Friday, April 28, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES (1932)

There were many backstage melodramas, musical or otherwise, made in the pre-code era, but if one of those pictures could be called the Showgirls of its time it would be this M-G-M Marion Davies Production directed by Edmund Goulding -- not because it's any more sexualized than its contemporaries, since it actually skips the opportunity to give us an overly erotic or salacious musical number, but because of its undercurrent of violence and its focus on the love-hate relationship between two ambitious women. Two women, Anita Loos and Frances Marion, collaborated on the script, and perhaps for that reason Blondie seems freer in portraying the extremes of female fremnity. It's basically the story of two girls trying to get out of their dead-end slum neighborhood by becoming showgirls. Lottie (Billie Dove) makes it first, inspiring Blondie (Davies), increasingly suffocated in her crowded household, to make her own try. These girls are trash, culturally if not morally. They're best friends but fight each other like sailors, oscillating between mutual admiration and violent jealousy. Their brawl in a tenement hallway, broken up when ZaSu Pitts, playing Blondie's older sister, clobbers both of them with her handbag, is only a warmup. Later, they'll throw each other off a yacht, and in the climactic "ballet" number, in which the cast of their show runs frantically in circles to one of Borodin's Polovtsian dances, Lottie will fling Blondie into the orchestra pit. The object of their rivalry is Robert Montgomery, who seems a rather unworthy idol, but in the end the girls make up (but don't kiss) and Blondie gets the boy.

Goulding seems to have thrived on the contrast in subject matter, having just finished Grand Hotel, which he subjects to parody with a guest-starring Jimmy Durante (apparently playing himself, but what else is new?) in the Barrymore part and Davies aping Garbo for a crowd of partygoers. The slum scenes and the scenes with Blondie's family (led by a gentle yet inflexible James Gleason) are the highlights apart from the Davies-Dove slugfests. They have a convincing cacophonous quality, from the crowded noises of the street to the know-it-all nattering of Blondie's unemployed brother-in-law (Sidney Toler). I now recognize Toler as one of Pre-Code's underrated character actors. His character here is really utterly harmless as well as useless and yet there's something aggressively pathetic about this loser that you wish ZaSu Pitts would brain him with a frying pan any time he opens his mouth. As for her, one of the weird things about this movie is that, amid all the grotesquerie she, skipping most of her usual shtick and apparently finding in George Barnes a very sympathetic cameraman, looks as nearly pretty as I've ever seen her. Nevertheless the picture belongs to those battling tops, Davies and Dove. Blondie belongs on the short list of performances you might use to refute the slanderous legend that Marion Davies was nothing more than the model for Susan Alexander Kane in all that character's absence of talent. Sadly, post-production interference by William Randolph Hearst, the model for Charles Foster Kane, reportedly so disgusted Dove, who he feared would steal the picture from his beloved, that she quit movies altogether. Even with much of her work on the cutting-room floor, posterity, if it's fair, will judge Blondie as a team picture rather than a star vehicle. It also leaves me convinced that, despite their advanced ages, Davies and Dove could take Blondell and Farrell in a fight.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

ALI AND NINO (2016)

April 24 was Armenian Martyrs Day in the U.S., and with that thought presumably in mind the movie The Promise, a romantic drama set in those dark days, was released last weekend. The producers gravely overestimated the moviegoing public's interest in that still-controversial episode of 20th century history. So if no one really wants to see Armenians victimized on film, how about a movie in which an Armenian is a villain? Set roughly at the same time as The Promise, Asif Kapadia's film adapts a 1930s novel credited to "Kurban Said," whose true identity remains a mystery today. Kapadia is a British director best known for his documentaries about the doomed race car driver Ayrton Senna and the doomed singer Amy Winehouse. Fittingly, his subject here is a doomed (or should we say star-crossed) romance between Ali, a Muslim Azeri prince (Adam Bakri) and Nino, a Christian Georgian princess (Maria Valverde) at the brink of World War I.


At that time, Georgia and Azerbaijan are territories of the Russian empire, and when war breaks out Ali's brothers join the Russian army, only to face discrimination due to their religion and nationality despite their largely westernized upper-class credentials. Back in Baku, the Azeri metropolis, Malik, an Armenian (Riccardo Scarmacio), tries to impose himself on Nino, but is killed by Ali in an oil field. Ali must flee to the sticks while Nino, shamed by the scandal in the eyes of Georgian society, faces the prospect of exile to Moscow. Instead, she persuades Ali's spiritual adviser Mustafa (Numan Acar) -- he wears traditional dress so that's what I'm guessing -- to take her to where her beloved is holed up. Here they consummate their romance, with Mustafa conveniently at hand with the credentials to make everything legal. In this apparently easygoing environment Nino is not required to renounce her faith.


For a time the happy couple live in idyllic rural poverty, but the collapse of the Russian empire creates an opportunity for Azeri patriots. A democratic republic of Azerbaijan is proclaimed but soon finds itself menaced by the new Bolshevik regime in Russia, which covets Azeri oil. Nino is sent to Iran for safekeeping but can't stand it in that more traditional Muslim country, complete with a harem and a well-meaning eunuch whom Nino can't help but find repulsive. It takes a while for her to forgive Ali for leaving her there, but they're hardly reconciled before he has to join the troops once more in a heroic last-ditch defense of a railroad bridge against the Commie invaders.


Ali and Nino is one part Romeo and Juliet, one part For Whom the Bell Tolls, though to be fair the original novel appeared before the Hemingway story. Movie buffs might be reminded more of Doctor Zhivago, only with less snow. Kapadia's film is unlikely to inspire comparisons with future films, however, because it's only superficially epic. It features picturesque landscapes and cityscapes and picturesque young lovers, but Christopher Hampton's screenplay and its interpretation by the leads are almost perfectly vapid. It's a lovely picture to look at thanks to Gökhan Tiryaki's cinematography and the slam-dunk locations he gets to shoot, but for all the tragic elements the film sometimes feels like something shot as a musical with the songs left on the cutting room floor. I'm still satisfied with it because it introduced an unfamiliar bit of world history to me and it really does look good, but Ali and Nino also left me thinking that that same history could be the makings of a real movie someday.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

On the Big Screen: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

You never know what director will get the spirit of old-time adventure. James Gray's Lost City of Zed (to use the film's pronunciation) reminded me of Bob Rafelson's Mountains of the Moon in its presentation of a classical exploration story by an unexpected source. But Gray has been moving in this direction at least chronologically, The Immigrant taking place in a roughly contemporary period. He's adapted David Grann's best-seller about Percy Fawcett (Charlie "your next King Arthur" Hunnam), the Englishman who searched South America for evidence of an ancient Amazon civilization. Originally a mere cartographer, Fawcett gets hints from the testimony of natives and scattered pottery that there was more civilization in the jungle than most of his contemporaries were willing to believe. In this account, Fawcett clearly sees his hoped-for discovery as the way to make his name after lagging behind his peers and never winning a medal in the military. In old-school heroic mode, he's willing to leave his family behind for years at a time to pursue knowledge and glory. While his wife (Sienna Miller) is Penelope-loyal, angry only that she never gets to go on any of his expeditions, his eldest son (Tom "your next Spider-Man" Holland) resents the old man's abandonment of them until the Battle of the Somme teaches him to appreciate pater's heroism. Zed is probably too episodic for its own good, breaking down into a sequence of feuds, first (and briefly) with the stodgy unbelievers in the Royal Geographic Society, then with tagalong James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a former colleague of Ernest Shackleton who isn't up to the rigors of the Amazon and proves treacherous when sent home, and then with his boy, who reconciles in time to go with our hero on his final expedition. The Fawcetts' fate remains unknown and in Zed Gray leaves things ambiguous. We last see father and son drugged up and borne to some tribal ritual that could be anything from human sacrifice to adoption into the tribe, and in an epilogue Mrs. F. receives an artifact hinting strongly that Percy reached his goal after all -- as modern research suggests was possible insofar as there does appear to have been a somewhat advanced civilization in the vicinity once upon a time.

