Friday, March 24, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Directed by: Mamoru Oshii.   
Written by: Kazunori Itô based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. 
I had not seen Ghost in the Shell since around the time I met my anime loving wife – and tried to impress her with my knowledge (which was limited then – but has grown since) of the genre she loved. I remembered liking the film – although for some reason, I hadn’t revisited it like I have with other anime films (Akira, Grave of the Fireflies, Paprika, Perfect Blue, all of Miyazaki, etc.) in years – so I was looking forward to reason to see it again before the live action remake hits theaters later this month. Watching the film again surprised me – it was slower than I remembered it being, and even after watching, I’m not sure I could pass a test on what exactly happened in it. It’s also odd to see it just in the contest of how far animation has come in the last 22 years – Ghost in the Shell was once lauded for its visuals, and while there is great stuff here, it’s not all great. While I mainly enjoyed the return trip to Ghost in the Shell – I was also at least somewhat disappointed.
The film is set in the future – some point at which humans and cyborgs live alongside each other mainly in peace. The protagonist is The Major – a beautiful, strong woman who spends a lot of time naked for some reason - who is more robot than human. She is a cop, assigned to investigate one potential criminal – but in the course of that, stumbles over the Puppet Master – the most dangerous cybercriminal around – a man who says he once had a body, but was tricked out of it – and no exists in the electronic universe exclusively – and perhaps wants the Major to join him.
There is a lot – at times seemingly endless – talk in Ghost in the Shell, about just want it means to be human, and the line between human and robots – what makes one human, and what doesn’t. In many ways, its biggest influence is probably Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) – which has a lot of talk, and mixes in action alongside it as well. The dialogue is rather ponderous and philosophical – sometimes reaching for something profound, sometimes sounding like the rambling of pot addled university students.
The film was groundbreaking in many ways on a technological level – using cutting edge animation and sound techniques – and much of the film does look great. Yet, there is a reason why its animation style didn’t become the standard going forward either – and you can see the filmmaker hitting the limited of what they can do at times (there are a few odd scenes in which it doesn’t look like much of anything is moving- as long reams of dialogue are read).
Ghost in the Shell was meant to be a breakthrough when it was released in 1996 in North America – a coming out party for anime, which wanted to break into the theatrical marketplace, and not just exist on import VHS tapes. In that, it had mixed success – the film didn’t gross much when it was released, but more and more anime made its way to North America – legally (my wife complains that when she first got into anime in the early to mid-1990s – she had to work to find every book and tape she had – then they made it too easy). Ghost in the Shell is a good anime film – but it wouldn’t make my list of the best the genre had to offer – and oddly, it wouldn’t even be among the first I would show to people who are new to the genre. The film has its merits, but it’s also a little bit of a confusing mess.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
Directed by: Bill Condon.
Written by: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos. 
Starring: Emma Watson (Belle), Dan Stevens (Beast), Luke Evans (Gaston), Josh Gad (LeFou), Kevin Kline (Maurice), Hattie Morahan (Agathe / Enchantress), Haydn Gwynne (Cothilde), Gerard Horan (Jean the Potter), Ray Fearon (Père Robert), Ewan McGregor (Lumière), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Nathan Mack (Chip), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette).
Disney is in the process of doing live action remakes of pretty much all of their back catalogue – which is undeniably little more than a cynical money making ploy – a way to cash in on their existing properties instead of coming up with original ideas (a giant corporation, doing something purely for monetary giant? Try and hide your shock). But while that is true, that doesn’t mean that these movies have to be bad necessarily – last year their Jungle Book remake was a complete delight, and Pete’s Dragon was even better (even if it didn’t get the attention it deserved). Maleficent offered an alternate version of Sleeping Beauty (certainly preferable to the other story, which is painfully dull). The key to making these films truly good is to have a different point-of-view – something that sets it apart from the animated classic we all know and love. Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast, unfortunately, doesn’t really have that. Like Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, it is too faithful to the original version, which makes the film a little harder to defend. Still, though, I have to say that even if this Beauty and the Beast is merely a cover version to the 1991 animated masterwork – and one that feels the need to go on much longer than original – it is a very good cover version. The songs we know and love are all there, and (with one exception) are mainly a delight. The performances work – and in a few cases flesh out what were very broad characters in the original. And from the standpoint of costumes, production design, cinematography and visual effects, it really is hard to find fault. More important still – it satisfies its target audience – specifically, my five year old who calls the animated original her favorite movie (trust me, I’ve watched it about 12 dozens in the past year – including two days after seeing this one). Despite the two plus hour runtime time, she sat in rapt attention the whole time, and loved every minute. It’s hard to argue with that.
