Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Cockeyed Nightmare of Fun: NOW PLAYING, Dec. 31, 1933

This year saved some of its biggest, or at least best-remembered films for last. To give you an idea of the big picture, here's the movie page of the Milwaukee Sentinel from Dec. 29:

Let's take a closer look at some of these.

Duck Soup is most likely the most beloved today of these films, and maybe the runner-up to King Kong in the posterity popularity contest. In legend Leo McCarey's picture was a flop and left the Marxes without a studio home until Irving Thalberg saved them at the cost of their edge. While it's not the biggest attraction for New Year's audiences in Milwaukee, at least if you measure by column inches, it's clearly a big one.

If the Christmas attractions were mainly single-star vehicles, for New Years Milwaukee's theaters went for the opposite approach, as exemplified by George Cukor's all-star comedy for M-G-M. Moderns might wonder at Marie Dressler's top billing but the old lady probably was the most popular star of those cast here. One might notice a slowing of Lee Tracy's momentum from earlier in the year, when we saw him top-billed in several comedies, since he only makes the second tier of stars here. His misadventures while filming Viva Villa! in Mexico marked a turning point that soon reduced the gabby actor to B stardom at best and character roles in later life.

RKO was still looking for an answer to Warner Bros.' new style of musical pictures, and this was their latest experiment. The emphasis is on spectacle on a nearly cartoonish scale, the money shot being the "bevy of singing, dancing beauties atop an armada of airplanes!" But the studio had some not-so-secret weapons with more staying power. Note how the ad tries to sell the Carioca as a new dance craze, without really identifying it with the couple who introduce it in the picture. There was some flexibility about the billing, as you can tell by comparing the ad above with the ad on the left. Dolores Del Rio is consistently the top banana, but the order rotates underneath. Fred Astaire, whose first major film showcase this is, bounces between second billing and fifth, in one instance ahead of his dance partner, the already-established film star (and veteran of the Warners spectacles) Ginger Rogers, in another beneath her. In retrospect, the way RKO learned to use Rogers, compared to how Warners did, is as significant as how they used Astaire. Rogers's best-known moment in a Warners musical is her rendition of "We're In the Money" in Gold Diggers of 1933, but her singing is inevitably overshadowed by the Busby Berkeley spectacle surrounding her. By emphasizing her virtuosity as a dancer as well as a singer, RKO made her, with Astaire, the spectacle itself. By focusing on virtuosity rather than the spectacle of sheer numbers, the studio found the answer to Berkely and Warners after several false starts. RKO's earlier comic musicals are so cartoonish at points that they border on the inhuman; they do little to endear themselves to posterity, unless you're a connoisseur of Pre-Code strangeness like me. With Astaire and Rogers, RKO would usher in the classical period of the Hollywood musical.

Here's a single-star vehicle opening at the Strand. In fact, they sell it like the star's biography.

It's a pretty funny picture in its grandly amoral way. I ought to give it a fresh look and write it up for the Pre-Code Parade sometime.

Finally, such a survey as ours would not be complete without the novelty of finding a film that no one remembers.

1933 was a pretty good year for Slim Summerville. He was part of a popular team with ZaSu Pitts and Horse Play may have been an attempt to launch a second franchise with Summerville and (god help us) Andy Devine. Whatever this is, it's clearly in competition with Duck Soup; you wouldn't advertise a movie as "a cockeyed nightmare of fun" otherwise. And admit it: if you heard about a cockeyed nightmare of fun happening somewhere, wouldn't you be interested? Strange to say, Slim himself doesn't look too interested in the ad. Maybe he knows something we don't, since for the time being Horse Play must remain a mystery to us. The past should always be a little mysterious, I suppose; it keeps us interested and leads to us learning things. I hope that people learned something or were at least entertained slightly by this series over the past year. I may pick another year and another city as a project for 2014, but I haven't decided yet. I'll make a resolution to make my mind up, and in the meantime I wish you all a Happy New Year -- or to be more modest, a Happy New Year's Day.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

On the Big Screen: AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013)

For some people, this will be the film where Lois Lane and Katniss Everdeen are fighting over Batman, who's trying to save Hawkeye from the machinations of ... of ... the guy from Silver Linings Playbook. It sure helps a director when his stock company have more famous gigs elsewhere, even if it's to David O. Russell himself that Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence owe their Oscars. So how else do I describe Russell's new film? Oh, it's That 70s Movie! But how much of a Seventies movie is it when the lead couple's theme song is Duke Ellington's Jeep's Blues as performed Live at Newport in 1956, and the origin of Bale's protagonist is literally Chaplinesque? Jackie Coogan was doing that same thing, breaking windows to stir up trade for Chaplin's glazier business, back in 1921. In many ways, just about all of them good, American Hustle is more a movie movie than a Seventies period piece. I could just as well describe it as an epic Scorsesean farce, a film that may have out-Scorsesed Scorsese himself this Oscar season, with a touch of Capracorn thrown in. It's the funniest film I've seen this year, though I admit that I don't go out of my way to see comedies and I haven't seen the new Coen Bros. picture yet. The audience that braved a cold driving rain for the Sunday afternoon show at the local arthouse laughed throughout and applauded at the end. But there's something more than farce or even satire going on here that may make the picture good for more than a laugh.

While Amy Adams tarts herself up into a Seventies goddess of jiggle and plunging necklines, Bale becomes a sympathetic grotesque, first seen elaborately assembling his hairpiece and combover combo, who somehow sustains a conman's charisma, captivating not only Adams, a fellow grifter, but Lawrence, whom Adams make seem almost frumpy, as the Bale character's estranged yet still-covetous wife. Bale's character, Irving Rosenfeld, rose from those Chaplinesque beginnings to run a chain of laundromats, sell forged paintings, and swindle desperate people with bad credit, promising them $50,000 for $5,000 but never delivering and blaming the victim every time. He's a prosperous sleazebag in love, but the whole point of the childhood flashback is to illustrate that Irving has had to hustle to survive, in a milieu where just about everyone is conning everyone else. By comparison, FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper) hustles out of ambition. He's not exactly well off, still living with a nagging mother,  but if Irving is only a player, Richie is a predator. If Irving and Sydney Prosser (Adams) are just out to fleece people for five grand apiece, Richie is out to destroy people's careers, if not their lives, to advance his own career. Having caught Iriving and Sydney (aka Lady Edith) in a sting, Richie treats them as rungs on his ladder, hoping to use them to entrap bigger fish.

American Hustle is based on the real-life Abscam case and manages to make the FBI, or at least Richie, the villain of the piece. Richie develops a scheme that will invite politicians to take bribes to facilitate the naturalization of a fake Arabian sheik, which will in turn facilitate the development of casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey. For Richie, the politicians, ranging from local figures to U.S. Senators, are no more than targets. But as he assigns Irving to cultivate the mayor of Camden, Carmine Polito (Renner), Irving sees the good that Polito has tried to do on the street level and understands the compromises the mayor has had to make and may have to keep making. Irving decides that Polito shouldn't have to go down just to be another scalp on Richie's lance. He also happens to resent the moves Richie has made on Sydney, while Sydney resents Irving's failure to cut loose completely from Rosalyn, a loose cannon who gets to play the wife again during nights on the town with the Politos and eventually knows too much for anyone's good. Since we're talking casinos, why not throw the Mob into the mix, represented by another member of the Russell stock company, Robert de Niro. Why not throw in some more stuff? The key here isn't so much to make sure the audience keeps track of all the complications, though Russell and co-writer Eric Warren Singer do a good job of that, but to make them appreciate how dangerously complicated things have become and how easily any of the freaks we're following can bring the whole house of cards crashing down.

If there's a point to the Seventies setting, apart from it being the period of Abscam, it's not to mock the decade's music or fashions but to romanticize it as a period when things still seemed possible as long as people were willing to take chances and even get a little shady. Strange to say, here is a movie that is defensive toward politicians. Irving's uncomfortable about Richie's scheme from the first, thinking it wrong to discredit more politicians so soon after Watergate. That may be less an authentic character note than a protest from the screenwriters about a discrediting of politics itself that has only gotten worse since the time of their story. American Hustle can't bother itself to be outraged at politicians taking bribes because, in a curious echo of the ethics of last year's Lincoln, the film seems to see getting one's hands dirty as a sometimes-necessary price of doing the right thing for the most people. And while Richie is no counterpart in thoughts or attitudes to today's right-wingers, there may be something about the essential selfishness of his motives that would make him a substitute for such figures for today's audience.