Visually Zed is nicely done, with Gray well aided by cinematographer Darius Khondji. The filmmakers acquit themselves equally well in jungle darkness, the musty interiors of Edwardian England and the Somme. Christopher Spelman's score leans a little too heavily on Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe for its own good, and throws in some Rite of Spring for extra measure. Charlie Hunnam doesn't exactly age well -- I should say convincingly -- in the lead role but does convey the force of Fawcett's personality, and he's supported by a solid ensemble, including an almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson as Fawcett's sidekick for most of the picture, a hissably pathetic Angus Macfadyen as Murray and our old friend Franco Nero in a one-scene "Special Appearance" that shows that the great man can still make an impression. Ultimately I doubt whether Zed does much to distinguish itself among other exploration epics, though I feel more generous toward it than those critics who hold it to an impossible standard set by Werner Herzog's films -- but then again, to judge by the fate of that Gertrude Bell biopic, Herzog himself gets held to that same unfair standard. Gray's film is neither especially strong as a character study nor particularly visionary in its exploration of Fawcett's world -- Embrace of the Serpent leaves it in the dust -- but it's a solid piece of cinematic craftsmanship on a subject of enough inherent interest to make the Grann book popular and the Gray film worth a look.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Too Much TV: THE WHITE QUEEN (2013)

George R. R. Martin says that the secret ingredient that has made his "Song of Ice and Fire" novels and their Game of Thrones TV adaptation so compelling is the influence of historical fiction. He has dubbed Maurice Druon's novels, set in 13th century France, as "the original Game of Thrones," but you can find similar qualities in many novels about the vicious intrigues of kings and queens. Philippa Gregory's "Cousins Wars" novels were written after Martin got his fantasy series under way, but they illustrate his point as well as any historical fiction. The BBC adapted three of the novels into The White Queen's ten episodes, and Starz premiere's a sequel, The White Princess, this weekend. By a coincidence only comic book fans can appreciate, the head writer for The White Queen was Emma Frost, who resumes that role for Princess. Her team took three Gregory novels, each of which apparently retraces the same historical ground from a different character's point of view, and made them one chronological narrative with three protagonists. The setting is 15th century England during the Wars of the Roses pitting the usurping house of York against loyalists of the house of Lancaster. The title character is the young widow Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), whose family, the Rivers, are Lancastrians. So naturally she falls in love, after some initial difficulties, with Edward IV (Max Irons) the Yorkist king of England. Edward's insistence on marrying Elizabeth angers his mentor, the Earl of Warwick (James Frain), who had been arranging his marriage to a French princess. Warwick's family, the Nevilles, and Edward's family, particularly his brother George (David Oakes) deeply distrust the Rivers family -- and not without reason. One of Gregory/Frost's conceits is that Elizabeth, at times accused of witchcraft, is guilty, learning various folk magics from her mother and later handing them down to her daughter, the title character of the sequel. Running parallel to Elizabeth's rise are the travails of Warwick's daughter Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), who becomes queen as wife to Edward's baby brother Richard (Aneurin Barnard) after her sister Isabel marries George (David Oakes), the treacherous and ultimately mad middle York brother, and the conspiracies of Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), whose son Henry Tudor has a distant claim to the English throne.

Edward's marriage to Elizabeth drives Warwick to an ill-fated rebellion in which George briefly participates. Forgiven, George seethes in peacetime, his hopes for land, wealth and power thwarted when Richard's marriage to Anne denies him control over the Warwick estate and Edward aborts an invasion of France. Finally, with his wife dying, George snaps, accusing witches of conspiring against him while retaining a sorcerer himself. Something that will surprise many viewers is the way George irredeemably plays the villain role usually reserved for Richard II, who in Gregory/Frost's revisionist scenario is a sometimes ruthless but relatively well-meaning prince and king, not to mention young, in a historically appropriate way, and handsome, which I write off to genre requirements. But if the popular image of Richard III is still largely shaped by Shakespeare's Tudor propaganda, which portrays him as a singular monster, he looks good by comparison on White Queen because just about everyone on the show is a monster.

The show may look superficially like shoulders-and-sheets romantic history, and offers a fair amount of female nudity to satisfy the market for that sort of thing, but its main virtue is its refusal to romanticize any of its queens or princesses. Elizabeth is all too conscious of the enmity of the Nevilles and is willing to use witchcraft against them; Anne, at first the most innocent of the girls, descends into paranoia about Elizabeth after her father and sister die; Margaret is a relentless fanatic out to destroy anyone in her (that is, Henry's) path to the throne. Informed by her supremely cynical later husband Stanley (Rupert Graves) that Henry will have to walk past five corpses -- Edward and his two sons, Richard and his -- Margaret puts her trust in God and gets to work sowing mutual distrust between the two households and particularly the two wives. She's probably the most hateful (and Hale the plainest) of the principal women, but by the end none of them are really likable. "Men go to battle; women wage war" was this show's motto, underscoring their common ruthlessness for family's sake, while the York tragedy shows that families all too readily could turn on themselves. With so much power and wealth so tantalizingly close, the characters have no other center of gravity. Morals are sacrificed to family interests, and family ties are sacrificed to personal ambition.  

White Queen may not really be a "Game of Thrones," since our title character makes it all the way through, and will be played by a new, older actress on Princess, and it had nothing like the HBO blockbuster's budget, but a similar spirit of fascinating hopelessness prevails, embodied by a terrific ensemble cast -- and there's magic! I steered clear of Queen until Starz started advertising Princess, mainly because I took it to be no more than historical soap-opera, despite the arresting poster image of Ferguson grabbing a sword by its blade. Now, thanks to Queen, while I can't help wondering how Princess won't seem uneventful by comparison, I won't be waiting to watch it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

OPERAÇÕES ESPECIAIS (2015)

The modern standard for Brazilian cop films was set by Jose Padilha's 2007 film Tropa de Elite, known in the Anglophone world as Elite Squad. Tomas Portella's film returns us to that violent milieu from the novel perspective of a female cop. Francis (Cleo Pires) is a bank employee who decides to try out for the police after rescuing a child during a robbery. To her disgust, she finds a bank security guard cowering in the same rest room where she'd taken the child. She proves a solid marksman, but learns quickly that shooting at targets is no substitute for the real thing.


While Francis turns out fairly badass, the film is realistic about her physical limitations. During one raid, she's bowled over effortlessly while guarding a stairwell when a suspect charges her. Portella and his co-writers also show her all too plausible terror during her baptism of fire, a combined car chase and fire fight. It's an impressively staged action scene, as are all the film's set pieces -- and it's made better by the director's emphasis on Francis's fear and discomfort as tight turns slam her from side to side of the car or bounce her off her partners. At one point, having struggled to pick her gun off the floor, she's crouched down in the back seat  after gunfire has blown out the rear window. One of her colleagues blasts away at the gangsters with his automatic next to her, and the empty cartridges rain down on Francis's neck while she frantically brushes them away.

That's Cleo Pires as Francis in the lower right in both shots.
Above, you can see a gangster jumping down from the upper left while another 
(in the little box just right of center) gets ready to open fire.


Francis careens from terror to recklessness in another major urban battle scene. The cops are trading fire with gangsters in a terraced apartment complex across the street, the gangsters hopping like mountain goats from terrace to terrace while gunmen try to cover their getaway. On the cops' side, a man is down and helpless with a leg wound, crying for help as Francis clings to cover. Finally she puts her own life in jeopardy, forcing her buddies to cover for her, as she drags the wounded man to shelter. She gets reprimanded for this, but it marks a turning point for her as she begins to overcome her rookie terror and win acceptance from her macho colleagues.

 The life of a cop is not all glamorous violence, but all over the world, that's what people pay to see.
 

Our heroes are federal police sent to a crime ridden town where an ex-cop is one of the leading gangsters and organized crime has much of the municipal infrastructure and public opinion on its side. At one point, the cops have to break out the candles and manual typewriters in order to take statements and file reports after their station loses power or, more likely, has it taken from them. I guess it's a good thing that they never throw anything out. The tide seems to turn after Francis loses a partner to a drive-by, but the politicians snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and reassign Francis and her team elsewhere. Despite that nod to the apparent facts of corruption in Brazil, Portella ends his film on an optimistic or at least a defiant note with the team arriving in a new town, ready for a new fight. Whether that means a sequel can be expected remains to be seen, but  Portella's skill as an urban action director and Cleo Pires' empathetic performance as Francis would make a reunion a welcome event.

