Monday, January 15, 2018

SINGAPORE (1960)

While the "Bollywood" practice of integrating songs into practically every genre of film has deep Indian cultural roots, it's not really much different in that respect from the melodramas of the Anglo-American stage. Not too long ago, in the long view, American producers could stick musical numbers in the middle of the grim antislavery drama Uncle Tom's Cabin in a way that would be as jarring to American audiences now as Bollywood melodramas often are at first glance. At some point, the English-language tradition evolved toward unity in tone in any given work, while the melodramatic tradition survived for a time in singing cowboy films. And yet, watching Shakti Shamanta's Singapore, I could imagine it becoming a model for American musical thrillers -- films where, say, Gene Kelly might get involved in international intrigue or noirish crime and still do his expected song and dance routines. Singapore itself looks more like Dean Martin and Lou Costello teaming up to solve a mystery in an exotic land. Shammi Kapoor, its Dean, is Shayam, a playboy businessman who travels to Singapore to investigate the disappearance of the manager of his rubber plantation. Agha, a comic who reportedly modeled himself on Bob Hope but strikes me as a Costello type, albeit without so much infantile whining, is Chachoo, one of Shayam's Singapore office flunkies who becomes the hero's sidekick and guide to the island city-state in its last days of British rule.


On the plane to Singapore Shayam meets cute with Maria Wango (Maria Menado), who has femme fatale written all over her. On the island, he'll be torn between Maria and the Indian dancer Lata (Padmini), but his main concern is tracking down his friend and  manager, whose disappearance seems linked to rumors of a buried treasure on the plantation. Lata's uncle is involved in the shady dealings, as is a mysterious gang boss, a female with a slouch hat, sunglasses and a scarf to cover her nose and mouth. While even the simplest viewer probably will recognize this as Maria Wango at first glance, the film teases us awhile by letting circumstantial evidence appear to incriminate Chachoo's secretary and love interest, Chu Chin Chu. Relying on disguises and sheer bluster, Shayam infiltrates the criminal gang in order to rescue his manager and a growing list of captives, and finally ends up clinging for his life to the side of a helicopter while Maria tries to pry him off.

 Chachoo finds a crucial clue in a gimmicked bottle of Vat 69.

It's always entertaining to see other countries' movie characters play tourist just as Americans did in this era. Singapore, largely shot on location, serves as a charming, albeit monochromatic travelogue of the place at a turning point in its history. Kapoor and his leading ladies, and a gaggle of amateurish chorus girls, perform a number of numbers at various local attractions, usually with crowds of spectators looking on. Our tour of Singapore covers some cultural attractions and a lot of consumer showcases, including some sort of shopping arcade with an array of brand-name products that isn't quite as amazing as Kapoor's rhapsodies make it out to be. What these numbers lack in sharp choreography they make up for in picturesque interest.

In disguise, Shayam is the Mullah of Rock-n-Rullah!

It's also fun to observe other cultures' stereotypes of other cultures. Exhibit A in Singapore is Shayam's lengthy imposture as a Pathan (aka Pashtun) thug who boasts, in order to infiltrate the kidnap gang, that it's his destiny to murder nine people and he still has three to kill. Kapoor's blustery performance would be equivalent, I suppose, to an American character making himself up as a Native American and threatening to scalp-um everybody who crosses him. I don't know if Indian cinema can still get away with that sort of thing, especially at a time when Pashtun bloodthirstiness probably seems far from funny to most people.


Still, whatever stereotyping Singapore is up to should be taken no more seriously than anything else in the picture. It's a shaggy dog of a movie, overlong by U.S. standards as Bollywood films often are, veering wildly from almost noirish moments to a goofy number with Chachoo wearing a bald cap and pretending to be a fakir.In the end, it exists only to entertain, and though it may try an American's patience it most likely will entertain, in some way or other, intentionally or not, anyone willing to give it a try.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

On the Big Screen: THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)

