Friday, April 20, 2018


America's greatest writer used to have red hair. With his piercing eyes indicating the keenest of wits and a lovably cantankerous nature, he cut an instantly recognizable figure. He held many jobs, wrote for multiple newspapers, and was spectacularly inept at business. A natural-born storyteller and genius with words, he wrote constantly: articles, short stories, autobiographical sketches, and books featuring tall tales and a strong sense of place.

Mark Twain, however, lost the fortune he married into on endless get-richer-quicker schemes. His wife's father made millions cornering the coal market during the Civil War. Twain had an opportunity to invest in Bell Telephone. Instead, he frittered it away on inventions such as a clamp for keeping children's bedsheets down at night.

In this fascinating documentary directed by Ken Burns, we learn that Samuel Langhorne Clemens (his pseudonym is riverboat pilot-ese marking the division between safe and unsafe water) was at various times not only a pilot but a printer's assistant, a civil servant, and a prospector who never struck gold. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Confederate Army--never once fighting a battle due to beating a hasty retreat and heading out West. And, having reached Nevada, in order to avoid facing a guy in a pistol duel, continued on further into California. 

His boyhood experiences in Hannibal, Missouri, provided in later life a seemingly inexhaustible storehouse of material. He and his friends enjoyed an idyllic existence smoking corncob pipes, and playing hooky down at the river and in the forests where they plotted pranks against the innocent town. One such friend, Tom Blankenship, a smart, uneducated kid envied by all who knew him, served as the inspiration for the title character in what would become Twain's masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Following the format he perfected with his breakthrough documentary The Civil War, Burns uses primarily still photos from the life of the man who was once the most famous writer in the world, beloved for his ability to make people laugh.

"I never tried to cultivate the cultivated classes," said Twain. "I always went for bigger game: the masses."

He was a writer read by everyday folks. The People's Writer, who made the way we talk something to be admired, has long since been co-opted by Ivory Tower scholars hanging onto, if not his coattails precisely, then certainly the brim of his proverbial hog's head hat. As actor Hal Holbrook observes, "The European language was supposed to be the ideal, but he idolized the American language."

Unencumbered by a college education, Twain wrote as though he invented writing, frequently announcing his acceptance of this premise, and even daring to further it: "I'm not an American, I'm the American!"

In the words of playwright Arthur Miller, "You read any page of his, and you know that there's a poet who's crafting all those lines."

Covering his bases, the poet chucked hardballs at the Palaces of the Gilded Age (a term he coined) even as he was stepping into a palace of his own. Financial worries tolerably eased subsequent to marrying the millionaire's daughter, Twain gloried in lavish luxuries for years. In his beloved Hartford House he doted on his daughters (his favorite being the one who started writing a biography about him) and spent long hours fondly recalling the unfettered independence of happy boyhood days when he could really dream of being rich. 

While the array of experts on the subject could stand to be a deal wider--it's pretty much just Miller, Holbrook, Dick Gregory, a historian from The Civil War, and a handful of unknown writers--it's the most thorough documentary yet on the dude who made writin' like regular folks talk a downright liberation of literature.

Stewart Kirby, who writes articles, short stories, autobiographical sketches, and books featuring tall tales and a strong sense of place, also writes for

Thursday, April 12, 2018


He created Mr. Natural. He fathered Fritz the Cat. He invented Whiteman. His name is Robert Crumb, and this is his story.

One fateful day in 1955, young Robert and his two brothers, Charles and Maxon, saw on TV Disney's first live-action feature film, Treasure Island, starring Robert Newton as Long John Silver. Such was the power of this moment, nothing would ever be the same again. This was because Charles, the eldest, found his true calling: Comic books!