Monday, April 10, 2017

On the Big Screen: FRANTZ (2016)


The U.S. marks the centennial of its entry into World War I this month. Hollywood will mark the occasion later this year with the release of Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, but Francois Ozon had a centennial present ready in advance. The arrival here of Frantz closes a circle, for the film is a French remake of a Hollywood movie (by a German director, Ernst Lubitsch) based on a French play, The Man I Killed. Lubitsch's dubiously retitled Broken Lullaby is a Pre-Code film I haven't yet seen, but after reading a synopsis I see that Ozon's screenplay, co-written with Philippe Piazzo, proposes an alternate ending to the original story, presumably with the idea of undermining whatever message of reconciliation Lubitsch or the original authors intended to send.

The setting is the German town of Qudelinburg, where in 1919, with the war freshly over, Anna (Paula Beer) mourns her fiance Frantz, who was KIA in September 1918, two months before the Armistice, with his parents, who have taken her in as a virtual daughter. One dreary day in this black and white world she finds that some stranger has placed flowers on Frantz's grave. The groundskeeper explains with a contemptuous spit that the stranger is a Frenchman. This proves to be Adrien (Pierre Niney), who gets a hostile response from the defeated Deutschers, among whom revanchist sentiment already stirs. Frantz's dad, a doctor (Ernst Stötzner), wants nothing to do with Adrien until the Frenchman reveals that he was no mere poilu but Frantz's best friend in Paris, where the young German studied art until called to war. His flashbacks to happy pre-war days are in color (Pascal Marti's tricky cinematography won last year's Cesar) and his repentant earnestness colors Anna' drab world a little. Improbably, Anna finds herself falling for the Frenchman, but before things can go too far Adrien makes a terrible confession: all his stories of friendship with Frantz were lies. In fact, Frantz was someone Adrien had encountered randomly and killed in a trench. The fact that the German had not tried to defend himself -- the letters he carried on him betrayed pacifist sentiments -- gave Adrien a case of guilty conscience that he hoped to cure by making a pilgrimage to Frantz's home and family.

In Broken Lullaby, the German girl convinces the French boy to keep up the noble lie, and he remains in Germany to fill the hole in the bereaved family. In Frantz, Adrien returns home after asking Anna to tell Frantz's parents the truth. Now it is Anna who tells a noble lie by refusing to tell the old folks the true story, telling them instead that Adrien was called home on family business. After a thwarted suicide attempt, she decides to go to France -- I'm sure that the homonymity of Frantz and France is no accident -- and reunite with the Frenchman. She has few clues to work with, but at least she's as fluent in French as Adrien was in German, and after a brief tease of Adrien's suicide she finds him in his country home -- with a woman who is either his wife or fiancee. She heads for home the next day, but not before making another stop at the Louvre to look at Edouard Manet's The Suicide, the sight of which, she says cryptically, makes her want to live.

If Frantz is a remake of Broken Lullaby it also has a little Vertigo in its DNA, from its motifs of imposture and suicide to its near-obsessive attention to a painting in a museum to some Hermannesque hints in Philippe Rombi's score. It may be that Vertigo, less that film's extreme fatalism, is what you get once you strip Broken Lullaby of its fairy-tale romanticism. It may be that Frantz is telling us that there can't be the sort of imposture Adrien indulges in without betrayal and bitterness. Whatever his good intentions, Adrien's mission inevitably has a self-indulgent, self-serving aspect that can't help but leave Anna feeling, as I presume she does ultimately, exploited and abused. Maybe I'm reading my knowledge of events to come into Ozon's ending, but I can't help thinking that what really keeps Anna going after the end is the thought of revenge, a hint of the revenge Germans probably hoped already to take on France. Ozon's thought may have been that Broken Lullaby needed a do-over that reflects the history to come of which Lubitsch and his writers were innocent. Perhaps a more faithful remake could be set after World War II, since reconciliation did seem to come then, nationalist stirrings in 2017 France notwithstanding. In any event, Frantz is a grim, fascinating bit of cinematic revisionism with the sort of ambiguous ending designed to keep people talking well after they leave the theater. From what I've read about Broken Lullaby, I doubt whether it provoked much discussion, so in that respect, at least, Frantz is a rare remake that improves on the original. It's up to each movie fan, of course, to decide which sort of story he or she would rather see.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: SING AND LIKE IT (1934)

As the Pre-Code era neared its end William A. Seiter was at the height of his powers as a comedy director. His best known work from this period is the Laurel and Hardy vehicle Sons of the Desert, but Sing and Like It, from the following year, is a neglected gem. It's less well known today because it doesn't sport any titans of comedy, but features an ensemble cast led by ZaSu Pitts, Nat Pendleton and Edward Everett Horton, all key players in Pre-Code Comedy but usually in supporting roles. While Pitts gets top billing Pendleton's really the star player and sets the film's distinctive tone. He plays T. Fennimore Sylvester, a successful gangster in the "snatch" field. He aspires to a high-class lifestyle and frowns on the show-business ambitions of his moll Ruby (Pert Kelton), preferring that she not mingle with mere showgirls. His uptight attitude toward the world of entertainment changes when he leads his gang in a break-in just as the National Union Bank Little Theater Players are rehearsing their annual show in the same building. Fenny is enraptured when he overhears Annie Snodgrass (Pitts) perform her number, "Your Mother." Since this song must be heard to be believed, here's the magic moment as uploaded to YouTube by Jim Melcher.


Moved beyond reason, Fenny now wants to be Annie's artistic patron. Convinced that she deserves a Broadway showcase, he identifies Adam Frink (Horton) as the leading producer of the day and muscles into Frink's latest production. Frink knows disaster when he sees it but Fenny makes him the sort of offer people can't refuse. As Ruby seethes with jealousy, as does Annie's long-suffering paramour (John Qualen), Fenny learns that the show isn't getting much buzz. He tries to change that publicizing a fake kidnapping of Annie that momentarily turns real. Then, informed that reviewer Abercrombie Hitchcock can make or break any play just by his responses in the theater, even before he writes his review, Fenny arranges that he respond the right way. The show presumably succeeds, and Annie is willing to pay the price she presumes Fenny will extract for his patronage, but with his opening-night triumph Fenny feels that he's paid his debt to art, as he puts it and demands nothing else from his muse, who now has stardom, her old boyfriend, and the ransom the boyfriend managed to collect after hijacking the kidnapping.

On paper, Sing and Like It sounds like a precursor of both The Producers and Bullets Over Broadway, but Seiter gives the film its own special, perhaps inimitable flavor through his control over the actors. For starters, this film is more relentlessly cynical than either later picture. Annie Snodgrass's triumph isn't a fairy tale or an ironic satire, but a matter of brute force, with Abercrombie Hitchcock compelled to laugh at horrible jokes and hail Annie's singing literally at gunpoint. Fenny's gang come across as more menacing versions of Damon Runyon's comical Guys and Dolls sort of gangsters. The key to Seiter's triumph here is that while his gangsters sometimes seem clownish, they never act like clowns -- except for the utterly unfunny Junker (Matt McHugh), who acts as Fenny's court jester and writes the "jokes" for Frink's show. The big joke is that Fenny and his circle really have no sense of humor or taste at all, but take themselves very seriously. They are terse and to the point, and Laird Doyle writes nearly note-perfect dialogue for them. In the clip, you see Annie and her boyfriend come out of an elevator that's been hijacked by Fenny's gang. When they arrive at the ground floor and push the button, a gangster operates the machine and barks out the simple command, "Get in!" After a wild ride, the door opens on their floor as they're sprawled on the floor of the elevator. "Get out!" the operator orders. Later, during opening night, the funereal Ned Sparks, playing Fenny's right hand man and translator of big words, holds the gun on Hitchcock. When the reviewer seems confused over how to react to what he sees on stage -- the movie audience no doubt shares his dismay -- Sparks says simply, "You like it." Hearing one of Junker's jokes, Hitchcock asks, "It is funny?" Sparks answers, "What do you think?"

