Monday, November 12, 2018

A note on Stan Lee

Historians and older comics fans continue to debate Stan Lee's contributions to the Marvel Comics universe. The debates were initially fueled by the perception that Lee, who died today at age 95, tended for a long time to downplay if not minimize the contributions of artists Steve Ditko, who died earlier this year, and especially Jack Kirby. If the question is who created characters or came up with specific concepts, then the credit often and rightly goes to Ditko, who created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, and Kirby, who created nearly everything else until 1970. Lee's distinctive and crucial contribution was twofold, one part of it becoming only more obvious as the Marvel Cinematic Universe conquered multiplexes in the Stan the Man's last decade.

What was more obvious early on was that Lee gave all the comics, whether drawn by Kirby, Ditko or others, a specific authorial voice that helped set Marvel Comics apart from DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. That voice took the idea of a narrator character from earlier crime and horror comics and applied it to superheroes. Lee wasn't an "onscreen" narrator like Mr. Crime or the Crypt Keeper, but established his authorial, brand through his constant explanatory  footnoting and a narrative tone that could be several things at once: bombastic and bufoonish, bardic yet self-mocking. It gave a wide range of readers leeway to take Marvel as seriously as each one chose, or to appreciate it at multiple levels simultaneously, and it allowed Lee to be campy and sincere at the same time. His narration probably strikes most people as corny today -- it's even worse when he speaks it aloud on bad cartoons of the 70s and 80s -- but in those formative years it didn't keep readers from feeling genuine emotions about the Marvel heroes.

In the long run, Lee really laid the groundwork for the 21st century success of Marvel movies by giving Marvel Comics a "universal" vision that neither Kirby nor Ditko might have given them on their own. In his later career especially, Kirby preferred to isolate his creations from the rest of his employers' product, balking at crossovers when they were suggested, while Ditko arguably never got along with others that well. Of course, the heroes of any given comics company had been joining forces since DC's Justice Society of America in the early 1940s, but outside the designated team books they rarely if ever interacted with each other. At Marvel the constant crossing over of characters was an essential part of Lee's world-building, and for all that Marvel heroes tended to fight each other on their first meetings, they were inherently more compatible as components of a shared universe, once someone actually tried to do that in movies, than DC's iconic  characters have proven to be so far. One could argue that Kirby and Ditko could have come up with all their great creations with no input from Lee, yet could not have come up with the Marvel Universe as either comics or movie fans understand it today without Stan Lee's vision, however self-indulgent or self-aggrandizing it seems to his critics. This note certainly won't end the Marvel debates, but it should make it more clear that however clownish or crass he was at times, Lee was one of the great pop-culture geniuses of the 20th century, with a legacy sure to last well beyond his lifetime.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


Most people's primary reference for the career of Robert the Bruce is Mel Gibson's Braveheart, in which the Scots hero is shown as a well-meaning but vacillating young man increasingly ashamed of his leprous father's cynical realpolitik until, finally his own man in more than one sense, he avenges William Wallace at the decisive battle of Bannockburn. Whatever else you say about the Gibson film, it gives the Bruce a great character arc, the absence of which is felt throughout the new film by Scots director David Mackenzie, in which Robert (Chris Pine) is the main character. Inescapably, Wallace haunts the film, literally and gruesomely in one scene as a quarter of him is displayed in a public square. This is shown to be just about the last straw that pushes Robert into rebellion, after humiliating treatment by Edward I (never called "Longshanks" here, and played by Stephen Dillane) in the opening scenes. With Wallace at bay at that point, Robert is made to watch the English attack Stirling Castle with a massive trebuchet hurling a fiery payload, and made to marry the Irish noblewoman Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh). A widower, Robert slowly warms to Elizabeth as she warms to the Scots cause, but cools toward Scotland's subjugation to England. His Rubicon is the killing of a pro-England Scots rival in a church. The Scots clergy are willing to forgive this (though the Pope, unmentioned, wasn't) and crown Robert King of Scots in return for a vague promise of support for them. The uprising is nearly aborted by a treacherous night attack, but Robert survives to take up guerrilla warfare with the archetypal ragtag band, while Elizabeth flees from castle to castle until the English catch her and cage her outside a grim castle.

The first time I ever heard of Robert the Bruce was in a school reading textbook that had the legend of his encounter with a spider. Outlaw King (or Outlaw/King as it appears onscreen) invokes that legend by making Robert the spider at the center of a marshy web in the climactic battle of Loudon Hill. One must assume that the English learned their lesson from this catastrophe, presuming that it played out in history as it plays here, as they subsequently dealt with the French more or less the same way during the Hundred Years War. This film's big battle scene inevitably must be compared with the Stirling battle in Braveheart, but each aims for a different effect. Gibson expresses furious exhilaration -- I still remember a woman behind me starting to laugh like a madwoman at the peak of the action when I first saw it -- while Mackenzie adds a note of horror to whatever satisfaction audiences may feel on seeing the English get their comeuppance. At first glance, Outlaw King strikes me as a more gory film than the massively violent Braveheart because of the more overtly horrific presentation. Mackenzie doesn't show it in a particularly lurid way, but in a matter-of-fact fashion that makes such moments as the casual disembowling of a man all the more horrifying. While Braveheart could be accused of glorifying war, Outlaw King is less vulnerable to that charge, though it goes too far to equate it to the alleged antiwar aesthetics of the superficially similar marshy combat in Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, to which Mackenzie's battle scene has been compared. There's no denying, after all, that in the context of this film that fight was necessary.

I wonder how self-consciously Mackenzie and his co-writers strove to make their film "Not Braveheart." Not having William Wallace as a character is probably the most obvious way to make clear that this is going to be a different kind of story. More interesting is their attempt to make the Prince of Wales, later Edward II (Billy Howle) as the main antagonist, with his dad remaining in the background until he dies, ahistorically, en route to Loudon Hill. Outlaw King reimagines Edward II as a Messala-type character who once was Robert's buddy but becomes his most dogged enemy for reasons of state. Ironically, in light of what Gore Vidal often said about his conception of the Messala character in Ben-Hur, the new film goes out of its way to avoid anything that could be interpreted as homophobic (as in Braveheart) in its presentation of Edward II, to the point that the casual viewer would have no idea that he was reputedly homosexual. On the other hand, Edward's sexuality has nothing to do with his or his father's policy toward Scotland, so there really isn't any need to address it here, and it's arguably a fair hit on Braveheart that it's treatment of the character was gratuitous. Both films take huge liberties with history, including Outlaw King's placement of Edward II, king before his actual time, in command of the English troops at Loudon Hill and engaged in single combat with Robert at its close. That scene really hurts the film, since the writers take too many and not enough liberties at the same time. If you're going to have the English king fight the Scots king on the field of battle, and have Robert disarm and decisively defeat Edward -- which obviously didn't happen -- why not go all the way and have Robert take Edward prisoner and force the liberation of Scotland ahead of schedule. It looks stupid to just let him go, especially if the writers' excuse is "well, he wasn't captured historically." That aside, Outlaw King is a decent historical drama, though lacking much of Braveheart's primal passion, especially in Pine's relatively dispassionate but conventionally stalwart performance. I'll give him and the film credit for one thing, though. The standard before-the-battle speech is quite nicely done here because it boils down to: I don't care why you're fighting with me as long as we win. Whether you find it better or worse than Braveheart, or don't believe in comparisons, at least it's a legitimate change of pace.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

APOSTLE (2018)

Gareth Evans, the director of the Raid movies, arguably the best martial-arts films of the 21st century so far, returned to his native Wales to make an action-horror period piece set in Edwardian England. It starts slow, introducing us to former missionary Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), who infiltrates a Welsh island that's been taken over by a religious cult. The cult, which has scriptures of its own and a putatively charismatic leader in Malcolm (Michael Sheen), has kidnapped Richardson's sister and is holding her for ransom. They've been reduced to that because a once-flourishing community has seen harvests fail, but some cult members believe that even more extreme measures are necessary to revive the crops.

