Sunday, July 15, 2018
The film opens on a note of initially questionable relevance, informing us that American Indians don't grow facial hair, as demonstrated by one specimen showing us his left and right profile. This isn't as surreal as it looks, since it leads to our discovery that Wheeler and Woolsey, or whatever they're calling themselves this time, are running a barber shop on an Oklahoma reservation. Here's a real history lesson for you: the boys are flopping because the barber business back then depended on people coming in regularly to be shaved instead of showing up periodically for a trim. Despite this miscalculation, the oil-rich tribe finds a use for the barbers. Hearing them pontificate on foreign affairs (one of the film's few coherent editorial points is that many nations are deadbeats when it comes to debts they owe the U.S.), the Oxford-educated chief who enters in a limo and is almost too erudite for our heroes to comprehend commissions them to represent his nation at the latest round of Geneva peace talks. Given the generous expense account that comes with the work, the Indians expect results. Should the neophyte diplomats (later explicitly identified in the press as "diplomaniacs") fail to negotiate a favorable settlement, including a permanent anti-war pledge, the chief will turn them into gorillas. Is this typical native witch-doctoring? Since the chief keeps a caged ape he claims was once the most beautiful woman in Paris, it's best for the boys not to take chances.
Recognizing the Oopa-Doop tribe's intervention in international affairs as a potential game-changer like the emergence of Wakanda, powerful arms manufacturer Winklereid (Louis Calhern, Groucho's antagonist in Duck Soup) and his Chinaman-for-hire (Hugh Herbert) scheme to sabotage the Indian mission. Naturally, what you do in such a situation is order up a vamp. Amazon today has nothing on the technology of Diplomaniacs; no sooner has Chow Chow called in the order than the vamp, wrapped in plastic, arrives through a delivery chute. Regrettably, the script doesn't follow up on the possibility that Dolores (Marjorie White) is some kind of robot, but I suppose it's funnier to imagine a real person getting dispatched to her new job in that fashion. Recognizing later that there are two men to vamp, Winklereid and his entourage visit the Dead Rat cafe to recruit uber-seductress Fifi (Phyllis Barry), whose kisses can set people on fire internally and make dangerous projectiles when blown at you. You see, Wheeler and Woolsey usually get love interests in their pictures, and here they are, only marginally more dedicated to their malevolent tasks than the Marxes were when they were hired as hitmen in Monkey Business.
That's about enough set-up. From this point the film is pretty much a sequence of set pieces climaxing when our heroes finally arrive, in appropriate Alpine gear, at the Geneva conference where Edgar Kennedy (Chico and Harpo's antagonist from Duck Soup) presides in two-fisted fashion. There's no time for slow burns in this picture; Kennedy goes from zero to machine gun in career-best time here. During an acrobatic performance the diplomaniacs argue incoherently in favor of an anti-war resolution while Winklereid, taking no chances, throws a classic cartoon bomb into the conference room. The resulting sooty explosion transforms the representatives of many nations into African-Americans, down to the fat white lips shown by such typical specimens of the race as Al Jolson and Eddy Cantor. More than six months before Duck Soup, we get a spiritually-inflected musical number affirming that "All God's Chillun Want Peace." Later, the bomb having failed, Winklereid and his fellow conspirators consider killing the imminently successful diplomaniacs with an experimental explosive bullet, but succeed only in vaporizing themselves, leaving only their clothes to float where they were left. Fortunately, Winklereid's fallback plan of planting a forged treaty on the boys succeeds beyond expectations. Once the fake news is exposed, the film ends with the world at war, Wheeler and Woolsey drafted into the U.S. army (perhaps for gorilla warfare?) and the bad guys looking down with approval from a heavenly cloud.