On the directorial side, Seiter illustrates Fenny's self-importance with a slow buildup to his appearance in Frick's office. One of his goons appears first, glaring at Frick, who mistakes him for the head man. Then Sparks appears, and again glares at Frick. Finally, after a wait almost worthy of Sergio Leone, Fenny enters the office. We are never allowed to forget that these men are capable of real violence -- and in true Pre-Code fashion much of that violence is directed at Fenny's moll. In retrospect, the film's most intolerable detail today is its use of Ruby's black eyes for sight gags. It's a joke, immediately after she's ratted out as the mastermind of Annie's actual kidnapping, that she comes out of Fenny's car with a black eye. Then, after they discover that someone has removed Annie from where she left her, Fenny turns on her again and we transition to the next scene with a wipe effect resembling an explosion. Now we're back in Fenny's penthouse and Ruby's wearing dark glasses. He tells her to take them off. She does, revealing a second black eye. Glancing her way, he orders her a second time to take the glasses off. Some people are never going to find this sort of thing funny, but in context Ruby has it coming and what else would you expect of these savages? Fenny's violence is a needed reminder of the threat that hangs over anyone who won't play ball with him, though Frick (an unusually apoplectic turn from the peevish Horton, but perfect counterpoint to the ponderous gangsters) gets away with a lot. Ironically, top-billed Pitts really has little to do but sing her nightmarish song, but Annie's own pretentiousness -- she agrees, after all, that "Your Mother" is a great song -- gives the film's collective delusion its original spark. In a way, Sing and Like It looks forward to the screwball comedy of the Code Enforcement era, but this underworld screwball has a mean streak often missing from later screwball films. It might look like an evolutionary dead end, but that would be because something about it would soon be killed by Hollywood.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

LABIRENT (2011)

Thanks to Netflix, Americans have readier access to a more complete range of films from around the world than they ever had before. That means not just art-house or cult/exploitation fare, but middle of the road stuff that represents each country's popular cinema. Labirent, for instance, is a Turkish counterterrorism thriller written and directed by Tolga Örnek, and in many ways it's like counterterror thrillers you might see anywhere. Adorned with 24-style split-screen effects, the film shows the complicated hunt for an Islamist terror cell (with some roots in Germany) carrying out suicide attacks in Turkey. What's different about it is a critical but not quite hostile attitude toward the west, here represented by a British spy (Martin Turner) who collaborates with the Turkish heroes but clearly serves his own country's agenda, even when it compromises the Turkish operation. What comes through is Turkish resentment of the western attitude, probably portrayed here accurately, that doesn't really trust the Turks to keep their own house, much less the region, in order. After all, this is the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist of sorts in his own right with alleged authoritarian tendencies. Labirent, however, doesn't appear to represent Erdogan's point of view.


Örnek made his name in part with an admiring documentary film about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man who abolished the Islamic Caliphate and founded the secular Turkish republic. A picture of Ataturk is conspicuous in this film's anti-terror headquarters, and perhaps even more conspicuous, if not scandalous in the eyes of culturally conservative Turks, is the prominent heroic role of Reyhan (Meltem Cumbul), a female anti-terror operative who serves as the film's second lead after its more tragic male hero Fikret (Timuçin Esen, who speaks fluent English in scenes with Turner). Reyhan is a generic international superwoman, and I say that with admiration. Captured by the terrorists, she's put to the torture, punched repeatedly in the face, subjected to long electrical shocks, and made to watch a friend executed in front of her. Apparently beaten unconscious, she's only playing possum, waiting for just the right moment to untie herself and beat her torturer to death. For a fleeting, almost fatal moment she comes face to face with her antithesis -- a girl terrorist wearing traditional headcovering and wielding a gun, but in the next moment Reyhan's buddies come to the rescue.

One moment Reyhan is down (above), the next she's up and the other guy's down.


Labirent is a little too self-consciously dour and tragic to be that much fun most of the time, and like many a counterterror thriller it grows repetitive portraying terrorists out on walks being stalked by strolling antiterror agents. It has just enough local flavor and attitude to make it not quite as generic as it could be, but fans of the genre from around the world probably could sit through this without finding anything really alien about it. I'm still not sure if that's a virtue or not.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

On the Big Screen: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

It's been more than twenty years since I saw the seminal cyberpunk-style anime that inspired Rupert Sanders' new film, and to be honest I don't remember much about it apart from the giant holographic signs and Kenji Kawai's tremendous theme song, which gets a welcome reprise over the new film's end credits. After doing some research to refresh my memory, I see that there's only superficial resemblances between the two films. The new screenplay boils down to a very ordinary "everything you thought you knew is wrong" story in which The Major (Scarlett Johansson), a highly skilled cyborg working for a shadowy department of the Japanese government, learns during her investigation of a crime wave masterminded by a cyborg terrorist that her makers fed her a fake story about her human origin. The one clever thing about this is that it inscribes the controversy over the "whitewashing" of the main character into the film itself. Since Ghost is known worldwide as a Japanese product, offense was taken -- more in the U.S. than in Japan itself, as I'm given to understand -- that an American actress got the lead role. Never mind that Scarlett Johansson probably is the most popular female action star on Earth right now, and that while Marvel Studios insanely refuses to put her in a solo Black Widow movie she has been typecast in recent films (Her, Under the Skin, Lucy) as a higher form of life. Never mind that the ability to make a cyborg look like whatever regardless of the "ghost's" true identity is part of the point of the project. What mattered to those this bothers, I suspect, is mainly that Johansson, so to speak, took away someone's rice bowl. In any event, the new film tells us that the Major herself has been whitewashed, that she was Japanese in her corporeal life but changed into something else, presumably because the head man of the robotics company is white himself. This still may not make sense given that she was purchased by the Japanese government and lives and works in Japan. Taking this into consideration, shouldn't she have been designed as a Japanese? Write it off as the whim of a villain, but note also that this film's Japan is quite the cosmopolitan place.

The Major's boss (a deceptively feeble looking Takeshi Kitano, splitting the difference between his directorial and thespian billings as " 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano" in the credits) has an international but Anglophone team of agents, including rising global star Pilou Asbaek as Major's sidekick Batou, who understand his Japanese but talk to him in English, which he understands just as well. Cybernetics, I guess. I waited the whole film for Takeshi to talk English in some badass moment, but the great man actually is so badass that he doesn't have to talk anyone else's language. Indeed, this is as international a film as you'll get this year, co-financed by American and Chinese companies and boasting Juliette Binoche, reigning queen of global cinema, in its supporting cast. Unfortunately, probably for the same reason it feels as completely generic a film as any you'll see this year. It's certainly not a bad film, but by 2017 there's no way that a live-action Ghost can be the sort of conceptual forward leap that the anime Ghost was in its time. It touches only lightly on the implicit horror of an age in which identity has grown almost helplessly vulnerable to manipulation, its best scene demonstrating the point during the interrogation of a hapless human implanted with false memories, who comes to realize with horror under questioning that everything he thought he knew was ... well, you get the idea. For all its spectacle, Sanders' Ghost is merely competent rather than visionary. It's Johansson's movie but I suspect that if anyone gets a rub from it it'll be Asbaek, who cements his action-hero credentials as Batou. Overall this isn't really a bad movie, but for a work of science-fiction contemplating a possible post-human or trans-human future it suffers a possibly insurmountable handicap of appearing to look backward rather than forward.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

DVR Diary: A STORY FROM CHIKAMATSU (aka The Crucified Lovers, 1954)