Probably because Evans is more interested in the fantastic horrors to be revealed later, Apostle makes it hard to believe that Malcolm's cult could attract as many people as it seems to. As Malcolm, Sheen simply isn't that charismatic, and we see pretty much nothing to explain the cult's appeal. Evans himself seems to realize the limitations of the Malcolm character, since about midway through he builds up Malcolm's second-in-command, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) into the real villain of the piece. Quinn disapproves beyond all reason of his daughter's romance with the son of another cult leader, finally killing the girl, framing the boy for the crime and executing him with a gruesome machine that bores a hole through the back of his head. By this point Quinn has gone over the edge entirely, determined to overthrow Malcolm and take the leader's daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) -- as well as Thomas's sister (Elen Rhys) -- as a broodmare sex slave.

While Malcolm is at best a half-baked conception of a cult leader, Quinn proves a villain worthy of an Edwardian horror story. By this point in the picture we've learned that the cult leaders had some time before captured a sort of earth goddess (Sharon Morgan) who subsists on human blood. By sacrificing to her, the cultists initially enjoyed good harvests. But just as she seemed ready to die when they found her, so she seems reluctant to go on living on the diet they offer her. It's bad enough that Malcolm sheds his own blood to force-feed her and has others do the same. Quinn quite explicitly wants to treat the goddess like a machine, hoping to jump-start her power by gorging her with full-scale human sacrifice. That rings true as a particularly 19th century (or so) form of villainy or industrial-strength hubris combined with control-freak patriarchal insanity. Jones runs with the idea and his over-the-top villainy pretty much saves the picture.

It helps, too, that the latter half of the film has more action, allowing Evans to show off his real strengths as a filmmaker. The two big scenes are Thomas's fight with a "Gimp"-like henchman who operates a human-sized meat grinder for Quinn and his final battle, assisted by his sister and Andrea, with a nearly indestructible Quinn. Jones has been such a despicable villain that Quinn's gruesome demise is the picture's indisputable highlight. Unfortunately, Apostle still has to resolve Thomas's character arc. He lost his faith, you see, when his church was burned and friends were killed in China during the Boxer Rebellion. Were this a different sort of film, you might expect his struggle against real evil to revive his faith, but faith doesn't come into it, since he instead encounters, for all intents and purposes, a real god. Better still, he gets to become a real god by the end of the picture as the old goddess passes her mojo on to him. Is this a good thing? Much of the cult village has been burnt down by this point, but Malcom is still wandering around and gets to see Thomas's transfiguration. Does that mean the cult gets to start over again, only better this time? It's probably better not to ask. Apostle adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but there is genuine horror in it, just enough to justify its presence on Netflix over the past Halloween season, and maybe enough to justify a look at other times of the year.

Sunday, November 4, 2018


Updated on November 5 after watching the accompanying Netflix documentary,  
They'll Love Me When I'm Dead. 
Orson Welles and Netflix might have been a perfect match. There wouldn't have been any worries about how many paid admissions each project of his could draw, and they wouldn't have depended on him overmuch to attract new subscribers. All that would have mattered, presumably, was how much money he spent and when he delivered the product. Of course, what sort of product he proposed to deliver would make a lot of difference. Batting out something like F for Fake on a relatively regular basis might not have been much of a problem. A narrative film, alas, would have been a different story.

It's interesting that Welles brings up Hemingway in this picture, since it reminded me of some things Hemingway said. Hemingway said of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished The Last Tycoon that the it was no masterpiece in the making, but that it showed that Fitzgerald had just enough skill to keep publishers interested enough to advance him more money. Of a Norman Mailer novel -- The Deer Park, if I recall right -- Hemingway said that the author had blown the whistle on himself. In The Other Side of the Wind, Welles portrays his director protagonist (John Huston) as a Hemingway type, if not more obviously a darker version of himself. Wind, however, is an attempt at what Hemingway, describing his own efforts, called a bank shot, touching several thematic bases at once. It's a work of self-criticism to an extent but also a satire of the whole cult of the director, almost as contemptuous toward "cineastes" (a repeated sneer-word here) as those filmmakers of the generation before Welles who hated (or affected to hate) analyzing their careers. It could be seen equally as an indictment of the creative bankruptcy of auteurism or a confession of Welles's own creative bankruptcy.

The way he tells the story clearly interests Welles more than the story he tells. That story, based on what Frank Marshall, Peter Bogdanovich and others have salvaged from the surviving footage, attempts to account for the creative exhaustion of the Huston character, Jake Hannaford, who's showing excerpts of his in-progress production "The Other Side of the Wind" at a birthday party in the hope of raising the funds needed to finish the project -- much as Welles himself screened scenes at his AFI lifetime achievement award ceremony. The film within the film is both to some extent a parody of Zabriskie Point and a way for Welles to show what he can do visually in color and widescreen. A man stalks and courts a mysterious woman (who may be a terrorist) who goes about naked a lot (Oja Kodar) and torments the man in many ways. They wander through an old move backlot before she meets such fate as she has in the desert. As a commercial project it seems hopeless, but what's specifically stalled it is Hannaford's falling out with his neophyte star, Johnny Dale (Bob  Random). The director made a project of the young man, apparently a drifter, after rescuing him from an apparent suicide attempt, but became suspicious of his authenticity. Dale turned out to be a boarding-school dropout involved in some sort of homosexual scandal. Hannaford tormented him on the set of the movie until Dale stormed off, buck naked, after a scene that teased his castration. His departure, and a failure of funding, has let the film a confused jumble, and it's unclear that any amount of money, in the absence of the original inspiration, can solve its problems.

The film proper is kaleidoscopic, showing Hannaford surrounded by fans, sycophants, critics and parasites, many of whom are shooting their own documentary or home-movie footage of the film party. The fatal flaw of the film as a whole is Welles's belief that diversity of film stocks could substitute for diversity of character. None of the characters feels genuinely fleshed-out; you get the sense that Welles knows more about them than the footage used here actually shows, but you also get the suspicion that he knew more about them than he could or cared to show. Many are probably analogues for cronies of Welles himself, and Bogdanovich definitely and almost masochistically -- taking over for an absconding Rich Little -- plays a version of himself as a pushy superfan with ambitions of surpassing the master. The mock-festive setting reminds me of a truly amateur movie of the same period, Norman Mailer's Maidstone -- and Welles' raving about improvisational filmmaking, captured in the accompanying documentary, suggests at minimum a coincidence of his thinking and Mailer's -- while the flailing experimentation anticipates a similar work of what we could call neo-amateurism, Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again. Unfortunately, Wind lacks any sense of spontaneity, mainly because of Welles's late-career choppy style of editing together shots taken months or possibly years apart, and probably because his control-freak auterism had overcome his interest in improvisation at some point in the production. You get one shot of a character talking, and then we cut to a shot of the next character talking, when what's arguably needed is the more naturalistic overlapping dialogue of Robert Altmann's films. To be fair, Welles may have meant to mix the sound differently -- and for that matter I think I would rather have seen the film without a music score in the absence of any Wellsian input on the selections --  but there's no way to know that for certain.  What seems inescapable is a sense of exhaustion with storytelling even as Welles remains fascinated by the possibilities of editing and composition. In simplest terms, the ultimate subject of this film may be not the death of cinema, but the inevitable if not necessary demise of a certain kind of filmmaking, with the far more lively F for Fake showing the way ahead. The really sad thing about Wind is that, as the documentary makes clear, much of it was filmed after Fake, as if Welles hadn't realized, or wouldn't admit, that the project was a creative dead end.