I'm suggesting a more subtle reading of the picture than will be necessary for most people. You could laugh throughout American Hustle without necessarily having a deeper thought about the implications of the story. If Bradley Cooper plays the villain of the piece, his is one of the great comic villain performances of recent times. There's no moustache twirling but a lot of desperation, horniness and frustration, not just in his pursuit of Sydney but in his rivalry with a skeptical killjoy superior (Louis C.K.) that escalates to violence (it's a rare false note that we actually see the violence after Russell has gotten a laugh out of revealing its aftermath) and triumphant mockery before the fall. While Bale cuts a heroically ludicrous figure throughout, he's practically a straight man for his co-stars, and having to deal with the schemes and threats of Richie and the chaos Rosalyn carries with her keeps him sympathetic in our eyes. If anything, Lawrence gives too chaotic a performance, though that's the fault of writers who needed Rosalyn to do little but create mischief, whether by menacingly kissing Sydney in the ladies' room or by half-wittingly ratting out Richie as an "I.R.S." man to her new Mafia boyfriend. As a performer, though, Lawrence is hilarious and this film will certainly do nothing to slow her meteoric rise. Adams's acting may be overshadowed by the eye candy she provides throughout but she can hold her own with all her high-powered co-stars. Russell's direction often feels at once like a homage to and parody of Scorsese. He has the narration and the use of pop music nailed, but his distinctive touch may be seen when the tension created by scoring a scene where Irving's life is threatened by mobsters to the Live and Let Die theme is leavened by cutting to Rosalyn, who's actually listening and singing along with the record, doing a goofy dance while dusting her furniture. At other moments, as when Richie and Sydney appear as period fashion icons outside a hotel through the smoke of an exploded spotlight to Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, the imagery and effect is as uncanny as anything Scorsese has done. In many ways, American Hustle feels like an instant classic because Russell has made it in a recognizably classic style. It might not be the best film of 2013, but it's a strong contender for the most entertaining.

Let's close with an encore of Jeep's Blues from the album they listened to in the movie, and as uploaded to YouTube by Jazzman2696.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Now Playing: CHRISTMAS 1933

For their holiday attractions Milwaukee's movie houses depend on star power. In particular, the Palace depends on overwhelming star power. Check out this cast list:

Unfortunately, this Alice is notorious for putting all its stars under heavy makeup inspired by the original illustrations that left the performers unrecognizable except for their voices. Cary Grant may as well not be there as the Mock Turtle, for instance, though his weepy turn is one of the film's most memorable voice performances. Gary Cooper comes nearest to playing a human being and plays against type by falling off his horse a lot. Overall, one part inspired, one part stupendously misconceived. You can say that about a lot of films.

The other theaters worked on the assumption that one star was enough.

If any of these clippings has sparked a happy memory, consider that my Christmas gift (and 1933's) to you.

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Consider the source: Duke Mitchell was a Sinatra wannabe marketed as a Dean Martin clone and paired with a Jerry Lewis clone, Sammy Petrillo, at the height of the original pair's popularity as a team. Early on, Mitchell staked a claim to cult-movie history by co-starring with Petrillo in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, one of the most sublimely self-explanatory titles ever. After Jerry Lewis litigated Petrillo into oblivion, Mitchell stuck to live performance, declaring himself "King of Palm Beach." By the 1970s, the man born Dominic Micelli was a Johnny Fontane who wanted to be Sonny Corleone. He had caught something of the zeitgeist of the time, both prideful and defensive about his Sicilian heritage. Massacre Mafia Style seems intended as an answer to The Godfather, a film criticized by Mitchell's character, who bears the actor's real family name. Mimi Micelli feels that the character of Don Vito Corleone is based on his own father, "the Padrone," who's been insulted by Brando's clownish portrayal of the don in retirement. Mimi rails against the stereotype of the Sicilian as a gangster, complaining that none of the other ethnic types with whom Sicilians interact in the underworld are so stigmatized. At the same time, he condemns himself and his peers for giving enough reality to the stereotype to disgrace their innocent, long-suffering mothers. This self-criticism comes in the middle of a mad-dog spree during which Mimi tries to muscle his way into control of the numbers and prostitution rackets in Los Angeles, escalating his tactics from kidnapping to indiscriminate slaughter. Part of his campaign is the murder on live television of the spokesman for a Sicilian anti-defamation league modeled on Joe Colombo's quixotic real-life movement in New York and Colombo's near-assassination at a public rally. As a filmmaker, Micelli/Mitchell protests the stereotyping of Sicilians as gangsters by making as nearly stereotypical a Sicilian gangster film as possible. His is a conflicted message, though less generous observers might call it incoherent.

But the funny thing about Massacre Mafia Style is how much the neophyte Mitchell's work resembles that of not just Coppola but Scorsese. The resemblance to the latter, whose most recent film was Mean Streets while Mitchell shot his picture, is stronger yet almost certainly coincidental. Mitchell opens his film in what we'd now recognize as Scorsesean fashion, with a shock sequence that actually takes place in the middle of the story, scored to ironically chosen pop music, from which he flashes back to the beginning of Mimi's American adventure as narrated by the protagonist. The opening is a brazen if not bravura sequence in which Mimi and his partner Jolly (Vic Caesar) walk into a high-rise office to kill a businessman. They set him up to be electrocuted by the flush of a urinal, then decide that they leave no witnesses in the entire office suite. The film earns its true title -- it was also known as Like Father Like Son and, most popularly on videotape, The Executioner -- right here. Whatever budgetary limitations Mitchell labored under, he was never short of squibs and blood packs. This film is almost absurdly bloody, but Mitchell stages other creative kills, from the crucifixion of a pimp (scored to the Hallelujah Chorus and staged near the Hollywood Bowl) to the impalement of an enemy through the back of the head with a meathook that comes out through his eye ("He's hanging around in there," Mimi quips bondishly). Mitchell was clearly trying to have it both ways, as if the exploitation-level violence would cover the tirades against Sicilian stereotypes, or vice versa -- or else he never really figured out what he was trying to do or say. But Mitchell clearly has something to say, and that's something that distinguishes the truly great bad movies. I'm not ready after one viewing to say this is one of that group, but Massacre definitely touches a lot of the bases.

Mitchell's own unintimidating personage -- balding on top but hair all he way down his neck, enhanced later in the story (thus already present in the opening) by a moustache that made him resemble late-stage Rock Hudson slightly -- maintains a constant of absurdity through the whole picture, especially when Mimi scores with babes who go nude for him. Memorable moments abound; another is a rival's attempt to intimidate Mimi and Jolly with a karate-expert bodyguard who chops through a coffee table, only to be riddled immediately with bullets by the unimpressed pair. The script is baldly racist, at least in the words it puts into Mimi's mouth, and in a manner not necessarily alien to the style of Mitchell's Italo-American peers, and Mitchell dependably carries the bigotry to an absurd extreme by having Mimi rant about the proliferation of blaxploitation films with "Super" characters. Some of this is genuinely ugly, like the crucifixion of the black pimp with the commentary, "He said Jesus was black; maybe he can get a resurrection," and Mitchell isn't good enough a writer to make clear whether this represents his own deplorable attitude or an attitude he deplores in Mimi. One way or the other, it's still a kind of truth-telling that makes Massacre a perhaps-unconscious self-revelation and enhances its cult-film credentials.

Films like this are often mocked for their low-budgets, though in this case Mitchell often manages to maximize his production value with decent location work, but the true cult-film fan is more impressed by the ability of marginal figures like Mitchell to get feature films made at all. On that level, Massacre Mafia Style is a kind of epic achievement, and its rise-and-fall narrative (including Mimi's attempt to go straight by becoming a shot-on-yacht porn producer) has an appropriate sub-Scorsesean sweep. For every Scorsese or Coppola there may have been a million Mitchells monkeying around on typewriters trying to do the same thing. You'd have to figure some of them would come close to something, and seeing how close Mitchell came in many ways was a fascinating experience.