Realizing he needed to live inside the world of Treasure Island forever through hand-drawn comics, Charles set his brothers to work. They created a club, and with monastic devotion dedicated themselves to the cause of Treasure Island every day. For 6 or 7 years. In the words of Maxon, "It was like these three primordial monkeys working it out in the trees."
Trapped in a world he never made--a world of awful bullies and other inferiors blind to his artistic genius--Crumb vowed revenge. And achieved it through underground comics. A genre he created.
At last, our hero could expose "the sickness under the surface" of the healthy American '50s family fa├žade. Like a latter day Daumier or Bruegel, Crumb poured his energy into illustrating his inordinate fondness for getting kicks on his aunt's cowboy boots. Which, alone in a closet, he was wont to straddle while singing, "Jesus loves me, this I know, for The Bible tells me so..."
Yes, Crumb realized he had issues. Precisely like everyone else, only more so. But unlike everyone else, he had the decency to draw them and share.
While exorcising--and exercising--his personal demons through art became Crumb's career, the film makes clear that if he can't draw, he simply feels depressed and suicidal. "It's a deeply ingrained habit," he says, "all because of my brother Charles."
Whereas Charles had no interests at all other than comic books, Robert was (and presumably still is) an avid fan of vintage ragtime and blues records. Consequently, this music is an essential character in the documentary.
Just as Charles used to walk around in public shamelessly dressed as Long John Silver, so too Robert found his niche in the attire and musical interests of 1930s folk. Keeps his TV on black and white, too, good-naturedly shrugging away the tearful protests of his children.
"When I hear old music, it's like one of the few times I have a love for humanity," he says.
He turned down guest-hosting "Saturday Night Live." He turned down doing an album cover for The Rolling Stones. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle? Now her he might turn off, but he would never turn down a piggy-back ride swinging through the trees.
In film terms, Crumb is a sleeper, with legs. And in Crumb terms, those legs are shapely and powerful.
It's about art, sexuality, family, and the history of America. It's the movie that takes schlock to task, and it's about time.
Eureka, CA, by the way, gets a specific mention.
For those tired of the "unified field of bought, sold, market-researched everything," the natural choice is Terry Zwigoff's 1994 gem.

Stewart Kirby writes for

Friday, April 6, 2018


          Stanley Kubrick has the best reputation in filmmaking because he did everything exceptionally well and never repeated himself. He produced, directed, and wrote. He worked camera, lights, and sound. He had a hand in costumes, publicity--virtually everything. Many filmmakers have made much more money than Stanley Kubrick, and many have received more awards, but rightly or wrongly, no one's mojo comes as close.
          Of all the movies Kubrick made (thirteen features and three short documentaries), only one was so dangerous that, for the safety of his family, he had to pull it from United Kingdom distribution for 27 years until his death.
          A Clockwork Orange (1971), is a dystopian black comedy, a subversive film with a futuristic visual style and disturbing scenes involving what the central figure in his narration calls "a bit of the old ultra-violence."
          Played to the hilt by Malcolm McDowell, Alexander DeLarge is the sort of a boy who might enjoy reading The Bible only if he imagines himself as a Roman soldier scourging Christ. And that's one of his nicer traits.
          Wearing a bowler hat and codpiece and carrying a cane, Alex sports false upper and lower eyelashes around his right eye like tribal paint, the window to his soul resembling a gear cog. McDowell's sharp, sarcastic narration creates an intimacy with the audience, even inviting complicity. A literary antecedent might be Poe's narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart."
          It is a disturbing fact that Anthony Burgess wrote the novel, published in 1962, as a cathartic exercise subsequent to his first wife's brutalization. Containing 242 words of a slang language Burgess created called Nadsat, A Clockwork Orange concerns the state taking the sweetness and color out of violent offenders and turning them into machines.
          What makes the film remarkable is Kubrick's sheer facility with the medium. Juxtaposing classical music with primal pursuits, Kubrick creates friction uniquely, unforgettably. Loaded with iconic images, Clockwork explodes across the screen.
          Eighteen years prior, Marlon Brando terrorized parents in The Wild One playing the leader of a motorcycle gang. Yet compared to Clockwork, The Wild One plays like Mary Poppins.
          No, Clockwork is not the most violent film on record. Far from it. Arguably it doesn't even compare with the nightly news. But Clockwork has much more going on than a few scenes of highly stylized violence.
          When, for example, Alex breaks into the health farm where a woman practices calisthenics surrounded by cats, keen observation reveals a painting in the background depicting, not merely a nude female form, but one with the clothing specifically removed from covering the breasts in exactly the same manner which Alex has imitated with a pair of scissors during an assault.
          So the filmmaker seems to be saying that Alex and his three droogs are themselves the product of an abusive system and degraded culture. It's the water in which they swim.
          Clockwork is one of those rare films where the viewer can always find something new because to call Kubrick a perfectionist is putting it mildly.
          Then there's the Ninth. Kubrick incorporates Beethoven's greatest symphony into his work just as Beethoven did with Schiller's poem. Bursting with "angel trumpets and devil trombones," A Clockwork Orange remains unsurpassed as a cinematic experience as challenging as it is sublime.