Demoralizing as it may be, The Other Side of the Wind probably should be mandatory viewing for movie fans, if only for the unexpected encores it provides for so many long-gone character actors, from Mercedes McCambridge to Cameron Mitchell, from Edmond O'Brien -- bloated and roughened to the point that he resembles Lon Chaney Jr. -- to Angelo Rossitto. One would have liked the film to have proved a buried masterpiece, but contrary to what the film itself may suggest, even the ambitious failures of an auteur like Welles can reward watching, as cautionary tales or tragic hints of what could have been. As a work of art it isn't much, but like any Welles film it has many memorable moments of pictorial power. As a historical document, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 28, 2018


As a warning to those who haven't watched any or all of the series yet, this review contains spoilers.
To turn most novels into ten-part TV shows, liberties must be taken. Extraordinary liberties have been taken to turn Shirley Jackson's 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House into Mike Flanagan's Netflix series, but the results for the most part worked on their own terms, though one of the greatest strengths of Flanagan's adaptation proved ultimately a weakness. People who binged their way through it quicker than I did have already noted its structural resemblance to This Is Us, a critically-acclaimed multigenerational non-linear family drama. Hill House travels back and forth in time from the present to 1992, reimagining the paranormal investigators of Jackson's novel as a family unit, and the house itself as a fixer-upper that the parents (Carla Gugino and Henry Thomas, with Timothy Hutton taking over for the present-day scenes) hope to renovate for a huge profit. We see each of the five damaged children as a troubled adult, and we see how the ordeal of Hill House contributed to their individual and collective dysfunctions. Steven Crain (Michiel Huisman) turned his experience into a dubious best-seller, earning the ire of most of his siblings. Despite making himself a specialist in haunted-house tales, he doesn't really believe in the supernatural. Blaming the family tragedy on hereditary madness, he had a vasectomy to keep from having insane kids, compromising his marriage in the process by keeping that detail secret from his wife. Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) is an obsessive-compulsive mortician who especially resents Steven's book and sees any family who took the royalties he offered as a traitor. Theo (Kate Siegel), the show's obligatory lesbian, is a child psychologist whose tactile sensitivity to the paranormal leaves her abrasively reluctant to maintain emotional connections with people. The fraternal twins Nelly (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are the youngest and most traumatized by the Hill House experience, Luke becoming a heroin addict, while further tragedies in her life drive Nelly to kill herself at the old house. Her death reunites the family and opens old wounds as the legacy of Hill House threatens to draw them all back so the house can finish what it started long ago.

Hill House enhances the non-linear formula by adding a layer of premonition that ties present and past even closer together. In the most horrific instance, Nelly has been haunted since her time at Hill House by visions of  "the bent-neck lady." When she hangs herself, more driven by the house to do so than willing her own demise, she realizes in her final moments of life that she was the bent-neck lady. At Hill House, the mother, Olivia, is terrified by premonitions of the terrible fates awaiting her youngest children, though it takes her a little bit to recognize the actors we know as grown-up Luke and Nelly as her babies. The moment when Nelly, done up mortuary style for her wake in the present, tears the stitches from her mouth and cries out, "Mommy!' is probably the next most horrific moment. Overall, the show is more horrific than scary, though there are plenty of jumpy moments for scare fans. The family drama underscores the long-term horror of Hill House, and the effort given to flesh out the Crain family pays off thanks to terrific ensemble acting. At the end, however, the series becomes too much about family for its own good.

In Flanagan's imagining, Hill House seems less evil than monstrously overprotective. It wants to keep the people it acquires and seduces the most overprotective member of the family, the mother, with a promise to protect her children, the twins especially, by "waking" them from the "nightmare" that will be their adult lives. To wake them, Olivia tries to kill the twins by feeding them tea laced with rat poison, and ends up actually murdering the caretakers' daughter who just happened to tag along. Conveniently, the caretakers were homeschoolers who had hidden their girl from the outside world. Traumatized by the tragedy but consoled by the appearance of their little girl as a ghost, they agree to cover up Olivia's murder of the girl as long as her husband backs off from his plan to burn the house down. The show ultimately goes too far in portraying the house as an actual comfort, albeit one most people should reject. Olivia and then Nelly seem not to be extensions of the house but autonomous spirits that can feud with earlier generations of spirits or fight off its attempts to claim the rest of the family. Finally, present-day Hugh makes a deal with Olivia and/or the house, sacrificing himself while the rest of the children go free. In an unconvincing epilogue, this final ordeal appears to have cured the surviving Crains of their hang-ups. Steven reconciles with his wife, Shirley with her husband, whom she'd accused of an affair with Theo; Theo commits to a steady girlfriend and Luke is clean for two years and counting at the very end. This seems like a betrayal of the tragic complexity of the lives shown us earlier, unless you really believe, as Flanagan seems to, that all of it was Hill House's fault. Family ends up being not just the real subject of Hill House but its feel-good rallying point, yet any horror project that seeks to make audiences feel good at the end, for the sake of "family" or any reason, is suspect. I'm not saying I wanted Hill House to wipe out the Crain family, but I'd like to think that any viewer will find its conclusion too neat in a way that undermines a project that until then was working fine as both a spook show and a psychological horror. I'll still recommend it, since at it's best it's nearly great, but unless "family" gives you the unconditional "feels" you may share my disappointment at something so good failing to stick the landing.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018


At the height of the Sixties spy-film craze the Germans made a series of seven films based on the pulp fiction character Kommissar X, who despite the name is neither a Communist nor even a spy but a globetrotting American private eye. Three Golden Cats (also known in the U.S. as Death is Nimble, Death is Quick) is the second film of the series. As they did throughout, Tony Kendall plays Joe "Kommissar X" Walker -- the nickname isn't used here -- and Brad Harris plays his sort of friend/sort of rival, policeman Tom Rowland. Co-directed by Rudolf Zehetgruber and Gianfranco Parolini, the latter later best known for the Sabata spaghetti westerns, the film benefits greatly from its Sri Lanka locations and the colorful cinematography of Klaus von Rautenfeld. Our heroes end up in the erstwhile Ceylon to protect an American heiress (Ann Smyrner) -- who seems resourceful enough not to need their help much -- from the kidnappers of the Golden Cats, a former anti-imperialist guerrilla group that turned into gangsters-for-hire after independence.

Behind the Golden Cats, we learn toward the end, is a mad scientist who wanted ransom money to finance the biological warfare projects that got him thrown out of the U.S. This Bondish sort of villain exists mostly to put some of the protagonists in a death trap and is completely eclipsed,  by the Cats' head karate killer, King (former Hercules Dan Vadis). This may be Vadis's finest hour on film. Bald and mustachioed and coolly glowering, making a fetish of donning a headband before a kill, King has an indisputable menacing charisma that upstages the ostensible stars on every occasion. Vadis and Harris staged their own fight scenes -- Rowland is also a karate expert -- and did many of their own stunts in this action-packed picture. They make it look more like a precocious martial-arts movie than a Eurospy film -- the training sequence involving scantily clad Sri Lankan policewomen definitely doesn't defuse that impression -- and their final showdown in the Cats' temple is a bravura blend of camp theatrics and succinct brutality from two plausible looking bruisers.