Damn! Diplomaniacs really does outdo Jenkins' description.It's a comedy of absolute ruthlessness with no pretense of likability unless you, like some girl in each film in the series, find Bert Wheeler strangely cute. Its almost ideological absurdity is highlighted by Hugh Herbert's performance as Chow Chow, the whole point of which is the absurdity of the casting. Chow Chow kvetches at Winklereid from the moment of his arrival, lapses into odd ethnic accents, experiences a flashback of his mother when meeting the notorious Fifi, comments that white vamps, compared to those of other colors, get dirty more easily, and utters proverbs such as "Sex of one, half dozen of another." In the picture's most flamboyant act of narrative vandalism, Chow Chow quits his role as Winklereid's henchman in mid-picture, climbing down from a tree branch and starting home from Paris to China. Shortly afterward, we find him sailing homeward, passing a floating signpost laden with advertising. A few minutes later, we cut back to him arriving in China, where Mrs. Chow Chow berates him for arriving five years late for dinner. During that time she acquired several small children because, as she explains, she wanted to surprise him. Digressions like this one make Diplomaniacs look more stylistically up-to-date than it might have been when Jenkins was writing his books. People who watch it should find it very reminiscent, if not pre-miniscent, of today's absurdist prime-time cartoons, and its overall everything's-a-joke attitude can be found all over the place in our time, sometimes to an unpleasant degree. As a Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle it's whatever; those two haven't stood the test of time in cultural consciousness because they never really developed, either verbally or visually, personae as readily recognized and embraced as those of the Marxes. But as a comedy picture Diplomaniacs is a belligerent blitzkrieg that may be more simply stunning than purely funny but is nevertheless an amazing hour to sit through if you get the chance.
Thursday, July 12, 2018
Saturday, July 7, 2018
That necessary business aside, has any film ever been more about fathers and daughters than this one? Not only do we continue the daughter-surpassing-the-father storyline of the first film, as Hope gets a shrinking costume of her own, and not only are we reminded of Scott's bond with his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), but even Ghost has a father figure in yet another of Pym's old partners, rival scientist and long-ago "Black Goliath" Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Resentment of Pym conflicts with humanitarian instincts as Foster initially strives to help Ghost but ultimately recoils from the selfish ruthlessness of the former SHIELD assassin, who has a mad notion of leeching quantum energy from Janet Van Dyne, should the good guys reach her, in order to save herself. I'm not sure what the point of this triplication is, unless the point is that these storylines are increasingly common as we insist on female empowerment in genre cinema. Whatever the point, Ghost is an entertaining enough villain but suffers from having to share the screen with Goggins and his gangsters, while everyone suffers from the involvement of a bunch of FBI idiots and especially from the return of Scott Lang's ex-con buddies (Michael Pena, Tip Harris and David Dastmalchian), who are now his partners in a budding security business. Those three were just about insufferable in the first film, and there's no question of their insufferability in the sequel. The film, really a Marvel B-movie, is bloated by comedy relief, including a reprise of the storytelling gimmick from the first film in which Pena's character recaps previous events, putting his words in the other actors' mouths. It was interesting the first time, but never since. At least Pena has some natural likability and his character has something of a personality. Dastmalchian's personality boils down to superstition, and Harris doesn't even have that. Nor is Rudd himself particularly hilarious in his comic showcases; Scott Lang often seems more like a shtick than a character, and it's hard to know what more can be done with him, even as we're promised that he'll return in another sequel if not sooner.
For all that the comedy was tiresome, the action kept me interested. While the fight choreography itself is nothing special, the idea of people who can shrink and grow (though the Wasp never becomes giant like Lang can) fighting someone who can turn insubstantial gives an inventive quality to the battles between Ghost and the title characters. I was also amused by the chase scenes with shrunken cars racing through San Francisco, which seem partly an homage to the toy-car chase scene in the SF-set The Dead Pool. These bits are good enough for me to spare Ant-Man and the Wasp a thumbs-down, though the stale comedy parts make it slightly worse than the original film. Both are definitely lower-tier Marvel films, but that seems to be understood by all going in. It also seemed to be understood that something light and possibly funny was needed after the sturm und drang of Infinity War and before the heavy lifting of its sequel next year. That the Ant-Man films are mere programmers by Marvel standards shouldn't be held against them, but I think we have a right to expect a third film to escape the rut the filmmakers seem determined to drive the series into. More of the same next time will be more difficult to forgive.