We all know the story by now – Belle (Emma Watson) is a beautiful young girl, living in the French countryside, who wants more than her small town can offer – especially more than Gaston (Luke Evans), the town’s boorish resident hunk, who is determined to marry her. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) heads off to market, gets lost in the woods, and comes across an enchanted castle – inhabited by talking furniture and a Beast – the beast was once a prince, who through his own selfish action got himself – and his servants (for some reason) cursed. Now, unless he can learn to love – and get someone to love him – he will be cursed forever. Belle shows up to save her father, ends up taking his place, and – of course – romance ensues.
This story has already inspired two cinematic masterpieces – Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version, and Disney’s 1991 version (at the risk of having my cinephile’s card revoked, I’ll say I liked the 1991 version more). This new version, pretty much copies the animated version scene for scene, note for note, but adds some (mainly unnecessary) detours along the way. For the most part, all your favorite songs from the original are back – and they are delightful – my favorite remains “Gaston” – performed with appropriate aplomb by Evans (who surprised me by giving the best performance in the film) and Josh Gad as his sidekick Le Fou (the much ballyhooed “gay moment” in the film is so fleeting by the way, its barely there – I’d feel pretty stupid if I was that woman who cancelled my family’s trip to Disneyland – losing thousands of dollars in the process – because of Disney pushing a gay agenda – then again,. I’d feel stupid if I was that woman anyway). The other major highlight, of course, is Beauty and the Beast itself – a wonderfully romantic dance number. The one original song that fell flat for me was Be Our Guest – which was so over busy and hectic, it felt like an outtake from Moulin Rouge (and not in a good way). Apparently, there were also some new songs in the film as well – but two days later, I cannot remember a single one, so you judge for yourself what that means about them.
The film definitely has it flaws – it does go on too long, it does have too much unnecessary backstory, and it does have a weird rhythm to it that doesn’t quite work. All the actors playing the various talking furniture dial everything up to 11 – and while that’s okay when they’re say talking clocks or candlesticks, it becomes a distraction when they’re real people.
But the film gets the main things right. Emma Watson makes for an appropriately spunky heroine – and has a lovely singing voice to boot. Dan Stevens – currently doing great work in Legion – is fine under layers of CGI as the Beast, and that’s all he has to be. I’ve already sung Evans praises – and will say that Gad knows his job as a Disney sidekick well. The surprise is Kevin Kline, who makes the most out of Maurice’s additional screen time. As a visual spectacle, it’s tough to argue with the work on display here.
A part of me knows that the cynic inside me is always going to hate on a film like Beauty and the Beast. It is undeniably, for Disney, an act of cynical money grabbing – in this case more than most, since they have essentially pulled a Gus Van Sant remakes Psycho here. I also know that the film was not made with 35 year old cynics in mind. If that’s you, stay away. If however, like me, you have a 5 year old daughter at home, suck it up, and take her. To her, witnessing this movie is to witness movie magic – and that’s worth it, even if the film is flawed.

Movie Review: Kong Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island
Directed by: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
Written by: Dan Gilroy and Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly and John Gatins. 
Starring: Tom Hiddleston (James Conrad), Samuel L. Jackson (Preston Packard), Brie Larson (Mason Weaver), John C. Reilly (Hank Marlow), John Goodman (Bill Randa), Corey Hawkins (Houston Brooks), John Ortiz (Victor Nieves), Tian Jing (San), Toby Kebbell (Jack Chapman / Kong), Jason Mitchell (Mills), Shea Whigham (Cole), Thomas Mann (Slivko), Eugene Cordero (Reles), Marc Evan Jackson (Landsat Steve) Richard Jenkins (Senator Willis).