You also get an acid attack in a shower, an assistant assassin who specializes in nitro capsules, a cool boat chase with our heroes pursued by a futuristic vehicle through an exploding swamp and a climactic collision between a speeding car and an airplane on the tarmac. You also get ladies' man Walker getting kissed by an elephant and getting dumped at the end by the heiress, an equally capable Sri Lankan heroine (Michele Mahaut) and the elephant at the same time.

Kendall's horndog antics date the picture to its time, but Harris and Vadis's commitment to pure action make Three Golden Cats feel more like a contemporary action film than may of its actual contemporaries. Judged by the standard of any time period, it's an enjoyable piece of unrepentant pop trash that inspires confidence in the rest of the series.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


The Spanish affinity for traditional gothic horror extends to the Basque country, which gives us Paul Urkijo Alijo's grim fairy tale of a film. Based on a European legend that also influenced the "Howling Man" episode of The Twilight Zone, Errementari is set at the time of the First Carlist War in 19th century Spain. A deserter from that war is Patxi the blacksmith (Kandido Uranga), who made a pact with the minor demon Sartael (Eneko Sagardoy) in order to be reunited with his wife, only to find that she, presuming him dead, had shacked up with another man and had a daughter, Usue (Uma Bracaglia). The tragedy results in  the other man killed, the wife a suicide, Usue a despised outcast raised by foster parents taunted with tales of her mother suffering in Hell, and Patxi the keeper of a terrible secret. The arrival of a government official with stories of a hidden stash of gold at Patxi's forge hastens the revelation of the secret, but it's Usue, hoping that the smith can repair her headless doll, who makes the discovery. Believing the smith a fresh murderer (in fact, a trespasser has died by accident), Usue discovers evidence that Patxi is keeping a child in a cage. Naturally, not having watched The Twilight Zone, Usue frees the pathetic victim, who promptly reveals himself as Sartael in all his folkloric if not cartoonish splendor: red skin, horns, presumably cloven hooves, etc. The demon tries to avenge himself on Patxi, but the blacksmith could not have held a demon captive in the first place without being knowledgeable and resourceful. In folklore, demons are very vulnerable. Far from invulnerable to physical attack, they're also hypersensitive to the ringing of bells and, like some vampires, they're compelled to count chickpeas cast on the ground. Worse, mess with the pile and the poor creatures have to start counting over again. It soon becomes clear that for all his frightful appearance and taunting, Sartael's actually a pretty pathetic excuse for a demon, a laughingstock among his peers, and especially his superiors, for getting himself trapped and detained so easily by a mortal. When another hellish emissary arrives, planning not only to claim Patxi's soul at last but also to demote Sartael to a fate worse than death in the infernal hierarchy, old enemies will join forces, each seeking redemption of a sort through kindness to Usue and the memory of her much-wronged mother.  Boasting lavish art-direction, lurid cinematography and a satiric attitude toward Carlist conservatism (their side supported absolute monarchy) that echoes in Europe and elsewhere today, Errementari feels like a crossbreed merging Spanish historical gothic and a more Burtonesque sensibility in its sympathy for a devil who never entirely becomes a good guy. Available for streaming on Netflix in its native language and an English dub, it may be the most charming new horror film you'll see this Halloween season.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018


My guess is that James Franco saw The Bad Batch one day last year and said, "Psssh! I can do better than that." For all I know, he'd seen Mad Max:Fury Road some time before and had the same reaction. If you really want to speculate on his influences, you might find Future World reminiscent of the 1989 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Cyborg. On the DVD, Franco drily explains that he wanted to experiment with the postapocalypse genre, as if it were his ambition -- it might well be -- to direct in every genre known to man. He shares the directorial credit here with his frequent cinematographer Bruce Thierry Cheung, and while Cheung is also one of the credited writers Franco makes it clear on the disc that he was involved in putting the story together. Not that that took much effort, as Future World is more a collection of tropes and an exercise in style than anything else. There's been an apocalypse, and while bullets have become extremely rare there's fuel enough to keep motorcycling marauders on the road, massacring most everyone they find and partying at Big Daddy Love Lord's (Snoop Dogg) poontang oasis. There's a real oasis somewhere nearby that the marauders, led by a horned-helmeted Franco, somehow have never stumbled upon, but it's benevolent ruler (a supine Lucy Liu) is ill with the dreaded Red Fever, the cure for which reportedly can be had at the legendary Paradise Beach. It's there that Prince -- it seems to be both his title and his name (Jeffrey Wahlberg) -- is bound with a precious handful of bullets that are promptly taken from him by Franco's gang after the naive hero makes the mistake of stopping at the big whorehouse. A more impressive acquisition of Franco's is the android Ash (Suki Waterhouse, late of The Bad Batch), a killing machine of the bad old days who apparently shut herself down in an act of protest against mankind's wars. Unfortunately for her -- and she's not only very female but also, as a matter of cliche by now, lesbian -- once she's awakened Franco can control her by yelling into a little control box. Collaborating with Big Daddy, he sends Ash to roll the hapless Prince. The poor youth is allowed to live only because Franco needs someone to lead him to the oasis, but in the course of an escape attempt Ash ends up out of range of the remote control gizmo and becomes Prince's staunch ally.

Alas, since the days of postcards Paradise Beach has become Drug Town, presided over by a coked-up Milla Jovovich, and while she does have a cure for the Red Fever, it has a high price. First, she intends to take custody of Ash, intending her either as a sex toy or an object of worship, or both. Then, she insists that Prince shoot up some heavy drugs and battle her champion in a gladiatorial combat which our questionably experienced hero, malnourished, injured and drug-addled, somehow wins when Ash tosses him a machete. That spoils Jovovich's fun a little, but what really ticks her off is that her captive techie Lei (Margarita Levieva) scores with Ash before she gets a chance. Worse yet, the Franco gang, having little sense of direction, mistakes Drug Town for the oasis and attacks. There's a great goofy moment here when Jovovich shoots herself up with two syringes of something to inspire a  battle frenzy befitting the impending clash of titans, but however you rate the relative prowess of action movie stars, Franco puts himself over in the fateful encounter. In the end, though, Ash rebels against his control when he orders her to execute Prince and Lei and, as women everywhere presumably cheer, she puts the fiend down once and for all. After delivering the chaste Prince back home in time to save his mom, Ash and Lei ride off, theoretically in search of other androids and further adventures, as if this were a pilot for some series. Given its ghost of a release and its atrocious score on Rotten Tomatoes, it's safe to say we won't see more of these heroines. But while I concede every failing of this project, especially its absolute lack of originality, I couldn't help liking it for its earnestness, its impressive outdoor cinematography by Werner Herzog's latter-day cameraman, Pieter Zeitlinger, and the very throwback spirit that most likely provoked others' contempt. I still enjoy a bit of postapocalyptic cheese every so often, and if you can't have a Mad Max every couple of years a James Franco pastiche will do for a little while.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: FAST LIFE (1932)

William Haines had his career killed by scandal, but my impression is that he was one of the big silent stars whose personae simply didn't translate well into either the cadences of sound cinema or the sensibilities of Depression cinema. Haines was the archetypal brash young man who comes on too strong and pushes too hard, alienating and injuring people before learning the excess of his ways and disciplining himself into a responsible hero. Like Harold Lloyd, his was a Twenties type that seemed to become almost offensively obsolete in very short order. Accordingly, before Haines got into legal trouble, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer tried, as they did with John Gilbert, to remake Haines for a changed audience. One result was Harry Pollard's Fast Life, which sometimes feels more like a slapstick comedy, as if it might at one point have been intended for yet another of Metro's troubled male stars, Buster Keaton. As Keaton was chained to Jimmy Durante in his later M-G-M pictures, so Haines here was teamed with an erstwhile Keaton sidekick, Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards, though Edwards comes across as less of a sidekick than a stooge to Haines's Ted Healy. They're common sailors turned starving civilians after Haines tinkers clandestinely with the carburetor of an admiral's motorboat, convinced that his innovations can give boats prizewinning speed. After a near disaster the two sailors have to live by their (really Haines') wits, and our hero tries to exploit an accidental encounter with an heiress (Madge Evans) into opportunity, but can't help bragging about how he tricked her. Thrown out of her resort, she demands the return of even his swimming trunks, and in an implicitly Pre-Code moment we see the trunks fly back at her as Haines presumably flaunts his defiant nudity. Thinking fast back on land, he promptly hijacks some excursion boats by selling tickets to an impromptu race. With the inexorable logic of farce, one of his excited passengers is the heiress's father, the head of a speedboat manufacturing company (Arthur Byron) who's impressed  by our hero's brashness.

