keys, who attempts to de-program the animal (now named Mr. Hyde) at a down-at-the-heels animal park run by a crotchety Burl Ives. Mr. Hyde escapes, strays into a Black neighborhood and gruesomely kills a nattily-dressed man who seeks refuge inside a church against a backdrop that echoes The Steel Helmet’s Buddha, a stained-glass depiction of St. Francis and the beasts. Keys and Julie take the dog in one more time anyway, for a cliff-hanging final training session that evokes Shock Corridor’s lesson that racism – not just a matter of opinion and anything but natural – provokes madness.

Fuller’s script adapted French diplomat-novelist Romain Gary’s memoir White Dog, about his wife’s related experience. Curiously, the project made some Hollywoood rounds before landing with Fuller, who had discussed the Southern custom of training dogs to chase and attack runaway slaves – and its surviving modern permutations – with his old friend Gary when the writer was first at work on the story.

After many advance rumors, Criterion released White Dog on DVD in December, when it made NPR’s list of ten best DVDs of 2008. White Dog resurfaces again years after its brief, belated State-side premiere in 1991, when the still-jittery Paramount Pictures continued to cave to bizarre pressure that the film promoted racism. In any case, Fuller moved to France after Paramount locked up White Dog in 1983, never again making a movie here. Young French filmmakers – who saw White Dog and his other films in Europe – embraced him.

If Sam Fuller isn’t a cinematic taste you’ve acquired, dip in this year.

This review appears in the January 1, 2009 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a regular column reviewing films in current release plus DVDs both new and enduring. Find White Dog on DVD at Netflix, which has a decent selection of Sam Fuller’s other films. Fuller’s 2002 autobiography, A Third Face, is still in print and available at, as is Lisa Dombrowski’s 2008 study of Fuller’s films. And you'll be able to catch Spike Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna on DVD on February 10.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Film Review #184: Doubt
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis

How do you know what you think you know? For much of John Patrick Shanley’s film Doubt, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) evades answering that.

“I have my certainty,” she snaps at one point and “I know people!” at another, when asked for evidence that Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffmann) is molesting Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the first Black student admitted to St. Nicholas, an old Irish Catholic parish school in the Bronx – something she’s had in mind would happen well before this particular boy returns from the priest’s office to history class “in an unsettled state” with alcohol on his breath.

It’s 1964, just before Christmas, and a year since JKF’s assassination – as Father Flynn reminds the parish in the sermon that opens the film, about the ways doubt binds us together as strongly as faith. It’s also a couple years into Pope John XXIII’s Vatican II, whose liberal reformist winds of change at first seem personified both by the film’s frequent gale-force storms and Father Flynn’s conviction that “the Church needs to be friendlier – people need to feel we are part of their family.”

“But we are not part of their family,” counters Sister Aloysius matter-of-factly in a meeting ostensibly about the Christmas pageant. She also dismisses Father Flynn’s suggestion to include “Frosty the Snowman,” arguing the song promotes a pagan belief in magic. On the other hand, as the school’s battle-ax principal, she likes students to believe she has eyes in the back of her head. She later tells Sister James (Amy Adams), “That’s how it works,” when the young nun protests, “The children are all uniformly terrified of you!”

The story moves along as a series of escalating clashes between Sister Aloysius and others in her campaign to thwart and banish this priest – with Flynn himself, with the earnest, gentle Sister James and, in one brief powerhouse scene, with Donald’s mother (Viola Davis, my vote this Oscar season for best supporting actress).

Doubt also works on the growing contradiction between two psychological trajectories. The first is our own emerging discovery that Father Flynn – profoundly self-deluded, armed with a new era’s persuasive vocabulary and an ancient entitlement – was likely headed right where Sister Aloysius discerned him to be going; the second, that fighting fire with fire has its own cost. As our certainty rises, hers eventually – tragically is a workable word here – crumbles.