I get the impression that Kenji Mizoguchi's adaptation of a classic 18th century puppet play is not considered one of his home-run pictures like its contemporaries Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. It doesn't merit its own Criterion Collection DVD release, for instance, and its appearance on TCM last weekend was my first chance to see it. Perhaps the subject matter is too much like a 19th century European novel -- or something by Theodore Dreiser, if your tastes run American -- its actual pedigree notwithstanding, for world cinema fans seeking something more echt Japanese. Yet it's exactly that quality, its clash of intense romanticism, bourgeois repression and brutal traditional values, that impressed me the most. Of course, I can't say whether Mizoguchi and his screenwriters added those layers to Chikamatsu Monzaemon's original, but given Chikamatsu's reputation as Japan's greatest dramatist I suspect all that stuff was there all along. Basically everything revolves around a successful entrepreneur, Ishun (Eitaro Shindo) who as the official Scroll Master has an exclusive franchise to publish calendars. He's so wealthy that the nobility borrow money from him, and despite their manners they clearly resent their dependence on this arriviste. The opportunity to destroy him comes when his neglected wife Osan (Kyoko Kagawa) falls in love with one of his top salesmen, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa). Initially, embezzlement brings them together, as Mohei dabbles in forgery to help Osan's brother pay off a loan. This first transgression escalates into adultery after some farcical contrivances, but the affair is no laughing matter, since the Tokugawa Shogunate punishes adultery with death. It's also potentially a huge embarrassment for Ishun. It could even ruin his career if the authorities determine that he knew of his wife's infidelity without reporting it. Come to think of it, the fact that I found Ishun's predicament more fascinating than the lovers' romance may expose a problem with a film presumably sold (especially under the more exploitative English language title) as a tale of blazing passion. The romantic leads are fine, but passionate doomed lovers are almost a dime a dozen in cinema. What intrigued me to the end was they way everything shaped up against poor selfish, mean-spirited Ishun. At first he thinks he'll avoid embarrassment or ruin by cancelling some nobles' debts in return for their covering up the scandal. That plan falls apart when Mohei and Osun turn themselves in to the authorities, preferring death by crucifixion to life on the run or under Ishun's thumb. Once they've done that, the nobles pounce on Ishun, terminating his franchise, confiscating his wealth and exiling him. On one hand you can say the bum had it coming, but at the same time this is clearly an unfair, unjust system at work for the exclusive benefit of the upper class, and that makes Ishun's comeuppance nothing to celebrate. By comparison, and unlike a condemned couple we see paraded through the streets earlier in the picture, Mohei and Osun seem almost beatific at the end, their parade to the crosses almost like a triumph. Mizoguchi, I think, is canny and objective enough to let us question that even as bystanders comment on the lovers' apparent bliss. It may not have the spectacular camerawork or spooky grandeur of Mizoguchi's more canonical movies, but I found plenty to chew on in Chikamatsu Monogatari, and I'd recommend it to those with similar cinematic tastes.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

DVR Diary: GUN FEVER (1958)

Many actors want to direct, and a fair number get the chance. Not all can be a Charlie Chaplin or Cornel Wilde or Clint Eastwood; most probably worked so infrequently or unimpressively ever to be considered as an auteur. Consider Mark Stevens, who established himself as a performer in the 1940s and learned the trade behind the camera as a director of many episodes of Big Town, a series he starred in in the mid-1950s, and the 1954 noir Cry Vengeance.  For his third feature film, Stevens became a triple threat, co-writing Gun Fever as well as directing and starring as the vengeful hero. This B western reveals a grim, grimy sensibility somewhere between its "adult western" contemporaries and, at least on a visual level, the debunking revisionist westerns of a generation later. Gun Fever itself isn't revisionist; it's actually a little embarrassing in its treatment of Indians and Mexicans. But its low budget black-and-white imagery prove a virtue, and its most memorable scene probably is the long bar fight between co-hero Simon Waller (John Lupton) and Amigo, a Mexican bandit, across a realistically filthy floor. The fact that Amigo is played by Larry Storch of F-Troop fame is one of the embarrassing aspects of the picture. Storch plays the ruthless role as straight as he can but can't help sounding clownish with his none too convincing accent -- but at least he's out of the picture early. Amigo is an expendable minion of a monster of a villain, known only as Trench (former pro wrestler Aaron Saxon). Perpetually sweaty and dirty and often drunk, Trench unites Simon and co-hero Luke Ram (Stevens) in hatred. He killed Luke's father (and mother) and he is Simon's father, who had forced him into his gang until Simon finally gathered up the courage, after the latest massacre, to refuse the loot and quit. Both younger men want to kill this beast -- Saxon's nothing special as an actor but as a repulsive physical presence he suits this film perfectly -- and they're joined on the vengeance trail by a Christian Indian maid, the newly widowed Tanana (Jana Davi), married to another of Trench's former partners until Amigo kills the guy. On top of that, Trench stomps into her home, demands a meal, and pours coffee straight from the pot onto her forearm when she doesn't comply. In stoic tribal style she doesn't cry out but she's bound to carry a grudge. She's well spoken and mission educated but the rest of the film's Indians (led by Iron Eyes Cody) are a dismal lot, led on by Trench. The villain's leadership style is well summarized by the way he talks very slowly, with hand gestures that clearly mean nothing, to convey his instructions to Iron Eyes and his band. The momentarily skeptical Cody actually asks, "How do we know you don't speak with forked tongue." I hope that wasn't one of Mark Stevens' contributions to the script. As a director he doesn't contribute much visually that can't be credited instead to the film's grungy art direction, but he deserves some credit for putting together one of the more thuggish westerns of the genre's golden era.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

THE TREACHEROUS (2015)

The way this film tells it, King Yeonsan of Joseon was the Korean Caligula. That doesn't mean that Min Kyu-dong's history play is Korea's Caligula, though the mad king himself (Kim Kang-woo) is a kind of amateur pornographer, compelling his concubines to assume Sapphic positions so he can paint the scenes. Whatever his politics were, if this film teaches you anything it's that Yeonsan was sex mad. Another favorite artistic subject is the mating of horses. Also, he has an infantile fixation on a favorite concubine who has become a power in the palace, finding comfort by suckling on her breast. The poor king has mommy issues, it seems, because his own mother was murdered in a past palace intrigue.


By the time of our story all his hard-working concubines -- it's challenging to hold those porno poses for long -- aren't enough for Yeonsan anymore. He demands a roundup of promising females from across the land, hundreds of whom will serve as his "comforters." That's got to be a sensitive subject for a Korean movie, given how the Koreans continue to hector the Japanese for recruiting Koreans as "comfort women" during World War II. Of course, any film featuring an insane absolute ruler will have special significance for South Korean audiences, given what they have to deal with north of the border. I'm surprised the Kim dynasty didn't treat Treacherous, a film portraying a conspiracy to kill an absolute monarch, as yet another provocation justifying missile launches. But for all we know, they did.


Anyway, Yeonsan entrusts the comforter search to his two top henchman, the father-son Im team. Most of our attention goes to the son, Im Sung-jae (Ju Ji-hoon), the king's boyhood playmate who still goes in for the occasional round of sparring. Feeling guilty about enabling a monster like Yeonsan, Sung-jae discovers a diamond in the rough in Dan-hee, a pretty butcher (Lim Ji-yeon) who makes an entertainment out of animal slaughter. Secretly the daughter of an official killed on the king's order, this woman of many skills could make the perfect assassin. But first she has to rise through the ranks, meeting the strict standards set for the king's new number-one bedmate. To get her big chance, she has to win a sex fight with her main rival as the king orchestrates probably the most demoralizing lesbian sex scene since Requiem For a Dream. Min Kyu-dong lavishes a lot of attention on the training process for the comforters, which ranges from sword dancing (Dan-hee's lead role in one performance gives her an early opportunity to kill the king that goes to waste) to dildo testing. Again, none of this rises (or sinks) to Caligula-level explicitness, at least in what Netflix is streaming, but while that might make it more erotic for some viewers it might also make viewers complicit for any arousal they feel as Yeonsan puts his comforters through their paces.