I liked Gareth Edward’s 2014 version of Godzilla for many of the reasons others didn’t like it – I enjoyed the fact that the human characters were pretty much useless – coming up with one ill-fated plan after another, none of which ever end up working. I also enjoyed the fact that the movie played hide and seek with the monsters for much of the runtime – either showing them from a distance through news footage, or putting us on the ground with the humans, who are so dwarfed by the magnificent creatures, it’s hard to get a complete view of them. Kong Skull Island takes place in the “same universe” as that film did – and it shares a few things in common with it. In both films, humans are essentially to blame for what happens to them, and powerless to stop it, try as they might. But it does seem like the studio has in other ways taken the advice of the people who didn’t like Godzilla as much – this is a film that puts Kong front and center nearly from beginning to end – leaving its talented human cast as basically cookie cutter afterthoughts. The film, which is set in 1973 at the tail end of the Vietnam War, also – oddly – plays a lot on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – the greatest film ever made – in some ways that made me smile, and others that made me groan. I’m not sure the film really works – it certainly isn’t a match for Godzilla, one of my favorite blockbusters of recent years – but it is a hell of a lot fun – and that counts for a lot in a film about a giant monkey killing things.
The film is set right as the withdrawal from Vietnam is happening. Someone, the crazed Bill Randa (John Goodman) – the head of some weird, government agency whose job is apparently to hunt from giant monsters – convinces a Senator to send him and his team of scientists to the newly discovered Skull Island – which Randa thinks may prove his theory of giant pockets of hollow earth that would house giant creatures (some 40 years later in this universe, people still don’t believe this in Godzilla). Randa gets a military escort – led by Colonel Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) – a true believer pissed that they are “abandoning” the war in Vietnam, alongside an expert tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), and a war photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), who corrects Conrad by saying she is an “anti-war” photographer – whatever the hell that means., They show up on the the island, drop depth charges so they can “map” it – and Kong show sup to discover their puny helicopters. The survivors now have a few days to make it to the other side of the island to be picked up – or presumably, they’ll be stranded forever. And considering Hank Marlowe (John C. Reilly) has been stranded there since being shot down in WWII – and gone slightly crazy in the past 30 years – they don’t want that.
There are a lot of character in Kong: Skull Island – too many really, since the movie isn’t really interested in any of them. Only a few are memorable days after seeing the film – Samuel L. Jackson’s mad Colonel Kurtz like character, gone crazy in his mission to “not lose” this war as well, and kill Kong – even after it becomes clear he really isn’t the bad guy – and there are real bad guys there (they look kind of like the muttos in Godzilla – but only kind of). When John C. Reilly shows up, he steals the movie, with his crazed comic performance, whose every line reading is a delight. The rest of the cast though kind of blends into the background – both Huddleston and Larson are more than capable of being the charming leads at the center of the movie, but neither is given anything to do except the obvious – Huddleston’s job is to basically look ruggedly handsome (success!) and Larson’s job is to NOT be a damsel in distress throughout (again, success, I guess). This does point to something else the movie attempts to do – which is to go against the somewhat problematic history of Kong – seeing Kong himself as a “dangerous other” – a dark sexual predator after the pretty blonde, and the tribe on the island being complete savages. Kong Skull Island deliberately sets out not the do that – Kong himself seems to like Larson’s Mason, but their interactions are drained of those sexual under currents, and the islands natives are basically wordless and peaceful (does that fall into another cultural stereotype? Perhaps – but it’s not as offensive, so let’s chalk that up as a win).
Besides, Kong Skull Island knows that you’re there to see Kong smash things, and the film really does deliver the goods on that level. From the opening battles against the fleet of helicopters that come to attack, to various sequences on Kong battling his arch nemesis’ from beneath the island, to an amusing fight with a giant octopus, Kong Skull Island is a triumph of giant monster battling action. This Kong isn’t given the personality of Peter Jackson’s Kong (another film I like more than many) – but he battles wonderfully.
The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts – another of those indie directors given a couple hundred million to make a blockbuster after one indie hit (in his case, that would be 2013’s The Kings of Summer – a movie I remember not much liking the time). Unlike Edwards – whose indie film was Monsters, which was appropriately enough about giant monsters, why they thought of Vogt-Roberts to do this film is a mystery to me – but he mainly pulls it off. There are some clever jokes around the edges of the film – and some of the subtler references to Apocalypse Now are fun as well. No, Kong: Skull Island isn’t a great film – and perhaps if it was released in August, after months of weekly CGI-fests, I’d be harder on it than I’m being now. But it’s March, it’s been a while since I’ve seen some giant monsters do battle – and this film works on that level.

