Wednesday, September 27, 2023

American Splendor

American Splendor Poster

(2003) Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini; Written by Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner and Shari Springer Berman; Starring: Paul Giamatti, Shari Springer Berman, Harvey Pekar, Hope Davis, Joyce Brabner, Shari Springer Berman, Judah Friedlander, Toby Radloff, Earl Billings and James Urbaniak; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ****½  

“Okay, this guy here, he’s our man. All grown up and going nowhere. Always a pretty scholarly cat. He never got much of a formal education. For the most part, he’s lived in shit neighborhoods, held shit jobs, and is now knee-deep in a disastrous second marriage. So, if you’re the kind of person looking for romance or escapism or some fantasy figure to save the day, guess what? You got the wrong movie.” – Harvey Pekar

The Real Harvey Pekar

Life is messy. It can’t be contained in the panels of a comic book page, depicted in two dimensions, or condensed into thought bubbles. Between its many ups and downs, there’s a bunch of monotonous stuff in the middle. There’s no swift resolution to our conflicts like a 30-minute sitcom episode, nor is there a superhero descending from the skies to set things right. Underground comic writer Harvey Pekar instinctively understood this when he set out to write American Splendor, chronicling his everyday exploits as an ordinary file clerk, working in a Cleveland veterans’ hospital. Sure, it didn’t have quite the pizzazz of Batman, Fantastic Four, or some other fantasy-oriented comic, but it possessed something that none of those comics had – relatability. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini set out to show us the story behind the story about Pekar’s life. The result is part fiction, part fact, narrated by Mr. Pekar himself (who also appears with many of the real-life people who became the subject of his comics).

Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar

Paul Giamatti, in the unexpected role of a lifetime, plays Harvey Pekar, full-time file clerk at Cleveland Veterans Hospital, part-time comic book writer and jazz critic. While Pekar appeared to be a misanthropic curmudgeon to most of the world, Giamatti’s insightful, sympathetic performance proves his character to be much more. Beneath Pekar’s gruff exterior is an intelligent, multi-faceted individual – angry yet sensitive, caustic yet vulnerable. His holistic approach captures Pekar’s specific gait, mannerisms, and facial expressions, conveying a perennial mixture of disgust and resigned world-weariness. Giamatti brings a surprising amount of pathos to the role, especially when the film delves into Pekar’s struggle with illness (which was chronicled in Pekar and Brabner’s graphic novel, Our Cancer Year).

Harvey, Joyce and Toby

American Splendor introduces us to the colorful people in Pekar’s life (some of whom are co-workers) who became characters in his stories. In the early ‘60s, he meets the cartoonist Robert Crumb, who was just getting starting off with his underground comics. As portrayed by James Urbaniak, Crumb (who later illustrated some of Pekar’s stories) is a socially awkward, straw-hat-wearing eccentric, who connects with Pekar over a shared love of obscure vintage jazz records. Pekar meets his match with his soulmate and third wife, Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis), who shares his gloomy outlook (“I find most American cities to be depressing in the same way.”) yet somehow manages to be his ray of sunshine. With a fondness for pop psychology, she diagnoses everyone in her husband’s life, starting with Pekar’s co-worker and self-professed nerd, Toby Radloff.* Judah Friedlander’s spot-on impersonation of Radloff is at once hilarious and poignant, as an optimistic counterpoint to Pekar’s cynicism. Earl Billings is also excellent, in a small but substantive role as another co-worker, the literate and paranoid Mr. Boats. Pekar’s wife and co-workers could be played exclusively for laughs, but that would be far too reductive. Instead, they come across as real people, not caricatures, who in their own unique ways make Pekar’s wife worth living. 

* Fun Fact #1: Besides his appearances on MTV, some die-hard horror fans might remember him as the titular character from Troma’s direct-to-video wonders, Killer Nerd (1991) and Bride of Killer Nerd (1992).

Harvey's Monologue

Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini’s inventive storytelling continually blurs the line between the real and comic worlds. Pekar becomes immersed in a live-action comic book as he delivers a monologue about finding, much to his surprise, that there were three other men who shared his name in Cleveland alone. In contrast to the filmed autobiographical sequences,* the segments with the real-life Pekar and company were shot on video, creating a reality that somehow seems less real than the dramatized footage.   

* Fun Fact #2: According to co-director Robert Pulcini, the film stock was flashed (a process which reduces the contrast and color saturation) to produce a grainy, washed-out appearance. Later in the movie, when Pekar is given a clean bill of health, Pulcini stopped flashing the film stock, imparting more clarity and color to the image.

American Splendor Comic

Pekar’s excessively low tolerance for nonsense seemed to be at odds with his brief dalliance as an unlikely TV mini-celebrity in the 1980s, with his multiple appearances on Late Night with David Letterman.* His grumpy, cantankerous nature quickly becomes comic gold for Letterman, as the perfect foil for the talk show host’s barbs. Although Pekar knows he’s being exploited (much to the chagrin of Brabner), he considers it an equitable trade for getting publicity for his comic. His new-found fame reaches a pinnacle when he and Brabner fly to Los Angeles to watch a play about their life in Cleveland,** but exploitation proves to have its limits for Pekar. During his final guest appearance with Letterman, he strays from his usual subject matter, ranting about NBC and its connection to parent company, General Electric. 

* Fun Fact #3: The animal handler waiting in the wings in NBC’s Green Room was played by the then-current (2003) director of the Columbus Zoo, a position formerly held by frequent Letterman guest, Jack Hanna. The filmmakers also considered Tony Randall and John Waters for the role. 

** Fun Fact #4: In the play within a movie, SNL alumnus Molly Shannon plays Brabner.

Comic Panel - "Now there's a reliable disappointment."

