Wednesday, September 12, 2018

SPECIAL MISSION LADY CHAPLIN (1966)

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.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Too Much TV: CLOAK AND DAGGER (2018 - ?)

The catastrophic failure of The Inhumans was the effective end of Marvel Studios' relationship with the ABC broadcast network. As Agents of SHIELD limps to its conclusion next year, Marvel seeks new small-screen fields to conquer, placing Runaways on Hulu and Cloak and Dagger on Freeform, the former ABC Family Channel and long-longago Christian Broadcasting Network.   Freeform targets a young adult audience and Cloak and Dagger fits that demographic quite snugly. Showrunner Joe Pokaski pretty much recreates the characters from scratch, their origin little resembling the 1980s comics written by credited creator Bill Mantlo.  Pokaski's work on Heroes has more immediate influence on the story and the tone of the show as the young protagonists struggle to figure out exactly what they've become, not to mention why.

Ty Johnson (Aubrey Joseph) is a private-school basketball player still haunted by the officer-involved death of his older brother on the docks of New Orleans. Tandy Bowen (Olivia Holt) is a drug-addict dropout grifter still haunted by the death of her father, a scientist for the Roxxon corporation, during a major New Orleans storm. These tragedies are simultaneous, and the kids first meet when Ty, trying to recover his brother's body, ends up rescuing Tandy from her father's submerged car. Something else happened that night that only becomes apparent when  the kids become teens and meet again. Ty can teleport, often involuntarily, and can project an extra-dimensional darkness that can consume people. Tandy can make daggers of pure light appear in her hands for stabbing or throwing. She can also access people's innermost hopes and ideals when she touches them, while Ty can access their deepest fears and darkest memories. When the kids touch, their powers can complement each other or they can blast each other in opposite directions. Initially suspicious of each other, they find themselves inexorably drawn together to solve the mysteries behind their loved ones' deaths and the industrial accident that, by one account, has made them the latest in a long line of tragic saviors of New Orleans.

As a teen-hero show Cloak and Dagger is much better than Fox's The Gifted, which is too enamored and yet too aloof from X-mythology for its own good. The early confusion of the young heroes is a welcome change from the glib knowingness of most superhero TV as Ty and Tandy try to figure things out with nothing like the typical hero support network. The young actors (both are 20) convincingly portray Ty's earnest anxiety and Tandy's naive cynicism. The writers do a decent job of slow-motion world building in their isolated corner of the Marvel universe, though they sometimes overdo the folkloric angle. The scenes with Ty's girlfriend Evita (Noelle Renee Bercy) and her voodoo-priestess aunt (Angela Davis) are heavyhandedly on the nose in a way that most of the show is not, while one whole episode practically beats us over the head with "hero's journey" archetyping as Evita attends a class on Joseph Campbell. All too many hero writers have been influenced by Campbell and Campbell-influenced English classes, but none have ever acknowledged it so brazenly. The archetypal stuff feels superfluous when the show has more interesting and obvious areas to explore, from the murderous doings of Roxxon to the the apparently systemic corruption of the New Orleans police department which chews up and spits out any officer that might grow friendly toward our heroes.  As far as super powers go, for the most part the show presents them in interesting ways that emphasize how disorienting they are to their users. It's only with the first season finale that we seem to reach a creative or budgetary limit as the kids have an uninspired running battle with rage-virus victims and combine their powers in some murky way to save the city. Cloak and Dagger will be better off not reaching beyond its grasp next season, nor repeating Heroes' fatal sophomore jinx. This show is at its best when it looks at ominous conspiracies from the limited but awakening perspective of youth. It should not try to grow up too fast.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

SWORD OF SATAN (Nemuri Kyōshirō 6: Masho-ken 1965)



Raizo Ichikawa played the Japanese pulp hero Nemuri Kyoshiro in a twelve films for the Daiei studio between 1963 and his 1969 death from liver cancer at age 37. The Kyoshiro films (marketed in the U.S. as "Sleepy Eyes of Death") aren't as well known worldwide as Daiei's beloved Zatoichi series. That may be because they don't have as simply grasped a gimmick as "blind swordsman," and it may also be because, at least as far as the U.S. and Europe are concerned, there's something xenophobic about Kyoshiro's origin story. A typical wandering "rogue," his father was a "lapsed Christian" who apparently went to the dark side and performed satanic black masses. In Adventure, the sixth film of the series, we see Kyoshiro kill a lapsed Christian who uses the black mass as a cover for abortions. It's the sort of stuff that may make western audiences uncomfortable, but it's not the main story of this particular picture.


In the main story, Kyoshiro is propositioned by a prostitute who wears a Noh mask. He learns that she is a fallen aristocrat and spurns her advances. When he learns later that she has killed herself, he blames his own bad karma, due to the circumstances of his birth, for her sad end. He becomes embroiled in the fate of her young son, raised by a carpenter's family but now in line to inherit a rich fief. Needless to say the typical greedy local clan leader wants control of the boy and the fief, caring little what happens to the carpenter or for what the boy really wants, but Kyoshiro intervenes, fulfilling whatever debt he may owe to the suicide by making sure that her son can choose his own future. At the same time, he has to fend off repeated attempts on his life by Orin (Michiko Saga), the sister of a bandit Kyoshiro had killed a few films earlier. Orin is ineffectual but persistent, attacking with shuriken,snakes and much more, and for a time joins forces with the evil clan until she discovers the limits of her own villainy while holding the boy hostage.