These trajectories cross when Mrs. Miller explains that she took Donald out of public school because she was afraid the boys there might actually kill him for “his nature – for the way God sent him” – which his father has beaten him for too – a report that seems inspired in part by Sister Aloysius’ own confidence – the single bit of personal history she shares with anyone – that she was once a married woman herself, widowed by World War II.

Shanley’s original play, Doubt: A Parable, opened in New York in 2004, a couple years after this country’s explosive exposes of childhood sexual abuse by some Catholic priests. Winning both a Pulitzer and four Tonies, among other prizes, the play then toured extensively. Shanley wrote and directed the screen version, returning to his own boyhood parish in the Bronx for exterior shots.

It’s Shanley’s first film in eighteen years and such problems as the film has seem rooted in translating stage to screen. Still, these are distracting. There are more symbolic wind storms than any movie set in the Bronx really needs. And even though the great Roger Deakins shot the film, which is frequently lovely, too often the camera swoops around at great heights for no obvious reason, except that – freed from live performance’s earth-bound lines of sight – it can.

Such distractions sometimes overshadow Shanley’s more subtle use of his settings to mirror other issues his story explores, such as the tension between the Church’s twin duties in providing both sanctuary and vigilance. While a great deal of these characters’ attention goes to enforcing rules and to watch-dogging each other’s often ostentatious adherence to procedures, the contrary tradition of offering refuge to law-breakers is equally strong. And by making the range of such “law-breaking” quite broad in this film, Shanley suggests the issue is anything but isolated and occasional. Here, the impulse to shelter another is more likely to undermine obedience to authority than anything else.

Clearly Mrs. Miller sees Catholic school as a sanctuary for her son from informally but sometimes violently enforced mainstream mores. For Father Flynn to claim he was protecting Donald from punishment for filching altar wine means he understands the strength of this strain of Catholicism. The priest’s appeal to Sister James that she guard her own compassion is really an appeal that she apply it to him. And Sister Aloysius actively shields another nun, the elderly Sister Veronica, frankly enlisting Sister James in the deception, because Father Flynn will make Veronica leave if he learns she is going blind - even though this might be for her own good and, to press that point, she has quite a bloody close call because she can't see. Shanley sets most scenes addressing this tension in either the principal’s office or the Church garden. A vivid exception has Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother leave the grounds of St. Nicholas entirely and continue their conversation out in the world, where it will matter most to Donald in the end, while walking to Mrs. Miller’s job.

Anyway, there is a final showdown. Here, Father Flynn wrings from Sister Aloysius the specifics of her first suspicion. She’d watched him through a window as he grabbed the wrist of another boy, that boy had pulled away, and that scrap carried the force of revelation. But Shanley’s parable invites us to recognize that art works in much the same way. By the time this scene arrives, a series of similar brief flashes have also prepared us for the priest’s sudden agreement to request a transfer. And when Flynn tries pleading with her – has she never sinned herself? – and she falters, derailed for a beat by some remembered anguish, I know my mind leaped back to that other scrap of history, that small detail about her own marriage once. Was there a deeply-regretted war-time affair, guilt over her young husband’s death – had Sister Aloysius herself entered the convent for sanctuary, or for atonement?

There’s plenty more in this deeply satisfying film, which really is a gift. I’m just shaking the package for you.

Doubt premiered on December 12 and should reach Syracuse any minute. A version of this review appears in the 12/18/2008 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in the column, “Make it Snappy,” which regularly reviews both DVDs and current theatrical releases. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle. Reach her at

Friday, December 12, 2008

Film Review #183: Cadillac Records
Director: Darnell Martin
Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Beyoncé Knowles, Adrian Brody

About half way through Darnell Martin’s Cadillac Records, there’s enough of a lull that you wonder suddenly, where is Beyoncé Knowles anyway? We’ve met Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright), Little Walter the teen-age mouth-harp prodigy (Columbus Short), Howlin’ Wolf (riveting British actor Eamonn Walker) and Chuck Berry (Mos Def). So where’s Beyoncé? After all, she’s one of the movie’s major draws as legendary platinum blond blues singer Etta James in her early days on Chicago’s Chess Records label. One of the most enduring discoveries of Chess’ founder, Polish immigrant Leonard Chess (Adrian Brody), multiple Grammy-winner James, spectacularly troubled then, has survived most of the film’s other characters. She released her most recent album, All the Way, in 2006, and her signature rendition of the torch song “At Last” graces more than twenty film and television sound-tracks.

