Sunday, March 18, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: LAUGHING BOY (1934)

Of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's silent leading men inexorably struck down after the coming of sound, Ramon Novarro held out the longest. Despite a Mexican accent that didn't disqualify him from "Latin lover" status, Novarro found a singing voice that promised him a musical future. When that didn't pan out, he became an all-purpose ethnic, playing Europeans, Hindus, Chinese and Arabs. Finally, if not inevitably, he played a Navajo Indian in his penultimate M-G-M film. Laughing Boy was a prestige picture of a sort, adapted from Oliver LaFarge's Pulitzer-winning novel and entrusted to Metro's ethnographic entertainment expert, W.S. Van Dyke. But Novarro looks wrong for the part, wearing a heavy layer of makeup as if still in a silent movie and more pale than the other Native American characters. He doesn't quite sound right, either, saddled like compatriot co-star Lupe Velez with dialogue punctuated with that stock clause of the pulp Mexican, "I theenk." For 1934 Metro remembered Novarro's musical talent; his other picture of the year was a big part-Technicolor operetta, The Cat and the Fiddle, and in the actual novel Laughing Boy is described often singing to his gods. But Novarro's singing sounds more like what he was up to back in The Pagan than any Native song I've heard. His overall performance isn't really bad, but he ends up upstaged by possibly career-best work from Velez, liberated from her usual "spitfire" shtick, as the hero's more complex and conflicted love interest.

Laughing Boy is meant as a sympathetic portrait of Native Americans in a white-dominated world, and the film gives us a wider range of Indian personalities than most films of the period. In an implicit commentary on Natives' fractured identity, both hero and heroine have multiple names. Neither is known by their birth name, and Slim Girl (Velez) calls herself Lily in the big city, while our hero is not only "Laughing Boy" -- an ironic naming, perhaps, since the movie character isn't much of a jokester -- but also "Grandfather" in a more obvious comment from fellow Navajo on his traditional ways, and "Wrestler," for the prowess that lets him win a double-or-nothing bet after losing his horse in a race. He falls in love with Slim Girl despite his initial aversion to her American-influenced ways, e.g. dancing too close. A mutual ambivalence persists past marriage, as Slim Girl is torn between the attractions of city life, where she is often a kept woman, and a desire for more rooted existence, even though her American education has unfitted her for the rigors or reservation life. Slim Girl will automatically get the modern audience's sympathy, if she didn't already have the 1934 audience's sympathy, because of her profound alienation from both worlds. People will most likely be on her side from the scene back in the city where she tosses candy over a fence to treat the next generation of Natives going through the American educational mill and gets into a screaming match with her old repressive teacher. Yet her life with Laughing Boy's people is just as demoralizing. Our hero may be a nice guy, but he comes with the west's worst in-laws, utterly unfiltered in their disdain for anything American and modern, including Slim Girl. She tries her best and actually weaves a decent rug without realizing it, only to be told that her design is unfeminine somehow. But she finally draws the line at slaughtering goats for dinner; once she hears the animal bleat she can't go through with it, making herself hopeless in the in-laws' eyes. There's nothing Laughing Boy can do about it; he's condemned in turn for furnishing his hogan with such modern conveniences as a chair, a bed and a phonograph and is accused of being too ambitious a sheepman for his own good.

Something obviously has to give once Slim Girl moves back to the city to make money by selling Laughing Boy's silver crafts and hooking up again with an old American boyfriend. The marriage begins to look like the sort of role-reversal we've seen in other Depression films where the wife becomes the breadwinner, and even though Laughing Boy appears to be successful in his own right, at least in material terms, the old suspicion of the wife in the workplace rears its head. Unexpected, Laughing Boy shows up in the city to eat popcorn and check on his woman. Finding her with the American, he goes instantly into kill mode, though his target is the American rather than his offending spouse.  I found it odd that our hero went for his bow and arrow instead of a knife, but I guess the tragic choreography demanded this, since the maneuver gives the cowardly American time to use Slim Girl as a human shield. The white man gets away, of course, while husband and wife make their apologetic farewells. The film closes with Novarro performing an aria of mourning after burying Slim Girl on his land, giving her a home at last. The ending is inescapably sappy and word of mouth may have contributed to the film flopping and most likely sealing Novarro's fate with Metro. But Lupe Velez's performance and an unusually complex portrait of Native American life make Laughing Boy worth a look regardless of its consequences for its star's career.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Too Much TV: WACO (2018)

Religious cults and their leaders scandalize the American mind more, perhaps, than they do any other culture. Cults may be the ultimate abuse of the sacred American prerogatives of freedom of conscience and freedom of assembly, wasting both on voluntary submission to leaders who are undeserving almost by definition. Liberal culture distrusts the religious visionary just as it distrusts most polticial visionaries,  on the assumption that such people are out for themselves, interested more in receiving the submission of the gullible than in anything else, unless they happen to be authentically insane, when they might be even more dangerous. The Dowdle brothers' six-part miniseries about the fatal 1993 government siege of the Branch Davidian community in Texas may scandalize audiences most through its efforts to humanize Davidian leader David Koresh. As played by Taylor "John Carter" Kitsch,  Koresh is often quite a mundane figure, seen early going out for a jog with his son and playing with a rock band in a bar. It's only when discussing religion that a certain madness emerges; David believes that he's the lamb of God who will open the seven seals of Revelation, after which his children shall be judges over the earth. With great responsibility comes great privilege: David claims the right -- he sees it as his duty -- to take multiple wives while the other Davidian men remain celibate. For all that, things don't seem so awful at his compound, apart maybe from the stockpiling of weapons that attracts the attention of the ATF. 

According to the miniseries it's only under pressure from the government, once he believes that he has only a short time to complete his prophetic work, does David become something like the demonic figure the feds took him to be all along, holding dozens of innocents hostage to his ambition. The immolation of the compound thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of a liberal government that fears the implicit tyranny of cults,  but even then Waco, based partly on a survivor's memoir, takes pains to show that Koresh wasn't directly responsible for his followers' deaths, except insofar as he blundered by trapping them in a bunker without realizing how easily a tear-gas assault can turn into an inferno.

From the other side, Waco follows the account of FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon in a rare good-guy role), who came to Texas after bringing the Ruby Ridge siege to a peaceful conclusion. Throughout, Noesner's main concern is saving lives, which infuriates his colleague Mitch Decker (Shea Whigham), whose own concern for the children in the compound is eclipsed by his impatient contempt for Koresh.  Mitch becomes the real bad guy of the piece, but in a way that implicates an audience likely to share his impatience with Noesner's seeming  coddling (at taxpayers' expense) of a despicable villain's stall tactics. He gets a sort of moral comeuppance at the end when, after the final assault goes to hell, he makes an agonized single-handed effort to rescue Rachel Koresh  (Melissa "Supergirl" Benoist) from a compacted escape hatch. The scene sums up the tragedy of Waco, at least as the Dowdles see it, by underscoring Mitch's sincere desire to rescue innocents (however complicit Rachel may have been as David's primary wife) while showing how his own bullying tactics sabotaged his best impulses.