Movie Review: Always Shine

Always Shine
Directed by: Sophia Takal.
Written by: Lawrence Michael Levine.
Starring: Mackenzie Davis (Anna), Caitlin FitzGerald (Beth), Lawrence Michael Levine (Jesse), Khan Baykal (Paul), Alexander Koch (Matt), Michael Lowry (Vic), Colleen Camp (Sandra), Jane Adams (Summer).
Always Shine is a fascinating horror movie about a Hollywood misogyny, toxic female friendships, and the blurring of reality. It owes a debt to films like Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. – and while it doesn’t reach those heights (which would be hard, since they are two of the best films ever made) – it’s still a film that has an interesting take, and gets weirder and more surreal as it moves along. I’m not sure all the twists work – but they’re all interesting.
The film opens with two very similar scenes – of the two stars talking directly into the camera. First there is Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) – reading lines for what sounds like a rather lame horror film – and then having a discussion with the director and producer – who talk about how the nudity in this film will be extensive, but it’s vital to the project, as they want to shoot very “veritie” style. Next is Anna (Mackenzie Davis), and at first it seems like perhaps she is auditioning as well – as the shot in exactly the same – except it turns out that no, she isn’t – she really is arguing with a mechanic who is trying to rip her off. These two scenes establish both of these characters quickly – both are actresses, both are friends, both are “pretty blondes” – but Beth is pliant and amicable, and Anna is abrasive and unwilling to take shit. It’s no wonder Beth’s career is on the rise, and Anna’s isn’t – it has nothing to do with talent, but personality – and Beth has the personality that men want – and they’re the ones calling the shots.
The simmering tension of their “friendship” is at the heart of Always Shine. The pair of them head to a cabin in Big Sur for a mini-vacation – although the tension is there from the beginning. Anna resents Beth because her career is taking off, and Anna is struggling to get anything. And yet, Beth is so seemingly nice – seemingly considerate of Anna, it’s hard to get too mad at her, right? I mean, Beth doesn’t even share her biggest news with Beth – doesn’t tell her she’s going to be in a magazine’s “new Hollywood” issue, doesn’t tell her that she’s going to be a lead in a real movie (even if it does sound dumb) – a step up in her career. She really does try to not rub things in Beth’s face. Or, perhaps, is that just an act? Beth seems so nice and pliant, - but part of that is clearly an act. She clearly tries (and succeeds) to poach a man Anna has her eyes on (even if Beth has no real interest in him – she has a boyfriend at home), or doesn’t share other things with Beth either – like the possibility of a role in an Avant-garde short film, or Anna’s reel with her agent, etc. Anna is bitter and angry at Beth – but she really does have a reason to be.
The film runs 90 manures, and the first hour or so is pretty terrific. The two lead performances are great – FitzGerald, is perfect as the passive-aggressive Beth, and Mackenzie Davis – who has been doing great work for a while now – is even better as the more fiery Anna. The last half hour takes some surreal twists – it’s here where the film enters Persona/Mulholland Dr. territory – and while the performances never lag, and the direction remains top notch, the plot developments border on cliché – before jumping head first over that border.
Still, for most of its runtime, Always Shine is a terrific film – one that makes me want to seek out director Sophia Takal’s debut film, Green (2011) – and has me anxiously awaiting whatever she does next. Her direction is great throughout – and the point of view of the film is fascinating. This is an underseen gem.

Movie Review: Creepy

Directed by: Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
Written by: Chihiro Ikeda & Kiyoshi Kurosawa based on the novel by Yutaka Maekawa.
Starring: Hidetoshi Nishijima (Takakura), Yûko Takeuchi (Yasuko), Teruyuki Kagawa (Nishino), Haruna Kawaguchi (Saki), Masahiro Higashide (Nogami), Ryôko Fujino (Mio), Takashi Sasano (Tanimoto), Masahiro Toda (Okawa).
Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Creepy is a film that returns the Japanese director to his J-Horror roots – particularly his 1997 serial killer drama Cure – which was his breakthrough film. Kurosawa would make a few more J-horror films (notably Pulse in 2001) – before starting to make more traditional dramas – but with Creepy, he returns – however briefly – to the genre that launched his career. Like Cure, Creepy is a masterclass is film style – a slow burn of a film that goes from police procedural in the first half to something much darker in the second. Also like Cure, the film is marred by some sloppy storytelling and some huge leaps in logic the film requires the audience to make. If you can accept those however, than Creepy really does deliver.