One touch I like about this picture is that this character never loses faith in the hero, even after the first test run of a new boat with Haines's souped-up carburetor ends in another near-disaster. This earns Haines fresh hate from the heiress and her stuck-up boyfriend (Conrad Nagel), but the old man, a veteran entrepreneur, understands that trial and error are part of progress and doesn't hold his injury against our hero. Ultimately, Haines redeems himself, not just by boatmanship but by exposing Nagel, who's trying to take over the company, as the ally of bootleggers. Through much of this Edwards seems utterly superfluous, included mainly for those in the audience who fail to find Haines amusing. For all that, contemporary reviews, especially from exhibitors, indicate that Edwards practically stole the picture from its star. He does have one nice gag where he meets a girl at an amusement pier. With no apparent provocation, she slaps him in the face. Then we see her stalk off until she reaches her destination, the tent where she works as a mind reader.It's not much, but it's more amusement than Jimmy Durante provides in many of his efforts at that time. As a sound actor, Haines has a more distinctive, brassy voice than Gilbert did, but his personality unfortunately comes across as more obnoxious than was probably intended, particularly in his treatment of his presumed buddy, Edwards. Now, a certain aggressiveness characterized the new stars of the day, but Haines doesn't come across as the sort of "caveman" Depression women apparently found desirable. Whether his stardom was salvageable before Haines himself gave it up, supposedly by rejecting a "lavender" marriage to hide his sexuality, is hard to say. Speaking for myself, his obnoxious ruthlessness here is taken to such a comic extent that  Fast Life ended up one of the more entertaining Haines films I've seen. And at the very least, unlike some of his peers, he does not seem alien to the Pre-Code era.

Thursday, October 11, 2018


The first thing that's hard to believe about William Friedkin's documentary is that more than forty years passed before the director of The Exorcist was invited to witness an actual exorcism. Once the opportunity arose, Friedkin made it the occasion for a meditation, at times searching and at times utterly credulous, on the potential real-world benefits of exorcism. He was invited to Italy to witness the pre-eminent exorcist of the age, the nonagenarian Fr. Gabriele Amorth, in his ninth session with a woman named Cristina. It looks nothing like Friedkin's visualizations of William Peter Blatty's novel. Cristina is surrounded by an extended family as Amorth, who died before the film was released, does his thing. Blatty is constrained by Amorth's forbidding of a film crew of cinematic lighting, but his digital video long-take approach seems appropriate to the material, though his cinema-verite presentation of the exorcism is marred by his obvious resort to enhanced sound effects whenever Cristina starts ranting. Of course, she's incapable of the contortions or levitations of pop legend, but it is unsettling to see her thrashing about and playing the devil at random moments during the session. She says nothing outrageous -- or nothing outrageous was translated -- unless you're still outraged by people claiming to be the devil, or "legion," or whatever. For all that, it seemed, especially with the family around, more like an exotic therapy session than a struggle with the forces of darkness.

Digressing, Friedkin interviews a number of reputed experts in various related fields, from the author of a scholarly history of the devil to medical specialists who debate whether Amorth's work can have a genuine therapeutic effect. The film is at its best here, steering away from sensationalism to suggest that there may be some worth to exorcism, perhaps on a placebo level, apart from its spiritual pretensions, though it was Amorth's own policy not to exorcise anyone who could be diagnosed with psychological issues. There are reasons, detailed in his Wikipedia listing, to question whether Amorth was the best judge of his own work, though Friedkin tends to take his claims on, well, faith. His film has ultimately limited value as a documentary, compared to an essay film, because it fails to appraise either Amorth or Cristina objectively. I especially missed the lack of background to Cristina or her family that might suggest more mundane reasons for her odd, attention-seeking behavior. Instead, Friedkin goes in an even more sensationalist direction, telling a yarn about an unfilmed encounter with Cristina and her boyfriend in a creepy church in which she went apeshit and the boyfriend threatened the director with physical violence. It's hard not to call bullshit on that bit of business, but Friedkin is probably betting that no one will care enough to try to corroborate the Cristina story. There's an "evil wins" implication here, underscored by the facts of Amorth's final illness, but The Devil and Father Amorth is really too slapdash to make any strong impression. Nevertheless, I found it entertaining on a barnstorming level, a bit of exploitation hucksterism that seems more like something from The Exorcist's own time than the work of the director's old age.

Saturday, October 6, 2018


Many people drew conclusions about the Han Solo prequel once the intended auteurs, Miller and Lord of Lego Movie fame, were seen off by Disney in favor of Ron Howard, who promised nothing visionary, irreverent or even fresh. Public opinion has turned against Disney's Star Wars franchise for a number of reasons, ranging from a reflexive distrust of large corporations to a worrisome revulsion at the studio's commitment to diversity in the official episodes. Many people no doubt went into Solo, or stayed away from it, convinced that it could only be a soulless, mindless piece of hackwork. I stayed away myself, having recently seen and hated The Last Jedi for reasons having nothing to do with the race or gender of its protagonists. Now that I've seen it at home, I can say that at a minimum Solo is better than Episodes 7 and 8. It's nothing great, but it's what it was meant to be: entertaining in an easygoing way. Its weakest part comes early when young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) is a low-level thief on Corellia. The vaguely Fagin-esque milieu and Han's efforts at nervous con-man patter make this the most retrograde and corny part of the picture. It picks up once Han is off-planet, an imperial academy washout reduced to foot soldiery in some absurd before he manages to fall in with a band of smugglers who've infiltrated the military. He finds a mentor in the boss smuggler (Woody Harrelson) and an unlikely friend in Chewbacca the Wookie, briefly a fellow prisoner. In this meet-cute bit we finally see that Han can speak the Wookie language, and I found it appropriate that while his efforts in that enigmatic tongue are subtitled, we are never to be privy to the plain meaning of Chewie's own remarks.

