Thursday, September 19, 2019

DVR Diary: EMITAI (1971)

World War II wasn't the "good war" everywhere. Far from Europe, in Europe's colonies, what Hitler was up to hardly mattered. In some places the Allies, the good guys of the usual narrative were the oppressors. That's the context of Ousmane Sembene's war picture, which shows the war's impact on the Diola people in French-ruled Senegal. They and their crops are resources for France to draw upon at will. Emitai starts with colonial troops pressing villagers into military service. The young men must listen to a French officer praise them for volunteering and exhort them to revere and obey Marshal Petain, at that moment (Spring 1940) France's last hope against the Nazis. One year later, Petain leads a collaborationist regime, but France's alignment means little to the Diola, who are now required to give up their rice crops to the colonial power. The village elders debate the necessity for revolt and, perhaps more importantly, the will of the gods. Their chief has grown skeptical toward the pantheon -- if not toward their existence, then toward their effectiveness in this modern crisis. Ironically, it's he, mortally wounded in a futile uprising, who receives a vision of the gods. They chide him for his lack of faith, while he reproaches them for their apparent indifference to their worshipers' dire situation. After he dies, the film slows down as the village prepares for the chief's funeral, the remaining elders -- in hiding from the colonial troops -- ponder how to appease the gods and/or the French, while two French officers and their native troops hold the women and children hostage, with rice as the ransom. Sembene's deliberate, novelistic pacing -- he was a novelist before taking up the camera -- immerses the viewer in the life of the embattled village while steadily heating up indignation against the elders' preoccupation with the gods. They balk (rightly) at sacrificing rice to the French, but then one sacrifices a goat to the gods on impulse. The bawling animal has its throat cut and bleeds out before being dumped like so much garbage. Sembene respects Diola culture in the broadest sense but is clearly secular in his sympathies, or at least highly critical toward religion. The elders' folly sometimes nearly overshadows the oppression of the French, who switch sides in the world war, abandoning Petain for de Gaulle, with no change in their treatment of the Diola. But the film ends with a sharp reminder that, whatever their faults, the elders, like their fellow villagers, are essentially villagers of a regime that must have seemed little better to them than any tale of Nazi rule the French might have told them. Unsurprisingly, several years passed before either Senegalese or French people could see Emitai, but films like Sembene's are valuable, not necessarily as correctives to a particular narrative of World War II, but as examples of perspectives from which the moral drama of that conflict is not and never will be central, and the winners of it may never be the good guys.

Monday, September 16, 2019

1984 x 2

George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984 was published in 1949. Between 1953 and 1956 it was filmed three times: first as an American teleplay, then for British television and finally as a British movie with an American star. Worries about the reputed brainwashing of American POWs during the Korean War may have sparked this Orwellian spree. The first rendering, for the hourlong Studio One anthology program, I haven't seen yet. Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame wrote the British adaptation and gave Peter Cushing a big push toward stardom. For the movie version, William Templeton, who did the Studio One condensation, collaborated on the screenplay, which was directed by Michael Anderson, whose Around the World in 80 Days appeared that same year. Edmond O'Brien played a relatively well-fed Winston Smith for the movie, presumably as a draw for American audiences. An American Winston wasn't entirely implausible, since the novel's Oceania was an Anglo-American superstate. More to the point, however husky he appeared, O'Brien often played weaklings and mediocrities like Orwell's protagonist. His participation in the film, however, apparently made it necessary to change the name of the novel's inquisitor from O'Brien to O'Connor. The movie also changes the name of Big Brother's arch-enemy, the Trotsky to B.B.'s Stalin, from Goldstein to the (less Jewish-sounding?) Cellador. For what it's worth, the Kneale and Templeton scripts have in common Donald Pleasance, who plays Winston's co-worker in the British version and his neighbor in the movie, in essentially the same sniveling mode.

The basic story remains the same: Winston, discovering fellow party member Julia's love for him, gradually works himself up into potential rebellion against the Big Brother regime, but both are duped by O'Brien/O'Connor, who tricks them into thinking that he is an underground leader. Instead, the inquisitor systematically breaks them down, though we only see his handling of Winston. His goal is to reduce them to such a state of self-loathing that they find solace and meaning only in love for Big Brother. Each version has its virtues. While the Anderson film, actually shorter than the Kneale teleplay, spends more time, to more dramatic effect, on the physical and mental torture of Winston, Kneale actually drives home more effectively the sadism Orwell, embittered by his experiences in Spain and elsewhere, saw underlying totalitarian movements. The novel's famous line about imagining the future as a boot stomping a face forever is quoted by Kneale but not by Templeton and Ralph Bettison. The film tries to make the breaking of Winston more stark and tragic by establishing the protagonist as something of a rebel from the very beginning, first showing him starting a clandestine diary and questioning the party after abjectly unpacking his bags in front of his interactive home telescreen. Cushing's Winston awakens more gradually, but it's implicit that Smith's work at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites news reports to confirm Big Brother's infallibility, is bound to make him question the party's bending of reality. Kneale spends more time explaining the insidious design of Newspeak to reduce people's ability to think outside the parameters set by the party, while the film, again presumably looking to the U.S. market, eschews such egghead talk. The rewriting of history Winston must do is awful enough.

The two versions are roughly equal in my eyes, with a slight advantage going to Kneale, but watching both in quick sequence regrettably made Orwell's dystopia seem quaint, and not just because of everyone's limited imagination regarding the telescreen.  Neither Orwell nor his cinematic translators could be expected to anticipate how the thing they warned against most passionately -- the willful distortion of reality by power and self-interest -- has spread beyond the totalitarian sector. When appeals to objective reality are widely seen as little more than power grabs, many people today seem to find the insistence that two and two make four oppressive. Freedom may not yet be slavery, but when freedom becomes a matter of believing whatever you want to believe -- on climate, on vaccines, elections, people, etc. -- with no reality beyond people's opinions to constrain you, it can be an Orwellian word in a not quite Orwellian world.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

DVR Diary: RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL (Johnny Oro, 1966)

Sergio Corbucci's follow-up to Django feels more like a conventional American "adult" western than the more exotic product we think of as a spaghetti western. Its protagonist does have a sort of gimmick weapon or two -- in addition to the golden pistol he has a canteen he can convert into a grenade -- but the story is more character-driven and moralistic than Italian westerns in general are thought to be. Bolzoni and Rossetti's screenplay is less a celebration of the amorality of the bounty killer than an affirmation of the rule of law. Accordingly, it really has two protagonists: not just Johnny Ringo aka Johnny Oro (Mark Damon) but the sheriff of Coldstone (Ettore Manni), with whom Ringo, momentarily his prisoner, allies against lawless outsiders. Johnny Oro may seem not merely conventional but conservative in its treatment of Mexicans and especially Indians -- relatively rare figures in spaghetti westerns -- as pure villains. Matching the film's two heroes are two villains: the bandit heir Junaito Perez (Franco de Rosa), who seeks vengeance on Johnny for the deaths of his brothers, and the Apache chief Sebastian (Giovanni Cianfrigia), first seen getting thrown out of a Coldstone saloon by the sheriff. The crux of the story is Johnny's arrest by the sheriff for a petty crime that will keep him in jail for less than a week. During this time, Perez demands that Johnny be delivered to him for revenge, or else he and Sebastian's warriors will descend on the town. As a bounty killer, Johnny isn't especially popular with many of the townsfolk, some of whom, wanting to restore the modus vivendi that existed with Juanito's brothers, urge Norton to turn him over to Perez. They realize too late that it's no longer possible to negotiate with Perez. Having made his alliance with the Apaches, Juanito is committed to letting them sack the town, so long as he has his way with Johnny. This news provokes a mass exodus from Coldstone, while the remaning people, led by the sheriff and ultimately joined by Johnny, resolve to resist the invasion. Corbucci had what looks like a decent budget to work with here, so the flight and the subsequent attack are impressively if not excessively staged, the latter climaxing in some massive explosions before the final showdown between Johnny and Juanito. Johnny Oro doesn't appear to rank high in the Corbucci canon, perhaps because it's relatively square and maybe because Mark Damon lacks the badass charisma of Franco Nero or other Cobucci stars. But Damon is personable enough as a cynic who shows he has a conscience, or at least some compassion after all, and the screenplay boasts a nice range of well-defined, well-performed characters, including a saloon girl (Valeria Fabrizi) whose love-hate relationship with Johnny ends tragically without particularly embittering our hero. He keeps up his blithe front even at the ultimate moment, when he seems helpless before a gloating Juanito but for a convenient bit of reflective material. Johnny Oro -- or Johnny Ringo for those markets where the Ringo name had Django-like magnetism --  is a likable enough rogue who might have been worth following in later adventures had Corbucci not moved on to ultimately better things.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: DOUGHBOYS (1930)