The show as a whole will no doubt please those who see the Waco siege as Exhibit A of big-government intrusiveness against people's right to live as they please, but by now I don't think anyone doubts that the government went too far there, nor do I think that saying so implies any endorsement of religious cults. Some may wonder whether Waco goes too far in portraying Koresh as a tragic antihero as late in the game as the end of episode five when, defying Mitch's psy-op tactics, David performs an impromptu rock concert, but that's inevitably a matter of subjective perception. The miniseries for all its virtues doesn't change my view that the Waco story was a double tragedy, most obviously in the way it ended, but also because cults like Koresh's are a human tragedy in the first place.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON (1931)

Before making a real name for himself as a comic character actor, Lloyd Corrigan was the auteur of a trilogy of Fu Manchu movies for Paramount Pictures, writing all three and directing the last. Corrigan's films are very loosely based on Sax Rohmer's devil doctor, giving Fu Manchu a backstory that reduced his motive to revenge against the family of an English officer whose men had killed the once-benevolent doctor's family during the Boxer Rebellion. Corrigan's Fu Manchu was Warner Oland, whose vaguely Asiatic features won him many a yellow-peril part before he atoned, in retrospectively thankless fashion, by playing the belovedly benign Charlie Chan until his death. In Daughter of the Dragon, Corrigan retcons that backstory to exploit Rohmer's latest novel, Daughter of Fu Manchu. We learn that Fu Manchu, who has been playing dead for the last twenty years since the previous picture, had a living daughter who was raised in secret by one of his European loyalists (Nicholas Soussanin) and trained as a dancer who, as the story begins, is the toast of London vaudeville as Princess Ling Moy. In a big twist, Fu Manchu's daughter is played by an actual Chinese woman -- though to be more correct Anna May Wong was Chinese-American by birth. Daughter was Wong's Hollywood talkie debut after spending the 1920s lauded for her beauty but limited in opportunities by her ethnicity. She returned with fresh plaudits after stealing a late British silent, Picadilly and proving her voice, refined by her London sojourn, by starring in a Broadway play. Hollywood may have had little idea of what to do with her, but they knew she was some sort of star, acknowledging it by giving her top billing for her title role, Oland having little more than a cameo. Fu Manchu shows up in London to personally take out the latest generations of Petries, hypnotising one into falling down a flight of stairs but taking a mortal gunshot wound while throwing a knife at the Petrie heir (Bramwell "the mummy went for a little walk!" Fletcher), who we saw earlier making a admiring but also patronizing visit to Princess Ling Moy's dressing room. The Princess herself is presented to her dying father, who laments his lack of a son to continue his great work, only to be promised by Ling Moy, "I will be your son!" With Scotland Yard hot on his trail, the old man convinces her to play his victim, allowing himself to be shot down definitively while appearing to assault the popular dancer. This will allow her within the confidences of the surviving Petries so she can carry out her father's mission of vengeance.

Inevitably there are complications. For one thing, Ling Moy is sort of attracted to Ronald Petrie, and can't bring herself to knife him during a golden opportunity. For another, she has another suitor, the Chinese detective Ah Kee who took out Fu Manchu and now has a crush on the girl he rescued from the devil doctor. Daughter of the Dragon has far more historic than aesthetic value because Corrigan brings together the most successful Asian-American actress of early Hollywood and the most successful Asian actor of the studio era. Ah Kee is played by Sessue Hayakawa, best remembered now as the increasingly perplexed prison commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai but long before that a legit sex symbol if not an all-purpose ethnic star following his breakthrough role in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat. Daughter was a Hollywood comeback attempt for the 42 year old Hayakawa, who like Wong had gone to Europe seeking a wider variety of roles and was well received for his efforts. Unfortunately, unlike for Wong, English was a second language for Hayakawa and it shows. He makes a heroic effort, but his accent is almost impenetrably thick sometimes. Worse, he's been cast as a Chinese detective when, for those who know the difference, few men look and sound more obviously Japanese than Sessue Hayakawa without wearing samurai armor. No doubt Paramount Pictures expected few people of 1931 to know the difference or call Corrigan out on his caricature of Chinese culture. There's a scene where Ling Moy, trying to string Ah Kee along, performs a traditional Chinese song for him. I don't claim to be an expert on Chinese music but I think I've heard enough to recognize Wong's singing for the laughable imposture it most likely was. You could believe that she had no more clue about Chinese music, or music in general, than Corrigan did. It's like when American actors try to speak some Native American language like they're reciting Shakespeare, with no apparent awareness of how Natives actually talk. But I digress. Miscast as Hayakawa is by modern standards -- though it wasn't so long ago that Zhang Ziyi starred in Memoirs of a Geisha -- the fact that counts is that Ah Kee is the hero of this picture: a competent detective who's good with a gun and capable of breaking out some jiu-jitsu moves, or whatever people would have called it back then when a Chinese man did them.

Ah Kee is also a tragic hero in that Ling Moy really wants Petrie more than him. She finally goes off the deep end after being haunted by her father's voice after her first failure to kill the Englishman and seeing how Ronald reacts when the film's bland blonde (Frances Dade) is imperiled. That puts her into full Oriental torture mode, threatening to disfigure her rival before finishing Petrie off. In the meantime, her goons have temporarily taken Ah Kee out of action, tying him to a chair near an upper-story window where he can watch Petrie's friends, including the film's comedy-relief servant, blunder into danger. Our hero tosses himself out the window and crashes to earth to get their attention, and he's still got enough juice left after that to shoot down his beloved, finishing the "House of Fu," when she takes a last stab at poor Petrie. Corrigan can't help but play for pathos as poor Ah Kee lays himself down to die beside Ling Moy, but I'd like to think that even 1931 audiences had to wonder why the detective needed to die at all. In a better world, Ah Kee, accent and all, would have gone on to star in his own series of B movies, playing the yellow peril to the yellow peril -- just as I always say that the way to bring back Fu Manchu today is to make him a fugitive from the People's Republic and make a Chinese agent prominent in pursuit of him. Ah Kee could have been a Charlie Chan who kicked ass, but that could only have been in an alternate reality. In fact, Hayakawa was soon back in Europe, where he remained through World War II before Hollywood caught up with him again, while Anna May Wong had a minor apotheosis in her next, infinitely better picture, Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express, where she gets to kill Warner Oland. Ironic, no? Daughter of the Dragon may be a uniquely historic Hollywood effort, but it's a good thing that no one involved is best remembered for it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

DVR Diary: WINGS (1927)

On the day of the latest Academy Awards ceremony I rewatched the first ever Best Picture, William Wellman's World War I flying epic. Wings was one of two "best pictures" that year, officially recognized as the "outstanding production" of 1927-8 while F. W. Murnau's Sunrise received the first and only award for "unique and artistic" effort. Film buffs today regard the Murnau as the superior film and I'd most likely agree with them, but the distance between the two pictures really isn't as great as some may think. Both films are spectacles showing silent film at its peak of technical virtuosity, and both have plenty of corny moments. If Sunrise showed what a proven expressionist master could do with a Hollywood budget, Wings is arguably more of a revelation because Wellman really hadn't done anything distinguished before. Finally matched with the right subject, the young director went at it with every trick in the book and achieved unprecedented and arguably unmatched effects. While it flaunts supremely mobile late-silent camerawork and attacks the air war from almost every possible angle, Wings is above all the ultimate statement of silent cinema's primitive authenticity. Richard Arlen and Charles "Buddy" Rogers literally take to the air for the film's dogfights, and even jaded modern audiences are likely to be captivated if not awestruck by the unmistakable reality of it.

Arlen and Rogers are the leads in the film's tragic bromance of frenemies. They're from the same town, where David Armstrong (Arlen) is a privileged rich boy and Jack Powell (Rogers) is a car enthusiast. Both pine for rich girl Sylvia Lewis (Harold Lloyd leading lady Jobyna Ralston), but Jack does so almost as a matter of one-upmanship with David, and in spite of the obsessive attention paid him by his neighbor Mary, his neglect of her all the more inexplicable by the fact that Mary is played by top-billed "It" girl and legendary sex symbol Clara Bow. Maybe Mary comes on too strong, as Bow often does in her films. She does score a point with Jack by naming his homemade race car "the Shooting Star" and creating a logo he'll also use on his fighter plane.