Ichikawa gives Kyoshiro an almost self-pitying quality covered by his dedication to honor and righteousness. Between this film and the first in the series, The Chinese Jade, which I saw many years ago, I didn't get much sense of the hero's character beyond being a hero, but I give the actor credit for a heroic presence. Nemuri Kyoshiro may simply not be as well-developed a character as Shintaro Katsu's Zatoichi is. By comparison, Kyoshiro is more gimmick than character. The defining thing about him is his special sword attack, the "full moon cut," which in this film's climactic fight with the typical honorable-but-fighting-on-the-wrong side samurai looks more like cheating than skill, since sunlight reflecting from the hero's blade nearly blinds his enemy. Kyoshiro's running fights with flunkies are more one-sided but are more impressively staged with long horizontal tracking shots through a forest. It's all for a good cause, I suppose, and my criticisms aside I found this Kimiyoshi Yasuda film (he directed many Zatoichis as well as Daimajin) entertaining. I may just be easy to please when it comes to jidaigeki movies, but Daiei's programmers are consistently well made, in my experience, and this one was no exception.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

DVR Diary: TAMANGO (1958)

On one hand, John Berry's Tamango feels like a film about a decade ahead of its time in its blunt treatment of slavery and resistance. On the other, it might be of a piece with such contemporary pictures as Salt of the Earth and A King in New York, gestures of nothing-to-lose leftism from filmmakers blacklisted or effectively exiled from Hollywood. This was a time when the film mecca could still produce stuff like Band of Angels with Clark Gable as a sympathetic slaveowner. In Europe, Berry and a team of writers adopted a story by Prosper Merimee, the original author of Carmen, about a blighted romance between a slave ship captain and his black mistress Ayesha -- she who must obey. The girl is Dorothy Dandridge, going farther afield in search of work after Hollywood failed to do much with her. The captain is that improbable international he-man, Curt Jurgens. She thinks she has a privileged position as the captain's lover, but is told he plans to dump her and get married when he finishes the current middle passage, his last. That is his plan, but he finds Ayesha more difficult to dump than he thought. Meanwhile, a captive warrior, the title character (Alex Cressan) appeals to her sense of morality and racial solidarity. When Tamango leads an uprising, Ayesha must choose between her white lover and the outgunned but adamant Africans. She chooses the Africans, which is to choose death.

Jurgens carries the film, making his slaver something more subtle than a seaborne Simon Legree. He has a great scene when he tries to cajole some hunger-striking prisoners to eat. He addresses them patiently, soothingly explaining how good the food is. When one still refuses to eat, he lets it slide, merely suggesting that he might try it later. But when the next man knocks his bowl away, the captain gestures to his crew and the victim is abruptly grabbed and unceremoniously thrown into the sea. It's a great shock moment to remind the viewer that lethal force never lies far below the slavers' civilized surface. During the revolt, he's determined above all to make sure that Ayesha survives, and you can see some quiet agony as it becomes clear to him that she won't leave the hold and prefers to share the rebels' fate. Yet it seems he can write her off all too easily after he orders a cannon fired into the hold. Dandridge has a much more flamboyant moment of agony moments earlier as Ayesha's survival instinct struggles with her conscience, with a feeling that she should not abandon the rebels even if it means her death. In a way it's a camp moment out of classic cinema, almost out of silent cinema as she marches toward the steps to the deck while the rebels chant some sort of defiant death song. She's about to climb up as the song seems to possess her. Haltingly she babbles the syllables, almost not knowing what she's saying, until finally she gives in completely as if ironically liberated by her choice of certain death. I can't quite say hers is a great performance, but that's a great melodramatic movie moment. It's right, however, to close the film with Jurgens and the cannon in Berry's abruptly matter-of-fact fashion. Snuffing the romanticism of Dandridge's big scene that way drives home the indifferent injustice of slavery in effective fashion. Tamango's grim finish helps make it seem more like a Sixties of Seventies film than the Fifties film it is, though Dandridge's histrionics are more in keeping with that decade. Compared to later slavesploitation cinema, Tamango is arguably more politically correct because it insists on the dignity of the enslaved in a way more hard-hitting treatments of the peculiar institution would not. That doesn't make it a better film than, say, Farewell Uncle Tom, but Tamango definitely deserves more attention from movie buffs than it's received in the last sixty years.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

FROM THE ORIENT WITH FURY (Agente 077 dall'oriente con furore, 1965)

Overshadowed by the nation's spaghetti westerns, Italian spy films of the 1960s are seen as poor knockoffs of the James Bond franchise rather than the creative revision of a genre. If the "Eurospy" genre has a Sergio Leone or Sergio Corbucci, I don't know of him. It's definitely not Sergio Grieco, or "Terence Hathaway," as he called himself when making spy films. He has neither the bold eye of Leone nor the dark dynamism of Corbucci. Nevertheless, filming on location in Paris, Madrid and Istanbul, he invests the routine proceedings with a certain seedy authenticity. You get the feeling that his settings might be where real spying would take place.