Buster Keaton reportedly liked Doughboys, his second talking feature, the best of his pictures for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Keaton fans realize that this isn't saying much, but the film apparently appealed to Buster's nostalgia for his time entertaining the troops in Europe. It was one of a cycle of war comedies that included Harry Langdon's A Soldier's Plaything, Wheeler and Woolsey's Half Shot at Sunrise and Anybody's War, featuring the blackface team of Moran and Mack. These films were contemporaries of All Quiet on the Western Front, and their advertising could play, as the newspaper ad shown here did, on the already-famous title. Whatever personal meaning Doughboys had for Keaton, there's really little to distinguish it, apart from the military setting, from his soul-crushing output under Metro's creative control. It's the talkie debut of Keaton's millionaire persona -- like Harold Lloyd, he could play any social class, at least in silent film, as each film required. At the same time, however, Keaton is the pathetic "Elmer" character Metro had burdened him with since his last silent feature, Spite Marriage. In fact, there's little consistency in Keaton's performance. He tries to put on airs appropriate to Elmer Stuyvesant's class in some scenes, but whenever he tries to court Mary, the girl of the picture (Sally Eilers), he comes across as more pathetically awkward than a wealthy man probably should have been. In those courting scenes -- for starters, Elmer awaits Mary's departure from work every afternoon, attended by his butler and chauffeur, only to be rebuffed daily -- he resembles a drunk vaguely recalling some of Langdon's baby-man shtick. Even at his most aristocratic, Keaton is obliged to speak demoralizing joke-book dialogue. Mistakenly enlisting for the Great War, Elmer is asked where he was born, and of course says it was in a hospital. "Were you sick?" the recruiting officer asks sarcastically, and of course Elmer answers that he can't remember exactly because he was very young at the time. From there, it's standard service-comedy stuff. Keaton is supported by more vocally-interesting performers, including ukulele-strumming Cliff Edwards as his eventual buddy and Edward Brophy as a drill instructor and romantic rival for ambulance-driver Mary. With his gruff yet high-pitched voice, the bloodthirsty and often apoplectic Brophy nearly steals the picture from Keaton, whose physical comedy here is mostly uninspired, howevermuch he enjoyed the material.

Things do pick up a little when the awkward squad reaches Europe. One of the intended highlights is a show put on by the troops in which some of the performers, including Elmer, hit the stage in drag. The joke is that Elmer's out of sync with the other "ladies," and that's about it, as if Keaton's mere awkwardness was supposed to be hilarious. Somewhat better is his performance, still in drag, in the dreaded Apache dance, but it's merely violent without the grace a silent Keaton might have lent the scene. My favorite bit is when Elmer blunders into a German trench, only to find his former butler (Arnold Korff) leading a band of starving but friendly troops. Tasked with taking prisoners, Elmer takes their orders for dinner -- they want all the stereotypical Teutonic favorites -- but gets involved in a final adventure with Mary and an unexploded shell before the war ends and the enemy can be fed. There's something dimly Keatonesque about Elmer and Mary's pathetic attempts to deactivate the shell, but it'll only make you think of what a Keaton with full creative control might have made of the war. The ending at least has some redeeming nastiness. Elmer has inherited the family business in peacetime and has installed his war buddies as directors, while hiring Brophy the drill instructor to be a humble janitor, but this scene of triumph is disrupted by the riveting at a nearby construction project, which sends all the veterans scampering for cover. I guess we don't laugh at such moments anymore, but in an M-G-M Keaton picture you take your laughs wherever you can.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

On the Big Screen: ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

The ninth film by Quentin Tarantino has become slightly controversial for a bit of historic revisionism. It appears to assert that Bruce Lee was not the greatest fighting machine ever to live, but rather more of a pretentious braggart than most who knew him recall him being. In the film, stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) fights Lee (Mike Moh) to at least a standstill after throwing the martial-arts master into the side of a car, having caught him in mid-flying kick. This brawl, provoked by Lee claiming that he could beat "Cassius Clay" in a fight, gets Booth blacklisted as a stuntman, forcing him to work full-time as a chauffeur, handyman and overall stooge for Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the actor for whom Cliff doubled on the western series Bounty Law. But before we get too deep into the main story of the picture, let's linger on the Bruce Lee scene. It's interesting that, while Booth is a co-protagonist of the movie, Tarantino doesn't make him the obvious good guy of the scene by having him, unlike Lee, call Muhammad Ali by what was then his proper name. The writer-director shows impressive discipline here, since by showing Hollywood 1969 from the point of view of two white male has-beens, he adopts a reactionary perspective that's not necessarily his own. There's no objective corrective to Booth's implicit disdain for Lee's kung fu prowess, for instance, nor for Dalton's disdain for spaghetti westerns or both character's contempt for hippies. Tellingly, Hollywood is the first Tarantino film in almost forever with no participation whatsoever by Samuel L. Jackson, whose footnote-narrator function in Inglourious Basterds is taken over by Kurt Russell, who also has an onscreen role as the stunt coordinator who blacklists Booth. It actually surprises me that people don't think of Hollywood as a Trumpian film, though I have no idea whether Tarantino sympathizes to any extent for the current President or his agenda. This is a film which, like Basterds, rewrites history on the assumption that history is already changed by the existence of the auteur's creations, though the extent to which history is rewritten is left unclear at the end.

Why Tarantino stops where and when he does no doubt means something, but let's stick with Bruce Lee a bit more. In his pretentious speech to the Green Hornet stuntmen, Lee complains that martial-arts exhibitions are mere stylized fakery compared to the genuine mortal combat in the boxing ring. While Tarantino's Lee is wrong to say that boxers like Ali and Sonny Liston literally are trying to kill each other, his distinction between fakery and reality sounds like a thematic statement for the film as a whole. This seems most apparent in the central section of the film, which intercuts between Dalton's struggles on the set of the Lancer show, where he plays a villain, and Booth's visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where old-timer George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is held a virtual prisoner by the Manson Family. A hungover Dalton suffers some existential lunchtime agony after blowing his lines a couple of times, but nails his last scene of the day. Oddly, while Tarantino has shown us clips of Bounty Law and other Dalton TV appearances in a realistic pastiche of Sixties techniques, he films the Lancer shoot with no regard for realism, framing the action to fill the widescreen and magnify the moment to suit its presumed significance for Dalton's career. Meanwhile, Booth rides into a scene of real menace, a lone hero against a potential mob (albeit without its leader; Manson himself only appears once in the picture). The sense of danger is real and strong, and yet it's fair to say that this scene above all establishes Hollywood as Tarantino's third consecutive western, even if it also serves as a bookend companion to Basterds bracketing the two more obvious westerns, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. In any event, Booth seems to embody a reality principle -- he's a real-life killer as both a war hero and the reputed murderer of his wife -- while Dalton represents a fantasy TV world. By establishing Dalton as the next-door neighbor of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Tarantino seems to be setting up the ultimate intrusion of lethal reality into the TV star's fantasy world by giving Dalton a front-row seat to Tate's murder. It should be clear by now, however, that Tarantino plays by his own rules, but we still need to find the point of his doing so this time.