So it’s one of the film’s pleasures – and its story-telling accomplishments – that just as you wonder where a character is, just when the story has unfolded in such a way as to demand her appearance, there she is.

In this richly ambiguous, compact scene, Chess – who scoured the South for Black talent during his label’s run from 1950-69 – meets James because she’s brought to his hotel room for an impromptu audition by his brother Phil (the only appearance in the film of Chess’ actual business partner, but more about that script decision below). The film is narrated by Chess Records’ major songwriter Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer), who says as the hotel room door swings open - by way of transition from the last scene and setting up the double meanings about talent and sex and tenderness and money and resentment and gratitude and who’s in charge that thread through all the future interactions between James and Chess – that Leonard Chess “was looking for women too...”

Helping herself to a seat on his bed, James asks if “we’re gonna do it right now?” Yes, says Chess, he’s leaving town in the morning. Well, it’s hard, counters James, “when you’re not in the mood.” “She’s not in the mood!” mutters an exasperated Chess. Then James strolls into the bathroom and from there starts singing, shyly at first. Of course there are two revelations here – what the Chess brothers heard, and Beyoncé herself. Then Willie Dixon finishes his sentence: “… he was looking for a woman to go up against his men.”

This film might have unfolded in another, more expected way. Martin has said that Columbia Pictures wanted a standard Leonard Chess biopic. In that scenario, the doomed romance rumored between Chess and James would have taken center stage early, leaving little room for the four male musicians on whom Martin spends the first half of her film, and little sense of what going “up against them” might actually mean for James as a musician. James would hardly be a musician at all in that scenario, but instead – you know the type - a naïve, unschooled, rawly talented force of nature.

Instead of that standard biopic, Martin set out to portray the music and the musicians coming out of the great mid-century migration north (we meet Muddy Waters in 1941, share-cropping in Mississippi, listening to Alan Lomax’s quavery recording of himself, saying “I feel like I’m meeting myself for the first time,” before he lights out for Chicago), how R & B became “popular” and “crossed over” (besides appealing to white bobby-soxers, Chuck Berry successfully sued the Beach Boys for stealing his “Sweet Little 16” and passing it off as their own in the hit “Surfin’ USA”), how the music overlapped with and influenced the Civil Rights movement (Howlin’ Wolf immediately sets Chess straight about who gives orders to his band members and Little Walter’s response to white cops personifies a tidal shift). Since Martin makes room for these characters up front instead of using them as background – and they are all superbly played – when they find Chess is looting their royalties, that betrayal has real bite because you know them as well as you know him.

And by removing Phil Chess, Martin replaces the standard two-white-brothers narrative – a huge space occupier – with a very different “story of two men,” as Willie Dixon calls it at the start. By using alternating scenes to introduce and follow Chess in his pre-impresario days – junkyard owner dreaming of buying a bar – and Mississippi share-cropper Muddy Waters, Martin structurally underscores the parallel importance of their stories. And that’s only the beginning of dramatic parallels between them – for example, each has a decent and long-suffering wife, and brief but personal, nuanced exchanges of the sort that occur, when you think about it, between equals. Now some reviewers don’t like this movie, I suspect because it so disrupts expectations of what – and who – it “should” have been about. So you better see it quick. Like Bryan Barber’s Idlewild – remember how that film, so steeped in a wonderful fluency with its screen musical forebears, was dismissed by critics as “derivative”? – it might only be here for a minute.

This review appeared in the 12/11/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Darnell Martin wrote and directed two previous features, I Like it Like That (1994) and Prison Song (2001), and directed Suzan-Lori Parks’ script for Their Eyes Were Watching God (2005). All three are available on DVD.