Finally, Dan-hee gets the break she's been waiting for, but if you'd begun to suspect that Treacherous was going to be a tragedy your suspicions would soon be confirmed. While her mission fails, however, this isn't a nihilistic "resistance is futile" tragedy like, say, Curse of the Golden Flower, but something more Senecan or Shakespearean in its ultimate grotesquery, as Yeonsan, after getting the Carrie prom night treatment from Im Sung-jae, ends up in a disquietingly vague scrum with a room full of pigs. And then you get an epilogue that wraps up the running quasi-operatic narration in a manner that suggests that things didn't turn out entirely as you'd just seen.


The best word to describe The Treacherous is ravishing. It describes the king's antics as well as the gorgeous art direction and Park Hong-ryeol's cinematography, not to mention all the beautiful women and their often-opulent costumes. It's almost Italian in its combination of luscious craftsmanship and almost unflinching brutality. I don't know how it works as history, but as a wild work or cinema I recommend it highly.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Too Much TV: LARAMIE (1959-63)

When I was a kid the westerns you saw most in reruns were Bonanza and The Big Valley. Those, at least, are the ones I remember most vividly, if that's the right word for my memories of Bonanza. I never saw Laramie, which ran the same number of seasons as Big Valley, until it appeared on the Grit channel, and then on Encore Westerns, in 2015. Encore -- or Starz Encore Westerns as they call it now -- is the ideal place to view the show since the economy premium channel runs episodes uncut and without commercials. Created by John Champion, Laramie relates the adventures of rancher Slim Sherman (the perversely pseudonamed John Smith) and drifter-turned-ranch hand Jess Harper (Robert Fuller), who operate a stagecoach station on Sherman's ranch in Wyoming. In the first season they share their little home with Slim's younger brother Andy (Robert Crawford Jr.) and comedy-relief handyman Jonesy (Hoagy Carmichael). Jonesy was dumped after that season, while Andy made occasional appearances on holidays from boarding school. For the most part the Sherman Ranch was a bachelor pad that year, but even in the innocent days of 1961 there must have been some anxiety over the possibilities for two young men living together, for in the third season Slim and Jess are saddled not only with a new, adopted orphan kid (Dennis Holmes), but with lovable old lady Daisy Cooper (Spring Byington), who acts as housekeeper and "aunt" figure for the boy. I suspect that Daisy is the model for the Aunt Harriet character on the Batman show, who may have been introduced for similar reasons, down to being known as "Mrs. Cooper." A persistent presence in later years who never quite graduated to regular starring status was Sheriff Mort Corey (Stuart Randall), who often had cause to deputize Slim and/or Jess for various missions, when they weren't getting into trouble on their own.

Laramie was a black-and-white show (except for its pilot) for its first two seasons, and ran in color for the last two. Unlike many shows that made the conversion during the Sixties, Laramie was hardly diminished visually in color. Credit for that goes to two-time Oscar winning cinematographer Ray Rennahan, who shot the majority of episodes and strove not to make them look cheaply overlit, even when occasionally forced to shoot on obvious soundstages. The black-and-white episodes are probably superior visually, but the color Laramies look quite nice, especially when they're shot on location, however unconvincing Bronson Canyon may be as a Wyoming location.

While the show is about Slim Sherman and Jess Harper, it is not, despite whatever fears led to the third-season changes, about the relationship between Slim and Jess. TV producers had responded to the challenge of filming a season of hourlong episodes by giving shows multiple heroes -- see Bart Maverick joining brother Bret, or Ben Cartwright and his three grown sons -- each of whom could be given a quota of missions per season. Presumably Smith and Fuller would be filming Slim-centric and Jess-centric episodes with separate units simultaneously to complete the show's schedule of approximately 31 episodes per season. If Slim was the main character, Jess might appear in bookend scenes to see him off and welcome him back. In a minority of episodes the two stars would share the spotlight equally. In later seasons the old lady and the boy would mostly be relegated to bookend scenes, carrying few episodes themselves. Sheriff Corey may actually have had more screen time in the final season than either of the two supplementary regulars. Apart from the sheriff's constant presence, Laramie has little to no continuity as we understand it today. Episodes are always complete unto themselves, and the implicit reset button meant that there were never "game changing" episodes with permanent consequences for the main characters. By the standard of our time that made every episode "filler," but in effect that meant that no episode was filler. Because no episode was going to change the main characters significantly, the focus often was on the guest stars during this golden age of character acting. Certain actors could appear multiple times (e.g. Lloyd Nolan, Rod Cameron, L. Q. Jones, Lee Van Cleef) without viewers questioning why they looked exactly like characters they'd seen before. While any given episode might not seem significant in terms of its impact on the main characters, they at least provided the satisfaction of a thoroughly plotted story with a beginning, middle and end that's often missing from the random series episode today. Of course, expectations are different now and the long-form series with tight continuity between episodes has many virtues, but I still enjoy being able to see a truly complete story in approximately 50 minutes.

Laramie is admirably short on comedy episodes, more rough than rollicking. Even in the first season, Jonesy was acceptable as a comic-relief character because he was convincingly competent at his job. In later years efforts at comedy didn't go far beyond Daisy's attempts to make Slim and Jess do the more mundane ranch chores like painting the barn roof. While not the darkest or most hard-boiled western, Laramie will appeal to those who like their westerns straight, tough and violent. While John Smith was top-billed, the show really proved a showcase for Robert Fuller, whose work here was a revelation to me. I knew Fuller almost exclusively from Emergency, a 1970s Jack Webb series in which Fuller played an ER doctor with Webb's characteristically stolid realism. My few views of Fuller on Wagon Train, which he joined after Laramie closed down, didn't dissuade me from thinking of him as a block of wood. On Laramie, however, the 26 year old Fuller got to be the hothead to Smith's calmer, or more slow-burning Slim, and his emotional and physical intensity -- he did nearly all of his own stunts, as far as I can tell -- surprised me. As the outsider, Jess drives more episodes because he's more likely to know the guest character passing through. There are four basic situations for the outsider character: Jess can trust a stranger based on experience, and either be vindicated or disillusioned, or he can distrust the stranger because of a past offense, and either be vindicated or proven wrong. Fuller handles all possible situations like a champ, and while Smith initially seems like a big stiff in comparison, over time you realize that still waters run deep with him, making it more meaningful when circumstances force Slim to cross lines of propriety or legality, if not ethics. Their contrasting but complementary personalities, supplemented by Stuart Randall's stalwart sheriff, provide a stable frame on which the show's writers and its stable of veteran directors (especially Joe Kane and Lesley Selander) can hang any number of variations on basic western themes. A meat-and-potatoes western prepared with high craftsmanship, Laramie might be the best western series that people haven't really heard of.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

THE KEEPING ROOM (2014)

Daniel Barber's Civil War picture is a misanthropic piece of work in the most literal sense. Julia Hart's screenplay effectively declares war on men, uniting mistress and slave at the tail end of the war in resistance to rape and pillage by Union soldiers. Sisters Augusta (Britt Marling) and Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and a sole slave, Mad (Muna Otaru) are all that's left on the family farm as the Confederacy faces its reckoning. Like Scarlett O'Hara and her sisters, Augusta and Louise have to work in the fields alongside Mad in order to survive on humble crops. Louise is still spoiled enough to protest, asking why "the nigger" can't be left to do all the work. As Augusta explains, "It's like I said, we're all niggers now." You get the sense that she doesn't just mean herself and her sister, but says this in the spirit of the John Lennon/Yoko Ono song, "Woman is the Nigger of the World."


We're well past the legend of Sherman's March as a bloodless ravaging by this point in history. In its place, Keeping Room shows free-ranging Union foragers (led by Sam Worthington) committing random atrocities as they close in on our heroines' farm. Once they arrive, the film becomes something like a feminist version of Straw Dogs as the women fight off the blue bellies, though not before Louise, barely recovered from a raccoon bite, is raped. Add to this terror images like horses hauling a burning coach and its dead driver, or Augusta's discovery of a friend's pasty corpse, and Keeping Room seems to be a horror movie first and foremost.