So, to spoil the ending a month after the film's release, Dalton's mere existence as a drunken TV cowboy diverts the Manson killers from their original mission. After he berates them for stalling their noisy car outside his house, the Mansonites decide that Dalton is a more fitting target since he and his generation of TV stars taught the hippie generation to kill. Their attack on chez Dalton ends in happy disaster thanks to the presence of an acid-addled Booth and his pitbull buddy, though Dalton himself gets to carry out the coup de grace with a flamethrower left over from one of his movie projects. His reward is to be admitted into the presence of Sharon Tate and her un-doomed friends, while the wounded Booth is taken to a hospital. During the first half of the film, Tate has been a rising star while Dalton has struggled to arrest his decline. While they are next-door neighbors, Dalton actually sees Tate and Roman Polanski for the first time on the February 1969 day that takes up the film's first act. It's like having a version of A Star is Born where the falling and rising stars actually don't know each other. Unlike the hippies who so bother Dalton and Booth, Tate is a benign embodiment of the youth movement that's driving the likes of Dalton out of the spotlight. Tarantino finally finds an artistic use for his foot fetish by having Tate kick off her shoes while watching her performance in The Wrecking Crew on the big screen, linking her with the barefoot girls who both tempt and repel the middle-aged protagonists. I'm not much younger than Tarantino so I can testify to the scandalous symbolic power of bare feet in this period, even if it isn't something the protagonists themselves comment on. In her idealized form here, Tate represents a reconciliation of youth with old Hollywood. By changing history to rescue Tate, Dalton reconciles old Hollywood with now-grateful youth on a fantasy level, after gratifying a darker fantasy by helping exterminate less-grateful youth. Tarantino presumably depends on us knowing that all of this was not to be, and assumes that he can indulge in this fakery precisely because it's only a movie. It's the sort of fantasy men like Dalton and Booth might have more than it is Quentin Tarantino's own fantasy, and while Kurt Russell occasionally speaks up to correct Dalton's misstatements, this final fantasy is allowed to stand, presumably out of sympathy for the Daltons of real life who continued to decline -- unless they lived long enough to be embraced by Tarantino himself. The director has given us not an unreliable narrator but an unreliable narrative or an unreliable experience of how things might have been had some people had their way, or if the world worked the way they presumed it would.

Whether the exercise was worth the effort, posterity will judge. That being said, Hollywood boasts what may be Leonardo DiCaprio's greatest performance to date, a total immersion into a character to a point, once Dalton adopts a new hairstyle, where the star almost ceases to be recognizable. Playing a more conventional hero type, Pitt isn't as impressive but is still convincing as a man's man of the time. Overall, the film's a dense audio-visual collage combining a wide range of soundbites with detailed recreations of the 1969 cityscape with inevitable echoes of Zabriskie Point, while the violent climax owes something, at least, to the conclusion of Last House on the Left, another attempted exorcism of violent youth. While it's a long film, in some ways it feels less Tarantinian than previous films, with fewer digressive conversations, though Rick Dalton's attempt to describe the novel Ride a Wild Bronco (is it real???) to a precocious child actor is a poignant moment. A day after watching it, I'm not sure how I'd rank Hollywood in the Tarantino canon, or among films in general. Whether it's a point in its favor or not, this one, more than the others, feels like one that needs to be seen more than once to be fully understood or appreciated -- yet I could understand people not wanting to give it that extra time. It's definitely a more ambiguous film than its apparent popularity indicates, and I expect that discussions of it will get more interesting as the momentary controversies subside.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: PEACH O'RENO (1931)

 Indignant Matron: How can you look me in the face?
Robert Woolsey: Well, I guess I've gotten used to it.

---
Once upon a time, Reno NV was the divorce capital of the United States. It was a resort town where people stayed for the minimal period that made them eligible for a divorce under Nevada law as of the early 1930s. Gambling had been made legal in the state around the same time, and the combination of easy divorce and the promise of easy money made Reno "the biggest little city in America." It was an almost inevitable destination for Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, as directed this time by William A. Seiter. I was growing used to a Wheeler and Woolsey formula that starts them off as desperate transients living by their wits, i.e. not particularly well until an improbable opportunity enables Woolsey to flex his con-man -- er, I mean entrepreneurial muscles. Peach O'Reno skips the origin stage to present our heroes, here calling themselves Wattles and Swift, as established, aggressively entrepreneurial divorce lawyers. In the fantasy land of Reno, their bustling office, staffed by girls in bellhop livery, transforms into a casino, the girls stripping down (and almost going overboard until ordered to halt) into skimpy waitress costumes. The transformation sight gags make Peach of a piece with RKO's contemporary cartoonishly absurd musical comedies like Melody Cruise and Down to Their Last Yacht and it all makes me wonder how Wheeler and Woolsey never crossed paths with Astaire and Rogers at their shared studio. We can ponder that another time. For now, know that Wattles and Swift's aggressive business practices have made bitter enemies of the more established firm of Jackson, Jackson, Jackson and Jackson, one of whom arranges for his election as a judge in order to thwart their rivals, regardless of the self-evident conflict of interests. Worse, their success as divorce lawyers has made Wattles, at least, a mortal enemy in the rancher and gambler Ace Crosby (Mitchell Harris). He appears in Reno as Wattles and Swift take on the case, one on each side, of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Bruno, who are determined to separate after a bitter fight at their silver anniversary party. Their daughters hope to prevent the breakup; one of them, inevitably, is Wheeler's regular song-and-dance partner Dorothy Lee.

To secure a divorce, Wattles and Swift must provide evidence of unfaithful correspondence; their clients must catch their spouses with companions of the opposite sex. Somehow Mrs. Bruno (Cora Witherspoon) is hooked up with Crosby the gambler, while Mr. Bruno (Joseph Cawthorn) is attached to a cross-dressing Wattles, whose coquettish ways attract the worrisome attention of Crosby. This is a great film if you want to see Bert Wheeler in drag, and it'll also make you reflect on how poor a shot a westerner can be. Once Crosby figures out Wattles' disguise, a bullet-proof vest saves the lawyer from an early demise, but he then makes the mistake of taking off his vest and walking out of the death-chamber before Crosby is safely out of the casino. Crosby resumes fire at near point-blank range, always aiming for the ass as you do in comedies, but always manages to miss the crawling, scurrying Wattles until the police collect him. That leaves the big divorce trial, at which point the filmmakers lose track of the narrative. Judge Jackson (Sam Hardy) presides, but rather than sabotage the lawyers he seems perfectly content, if not outright amused, to play his part in a vaudeville sketch, alongside the jurors and an intrusive radio announcer. No matter: this is the sort of film where a divorcing couple thinks better of their plans at the last minute and fall sobbing into each other's arms. Not only are they reunited, but they now have sons-in-law in Wattles and Swift. It lacks the anarchic edge of Wheeler and Woolsey's most outrageous films but Peach O'Reno is amiable enough and if you like the RKO team as a matter of habit you'll definitely like them here.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

DVR Diary: L'AINE DES FERCHAUX (1963)

Also known as "Doom Magnet" and "An Honorable Young Man," Jean-Pierre Melville's first color film is widely regarded as the weakest film of his great 1960s run, and that looks like a fair assessment. Something's off right from the start. Star Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a mediocre boxer entering the ring for a make-or-break fight. The crowd is entirely unresponsive as the fighters are introduced and while they fight during the opening credits. After Michel, Belmondo's character, loses on points, part of the crowd comes to life to heckle him as he leaves the arena. Perhaps we've learned something about Michel; to lose the way he did in an uneventful bout suggests that he lacks heart. He definitely lacks something. After two weeks he's reduced to abandoning his apartment to avoid paying rent and selling his and his girlfriend Lina's spare clothes, and the only reason he doesn't sell her heirloom necklace, regardless of what he tells her later, is that the thing is actually worthless. To be fair, Michel is looking for work and manages to land a promising gig as a "secretary" to Dieudonne Ferchaux (Charles Vanel), a banker who's fleeing France to avoid prosecution for murdering some Africans back in colonial days. The only catch is that Michel has to leave with Ferchaux immediately. That means sneaking out on Lina (Malvina Silberberg) as she sits at an outdoor cafe table without a sou to her name. Our protagonist has been established as just about as unlikable as possible.