Anyway, for a time we practically have a poor man's Guardians of the Galaxy, with Han in the Star Lord protege role and Harrelson as his Yondu-like mentor, plus a sort of Gamora (Thandie Newton), a sort of Rocket (a talkative multi-armed CGI critter) and Chewie as Groot. The filmmakers (Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan are the credited writers) know better than to let the resemblance sink in, so some of the characters are eliminated before the core group reports to their employer, a vicious space gangster (Paul Bettany) whose moll (Emilia Clarke) is the girl poor Han had to leave behind back on Corellia. To save their lives after a recent failure, our merry band must steal a cargo of raw, volatile superfuel from a mining colony and transport it tout suite (via the legendary Kessel Run) to a refining facility. Along the way Han must match his raw wits with crooked gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), who ends up tagging along, along with his uppity feminist droid, while looking out for the pirates who ruined their previous caper. There are surprises yet to come but there's nothing really novel to the proceedings, compared to the drastic difference in tone you get in Rogue One. Comparing the two standalone "stories" is really unfair, though, since Rogue One was ambitious in a way Solo probably never was meant to be. Whatever the original creative team had in mind, Solo was always going to be cinematic comfort food, and for that sort of thing Ron Howard is a reliable chef. What holds the thing together and makes it tolerable is Alden Ehrenreich's title performance. With admirable quickness he makes you stop comparing him to Harrison Ford and turns young Han into a viable, likable character in his own right, with issues yet to be resolved (though probably never on screen now) before he becomes the man we got to know back in 1977. In retrospect, Solo got a bad rap, but that's probably inevitable when so essentially ordinary (yet satisfactory) an adventure film is packaged as a blockbuster event by corporate imperative. Would it have been better had it been left to the intended auteurs? The fact that we'll never know shouldn't be held against the film we have.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI (La Maldicion de la Bestia, 1975)

The turning of the blowing of the leaves again turns my thoughts toward horror and monsters, and so it's time again to visit with Jacinto Molina and his onscreen alter ego, Paul Naschy. "The Curse of the Beast" is his reboot, authored by himself and directed by M. I. Bonns, of the saga of Waldemar Daninsky, who here turns into a wolfman again for the first time. Anthropologist Daninsky travels to the Himalayas with a team of European scientists in response to seeming photographic evidence of the existence of the legendary Abominable Snowman. The yeti, however, proves to be literally the last of Waldemar's worries. Losing track of an injured comrade, our hapless hero ends up in the clutches of a pair of witches who love him up into a werewolf. The territory actually is infested with witches. One, bearing the totemic name (for Naschy) of Wandessa (Silvia Solar) is the power behind the local warlord, Sekkar Khan (Luis Induni). The Khan is plagued with ulcers on his back, but Wandessa eases his agonies with skin grafts flayed from the backs on captive women. Relief never lasts, so the Khan constantly sends his head minion Temujin (Jose Luis Chinchilla) to fetch more captives, including the members of Daninsky's expedition. Whatever his own problems, Waldemar has got to save the day, though there's something of a selfish motive behind his heroism. He's been told by a local mystic, who unsurprisingly gets killed by the bandits, that the leaves of a certain plant, mixed with the blood of a young woman, will cure lycanthropy. Surprise follows surprise as only a small amount of his girlfriend's blood is needed, and the cure works-- but not before the filmmakers square things up with the audience by pitting werewolf Waldemar in perfunctory fashion against a yeti that appears in the worn, much-edited print I saw as little more than a tall blur. To use Naschy's Universal reference points, what we have here is a little bit of Werewolf of London (the Himalayan origin), a little bit of House of Dracula (the happy ending) and a bit of the old studio's Arabian Nights pictures thrown in, with the usual extra bits of sex and sadism thrown in to satisfy Seventies audiences, though not so many for me as in an uncut print. It's far from Naschy's best, but I like the way his imagination ran rampant here in directions I didn't anticipate. And of course this was not the end of Waldemar or his curse, but it's nice to see that in one part of the multiverse things turned out all right for him.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

ORBITER 9 (Órbita 9, 2017)

For an Anglophone moviegoer it's a novelty to see space exploration carried out in Spanish. This isn't some implausible chauvinism on the part of writer-director Hatem Khraiche, as he tells us eventually that Spain is just one of  four countries involved in the preparation of pioneer voyages to the planet Celeste, a goldilocks world that offers the only hope of survival for the people of an increasingly polluted Earth. A young Spanish woman, Helena (Clara Lago) is the sole crewmember of one of the family-sized colony ships. Stalled by an oxygen malfunction, she has waited for a repair ship for three years since her parents apparently sacrificed themselves to extend her oxygen supply. At last, Alex the engineer (Alex Gonzalez) arrives to fix the problem. He has only 50 hours of "autonomy" to do the job; after that, Helena will have another 20 years on her own before she reaches her destination. Alex is the first human being other than her parents that she's ever seen. Five minutes in you can guess the direction the picture will take, but your movie brain should tell you that that's probably too soon to jump to conclusions.  It may not surprise you to learn that Alex has some alarming secrets, and that his interaction with Helena will put both people in danger as they edge toward revolt against a manipulative government's plans. Órbita 9 is ultimately more of a thriller than an all-out sci-fi film, but the sort of dystopia that forms its backdrop does tend to lend itself to thriller plots. I've probably now made it sound like a rather conventional movie, and I suppose it is that, superficially speaking. But the lead actors put it over with convincing displays of moral indignation, with Gonzalez adding a level of guilty torment over his role in a past failed experiment. The romance angle is a little much, taking the ending almost to a fairy-tale level, but then again, this is, for all its trendy pessimism, a fantasy film that ends on an odd note of reconciliation, given the seemingly unforgivable ruthlessness the head scientist showed earlier in the picture. At 95 minutes it seems scrupulous about not overstaying its welcome, even if it strikes you a Twilight Zone episode opened out and padded to feature length. Thanks to Netflix I didn't have to go out of my way to see this, so I don't feel that I can hold much against it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


For Ken Clark's last film as Dick Malloy, Agent 077, the credited director is Alberto De Martino but series creator Sergio Grieco is listed as a co-director in reference works. This one stands out for featuring something close to a female supervillain. Arabella Chaplin (Daniela Bianchi) is a famous fashion designer who doubles as an assassin. She's a master of disguise, though Malloy figures her out easily enough, having noticed a cut on her arm when she was done up as an old woman (to kill a hospitalized criminal) before seeing a similarly placed bandage on the otherwise glamorous "Lady" Chaplin. Her origins seem to be less humble, or so her mentor/employer, evil industrialist Kobre Zoltan (Jacques "The Hypnotic Eye" Bergerac) insinuates. They're making a play for the Polaris missiles lost with the real-life sunken nuclear submarine USS Thresher. The idea is to sell them to the Eastern bloc, but as Zoltan, a scorpion fetishist, grows more unstable the danger grows of his launching the missiles himself to spite the world. Bouncing back and forth from gratuitous trips to New York City to consult with his boss, Agent 077 must use all his skills, his strength and his masculine wiles to thwart the tricky, traitorous duo.

 The many faces of Lady Arabella Chaplin (Daniela Bianchi)

Lady Chaplin is a more stylish film than its predecessor, From the Orient with Fury, but that only makes sense with the greater focus on fashion and sexier women. It's somewhat disappointing to see the formidable Arabella as Zoltan's stooge, but as she finds Agent 077 an insurmountable and attractive antagonist she begins looking out for her own interests, playing all sides off each other to ensure her own survival. This doesn't quite work out, as Zoltan tosses her out of an airplane, but she's prepared for just such a contingency with a parachute and a machine gun to mow down Zoltan's minions on the ground. Malloy is his same old brawling self and gets to have some entertaining fights with a hook-handed henchman of Zoltan, but there are a few too many Goldfinger-inspired electrocutions for comfort this time out, and his bullring battle with a group of gangsters falls far short of the pop-art grandeur of the similarly-set, Coke-fueled combat in Tarzan and the Valley of Gold.

