Tuesday, January 30, 2018

THE SLAVE (Il figlio di Spartacus, 1962)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 27, 2018

On the Big Screen: HOSTILES (2017)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Too Much TV: THE GIFTED (2017 - ?)

Disney's purchase of Twentieth Century-Fox most likely marks the beginning of the end of the X-Men mythos as an independent media franchise. The news comes amid an ambitious schedule of mutant projects including three feature films in the coming year and Matt Nix's series for Fox, which has been renewed after a short first season. Like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. relative to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Gifted is consciously limited in scope, excluding mutants familiar from the movies on the pretext that Charles Xavier and the X-Men have disappeared following a mutant-involved mass-casualty event that provoked a government crackdown. In their absence, a "mutant underground" has been tasked with sheltering persecuted mutants. The underground mutants will be familiar to longtime comics fans but mostly new phenomena to moviegoers, though Blink, an Asian girl who teleports through breaches in spacetime, appeared in the dystopian scenes of X-Men: Days of Future Past. The other principal mutants are Marcos (Sean Teale), who can manipulate light and has ties to a Mexican drug cartel; his girlfriend Lorna Dane (Emma Dumont), a green haired girl with magnetic powers that raise understandable suspicions about her parentage; and John Proudstar (Blair Redford), who has superior strength and senses for tracking. Their paths cross with those of prosecutor Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer) and his family when Reed and his wife Caitlin (Amy Acker) discover that their teenage children, Andy (Percy Hynes White) and Lauren (Natalie Alan Lynd) are mutants whose latent powers have just begun to manifest. Formerly a prosecutor of fugitive mutants, Reed Strucker must now trust his family with, and lend his expertise to the mutant underground, as all are pursued by Agent Turner (Coby Bell), a vengeful officer for Sentinel Services, a sort of anti-mutant Pinkerton agency, and Dr. Campbell (Garret Dillahaunt), a scientist dedicated to turning mutants into docile government agents. Turner hates mutants because he lost a daughter in the mass-casualty incident, while Campbell takes great interest in the Struckers because he knows more about their family history than Reed himself does.

The show proceeds according to formula as the mutant underground undertakes various missions to liberate prisoners or acquire information while bickering among themselves over the usual issues (secrets, lies, etc.) The larger storylines keep the show interesting. We learn, for instance, that Reed Strucker is the son and grandson of mutants, but that his father succeeded in repressing any latent powers his son might possess. Reed's kids are a different story; Andy and Lauren have reproduced the abilities of the first generation of mutant Struckers; the 1950s vintage brother-sister terrorist team known as Fenris. This is a case where Fox and Marvel Studios have shared some comics history. In Marvel Comics, the Fenris twins are the children of the Baron von Strucker who was the founder of Hydra. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Baron was moved forward to modern times, first appearing in the epilogue of Captain America: The Winter Soldier before getting summarily dispatched in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Once the MCU disposed of him, presumably, Fox was free to develop the mutant side of the Strucker lineage as part of an evil-mutant history that appears to predate Magneto, whose name apparently must not be mentioned despite his presumed tie to Lorna Dane. In the X-Men's absence, and with the underground operating, well, underground, the Sentinel Services crackdown, which involves turning mutants into anti-mutant "hounds" and combining their abilities through an artificial recreation of the Fenris effect, has created opportunities for evil mutants. The most interesting part of The Gifted so far is its slow-burn buildup of evil-mutant ascendancy. Andy and Lauren Strucker recreate the overall ethical dilemma in microcosm, the once-bullied boy growing increasingly eager to lash out at all enemies while his sister resists the temptation. The underground begins to fall apart when they rescue a manipulative telepath (Skyler Samuels) allied with a resurgent Hellfire Club (last seen cinematically in X-Men: First Class). She and her identical siblings, who possess a mutant group mind, goad the underground mutants into increasingly ruthless attacks on their increasingly ruthless persecutors, until Lorna crosses over to the dark side in the season finale by crashing a plane and killing Dr. Campbell and a U.S. Senator. Tantalized by the prospect of victory, Andy and a number of others join forces with Lorna and the Hellfire Club, over the objections of the other lead mutants and Andy's parents, to end the season with a moral cliffhanger. While the characters are mostly rather bland, this development gave The Gifted a greater sense of something meaningful actually happening than many other superhero shows have had recently. The momentum it acquired over its last few episodes overcame some uncertainty I had about the show and assured that at the least I'll give the second season a chance.

Monday, January 15, 2018


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


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.