Ferchaux is bound for the U.S., where he has funds stashed in a safe-deposit box. He can't get the bulk of his money out of his American bank accounts because of the extradition threat, however, and to keep one step ahead he heads south with Michel, toward the ultimate goal of Venezuela and another safe-deposit box. The second half of the film takes place around New Orleans and includes a nice little travelogue of the city's red-light district. Michel grows increasingly weary of Ferchaux as the older man, less lordly on the run, grows more emotionally needy -- almost like a girlfriend. He thinks of taking the money and running, but a group of unsavory locals led by Jeff (American character actor Todd Martin), a French-speaking veteran who runs a diner, is getting the same idea.  By now Michel has an American girlfriend (Michele Mercier), which gives him extra motivation to grab the money. But once he does so, he has second thoughts that reach back a great distance. He reminds himself of what he did to Lina back home, and that seems to inspire him to return the money. When he goes back to Ferchaux's lair, he finds the old man fighting with Todd and his crew. Michel comes to the rescue, but Ferchaux is already mortally wounded. As a final act of generosity, the dying man offers Michel the key to the safe-deposit box in Caracas. "You and your money can go to hell," Michel answers as the film fades out. You get the impression that he did the right thing at the end not so much out of loyalty to Ferchaux but to make virtual amends to Lina, if not simply to do the right thing for once. While Melville based this film on a novel by Georges Simenon, France's 20th-century master of mystery and crime fiction, it comes across as an inflated anecdote, padded with second-unit American footage. Melville's protagonists are rarely good guys, but they often have some quality that earns some sympathy from the audience, but Michel is too much of a selfish mediocrity for most of the film to be worth caring about, while Vanel's Ferchaux is a monster who turns into a wretch. I get the impression that we were supposed to appreciate the color and the atmosphere more than anything else while waiting for Michel's moral awakening, but that wasn't enough. This wasn't a terrible film, only unengaging beyond its value as a travelogue for parts of 1960s America. Fortunately, Melville's best work was still ahead of him.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

DEVIL'S EXPRESS (Gang Wars, 1976)

First-time director Barry Rosen bet on a Seventies genre trifecta by making a blaxploitation martial-arts horror film, and while I wouldn't call it a good movie it is an often-fascinating document of the fantasy life springing from the grungy state of urban life at that time. In its Mummy-inspired prologue, ancient Chinese monks lower a mysterious casket, with an amulet attached, into a hole in the earth. To ensure that no one knows the location of the burial, the leader of the little group kills everyone else before putting himself to the sword. While he might well have waited until they'd all done something to cover the hole, no one actually discovers the mystery inside until centuries later.


In 1970s Harlem, martial-arts instructor Luke (Warhawk Tanzania) spars with his friend Cris (Larry Fleischman). It's a tense friendship since Luke is black and Cris is a white cop, but as Luke explains to his suspicious students, he owes Cris a favor. In any event, Luke and his student-buddy Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan) are soon off to Hong Kong for some elite training. Rodan's head really isn't into the discipline -- he's more of a thug at heart -- but Luke earns a diploma after a match with the master. After that, Luke is sent to an island to meditate, while Rodan is tasked with watching over him. Bored by it all, Rodan just happens to discover the pit that generations of random explorers and possible treasure hunters managed to miss. Lowering himself in with ease, he snatches the amulet and takes it home to America with him.


The Hong Kong-New York steamer has another passenger: a Chinese man who suddenly finds himself possessed by some unseen entity. By the time he reaches the U.S. he's a staggering, bug-eyed mess terrified by every bright light and sharp sound until he finds a sort of shelter in the subway system. Now whatever's inside him can come into its own, though the filmmakers don't quite have the money to do more than suggest a chest-bursting exit with a lot of bleeding.


Meanwhile, Rodan and his gang buddies escalate their feud with a Chinese gang after he gets ripped off in a cocaine deal. In a violent variation on West Side Story the Chinese and black/Hispanic gangs perform martial-arts rumbles in the slums of New York, where the producers enjoyed extensive municipal cooperation despite their film's unflattering snapshot of Seventies squalor. As the gang war escalates, Cris and the rest of the police begin investigating a subway serial killer. While his comedy-relief partner invokes urban legends of mutant animals, Cris suspects that the killings are gang-related, despite Luke's vehement pushback against that suggestion. Luke's attitude toward his friends is strangely ambivalent. He warns them constantly against using martial arts in anger, but it's unclear whether he even realizes that Rodan is a drug dealer or if he would care. He lives in a sort of ebony tower, content to make love to his girlfriend and improve his knowledge until the killings come to close to home.


As you might guess, the subway entity is drawn to Rodan for the amulet he wears -- but by the time it finally catches up with him, the Chinese gang has snatched it away. That's how their wise old mentor is finally able to explain the actual situation to Luke, once the Chinese convince him that they weren't the ones who slammed Rodan face-first into a transformer. Only Luke has the mental discipline to defeat the monster, which adds an arsenal of psychic attacks to its arsenal for the final showdown in the tunnels. It takes a variety of forms, including Rodan and later two fighters at once, before trying to convince Luke that trains are bearing down on him. For Rosen it's a brave effort at something trippy and supernatural, but when the monster finally shows its true form and goes for a death grapple the scene is too dark to appreciate either the monster get-up or the climactic action.


While Devil's Express ends on an underwhelming note, it's an admirable B-film in which everyone seems to be trying hard to make an impression. Warhawk Tanzania (who made only one more film) is no real actor but at least errs on the side of excess, and while the fighting isn't much by Chinese standards (and the gore effects are mostly laughable) Rosen and his co-writers manage to invest each encounter with some dramatic urgency. They also find time for gratuitously entertaining stuff like a fight between a male bully and a female bartender at Luke's favorite watering hole and a cameo by misanthropic performance artist Brother Theodore -- he may be remembered from the early years of David Letterman's late-night show -- as a priest slowly driven mad by the subway killings. There's a likable cacophany to the pre-climactic scene where Luke negotiates with the cops to let him go into the tunnels alone while the priest rants to the assembled crowd about dead gods, pestiferous rats and whatnot. Rosen's enthusiasm makes it regrettable that he directed only one more film, though he's gone on to a long career as a TV producer. For Devil's Express he threw a lot of stuff at the screen to see what would stick, and that's almost certain to leave at least something for some of us to like.

Friday, July 26, 2019

LIGHTNING BOLT (Operazione Goldman, 1966)

The American title of Antonio Margheriti's Eurospy film presumably has "lightning" in its title because the James Bond film Thunderball had only recently come out, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Woolner Brothers, who distributed the film here and partly financed it, worried that the original title would make the thing sound Jewish. As far as the original writers were concerned, or so Wikipedia tells us, the hero was called Goldman because of his unlimited expense account -- and as a play on Goldfinger, or course. For U.S. consumption he's "Lightning Bolt" but is mostly known by his real name, Harry Sennett (Anthony Eisley). He answers to Captain Pat Flanagan (Diana Lorys), who's introduced in a manner that teases that she'll be the dominant character. Her share of the action is relatively light, however, though she does get to save Harry by shooting an enemy female. At other times she may as well be a damsel in distress. While the judo-throwing lady on the U.S. poster hints at female empowerment, you don't really get much of that here.