The audience will be all for Bow because Mary also enlists, joining the motor corps as an ambulance driver. There's a scene nearly midway through the film that may remind today's moviegoers of Wonder Woman's exploits in a French village, down to the climactic destruction of a church steeple. Of course, all Mary can do is cower under her truck as that steeple crashes down point first almost on top of her, provoking what probably was some salty language from our star, though my lip-reading isn't good enough to verify it. As an aside, there's at least one "Son of a bitch!" during a dogfight scene that absolutely no one will miss. In any event, Mary's really big adventure takes place in Paris (some actual second-unit shooting was done there), where she's tasked with dragging a sozzled Jack from a bar because his leave's been cancelled. This is part of the scene that includes a famous tracking shot including two lesbians at a table, for what that's worth to you. On one hand, this is one of the film's dumbest scenes, sinking to the level of idiot comedy as Jack becomes obsessed with champagne bubbles and begins hallucinating them everywhere in special-effect form. On the other, the whole bubble business has a brilliant payoff when Mary, having changed from her chic uniform into a sequined cocktail gown to get Jack's attention, shimmies a blizzard of bubbles at him that finally wins him away from a predatory French woman. Of course, he's so stinking drunk that he never recognizes her through the whole experience, finally passing out in a hotel room just before some MPs show up to arrest Mary in mid-change back into her uniform. Her war ends with the grim irony of dismissal for immoral conduct, and when Jack reads about her "resignation" in a hometown paper, still none the wiser about Paris, he remarks that Mary didn't seem like the quitting type.

It's remarkable that Wings made Buddy Rogers a star when Jack is such an obnoxious character. Not only does he treat Mary like dirt, only to win her at the very end of the picture, and not only does he delude himself about Sylvia when she really loves David (as Ralston did Arlen), but on top of everything else he kills David. Not intentionally, mind you, or not in the "I want to kill David" sense, but because, believing David dead behind enemy lines, he goes on a berserker rage during the big American push, breaking from his formation to go on a solo rampage against any German plane he can find. So of course David has survived, and of course he steals a German plane in a desperate effort to get back to his own lines, and of course Jack isn't going to realize that it's his buddy in a German plane flying toward the American lines. This is all a big tragedy, of course, but Wellman takes it beyond tragedy to outright horror, milking David's hopeless helplessness for all it's worth as he knows exactly who's after him from the shooting star logo on the pursuing plane. This isn't a moment of valorous resignation but a sustained fit of despairing terror, and Arlen makes the most of it. Sure, the boys reconcile before David finally expires, after he's shot down and crashes into a house, but while Wellman strives to restore a sentimental tone -- the symbolic cut to a plane's propellers slowing to a halt outside a military ceremony is a nice touch echoed in the epilogue by Sylvia's mournful stillness in the swing she and  David used to swing on -- that play for pathos can't erase the memory of one of the most terrifying moments in all silent film, all the more terrifying, of course, for knowing that Arlen is up in the clouds, theoretically as helplessly vulnerable as the character he plays.

It's quite an achievement by both Wellman and Arlen that that scene of one man in peril is so memorable after some massively detailed scenes of land and air battle, nearly as definitive as the trench warfare scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front. Wings is more of a patchwork than that film, with wider variance in tone than Sunrise, to return to the original 1927 comparison, in an effort to please every part of the audience. Somehow it's a film that elevated everyone involved, including Gary Cooper in his famous few minutes as a doomed trainee pilot. Wellman knew star power when he saw it, and while Cooper doesn't have quite the godlike emergence here that James Cagney gets in Wellman's Other Men's Women, you can tell from the way the director dissolves to a closer shot of Cooper as he prepares to leave his tent for the last time that the young actor would make an indelible impression. But hell, this film even elevated El Brendel. Brendel really became a big deal in talkies, when his Swedish accent was judged inherently hilarious, if nothing else about him was. What on earth did he have to offer in silent film? Apparently Wellman found his face funny, having used him in an earlier picture, and in the meantime silence freed the presumptive comedian from the confines of his own shtick, so that here he can play a German-American, Herman Schwimpf, who has to fend off disdain for his enemy ethnicity by displaying an American flag tattoo on his bicep. Apart from that, he gets beat up during an aggressive demonstration of hand-to-hand combat and is forgotten about for most of the rest of the picture until he turns up firing an anti-aircraft gun before the climactic battle. He was there for someone's benefit, I guess, though I'd wonder about anyone who found him the highlight of the film. He's what you get when you try to have something for everyone in a movie, and that just goes to prove that Wings is more -- far more -- than the sum of its parts. Parts of this film are probably still the best air-war movie ever made.

Monday, March 5, 2018

#oscarsowhat 2018

The Academy will be forgiven, presumably, for failing to bestow Oscars on actors of color this year, since they went progressive behind the camera. By now there's nothing new about naming a Mexican as Best Direction, of course, since Guillermo del Toro is the third such person to win the vote in the last five years, but his The Shape of Water, which also won Best Picture, is some sort of milestone depending on whether you count it as a fantasy, horror or monster movie, and its message was no doubt suitably inclusive for Academy voters. Another horror movie, Get Out, earned Jordan Peele a historic  first original screenplay Oscar to a black writer, while veteran scribe James Ivory of Merchant-Ivory fame overcame ageism, if you will, when his adapted screenplay for the gay-themed Call Me By Your Name made him the oldest-ever competitive Oscar winner. On the acting front the Academy fell back into old habits, not so much by honoring whites only but by honoring half of them for biopics, including Gary Oldman for his (to judge by advertising only) preposterous turn as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. Apart from applauding del Toro while insisting that Shape of Water isn't really his best stuff, I can only make superficial judgments because I didn't watch as much Oscar bait as I probably should have. No doubt I waste too much time on superhero films, but I sometimes think that I learn more about cinematic storytelling, good and bad, from those films than from those whose virtues are more strictly literary. I don't think any of 2017's comic book films belonged on stage last night, but I don't take it for granted that yesterday's honorees really were the year's best films, either. I do have a better idea of what to look at now before making up my own mind.

Saturday, March 3, 2018


There had been Hollywood films set in Vietnam before, but Samuel Fuller's China Gate is arguably the first "Vietnam movie" to involve an American protagonist in the effort to prevent a Communist takeover of French Indochina. Fuller opens his picture with a prologue history of Indochina up to the Viet Minh uprising against French colonial rule, but he seems a little unclear on what Vietnam is. For one thing, he doesn't really use that name. For another, he writes as if the people of Indochina are "Chinese." On the other hand, China Gate takes an interesting attitude toward ethnicity in general. The Asian characters are written mostly in an entirely unstereotyped way, with none of the stilted conventions of Hollywood or pulp writing. The Viet Minh soldiers we see -- the time is early 1954, before the decisive siege of Dienbienphu -- talk and pretty much act like dogfaces anywhere: happy to see a dame, especially if she's brought alcohol. Meanwhile, singer Nat "King" Cole has a big supporting role as an American fighting with the French Foreign Legion, and his blackness is never remarked upon. His role probably wasn't written for a black actor, and strange to say, Cole's craggy features and raspy speaking voice arguably make his character, identified as a veteran of the "Big Red One" during World War II, even more of a surrogate for Fuller himself. The singer actually gives a credible performance as a tough soldier (he survives a booby-trap spike through his foot without crying out) marred only by a probably-obligatory performance of the rather bleak title song, and even that isn't inconsistent with Fuller's use of song in the same year's Forty Guns.

Where Fuller probably won't pass muster with many modern viewers is his casting of white actors in two crucial "half-caste" roles. Angie Dickinson gets the romantic lead playing Lia, a lithe lush better known as "Lucky Legs" or "Lucky" for short. Everyone remarks on how Lucky can pass for white, but her son is not so Lucky. Although the boy's no more than one-quarter Asian -- his father is American -- he looks so entirely Asian that the father, Sgt. Brock of the Legion (Gene Barry) freaks out and runs out on wife and child. That fact makes him a heel to everyone else in his unit, and it definitely complicates his mission to penetrate enemy lines to find the Communist weapons depot beyond the China Gate, with Lucky, a fixer who travels often between the lines, as their guide and shield.

Fuller quickly establishes his anti-communist credentials -- many of the Legionnaires are Korean War veterans who went to Vietnam so they could keep killing commies -- and that gives him cover from which he attacks his real target, American racism. By comparison, we never really encounter a dogmatic communist. As noted, the Viet Minh grunts we meet are simply grunts, no better or worse than other soldiers.  When we get to the final boss, Major Cham, he's shown to be no more than an opportunist who had formerly hated communism, as Lucky notes in an embarrassing moment in front of Cham's masseuse, but now sees it as the wave of the future and his surest path to success. On the evidence of China Gate, communists are bad guys mainly by virtue of being more ruthless and indiscriminate, for some reason or other, in their violence.