The screenplay may insist too much that gender trumps race. It seems too good, if that's really the word, to be true that Mad forgives Augusta for shooting her returned lover in the back, mistaking him for another intruder. It's true enough that Mad was ready to shoot the same man in the back until he turned to reveal himself to her, but by this point in the film, long after Augusta and Mad had exchanged angry slaps, writer and director apparently have decided that race is no longer an issue. Instead, they have Mad recall the repeated rapes she suffered while still a girl in a mysterious plantation shed. On top of that, they have Augusta execute a wounded forager who had effectively surrendered, as if she was obliged to show him no mercy after killing the other man. In a grim parody of the end of Glory the dead forager and the dead freedman are dumped into a common grave, though Mad offers a dubious Augusta a spiritual assurance that the more innocent of the two is not really in the same place as the other.


In a final irony, as the main army advances on the farm, the only way the women can escape from the house of war is to become men by stripping the uniforms from the soldiers they've killed. You could argue that they've already surrendered much of their femininity, by the standards of their own time, by becoming killers, but the real message of this coda is more likely that there's no place for women in a world of men at war, so women must transform in one way or other in order to survive. It should be a happy ending since it looks like their plan will work, as long as they remain those few steps ahead of the soldiers swarming over the farm in the final shot, but at the same time it's an act of surrender -- just not the fall of the slave-plantation world we'd expect to celebrate. The Confederacy is dead, but injustice persists -- and the Confederacy's conquerors are perpetrating it. The Keeping Room may overstate its main point at times, but it's still an honestly unsettling movie about two civil wars: the one we see ending, and one that many say goes on today.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH (1916)

I don't know enough early films to say whether The Mystery of the Leaping Fish is the first American drug comedy film, so let's make a more modest claim: John Emerson's two-reeler, conceived by that beloved humorist of the cinema, Tod Browning, is the Birth of a Nation of drug comedies. I suppose we could be more modest still and call it the Inherent Vice of 100 years ago. It's almost certainly the weirdest performance ever given by Douglas Fairbanks Sr., who plays the "scientific detective" Coke Ennyday. While the name is a loose play on Arthur B. Reeve's then-popular scientific detective Craig Kennedy, the character's awesome drug habit is taken from Sherlock Holmes, and expanded upon immensely. The great detective sits at his desk, injecting himself with something every couple of minutes to restore his spirits -- he chuckles after each injection -- while a huge jar labeled COCAINE is within easy reach. A closet holds the detective's many disguises, clearly labeled as such, while a clock divides Ennyday's routine into four phases: drinks, eats, sleep and dope. This film was made two years after the federal government first cracked down on the distribution of cocaine and other narcotics, so Leaping Fish flies in the face of a national anti-drug hysteria in the admirably irreverent fashion of that era's films. A police chief, I.M. Keen, rings Ennyday's doorbell, and the slightly paranoid scientific detective pulls out his "scientific periscope," a proto-TV apparatus to verify the man's identity. After his servant, dressed like a giant bellboy, opens three layers of doors, Ennyday hears the lawman's appeal. There's a man in Short Beach rolling in wealth despite lacking apparent means of support. Certainly something requires investigation there!

In Short Beach we are introduced to the mysterious leaping fish, which are inflatable floating devices for coastal frolicking. We are also introduced to the film's heroine, Inane the Fish Blower (Bessie Love). That's what they call the girl who inflates the inflatables with an air pump. The lurking Coke Ennyday discovers her in distress, having fallen off a pier into shallow water. Skipping into action with the celerity of a Keystone Kop, Coke flings himself off the pier and plants himself head-first in the mud. Inane has to rescue him from this predicament, but he'll return the favor later. The man Ennyday was assigned to trail, earlier shown literally rolling in money in his bed, is, in fact, a drug smuggler; he sends two Japanese minions out to sea with Leaping Fish, and they return with contraband. Poor Inane knows nothing about this, but is threatened just the same by the amorous attentions of Fishy Joe. Another member of the criminal ring is the Chinese launderer Sum Hop. For you youngsters, that was more drug humor. Despite his perpetual daze some instinct drives Coke Ennyday to discover a cache of opium, which he commences to eat like cake batter out of the bowl. In the double climax Coke must battle the yellow perils and their white master, while Inane must defend her virtue against Fishy Joe. She defends it with all the vim and violence you'd expect of Douglas Fairbanks himself, wiping the floor with Joe, while Ennyday, quivering as if he'd OD'd on Acme Earthquake Pills, uses his trusty hypodermics to inject his foes into various states of stupefaction. One virtually floats through the ceiling, while another throws himself out a window. Finally comes the showdown with the mastermind, which conveniently goes down in darkness, with Coke conveniently victorious when the lights go on again. Once more Coke Ennyday has conquered crime, and this time he gets the girl, too -- only that's not the end of the story. Before we really got started with the story we were shown a quick shot of Fairbanks out of makeup, laughing at something he'd just read. The film closes with the real Fairbanks trying to sell the very story we've just seen to the scenario department at the Triangle Studio. The department head tells him to stick to acting, and Fairbanks exits with a pout. He actually did a lot of his own writing under the Elton Thomas pseudonym, but here he gives one of the great good-sport performances ever in what some have seen as a send up of his own already-formed frantic screen persona. It's an all-out fearless physical performance that shows the young star unafraid to look like a complete idiot, flaunting the fakeness of Ennyday's moustache, rocking his ridiculous outfits, and pretty much pogo-ing through most of the story as if he, the actor, really were on something. He helps mightily to make The Mystery of the Leaping Fish one of the damnedest things you'll ever seen. And you can see it right here, as uploaded to YouTube by one Ivan Smirnov. Check it out, man...

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

THE TIMBER (2015)

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about the visual appeal of violence in the snow? Anthony O'Brien's western -- a northwestern really, set in the Klondike but filmed in Romania -- is another vivid example of the juxtaposition of "darkness" in a pristine natural setting.


The terrific cinematography is by Phil Parmet, and it's the best thing about The Timber. Unfortunately, it's practically the only good thing about the picture. O'Brien's story, co-written with Steve Allrich and Colin Ossiander, is a vacuous compendium of "dark" western cliches hung on the flimsy frame of a minimal story. Two brothers are hired -- ordered, virtually, -- to hunt down their murderous father for a bounty that will save brother Samuel's (Josh Peck) land from a predatory lender. Impatient to take possession, the banker and his minions threaten Samuel's pregnant wife, who has to withstand their siege virtually alone until a friendly sheriff rides to the rescue.


The brothers' quest is part Apocalypse Now, part Blood Meridian as they encounter a human menagerie of degenerate grotesques on the way to their father, who proves a big pretentious emptiness at the heart of this would-be darkness. Including a cannibal in the mix will only remind western fans with strong stomachs of how much better the same year's Bone Tomahawk was. To be fair, The Timber doesn't aim to be a horror western, but rather, I guess, an existential meditation on the darkness that supposedly links the old man and his other son, Wyatt (James Ransome), if not the entire gold-greedy human landscape. The actors try to articulate this through dialogue that either aspires to the retro-formality of westerns in the True Grit mode or echoes the surliness that's seeped into the genre since the 1980s. They're clearly not up to the task, but neither were the writers, really. And since the action really isn't that great -- though for all I know, the film's confused melees may be shot and cut that way on purpose -- you're left with some knockout visuals that just might justify 80 minutes of a western fan's time. Brevity is one of the few things the The Timber gets right.