Instead, Flanagan and Sennett are tasked with figuring out how recent failed space shots from Cape Kennedy -- represented by archival footage -- might have been sabotaged. While the globe-trotting storylines of 1960s spy films were a big part of their appeal, Lightning Bolt restricts itself to Florida and environs, where our protagonists pursue various leads on their way to discovering the saboteur.


Goldman makes up for its limited scope with an admirably absurd villain. Beer magnate Rehte, played by Italian actor Folco Lulli done up as the stereotypical crew-cut, "pig-eyed" German, has a hankering to rule the world. The key to his plan is installing a superweapon on the moon that will allow him to blackmail all nations with the threat of mass destruction. He can't have other countries landing anything on the moon before his plans are complete -- hence the sabotage. Director Margheriti tries to further make up for his film's lack of variety in locations by giving Rehte a relatively impressive villain's lair in an underwater complex that somehow was built near Florida without the Americans finding out about it until Sennett and Flanagan applied themselves. The omnipresent Rehte brand also gives the film a modest Pop Art touch.


It's not enough for Rehte to rule an underwater city, scheme for world rule and brew beer of uncertain quality. He also has ways of dealing with insubordinate or incompetent henchpeople. He puts them in cryogenic suspended animation, a fate close to death that leaves victims the hope of revival. Rehte keeps one of his henchwomen in line by keeping her father in this state, but when he punishes her by thawing dad out and reducing him to a rapidly-moldering corpse, it only drives her once and for all to the good guys' side. Their task is to rescue a Scots-American rocket scientist Rehte had kidnapped (Paco Sanz) while destroying the brewer's rocket and his entire complex while they're at it. There's a respectable amount of destruction in the end. but at the end of the day the villain isn't compelling enough for his downfall to really impress us. Eisley lacks the charisma or more plausible prowess of Brad Harris and Tony Kendall in the Komissar X films. Overall, Lightning Bolt barely manages to distinguish itself in a momentarily very crowded field.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

LEGACY OF SATAN (1972)

Inside every porno filmmaker, I suppose, is an aspiring mainstream director. The pay is better and you're not as bound by genre conventions, no matter what critics of Hollywood say. The ambition was there, however briefly, in Gerard Damiano, who enjoyed a moment of fame -- somewhere between notoriety and celebrity -- when his film Deep Throat became a surprise hit in 1972. He followed that up with another quasi-crossover hit, The Devil in Miss Jones, in 1973. If anyone was positioned to attempt a crossover into true mainstream filmmaking, it was Damiano. In fact, he had already taken his shot. Filmed in the year Deep Throat was released, Legacy of Satan played double bills with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but to my knowledge the Deep Throat connection went unmentioned. That's just as well, since it would only have created false expectations for a movie that seems closer to a PG rating -- at least in the version I saw -- than the R it received.  It's a shame that Damiano didn't wait until after Deep Throat had hit before trying this, as he could almost certainly have gotten a bigger budget to work with. Instead, while displaying some pictorial ambition, Legacy looks cheap and slapdash, and while more money might have gotten the director better actors, the shabby screenplay is all on him.


The story plays out like an old eight-page horror comic in which wild things happen with little regard for why they happen. After a demonic ritual -- the villains worship an entity called Rakheesh rather than Satan -- plays out under the opening credits -- we sit in on a husband and wife, George and Maya, talking to their friend Arthur, who's quit his job to become a sort of spiritual seeker. Arthur proves to be a kind of talent scout for the cult leader, Dr.Muldavo, who enthuses over a photograph of Maya as if she were his reincarnated lost love. This visibly irks Muldavo's mistress/henchwoman Aurelia, but since she's a mute there's not much she can say about it.


Maya begins to have disturbing dreams and behaves disturbingly, too. One fine day, just before they're scheduled to visit Dr. Muldavo at Arthur's invitation, she deliberately slices her finger and makes George suck the blood. The Rakheesh worshippers are blood drinkers, you see, Aurelia being the current supplier for Muldavo. George isn't sure what to make of all this, while Maya is subject to mood swings that only add to her husband's confusion.


At Chez Muldavo, Maya and George are slipped a couple of Mickeys. For Maya it's like a hit of Reefer Madness-grade marijuana, setting her prancing about the room, while George basically passes out. He's quickly locked away so Muldavo can put the moves on Maya, but before any unholy marriage can be consummated, jealous Aurelia frees George and arms him with a magic, or at least a glowing sword. She gets stabbed for her trouble, but George avenges her by slashing Muldavo's face with the burning blade, sending the cult leader pitching over a balcony.


George and Maya run for it, but Maya -- how like a female -- asks for a rest. But aha! George was too late after all. Maya has turned, and asked for a time out only so the cultists could catch up and kill her husband. Now she tends to poor Muldavo, who survived the fall but has suffered a hideous, constantly worsening facial burn. Only fresh blood can save him, so Maya sets about exsanguinating some cult members -- but to no avail. To her despair, Muldavo succumbs, leaving her to plead with Rakheesh for some sign that they'll be together again. We get the sign at the very end, when Maya turns her head to reveal a scar like her late beloved's growing on her face. In the absence of any actual character development (or "arc") for Maya, Legacy gives us little more than a nearly random sequence of strange behaviors -- and nobody else has nearly as much development as Maya. Nor can any of the cast act, as far as I could tell here. Legacy  fails as transgressive cinema. What I saw appears to have some gore cut out, unless I'm only noticing editor Damiano's ineptitude, and there's no nudity whatsoever. It ends up reminiscent in ways of Andy Milligan's work, with which Legacy was sometimes associated in double-bills, but without Milligan's splenetic attitude. There's no real personality at all here, and I wouldn't be surprised if students of Damiano assured us that some of his pornos are better cinema. Maybe things would have been different if he did this a little later, flush with success and possibly roaring with ambition, but maybe he'd already found his true medium, and horror movies simply weren't it.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

DVR Diary: DEVI (1960)

In its native country, Satyajit Ray's 1960 film provoked considerable controversy when it was interpreted as an attack on religion. It took an intervention from founding father Jawaharlal Nehru, who urged people to see Devi before judging it, to assure the film a wide, global audience. Viewers outside India could just as well take it as an attack on superstition, but Devi may seem to them more like a psychological horror film about the breakdown of a woman's sense of self. The woman, Daya (Sharmila Tagore), is the young bride of Uma (Soumitra Chatterjee), scion of a respectable Bengali family who seeks a western-influenced higher education in 19th century India. While he takes classes in Calcutta and imbibes high culture, Daya moves in with the in-laws: father Kalinkar (Chhabi Biswas), brother-in-law (Purnendu Mukherjee) and his wife (Karuna Banerjee) and little son (Arpan Chowdhury). The old man worships Kali, more as a mother figure than as the destroyer westerners will think of. He has a man singing devotional songs that have a strong sentimental "mammy" quality on the steps of the estate. Before long, he's had a vision showing him that Daya is an incarnation of Kali. He installs her on a pedestal, where she becomes the confused but ultimately passive object of neighborhood devotion. For what it's worth, she'd already become the idol of her nephew, creating jealousy in the boy's mother, who sees her husband as a loser compared to his younger brother, Daya's husband. To the boy, Daya may be a second, better mother, and all the men in the household arguably see her as a mother figure, even though she hasn't yet had a child herself.

The situation escalates when an old man from the countryside brings his sick grandson to Daya, hoping that Kali (or "Ma") will heal the boy, his only remaining relative. When the miracle happens, through no special effort of Daya's, the cult spreads as Ray shows us long lines of pilgrims trooping in to pay homage. When Uma hears of this, however, he's scandalized. Returning home, he's determined to take Daya away from what he sees as craziness. By now, however, a seed, not of belief, but of existential doubt has taken root in Daya's mind. She can't be sure that she's not Kali, and so fears leaving her place at the shrine. Back there, the crisis comes when Khoka, the nephew, falls sick. His mom wants a real doctor to treat the boy, but he hesitates in the presence of the supposed god. Finally, with Khoka pleading for his Auntie, she entrusts her son to Daya -- but the family soon learns that "Kali" has taken Khoka for good. While the father wonders what sins he's being punished for, the dead boy's mother rages against the "witch" who "killed" Khoka. Of course, Uma is only more determined to rescue Daya from this meltdown, but by now, at the end, she just wants to run away from everything and everyone.