Saturday, June 30, 2018
Siegel's writers try to keep things mysterious by having a later killing carried out POV camera = killer style, but it only looks awkward and evasive. Toward the end, the killer is revealed without anyone on the screen having deduced his identity from clues, though I suppose some in the audience may have guessed the culprit by process of elimination. His discovery sets up the big thrill climax on the guano car, but the thrill of actuality is undermined every time Siegel cuts from the long shot of the stuntmen to the studio close-ups of Wilde et al in front of rear projections. The location stuff is nice to look at, though, thanks to Burnett Guffey's cinematography, and seeing the juggernaut cars of the era in action is always fun. Even with the special attraction of the Canyon this is little more than a B picture, and as such its diverting enough without lasting long enough to waste your time.
Saturday, June 23, 2018
Up to His Ears is episodic and ultimately overlong, the sort of film that looks to be wrapping up at least half an hour before it actually ends. In that respect it might be inspired more by It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World than by any other picture, but let's remember that the French themselves invented sight-gag slapstick cinematic comedy and need no inspiration from elsewhere. Some of the gags here are truly inspired, none more so to me than the bit that finds our hero and his servant on a shaky rope bridge in the Himalayas. Inevitably they go over the side (or was it through) and descend dangling from a near-infinite rope of clothes disgorging from a suitcase. The thoughtful servant always makes a point of pinning his master's clothes together for trips like these, you see -- and one may assume that the clothes are all double stitched. Other moments are striking for their juxtaposition of silent-comedy style action in exotic Asian settings, as when our heroes struggle to escape a Nepalese village via a rope ladder dangling from a hot-air balloon, or when Belmondo in a stage-magician's costume gets into a fighting chase on the scaffolding of a tall building, as if Harold Lloyd were playing Fantomas. I don't think it's as good as That Man From Rio or my favorite from the Belmondo-de Broca team, the tragicomic swashbuckler Cartouche, but it's still terrifically entertaining just to look at. Belmondo is a kind of French Cary Grant, capable of being both the epitome of cool and, as here, playing an utter clown, while de Broca is more like a French Blake Edwards. I couldn't help thinking that the Mirisch Company should have hired them to do that Inspector Clouseau movie back when Edwards and Peter Sellers weren't interested. I can't guarantee that such a thing would have been good, but I would have liked to see them try. In any event, there are still more of their actual team-ups for me to see, those the three I have seen are just about enough to earn Belmondo and de Broca a place among the great comic actor-director teams.
Wednesday, June 13, 2018
As a kid, I hated Lost in Space. I pretty much hated all those silly shows from the mid-Sixties that dominated syndicated TV when I was growing up. I even went through that comics fan's phase when you hate Batman until you appreciate how funny it is on its own terms. But Irwin Allen's sci-fi show only ever seemed stupid, part of a profound dumbing down of American TV that came when the major networks went all-color. It's one of those shows reputed to be less dumb and kiddified in its one black-and-white season, but I've never had the courage to try verifying that for myself. Suffice it to say that if any title could stand a radical reboot on the Battlestar Galactica model, it was Lost in Space. But would the presumed target audience recognize the new thing as Lost in Space without the sniveling comedy relief and the snarky robot and the goofy aliens they and the rest of the crew met every week? Or was I wrong about who the target audience was? Was the familiar name only meant to get people's attention while the show itself catered to more modern story expectations and sensibilities.
The new creative team had credentials possibly worthy of Irwin Allen, having written the better-than-expected Dracula Untold but also the recent Power Rangers reboot movie and such big flops as The Last Witch Hunter and Gods of Egypt. Their end product, however, is more modest and straightforward than that filmography might anticipate. The new show's main line of revision is a familiar one: female empowerment. In the new story of humans fleeing their dying planet, the mother, Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) is the real leader with the major scientific and technical credentials, while her estranged husband John (Toby "Captain Flint" Stephens) is basically a grunt, though an elite one as a Navy SEAL. As for the kids, the teenage girls Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) are the real brains. Good old Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) is no slouch, but Mom had to fake some test results after an attack of nerves left the boy with a score unfit for space colonization. To top things off, the old show's villain-turned-clown,Dr.Smith, literally has his identity stolen by the show's new, somewhat darker antagonist. June Harris (Parker Posey) got into space by poisoning her sister and stealing her identity. During the panic created by a mysterious robot attack (You can't really do a gender flip here), she steals the ID badge of one "Z. Smith" (Billy Mumy!) to get access to a landing craft. We haven't learned yet after the first season whether June has any vocation other than survival, but she applies herself to her calling with a subtle ruthlessness, insinuating herself into the Robinsons' temporary household while constantly watching for ways to turn them against each other, and also coveting the alien robot, which has somehow bonded with Will, as her ultimate defense against other people. Because "Smith" is female, she's likely to remind viewers of the archetypal female "from hell" of Lifetime movies, but there's a purity to June's sociopathy, unleavened so far by any sexuality, that makes her almost inhuman, yet fascinating to observe. She's almost perfectly amoral, utterly incapable of imagining that she may not deserve to survive, and for that she may actually seem more sympathetic to today's narcissists than her male model was fifty years ago.
