Monday, February 19, 2018

DVR Diary: PILLARS OF THE SKY (1956)


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

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

Saturday, February 17, 2018

BLACK PANTHER (2018) in SPOILERVISION

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 10, 2018

RED PEONY GAMBLER 3: THE FLOWER CARD GAME (1969)

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


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


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

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

DVR Diary: THE NIGHT VISITOR (1971)

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

Monday, February 5, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: MILLIE (1931)

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