There's an irony in the background that Ray certainly must have appreciated. While poor Uma identifies Britain and the west with progress, in sharp contrast to the the superstition that ensnares Daya, their story plays out during the Victorian era, a time when English women were placed on pedestals and idolized, in a different fashion, to the detriment of their autonomy and agency. The Indian story differs in detail and intensity, but a universal point can be made about the treatment of women. Not even progressive Uma, after all, considers educating Daya as an option; she's an idol to him as well, in a way. Daya is trapped in a role that leaves little room for individuality or self-definition in an extreme instance of the social construction (or destruction) of identity. Angry Hindus may have seen Devi as a direct attack on their faith, but the wider world of cinema could just as easily see it as a tragic commentary on an emotional neediness among men that consumes and destroys women everywhere. The specifics of religion are just details that Ray deploys through visuals and especially with sound to tell his particular tale.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2019) in SPOILERVISION

Most of the way, Jon Watts' sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming feels like an appropriately comic epilogue to the last two Avengers movies. It feels true to the spirit of Marvel Comics to treat with levity what so shortly before had seemed the ultimate disaster or tragedy. So here we get a lot of riffs on the the comical complications of the event now known as "the blip," the five-year absence of half the people of Earth, followed by their very abrupt return. It seems like almost everyone in Peter Parker's science school suffered this fate, so all the characters we met in the last film look no more than two years older now. Far From Home leans even more toward teen comedy than Homecoming did, using a class trip to Europe as its framework like a special episode of an old sitcom. Writers spend so much time developing the teen plot -- in short, Peter (Tom Holland) wants to declare his love for MJ (Zendaya) but best bud Ned (Jacob Batalon) wants them to be bachelor buddies in Europe until he almost accidentally falls for Betty Brant (Angourie Rice), while suddenly-grown Brad (Remy Hill) has his own eyes set on MJ and Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori) remains a conceited jerk. On top of that you have two comical chaperones, and on the side there's a budding romance between longtime Stark henchman Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Peter's frisky Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) There's so much of this early on, once we get past a prologue establishing the film's superhero credentials, that the standard supervillain plot feels secondary for quite a while. It doesn't help the supervillain plot that comics book already know what to expect from the beginning. The film, however, introduces Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), who acquires the nickname "Mysterio" from European TV, as a hero from an alternate universe who stands as Earth's only hope, in the apparently extended absence of most of the Avengers, against a quartet of rampaging elemental creatures appearing in different parts of the world. The only familiar hero Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) can lay hands on is Spidey, who finds this new crisis an unwelcome complication of his European plans but feels obliged to carry on Tony Stark's legacy. The comic book fans know Mysterio is a villain and are bound to grow impatient for the other shoe to drop as Beck befriends Peter and becomes a kind of new mentor for the young hero. The teen stuff is actually better written and definitely funnier, even if it makes Far From Home feel more like an Archie movie than a Marvel one.

The shoe finally drops once Peter is convinced that Beck is a worthier successor to Stark than he could be. He gives Beck the precious, all-powerful EDITH glasses bequeathed him by Stark, which is what Mysterio was after all along. Comics fans know the character as an illusionist and will have expected the elemental monsters to be fake. They are, in fact, a collective project, as Quentin Beck is but the leader of a clique of disgruntled former Stark Industries employees who have combined their talents to create illusions with teeth, holograms with drone air support adding up to genuine destructive power. The idea seems to be to make Mysterio Earth's greatest hero in a way that will allow all the clique to reap benefits in some corrupt way. To succeed, they need to kill the ever-suspicious Fury, but Beck is willing to let Peter live his life until Peter (and MJ) discover the truth about the elemental attacks. Now both of them, and Ned and Betty, are in mortal peril as well. While the idea of a gang of working stiffs, albeit in a higher pay grade, echoes the Vulture's gang in Homecoming, Far From Home raises the stakes from the previous film's admirably modest level as Mysterio orchestrates a mass-destruction attack on London, hoping to reinforce his heroic reputation by thwarting it after killing off anyone who may know too much. This adds up to an overlong, arguably incoherent climactic battle that has Spidey fighting drones, illusions and finally Beck himself while Happy Hogan and the primary school kids fight off drones in the Tower of London.

Gyllenhaal simply lacks the combo of charisma and gravitas Michael Keaton gave the vulture, and while the climactic fight is much busier than the climax of Homecoming it's not really an improvement. That Mysterio proves to be a one-and-done villain may also prove that neither the writers nor the actor were never very invested in the character, though he does get in a parting shot that will have ramifications for any further sequel. The weak villain condemns Far From Home to be an inferior film to Homecoming, unless you judge superhero films exclusively by the scale of action, but the ensemble of young actors remain likable enough to make their probable return still a welcome one. Holland is still a fine, easily-flustered Spidey and the other kids complement him well. Jackson is a more irascible Fury than we've seen in a while --  there's an explanation for this in the post-credits scene -- while Favreau, who goes back to the beginning of the MCU, makes a more plausible quasi-father figure for Peter. Overall, Far From Home isn't great, but thanks to most of the cast, it's hard to really dislike it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

THE INVINCIBLE MASKED RIDER (L'invincible cavaliere mascherato, 1963)

Best known for crime and cannibal films, Umberto Lenzi got his start making swashbuckling period pieces. One early effort was Il trionfo di Robin Hood, which went over well enough in some places, especially in Germany, that this subsequent effort was marketed, however implausibly, as a sort of sequel. It's a showcase for Pierre Brice, the French actor who became a star in Germany for playing the heroic Winnetou in adaptations of Karl May's western stories. The setting is somewhere in Spain, and to judge by the costumes some centuries after Robin Hood's time. An evil nobleman, Don Luis, (Daniele Vargas) has a neighboring aristocrat murdered, blaming it on highwaymen who are actually his stooges, and assumes guardianship over the victim's territory and daughter Carmencita (Helene Chanel). The only thorns in the villain's side are Maurilio, a local rabble-rouser (Romano Ghili), and an apparently invincible horseman who robs the robbers and bullies the bullies. This fellow is as masked as you can get, the full-face getup leaving no features exposed while leaving you wonder how he can see through it, though he manages well enough.


The plague has come to the territory, and Maurilio convinces the common people that their only shelter is within Don Luis' walls. The don's men repel the peasant invasion as they would a siege, capturing peasant women in the process and subjecting them to humiliating decontamination process. They're to provide entertainment when Luis marries his new ward, Carmencita to his stepson, Don Diego, who is returning from his studies for the occasion. At long last, after more than half an hour, Pierre Brice enters the picture in full "Don Diego" mode as the effete fop is discomfited by a staged attack on his coach, from which Don Luis' men rescue him. Somehow, we suspect, Don Diego probably has been hanging around the area already. Euro audiences must have been familiar enough with the Zorro legend or more local precursors like the Scarlet Pimpernel to see where Brice's shtick was leading.


Carmencita proves a reluctant bride, and Don Diego is too refined to force himself upon her. On top of that, the masked rider appears occasionally to hint that maybe she ought to give Diego a chance. When not carrying on this ambiguous courtship, the invincible one starts taking out Don Luis' henchmen, including a Moorish henchman (Carlo Latimer), whose lust for white women is portrayed in a way that may make the film look racist today. On the other hand, Lenzi makes a point of including at least one token Moor in the oppressed village to show that not all that kind are bad guys. But while the rider (or "Robin Hood," if you please) carries out his vendetta, Don Luis captures Maurilio in a masked rider costume and happily puts the malcontent to the hot-tong torture.