Friday, December 20, 2013

DVR Diary: 7TH CAVALRY (1956)

Joseph  H. Lewis is remembered for his films noirs, the best known of those being 1950's Gun Crazy and 1955's The Big Combo. As that wave ebbed, Lewis wrapped up his theatrical career with four westerns before becoming a TV director. The best known of these may be the last, 1958's Terror in a Texas Town, an eccentricity highlighted by Sterling Hayden bringing a harpoon to a gunfight. Surprisingly little attention goes to the two Lewis directed for Randolph Scott, considering how Scott's reputation has grown thanks to the rediscovery of his films directed by Budd Boetticher. The films Scott made with Andre de Toth, before the Lewis pictures, seem to have fared better with posterity. Yet Lewis would seem like a perfect match for Scott, given the director's ability to get the most out of a B budget. In fact, 7th Cavalry is on a larger scale than most of Scott's work in the Fifties. This is partly because Lewis filmed at the same location fort used in Anthony Mann's Last Frontier and often made just as impressive use of it. This film has sweep if nothing else; shot by Ray Rennahan, it looks great. The problems begin with the story it tells.

Scott plays Capt. Tom Benson of the 7th Cavalry, returning to the fort with his bride-to-be only to find it largely abandoned. He'd been ordered by Gen. Custer, a romantic at heart, to go fetch the lovely lady (Barbara "Della Street" Hale) rather than ride with him to the Little Big Horn. Benson soon learns what he missed, and learns that people hold his luck against him. Many believe that he must have had an inkling of Custer's doom, since everyone now finds the general's foolhardiness obvious, and requested leave out of cowardice. Among those with their suspicions is the officer chairing the court of inquiry into the Little Big Horn debacle, Benson's prospective father-in-law. Benson himself defends his honor and Custer's; he won't accept the likes of Benteen and Reno questioning his hero's tactics, and he'll have no one question his own courage.

To vindicate himself, Benson volunteers for a detail to retrieve the bodies of Custer and the other fallen officers from the battle site. This is asking for trouble, since Sitting Bull's forces now believe that the dead Americans have infused the site with "medicine" that will inspire them to further victories as long as their bodies remain where they fell. Benson complicates his own mission further by recruiting a band of convicts and malcontents who seem ready (the one played by badass specialist Leo Gordon in particular) to frag him at any moment.

A soldier undertaking a perilous mission to refute charges of cowardice can't help reminding me of a better film, Robert Rossen's They Came to Cordura from 1959. The contrasts are drawn more starkly in that picture, in which Gary Cooper must escort a group of Medal of Honor candidates back from Mexico during the expedition against Pancho Villa -- the heroes all proving themselves rather rotten people while Cooper virtually martyrs himself in search of redemption. In 7th Cavalry the Scott character's courage is never really questioned by the audience, and he never really faces the sort of ordeal that would prove his courage beyond doubt to his detractors. In short, he doesn't suffer, apart from taking some lumps in a fistfight with the beefy Gordon. Worse for the theme, Benson owes the accomplishment of his mission not to his own extraordinary bravery but to a deus ex machina contrivance. The late Harry Carey Jr. arrives at the fort and announces himself as an eyewitness to Custer's order to Benson. He can vindicate Benson on the spot, but rather than do something practical like give a deposition to the court of inquiry, he rides out to find Benson. Along the way, an Indian kills him but fails to capture Carey's horse. This beast happens to be Custer's second-favorite steed, which makes its way to the Little Big Horn, where Benson's little crew is surrounded by Sioux warriors. Sitting Bull thinks it'd be wrong to shed more blood at the battle site, but has nothing against starving the bluecoats by trapping them there. Leo Gordon tries to break through the cordon, passes through and gets an arrow in his back. It looks bad for our hero until the horse arrives. Somehow the Sioux recognize this as Custer's horse, and take it to be the ghost of the horse he rode in on. They interpret its appearance as a confirmation that the bluecoats should take the body of "Long Hair" home after all, so they leave.

Lewis supposedly had qualms about the historical accuracy of the story; whether he expressed them to Scott, who was co-producer of the film with his usual partner Harry Joe Brown, is unclear, as is whether this has anything to do with Lewis never working with Scott again. The actor may simply have preferred Boetticher after doing Seven Men From Now with him for John Wayne's production company that same year. It's worth noting that Scott and Boetticher avoided subjects on the scale of 7th Cavalry, and did nothing nearly as silly. Lewis's film remains visually impressive but the screenplay's already-outmoded (?) reverence toward Custer and its patronizing attitude toward Native superstition leave it with the old-fashioned formula westerns that Randolph Scott belatedly and triumphantly outgrew.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: THE COLLEGE COACH (1933)

Pat O'Brien may be best remembered today for his title role in the 1940 biopic Knute Rockne, All-American, if only because of his proximity to Ronald Reagan in the film that gave the future President his "Gipper" nickname. In that picture, playing the legendary Notre Dame leader, O'Brien was the ideal of a college sports coach. The contrast with Pre-Code O'Brien could not be more stark, for in the title role of William Wellman's athletic satire the actor is for all intents and purposes the anti-Rockne. Sure, there are points of resemblance: like Rockne, who died two years before College Coach was made, Wellman's Coach Gore is a celebrity and a constant winner. But Gore lacks Rockne's loyalty to a single school; he sells his services to the highest bidder. The high bidder is Calvert University, despite a grave budget deficit. The trustees' desperate belief, then as now, is that the revenue from a successful football program will finance worthy academic projects. Gore couldn't give two farts about academics, promptly hiring patently unqualified ringers out of football mills designed to give them the high grades they need to get into college. To give you a visual idea, one of these paragons of amateurism is Nat Pendleton with a moronic Slavic accent; an unhappy subtext of College Coach is that any football player with an ethnic name is academically suspect. The real stars of the team are Buck Weaver (Lyle Talbot), a sleazy showboater, and Philip Sargent Jr. (Dick Powell), the son of the college president (Arthur Byron). Powell is the real star of the picture, in fact, and since he had become a star in 1933 by virtue of his performances in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, Phil gets to play the piano and sing a song to himself for no reason relevant to the story. Phil's a good boy and a good student, or at least he wants to be -- we see him hard at work in the chem lab under Donald Meek's tutelage, but Buck doesn't give a damn. The two are incompatible teammates; Buck defies the coach himself if he can see an opening to score on his own, and Gore makes them roommates in the hope that, following a locker-room dustup, Phil will knock Buck down a few pegs. Buck's idea of cultured conversation is to show off a pin-up poster and ask Phil, "How'd ya like to put your finger in her coffee?"

Little does Gore know, at first, that Buck is making moves on his wife (Ann Dvorak). Mrs. Gore feels neglected by Gore's genuine dedication to winning and his sometimes contemptuous rounds of publicity arranged by a largely self-appointed agent (Hugh Herbert), while Buck would probably jump anything with decent curves. When Gore finally gets wise, he throws Buck off the team. Meanwhile, Phil quits in disgust with both the program and himself after he deliberately flunks the chem exam, knowing that practice and publicity gave him not time to study properly, only to find that he had passed (albeit with a D) despite turning in an empty exam booklet. Furthermore, Sargent Sr. is inclined to get rid of Gore after an opposing player is mortally injured during a game. Somehow, after everything, we're still supposed to root for Calvert to win the big game, and to celebrate when both Phil, possessed by school spirit, and Buck, manipulated by Mrs. Gore, rejoin the team. But the genius of the picture is that Calvert wins and Buck becomes the hero despite learning nothing during the picture. As before, he breaks up a play designed as a pass to Phil and runs for the winning touchdown himself. His comeuppance comes when he realizes that Mrs. Gore, having reconciled with hubby, had played him so he'd play. Preparing to declare his love for her to reporters, he sees the truth through a door and credits his success to dear old mother instead. By then, the Gores are ready to move on. The school just beaten has offered the coach $10,000 more than Calvert paid him. He hesitates, thinking of his wife, but she grabs the phone and accepts the offer for him.

College Coach isn't exactly a hard-hitting expose of the corruption of academia by athletics. The picture is more amused than outraged by its subject and its high-spirited cynicism is Pre-Code to a tee. Powell may get the top billing but if anyone steals the picture from him it isn't O'Brien, who in the title role is equally susceptible to theft, but Lyle Talbot in one of his best Pre-Code showcases, in a role he clearly enjoyed playing. Talbot often comes out second-best, at best, in these movies, but here he achieves a kind of seedy charisma, swaggering through the picture with a perpetual five o'clock shadow, unrepentant and nearly imperturbable despite some hard knocks along the way. Modern viewers may be distracted by John Wayne's very brief appearance as a student, near the end of his underwhelming run at Warner Bros., but Talbot should make more of an impression than he ever would until he played Lex Luthor (and quite well, too) in the Atom Man vs. Superman serial. William Wellman was also near the end of his far more memorable run at Warners, and while this isn't one of his more memorable films visually he gets the job done with typical crisp efficiency and gives O'Brien and Talbot their chances to shine. College Coach isn't on the level of The Public Enemy or Wild Boys of the Road, but it may be more relevant today, in some respects, than those or other Wellman masterworks at Warner Bros.  People (and not just movie buffs) would get this film today if they gave it a try.