Monday, March 6, 2017

DVR Diary: THAT MAN FROM RIO (L'Homme de Rio, 1964)

Steven Spielberg reportedly acknowledges L'Homme de Rio as an inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the influence is obvious at times, most notably in a scene probably intended as a direct homage, in which sunlight striking an artifact points to the location of a treasure. In turn, director Philippe di Broca was clearly influenced by American silent comedy. Doing his own stunts like a slapstick trouper, Jean-Paul Belmondo takes a Harold Lloyd style walk on a skyscraper window ledge. In Rio, his character befriends a Brazilian boy who lives in a Buster Keaton style house in which pulleys move furniture into position or out of the way. Belmondo's action scenes combine legitimate derring-do and slapstick as Keaton's and Lloyd's did, and as some scenes in the Indiana Jones films do, particularly when Indy proves comically ineffective (at first) against bigger, stronger adversaries. Belmondo's hero is no Indiana Jones, however. Instead, Adrien is a soldier on leave who gets involved in a kidnapping while visiting his girlfriend Agnes (Francoise Dorleac), the assistant to Professor Catalan, a museum curator (Jean Servais). In a mad dash to save his girl, he tricks his way onto a plane bound for Brazil, only to see a drugged Agnes fail to recognize him. Her captors are South American Indians of some sort who apparently want to retrieve sacred statues taken by an expedition that included Catalan, Agnes' father and a Brazilian investor (Adolfo Celi). With that set up, the film is pretty much one long picturesque chase, shot on location, with more or less one joke. Though a soldier, Adrien is hardly a warrior and is terrified by the idea of not getting home before his leave expires. Yet for love of the girl he perseveres through ordeal after ordeal, including one big plot twist mid-film. I don't know whether Adolfo Celi has been typecast already in Europe as a heavy before his Bond villain Thunderball, but whether he had or not he proves an effective red herring here as an upper-class twit. To be honest, at almost two hours the film runs on a bit too long, mainly because di Broca never really manages to shift the tone of the film from goofball to anything more urgent. The silent clowns I take to be his models would have wrapped things up much more quickly before the fights and stunts grew monotonous, while Spielberg knew that audiences had to have more of an emotional stake in the action if they were to stick around longer. In that respect, That Man From Rio is inferior not only to silent precursors (e.g. Lloyd's Latin American fantasy Why Worry?) and to Raiders (except for those who require such stories to keep tongue locked in cheek) but also to the previous di Broca-Belmondo teamup Cartouche, a profoundly underrated swashbuckler that sticks a tearjerker landing. Rio probably never was meant to be as ambitious a picture, and on its own terms it clearly succeeds. Belmondo makes a fun frantic hero, Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve's doomed sister, dead at 25 in a car wreck) is even more fun as the often goofy ingenue, and the film is always great to look at. I've wanted to see this since before I saw Cartouche, and even if it's a disappointment by that film's standard I'm still glad I finally saw it.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

LOGAN (2017) in SPOILERVISION

Depending on how you periodize movie history, Bryan Singer's X-Men (2000) marks the beginning of the modern era of comic-book superhero movies that could demand to be taken seriously without getting laughed out of the theater. Seventeen years later, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart recreate the roles they first played in X-Men, ostensibly for the last time, in James Mangold's follow-up to The Wolverine (2013). Despite their strenuous efforts to rewrite the past in order to salvage the future in Days of Future Past (2014), things haven't really worked out for James "Logan" Howlett, aka Wolverine (Jackman) and his mentor, Charles Xavier (Stewart). By 2029 they are two of the last mutants on Earth, mutation by birth having ceased earlier in the century and most of the X-Men having been killed accidentally offscreen by elderly Professor X in a fit of psychic dementia. Logan is reduced to working as a limo driver to keep house for Xavier and his caretaker, the albino mutant-tracker Caliban (Stephen Merchant). His greatest ambition is to save enough money (after living expenses and clandestine drugs to suppress the old man's mental fits) to buy a houseboat. But live Xavier, he's stuck in a long decline. In his case, the adamantium in his skeleton has slowly been poisoning his blood and weakening his mutant healing factor. That makes beating up mere thugs tougher than it used to be, and there is worse to come for him.

It turns out that Logan can't escape his past or his legend. One of the nice touches in the new film is that Logan lives in a world where X-Men comics are published -- much as Marvel Comics exists in the Marvel comic book universe -- and Wolverine is a living legend among the few surviving mutants, whose number has been increased artificially by a corporation operating south of the border with mutant blood and genes, including Logan's. However inconspicuous he tries to be, Logan is tracked down both by a woman imploring him to protect a young escapee from the corporate experiments, and by a cyborg corporate mercenary hunting the girl called Laura (Dafne Keen). Logan sticks his neck out for nobody these days, but after the woman is killed, and at Xavier's urging, he takes Laura under his wing. Known in comics as X-23, Laura is a mini-Wolverine with enhancements, most notably foot claws, and if anything more feral than her model and genetic dad. She wants to reach a reputed mutant enclave in North Dakota, a first stop on the way to a more permanent haven in Canada, but Logan discovers to his horror that these are only ideas taken from those hated X-Men comics. Nevertheless, his bridges are burning behind him, and soon there's nothing else to do but take her where she wants and prove that he actually can protect somebody after all these years....

In an odd bit of misdirection the film invites you in the most blatant fashion to think of it as a version of Shane, but the more obvious model, I think, is Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, or at least the second half of it, with Laura as a feral kid in homage to The Road Warrior, a film that's also been compared to Shane. If anything, Logan invokes Shane in order to shoot it down, to reject the idea of Logan as Shane. That seems to be the point of a morbid mid-film episode during which Logan, Xavier and Laura befriend a family of horse breeders after a highway mishap, and are invited to spend the night at their home. We learn that this family has been holding out against an oppressive agro-company that arbitrarily shuts off their water supply. In scene reminiscent of the business with the tree stump in Shane we see Logan and the father (Eriq La Salle) work together to get the water running again while staring down the company's enforcers. This fairy tale sequence ends abruptly and cruelly with the massacre of the family (and Charles Xavier, and later the agro-company enforcers) by the corporate mercenaries and their secret weapon, the next-generation X-24 Logan clone (played by newcomer Huge Jackedman). If you look back, Logan has never been the best at protecting people, but this is the crowning disaster of his career, though it's really more Xavier's fault for overruling Logan and excepting an invitation that could only cause trouble for civilians. In a way, it confirms Shane's judgment on himself as one who can never remove the brand of a killer and live a normal life, but Shane at least could make life safer for normal people by killing the killers until there are no guns in the valley. By comparison, Logan seems to say that all its hero touches turns to ash, but then it gives him once last chance to help people.

Logan is a very good film, probably the best of Jackman's three solo films, but there's something forced about its resolution, as if with the finality of their exits Jackman and Stewart want to declare the end of an era that hasn't ended. As a comic-book reader of long standing, there are times when I look at superhero movies and TV shows with annoyance, because the live-action characters aren't doing what their print versions would. The final chase scene in Logan is a case in point. After shooting himself up with a temporary rejuvenation serum, Logan, who has delivered Laura to North Dakota and found exactly the enclave she was looking for, hurries to catch up with the young mutant refugees before the corporate mercenaries run them down. The children are shown running for their lives through the forest, pursued by guys with guns and at least one cybernetic arm. We have been told that these kids all have lethal mutant abilities and were raised to be killing machines. Yet they only think to use their powers on the mercs when they fall down and are about to be captured. Worse yet, the final battle pits Logan and Laura alone against X-24, when from what we've seen the rest of the kids have more than a sufficient power set to clean the monster's clock. Instead, the film has them waste their powers and time lynching a secondary villain, for no better reason than that the filmmakers want Logan to be killed, and only want X-24 stopped by the adamantium bullet that Logan has saved for whenever he should want to kill himself, but has been taken and fired by Laura. The clumsiness of the contrivances leaves a bad taste at the very end of the picture, which closes with Laura quoting from Shane to eulogize the dead hero -- so is he or isn't he? --  but it doesn't outweigh the film's many virtues.

The R-rated violence is appropriate for this film's darker, fatalistic tone, while Jackman and Stewart are great as tragic fallen heroes. If Logan is part Shane, part Mad Max, Xavier is a mutant Lear, and the idea of great power ravaged by age adds a fresh note to this very self-conscious "last" film. Whether it really is the "last" is up to the actors. It's clear by now that there's little continuity linking the solo Wolverine movies to the main X-Men series, or even to each other. Jackman's solo vehicles can be seen as "meta" movies, each an alternate reality unto itself, so that should Jackman feel sufficiently motivated he could do another entirely unrelated adventure of Logan -- and, of course, his character is still available for X-Men films which have only reached the 1980s in their retro-continuity. Comic book fans will tell you that seeing a character die doesn't mean you've seen the last of him, and despite its flaws Logan is good enough for people to withhold objections should Hugh Jackman change his mind about wearing the claws again.