Basically, Guillermo del Toro made a Tim Burton film, down to the kitschy nostalgia and the alienated misfits sticking it to bourgeois society. Only here's the difference. Burton empathizes with alienation from within bourgeois society. To put it more plainly, he deals with alienated whites. Del Toro gives us a cast of outsiders for whom alienation isn't simply a lifestyle choice: a mute, a gay man, a black woman and a gill-man. I suppose you can throw in the sympathetic Russia spy, too, since he's shown to be a better, more compassionate man than his KGB masters. Compassion apparently missing among the powerful puts all these characters on the same side. Del Toro and co-writer Vanessa Taylor can sometimes get heavy-handed about this. The gay man (Richard Jenkins), a commercial artist, is initially unwilling to help his mute neighbor (Sally Hawkins, this generation's Shelley Duvall) in her mad scheme to free the gill-man (Doug Jones) from government captivity. But after getting harshly rejected by the pie-shop clerk he'd been crushing on, and seeing him throw a black couple out of the place, the artist is all in. There's a solidarity of otherness here somewhat different from whatever solidarity of alienation exists in Burton's worlds, and perhaps a more eager embrace of the happy ending than Burton often could countenance. But let's say that if Burton were going to remake Splash, but del Toro inherited the project, The Shape of Water is quite close to what you'd probably get.

The film's true origin, we've been told, is the strange pang of romance little Guillermo felt when he saw the Creature from the Black Lagoon stalking Julia Adams underwater. The object of Shape of Water is to milk whatever romantic potential exists between a relatively homely, socially handicapped female and an amphibian man  who is said to be "beautiful," though he's a typical del Toro critter, and has conveniently godlike powers of healing. It helps that Elisa, the mute, has an aquatic fetish -- she masturbates in her bathtub and later recklessly floods her bathroom so she and the gill-man can get it on outside the tub's cramped confines -- that may date back to when she was found, Moses-like, in the water as a babe. Compassion forms the core of their romance; she, merely a cleaning lady at the Occam research facility ("The Simplest Explanation is the Best!"), seems to be the only person in the building really interested in communicating with the captive creature, offering it hard-boiled eggs while teaching it the sign for "egg." She shares her music collection with the creature -- this Sixties-set film admirably eschews the usual oldies in favor of the Forties music of the artist's beloved Fox musicals and the stuff Elisa presumably grew up on -- and gains self-esteem as she teaches another non-verbal being to communicate. However intelligent the gill-man might be, he will not see Elisa as "incomplete" because she can't talk. Like with plague-muted little Luna in War for the Planet of the Apes, there's an implication that doing without speech allows for more pure, guileless, communication.

The other side of that coin is the preference for silence during sex expressed by the creature's chief captor, Col. Strickland (Michael Shannon), who puts his maimed, bleeding hand over his wife's mouth to shut her up during intercourse. Strickland in some ways is more like a Burton protagonist in that he feels increasing alienation from his family's bland bourgeois existence ("Bonanza is much too violent!") He tries to buck the consumer fad for the color green -- the artist is ordered to recolor the Jell-O in his spec painting, for instance -- resisting the sales pitch for a green Cadillac until the salesman assures him that the color is actually teal. For whatever reason, his alienation takes oppressive, domineering form, with his cattle prod a surrogate phallus, perhaps because, as a general tells him, the military is the cruel face his society shows the outside world, while denying violence in its own midst; see also the artist's reluctance to watch news footage of the Birmingham police dogs attacking civil-rights protesters. Strickland's most obviously a control freak, refusing to accept the loss of two fingers at the gill-man's hands until the regrafted digits begin to rot and stink on him. But there's also a self-destructive streak that leads him to see himself as a Samson willing to destroy himself in order to take all his enemies down with him. Inevitably, when other characters are good guys simply by virtue of their otherness (see also Elisa's workplace protector, played by Octavia Spencer), Strickland ends up the most intriguing character, if also a tailor-made Michael Shannon villain.

The Shape of Water is an even weirder film than the ads and trailers let on, perhaps because even a snippet of Elisa's Rogers-Astaire fantasy dance with the gill-man might have been a too-Burtonesque deal-breaker for some prospective viewers. It's really more fairy-tale than horror film, or at least more of a fairy tale, in the "happily ever after" sense, than any previous del Toro film. It's a lovely looking film with well-dressed locations and sets shot by Dan Laustsen. The soundtrack is an intriguing mix of Forties tunes and an Alexander Desplat score that veers between Danny Elfman and Bernard Herrmann with some gallic touches of the composer's own. The film's on shakiest ground in imagining the interior life of the gill-man. He sometimes seems like a too-good-to-be-true innocent, but then del Toro has it kill and eat one of the artist's housecats. But if that was to remind us that the gill-man is a monster, the film promptly reverses that impression by having the creature apologize to the artist, after his fashion, and in the process heal both the scratches he inflicted on the artist's arm and his pattern baldness. If a last-supper scene where the gill-man's signing skills don't seem to have progressed past "egg" suggests that there's an inherent limit to his communication skills, he later manages to sign his desire that Elisa return to the sea with him. A stricken Strickland concludes that the gill-man really is a god -- he was worshiped as such in the land where the colonel found him -- but whether we're really meant to see him that way, or simply as a fairy-tale creature, is ultimately unclear. Each viewer can draw his or her own conclusion, but I think Shape of Water will succeed in getting most audiences to buy into Elisa's fantasy and del Toro's, if not necessarily his view of a time when America, as far as most people were concerned, was still great.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