And here's our usual Warner Bros. trailer, courtesy of TCM.com

Monday, December 16, 2013

Johnnie To's DRUG WAR (2012)

After exploring the realms of high and low finance in Life Without Principle, Hong Kong crime-film specialist Johnnie To returned to familiar territory last year (he has since made another film), but on the relatively unfamiliar territory of mainland China. Once upon a time it would have been hard to imagine a film from the People's Republic acknowledging the existence of drug dealers within its borders, yet here we are. And I found it interesting that To made his hero, Captain Zhang of the narcotics squad (Sun Honglei) the image of an American cowboy in the opening scene. The symbolism is highly and fluidly suggestive; is To saying something about his character, or about China, or about movies?

After going undercover Zhang breaks up a meth-smuggling operation, capturing a bus full of human mules stuffed full of drugs. Also taken in after crashing his car in the middle of town is Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), who proves to be (or claims to be) an important middleman in the drug trade and the boss of the Deaf Brothers -- literally a hearing-impaired gang who communicate through sign language and grunting, presumably the better to avoid surveillance. To avoid China's death penalty, Choi cooperates with Zhang, introducing the cop into his circle of crime. Zhang passes for a moneyman nicknamed Haha for his crazed laughter. After intercepting the real Haha and taking him out of circulation, Zhang, with Choi as chaperon, meets with representatives of mastermind "Uncle Billy." As a show of good faith, "Haha" has to snort two lines of coke; his hosts won't take no for an answer. Zhang mans up and keeps up his somewhat ridiculous act, but the drug men are barely out the door when our hero collapses in an overdosed fit. As the other cops threaten Choi, as if he's to blame for their boss's predicament, he yells out advice to save Zhang's life and prove anew his own good will.

There's something about the cold way Choi initially regards Zhang's distress that makes you wonder about his ultimate motives. Louis Koo's poker-faced performance dominates the picture despite Sun Honglei's broad role-playing, and Choi's facial bandages keep your attention focused on the actor throughout. Whatever Choi's motives have been along the way, when the shit hits the fan in the film's climactic rolling gunfight he means to be the last man standing. To's skill at developing slow-burning suspense pays off with a furious marathon battle that may remind crime fans of the epic street combat in Michael Mann's Heat. Choi comes tantalizingly close to his goal as cops and criminals inexorably eliminate each other, with no little help from Choi himself. It may be a concession to China's more authoritarian values, however, that the movie ultimately takes on a "Crime Does Not Pay" quality emphasizing China's inexorable justice.

At the climactic moment, however, movie buffs may be again reminded of America and American film, as Choi is beaten in a manner straight out of Erich von Stroheim's legendary silent film Greed. I haven't seen enough Johnnie To movies to know whether this sort of thing is typical of him or if Drug War's hints of Hollywood are some reflection on the People's Republic or what the mainland wants in a crime movie. Ultimately there's little reason to look for anything subversive here, since Drug War, if not as sociologically ambitious as Life Without Principle, is a potent pulp cinema directed with suspenseful style. Its main ambition is to entertain and by communist or capitalist standards it largely succeeds.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Lest we forget...

While I have singled out Peter O'Toole with a screencap below, I do not mean to slight the other classic movie personalities who've passed or whose passings have been reported this weekend. Earlier in the week Eleanor Parker died at age 91; the headlines emphasized her now best-known role in The Sound of Music, but she had been twice nominated for an Oscar and her real place in history was probably earned by one of those roles, in the pioneer women-in-prison Caged. A contemporary more closely identified with film noir was Audrey Totter, who has died at age 95. I remember her best for her role as Richard Basehart's wicked wife in John Berry's Tension. No sooner had I read of O'Toole's death than, scrolling down the Google News headlines, I saw that Joan Fontaine had passed at age 96. She was the second-earliest surviving winner of the Best Actress Oscar, having won it for Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion after arguably earning it for their Rebecca the previous year. The younger sister of Olivia de Havilland, who kept the family name and now takes over her place on the chronological list, Fontaine had also been the oldest surviving film dance partner of Fred Astaire (in A Damsel in Distress). In movies, she was snubbed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in favor of the British Army in Gunga Din, tormented by yet smitten with Orson Welles in Jane Eyre, snubbed yet in love for life with Louis Jourdan in Max Ophuls's Letter From an Unknown Woman, but taken by Robert Taylor in preference to a young Elizabeth Taylor in Ivanhoe. Her place in film history is secure without bringing up family gossip. Finally, within the last hour it's been reported that Tom Laughlin died last Thursday at the age of 82. For a moment in the 1970s Laughlin, who'd been working since the 1950s in films as diverse as South Pacific and Robert Altman's The Delinquents, became a pop-culture icon in the form of Billy Jack, the high-kicking Indian 'Nam vet who first appeared in 1967's Born Losers (but was conceived by Laughlin earlier) and evolved into a kind of counterculture superhero before the auteur's career suddenly went up in smoke. His most recent work of note was a quixotic run for President, but he kept up hopes of reviving Billy Jack until the end.

The morbidly funny thing about this is that Turner Classic Movies released their annual "Remembers" tribute reel for this year's departed a few years ago, up-to-date enough to include Parker but criticized by some for an apparent snub of modern star Paul Walker. TCM will certainly have occasion to rectify any snub, for the sad fact is that the tribute reel seriously needs an update now.

Peter O'Toole (1932-2003)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fernando Di Leo's NAKED VIOLENCE (I ragazzi del massacro, 1969)

Director Fernando Di Leo's adaptation of Ukrainian-Italian author Giorgio Scerbanenco's novel Caliber 9 is one of the great crime films of the 1970s. It was di Leo's second treatment of Scerbanenco. The first was I ragazzi del massacro (approximately, "The Massacre Boys"), a collaborative adapation by Di Leo and three other writers of a Scerbanenco police procedural. It's about the investigation of the gang rape and murder of a Milan night-school teacher by a classroom of sweathogs fueled by a bottle of aniseed. Commissario Lamberti (Pier Paolo Capponi) wants to find out who instigated the attack. He interrogates the boys one by one, constrained from striking them but using an aniseed bottle as an interrogation tool, forcing some to drink from it, pouring the contents on others, or on the chair they have to sit on. Several students finger one Fiorello Gassi as the ringleader but Lamberti has his doubts. Gassi sets off his gaydar (and the kid's sandals are apparently meant as a clue for the audience) and seems too sensitive and fearful to author such an atrocity. Lamberti goes gentle on him compared to his treatment of the other boys, but it does him little good. Eventually Gassi will fall off the roof of the building where the boys have been confined. Jumped or pushed? None can say.

Accompanied by Livia Ussaro, the boys' guidance counselor (Nieves "Susan Scott" Navarro), Lamberti looks up adult acquaintances of the boys in search of clues to the ultimate responsibility for the crime. It becomes clear that some of the kids were involved in international smuggling, but the boys remain a wall of silence. Lamberti and Ussaro hope to get answers by separating one of the boys, Carolino Marassi (Marzio Margine) and softening him up with tender treatment. They buy him new clothes and treat him to big dinners. Carolino seems to respond to this TLC but takes advantage of an errand to run away -- straight to the mystery person the Commissario has been after all along.

After a violent showdown with a malevolent mentor, we see the crime again -- having gotten a taste of it at the very start of the picture -- through Carolino's delirious flashback, in which he is almost as much a victim as the doomed teacher.