It's probably for the best that Fuller didn't try to make any ideological statement when his main commie villain, the other half-caste in the story, is played by Lee Van Cleef. While the actor's name actually resembles a Vietnamese name, the resemblance pretty much ends there, which makes it unintentionally preposterous when Cham tells Lucky that he gets along better with the Reds because he looks more "Chinese" than she does. Cleef actually tries hard here to pull off a character who has actual feelings for Lucky, apparently his sometime lover, and for her son, whom he'd like to give a chance at advancement by getting him educated in Moscow. I have a feeling, however, that the naturalistic, non-stereotyped dialogue Fuller gave him made him even more damningly unconvincing as an Asian in the eyes of contemporary audiences, so that what actually looks now like a halfway decent performance probably looked like the worst in 1957.

By modern standards, given China Gate's anti-racist line, any ending that falls short of a happy ending for Lucky, Brock and their son probably will look like a cop-out. Does it undercut Fuller's message that Lucky sacrifices her life, after tossing Cham off a balcony, to blow up the ammo dump, even if the ending makes clear that Brock will take his Asiatic boy home with him after all? Some people are bound to think so, but let's remember that Fuller comes from an older tradition that values pathos and aims for bittersweet effects. If anything, you can argue that Lucky's death will only remind Brock even more of the wrong he did her earlier and the debt he owes their child. Tragedy was more commonplace in pop culture back then, especially when the one-and-done format of TV drama meant that heroes and heroines often loved and lost in a single hour. The same format also encouraged people to shrug off tragedy rather than wallow in it, and something like China Gate probably should be taken in the same spirit. It's not really a Fuller masterwork but it has a lot of interesting stuff going on, including the best performance I've ever seen from Gene Barry. The guilt trip he takes in this picture breaks down that typical smugness that makes his Bat Masterson so insufferable and suggests that he could have done more with his career if wanted to or was goaded into it. Cole also shows potential he got very little chance to develop further beyond his W. C. Handy biopic of the following year. I doubt anyone accepts Angie Dickinson as even partially Asian but she gives the right kind of charismatic performance for the familiar type of pulp heroine she plays. Overall China Gate is the typical "primitive" Fuller mix of impressive tracking shots, intense action, mostly decent art direction, badly integrated stock footage, etc. The film won't really tell you anything about Vietnam, but it's a diverting yarn on its own terms.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Too Much TV: THE PUNISHER (2017-?)

Of all the Marvel Comics characters appearing on Netflix, the Punisher is certainly the most familiar to casual viewers. Since he was invented as a send-up of Don Pendleton's paperback vigilante, the Executioner, skull shirt-sporting Frank Castle has been the protagonist of three feature films, played by three different actors. That shows that lots of people are willing to give the Punisher a try, but it also sort of makes the character out to be a three-time loser. The challenge for the Netflix Marvel team, once a Punisher series was inevitably greenlighted to be spun off of Daredevil's second season, was how not to go down the same path and fall into the same traps. Showrunner Steve Lightfoot's solution actually was pretty simple. What does the Punisher do? He kills gangsters, right? So let's have him do something else. To set that up, Lightfoot retcons the character's familiar origin story, elaborating if not contradicting the narrative we saw on Daredevil.  Frank's (Jon Bernthal) martyred family is now shown to be collateral damage from an attempt on Frank's life, not by organized crime but ultimately by rogue elements of the U.S. government. The key event of the series is not his family's murder but Frank's own involvement, while serving in Afghanistan, in the torture and murder of a suspected terrorist who (unbeknownst to Frank) actually was an Homeland Security agent investigating an American-run drug ring. After an opening episode of more typical Punisher action, the story proper beings when the murdered agent's partner, Dinah Madani (Amber Rose Revah playing a character created for television) believes the Punisher is one of the soldiers in a now-vanished video of her partner's death. Also aware of Castle's connection to the Afghan murder is the fugitive whistleblower David "Micro" Lieberman (Ebon Moss-Bachrach playing an improved version of Frank's comics sidekick), who faked his own death to keep his family out of harm's way. Once Frank learns the truth behind the killing of his family, he grudgingly collaborates with Micro to expose and (as Frank prefers) kill the men behind the Cerberus group. Their agenda intersects and sometimes conflicts with Madani as she investigates one of Frank's army buddies, Billy Russo (Ben Barnes), despite resistance from higher-ups in the government whose ties to Cerberus are revealed over time.

The stage is set for a sequence of bloodbaths that are more realistic and more extreme than anything Marvel has shown us on Netflix before, but the first season also has time for a major subplot involving a disturbed veteran turned terrorist and some Shane sort of interaction between Frank and Micro's "widow" and children. Like all of Marvel's Netflix shows, except for the misbegotten Defenders, Punisher benefits from an impressive ensemble of supporting players, with the shambolically cunning Moss-Bachrach the standout in a strong group. It benefits most of all from Bernthal's soulfully feral lead performance. Since he showed up on Daredevil I've heard people complain that Bernthal is too small to be Frank Castle, who's often drawn and was always played in movies (by Dolph Lundgren, Thomas Jane and Ray Stevenson) as a massive man. Yet the Punisher has always been more about rage than size, and few people on TV right now do tormented rage as well as Bernthal. You don't read or watch the Punisher to see him perform feats of strength, after all; you watch to see him go apeshit on bad guys with guns, knives, fists and whatever tools are at hand, and the series successfully transforms Bernthal into a master craftsman of that trade. Punisher is a return to form after the Defenders debacle, as well as a radical departure from the, well, comic-book tone of the other shows. Were it not for Deborah Ann Wolf reprising her role from Daredevil and a few other tokens, this might not look much like a Marvel show at all -- and with no offense intended to the Netflix franchise, that's a good thing for this particular show. Season one closes with the grim irony of Frank Castle contemplating peace with fear, but we should fear not. The Punisher will return, and if the show comes back as strong as its first season, that'll be cause for celebration.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

UNCERTAIN GLORY (Incerta gloria, 2017)

Twentieth century Spain, from the civil war through the Franco dictatorship, is the new capital of gothic cinema. There's something morbidly picturesque about the ruined architecture and the passionate politics that has inspired not only Guillermo del Toro but other filmmakers as well. There's nothing supernatural about Agusti Villaronga's film or the Joan Sales novel, one of the classics on the civil war, that inspired it, but the mood is inescapable. Ruins, crypts, corpses abound, and these details make gothic what could almost as easily, from a different aesthetic vantage, have been film noir. From the country that gave us Paul Naschy and The Spirit of the Beehive, gothic seems right somehow.

The story focuses on a quadrilateral of characters: the Republican soldier Lluis (Marcel Borras), his wife Trini (Bruna Cusi), his buddy Soleras (Oriol Pla) and the local aristocrat, the Carlana (Nuria Prims). We meet the Carlana first as she barely escapes with her life when an anarchist army overruns the Carlan's estate and executes him. She convinces the soldiers that she was just a sexually-exploited maid, and now she continues to occupy the property. Looking to her children's future, she wants them recognized as legitimate heirs to the land. As no witnesses to her marriage to the Carlan to survive, she looks to Lluis to help persuade some local peasants to perjure themselves by swearing under oath that they witnessed the wedding. She's made it clear to lonely Lluis, far from home and wife, that helping her with this is his best chance at getting to ride more than the Carlan's horse.

The Carlana is a black widow, a noirish femme fatale willing to kill her deadbeat dad when he shows up to extort money from her, yet you can't help empathizing if not sympathizing with her survival instincts given the savagery of the anarchists and the brutality (we learn of it later) of most men she's known. Amid the collapse of civil society it's every woman for herself as everyone struggles to keep their heads above water. While Lluis's loyalty to Trini wavers, Soleras, struggling with his own desire for Trini, changes sides altogether, going over to the Falangists in a sort of protest against Lluis's imminent infidelity. Chickening out of a suicide attempt, he vents his spleen at the Carlana, invading her sanctum and forcing her at gunpoint to strip and reveal the scars of past tortures.