Grieco's "Agent 077," Dick Malloy, is American actor Ken Clark, a blond lummox who previously starred in Attack of the Giant Leeches. He carries himself with a certain self-amused arrogance as we find him fighting around the world until his boss calls in the middle of a barroom brawl. It's up to Malloy to rescue Professor Kurtz (Ennio Balbo), the inventor of the disintegrating "beta ray," who has been kidnapped by Goldwyn, (Franco Ressel), some sort of supercriminal -- he's not a commie because they only show up much later -- burdened with the same haughty voice that often dubbed authority figures in peplum movies.


The hunt for Kurtz involves a lot of pulpy details. Told to listen to a Beethoven record, 077 finds a clue inside the record sleeve. Important information changes hands when the two jagged halves of a coin are mated. More importantly, Malloy meets many women on his quest, including the doctor's daughter (Fabienne Dali) and Goldwyn's moll (Evi Marandi), as well as a wealthy Spaniard who joins the chase for awhile on a lark and a female agent from 077's organization first encountered in a shower. The category of pulchritude is easily where the 077 films are most competitive with the Bond movies.


From the Orient (no further east than Turkey, actually) arguably anticipates later Bond pictures in creating vignettes spotlighting comical cameos. In this case, spaghetti stalwart Fernando Sancho struggles to steal his scene as a Spanish tourist in a Paris dive who mistakes Malloy's brawl with Goldwyn's goons for an exciting floor show. Thinking of it as entertainment doesn't stop him from getting involved in the action himself, which pretty much kills whatever dramatic tension the scene was meant to have -- though to be fair, there may have been no dramatic tension intended. As early as 1965, the year of Thunderball, there was already more than a hint of parody in many of the Bond imitations.


This film is still more action than comedy, though the  line blurs quite a bit at the climax, when Goldwyn, previously a model of evil reserve, cackles like a maniacal child with a new toy as he blasts everything in sight with Kurtz's death ray. When it comes to just plain fighting Clark handles himself reasonably well; he at least looks plausible as a semi-suave goon. He and Grieco clearly had some sort of rapport, as they made five films together during the spy craze. This is the second of three 077 films they made (the third was a collaboration with Alberto de Martino), and while From the Orient is nothing extraordinary I enjoyed the location atmosphere and energetic idiocy enough to be willing to try another.

Monday, July 23, 2018

THE LURE (Córki dancingu, 2015)

Imagine a cross between an AIP beach movie and All That Jazz and you come close to Agnieszka Smoczyńska's perhaps unwitting contribution to the urban fantasy genre. From a different perspective, perhaps it belongs in the same category as Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a near contemporary film and another quirky woman's take on familiar horror tropes. It's a vividly grungy fantasy with the tragic quality of many an authentic fairy tale, and it clearly has something to earn almost instant canonization in the Criterion Collection, if only Janus Film's involvement in its U.S. distribution last year.


Set in a time approximately contemporary with Splash!, The Lure tells what might happen if that film's protagonist, a mermaid, made a wrong turn on her way to America and ended up in a decadent Communist bloc country. This film is twice as good, however, because there are two mermaids! In fact, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) are on their way to the U.S.A. when they're drawn to some Polish shore by a trashy rock trio jamming on the beach. These three could be father, mother and son, though they probably aren't. They perform regularly at the sort of trashy nightclub you might not have expected to exist in a Warsaw Pact nation, and recognizing the significance of their catch, they propose adding the finny girls, naturally topless to their act.  The mermaids can transform their tails into simulacra of human legs, but lack sex organs in that state, though they do not lack sexual desire. They could be a global cultural phenomenon but appear content to be, so to speak, big fish in a small pond.

Above, the mermaids show their true faces. Below, for a 1980s nightclub act they look a lot like a 
Commander Lexa tribute band. 

While Golden (the one who isn't blond) still sees people, with apparently one exception, as food, Silver (the blond) falls for Mietek (Jakud Gierszal) the boy in the band. He tells her he can only think of her as an animal, but she can take steps, so to speak, to correct that. Silver is your classic Hans Christian Andersen/Walt Disney mermaid, willing to sacrifice her identity and risk her existence to win a landlubber's love. She opts for a preposterous lower-body transplant. Even more preposterously, it works, though Mietek gets grossed out by her all over again when they try sex before she's fully healed. A singer in another band lures her away, putting Silver in mortal peril. By the rules of her kind, if you love a man but he marries another, you turn to sea foam -- unless you eat him, as Golden urges her to do.