IN THE SHADOW OF THE EAGLES (All'ombra della aquile, 1966)

Cameron Mitchell was near the end of his European sojourn and the peplum was near the end of its time as a popular genre when the American actor starred in two films for Ferdinando Baldi, who billed himself as "Ferdy Baldwin." The wintry look of the film, shot by the certainly pseudonymous "Lucky Satson," appears inspired by Anthony Mann's Fall of the Roman Empire, and parts of it may have been filmed on Samuel Bronston's massive sets for that ambitious flop. Mitchell plays a tribune, Marcus Ventidius, tasked with taming the Pannoni, a barbarian tribe that has been slaughtering Roman troops. The Pannoni are torn between the paths of peace and war, between the counsel of elder chieftain Magdo (Vladimir Medar) and hothead Batone (Aleksandar Gavric). Ventidius is torn between his betrothed, the consul's daughter Julia (Gabriella Pallotta) and Helen (Beba Loncar), Magdo's daughter and Batone's intended, whom the tribune brings to Rome with Magdo as a prisoner.


Julia grows jealous and tries to degrade Helen by making her dance for aristocratic entertainment, but this only further alienates Marcus from her. Hoping to get her as far away from Marcus as possible, Julia arranges for her and Magdo to escape and return to their people. Give her credit for not just killing Helen as a jealous Roman more likely might in movies. Still, her scheme has disgraced Marcus, since the prisoners were his responsibility, and that unintended consequence chastens her and effectively ends their relationship. Julia pretty much disappears from the picture at this point, when it could have used more of her smoldering jealousy for fuel.


Marcus can redeem himself by taming the Pannoni once and for all. That means inflicting a decisive defeat on Batone, whose plans for an ambush are thwarted by Helen. There's a big battle, Marcus and Batone fight and the Roman kicks his antagonist off a cliff. For his trouble, Marcus is made governor of Pannonia, enabling him to go off with Helen and, presumably, live happily ever after.


The romantic triangle aspect of the picture is actually stronger than its action spectacle, thanks mainly to Pallotta's performance and her interactions with Mitchell. It's hard to tell whether Baldi was working around some issue with Mitchell or was directing the actors according to his original plan. In some scenes, Mitchell (if not a stand-in) stands or sits in shadow so his face can't be seen. Could this be because they had no dialogue for Mitchell to mouth on the set? Or was Mitchell incapable of reciting it? For that matter, I'm not sure if Mitchell did all of his own dubbing. Some of it sounds like the actor, albeit reading his lines rather flatly; other lines don't quite sound right. Whatever was going on, this approach actually helps convey Marcus's increasing alienation from Julia and, as the dance scene suggests, the whole spectacle of imperial domination. By comparison, the battle scenes are standard, unimaginative stuff. Baldi is better known for spaghetti westerns and apparently had a better grip on mano-i-mano gunplay. While he gets some nice shots of the army on the march, the battle scenes here are by-the-numbers montage, montonously punctuated by warriors jumping on horsemen and dragging them out of the saddle. The climactic single combat of Marcus and Batone has no energy; the leaders practically vanish into the background melee until Baldi cuts to close-ups. While Baldi probably got as much out of Mitchell as was possible, the actor seems stiff in a way that might seem "Roman" but probably indicates his disinterest in the project. Yet he and Baldi would shortly team up again for Massacre in the Black Forest and, despite this film's limitations, I'd still be willing to give that one a chance.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

DVR Diary: GYMKATA (1985)

In a better world Kurt Thomas would be known as an American Olympic hero. He broke through generations of Eastern European and Japanese dominance to win the Men's All-Around title in the 1979 world gymnastics championship and was a favorite to take gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics until the U.S. pulled its team out of the games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thomas did not stick around to be part of the 1984 Olympic team, which won a team gold in a games tainted by a tit-for-tat Warsaw Pact boycott. In this context, Gymkata looks like a desperate bid for the fame Thomas may have felt he deserved from athletics, but my suspicion is that Robert Clouse's film, or something like it, probably would have happened even had Thomas gone to Moscow and won the gold. Exactly because he would have been an American hero, someone in Hollywood would want to exploit his fame. The same thinking immortalized Bruce Jenner's masculinity on film in the unlikely musical vehicle Can't Stop the Music. Gymkata at least gave Thomas an opportunity to put his face on screen. By comparison, some of his comrades who persevered and won gold in 1984 also made movies, but they were usually stuntmen wearing Ninja Turtle costumes. Thomas, the star of that generation of gymnasts, would be showcased as a leading man and exposed as an actor of inflexible woodenness, and his film would live in infamy.