Malcolm McDowell

Stewart Kirby writes for

Monday, April 2, 2018


Image result for ready player one poster


In the vast cinematic desert of predicable over-advertised movies with requisite sequels, something fresh and new.
Too many movies--maybe the majority--get too much hype (sometimes being advertised a full year in advance), over-rely on computer animation, and are automatically accompanied by the expectation of at least one sequel, probably four. And it grows tiresome. Lucky for us, once in a while a movie gets released with incredible quality and without any expectations at all. 
Following swiftly on the heels of the excellent drama The Post comes this innovative rollercoaster ride from Steven Spielberg. 
Set in 2045, Ready Player One imagines a future with an increasingly economically disenfranchised population preferring virtual reality to real life. 
The virtual reality system called the OASIS is designed by an eccentric introvert who upon his death reveals with a video his Willy Wonka-ish plan to bequeath ownership of the OASIS (worth half a trillion dollars) to the gamer who finds three hidden keys and obtains the Golden Egg.
Game on!
Ready to play is one Wade Watts (Sheridan), a teenager whose online avatar has hair perpetually blown by unseen winds, and whose best friend is a gamer he's never met called Aech (Miller). 
Like a VR version of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, except much bigger and much faster, hoards of gamers race in competition against each other beset by pop culture adversaries including King Kong.
Meanwhile, a corporate giant helmed by a sleaze named Sorrento (Mendelsohn) wants in on the action, and is ready to game the system in any way required to win the fabulous fortune. 
What results from this premise is an often hilarious and wildly entertaining ride, yes, but also quite a bit more than that. There is substance in the juxtaposition of seeming powerlessness in the real world with the seeming god-like powers in the OASIS. When Wade meets an avatar called Art3mis (Cooke) in the hunt, Aech warns him that for all Wade knows, attractive and exciting Art3mis is actually a three hundred pound dude named Chuck living in his grandmother's basement.
The 2009 Bruce Willis film Surrogates may have inspired some of what we see here. Bruce's suave virtual self compares with everyone in the OASIS presenting an unintentionally comic, vastly more powerful version of the self. But on the whole, Ready Player One offers a unique vision and operates at multiple levels.
On one level, the hunt for the keys shows us a world where anything is possible and looks totally real. Aech, for example, is about as big as the Hulk, and Sorrento's avatar looks like Superman in a business suit. On another level though, we see that an infantilized and dehumanized population desperate to escape life is harrowing.