In an interview, Smoczyńska says that the mermaid story was the hook that enabled her to make a movie about the seedy show-business milieu she grew up in. The result is inevitably more fantastic than whatever she originally intended, but I suppose there was something fantastical about that milieu of people struggling to live their dreams or embody other people's dreams. Perhaps liberated by the fantasy element, she makes her film a full-blown musical by staging a classical-style set piece with people bursting into song into a surprisingly well-stocked (for 1980s Poland, I presume) department store as the mermaids take their first-ever shopping trip. That exuberant excess makes The Lure more tragicomic than tragic, but also more opera than musical comedy. Inevitably more prickly than quirky than any American approach to the subject you can imagine, it still feels like a genuine 21st century fairy tale. Playing here in 2017, it makes an interesting companion piece to The Shape of Water and makes that film look like pure Hollywood pap by comparison. That's not to say that The Lure is the better film by any standard, but it's definitely the more grim fairy tale of the two, if that's what you're looking for in your sea-creature romances.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: DIPLOMANIACS (1933)

Ever since I read Harry Jenkins' What Made Pistachio Nuts?, a critical account of the rise and fall of vaudeville-inspired "nut" comedy in the early sound era, I've wanted to see Diplomaniacs, a Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle Jenkins treated as an exemplar of the subgenre's disregard for conventional narrative. What mattered most was not narrative coherence or traditional appeals to morals or emotions, Jenkins wrote, but giving the star performers opportunities to do their distinctive thing. In time nut comedy was supplanted by screwball comedy and other "classical" subgenres that offered audiences a more comfortable immersion in cinematic fantasy worlds, but for a time the novelty of funny voices and a certain sense of cynical absurdity in the face of the Depression made comics like Wheeler and Woolsey popular. Their films were personal showcases, but in retrospect, their fame having long since faded compared to the Marx Bros., the pair seem more like cogs in comic machines, consistent with what's struck me as a tendency of their home studio, RKO, to reduce comic actors to human cartoons. Diplomaniacs is an especially infernal machine, directed by William A. Seiter but effectively devised by co-writer Joseph L. Manckiewicz, who trod similar pseudo-political territory the previous year with Paramount's Million Dollar Legs. In other words, Diplomaniacs is in the same neighborhood as Duck Soup, and shares some cast members, but Jenkins warns us against thinking of any of these films primarily as political satires. Politics, he argues, only provided a setting appropriate for the antics of the nut comics. Films like these are anti-war only insofar as they're anti-everything.

The film opens on a note of initially questionable relevance, informing us that American Indians don't grow facial hair, as demonstrated by one specimen showing us his left and right profile. This isn't as surreal as it looks, since it leads to our discovery that Wheeler and Woolsey, or whatever they're calling themselves this time, are running a barber shop on an Oklahoma reservation. Here's a real history lesson for you: the boys are flopping because the barber business back then depended on people coming in regularly to be shaved instead of showing up periodically for a trim. Despite this miscalculation, the oil-rich tribe finds a use for the barbers. Hearing them pontificate on foreign affairs (one of the film's few coherent editorial points is that many nations are deadbeats when it comes to debts they owe the U.S.), the Oxford-educated chief who enters in a limo and is almost too erudite for our heroes to comprehend commissions them to represent his nation at the latest round of Geneva peace talks. Given the generous expense account that comes with the work, the Indians expect results. Should the neophyte diplomats (later explicitly identified in the press as "diplomaniacs") fail to negotiate a favorable settlement, including a permanent anti-war pledge, the chief will turn them into gorillas. Is this typical native witch-doctoring? Since the chief keeps a caged ape he claims was once the most beautiful woman in Paris, it's best for the boys not to take chances.

Recognizing the Oopa-Doop tribe's intervention in international affairs as a potential game-changer like the emergence of Wakanda, powerful arms manufacturer Winklereid (Louis Calhern, Groucho's antagonist in Duck Soup) and his Chinaman-for-hire (Hugh Herbert) scheme to sabotage the Indian mission. Naturally, what you do in such a situation is order up a vamp. Amazon today has nothing on the technology of Diplomaniacs; no sooner has Chow Chow called in the order than the vamp, wrapped in plastic, arrives through a delivery chute. Regrettably, the script doesn't follow up on the possibility that Dolores (Marjorie White) is some kind of robot, but I suppose it's funnier to imagine a real person getting dispatched to her new job in that fashion. Recognizing later that there are two men to vamp, Winklereid and his entourage visit the Dead Rat cafe to recruit uber-seductress Fifi (Phyllis Barry), whose kisses can set people on fire internally and make dangerous projectiles when blown at you. You see, Wheeler and Woolsey usually get love interests in their pictures, and here they are, only marginally more dedicated to their malevolent tasks than the Marxes were when they were hired as hitmen in Monkey Business.


That's about enough set-up. From this point the film is pretty much a sequence of set pieces climaxing when our heroes finally arrive, in appropriate Alpine gear, at the Geneva conference where Edgar Kennedy (Chico and Harpo's antagonist from Duck Soup) presides in two-fisted fashion. There's no time for slow burns in this picture; Kennedy goes from zero to machine gun in career-best time here. During an acrobatic performance the diplomaniacs argue incoherently in favor of an anti-war resolution while Winklereid, taking no chances, throws a classic cartoon bomb into the conference room. The resulting sooty explosion transforms the representatives of many nations into African-Americans, down to the fat white lips shown by such typical specimens of the race as Al Jolson and Eddy Cantor. More than six months before Duck Soup, we get a spiritually-inflected musical number affirming that "All God's Chillun Want Peace." Later, the bomb having failed, Winklereid and his fellow conspirators consider killing the imminently successful diplomaniacs with an experimental explosive bullet, but succeed only in vaporizing themselves, leaving only their clothes to float where they were left. Fortunately, Winklereid's fallback plan of planting a forged treaty on the boys succeeds beyond expectations. Once the fake news is exposed, the film ends with the world at war, Wheeler and Woolsey drafted into the U.S. army (perhaps for gorilla warfare?) and the bad guys looking down with approval from a heavenly cloud.