As with any reboot of an old TV series, there's both more and less story here than in the original. The first season is one ten-part story and future seasons will no doubt be likewise, and while modern shows lose out on variety of stories they usually gain in emotional depth. Inevitably modern shows focus more on the relationships among regular characters than on the interventions of guest stars, and with the new Lost in Space you get the now-expected family tensions as well as the addition of a larger supporting cast (along with Ignacio Serricchio as a new, roguish Don West) promising a wider range of relationships. Of course, we may never see those supporting players again after the season-ending cliffhanger that sees the Robinsons, West and "Smith" sucked through a wormhole, but even if being lost in space means getting cut off from the rest of humanity, it wouldn't surprise me if the rest of the Resolute crew reappear at some point, since the imperative for relationships makes the current situation too potentially incestuous for anyone's good. For all that, on some level, or for some viewers, this is still a show about a boy and his robot, and by keeping that relationship near the forefront the new show manages to be recognizably Lost in Space while retaining its options to expand the story in any number of promising directions. If the new creators play their cards right, their show could come closer to pleasing everybody than the original ever did.
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
Fans of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy will be horrified to learn that Paris (Warner Bentivegna) is the villain of this piece. On top of the war being his fault, he feels that his royal status entitles him to military leadership when Aeneas, who also loves Paris's sister Creusa, is clearly more qualified. He blows a chance to defeat the Greeks decisively when Aeneas arrives with fresh allies after a diplomatic mission because he resents the hero taking the initiative without his say-so, and his blind vanity brings the title construct, the instrument of Troy's destruction, within the city's gates. Paris is also the picture's most interesting character because it treats him in almost noirish fashion as a hapless sap of a victim of that apex femme fatale, Helen of Troy (Hedy Vessel). Almost a living Barbie, Helen sees the handwriting on the wall for Paris and his city and can't be bothered hiding her contempt.
The best scene in the film has nothing to do with Aenas: after the Greeks inside the horse have opened the gates, Paris panics and asks Helen what he should do. She makes a few disinterested suggestions but surmises that he'll simply wait there to be killed. Sure enough, the angry ex, Menelaus of Sparta (Nando Tamberlani) appears with vengeance on his mind. He slaps a tiara off Helen's head, then orders Paris to pick it up and wear it. He then orders Paris onto a bed, but before you can worry about what he has in mind he stabs the pathetic Trojan. He then orders Helen to deliver the deathblow and kill whatever memory she has of Paris as a romantic hero, but this proves unnecessary, first because Paris dies quick and second because Helen had given up on him long ago. Epic stuff in its own way.
The more I see peplum films in their proper widescreen format, the more respect I have for their production values. All you need to do is watch Mill of the Stone Women to appreciae what Giorgio Ferroni was capable of visually, and while Trojan Horse is nowhere near the level of that minor masterpiece of production design the film does boast some impressive Trojan sets and reasonable sized armies in action. Unfortunately, it has the common failing of may films of its genre: uninspired combat. The duels pitting Aeneas against Achilles and Ajax aren't awful by any means, but the full-scale battle scenes are lifeless, mere assemblages of men waving swords or javelins at each other until told to stop. Of course, people probably didn't go to these movies to see hordes of soldiers fighting. They went to see the musclemen do their thing, and as far as that goes all I need to say is that Reeves is presented convincingly as an epic hero. Fans of the Aeneid may be disappointed by the absence of the hero's father Anchises, but Reeves presumably got to trod more Virgilian territory in the sequel to this picture, The Avenger, which if all goes well you should read more about this summer.