Harvey Pekar’s underground success demonstrated how the seemingly mundane goings-on of an ordinary working-class schmoe could still captivate. Anyone who’s had to work to earn a living could understand the appeal of American Splendor. For those who have a burning passion but can’t afford to quit their day jobs, this movie is for you. Pekar is a superhero for the rest of us, extolling the virtues of getting through the day, no matter how soul-crushing or tedious it might be.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Viva Mexico Month Quick Picks and Pans


Bajo la Sal Poster

Bajo la Sal (aka: Under the Salt) (2008) This melancholic, noir-flavored crime thriller from director Mario Muñoz is based on the story "La Venganza del Valle de las Muñecas" (aka: “The Revenge of the Valley of the Dolls”). Comandante Trujillo (Humberto Zurita), a disgraced police detective, is called to a small town to help investigate a series of murders of young women in and around a vast salt harvesting facility. The common link is the victims were all expelled from the local high school. Signs point to Victor (Ricardo Polanco), a troubled young student who works at his father’s funeral parlor. In his spare time, he makes stop-motion horror films and obsesses over Isabel (Irene Azuela), a former student who’s looking for a way out. Serguei Saldívar Tanaka’s exceptional cinematography exploits the town’s unforgiving landscape, exemplified by a vast sea of salt. It’s a fascinating, unrelentingly grim movie that melds style with substance. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD



Darker than Night Poster

Darker than Night (1975) In writer/director Carlos Enrique Taboada’s supernatural gothic thriller, Ofelia Escudero (Claudia Islas) inherits her reclusive aunt’s estate. There’s only one request: she must care for her aunt’s beloved cat. Under the watchful eye of disapproving housekeeper Sofia (Alicia Palacios), Ofelia and her pals move in to the spooky old mansion. Almost immediately, strange things begin to occur, with deadly consequences. It’s an atmospheric, unsettling slow burn, relying more on an overwhelming sense of dread, rather than gore and jump scares. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (included in Vinegar Syndrome’s box set, “Mexican Gothic: The Films of Carlos Enrique Taboada) and Tubi

Sombra Verde

Sombra Verde (aka: Untouched) (1954) Ricardo Montalban stars as Federico Gascón, a young professional sent by a big-city pharmaceutical company to the Mexican jungle to search for source of cortisone. When his guide is killed by a snake, Federico loses direction, eventually stumbling upon a sanctuary owned by the reclusive Don Ignacio Santos (Víctor Parra). Santos is as fiercely protective of his privacy as he is of his young daughter, Yáscara (Ariadne Welter). Sparks fly when the unhappily married Federico falls in love with free-spirited Yáscara. Featuring good performances by Parra, Welter and a young Montalban, Sombra Verde is well worth a look. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD


The Untamed

The Untamed (2016) In this fascinating, unnerving horror film from director/co-writer Amat Escalante, a middle-aged couple in rural Mexico harbor a bizarre secret in their cottage: a multi-tentacled alien creature, which arrived in a meteorite. Escalante focuses on young mother Alejandra’s (Ruth Ramos) unhappy marriage. When her path crosses with Verónica (Simone Bucio), they find solace in the creature, but there’s a terrible price. The ambiguous extraterrestrial, which could serve as a metaphor for toxic relationship, fosters a kind of drug-like dependency among everyone that comes into contact with it, providing pleasure and pain in equal measures. The Untamed wears its influences on its sleeve (especially Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 film, Possession and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin), but it has an identity all its own. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy


Cemetery of Terror Poster

Cemetery of Terror (1985) Some horny guys try to spice up their party by stealing a body from a morgue (because nothing turns women on more than a pilfered cadaver), and raising the dead through demonic incantations in an ancient book. Before you know it, zombies are running amok in a graveyard scene (with multicolored backlighting) that looks like it’s straight out of the Thriller music video (there’s even a kid with a Michael Jackson jacket). Cemetery of Terror borrows heavily from Halloween with its protagonist, Hugo Stiglitz as Dr. Cardan (a Dr. Loomis type), relentlessly pursuing an unstoppable killer. 

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD


Cemetery of Terror Poster

Santo in the Vengeance of the Mummy (1971) In one of the weaker Santo movies, our titular hero travels to the jungles of Mexico on a research trek* to explore the remnants of an ancient civilization. The local townspeople aren’t thrilled with the appearance of meddling outsiders, who are killed off one by one by a reanimated mummy (a surprisingly large number of people die under Santo’s watch, makings me wonder if they were better off on their own). The movie is surprisingly short on action and more talky than many other Santo movies, and the “Scooby-Doo” climax doesn’t help matters. 

* Fake Fact: From 1958 to 1974, all Mexican archaeological expeditions were legally required to include El Santo, for their own protection. 

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray (included in the “Santo: El Enmascarado De Plata” box set, DVD and Midnight Pulp

Santo vs. Infernal Men Poster

Santo vs. Infernal Men (1961) Santo’s second cinematic adventure (following Santo vs. Evil Brain) is a bit of a letdown, with the silver-masked wrestler as a supporting character in his own movie. The central plot deals with an undercover police detective, Joaquín (Joaquín Cordero), infiltrating a crime ring, with the help of Santo. In 1959, Joselito Rodríguez and Enrique Zambrano shot two movies back-to-back in Cuba, and compared to its predecessor, Infernal Men seems incomplete, almost as if the filmmakers only had enough footage for one entire film. Santo appears in a few scenes to flesh out the action, but it’s clearly Cordero’s movie. Santo vs. Infernal Men affords an interesting glimpse of pre-Castro Cuba, but the rest of the movie is a bore. While Santo’s first movie is far from perfect, you’re better off seeing that instead. 

Rating **½. Available on Blu-ray (available individually, or included in Indicator’s “Enter Santo” boxed set)