Lluis and Trini try to reconcile but their child's illness brings a new crisis. Medicine for diphtheria is in short supply on both sides of the war, as Soleras unhappily admits, but someone of the Carlana's standing can deliver the goods -- for a price. The price she extracts from Lluis for his son's life is Soleras's death. Fortunately, Soleras is more willing to pay that price than Lluis did, but what good does any of this do anyone while the war grinds on. A closing air raid blends into newsreel refugee footage, with some of our actors added, to suggest that any victory in such an environment is only temporary.That's the moral of this vividly shot picture -- cinematographer Josep M. Civit runs the gamut from the funereal darkness of the crypt to the blazing light on the landscapes. It's more a sensational, psychological piece than a historical or political drama: the foreign viewer won't learn much about the civil war from Uncertain Glory, apart perhaps from how it was experienced on an unideological individual level. You don't really need to know what any side stood for to appreciate the film's human drama and its dramatically picturesque presentation. At a time when societies everywhere seem to be coming apart, it might seem less like a period piece and more like a premonition in its gothic timelessness.

Monday, February 19, 2018


George Marshall's film is an idiosyncratic western for its time in several ways. It may be most noteworthy for its take on American Indians. Set in Oregon territory in 1858, Sam Rolfe's adaptation of Will Henry's pulp novel retains the original's fresh approach to native dialogue. The good Indians, Nez Perce scouts attached to cavalry sergeant Emmett Bell (Jeff Chandler), speak fluent English in a much more casual fashion than one usually heard even from good-guy movie Indians of the period, e.g. Chandler's own career-making Cochise in Broken Arrow. They even show a sense of humor occasionally, though the film as a whole strays pretty far from Henry's more sardonic tone. That's because Rolfe is more interested in the religious aspect of the story than Henry was. Most of the Indians are Christians and have taken Christian names (Timothy, Jason, Lucas), the great and terrible exception being the hostile chief Kamiakin (Michael Ansara), whose conflict with the Americans is more overtly a war of religion than it is in Henry's story or the history on which that was based. Rolfe and Marshall foreground religion by spotlighting a character who is only mentioned but never appears in the original story: the Protestant missionary Joseph Holden (Ward Bond), shown in the film as beloved by the Christian Indians, particularly a boy who rings the church bell and prints an amateur newspaper. In the story (and the expanded novel version, To Follow a Flag) Emmett Bell is irreverent if not cynical about religion, constantly joking with Timothy (Sydney Chaplin) about the scout's own devout faith. In the film, that irreverence is the starting point of a character arc that ends with Bell at least symbolically taking Holden's place after the missionary is murdered by Kamiakin during an aborted peace parley. In a finale that most likely raised Henry's eyebrows -- and as a writer for Tex Avery he probably could raise his eyebrows quite dramatically -- Emmett leads the Indians in prayer in the ruins of Holden's mission.

This reversal follows the most unexpected change from prose to film by this period's standards. Simply put, in the story Emmett gets the girl, but in the movie he does not. In the story, his rival for Cally (the late Dorothy Malone) dies in the running fight that takes up most of the narrative. In the film, the rival lieutenant (Keith "Vaal is All" Andes) survives and wins Cally simply by showing more (i.e. some) concern for her welfare during the Indian attacks than Emmett does -- after he'd gone to the trouble of rescuing her from Indian captivity earlier in the picture. You wonder what inspired such a creative adaptation of source material (speaking euphemistically) by Rolfe, who charged out of the gate as a screenwriter a few years earlier with Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur and went on to create Have Gun Will Travel and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. My only guess is that movies could not as easily take Indian Christianity for granted, or treat it as lightly, as Henry did. There are other cosmetic changes, as might be expected, from the expunging of an embarrassing Negro servant character (After his progressive treatment of Indians, Henry wrote minstrel dialect for her) to giving Lee Marvin's Irish sergeant (complete with brogue) a death scene that went to another character. To be fair, the film is all right on its own terms, even if the religious angle bears more weight than it should, but it's sure to leave anyone who read (or, in my case, later read) Will Henry scratching his head. Still, there's enough of a difference about Pillars, mainly because of the choices Rolfe made, to make it recommended (if not essential) viewing for fans of Fifties westerns.

Saturday, February 17, 2018


Note: If a movie set in the kingdom of Wakanda disturbs you more than one set in Asgard, the problem is with you, not the film.

In the summer of 1966, two Jewish men at the height of their creative powers, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, invented T'Challa, the Black Panther of Wakanda, in Fantastic Four #52. Later that year, in an apparent coincidence, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed in Oakland CA. Ryan Coogler's film crosses the streams, as it were, by having its villain's origin story take place in Oakland. The film as a whole is an inevitably troubled attempt to reconcile Marvel Comics's vision of an African utopia with the grievances that set the real-life Black Panther movement on a violent, self-destructive course. The Wakandan mythos has been elaborated upon extensively over the last half-century by comics writers white and black, but Lee and Kirby gave us the basics. Wakanda is a hermit kingdom that retained its independence throughout the era of European imperialism by winning the resource lottery, being the point of impact of a meteorite loaded with the miracle mineral vibranium, and developing technology advanced even by western standards. Modern comics and the new movie escalate the original premise by making Wakanda definitely the most technologically advanced country on earth. Its politics, from what we see of them, remain retrograde, perhaps by virtue of the "resource curse" that allegedly afflicts oil-rich authoritarian states. The monarchy, in theory, can be held by any of the nation's five native tribes, each of which can challenge the hereditary succession after a monarch's death. The elders of four of the tribes -- the fifth remains aloof as a rule -- act as an advisory council for the monarch, but we see no evidence of any democratic or representative element in the government. This strikes me not so much as an authoritarian premise but a signifer of the intended radical otherness of Wakanda; were it a constitutional monarchy it would be too much like the familiar western world and have less of a lesson to offer. In any event, Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole take further steps to show us that however gratifying an Afrocentrist fantasy Wakanda may be on the surface, it really isn't a utopia but rather more a mirror than an antithesis of the good old U.S.A.  

Black Panther is a staged debate between isolationism and interventionism, and over what form humanitarian intervention should take. Wakanda is isolationist by tradition, reserving its scientific marvels for its own use and keeping them secret from the wider world, fearing both attacks from the great powers and an influx of refugees from its immediate neighbors. The kingdom has an extensive, secret network of "War Dog" spies around the world; inevitably, seeing the mistreatment of black people in much of that world, some spies become "radicalized" interventionists. The Wakandan establishment takes extreme steps to suppress the interventionist impulse. Perhaps the most extreme step was taken back in 1992 by King T'Chaka, father of T'Challa. The king himself went to Oakland to take his own brother into custody for conspiring with a European mercenary, Ulysses Klaue, (Andy Serkis resumes his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron) to steal vibranium from Wakanda for use in liberation wars against racial oppression. The brother ends up dead. His oprhaned son grows up to become Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, the second former Human Torch to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe), an elite American soldier with a long-term agenda to claim his Wakandan birthright and resume his father's work, again in alliance with Klaue. When the white man outlives his usefulness, Killmonger uses the corpse of Wakanda's most wanted man as his foot in the door of the kingdom. From there, he claims a blood-right to challenge T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) for the throne. Apparently victorious in mortal combat, he organizes the mass export of weapons of mass destruction, having missed the lecture at supervillain school about always verifying your kill -- though the problem may be that they don't actually teach that class there. His incomplete education aside, Killmonger is an enigmatic inkblot onto which viewers can project any number of nightmare visions. For some, he will be black rage incarnate. For others, he might represent neocon overreach in his belief that he can rid the world of evil with the shock and awe of Wakandan tech. For others still, the irresponsible, bellicose and sometimes boorish usurper may resemble a black Donald Trump.