Someone had the idea, less obvious in hindsight, that someone with Thomas's acrobatic prowess would make an excellent martial-arts hero. That insight delivered him into the hands of Clouse, who could always be identified, at a minimum, as the director of Enter the Dragon to give subsequent films the illusion of expertise. More recently, Clouse had bungled Jackie Chan's American starring debut, The Big Brawl, apparently because he had come to believe his own hype and thought he could direct fight scenes better than Chan. While Chan might have disputed the claim, Thomas would bring no such pretense to Gymkata. The remarkable thing about Clouse is that after Gymkata he was called on again to put over a martial-arts prospect, directing Cynthia Rothrock in two China O'Brien movies in the late Eighties.

Gymkata portrays the invention of a new martial art as part of an American intelligence project. The government believes that Jonathan Cabot's gymastics prowess will give him an advantage in securing the use of the nation of Parmistan for the U.S. "Star Wars" missile-defense program. For the traditionalist Parmistanis and their monarch (Buck Kartalian) to even consider granting rights to the Americans, our representative must prevail in an ancient competition known to us simply as "The Game." Foreigners in Parmistan are entertained by being compelled to run a nationwide gauntlet, with all citizens eligible, within the rules, to kill them. Cabot's father has already tried the Game and has gone missing for his trouble. Jonathan thus has the filial duty to find his father, or avenge him, to enhance his patriotic motivation to take part in the Game.

"Gymkata" -- never named as such in the story, if I recall right, is invented on the fly as a variety of martial artists help Jonathan adapt his gymnastic disciplines into combat techniques. His training ranges from getting beat up a lot to walking up flights of stairs on his hands -- Clouse visually emphasizes Thomas's hand strength but there's no real payoff to this in the form of extra striking power, as would seem obvious to any Chinese director -- while his cultural advisor, a half-Parmistani, half-Indonesian princess (Techie Agbayani) engages him in knife fights to remind him not to trust anyone. The Princess's own position is insecure, as the King's top advisor and game master (Richard Norton) covets not only her hand but her father's throne. Jonathan will find himself not only running and fighting for his life, and not only hunting for his father, but rescuing Parmistan from a coup d'etat that will throw its strategic location and resources to "the other side" of the Cold War.

Whatever its other consequences, the U.S. alliance with the Afghan mujaheddin against the Soviets revived the idea of heroic barbarians in the modern world, or just plain barbarians, in the pop/pulp imagination. Gymkata's Parmistan is a preposterous place ruled over by a community theater's idea of a comic-opera sultan, where the sort of savage customs a penny-a-word might imagine to make rent money -- the film is, in fact, based on a 1957 novel -- still prevail. For all that Gymkata looks like a throwback to Saturday matinee serials, it makes sure to include masked warriors who could be taken for ninjas by undiscriminating up-to-date audiences. At select moments, when props permit, Thomas uses all his gymkata skills to fight off a nation of hunters. In an early scene, a bar built between buildings in an alley enables our hero to take out enemies with a succession of giant swings, his antagonists dutifully walking into range to take their medicine before Cabot accidentally wallops a civilian in his berserker rage. In the film's most infamous scene, Cabot discovers a pommel horse -- I presume it's meant to be a hitching post -- in the middle of Parmistan's notorious "village of the damned," where all the nation's homicidal maniacs are confined. That discovery enables Thomas to do his signature gymnastics move, the Thomas Flair, to fend off the crazies with flying feet in all directions while they, being crazy, never think to throw something at him to stop his legs. The entire village sequence is a lugubrious side trip into attempted horror or the trippy absurdity of Circle of Iron. It kills what momentum the film had dead, though some bad-movie connoisseurs may find this part its most entertaining. At least no one talks in that part, so one is spared Thomas's acting. Typical of his line reading is this dramatic response to the news that the villain has kidnapped the princess: "Not for long, 'cause .........I'll kill him." The truly awful thing about Gymkata is that Thomas isn't even its worst actor. That honor probably goes to Buck Kartalian, whose vaudevillian capers as the Khan kill anyone's attempted immersion in the film's fantasy world, though Eric Lawson in his brief appearance as Thomas's father is, if anything, even more wooden, being an older tree, than his onscreen offspring. For all that Clouse and his writers want Gymkata to be some weird experience, it has none of the artistic insanity that redeems many another bad movie with indulgent audiences. It is all empty exploitation, a stinker by committee, soullessly stupid, something to be laughed at, not with, with no skewed view of society of humanity for audiences to even try sharing. Yet people still find plenty to laugh at in it, it seems, so Gymkata and Kurt Thomas will live on in movie memory.