Speaking of Goldfinger, that film's massive success not only made films like Lady Chaplin possible but also persuaded their producers to commission title songs, often with unhappy results. The theme from Special Mission Lady Chaplin isn't quite the gibberish of many a spaghetti western jingle, or as inexcusably awful as many a High Noon-inspired anthem of the 1950s, but it does inflict on memory the regrettably deathless couplet, "Lady Chaplin, in your touch/There is something that means much." That earwig aside, Lady Chaplin is a more expansive and entertaining film than its predecessor. It makes one wish the series had gone on, perhaps with Lady Chaplin reappearing, but when Clark and Grieco teamed up for another spy film a year later, the actor had a new role, leaving it to those dependable Italians to make many more "Agent 077" films with different characters and actors. On the other hand, it may have been for the best for the series to end on this relatively high note.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Burt Reynolds (1936 - 2018)

In his heyday, Reynolds was more an archetype than an actor. In some ways he was the antithesis of Seventies cinema as we idealize it today. He was an oldschool movie star who, having hit it big, settled into essentially playing himself. But perhaps because he was so popular during that decade, he was tied to it, more so than his peers, in a way that dated him with surprising suddenness. At the time, as his star fell, the moral of the story was that people had tired of seeing him cavort with his cronies on screen. Reynolds was held up as the textbook case of a performer who was having a more entertaining time making his movies than audiences were having watching them. From a greater distance, he seems more like those stars of the roaring 20s who couldn't keep their popularity in the 30s even if they could speak well. Like them, arguably, Reynolds was the victim of an abrupt cultural shift that rendered his persona obsolete. Disregarding the calendar, you can mark the transition from "Seventies" to "Eighties" by the fading of Reynolds' star. Why the Eighties should have excluded him is unclear, unless you see his fall as another repudiation of essentially rustic Americana along the line of the early-seventies purge of hillbilly shows from TV. It probably tells against Reynolds as an actor that, unlike other stars who stumbled around the same time, he never really managed to reinvent his stardom despite numerous opportunities. Perhaps he was meant to be a star only at a certain moment in pop history, but the least you can say about him is that he made the most of his moment.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

KAIZOKU BAHANSEN ("The Pirates," 1960)

The director Tadashi Sawashima, who died last January at age 91, specialized in samurai and yakuza films. I suppose a pirate film would occupy a middle ground between those two categories, depending on whom the English title refers to. Depending on what you read -- I recommend an essay by the scholar Bernard Scheid in the anthology The Sea and the Sacred in Japan -- "Kaizoku Bahansen" is something of a redundancy, since both words have been translated as "pirate." Kaizoku seems to be the more unambiguous word, while bahansen, in the film's historical context, has more to do with illicit trade. During the mid 16th century CE, Japan's Sengoku or civil war period, China forbade maritime trade, but Chinese traders maintained clandestine relations with their Japanese counterparts. The argument of Sawashima's film is that the bahansen in general were peaceful traders, but acquired a bad name because a few bad apples raided and plundered coastal China, Korea, and other places. Thus, in the film, Kamon (Hashizo Okawa) is initially outraged to discover that, though raised a merchant's son, he's actually the son of a renowned bahansen. He discovers this when his natural father's old cronies press him, for all intents and purposes, into the service, though a younger leader (Eiji Okada) wants nothing to do with the landlubber. Kamon begins to change his mind when he's told that his father and mother were murdered by outright pirate Uemondayu, who's been ravaging the seas under the bahansen banner. Having some pretty girls with the fleet also helps win him over to the cause. Fortunately, he proves a natural with some innate cunning, winning a mast-climbing contest by distracting his competitor with the sight of one of those women. With his sea cred thus established it's on to high adventure on the high seas.

Toei spent some money on this film, which deploys several full-scale ships on open water, though they resort to more predictable model work on occasion and many night scenes on board are understandably shot on soundstage interiors. All in all, there's less of a ship-in-a-bottle feel here than in contemporary pirate programmers from the U.S. Sawashima directs energetically, cross cutting and moving his camera closer and closer to the principals to build up momentum for the film's sea battles and keeping his climactic shipboard fight moving at an urgent clip. If anything, his direction is most frantic and over the top in the scenes where the good bahansens return to and depart from their home port. The home folks go nuts for their seafaring heroes, their enthusiasm illustrated by insistently repetitive shots of celebration, from sailors throwing themselves into the water to meet welcoming rowboats to shots of cheering females. The director's galloping camera gives these festive scenes more of an epic feel than anything else in the picture.

In the end it's a simple story of good and evil, but its goodness of purpose is marred by a trip to a primitive island previously ravaged by Uemondayu, populated by badly blackfaced Japanese extras who give the good guys exactly the treatment you might expect from the most racist American movie, short of throwing our heroes into the proverbial stewpot. If you took offense at the Faro Island scenes from King Kong vs. Godzilla, you'd better steer clear of this picture.  But if you think you can stomach some unenlightened moments, you'll find Kaizoku Bahansen a pleasant enough adventure film that gets more entertaining as it goes along.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

TARGET FOR KILLING (Der Geheimnis der gelben Moenche, 1966)

Manfred R. Köhler's "The Secret of the Golden Monks" plays out like a hybrid movie, part Bond-inspired Eurospy action, part Edgar Wallace inspired plotting as befits the film's largely Germanic origin. While there's an unavoidable acknowledgment of the Cold War, with emphasis on both sides' dabbling in the paranormal, it's a crime story at heart. Stewart Granger, who seems to be having a good time howevermuch he despised the genre stuff he made in the Sixties, is James Vine, introduced meeting cute with a pretty girl, Sandra Perkins (Karin Dor), whom he recruits into helping him land a jetliner after the crew (including pilot Klaus Kinski) ditch it, their plan being to crash the plane with no survivors.

Kinski & Co. work for "the Giant" (Kurt Jurgens), whose inner circle includes a vaguely Asiatic hypnotist and the sadistic female operative, Tiger (Scilla Gabel). While they've collaborated with the Eastern bloc, their motives now are purely mercenary. The Giant has been hired by Sandra's uncle (Adolfo "Largo" Celi) to kill her for reasons that become clear only when Uncle himself is captured and put to the torture. It turns out that he wanted Sandra dead before she could come into her $70,000,000 inheritance, which would fall to him as her guardian. It occurs to the Giant that with a hypnotist at hand, he could get Sandra under his power and have control over her fortune rather than take whatever pittance Uncle had offered him. An interesting aspect of this otherwise unambitious story is how nearly all the villains are looking to get out of the game. The Kinski character is a particularly reluctant villain and ends up sacrificing his life to save someone else, while the Giant himself longs to retire on the proceeds of this last big score. There's something almost noirish about that, amid all the Eurospy trappings from the golden monks of the German title occupying an old cathedral to the inevitable storming of the villain's headquarters and the slaughter of his singularly incompetent troops -- the sort who'll descend an exterior staircase without cover to engage with the troop climbing upward, rather than rest on their high ground.

When it really counts, James Vine saves the day with timely explosives and by turning a mirror on a hypnotist. None of it can be taken very seriously and no one on screen really does, possibly excepting future Bond-villain Jurgens, whose low-key, businesslike villainy can be taken as a refreshing departure from genre cliche or the work of a bored performer. Granger is never less than a pro and seems to do a fair amount of his own fighting, and his apparent willingness to get into the spirit of the proceedings helps make Target For Killing a mostly pleasant diversion for an hour and a half or thereabouts.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: HOT PEPPER (1933)

Marine Corps Captain Jim Flagg (aka "the Admiral" or "His Flagship") and Sergeant Harry Quirt were created by Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings for the 1924 play What Price Glory? The 1926 film version, directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Victor McLaglen as Flagg and Edmund Lowe as Quirt, was a blockbuster hit, in part because of the implicit invitation to lip-read dialogue far more risque than you could read on the intertitles. By the time Walsh made a sequel, The Cock-Eyed World, in 1929, talkies had arrived and there was no more silent subtext; you had to take the characters at face value. This, too, was a hit, and Walsh, McLaglen and Lowe carried on with 1931's Women of All Nations, which saw the boys fightin' round the world. Fox Film went to the well one more time, without Walsh, in 1933, finally rising to the challenge of what to do with Flagg and Quirt as civilians. John G. Blystone directed, and not badly, while a team including Dudley Nichols came up with the obvious solution to the big question. Flagg and Quirt would become gangsters.