Intriguing as Killmonger is, the film is called Black Panther but its hero is a relative cypher. There's not much of a "hero's journey" here, though I suppose there's something archetypically mythic about his several symbolic burials and emergings. T'Challa has to come to terms with the dark secret of his father's fratricide, and he recognizes the need for a middle ground between isolation and interventionism after fighting Killmonger, but that's about it as far as character development goes. The film is too busy introducing the sort of support team no self-respecting superhero can do without these days, including his techie sister, a virtual Antonia Stark (Letitia Wright), his sometimes War Dog girlfriend (Lupita Nyong'o) and a token white CIA agent (Martin Freeman) the king picks up during a jaunt to South Korea. In a way the film is more about Wakanda than it is about T'Challa; imagine a Thor film set almost entirely in Asgard and you'll have an idea of how Black Panther feels, for good and ill. There's an immersive folkloric quality to much of it, though I'm ashamed to say that I couldn't help being reminded of The Lion King by some of the music and rituals and the whole usurper storyline. In other respects, Wakanda is disappointingly generic, perhaps resembling Asgard too much in its mix of mythos and superscience. One can imagine all of Marvel Comics's fantasy nations -- the movies have only scratched the surface to date -- looking the same way, at least superficially.

Coogler's film arrives as perhaps the most instantly overrated film of our time. The auteur must have seemed the ideal director for an Afrocentric Marvel movie on the strength of Creed, an updating of the Rocky series that shifted the focus to a black hero (Jordan is for all intents and purposes Coogler's on-screen alter ego) while giving Sylvester Stallone an Oscar-nominated showcase. His hiring shows Marvel's continued willingness (see also Thor:Ragnarok) to invite idiosyncratic talent to look at superheroes with fresh eyes. Black Panther ends up being a more generic Marvel movie than Ragnarok was, and as an action movie it doesn't really rise to the high standard set by the last two Captain America movies. Like many directors, Coogler films too close to the action, sacrificing the clarity of fight choreography by doing so. The best fight scenes are the two formal challenges to T'Challa at a sacred waterfall, probably because they have the least to do with CGI, while the final fight between T'Challa and Killmonger is pretty much videogame stuff stupidly obfuscated by the villain wearing a Black Panther costume of his own. It's part of a multi-fight climax that reminded me disturbingly of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, from the exotic clash of costumes and CGI animals outdoors to the tense pause as hero and villain waiting out a passing train on opposite sides of the track. So it's not the greatest superhero movie ever or even the greatest Marvel movie, but rather a solid mid-tier MCU outing that gets by more on the strength of its concepts than on overall execution. It's the sort of film I expect to see surpassed by a sequel that inevitably will be less about Wakanda and more about the Black Panther himself.

Saturday, February 10, 2018


For all their exotic coolness to the gaijin eye, the Red Peony Gambler series starring Junko Fuji as the heroic yakuza woman Oryu are often as corny as American B-movies. The third film in the series, directed by Tai Kato, reminds us that Oryu is a good guy in the most blatant fashion, by having her rescue a blind child from getting run over by a train, earning the tearful gratitude of the child's mother. Oryu, continuing her dual quest to become a master gambler and restore her father's clan, arrives in Nagoya, and is promptly accused of cheating people. Fortunately, she has a letter of introduction from her comedy-relief mentor (the recurring Tomasaburo Wakiyama) that persuades the local boss, Sugiyama, to trust her. In any event, once one of the accusers fails to recognize Oryu it's obvious to everyone, as it was obvious to the audience, that an impostor was at work. Melodramatically enough, the fake Oryu is the same woman whose daughter the real Oryu rescued from the train. This poor woman works as a crooked gambler, speaking of melodrama, to raise money for the surgery that will restore her child's sight. She and Oryu become embroiled in a local power play complicated by a star-crossed romance. An ambitious boss, Jinbara, hopes to push Sugiyama aside and take charge of the big charity casino night that will benefit a local Buddhist temple. To further advance himself, Jinbara wants to marry his daughter off to a local aristocrat, but the daughter's true love is Jiro, Sugiyama's son. Jiro is willing to gamble for his love's hand and wager his life, but Jinbara uses the pseudo-Oryu to win the hand and gain leverage over Sugiyama. She later redeems herself, and sacrifices herself, helping the lovers elope, while Oryu herself helps them out of town, thanks in part to the benign neglect of the inevitably benevolent interloper, this time played by guest star Ken Takakura.

Needless to say, the elopement puts further pressure on Sugiyama as Jinbara escalates his effort to take over the casino night. Oryu becomes Sugiyama's surrogate in a one-hand-settles-all contest against Jinbara's surrogate, a disfigured man Oryu recognizes as the late pseudo-Oryu's husband. Meanwhile, the Takakura character, Shogo Hanaoka, takes such an interest in the blind girl that I assumed that the film was implying that he was her real father. Good guy Shogo may be, but as a guest and vassal of Jinbara he's ordered to assassinate Sugiyama to get the old man out of the way once and for all. He goes about his mission as I suppose a good guy would, formally challenging Sugiyama to a duel. The old man accepts the challenge like the man of honor he is, telling his astonished retainers that Shogo is only fulfilling an obligation and criticizing Shogo only for not necessarily striking a mortal blow. As might be expected, the younger man and more prominent star gets the better of the contest, but doesn't kill Sugiyama outright. This allows the mortally wounded oyabun to surprise Jinbara by showing up for the ceremonial opening of the casino night, though he doesn't make it long past that. His clan is hamstrung by his dying order not to take revenge until after the casino night is officially over. Taking advantage of the fact that the casino night isn't officially over until the proceeds are delivered to the temple, Jinbara has his men steal the proceeds. While Sugiyama's men can't do much about that, there are people who are not technically his men -- Oryu, Shogo and fake-Oryu's husband, for instance, who can....

While the Red Peony series' romanticization of yakuza is always going to look lame to a Kinji Fukasaku fan, on their own terms they're dynamic, colorful B pictures of the sort the Toei studio cranked out effortlessly in the Sixties and Seventies. Junko Fuji is by no means the ultimate Japanese action heroine, but her relatively understated ass-kicking with sword and gun has a charm of its own. These films aren't great, but they are fun, and I expect to have more fun with the rest of the series.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018


To answer the theoretical question, "What if Ingmar Bergman made his film debut directing a Monogram mystery film?" Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and fellow Swedish star Per Oscarsson performed in English for director Laszlo Benedek and producer Mel Ferrer. Scripter Guy Elmes adapted a story by American writer Sam Roeca set, like many a contemporary Italian giallo, in Great Britain, with the Swedes playing Britons alongside such authentic but indifferent performers as Trevor Howard and Andrew Keir. By this point von Sydow was quite fluent in English -- he's one of the very best English-as-second-language actors -- but Ullmann in particular, in a largely thankless role, strikes me as rather wooden in her first or second English performance (depending on what language she spoke on the set of Terence Young's Cold Sweat), while Oscarsson gets a pass because he's playing an escalating hysteric. The Night Visitor is meant to be a shocker, and it shocks right at the start by showing us von Sydow running amok in a wintry landscape in his skivvies. The fire of revenge keeps him warm, apparently, since his character, Salem, proves to be a wrongly convicted, allegedly insane prisoner who's escaped to punish those who framed him, particularly Dr. Jencks (Oscarsson). Jencks sees Salem during his first rampage, but the escapee sees no need to silence his enemy. He's confident that no one will believe he's escaped, since he plans to return to prison in time to be questioned by the local policeman (Howard). The story isn't a whodunit but a howdedoit, and the middle section of the film reveals Salem's elaborate arrangements, which range from manipulating a dotty chess-enthusiast guard to performing Fairbanksian or at least Lancastrian acrobatics making his way down from his high cell in the hilltop asylum. I never knew Max von Sydow to be a do-his-own-stunts type guy, but he's quite impressive here, especially when you take the in-his-underwear-in-the-cold factor into consideration. The scene loses some of its inherent suspense once you remind yourself that Salem's supposed to have done this before. It might be more interesting in a Count of Monte Cristo way to see him planning and experimenting his way out the first time, or if we didn't see him killing the first time and had to take Jencks's word that he saw him. The way the film actually goes about it only emphasizes how implausibly elaborate Salem's scheme is. Anyway, it now develops that Salem, who strangely feels the cold more the second time out, wants to frame Jencks for the axe-murder of Mrs. Jencks, Salem's own sister (Ullmann) and/or drive him insane with his impossible appearances. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if not for that meddling parrot! If you want that one explained, you have to watch the picture -- or, if you're lucky, you can look it up online.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: MILLIE (1931)