As much a juvenile-delinquent film as a procedural, Naked Violence raises old questions about the causes of delinquency, hoping to give them new urgency by magnifying the scale of the crime. For Lamberti, the case becomes an almost obsessive quest to pin down the personal responsibility for the evil; for him, why must boil down to who. Capponi's intensity holds the episodic first half of the picture together, while Margine's performance as Carolino shapes the second half. Despite the decent acting, the film often feels hamfisted, particularly whenever Silvano Spadaccino's overblown fanfare blasts out as each kid steps in for his first interrogation. This isn't an action picture like Milano Caliber 9 or Di Leo's related crime films, and the only time the director really shows off is during Carolino's climactic, horrific flashback. Otherwise it's a more modest movie, apart from the retroactive (if not immediate) campiness of the ultimate villain. The revelation of this rather ludicrous figure undercuts much of the horror the film aims at. The crime seems more unsettling if it remains ultimately motiveless and unfathomable, while the discovery and defeat of a master villain offers more reassurance than audiences got from Di Leo's bleak crime films. The filmmakers may have intended reassurance rather than horror, but the effect is still inferior to what Di Leo would achieve later, though Naked Violence remains a gradually compelling experience for patient viewers.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


As a rule I'm not into ghost stories, but word of mouth on James Wan's "fact"-based period piece had been good and a friend wanted to see it, so I borrowed the disc from the library. To show you how out of touch I am with sizable chunks of modern pop cinema, The Conjuring is the first James Wan film I've seen. I've never seen Saw and have nothing to say about the "torture porn" subgenre it spawned. I missed Insidious and its sequel. That allowed me to approach Conjuring on its own terms. The film's loosely based on an actual investigation by pioneer paranormal researchers Ed and Lorraine Warren, the latter of whom, now in her eighties, makes a brief cameo appearance after serving as a technical advisor to the production. While I identified Conjuring as a period piece a few sentences ago, I found it refreshing that it was not self-consciously a "70s" movie. Its object is not to display the outrageous fashions or play the outrageous music of the decade; the only real "ha ha, the Seventies" moment has the beleaguered Perron family watching The Brady Bunch, presumably in first run, on their television. Something that Conjuring self-consciously is not is a "found footage" horror movie in the currently popular style. Wan makes clear that such an approach was an option, showing us brief found-footage moments from previous Warren investigations only to set them aside. Given the proficiency he shows with the camera in this picture, why limit himself? The only advantage found-footage has is its illusion of immediacy and spontaneity, punctuated by so many "oh my gods" and "holy shits." As befits a period piece, Wan was interested in more old-fashioned chills. I don't scare easily at the movies but I was impressed by the director's craftsmanship as he slowly established an atmosphere of dread and menace in the Perrons' haunted house. Little did they know that a lineage of death dating back to a witch's curse (do Wiccans object to such portrayals these days?) has left them vulnerable to attacks, visitations, bad smells and finally the possession of the mother (Lily Taylor) by the witch's evil spirit. The film makes the most of the physicality of the house; we always have a sense of exactly where we are, at least until another piece of floor gives way and someone falls into an unfamiliar part of the basement. Conjuring deserves more credit for art direction than it will get, while Wan deserves credit for suggestive restraint despite the expected effects displays toward the end. I liked how he constantly teased how someone could go over the railings on the second floor, yet never puts anyone in that predicament. There's a modesty to the production that makes a greater impression than CGI spectacle, making Wan's film part of a positive trend in this year's cinema. This is no acting showcase (except arguably for Taylor) and there's nothing profound to it, but it was watchable both as a story and as a movie, which is more than can be said for many modern horror films. Still, it left me wondering. Are movies dealing with demons and exorcisms part of a distinctly Catholic mythos? The film emphasizes how Ed Warren, though a layman, is recognized as a serious demonologist by the Vatican, as if Rome's opinion alone counted, and it shows yet again how demons are uniquely responsive to or fearful of Latin words. Is a Protestant SOL in such cases, or do demons not bother with such heretics? Just wondering, and only in fun. The Conjuring is fun in its own way, and that alone may make it one of the better horror movies in a while.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Now Playing: DEC. 10, 1933

Little Women ruled the Milwaukee box office last week, earning a second week at the Warner, while The Invisible Man departs after two weeks at the Alhambra. There isn't a lot of competition among the new releases, several of which are deemed secondary to the live attractions at the city's movie palaces.

Sing Sinner Sing is an independent picture loosely based on a recent celebrity scandal that apparently has fallen into the public domain and can be seen for free at various internet sites. I may check it out myself.

The Palace opts for class in both live and screen attractions. It tells you something about the Pre-Code era that Paramount Pictures would bring Dorothea Wieck, the star of pioneer lesbian picture Maedchen in Uniform (aka the Blue is the Warmest Color of its day) to Hollywood and star her in an American movie.

The trend continues at the Oriental, a theater we haven't visited very often, but the novelty's worth noting this week.

Beverly was Mae's younger sister (born Mildred), five years her junior. She never broke into the movies, her sole IMDB credit being a German TV special from the 1960s. As for the movie, I just saw Professional Sweetheart last month and had plenty to say about this strange Ginger Rogers vehicle.

The Wisconsin puts its movie up front after hosting the Earl Carroll Vanities live for a week. This theater presumably has confidence in one of the most popular actresses of the period.

This is definitely counterprogramming, for whatever else you might say about Marie Dressler, she was indisputably not a little woman. Speaking of the defending champ, one of its stars, Frances Dee, has another picture playing this week.

In this picture, Dee recalled nearly seventy years later, she played "a kleptomaniac, a nymphomaniac, and anything in between." For another picture you might have mentioned that you had a "Star of Little Women," but I don't think the audience for Little Women would appreciate this one.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On the Big Screen: THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)

Walt Simonson created Malekith the Dark Elf during a run as writer and artist that revitalized the Thor comic book in the 1980s. Simonson's distinctive penciling style and his determination as a writer to shake up the familar story formulae gave the book an energy it had lacked since co-creator Jack Kirby left the title at the end of the 1960s. Malekith himself is not one of the great comic-book villains by anyone's estimate, but he was made memorable by the energetic novelty of Simonson's art. Simonson's Thor books looked like nothing that had come before them. By comparison, while Alan Taylor has replaced Kenneth Branagh in the director's chair, the second Thor movie looks very much like the first. In the movies, Thor has drab enemies apart from his Asgardian peers. Just as the first film's frost giants were dull to look at, so are this film's Dark Elves. On the comics page, Simonson's Malekith cut a flamboyant figure: his face half blue, half white; his costume half black, half red. That's too flamboyant for comic-book movies, or at least for those comic-book moviemakers who still fear that colorful costumes will be laughed at. The movie Malekith has been made drably monochromatic, and much of his comic-book flamboyance is sacrificed to the notion that Christopher Eccleston should speak most of his lines in Dark Elf, his meaning imparted by subtitles, compared to the gods of Asgard, for whom English is their first language. Eccleston's Malekith is less a villain than a monster, more ambitious to destroy than to rule. After all, to be a more classical villain would be redundant while Tom Hiddleston's beloved Loki continues to prance through these pictures. Malekith's plan to annihilate the Nine Worlds during a rare cosmic convergence ultimately is no more than a Macguffin justifying Loki's release from the prison to which he was doomed after his defeat in Marvel's The Avengers, just as the Dark Elf's reliance on the mysterious and long-lost Aether to carry out his plan merely provides a hook to hang Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her entourage of comedy relief onto the picture. They had proven mildly amusing as Thor's chaperones during his early exile in the first movie, so the whole troupe returns, Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) reduced to an insane clown after his Avengers experience, Darcy the Intern (Kat Dennings) almost instantly wearing her welcome out. This time Darcy has her own intern, because someone -- it must be Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, or Scott McFeely -- thought that would be funny.

Someone urgently felt that The Dark World needed to be funny, since comic bits are interlarded throughout the entire climactic battle, which itself veers into a Sherlock Jr. direction as Thor and Malekith are warped in all directions, for more reasons than are worth mentioning, as they try to battle in Greenwich. The situation seems ripe for absurdity, but Taylor may lack the writers' sense of humor, since the nearest he gets to a funny moment is when Thor materializes in an Underground station and, being a stranger in town, must take a train back to the fight. The sequence seems designed, almost perversely, to get Darcy involved as much as possible, warping her in and out of danger whenever things get too dramatic. There's never much danger of that, since by now the latest threat to the entire universe is unlikely to impress anyone, and most of the audience for this movie in particular is more interested in what Loki might be up to. Mostly (to summarize what I can without spoiling things) he's up to sulking in his Lecterite prison and making jokes. Sibling (or quasi-sibling) rivalry between Loki and Thor is a constant in the comics, but in Dark World what are they -- ten years old? In one scene Thor's trying to pilot an alien craft through some crowded Asgardian architecture -- don't ask -- while Loki snarks away like the god of backseat drivers. People adore Hiddleston, apparently, but in his third appearance he's starting to wear out my welcome, and Loki should not be doing that in a Thor franchise. Hiddleston has had his moments as the alpha villain of the Marvel movies, but he's also that dangerous cliche, the camp villain who gets all the good lines -- or at least the best these writers can come up with. I hope I won't be accused of taking superheroes too seriously if I insist on not having characters like that in my comic-book films. To be fair, however, Hiddleston may be the only thing making Dark World an entertaining experience for many viewers. For me, it just wasn't entertaining. With the arguable exception of Iron Man 2, it's the worst film of the Marvel series so far, and the first half of that was better than any of this. It may be too soon in a movie franchise for the sort of revisionist jolt Simonson gave the Thor comics, but after two films the Thor series is already repetitive and tiresome -- and a third one is just about a certainty. Just this year, of course, Iron Man 3 improved considerably on its predecessor, but the second Thor film gives us every reason to believe that the third will only be more of the same. In closing, I quote the ancient Norse bard:

'You ought to know before I go, I'm Thor,' he bid adieu.
'You're Thor,' said she, 'Consider me; I'm thorer, thir, than you.'