Don Luis plans to celebrate Diego and Carmencita's nuptials with a masked ball, but someone spoils the mood by showing up in another invincible masked rider costume. Protesting this politically incorrect sartorial decision, Luis orders the offender to unmask, only to discover that -- shock! -- Don Diego is the genuine, authentic Invincible Masked Rider. Except he isn't! The Pierre Brice character now explains that the real Diego died of the plague, creating an opportunity for him to take his place and fool the stepdad who apparently hasn't seen the boy in quite a while. This is a weird twist, and I wonder if it's exclusive to the German edition. Is it because the filmmakers didn't want to portray (spoiler warning) parricide on screen, or because the Germans, in particular, couldn't have a local aristocrat be the masked rider if the rider is supposed to be "Robin Hood," a man from another country. It's probably an unsettling and unsatisfying twist for many a viewer, since it renders the Don Diego performance a complete imposture without cluing us in on the real personality behind the double mask. But some audiences may have been satisfied simply by seeing the evil aristocrat killed and the good guy riding off for his homeland with Carmencita. What pleasures this film offers are simple ones: action, violence, good guys and bad guys. Lenzi had yet to find his own style or the stories to express it, and to be fair, the way I saw this film in the German dub (with English subtitles) probably didn't do it any favors. Still, it's an interesting example of European pop cinema other than peplums just before spaghetti westerns and Eurospy stuff overwhelmed nearly everything.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

NIGHT AFFAIR (Le desordre et la nuit,1958)

Jean Gabin's film career lasted from the 1930s to the 1970s and had two major phases. In the first, he was a leading man. In the second, from 1954's Touchez pas au grisbi forward, he was a middle-aged tough guy in films presumably appealing primarily to men. Unsurprisingly, Gabin could still play the leading man at least early on in this latter stage, even though he'd become a thicker, courser looking figure. The Gabin character's romance with the female lead in this Gilles Grangier detective story may be its most challenging feature, not just because of the 25-year age difference between the star and Nadja Tiller, but also because of the initially violent way these kooky Frenchpersons bond with each other.


Like many a French crime picture, Night Affair focuses on a nightclub. This one's a jazz club operated by Marquis (Robert Berri), who has a stable of black entertainers including floor show dancers, a band and star singer Valentine Horse (blacklisted U.S. chanteuse Hazel Scott). It boasts a racially mixed clientele, though it's hard for an outsider to tell whether this marked the place as progressive or decadent in the eyes of the original audience. The club hosts a tense meeting between a drug dealer (Roger Hanin) and his impatient buyer, Blasco, (Robert Manuel), after which the dealer, with his moll in tow, goes out to pick up his supply. From out of nowhere the buyer is shot down, and the moll, Lucky Fridel (Tiller) abruptly drives away.


The vice squad assigns Inspector Vallois (Gabin) to the case, despite his enduring affection for "grape juice." He ends up taking the flirtatious Lucky to her apartment, where they exchange slaps -- she starts it -- before going to bed. It looks like it'll only be a one-night stand when Vallois discovers, to his disgust, that Lucky, a German girl who aspires to singing like a Negro, is a cocaine addict. Still, the lonely detective follows her to a party at Valentine Horses's apartment in the hope of finding more out about her milieu. When the party ends violently, Blasco goes for treatment to a private physician or pharmacist (Danielle Darrieux) who may hold crucial pieces of the drug ring and murder puzzle.


Night Affair is more whodunit than crime story -- there's little urgency felt among the criminal element about the abrupt interruption of the drug supply -- and even more than that it's Vallois' crusade to redeem Lucky. Even though Gabin is technically a romantic lead, his is really a patriarchal role. It's telling that the film ends with Lucky entering a rehab facility, with the promise of a happy reunion with Vallois, rather than with the reunion. That finish is reminiscent of those relatively sympathetic morality plays where the repentant outlaw agrees to serve a light sentence on the understanding that he'll live happily afterward. The important thing here seems not so much that Lucky and Vallois might live happily ever after, but that by convincing Lucky to take her medicine, so to speak, Vallois has restored some moral order to the world. On some level you could call it a conservative film for that reason, but regardless of that the music is quite good and the spectacle of Gabin righteously slapping folks around -- men, too -- is entertaining on your choice of levels.

Monday, June 24, 2019

WHY GO ON KILLING? (Perche' uccidi ancora, 1965)

Like Fritz Lang's Hollywood western Rancho Notorious, Antonio de la Lona's Spanish-Italian western is about "hate, murder and revenge." It has a slightly tragic quality to it, along with a grim appreciation of how a vendetta can sustain itself by drawing in outsiders until until its originators become disposable. Steve McDougall (Anthony Steffen) returns to his home town to avenge his father, who has been executed by a longtime enemy, the ruthless rancher Lopez (Pepe Calvo). Like many a leader, Lopez, who has a personal score to settle with the McDougalls, makes sure to implicate all his men in the killing. He orders each to fire a bullet into the old man, though Rojo  (Carlos Hurtado) does so with obvious reluctance, if not outright revulsion. Rojo will end up one of the film's most tragic figures, constantly conscience-stricken and clearly wanting out of the situation yet obviously too weak to take a meaningful stand until it's too late. His qualms matter little to the surviving McDougalls, which include Steve's sister Judy (Evelyn Stewart) and her husband. Once Steve arrives, all who associate themselves with Lopez are targets, or at least enemies -- which is too bad for Lopez's daughter Pilar (Gemma Cuervo), who carries a torch for Steve until he guns down her brother (Hugo Blanco).


Lopez imports new gunmen to eliminate Steve, but the feud begins to escalate beyond his control when McDougall kills one of the gunmen while the gunman's brother Gringo (Aldo Berti) stayed on the ranch trying to hit on Pilar. Now Gringo has a vendetta of his own that will lead to the death of Steve's brother-in-law, the kidnapping and torture of Judy and the deaths of Lopez and Pilar. Gringo cares about nothing but killing Steve and can't care less about Lopez's larger strategy. The moment Lopez appears to be holding him back, Lopez is a dead man, and when Pilar, who still loves Steve and has shown compassion toward the captive Judy, tries to intervene, she's mowed down without a second thought. Rojo sees all this but can't keep himself from being carried with the tide as Gringo rides off with Judy to force Steve into a fatal showdown.


The writers' treatment of Rojo is one of the film's quiet strengths but also an ultimate weakness. A long chase through the wasteland leaves only Gringo, Rojo and Judy alive after Steve picks off the rest of the ranch gang that Gringo has taken over.  With a gun on Judy, Gringo forces Steve to disarm. He taunts McDougall by promising to kill Judy after Steve dies. Through all of this, Rojo has a gun, and you can see that he's finally reached the point where he can't stands no more. All of Gringo's attention is on Steve.  So what does Rojo do? He throws his gun to Steve -- who can't hold on to it. Steve can do nothing to stop Gringo from blowing poor Rojo away, and it's not until Judy hits Gringo with a rock that McDougall can dive for the gun and shoot his enemy down. It's not hard to imagine Rojo surviving had he shot Gringo himself, but despite how much the writers have highlighted his conscientious observation of events, they could not imagine him claiming real agency by taking out the final villain. I suppose you can argue that tossing the gun is Rojo's ultimate refusal of agency, of a piece with his overall failure to take responsibility for anything. But it's easier to assume that it simply wasn't this flunky's place to defeat the bad guy as far as the writers were concerned, so of course he has to do something suicidal instead.  The writers' decision undermines Hurtado's decent performance, which is mostly a matter of facial expressions that transcend the typical spaghetti-western dubbing. It also exposes the formulaic skeleton on which they tried to hang a more ambitious character-driven piece. For the most part, however, the film manages to find the mood it's looking for with the help of sometimes-wistful landscape cinematography by Hans Burmann and Vitaliano Natalucci and an occasionally-effective score by Felice Di Stefano. The ending may infuriate you a little, but overall Perche' uccidi ancora is a good try at a relatively mature western story.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