With Joan Blondell showing up as a gold digger and Frank McHugh playing a friendly drunk, John Francis Dillon's film for RKO bears a strong resemblance to a Warner Bros. picture, but lacks the latter studio's irreverent attitude when those actors aren't on screen. Millie is a more overwrought melodrama and a vehicle for Helen Twelvetrees, a tawdry tragedienne. Millie Blake (later "Millie the Redhead" in a song written in her honor) is introduced eloping happily with a businessman who soon loses interest in her. Hooking up with her gold-digger pals (Blondell and Lilyan Tashman, shown sharing a bed as women often did, quite platonically despite the sapphic speculation of IMDB reviewers, during the Depression), Millie discovers hubby dating another dame at a niteclub and stages a marriage-killing confrontation. "Boy, can she sock!" Blondell warns as she charges hubby's table. From there, Millie becomes a liberated woman, the talk of the niteclubs, the protege of banker Jimmy Damier (John Halliday), rising from tobacco kiosk clerk to hotel concessions manager. Her heart belongs to humble newsman Tommy Rock (Robert Ames) until she learns that he's been seeing other women. It's diminishing returns from there ("She's Millie the Redhead, but nobody cares," the crooners sing) until her daughter Connie has grown into a teenager (Anita Louise)-- this is a film in which approximately 18 years pass with no discernible change in fashions or technology -- and Jimmy Damier's latest romantic target. Millie can't stand the thought of her child seduced by the old cad, so she pays a cabbie a $50 bonus -- that's considerable coin in 1931! -- to hurry her to the Damier place so she can shoot the banker. Comes the trial, martyr Millie plays dumb on the witness stand, unwilling to drag her girl's name through the courtroom even though the truth would guarantee her a justifiable-homicide defense.  Fortunately, Connie's not so fastidious and arrives in court just in time to get Mom off the hook. At that point the film basically stops, with Millie's future still uncertain. I suppose she might get together with Tommy again, but she's seriously damaged goods by this point and I don't know if the audience believed in a happy ending for her beyond not being fried in the electric chair. I also get the impression that we're supposed to think Millie did something wrong somewhere, but I'm not sure when that happened. It's more likely that something went wrong with the screenplay. It's overlong for this sort of film at 85 minutes, with McHugh providing much of the padding with drunken comedy bits that have little to do with the main story.  It has its moments, mostly provided by the genuinely talented Twelvetrees, but Millie is a melodramatic mess that other hands might have handled better.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

THE SLAVE (Il figlio di Spartacus, 1962)

When Kirk Douglas's dying Spartacus is shown his infant son and told he's free at the end of Stanley Kubrick's 1960 film, producer Douglas perhaps didn't realize but most likely didn't care that he'd left a door open for a sequel. Stars like him didn't do sequels, after all, so it would be left to the Italians to exploit the opportunity. The opportunity went to Sergio Corbucci, a busy young director who had just directed the top American peplum stars, Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott, in Duel of the Titans. Reeves returned for the new project. which included some location work in the shadow of the Sphinx and Great Pyramid in Egypt. Since Spartacus was a historical figure, Corbucci and his writers didn't have to worry about anyone protesting his exploitation of the Douglas film. For what it's worth, though, they did poach one bit that could be considered Douglas's, or novelist Howard Fast's, intellectual property. History doesn't name Spartacus's wife, but The Slave identifies its hero's mom as Varinia, the name Fast coined. A small detail, but one that might have helped impressionable 1962 audiences believe that Corbucci's film actually was a continuation of Douglas and Kubrick's.

In The Slave, the son of Spartacus and Varinia is named Randus and raised to be a Roman soldier. By 48 B.C. he's a centurion in Julius Caesar's army as it occupies Egypt. Caesar (Ivo Garrani) gives him a sensitive mission to spy on Marcus Licinius Crassus (Claudio Gora), Spartacus's nemesis and one of Caesar's few remaining rivals for dominion over the Roman world, in his power base in Zeugma. In the English dub, Crassus's voice actor seems to make an effort to imitate Lawrence Olivier at times. More intriguingly, Randus has a Germanic sidekick (Franco Balducci) who resembles Kirk Douglas a good deal more than Steve Reeves does, as if Corbucci wanted us to think for awhile that that guy might be the son of Spartacus.

Nevertheless, Randus learns of his true heritage, and the meaning of the Thracian trinket he's worn around his neck since childhood, after an accident at sea strands him and slave girl Saida (Ombretta Colli) in a strange country where they are promptly captured and enslaved. A fellow slave is a veteran of Spartacus's rebel army who recognizes the trinket as the sign of the son of Spartacus. Whether Randus believes this or not, he doesn't care to be enslaved and leads a successful rebellion just before his erstwhile shipmates arrive to rescue him and fetch him to Zeugma.

Randus is possessed of innate compassion. We saw it displayed early in the picture when he mercifully stabbed a rebel to death in mid-crucifixion. He despises cruelty and so comes to despise slavery. After visiting Spartacus's grave -- we're told his remaining followers stole the great man's body from the cross and took it to the City of the Sun -- he embraces fully the role of Son of Spartacus, appropriating the helmet, breastplate and sword that conveniently have been left atop the old man's sarcophagus, unmarred by time or desert climate. Randus becomes a masked avenger, part Moses, part Zorro down to signing his work with a big S, though the more immediate model was the recent Reeves vehicle Goliath and the Barbarians. By harassing Crassus he continues to do Caesar's work as well as his father's. Once that work is done, however, Randus and Caesar's interests inevitably diverge.

 Steve Reeves performs tremendous feats of strength as the Son of Spartacus

Corbucci makes the most of his picturesque locations and clearly knows his way around the widescreen frame, but he's not as good at peplum action as he would be at spaghetti western gunplay. He's good at horseback chases through the desert, but like most peplum directors he never really figures out how to make swordplay as dynamic as contemporary Asian filmmakers could. The Slave is the same sort of episodic, essentially juvenile adventure that Hollywood made ad nauseum in the 1950s, only with superior art direction if not a higher budget.

Above, Crassus faces his comeuppance.
Below, Randus is about to get his from Caesar.

 The story skids to a halt rather than reaching a proper climax. After Crassus is killed -- the real man died five years earlier, but the film follows the legend of his conquerors forcing him to drink molten gold -- Caesar arrives and Randus surrenders himself for crucifixion, hoping that the other escaped slaves will be spared. The film leads us to expect an attack from some of Crassus's erstwhile allies, who are pissed over the death of one of their royals during a Randus raid on the Roman's palace. If you're not going to take history seriously, the sensible ending would have been for Caesar and Randus to join forces to repel this attack, and for Randus to earn his life and freedom from a grateful Caesar. But this attack never takes place. Instead, a bunch of people show up to protest Randus's crucifixion until Caesar decides that the execution isn't worth the trouble. Randus gets the happy ending that his dad didn't, but then again, his picture was made for a different audience, at once less and more demanding, than his dad's. If you don't demand too much in plot or acting you'll probably appreciate such spectacle as The Slave offers, especially  if you, like its target audience, demand a happy ending.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

On the Big Screen: HOSTILES (2017)

Scott Cooper's western has come touted in some quarters as "the best western since Unforgiven," as has every promising film in the genre since Unforgiven. Baby steps first: is Hostiles the best western of the 21st century? Better than Meek's Cutoff, or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, or The Hateful Eight? No, no and no, but I can understand why some might think differently. Hostiles has more of a mainstream sensibility than any of the actual best westerns since Unforgiven, and it has a very strong performance by Christian Bale up front. His, at least, comes closest to living up to the film's formidable epigraph, the famous quote by D.H. Lawrence about the American archetype being "isolate, stoic and a killer." Done up right, Bale looks and carries himself more like a 19th century person than many 21st century actors, though to be fair his moustache helps him greatly. He plays Captain Joe Blocker, tasked at the brink of retirement, and with his pension at stake, with escorting an old enemy, the moribund Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), from New Mexico to his ancestral lands in Montana. Blocker, goaded by a snarky Harper's Weekly reporter, refuses until threatened by his superiors to have anything to do with the mission, showing an irrational vehemence that marks him as a hardcore Indian hater. But it becomes apparent once the journey is under way that Blocker would simply rather not be reminded in any way of the buddies he lost during the Indian wars. The journey to Montana promises to be a catharsis one way or another.