The film is about Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) – a criminal profiler, who starts the movie as a talented, but arrogant, man who doesn’t see the danger lurking directly in front of him – and that leads to tragic consequences. As a result, he leaves his job, and moves to the suburbs, taking a job teaching criminology at a university, as he tries to repair his marriage to Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi). His is slowly drawn back into police work –through a cold case in which an entire family – save for one teenage daughter (now an adult) went missing. That daughter claims she doesn’t remember anything, but Takakura isn’t sure he believes her – and starts pushing her, more and more, to remember – and bits and pieces do eventually start coming. There is also the issue of their new neighbor, Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa) who is, well, creepy. But perhaps she’s just socially awkward and weird – nothing criminal about that – although the fact that his wife remains little seen is strange, and his relationship with his daughter is also weird – but not in a way that you can really put your finger on. Yasuko is more creeped out by him that Takakura – who, once again, may not see what’s lurking under his nose.
Kurosawa’s strength in these thrillers has always been in his ability to create mood and atmosphere – and not so much in his narrative abilities. That’s true in Creepy as well – which is a masterfully made film in many respects, slowly ratcheting up the tension for more than an hour, before twisting itself into something much more horrific (the fact that it’s so normal, makes it more horrific still). Kurosawa, unlike other directors of J horror, never overdoes the blood and gore in his films – he knows, ultimately, he doesn’t need to. He is also capable of getting wonderful performances from his cast – here in particular Nishijima is excellent as the expert profiler, who becomes so obsessed with one case, he cannot see what’s right in front of him, and especially Kagawa as Nishino, who goes from weird to creepy to something else gradually, but wonderfully.
What doesn’t work as well is some of the plotting. While the film is masterfully directed, I do think it takes too long to get where it’s going – it has a tendency to repeat itself. It’s also a plot that relies so heavily on coincidence that even a generous audience member is going to question just how much it leans on it – and just how great of leap of logic the film requires. As well, Yasuko, the protagonists wife, is not as developed as she needs to be to make a late film twist work - seriously the film, which runs over two hours, could have easily found time to make her into more than the main characters wife, which is what was needed to make the twists work.
Still, it’s nice to see Kurosawa step back into the genre that made his career – and show off the old chops again. I wish he’d do it more often, because he really is great at it. Maybe, next time thought, he should get someone else to write the screenplay. Creepy is a good movie that with a together screenplay, could have been a great one.

Best Film of Every Year I've Been Alive

If you've been paying attention to film twitter over the last week or so, you'll have seen many people releasing their list of the best film from every year they've been alive. I did the same thing, but figured I'd do the same on the blog - presented without comment, other than to say, most of these are the same as on my year in review series done a few years ago, but not all.

1981 - Blow Out (Brian DePalma)
1982 - E.T. (Steven Spielberg)
1983- The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
1984- Amadeus (Milos Forman)
1985 – Shoah (Claude Lanzmann)
1986 - Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
1987 - Broadcast News (James L. Brooks)
1988 - The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese)
1989 - Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee)
1990 – GoodFellas (Martin Scorsese)
1991 – JFK (Oliver Stone)
1992 – Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)
1993 - Schindler's List (Steven Spielberg)
1994 - Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
1995 – Heat (Michael Mann)
1996 – Fargo (Joel & Ethan Coen)
1997 - Boogie Nights (Paul Thomas Anderson)
1998 - The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)
1999 – Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2000 - Yi Yi (Edward Yang)
2001 - Mulholland Dr. (Dsvid Lynch)
2002 - 25th Hour (Spike Lee)
2003 - Lost In Translation (Sofia Coppola)
2004 - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
2005 - A History of Violence (David Cronenberg)
2006 - The Departed (Martin Scorsese)
2007 - There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2008 - Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
2009 - Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
2010 - The Social Network (David Fincher)
2011 - The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
2012 - The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
2013 - Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)
2014 - The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
2015 - Inside Out (Pete Docter)
2016 - O.J. Made in America (Ezra Edelman)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Classic Movie Review: To Sleep with Anger (1990)

To Sleep with Anger (1990)
Directed by: Charles Burnett.
Written by: Charles Burnett.