DVR Diary: MILE 22 (2018)

A couple of years ago I was intrigued by an announcement that Iko Uwais, the star of Gareth Evans' Raid films, and Ronda Rousey, the onetime mixed-martial-arts champion and "baddest woman on the planet," would be making a film together. You expect a certain kind of film with those names, but with Peter Berg involved as a producer and eventually the director, a somewhat different film, with Mark Wahlberg starring, probably was inevitable. The film first imagined was the sort of martial arts/action epic Uwais is known for, with Rousey as a natural added attraction. The actual product predictably focuses on the Wahlberg character's quirky personality while marginalizing Rousey, but Uwais does get several moments to shine. Wahlberg and Rousey's characters are part of a super special-ops team who in the field are in constant contact with a near-omnipotent remote support team led by a shockingly hirsute John Malkovich. The team is first seen taking out a Russian spy house on American soil, killing all inside including a possibly innocent teenage boy. Before you can ask whether President Trump approved such a thing -- he's acknowledged with a bobblehead doll alongside his predecessors in one scene -- the team is off to south Asia on an apparently related mission. The Russians were and are preparing some sort of mass-casualty chemical attack, but a rogue agent of the mythical land of Indocarr (Uwais) happens to have the info to thwart the attack. That info is heavily encrypted and the disc it's been burned on will become useless unless the U.S. meets the Indocarian's demand for asylum. For whatever reason there's a limited time window for an American plane to land and depart with this Li Noor as a passenger, and our team is tasked with transporting him over the 22 miles from the embassy to the airstrip. This operation pits the sweeping power of the Americans, who can change traffic lights and black out random houses at will, against a determined foe that anticipates every move they'll make.

This sprawling scenario means that gun and car action will predominate, though occasional stops is supposed safe houses and other shelters provide opportunities for close-quarter hand-to-hand action. Uwais has already had his best fight scene by this point, his character having slaughtered a number of assassins in a hospital room while handcuffed to a bed. Only then is the film remotely like what I originally anticipated when I first heard of the Uwais-Rousey project. Rousey, meanwhile, never gets to show off her judo and MMA skills. This has been explained as an attempt to showcase her acting ability, but there's something unconvincing about that, given that Rousey's character is randomly killed off about halfway through the picture without really developing the sort of character arc entrusted to Wahlberg and the actual female lead, Lauren Cohan.  When you consider that Rousey's acting has been vigorously criticized by fans of professional wrestling during her time as WWE women's champion, Berg may have decided that less from her would be enough. She didn't miss much by being denied character development by screenwriter Lea Carpenter. Wahlberg's character is talkative, somewhat hyperactive, and plays with rubber bands on his wrist. Cohan squabbles with her ex over contact with their daughter. Yet somehow Berg hoped that we'd want to see Wahlberg reprise his role after this film's sequel-begging end-opening swerve makes him look like a fool. Presumably we should be impatient to see him avenge people we barely knew and cared for less. Or else, like good Americans, we should want to see him kick Russian or Indocarian ass. However, a fight between Mark Wahlberg and Iko Uwais that Wahlberg is likely to win is nothing I'd look forward to. After Mile 22, I could only look forward to it less.

Monday, June 17, 2019

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (2018)

Back in the 1980s, a TV commercial promoting colorized movies quoted a random woman justifying the project on the ground that "we live in color." Peter Jackson's rationale for his colorization of documentary footage from World War I is basically the same; it could be summed up as "they lived in color." In a making-of short, Jackson makes the valid point that colorization, in this case, violates no one's artistic intentions; the original filmmakers certainly would have worked in color had it been available to them. Jackson has done more than colorize the footage. He used modern software to adjust the speed of the erratically hand-cranked films so that the soldiers filmed a century ago move with virtually the smoothness of people filmed today. His goal was to make the war footage look as if it was filmed yesterday, going so far as to fill in dialogue when lip reading -- or, in one case, some impressive scholarly research -- is possible. The results are inevitably mixed. That's partly due to the varying quality of source film, some of which can only be smoothed out so far. Colorization itself remains imperfect, or else it remains a painstaking process that sometimes requires more time or resources than Jackson could expend while meeting his implicit deadline of last year's Armistice centennial. His colorized footage is sometimes very close to the mark, and sometimes it reminds me of the limited palette of early Technicolor. While Jackson notes that grass was a particular challenge, he could have said the same about hair, with which his team had less success. Sometimes the footage still has the stencil-ish look of bad colorization from the early days of home video, but most of the time the results look better than that.

While Jackson colorizes out of a commitment to retrospective realism, the results can still be jarring on aesthetic grounds to people who identify World War I with the grim monotones of canonical fiction films like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Paths of Glory (1957). Films like those encourage a view of the Great War as a nuclear winter of blasted landscapes and exiled sunshine before the thing itself could be imagined. In a way, Jackson's commitment to restoring the World War I landscape to what it looked like to the soldiers is a kind of corrective to the implicit expressionism of Lewis Milestone, Stanley Kubrick, their cinematographers and others. It's additionally ironic to contrast Jackson's portrayal of the war with the explicit expressionism of the recent J.R.R. Tolkien biopic that portrays the Great War battlefield as an  inspiration for the doom-laden fantasy world so vividly visualized by Peter Jackson.

Given the heritage of World War I on film, the most surprising thing about They Shall Not Grow Old is that it is not an anti-war film. It isn't really a pro-war film, either -- it's almost impossible to imagine any World War I movie as such -- but it's not intended as Jackson's commentary on the war or its horrors. Pointedly, the script consists only of oral-history testimony from veterans collected by the Imperial War Museum. That decision leaves the politics of the war out almost entirely. It also leaves out the usual question of whether the war was worth fighting. Whatever Jackson may think, he doesn't treat this project as his opportunity to editorialize on the subject. That doesn't mean there's no auteurial presence at all, however. There's a degree of showmanship involved as he makes the audience wait for the colorized footage to fill the wide screen. His initial use of the old black and white footage in its original aspect ratio seems inspired by the prologue to This Is Cinerama, building up to an ideally similar ooh-ahh reveal.  In black and white and in color, Jackson tries to reconstruct as generic a soldiering experience as possible, from enlistment to baptism of fire, with strong emphasis on the discomforts and compensating camaraderie of trench warfare. Perhaps tellingly, the generic battle imagined from testimony and rare documentary footage is a victory for British forces, rather than the typical episode of existential futility from canonical fiction films -- among which, it might be observed, British films are relatively rare. Jackson's directorial decision makes some historic sense, since Britain did win the war, but the fact of victory never stopped filmmakers from the winning nations from emphasizing the negative. Perhaps because Jackson's is a commissioned film, it largely eschews the sort of introspection and regret we expect from World War I movies while implicitly claiming to represent an actual consensus of soldierly experience.

By no means, of course, is Jackson hiding the horrors of the Great War. Leave it to him to earn an R rating for a documentary compiled from century-old film precisely because he lingers on luridly colorized footage of corpses. The rating also has something to do with his unique emphasis on soldiers' bodily functions. Some of the still photos of bare-assed soldiers filling open-air privy benches may well have never been seen before by the moviegoing public.  The overall effect is closer to Rabelaisian than tragic, taking the bare bums and gore as a whole, but with no mockery or satire intended. Folkloric might be a better word, since it aspires to convey the experience of the common rather than the uncommonly sensitive soldier. Whatever your word for it, approving or critical, and leaving your aesthetic judgment of the colorization aside, Jackson has succeeded at least at his presumed minimal goal of making World War I look different than our movie-influenced collective memory of it.