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Pre-Code Parade: CALL HER SAVAGE (1932)

In her comeback after a year off the screen following a nervous breakdown, erstwhile It Girl Clara Bow is like a psychopathic Betty Boop. In 1932 Bow may already have seemed like a relic of another era, even though her early talkies had been popular, but the transgressive rage of her performance as Nasa Springer puts her in kinship with 21st century bad girls. With her explosive hair and sometimes-visible double chin, Bow may be little sexier to modern eyes than Mae West, but the violence of Nasa's personality is as vivid now as it must have been then. Violence is Nasa's defining trait. We first see her trying to whip a snake to death for scaring her horse into throwing her. When a young, hunky Gilbert Roland appears, she turns the whip on him. He takes it without resisting, without flinching, as the flogging goes on and on until her father appears to break it up. Nasa goes home, and in one of the film's most notorious scenes she happily wrestles her pet Great Dane. By "happily" I mean she rises from the mat visibly stimulated, if you know what I mean. Dad decides she needs refinement in a Chicago finishing school; by the time the heiress graduates she's a celebrity, nicknamed "Dynamite" by the yellow press for her habit of getting into brawls. This is so well established as a character trait that by a late point in the picture director John Francis Dillon doesn't have to show her in action. We see her showing up at a dinner party that immediately proves awkward when an ex-husband shows up as well. As the party sits down to eat, we dissolve to the aftermath; a devastated dining room, the ex and his new girl licking their wounds. Before that, we get a major action scene set in a Greenwich Village dive where singing waiters do a gay act. Eventually Nasa and her escort have to fight their way out, and Bow is plausibly brutal in the melee; she looks like she isn't necessarily pulling her punches. Throughout, "unhinged" best describes Bow's performance, though she comes across better in her character's more muted moments. There's sometimes something forced in Nasa's more manic moments, as if whatever Bow's channeling isn't easily rendered in words.  Bow's voice was criticized once she began talking on film; people may have expected a kewpie-doll, boop-a-doop simper, but got a trumpet evocative of a maturity belied by Nasa's antics. It's a pleasant voice once you get used to it, but it limits Bow's emotional range somewhat. She's at her worst when she seems to chant rather than cry, "my baby, my baby, my baby" after the little one in killed in a tenement fire during one of Nasa's down-and-out moments, while she was out tentatively whoring to make ends meet between the end of her marriage and her discovery, that very night, of her inheritance of a new fortune. Whatever you make of her voice and how she uses it, hers remains a primarily physical performance, her fury the problem the picture must solve.

The answer Call Her Savage offers is either offensively racist or deeply ironic. The script tries to have it both ways, letting Nasa draw one conclusion while leaving blatant evidence for another conclusion altogether. Either way you look at it, Nasa's wildness is explained by heredity. Before we meet Clara Bow we get a historical prelude tracing Nasa's lineage to a brutal pioneer grandfather. After fending off an Indian attack on a wagon train, he angrily finishes off a wounded fellow-pioneer who reproaches him for negligence, our man having been petting heavily with a woman in the back of a wagon. In front of everyone he grinds the victim's throat beneath his boot heel. Afterward, he's warned that God will punish his heirs if not him for his sins. His daughter, Nasa's mother, grows up to be an unhappy wife, the one ray of sunshine being her Indian friend Ronasa. By the end of the picture, Nasa has deduced that Ronasa was her father, making her a half-breed. She declares herself glad to know it, presumably because this makes permissible a union between her and Roland's character, also a half-breed and the one man who's behaved decently toward her in the entire picture. It seems also that her newly discovered heritage bestows self-knowledge on Nasa -- or does it? Does she now believe that she was wild because she had Indian blood? The audience may think the same thing, unless they remember Nasa's savage white grandfather. Heredity is clearly meant to be destiny in this picture, though it also invites us to see Nasa's troubles as the sins of the grandfather visited upon her. Is she the way she is because of her vicious grandfather, her Indian father, or does the latter compound the effect of the former? Yet Ronasa, a purely romantic figure, hardly seems the type to sire a wild child. Ultimately, Nasa's blood forms a Rorschach blot, inviting us to tell more about ourselves than her when we account for her character from the clues the movie gives us. It's the one way in which this crazy, brawling melodrama can be called subtle, and it keeps the film fascinating eighty years later.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Now Playing: DEC. 4, 1933

Universal was the big winner in Milwaukee last week as The Invisible Man gets held over at the Alhambra.

Meanwhile, Footlight Parade lasted only two weeks in first run, failing to reproduce the blockbuster five-week run of Gold Diggers of 1933. The city's flagship Warner Bros. theater doesn't have a studio picture to run this week, but RKO does.

Family fare wasn't alien to Pre-Code cinema, after all. Meanwhile, here's The Tudors, Pre-Code style.

Charles Laughton would win the Oscar for his work here, and he would also set a precedent for future audiovisual Henries by later playing a monster. Posterity may not find Cimarron so vital nor She Done Him Wrong so sensuous, but Laughton's performance probably remains the image of the default image of the king to this day.

In terms of newspaper ad space, our next picture is probably the most ambitious of the week.

In the other Milwaukee paper the Man's Castle ad takes up nearly half a page.  The Frank Borzage film (hence the reference to Seventh Heaven, the director's silent smash) was one of Columbia's increasingly frequent bids for prestige (hence the reminder of Lady For a Day, from earlier this year). For Spencer Tracy it was a break from his mostly unfulfilling dues-paying years at Fox. For comparison purposes, here's a review of this and two of his better-regarded Fox pictures.

Finally, another case of the stage attraction overshadowing the feature movie.


The movie on the program (if you can make out the title in the lower right-hand corner) was another of those Spencer Tracy films for Fox, this one controversial even for Pre-Code cinema because its kidnapping storyline was thought insensitive during a period of high-profile real-life crimes. It might actually be worth seeing for that, but the Wisconsin management probably made the right call by going with the cheesecake.

Monday, December 2, 2013

On the Big Screen: ALL IS LOST (2013)

Note: the final paragraph of this review may contain spoilers.

There's something obscene about those Maersk cargo ships. Steaming across the oceans with their stacks of brand-name shipping containers, they look like giant floating toys. For a Somali pirate a Maersk ship is a fat, tacky tourist who carries the promise of a big payday if you can capture it. For the anonymous protagonist of J. C. Chandor's one-man show, it's a false advertisement of salvation, ultimately unresponsive unless you hold a gun to its head -- but all Chandor's hero has is a flare.

The Maersk angle aside, 2013's two great sea-adventure films are an apple and an orange. Captain Phillips is a thriller, but while All Is Lost is often thrilling, it doesn't want to be a thriller. This is a difference in pace and directorial rhythm. Chandor's film strives for naturalism and strives to avoid provoking the conventional audience responses that could undermine its mood. The trick is not to have too much happen to the hero at once. His troubles begin when a shipping container full of sneakers -- did it fall off a Maersk vessel? -- rams his yacht and punches a hole in the hull right at the water line and right where he kept his communication equipment. We see him painstakingly patch the hole before a storm brings his next ordeal. After solving the latest problem, the exhausted hero plops down on his couch. A filmmaker would be tempted to have the patch fail and have the water gush in at that moment or a beat later. The problem with that is that the audience would laugh for any number of reasons, because that's what pop movies condition us to do. Movies have the potential to reduce anything to a sight gag. It takes formidable discipline to resist that potential. All Is Lost is only Chandor's second feature film, but shows a precocious if not masterful maturity on his part as he keeps it from becoming the sort of roller-coaster ride whose jolts are expected, familiar and comforting.