Damn! Diplomaniacs really does outdo Jenkins' description.It's a comedy of absolute ruthlessness with no pretense of likability unless you, like some girl in each film in the series, find Bert Wheeler strangely cute. Its almost ideological absurdity is highlighted by Hugh Herbert's performance as Chow Chow, the whole point of which is the absurdity of the casting. Chow Chow kvetches at Winklereid from the moment of his arrival, lapses into odd ethnic accents, experiences a flashback of his mother when meeting the notorious Fifi, comments that white vamps, compared to those of other colors, get dirty more easily, and utters proverbs such as "Sex of one, half dozen of another." In the picture's most flamboyant act of narrative vandalism, Chow Chow quits his role as Winklereid's henchman in mid-picture, climbing down from a tree branch and starting home from Paris to China. Shortly afterward, we find him sailing homeward, passing a floating signpost laden with advertising. A few minutes later, we cut back to him arriving in China, where Mrs. Chow Chow berates him for arriving five years late for dinner. During that time she acquired several small children because, as she explains, she wanted to surprise him.  Digressions like this one make Diplomaniacs look more stylistically up-to-date than it might have been when Jenkins was writing his books. People who watch it should find it very reminiscent, if not pre-miniscent, of today's absurdist prime-time cartoons, and its overall everything's-a-joke attitude can be found all over the place in our time, sometimes to an unpleasant degree. As a Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle it's whatever; those two haven't stood the test of time in cultural consciousness because they never really developed, either verbally or visually, personae as readily recognized and embraced as those of the Marxes. But as a comedy picture Diplomaniacs is a belligerent blitzkrieg that may be more simply stunning than purely funny but is nevertheless an amazing hour to sit through if you get the chance.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

DVR Diary: SANDOKAN THE GREAT (...la tigre di Mompracem, 1964)

The late Umberto Lenzi (he died in October 2017) may be best known today for his cannibal films of the 1970s. He started out making period adventure films, and by 1964 he was assigned an Italian pop-culture icon: Sandokan, the anti-imperialist Malaysian pirate hero of Emilio Salgari's novels published between 1883 and 1913. Contemporaneously with Italy's infamous failure to conquer Ethiopia and the establishment of colonial rule over Libya, Salgari's protagonist battled the ever-expanding British empire. The anti-colonial 1960s were a ripe time for a Sandokan revival with Steve "Hercules" Reeves in the title role. Sandokan the Great, as it was called in the U.S., was the first of a four-film series, the first two of which starred Reeves under Lenzi's direction. The series carried on with a new director and Ray Danton as Sandokan while Lenzi made two more exploitation pictures featuring a character called Sandok, offered as "The Maciste of the Jungle." In the premiere outing Reeves traipses about in a costume out of Hollywood's Arabian Knights fantasies and is overall less concerned with flexing his famous muscles than with something more like swashbuckling. He, his tea-obsessed sidekick Yanez from Portuguese-ruled Goa (Andrea Bosic) and Sandokan's mostly-loyal followers wage guerrilla warfare against the Brits, who answer less to the empire proper than to a character here called Lord Bromm who is really John Brooke, the historical White Rajah of Sarawak, the big bad of Salgari's books. Along the way Sandokan kidnaps a British official's daughter who gradually becomes radicalized (Genevieve Grad) and must worry about a traitor within his ranks. The traitor mystery is handled rather half-assedly and the action overall is rather unspectacular, and quite landlocked for the adventures of a reputed pirate, until we come to the climactic attack on a British fort, where Reeves gets to show some strength and the pace quickens as we near the end. The film's main assets are Lenzi's locations and Reeves's reliably heroic presence. Apart from the exotic locales and the appearance of a somewhat less civilized yet friendly tribe, nothing here really suggests what Lenzi will become as a director. Compared to his horror films Sandokan is kiddie stuff, and it probably was such on its own terms. TCM broadcast Sandokan recently while you can find its immediate sequel, as I did years ago, in some cheapo Mill Creek boxed sets. If you don't expect much from them they make for undemanding light entertainment with just a hint of progressive political consciousness to make it worth some people's while, but not so much to turn others off.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018) in SPOILERVISION

Director Peyton Reed, star and co-writer Paul Rudd and the supporting cast for 2015's Ant-Man return for the inevitable sequel, and if you've seen the first one, you've pretty much seen this one. Last seen on the losing side of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Rudd) was sentenced to house arrest and is days away from completing his sentence when a strange vision brings him back into contact with his estranged mentor, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and Pym's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), still fugitives held responsible for Lang's use of Pym's shrinking-growing suit during the 2016 conflict. Coincident with the Pyms' attempt to contact the quantum realm, where Janet Van Dyne was lost thirty years earlier, Lang has a vision suggesting that during his short time in the quantum realm he had somehow made contact with the original Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer, returning to superhero cinema after more than a quarter-century). Much as they resent Lang for forcing them into a fugitive life, the Pyms realize that he's essential to their plan to rescue Janet through all manner of quantum-this, quantum-that technology. Not only must Lang risk a longer sentence for breaking house arrest, and not only must the Pyms perform delicate science on the run, but all three have to deal with people muscling in on their work. A gangster (Walton Goggins) who'd provided the Pyms with crucial components for their projects now wants commercial control over their work, while a super-powered interloper who comes to be called Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) wants access to the quantum realm to cure her chronic intangibility, the by-product of an accident that killed her father, a former Pym colleague. Meanwhile, the audience expects the Infinity War to break out at any moment, and when it does in mid-credits, the consequences are dire.

