Tuesday, October 16, 2018

FUTURE WORLD (2018)



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

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

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: FAST LIFE (1932)

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

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

Thursday, October 11, 2018

THE DEVIL AND FATHER AMORTH (2017)

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

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

Saturday, October 6, 2018

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)

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

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

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

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

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