The hero eventually has to abandon his yacht and bob along on an inflatable life raft into the shipping lanes where he hopes to find a rescuer among the massive cargo vessels. Things keep getting worse, but "Our Man" (as the credits call him) continues to prove resourceful, improvising a method to condense fresh water after salt fouls his supply. Resourcefulness will only take him so far, however, and the story strips a prosperous man of everything. He finally sets his life raft afire in a last attempt to capture the attention of another ship. In all this there's a hint of a theme: the unexpected need to communicate with anyone of a man who has plainly isolated himself from others to sail alone. This need culminates in both the virtual self-immolation and a message set afloat in a jar, the text of which actually opens the film and includes the title phrase. The note is an apology for his life, not just for his then-presumed failure to survive. The note gives little hint of what he has to apologize for, but it creates a kind of contextual backdrop to the protagonist's ordeal in the laconically suggestive manner of Ernest Hemingway. All Is Lost is one of the most Hemingwayesque films ever made -- compare it to the film of The Old Man and the Sea and it's more Hemingway than Hemingway.

That puts quite a burden on Chandor's old man, but Robert Redford has emerged as a favorite for the Best Actor Oscar, which would be his first in a career that has earned him only one previous acting nomination along with his directing Oscar for Ordinary People. Inevitably All Is Lost looms as an occasion to give Redford a "career achievement" award for acting, but that's not a sure thing. Steven Spielberg and the rest of the jury at Cannes saw Redford do his thing last spring but gave the palm to Bruce Dern for Nebraska. Apart from Dern, the competition for Best Actor has shaped up very strong this year. Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips and Chiwetel Ejiofor for Twelve Years a Slave have made major claims, while Dallas Buyers Club shapes up as a climax of Matthew McConaughey's long campaign for respect as a character actor. Against all of the above, Redford works with a seeming handicap; his reading of the note at the start of the film is not just the biggest but the only speech he gets, and the note gives all the backstory about the man that we'll get. All Is Lost has been criticized for that lack of backstory, as if to prove Alfonso Cuaron correct in giving one, however generic, to Sandra Bullock in Gravity. The implication of the criticism isn't flattering to the critics, since they seem to be saying that they can't empathize with Redford's ordeal unless they know something about him. Apparently they identify only with humans in particular rather than humanity in general, but I don't get how anyone can watch the film and not identify with Redford, who at age 77 does enough of his own stunts to earn empathy even before we judge his acting. If he gets the Oscar he won't have to do push-ups like Jack Palance did to prove that he isn't dying. His performance is as purely physical as anything in any action movie; the craft is in his complete credibility as a doggedly competent figure who cracks but never quite breaks under epic pressure. Redford and Chandor give us a compelling portrait of a man who reaches the limit of his self-reliance and may finally realize that his self-reliance limited him in life before he sailed. I've yet to see all of Redford's competitors, but right now he's the man to beat in my book.

*   *   *

A word about the ending. It's hard to call this a spoiler, since the ending was clearly designed to be interpreted in two different ways as a matter of audience preference. Depending on how you look at it, Redford is rescued at the very last moment -- just before the credits roll, without the aria of shock Tom Hanks gets or Ejiofor's poignantly ironic apologies to his family-- or else he "goes into the light" to clasp a spiritual hand in his character's last moment. The ambiguity doesn't seem consistent with the tone of the film; a literal rescue would be more so but might seem too good to be true after all we've seen. The ambiguous finish suggests that the film's about something more than whether the Redford character lives or dies, and that the meaning remains the same regardless of his fate. I can buy that, but the ending still feels like a slight failure in the honesty (or verisimilitude) that has characterized the picture to that point. I also think Chandor can get away with it, because his filmmaking has been so good that our approval shouldn't depend on the ending. All Is Lost could hardly be more different than Chandor's Wall Street ensemble picture Margin Call; together they make him one of the potentially great American directors of the 21st century.

Saturday, November 30, 2013


Nicolas Winding Refn may have been better off putting his dedication to Alexandro Jodorowsky at the start of his latest picture. Then reviewers might have known what they were getting into and wouldn't blame the director for disappointing unwarranted expectations. But like his protagonist, Refn may have wanted to be punished, and in any event the director of El Topo and Santa Sangre is just one of the influences running rampant in Refn's imagination. Only God Forgives is a volatile synthesis of all Refn's influences, a riot of archetypes, and at the same time some sort of self-criticism, if not also a preemptive rebuke to an audience that had but recently embraced him only to repudiate him once he failed to offer them another (cue heavy sarcasm) gritty slice of verisimilitude like Drive. It was one thing to pay homage to or pretend to be Michael Mann in the last picture, and too many things more this time for the mainstream audience to bear.

Only God Forgives is the story of a man who doesn't want to play his archetypal role. Julian (Ryan Gosling, returning from Drive) is an American fight promoter and drug dealer operating in Thailand with his brother. Both brothers are odd characters. Julian sees a prostitute and has her bind his hands to a chair so he can only watch while she masturbates. His brother raises a ruckus in a brothel when it can't provide a 14 year old girl for him; finding one later from an independent contractor, he rapes and kills her. Enter a plainclothes policeman, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), who takes the brother prisoner, then basically orders the victim's father to beat the American to death. Then Chang chops the father's arm off with a machete he keeps in a sheath under the back of his shirt; this is punishment for prostituting his daughter and a warning not to do that with his other daughters.

Already tormented by inner demons -- he has a premonition of Chang chopping his arm off, possibly before he's ever met the man -- Julian is now tormented by his fury of a mother, Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas), who demands that Julian avenge his brother's death. Not taking no for an answer -- Julian knows what his brother did but Mom assumes that her boy "had his reasons" -- the mother hires hit squads on her own to kill Chang. The hitmen shoot up a noodle shop but miss their target, who seems to live a charmed life. As Chang follows the trail back to the source, Mom increases the pressure on Julian to protect her or raise the stakes for Chang. Julian has the childish notion that things might be settled by unarmed combat ("You wanna fight?") between himself and Chang but the policeman kicks his ass Muy Thai style. Now Julian is motivated enough by the growing threat to his mom, and perhaps by the humiliation he endured at Chang's hands and feet, to agree to a plot to ambush the cop at his home. But he draws the line, a little too late actually, at killing Chang's family.Chang has no such scruples, but then again, Julian's family is guilty. So's Julian himself, if we can believe a story that seems to explain his mania to restrain his hands, but at least he has a guilty conscience, for all the good it does him.

If this film's fantasies of dismemberment put Refn in Jodorowsky's debt, it's hard to believe there's no similar debt to Tod Browning, the cinematic pioneer of dismemberment fantasies in weird settings. But I could be here all night listing all the sources of Refn's fantasia. Many reviewers focused on David Lynch because of the prominence of karaoke in the picture and the sheer weirdness of Chang having it for a hobby. I thought the karaoke scenes helped demonstrate how much of a self-dramatizing personality Chang is, as much if not more so than his ultimate antagonist, Julian's flamboyant diva of a mother. Chang is determined to stage-manage reality, from his certainly unauthorized on-the-spot punishments to his compelling the dead girl's father to do justice's dirty work on Julian's brother. One gets the feeling that his cop stooges are a captive if sycophantic audience for Chang's musical performances. Likewise, Crystal wants Julian to play a role in her personal drama of vengeance, striving to define him to other people, whether she's telling his Thai girlfriend about his sordid business (and belittling his manhood compared to his brother) or warning Chang that Julian beat his own father to death with his bare hands. For his part, Julian is willing to play the role of the dutiful son -- rebuking his girlfriend angrily when she questions her verbal abuse of him and excusing it with "Because she's my mother" -- so long as it contributes to the penance to which he's subjected himself. On some level Julian has renounced violence yet lives in a milieu where violence will be inevitable and the line he draws for himself matters little to anyone else. On another, he represents the folly of a violent movie passing itself off as a critique of violence.