That necessary business aside, has any film ever been more about fathers and daughters than this one? Not only do we continue the daughter-surpassing-the-father storyline of the first film, as Hope gets a shrinking costume of her own, and not only are we reminded of Scott's bond with his young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson), but even Ghost has a father figure in yet another of Pym's old partners, rival scientist and long-ago "Black Goliath" Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne). Resentment of Pym conflicts with humanitarian instincts as Foster initially strives to help Ghost but ultimately recoils from the selfish ruthlessness of the former SHIELD assassin, who has a mad notion of leeching quantum energy from Janet Van Dyne, should the good guys reach her, in order to save herself. I'm not sure what the point of this triplication is, unless the point is that these storylines are increasingly common as we insist on female empowerment in genre cinema. Whatever the point, Ghost is an entertaining enough villain but suffers from having to share the screen with Goggins and his gangsters, while everyone suffers from the involvement of a bunch of FBI idiots and especially from the return of Scott Lang's ex-con buddies (Michael Pena, Tip Harris and David Dastmalchian), who are now his partners in a budding security business. Those three were just about insufferable in the first film, and there's no question of their insufferability in the sequel. The film, really a Marvel B-movie, is bloated by comedy relief, including a reprise of the storytelling gimmick from the first film in which Pena's character recaps previous events, putting his words in the other actors' mouths. It was interesting the first time, but never since. At least Pena has some natural likability and his character has something of a personality. Dastmalchian's personality boils down to superstition, and Harris doesn't even have that. Nor is Rudd himself particularly hilarious in his comic showcases; Scott Lang often seems more like a shtick than a character, and it's hard to know what more can be done with him, even as we're promised that he'll return in another sequel if not sooner.

For all that the comedy was tiresome, the action kept me interested. While the fight choreography itself is nothing special, the idea of people who can shrink and grow (though the Wasp never becomes giant like Lang can) fighting someone who can turn insubstantial gives an inventive quality to the battles between Ghost and the title characters. I was also amused by the chase scenes with shrunken cars racing through San Francisco, which seem partly an homage to the toy-car chase scene in the SF-set The Dead Pool. These bits are good enough for me to spare Ant-Man and the Wasp a thumbs-down, though the stale comedy parts make it slightly worse than the original film. Both are definitely lower-tier Marvel films, but that seems to be understood by all going in. It also seemed to be understood that something light and possibly funny was needed after the sturm und drang of Infinity War and before the heavy lifting of its sequel next year. That the Ant-Man films are mere programmers by Marvel standards shouldn't be held against them, but I think we have a right to expect a third film to escape the rut the filmmakers seem determined to drive the series into. More of the same next time will be more difficult to forgive.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

EDGE OF ETERNITY (1959)

The main selling point for Don Siegel's thriller was that  it was shot, in Cinemascope, on location at the Grand Canyon. This was probably not as impressive as it could have been had a Cinerama camera not already been flown through the canyon several years earlier. Still, many people probably hadn't seen any Cinerama by 1959, so there was no doubt some thrill and novelty to seeing planes fly through and stuntmen cavorting on a cable car above the abyss. These thrills aside, Edge of Eternity is a pretty basic mystery story. It opens with a failed attempt at vehicular homicide at the canyon's edge, the intended victim eliminating his attacker only to be done in a few scenes later. It's up to Deputy Les Martin (Cornell Wilde) to figure out whodunit despite the distraction of speed-demon heiress Janice Kendon (Victoria Shaw). After leading him on a merry, picturesque chase early on, Janice provides Les an entry into her wealthy gold-mining family, including her crabby dad and her drunken brother. People get on Les's case for failing to crack the murder case quickly, but Janice's eye for fashion finally provides a crucial clue tying the victim, if not his initial attacker, to the mining interests around the canyon, ranging from gold to guano.


Siegel's writers try to keep things mysterious by having a later killing carried out POV camera = killer style, but it only looks awkward and evasive. Toward the end, the killer is revealed without anyone on the screen having deduced his identity from clues, though I suppose some in the audience may have guessed the culprit by process of elimination. His discovery sets up the big thrill climax on the guano car, but the thrill of actuality is undermined every time Siegel cuts from the long shot of the stuntmen to the studio close-ups of Wilde et al in front of rear projections. The location stuff is nice to look at, though, thanks to Burnett Guffey's cinematography, and seeing the juggernaut cars of the era in action is always fun. Even with the special attraction of the Canyon this is little more than a B picture, and as such its diverting enough without lasting long enough to waste your time.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

DVR Diary: UP TO HIS EARS (Les Tribulations d'un Chinois en Chine, 1965)