Starring Tye Sheridan,
Olivia Cooke,
Ben Mendelsohn,
Lena Waithe,
T.J. Miller,
Simon Pegg,
Mark Rylance
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Based on the novel by Ernest Cline
Runtime 140 minutes
Rated PG-13

Stewart Kirby writes for

Monday, March 26, 2018


The movie so good, it's crazy.
Jack Nicholson stars as Randle Patrick McMurphy in Milos Forman's triumphant version of Ken Kesey's novel.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is the story of a convict transferred from hard labor to a mental institution. At first this seems like a better deal, but McMurphy soon learns that the head nurse (Fletcher) doesn't appreciate his boisterous ways, and likes a rigged game.
Necessarily the film differs substantially from the book. Kesey's novel is a first-person present tense account from a Native American WWII vet who has been on the ward the longest. This perspective facilitates Kesey's surreal descriptions, but the filmmakers show the story from a more conventional, detached point of view.
Conceivably, another film version could showcase a stylized presentation including voice-over narration from Chief Bromden. But that didn't happen in 1975.
Produced by Michael Douglas, Cuckoo's Nest launched several careers. Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd went straight from the ward to the hit TV show "Taxi." It was also Will Sampson's first film.
The 6'5" Creek Nation painter and rodeo performer stands out as the guy everyone thinks is a deaf mute.
Two things in particular hold Cuckoo's Nest together: the characters and the setting. The characters are as believable as they are unforgettable (Kesey drew on experiences as a mental hospital orderly), and the setting is the perfect microcosm for everyone's condition.
Like a sun god in a resurrection myth, RPM (always going, always moving) can't help but show his fellow loonies how to have some fun and start living. He's a guy with an easy grin and calloused hands who can't believe the nonsense he sees his fellow man endure.
Initially he butts heads with the ward's resident intellectual, Harding (Redfield), a man who during group therapy finds himself unable to discuss his impotence. In his efforts to put things right, McMurphy, who favors friendly wagers, bets he can drive Big Nurse to distraction within a week. He also bets he can heft a water fountain in the tub room clear from the floor, chuck it through a barred window, and go downtown to wet his whistle in any bar he likes whenever he wants.
In the book it's not a water fountain, but a control panel.
Differences aside, the film is every bit as good. Alternately hilarious and sublime, packed with powerful performances and indelible images, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is as potent now as the day it was released.

Starring Jack Nicholson,
Louise Fletcher,
Will Sampson,
Danny DeVito,
Christopher Lloyd,
William Redfield,
Sydney Lassick,
Brad Dourif
Directed by Milos Forman
Written by Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman
Based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Runtime 133 minutes
Rated R

Stewart Kirby writes for

Saturday, March 17, 2018


          From the director of Pan's Labyrinth comes this Oscar-winning film about the Creature From the Black Lagoon in a love story.
          We've already seen a similar character in Guillermo del Toro's excellent Hellboy (2004): Abe Sapiens is a gill-man residing in a secret underground facility and capable of eloquent speech. This story, set in 1962, features a less-refined amphibian man freshly plucked from the Amazon (where the natives worshiped him like a god) and now contained at an Area 51-like base.
          The strangest thing about this secret place is the ebb and flow of cleaning ladies. One of them, Elisa (Hawkins), who happens to be mute, identifies with the shy, speechless captive. She alone is able to appreciate his humanity, as he in turn sees her. When Elisa learns of the fate in store for the amphibian man, she resolves to save him.
          In key respects The Shape of Water resembles Pan's Labyrinth (2006). The fantastic character (in both cases played by Doug Jones) communicates with an ingenue plagued by a militaristic antagonist. Problem is, Pan's Labyrinth is the better film. 
          Chief among this movie's detractions are certain impossibilities which simply distract, and the annoyance of watching characters make hate-worthy mistakes. Remaining vague to preserve the experience, suffice to say that tap water can't possibly fill a bathroom in the manner here shown. No way, no how. And the water wouldn't just disappear. The damage to the structure would be insurmountable. 
          We're happy to accept the idea of an amphibian man, but verisimilitude must be maintained within that framework. At one point, the commander of the secret base, Strickland (Shannon, terrifically cast), bursts into a house and starts yelling at a man's wife while the man sits helplessly and watches TV. All this does is inspire anger toward the filmmaking for such startling impossibility. 
          Slightly worse: forcing words into the mouth of a character. Stickland's explanation for the cheap green candies he eats comes out of nowhere purely to equate the candy with the 1954 B-movie favorite. 
          In another overcooked bit of fishiness, Strickland suffers a gangrenous wound after trying to torture the creature, and even though people can see and smell the life-threatening health issue, the commander is allowed to just walk around while rotting in order for us to see he's not only metaphorically but also literally rotten. This idea works with hillbillies and lepers, not base commanders. 
          In spite of the downsides it's a fun movie, well worth watching. Yet whereas Pan's Labyrinth feels legitimately artful and inventive, The Shape of Water seems more commercially-driven.