The party, including Yellow Hawk's family and the usual collection of cavalry types, discovers the remains of a farm that we saw destroyed by renegade Comanches. Inside the farmhouse is Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) sole survivor of a massacre that took her husband and three children from her. She freaks out at the sight of more Indians, but as with Blocker, something about the journey softens her feelings toward them, and one can safely predict from a still-early point that the youngest of Yellow Hawk's group will end up her own surrogate child.

Adapting an unfinished treatment by the late Academy Award winner Donald E. Stewart, Cooper as writer-director seems to be saying something about what happens to people taking a journey together. As long as everyone's on the move, everyone finds it easier to get along than anyone might have expected. It helps to have common foes to force them together: first those Comanches, whom Yellow Hand's people also regard as enemies; then a rapey band of fur trappers; then a convicted murderer and former comrade of Blocker's (Ben Foster) who's dumped in the captain's last for a latter leg of the trek. It also helps, in a more contrived way, that despite whatever atrocities Yellow Hawk may have perpetrated in the past -- we're meant to remember that Wes Studi was the bad Indian of modern cinema -- the old chief and his family are nothing but wise and compassionate throughout the trip. You hear not a word of bitterness from them, nor any thought of just desserts when the whites are wounded or killed. Their final obstacle at the end of the trail, after Yellow Hawk becomes one with the Force, is an obnoxious group of whites who refuse to let the old man be buried on land they claim as their own. Not even the presidential safe-conduct pass Blocker carries impresses these yahoos, who clearly give a damn about nothing and no one but their property rights. "Republicans," some in the audience will surely think. But the main idea seems to be that once people put down stakes they have something to fight over, and so just when it seemed that the film had reached its conclusion on a note of reconciliation, it has one more bloodbath left.

Cooper has an odd attitude toward violence. The opening massacre scene pulls no punches in showing Rosalie's daughters getting shot down and focusing on Rosalie herself cuddling a bloodstained bundle that was her baby. From there, Hostiles becomes inconsistently reticent. We see a running battle between the travelers and the Comanches, but when Yellow Hawk and his son are let loose to track them down and kill them, we only see the aftermath. Later, when the troopers and Cheyennes rescue their women from the trappers, we only hear their slaughter of the bad guys inside a house; like Rosalie, we only see gun-flashes, the sounds of stabbing and the screams of victims. Later still, after the convict has escaped and killed a trooper, Blocker's oldest buddy (Rory Cochrane), who'd been about to desert, rides off to chase down the killer. As with the Comanches, we find the convict dead the next morning, while Blocker's buddy has killed himself. Finally, the showdown in Montana climaxes with Blocker stalking the patriarch who had started the trouble, after everyone but Rosalie Little Bear have been killed. Blocker is clearly determined to finish the troublemaker off. While Rosalie watches in horror, trying to shield Little Bear's eyes, we see Blocker do something awful to the man -- most likely cut his throat -- from behind. This reticence is noteworthy in a R-rated film, and maybe praiseworthy when so many westerns are still spaghetti-inspired bloodbaths. But what Cooper might be saying about violence isn't really clear. The way the final fight ends, you might think that Blocker's killing of the man might be a deal-breaker for whatever relationship he and Rosalie might have, that by taking this extra step -- who can say if it's really necessary? -- Blocker is showing something of his true nature that would repel her. Yet the film has a theoretically happy ending with Blocker deciding to join Rosalie and Little Bear on a train to civilization -- or at least to Chicago, in a result to which Rosalie presumably would not object. I suppose a commitment to a new journey is just what Blocker needs to avoid further dwelling on his violent past, but at once there's something too neat and too muddled about the way Hostiles addresses issues of violence and hatred, as if Cooper were satisfied that to address these issues is to settle them. In the end, I suspect that he's gone too far in superimposing our modern ideas of post-traumatic strain on an Old West that's ultimately too abstract -- practically the only activities we see are transportation and killing -- to be convincing. The West of Hostiles is a place where post-traumatic stress seems to be the normal state of being, which is not quite what D. H. Lawrence was saying about America. Of course, he was a kinky English novelist, so what does he know, but if you take your epigraph from him, and then you make Hostiles, there's some contradiction going on. Either he's right, or Scott Cooper is -- or, more likely, both of them are wrong.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


Americans, Europeans and Japanese share a wide range of post-apocalyptic fantasies, but it's unusual to see similar fantasies from other countries. Here's one from the United Arab Emirates, albeit shot in Romania, and to be honest there's nothing really unique about Ali F. Mostafa's film or VikramWeet's screenplay except the location. It's supposed to be somewhere in the Middle East, though it could be narrowed down further depending on how you interpret one character's reference to the "home of the religions of God." God hasn't smiled on the old home ground lately; civilization has collapsed and most water supplies are hopelessly contaminated. One small band of survivors have holed up in an abandoned airplane factory that they've made into a fortress with its own convenient plumbing system. You can't trust strangers, as patriarch Idrees (Samer al Masri) learns when he opens the gate to aid a fragile looking female, only to be faced with her master who uses her as a hostage to extort water our little band. Such negotiations as they are fall apart, but another stranger, also with a woman in tow, appears fortuitously to rescue Idrees, taking a friendly-fire bullet in the process. This is Mussa (Samer Ismail); his sidekick is Gulbin (Maisa Abd Elhadi), a Kurd whom only Mussa can understand.

Outside and inside one of civilization's last redoubts with the cast of The Worthy.

Mussa's heroism earns him a meal and some meatball surgery, but he's made to understand that if he and Gulbin intend to stay he has to abide by Idrees's rules. He quickly shows that he intends to recognize no master but himself, throwing the group into panicked disarray. Leaving Gulbin behind, he moves to assert control over the facility by cutting off the water supply. The film spirals out of control at this point, turning Mussa into the typical thriller supervillain, almost limitlessly versatile at setting traps on short notice. Worse, he has a point to make as he picks people off one and two at a time in an attempt to find one who might be "worthy" of joining forces with him and others who plan to rebuild society in their own Darwinian image.

More an international production than an authentic product of any particular culture, The Worthy is slickly generic, benefitting from nice production design and cinematography by Adrian Silisteanu. Mostafa's direction is reasonably suspenseful and from what I could tell from watching a subtitled version of the film he got good work from his actors. But like most post-apocalypse films since Mad Max, Worthy is too into the thrills of de-civilized existence to have anything real to say about social disintegration. That wouldn't be a problem if Mostafa had made a great action film, but by the climactic confrontation on a teetering airplane wing, with Idrees's daughter Maryam Rakeen Saad) chained and noosed at one end and Mussa at the other, threatening to jump off and let Maryam hang as her brother Eissa (Mahmoud al-Atrash) watches from the middle, the action had become cartoonish. A twist at the end leaves the story open-ended, raising the prospect of a sequel reversing the original situation as a vengeful survivor infiltrates the enemy's base, but I doubt whether Worthy will leave people wanting another chapter of the story.