Whoever wrote the introduction for the recent Turner Classic Movies broadcast of Philippe de Broca's film was determined to categorize this and the director's previous team-up with Jean Paul Belmondo, That Man From Rio, as James Bond knockoffs or at least James Bond-inspired. But you can just as easily assign Up To His Ears to the international Jules Verne cycle dating back to 1954's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. It's adapted from an 1879 Verne story, "The Misadventures of a Chinaman in China," wherein the great Frenchman apparently invented the idea of a man contracting for his own death, only to change his mind. De Broca and writer Daniel Boulanger updated the story to their present day and made the title character a Hong Kong-based French businessman (Belmondo) who, believing his fortune lost, wants to end it all. He's convinced by his Chinese friend Mr. Goh (Valery Inkijinoff) to take out a policy to ensure that his fiancee (and her parasite parents) will be taken care of. Very quickly reconsidering, he and faithful servant Leon (Jean Rochefort) must trek through Asia to find Mr. Goh in order to cancel the hit. Along the way, he acquires two incompetent bodyguards and a more likely life partner in Alexandrine Pinardel (Ursula Andress), an aspiring writer earning her way as an exotic dancer. In one of the film's many surreal touches, she's introduced doing a striptease in reverse, and later in the picture I suppose the idea of having her wash ashore on a beach after a shipwreck could have been inspired by her iconic entrance in Dr. No. While Goh only meant to teach our hero to appreciate life, his prospective in-laws decide that they'd like to cash in that policy after all, and eventually an obese American gangster, "the Al Capone of the South Seas" (Joe Said) decides to kill him on general principles.

Up to His Ears is episodic and ultimately overlong, the sort of film that looks to be wrapping up at least half an hour before it actually ends. In that respect it might be inspired more by It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World than by any other picture, but let's remember that the French themselves invented sight-gag slapstick cinematic comedy and need no inspiration from elsewhere. Some of the gags here are truly inspired, none more so to me than the bit that finds our hero and his servant on a shaky rope bridge in the Himalayas. Inevitably they go over the side (or was it through) and descend dangling from a near-infinite rope of clothes disgorging from a suitcase. The thoughtful servant always makes a point of pinning his master's clothes together for trips like these, you see -- and one may assume that the clothes are all double stitched. Other moments are striking for their juxtaposition of silent-comedy style action in exotic Asian settings, as when our heroes struggle to escape a Nepalese village via a rope ladder dangling from a hot-air balloon, or when Belmondo in a stage-magician's costume gets into a fighting chase on the scaffolding of a tall building, as if Harold Lloyd were playing Fantomas. I don't think it's as good as That Man From Rio or my favorite from the Belmondo-de Broca team, the tragicomic swashbuckler Cartouche, but it's still terrifically entertaining just to look at. Belmondo is a kind of French Cary Grant, capable of being both the epitome of cool and, as here, playing an utter clown, while de Broca is more like a French Blake Edwards. I couldn't help thinking that the Mirisch Company should have hired them to do that Inspector Clouseau movie back when Edwards and Peter Sellers weren't interested. I can't guarantee that such a thing would have been good, but I would have liked to see them try. In any event, there are still more of their actual team-ups for me to see, those the three I have seen are just about enough to earn Belmondo and de Broca a place among the great comic actor-director teams.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Too Much TV: LOST IN SPACE (2018 - ?)

As a kid, I hated Lost in Space. I pretty much hated all those silly shows from the mid-Sixties that dominated syndicated TV when I was growing up. I even went through that comics fan's phase when you hate Batman until you appreciate how funny it is on its own terms. But Irwin Allen's sci-fi show only ever seemed stupid, part of a profound dumbing down of American TV that came when the major networks went all-color. It's one of those shows reputed to be less dumb and kiddified in its one black-and-white season, but I've never had the courage to try verifying that for myself. Suffice it to say that if any title could stand a radical reboot on the Battlestar Galactica model, it was Lost in Space. But would the presumed target audience recognize the new thing as Lost in Space without the sniveling comedy relief and the snarky robot and the goofy aliens they and the rest of the crew met every week? Or was I wrong about who the target audience was? Was the familiar name only meant to get people's attention while the show itself catered to more modern story expectations and sensibilities.

The new creative team had credentials possibly worthy of Irwin Allen, having written the better-than-expected Dracula Untold but also the recent Power Rangers reboot movie and such big flops as The Last Witch Hunter and Gods of Egypt. Their end product, however, is more modest and straightforward than that filmography might anticipate. The new show's main line of revision is a familiar one: female empowerment. In the new story of humans fleeing their dying planet, the mother, Maureen Robinson (Molly Parker) is the real leader with the major scientific and technical credentials, while her estranged husband John  (Toby "Captain Flint" Stephens) is basically a grunt, though an elite one as a Navy SEAL. As for the kids, the teenage girls Judy (Taylor Russell) and Penny (Mina Sundwall) are the real brains. Good old Will Robinson (Maxwell Jenkins) is no slouch, but Mom had to fake some test results after an attack of nerves left the boy with a score unfit for space colonization. To top things off, the old show's villain-turned-clown,Dr.Smith, literally has his identity stolen by the show's new, somewhat darker antagonist. June Harris (Parker Posey) got into space by poisoning her sister and stealing her identity. During the panic created by a mysterious robot attack (You can't really do a gender flip here), she steals the ID badge of one "Z. Smith" (Billy Mumy!) to  get access to a landing craft. We haven't learned yet after the first season whether June has any vocation other than survival, but she applies herself to her calling with a subtle ruthlessness, insinuating herself into the Robinsons' temporary household while constantly watching for ways to turn them against each other, and also coveting the alien robot, which has somehow bonded with Will, as her ultimate defense against other people. Because "Smith" is female, she's likely to remind viewers of the archetypal female "from hell" of Lifetime movies, but there's a purity to June's sociopathy, unleavened so far by any sexuality, that makes her almost inhuman, yet fascinating to observe. She's almost perfectly amoral, utterly incapable of imagining that she may not deserve to survive, and for that she may actually seem more sympathetic to today's narcissists than her male model was fifty years ago.