Starring: Danny Glover (Harry), Paul Butler (Gideon), DeVaughn Nixon (Sonny), Mary Alice (Suzie), Reina King (Rhonda), Cory Curtis (Skip), Richard Brooks (Babe Brother), Sherul Lee Ralph (Linda), Carl Lumbly (Junior), Vonetta McGee (Pat).
Charles Burnett’s debut film – Killer of Sheep (1978) is one of the great American films of the 1970s – but it took a good 30 years for it to get its due. The music rights – which Burnett didn’t bother to clear when he made the film as a student – made releasing the film impossible, so while anyone who had seen the film loved it, that number wasn’t very large until those issues were finally resolved, and the film got proper attention. It is often referred to as an American neo-realist film, and the film certainly does capture some of the same sort of feeling of the films of Vittorio De Sica or Roberto Rossellini, there is also something somewhat otherworldly about the film. Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger – his third film, made 12 years after Killer of Sheep – takes this mixture of realism with the fantastical to even greater extremes. It isn’t the perfect film that Killer of Sheep was – but it’s still fascinating – a modern day Parable set in Burnett’s Los Angeles.
The film is about Gideon (Paul Butler) and Suzie (Mary Alice) – transplants from the Deep South, now living in Los Angeles. They have two sons – Junior (Carl Lumbly), more mature and stable, and Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), immature and entitled – with a wife, Rhonda (Reina King), who looks down on her Southern in-laws – so much so that she stays in the car in the driveway during Sunday dinner, but not enough to not let them constantly babysit her son until late into the night. The family puts on a happy face, but there are cracks under the surface – cracks that gradually become exposed with the arrival of Harry (Danny Glover).
Harry is an old friend from the South – he hasn’t seen Gideon or Suzie in decades – since they left – yet when he arrives, he is greeted with open arms, and an offer to stay as long as he likes. Harry seems nice – he’s friendly, he’s quick with a story and a laugh – and everyone seems to love him. But right from the start, there is something vaguely sinister about Harry, and there are questions about him you cannot help but wonder – logistical questions about how he knew when Gideon and Suzie were, and why he decided to show up out of the blue for the first time in decades. As the movie progresses, Harry goes from genial to passive aggressive – he almost takes over the house in his seemingly friendly way, bossing people around as he clips his toenails in the middle of the living room, leads Gideon on a walk, which provides him with visions, and leads to a stroke and Gideon in a coma, and leading the weak willed Babe Brother down the path of temptation. He has many people fooled, but not Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph) – an old girlfriend of his from those back home days, who very quickly knows Harry hasn’t changed, and shows that Harry isn’t the only one who can tell stories that make everyone uncomfortable. What Harry really is – who he represents – is never explicitly made clear, but if he isn’t Satan, he’s at least on a first name basis with him.
All of this leads to a climax that is straight out of the bible, and a denouement that is both abrupt and hilarious – putting a happy face on everything, although whether it’s a legitimate happy ending or just a family agreement to go back to pretending is open from debate.
There is much to admire about To Sleep with Anger – not least of which is the best performance of Danny Glover’s career (it even somehow fits to have Glover be younger in real life than Harry is clearly supposed to be). It’s hard to hate Harry, who seems so genial, so happy, and is never overtly threatening, even if he is also undeniably the cause of the family almost being broken apart. Other performances in the film are good as well – particularly Mary Alice, so outwardly sweet and polite, masking something stronger inside, Sheryl Lee Ralph – hilarious and tough as nails as the only one who sees through Harry from the start and Richard Brooks as the overgrown child Babe Brother – the one who actually does need to grow the hell up.
The film has a tricky tone that is all Burnett’s own. There are large family gatherings that have the feeling of authenticity to them – especially the large fish fry gathering, in which Harry breaks out the corn liquor. But there is also the undeniable feeling of the supernatural hanging over the whole movie – and just waiting to drop. I do think Burnett probably waits a little too long for it to drop – and the movie can be a little too repetitive leading up to the climax.
Still, To Sleep with Anger is rare for an American film of its time (and sadly, would still be rare for an American film of this time) in its depiction of an African American family – the roots of the past coming to haunt the present, and how the film was clearly made without a white audience in mind (there is no code switching here). Burnett should be a figure in American film on par with Spike Lee – but he’s always struggled to get his films made, and struggled to get his films seen once they have been (To Sleep with Anger is not the easiest film to track down). That really does need to change.