Most reviewers saw Julian's issues as part of what they saw as the film's pretentiously derivative yet ultimately senseless weirdness. Many went further and accused Refn of racism, mistaking his portrait of an underworld that has Americans and other foreigners at its center for a caricature of Thailand as a whole. But Chang is the sort of avenging rogue cop that could turn up anywhere, rendered exotic only by his choice of weapon and his karaoke hobby. But I suppose that if I can credit Only God Forgives for its effort to be all-encompassing of Refn's influences, others might feel that the film is guilty of all possible sins. Refn's principal sin, of course, was his failure to meet a Hollywood standard of realism after passing that test with Drive. Instead, Only God Forgives is this year's brightest triumph of style as substance, from the lurid cinematography of Larry Smith to Cliff Martinez's menacing score, the best I've heard so far this year. It's all simultaneously alienating and alluring. While many see their disgust at it as proof of good taste, others will regard their own admiration as a mark of distinction. Ryan Gosling deserves a lot of credit for sticking with Refn for this picture, and for giving an eloquently minimal performance, but the real test of his courage will be if he works with Refn again. He deserves our encouragement.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

DVR Diary: BEAU TRAVAIL (1999)

The French Foreign Legion was an obsessive subject of pop culture for generations. P. C. Wren's oft-filmed story Beau Geste was but the tip of the iceberg -- or the tip of the sand dune, to keep the right atmosphere. Foreign Legion stories were a staple of the good old pulp magazines; authors like Georges Surdez (best known for inventing or at least popularizing the concept of "Russian roulette" in a Legion story), Robert Carse and J.D. Newson made the subgenre their specialty in the pages of Adventure, Argosy, Blue Book and Short Stories. The Legion archetype lent itself to parody, particularly the notion that men joined "to forget." In the pulps, service in the Legion was a proving or redemptive ordeal, a test of both courage and discipline. The Legion could be a nightmare of discipline, but that discipline, often combined with the discovery of camaraderie, usually made a story's protagonist a better man. The main motifs of Legion stories were the harsh discipline and the threat of savage enemies wherever the troops were deployed, be it in Morocco against the Rifs or against the first generations of insurgents in Indo-China.

For the pulps' adolescent or young-adult target market, the Foreign Legion was an allegory for rites of passage to come, from work to war. But the protagonists of those stories were often older men, people with pasts for whom the Legion offered escape and exile as well as ultimate regeneration. And because director Claire Denis populates her Legion story almost exclusively with young men, a viewer who knows the Legion mainly through pulp fiction or pop cinema might not recognize the troops of Beau Travail as the French Foreign Legion. The pulp archetypes of Anglo-American fiction have little to do with Denis's film, though it's probably no accident that her film is called Beau something. Ironically, however, Denis sees the Legion through an American prism -- specifically the prism of Herman Melville and more specifically Melville's sea story Billy Budd, if not also Benjamin Britten's operatic adaptation of the story, excerpts of which are heard on Denis's soundtrack. For those familiar with Billy Budd it will suffice to stay that, while converting the sea tale to a Legion setting, Denis has also shifted to make her Claggart figure, the officer Galoup (Denis Lavant) the main character. For those less familiar -- and I've only seen the Peter Ustinov film of Billy Budd and haven't read the Melville myself -- Galoup is a conflicted disciplinarian who grows jealous of a handsome, popular new soldier (Gregoire Colin), whom he sees as a rival for the regard of the commanding officer of the troops stationed in Djibouti. In Billy Budd, Claggart basically drives the title character to kill him, despite Billy's essential innocent nature, as if hoping that the act would ensure Billy's destruction -- as it does. In Beau Travail, Galoup goads his nemesis into striking him, but lives to take revenge by leaving the legionnaire in the desert with orders to find his own way back -- with a damaged compass. It's the Claggart figure, Galoup, who ends up facing the doom of a court-martial, if he doesn't release himself and all his repressed impulses the easier way first....

Beau Travail is probably most noteworthy for the way Denis subjects the Legion to the female gaze, though she also arguably follows a homoerotic thread in both Melville and Britten. Rather than the hard-boiled boot camp environment of pulp fiction, Denis's Legion is more like a frat house full of hunky young men. Despite occasional reminders of the dangers of their work, the legionnaires' routine often looks more like play than work. Denis focuses on their workouts as they run obstacle courses in a manner preminiscent of the notorious al-Qaeda training videos and practice underwater hand-to-hand combat. There's more dancing and chanting than one recently immersed in pulps expects to see in the Foreign Legion, and a much more casual environment. There may be something sinister or psycho in Galoup's attitude, but he hardly compares to the martinets one encounters in Beau Geste and other Legion stories of yore. Instead, he contributes to an illusion of domesticity with his obsessive attention to ironing his uniforms, while underwear hangs from clotheslines conspicuously. Something seethes beneath his gruff surface; Denis hints at it repeatedly with scenes from some Djibouti dance club (or whorehouse?) Galoup frequents. The easy answer to everything is that Galoup is a repressed homosexual, but that doesn't necessarily get to the heart of his issues. The characters motives remain essentially mysterious and monstrous, especially after Denis closes the film with a moment less revelatory than transcendent. Galoup is back in France awaiting his court-martial in a bedroom with a pistol. Then he's in a dance club as the dance-club standard "The Rhythm of the Night" plays. Out of nowhere Galoup starts a frantic yet expressionless breakdance. Denis cuts away from this to show us the acting credits, then cuts back as the acrobatic Denis Lavant throws himself about before finally exiting the screen. It's a tremendous moment of release that may symbolize Galoup's suicide but could just as easily be a mental release or breakdown, and is certainly an enigmatic catharsis worthy of (or influential upon) Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent films, while the way Lavant's personality seems to shift instantly may well have helped inspire Holy Motors, the recent showcase for Lavant by his most consistent collaborator, director Leos Carax. Beau Travail definitely wasn't the sort of Foreign Legion movie I had expected, but Denis follows her own influences and impulses to make her film an indelible pictorial experience.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

DVR Diary: THE ROUNDERS (1965)

In the fall of 1964 the producers of Burt Kennedy's adaptation of Max Evans's novel were confident enough to announce plans for a sequel months before the film came out. They had to settle for spinning the movie off into a 1967 TV sitcom that lasted less than a season. It was an interesting destiny for a project that was packaged as a kind of adult western. This is the kind of adult western it was; one of the comic highlights is the revelation of a woman's bare buttocks. That was certainly risque in 1965, but it didn't represent any real maturity on the filmmakers' part. You get the real spirit of the picture in the sight gags involving the roan horse that plagues our protagonists. In one scene, the horse gets horny at the sight of a filly and leads her to privacy by grabbing a rope with his mouth. In another, he appears to hear and comprehend a cowboy's threat to have him turned into dog food. His head droops across the top of his stall on the cowboys' truck and Kennedy freezes the frame to sell the animal's chagrin. This sort of business seems intended for the kiddie audience that might not be let in if parents knew about the butt shot. Throughout, Kennedy seems torn between telling a slice-of-life story of the two middle-aged modern-day cowboys (Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda, in order of billing) and goofing off. The surety of tone he demonstrated while writing for Randolph Scott and Budd Boetticher is absent. The inconsistency and the prevailing crassness, while all too typical of Hollywood comedy from the Sixties, calls into question Kennedy's aptitude for comedy, despite his later success with Support Your Local Sheriff, if not the true extent of his contribution to Boetticher's movies, though it must be admitted that those screenplays have little comic about them.

Ford and Fonda spend lonely months toiling for skinflint Jim Ed Love (Chill Wills was the only cast member to resume his role on the sitcom) and struggling to break the roan. There are lots of shots of stuntmen being thrown from horses and similar slapstick. Ford's a dreamer while Fonda's more easygoing, more sensible yet more submissive. "Whatever suits you just tickles me plumb to death" is his motto, eerily echoed by the more stupid of two exotic dancers with Harley Quinn voices (and eventual bare behinds) whom the cowboys hook up with when they head to town for the big rodeo. Their plan is to make a killing making side bets that the other cowboys can't ride that vicious roan. The scheme works and the roan performs as planned until he breaks down in the rodeo ring. The big softies are willing to throw away all their winnings to save the roan, but the story takes a turn toward pathos as Ford grabs a pistol to end the creature's suffering. It takes a hard turn away from pathos as the roan revives to kick Ford through a barn wall. Now the boys are out all their money and more, not just for vet bills but for the cost of repairing the barn, and they're still stuck with the roan. The picture ends on an admirable (in the abstract) no-hugs-no-learning note, with the police in pursuit, but it doesn't really end as big as it should; for once, at the very end, Kennedy isn't broad enough. His fans will find his touch in the dialogue. At its best, Rounders will appeal to viewers for whom westerns are very much about male cameraderie, and Ford and Fonda are at their best when they just talk and tell stories to each other. Kennedy and composer Jeff Alexander can't foul these scenes with obnoxious comedy scoring or leering camera tricks. Other positive elements are the location cinematography of Paul C. Vogel and an uncredited appearance by Warren Oates as a poacher. Overall, Rounders tries too hard to be funny in every possible way and the strain of the effort shows in nearly every frame.