As with any reboot of an old TV series, there's both more and less story here than in the original. The first season is one ten-part story and future seasons will no doubt be likewise, and while modern shows lose out on variety of stories they usually gain in emotional depth. Inevitably modern shows focus more on the relationships among regular characters than on the interventions of guest stars, and with the new Lost in Space you get the now-expected family tensions as well as the addition of a larger supporting cast (along with Ignacio Serricchio as a new, roguish Don West) promising a wider range of relationships. Of course, we may never see those supporting players again after the season-ending cliffhanger that sees the Robinsons, West and "Smith" sucked through a wormhole, but even if being lost in space means getting cut off from the rest of humanity, it wouldn't surprise me if the rest of the Resolute crew reappear at some point, since the imperative for relationships makes the current situation too potentially incestuous for anyone's good. For all that, on some level, or for some viewers, this is still a show about a boy and his robot, and by keeping that relationship near the forefront the new show manages to be recognizably Lost in Space while retaining its options to expand the story in any number of promising directions. If the new creators play their cards right, their show could come closer to pleasing everybody than the original ever did.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

THE TROJAN HORSE (La guerra di Troia, 1961)

In the absence of a definitive beginning-to-end narrative of the Trojan War, writers ever since have told the story to suit themselves. Giorgio Ferroni's Trojan Horse is an attempt to fill the gap between Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid, stressing Aeneas's heroic role during the last stage of the war, after the death of Hector. With Steve Reeves as Aeneas you have to wonder how the Greeks could prevail, since the ancestor of Romans is shown to be stronger than Ajax and a better fighter than Achilles. To be fair, this film's Achilles (Arturo Dominici) is a lot older than you might expect and invincible only by repute. Still, it's an original idea of this film, as far as I know, that Aeneas had Achilles at the point of mortal defeat before glory-hog Paris hit the Myrmidon leader with his famous poisoned arrow.


Fans of Wolfgang Petersen's Troy will be horrified to learn that Paris (Warner Bentivegna) is the villain of this piece. On top of the war being his fault, he feels that his royal status entitles him to military leadership when Aeneas, who also loves Paris's sister Creusa, is clearly more qualified. He blows a chance to defeat the Greeks decisively when Aeneas arrives with fresh allies after a diplomatic mission because he resents the hero taking the initiative without his say-so, and his blind vanity brings the title construct, the instrument of Troy's destruction, within the city's gates. Paris is also the picture's most interesting character because it treats him in almost noirish fashion as a hapless sap of a victim of that apex femme fatale, Helen of Troy (Hedy Vessel). Almost a living Barbie, Helen sees the handwriting on the wall for Paris and his city and can't be bothered hiding her contempt.


The best scene in the film has nothing to do with Aenas: after the Greeks inside the horse have opened the gates, Paris panics and asks Helen what he should do. She makes a few disinterested suggestions but surmises that he'll simply wait there to be killed. Sure enough, the angry ex, Menelaus of Sparta (Nando Tamberlani) appears with vengeance on his mind. He slaps a tiara off Helen's head, then orders Paris to pick it up and wear it. He then orders Paris onto a bed, but before you can worry about what he has in mind he stabs the pathetic Trojan. He then orders Helen to deliver the deathblow and kill whatever memory she has of Paris as a romantic hero, but this proves unnecessary, first because Paris dies quick and second because Helen had given up on him long ago. Epic stuff in its own way.


The more I see peplum films in their proper widescreen format, the more respect I have for their production values. All you need to do is watch Mill of the Stone Women to appreciae what Giorgio Ferroni was capable of visually, and while Trojan Horse is nowhere near the level of that minor masterpiece of production design the film does boast some impressive Trojan sets and reasonable sized armies in action. Unfortunately, it has the common failing of may films of its genre: uninspired combat. The duels pitting Aeneas against Achilles and Ajax aren't awful by any means, but the full-scale battle scenes are lifeless, mere assemblages of men waving swords or javelins at each other until told to stop. Of course, people probably didn't go to these movies to see hordes of soldiers fighting. They went to see the musclemen do their thing, and as far as that goes all I need to say is that Reeves is presented convincingly as an epic hero. Fans of the Aeneid may be disappointed by the absence of the hero's father Anchises, but Reeves presumably got to trod more Virgilian territory in the sequel to this picture, The Avenger, which if all goes well you should read more about this summer.