Friday, January 5, 2018

SEAS BENEATH (1931)

There's still a strong early-talkie flavor in John Ford's World War I sea-chase picture. The film isn't really edited to the pace of dialogue-driven movies; many shots are held longer than seems right by modern standards. The idea, usually, is to show off the authenticity of Ford's location shoot at sea, including real submarines in action. The long takes give a sense of reality and scale. Ford enhances that feeling with a mobile camera that figuratively cranes its neck to see the crow's nest of the story's "mystery ship" -- an old-style schooner equipped with modern artillery, designed to lure German U-boats into firing range. In command is Ford's protege George O'Brien, whom the director made a star in The Iron Horse, though he's best known today as the star of F. W. Murnau's Sunrise. Murnau and Ford were Fox Film stablemates in late silent days and Seas Beneath retains much of the Murnau-inspired house style despite the transition to sound. Ford's conservative enough with camera movement to make moments when the camera takes flight special.







There's a simple but remarkable shot midway through the picture, when one of the mystery-ship officers (Gaylord Pendleton, the younger brother of present-but-unbilled Nat) awakens from a night's drunk on a Spanish island to find that his ship is leaving him behind, and that a German sub is readying to attack it. We see him watch the schooner from a city wall, a picturesque setting we've seen several times earlier in static shots. When the officer turns and bolts down a flight of stairs, the camera pivots to follow, achieving an almost 3-D effect.



The officer tries to redeem himself by sabotaging the sub's refueling, but only earns an honorable death. It's typical of World War I films of this era -- one year after All Quiet on the Western Front -- that the Germans themselves honor him by putting his body in a life jacket so his own crew can find him. The Germans of Seas Beneath are antagonists without being villains. Ford takes an equal-time approach to their preparations for battle, as if to show that they're just men doing their job, so to speak, just like the Americans. There's even a melodramatic star-crossed romance between O'Brien's commander and the German commander's sister (Marion Lessing), who acts as a spy on the island, pretending to be Scandinavian while speaking perfect English. Interestingly, Ford remains committed to the couple's romantic potential while maintaining their wartime enmity. Annemarie is forced into a lifeboat by the doomed officer's sabotage and is rescued by the mystery ship. On board, she does everything in her power to warn her brother and his crew of the ship's true identity and purpose. Again, Ford doesn't treat her as a villain, but makes clear that she's doing what any German patriot would do in similar circumstances. O'Brien himself recognizes this and offers her the prospect of marriage as an alternative to internment for the duration. She prefers to stand with her brother -- most of the sub crew is taken alive -- but leaves open the prospect of reconciliation after the war.


Seas Beneath starts unpromisingly with a lot of Fordian service shenanigans with lunkheaded comedy relief from Warren Hymer and others, while Nat Pendleton does everything in his power to call attention to himself, presumably with Ford's connivance. Here he is trying to horn in on his brother's impassioned tango with another German spy.


George O'Brien's understated authority as the commander keeps the picture from going full cartoon, as does its evenhanded attitude toward the enemy. The film benefits throughout from nice location photography and camerawork from ace cinematographer Joseph August. Toward the end, Ford develops some nice tension as the mystery ship takes a beating from the sub's guns without responding -- we're told the Germans prefer to use guns instead of torpedoes on small-fry like this -- in order to lure the skeptical German captain into the trap O'Brien and his own submarine colleague have set. It ends rather abruptly once the worm turns, and if anything Ford overcommits to reconciliation by sparing the main Germans and teasing further romance in the future. But overall Seas Beneath is a fascinating piece of work from that moment when war could be treated without propaganda, well after the imperatives of World War I and before the imperatives of World War II.