Starring Sally Hawkins,
Michael Shannon,
Richard Jenkins,
Octavia Spencer,
Doug Jones,
Michael Stuhlbarg
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Runtime 123 minutes
Rated R

Stewart Kirby writes for

Saturday, March 10, 2018


Strong performances and excellent photography highlight this interesting Western.
Set in 1892, Hostiles is the story of Captain Joe Blocker (Bale) tasked with escorting Cheyenne war chief Yellow Hawk (Studi), now riddled with cancer after seven years behind bars, from incarceration in New Mexico to his sacred homeland in Montana. 
Like the John Wayne character in John Ford's The Searchers (1956) whom Martin Scorsese calls a "poet of hate," Blocker blindly hates Indians. His mind seems unable to comprehend the bigger picture. He sees European invaders as victims of the indigenous invaded. To illustrate this comparison, the filmmakers include a shot of Blocker framed by a cabin doorway just as Ford does with Wayne.
To put us in the narrow mindset of the lead character, who would probably be entirely unlikable if he weren't played by the great actor Christian Bale, the filmmakers begin the story with dastardly Indians doing mean, terrible things. To preserve the experience, suffice to say a blonde woman is endangered. NO! But yes.
Meanwhile, back at the fort, Blocker resists his orders. Tries to, anyway. But Stephen Lang (the ripped gung-ho dude with the silver crew cut in Avatar) is just the actor with the proper mental attitude to put Blocker in his place and see that Chief Yellow Hawk plus a few family members get safely escorted back to the Valley of the Bears.
What detracts from the film is its slow pace and the scant attention given to the Indian point of view.
Lots of whispery, emotional dialogue between Blocker and a couple buddies isn't by itself much of a movie. It's hard to like Blocker because it seems like half the time he's about ready to cry wistfully recalling something corny, and then the rest of the time hating Indians. But a few skirmishes here and there help maintain interest. 
Along the way Blocker meets the aforementioned blonde woman (Pike). The filmmakers take a page from The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and have her act all crazied-out with shock at first. Her trauma is mirrored by one of Blocker's buddies who's killed many men and feels bad about feeling nothing.
Also along the way Blocker takes a shady guy in chains he's required to escort--played by Ben Foster, who starred with Bale in the Western re-make 3:10 to Yuma (2007). So between him on the inside of the escorted group and various other belligerents--including pointy-headed fur trappers--on the outside, in theory at least there's plenty of conflict. 
As Yellow Hawk, Wes Studi exudes noble stoicism and the camera loves the lines of his face, but the comparatively few lines he's given are not in keeping with the promise of the poster wherein he is prominently figured. 
Shortcomings aside, Hostiles showcases yet another incredible performance by Bale. He's certainly the Robert De Niro of his generation, always investing himself in every role to an astounding degree. Like Wes Studi's Magua in The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Blocker is obsessed with hate. But unlike Magua, he doesn't have a real reason.

Starring Christian Bale,
Wes Studi,
Rosamund Pike,
Bill Camp,
Adam Beach,
Tanaya Beatty,
Q'orianka Kilcher,
Ben Foster,
Stephen Lang
Written and directed by Scott Cooper
Runtime 134 minutes
Rated R

Stewart Kirby writes for