There's an oddity in the billing, with female lead Lupe Velez, playing the title character, wedged in between top billed Lowe and third billed McLaglen -- though as you'll see in our movie ad, in some places Velez was the main attraction. Of course, women always did get between Quirt and Flagg but the hierarchy seems odd since Victor McLaglen is sort of remembered today while Edmund Lowe almost certainly isn't. Anyway, the boys are finally going to try their luck in civilian life. Quirt gets a head start by cheating Flagg out of a bankroll with loaded dice, but to be fair Flagg forced the dice on him, thinking that simpleton Olsen (the ever-enigmatic El Brendel) would carry fair dice but not knowing that Quirt had gifted Olsen the loaded pair. Three years later, despite this setback, Flagg has become a successful, limo-riding bootlegger with a chain of speakeasies and floozies on each arm, while Quirt is a shabby schmoe who nearly gets run-over by his old buddy's Olsen-driven vehicle. It develops, however, that Quirt is a master shakedown artist, taking advantage of the gullibility of gangland by flashing novelty-store badges, first at Quirt and then at crooked card player Trigger (Boothe Howard), in anticipation of big bribes.

Flagg soon has a bigger problem than Quirt. A stowaway on one of his rum-running ships can get him in trouble with the immigration authorities, who seem more threatening at least in this gangster's mind than all the enforcers of Prohibition. The stowaway is Pepper (Velez) in full spitfire mode, which is pretty much what you need to deal with such master mashers as Flagg and Quirt. Once Quirt gets wind of this situation it's just one more thing he has on Flagg, but he's willing to take a chance on Pepper in more ways than one. Stealing her away from Flagg, and tricking his erstwhile buddy into a short stay in jail, Quirt gets into the niteclub business with Pepper as his star attraction, even though the place has a French theme. Pepper puts on quite a show, pretty much giving Quirt a lap dance right in front of an irate Flagg, who's returned expected elite treatment but is getting set up for another rip-off. Alas, Quirt can't flaunt his triumph for long; he's tipped off by a war-buddy turned cop that there's going to be a clean sweep of all the speakeasies the next day, but before he can think of selling out he has to deal once and for all with both Flagg and Trigger, who still wants the ten grand Quirt took from him earlier in the picture. At first Flagg is willing to let Trigger give Quirt the works, but some Marine instinct kicks in and he can't allow his comrade in arms to be treated that way. This sets up a climactic brawl in which Flagg, Quirt, Pepper and Olsen lay waste to a small army of gangsters with more chair shots than an ECW wrestling show.That leaves only the matter of who gets Pepper, but when the boys decide to settle it peacefully with a coin flip, Pepper decides she doesn't want either of them. "You can't have this head or this tail," she says of herself before storming off. With Repeal imminent, as the film accurately prophecies, there's nothing left for Flagg and Quirt but to revert to warrior ways. They hire out to the Chinese army, ending the film on a slightly embarrassing note with the burlesque assertion that "Ah, Nuts" and "Ah, Phooey" are legitimate drill commands in Chinese.

In its amoral exuberance Hot Pepper is a textbook pre-Code picture, with Velez putting it over the top not only with her lap dance but also with an earlier scene where she seduces Flagg with a protracted striptease on a long, winding staircase, stepping out of frame to let the next bit of scanties come sliding down the bannister. As Flagg and Quirt McLaglen and Lowe are pretty much the definitive ball-busting frenemies, as purely comic a team as the Marx Bros. or Wheeler and Woolsey yet clearly capable of murdering all the competition in that category with their bare hands. You rarely ever see movie clowns so convincingly thuggish apart maybe from the Fast and Furious films. With those two and Velez dominating the action El Brendel is kept to an endurable minimum and the film is more enjoyable as a result. Strange, then, that while McLaglen and Lowe teamed up for several more films this marked the end of Flagg and Quirt (on screen at least; the actors recreated the characters on radio) until they were rebooted by John Ford in 1952. Maybe, as the end of Hot Pepper suggests, there was nothing more to be done with the characters but throw them back into the military milieu; and maybe Fox lost the rights to the characters. Whatever the studio execs were thinking, it probably was for the best because with Hot Pepper as a representative vehicle it's hard to imagine what would have become of Flagg and Quirt in the era of Code Enforcement, except to guess that it would not have been good.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

KNIFE OF ICE (Il coltello di ghiaccio, 1972)

For four years, and over four films, erstwhile Hollywood "Baby Doll" Carroll Baker was the muse of Italian director Umberto Lenzi. Knife of Ice was the last of their collaborations, and apparently an effort by the producers to get in, quite late, on the Edgar Allan Poe racket. The title is allegedly rooted in a Poe line describing fear as a "knife of ice," but if you google that phrase and the name Poe, all you get are references to the Lenzi film. Whatever. It looks like they took footage from Francesco Rosi's Moment of Truth to lend a touch of morbid spectacle to the opening credits as Baker's character, Martha, watches a bullfight. Lenzi spares Baker a trip to the dubbing studio this time by making her character a hysterical mute, traumatized since childhood by the death of her parents. I suppose it's because she's not deaf that she's never learned sign language, communicating instead mostly by pantomime, sometimes by writing notes, and on the telephone by rapping on the mouthpiece in a manner presumably intelligible to her intimates. She receives a gift in the form of a recording she made as a little girl, a morbid recitation about a trial and execution. In short order, people around her start dying.

Il coltello is more a whodunit than a giallo, as there are no setpiece kills. Rather, bodies are found after the fact and clues collected mostly pointing toward some local Satanic cult. When an irreverent hippie is caught skulking around he looks all too guilty, but as the killings continue he proves a red herring. There are more likely suspects, according to movie logic, in Martha's inner circle, from the family doctor to an uncle with eccentric scholarly interests. Martha herself seems to be losing it, constantly flashing back to eyes watching her and the friends and loved ones she's lost, as someone finally comes for her.

Who done it? Could it be Satan??? 

There's some nice suspenseful business toward the end as Martha, feeling threatened, tries to make noise to get the attention of a motorcyclist, only to have the sounds drowned out by his revving engine. As clutching hands close in on her, Martha finally screams, and for a moment I thought the film was going to prove a tremendous fakeout with people pretending to be murdered so the poor woman could get her voice back. It turns out, however -- take this as a spoiler warning -- that the restoration of Martha's speech is only a side effect, the real purpose of the final attack being to take the true murderer into custody. You see, Martha didn't like it that some people could speak while she couldn't and so, possibly unbeknownst to herself, she occasionally killed them, including a beloved niece. She could confess all this in writing, so the only benefit of getting her voice back is that now, apparently totally bonkers, Martha can recite the bit from her childhood recording. None of this explains why someone had to come at her like a strangler, but the idea there, of course, is to fake the audience out one more time. In the end, Knife of Ice is mainly an exercise in audience manipulation and misdirection. While handsomely directed, its gimmickry renders it little more than a trifle that will certainly disappoint anyone expecting stronger stuff from Lenzi.