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.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

DARK PHOENIX (2019) in SPOILERVISION

One problem with the modern superhero film cycle is that most superhero comics stories are deemed too small for the big screen. Only existential crises, ideally for both our heroes and the world, are thought to justify movies' big budgets. Films like Spider-Man: Homecoming, in which the hero thwarts a gang of thieves, are the exception. More typical was Zack Snyder's decision to get on with "The Death of Superman" in only his second film using the venerable character. So it is with the slightly less venerable Jean Grey, a charter member of the Uncanny X-Men dating back to 1963. To judge from the movies, the only reason to put the erstwhile Marvel Girl on film is to retell Chris Claremont's long story arc in which Jean survives a space disaster and becomes a being of godlike power. You wouldn't know from the movies, however, that Claremont took more than thirty issues of the X-Men comic to get Jean to the point where, having undergone mental and emotional manipulation while increasingly craving to manifest her power, she becomes Dark Phoenix and threatens the entire civilized universe. Filmmakers -- or to be specific, writer Simon Kinberg -- prefer to cut to the chase and get Jean from Phoenix to Dark Phoenix as soon as possible. Interestingly, though, Kinberg, making his second try with the material and now directing as well, tries to steer clear of the familiar "power corrupts" trope that has made the Dark Phoenix Saga a template for so many more comics over the last forty years. That's not to say that he steers clear of cliche entirely, however.

To review, we're in the new reality created by Days of Future Past, the second film with the current core cast of James McAvoy (as Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (as Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (as Raven aka Mystique) and Nicholas Hoult (as Hank "Beast" McCoy). The new continuity has reached the year 1992, eight years prior to the events and release date of the original X-Men movie, but the four principal actors appear to have aged little over the decades. In the early scenes we get the best illustration yet of how reality has altered in mutants' favor. In a world where there are, to our knowledge, no non-mutant heroes (depending on how you classify Deadpool), the X-Men are the only game in town when a U.S. space shuttle gets in trouble in orbit. The President of the United States can call for help on the X-Phone, and Charles Xavier will answer. And when the X-Men return, their mission accomplished, they're acclaimed as world heroes. Xavier in particular is lionized and decorated by the government, and yet somehow the universe itself recognizes that there's something wrong with this picture. When Jean (Sophie Turner), almost sacrificing her life to save the shuttle crew, becomes possessed by primal cosmic energies she can hardly control, it's as if the cosmos has risen in rebellion against the historic anomaly and to punish Charles for some fundamental hubris.

The nature of Xavier's hubris will be familiar to any regular viewer of superhero TV shows. I really should have known what was coming when the film opened with a flashback to Jean as a little girl arguing with her parents over the car radio and unconsciously manifesting telekinesis moments before a fatal wreck. We cut to Charles taking Jean in at his mansion, but the rest of the film will fill in crucial gaps. In the present, Jean will discover that her father survived the accident. From him, she'll learn that Dad basically gave her up to Charles Xavier, wanting nothing more to do with her after his wife's death. The film seems unclear on which is the worse sin: the father's abandonment of his daughter or the surrogate father's lie. The fatal combination of the two puts poor Jean into a lethal rage that at long last liberates Jennifer Lawrence from a series that long ago had stopped offering her anything but money.

What would you do if you suddenly had immense but uncontrollable power and you killed somebody? Of course, you'd go look up Magneto, since it was long ago decided that you can't have an X-Men film without their on-again, off-again nemesis. Good ol' Eric has gathered a bunch of mutants in some shantytown, where he warily welcomes the wandering, bloodstained Jean. The girl won't answer when asked whose blood that is, but Magneto will find out soon enough. Both he and Hank McCoy had old, strong feelings for Raven, so when Beast spills the beans, after Jean has skedaddled, they decide to take revenge, while the rest of the X-Men resolve to stop them.

So far so meh, but at least it's easily better than the previous mutant movie, X-Men Apocalypse. Unfortunately, the new film promptly repeats the old film's fatal mistake by introducing an utterly boring big bad. To be accurate, this character first appears earlier in the picture, but it's not until she encounters an increasingly frightened and angry Jean that we realize how bad she's going to be. If you think Jennifer Lawrence had been phoning in her mutant performances recently, wait until you see how Jessica Chastain does it. She sends hers by snail-mail. Long story short, she's an evil alien who leads an expeditionary force of superpowered refugees from a world previously destroyed by the entity that now possesses Jean Grey. These aliens hope to harness the "Phoenix" power to build a new world -- ideally, as it develops, on the corpse of our world. If they can get the disgruntled Grey to help out, fine. If not, they have ways of taking her power for themselves. In a way, I suppose, Chastain aims for actorly authenticity. Tasked with playing an emotionless alien, she pretty much nails it. The problem is, you start to believe that the actress herself is an emotionless alien, and the suspicion is no tribute to her work. She and her apparently infinite supply of soldiers have no interesting characteristics whatsoever. Worse, her character botches the master plan by lapsing into blatant villain dialogue in Charles Xavier's hearing at the moment when she's convinced Jean to surrender her power. Feeling the need to tell Charles that she's going to kill all humans, so there, pretty much seals the aliens' fate, though we still have to sit through an initially exciting but ultimately interminable-seeming fight aboard a speeding train before the final scene between Jean and the alien queen....

Probably only long-form television could do justice to Claremont's original stories, though there, too, creative license would be inevitable. Jean Grey's power-drunkenness is a slow burn that only accelerates late in the game when she falls under the influence of the Hellfire Club -- who aren't available for the Dark Phoenix movie because they'd been used back in the Sixties-set X-Men: First Class. By no means do I argue that the Hellfire Club is essential to telling the story effectively, but a telling truer to the spirit of the original would allow time for storylines like theirs to play out. You really need the X-Men to be more regular presences in your entertainment life, instead of showing up every three years or so, for Jean's story to have anything like the impact the comics did. Doing the whole arc in two hours is hopeless, and the emotions and motivations Kinberg substitutes for the originals don't help matters. A collective failure of acting helps even less. Nobody here does their best work for the franchise with the arguable exception of Tye Sheridan's Cyclops, whose best moment is an unexpected but appreciated f-bomb threat to Magneto, proof of feelings for Jean that in comics had nearly forty years of publication time to develop by the time of the Dark Phoenix saga. As Jean, Sophie Turner seems more assured than in Apocalypse, but there's only so much she can do with the script's high-school psychoanalysis of her character, and there's nothing she can do with the void that Chastain becomes. In the film's favor, most of the characters are at least likable -- and I'll at least acknowledge that they want Magneto to be likable this time. While the main action scene goes on far too long, and the climactic confrontation includes way to many swirly lights, at times Kinberg and editor Lee Smith give the fight scenes a good punchy quality when speed is of the essence. Hans Zimmer's music is okay, I guess. That may not sound like much, but it's still better than Apocalypse, though early box-office reports indicate that that film turned people off a franchise that most now realize is moribund. Inevitably the X-Men will fall under the control of Marvel Studios following Disney's takeover of Twentieth Century-Fox. That probably means that somewhere down the line there will be more and better mutant films -- as long as Marvel can resist the very temptation their comics line planted in people's minds long ago.

Friday, June 7, 2019

DVR Diary: A WICKED WOMAN (1934)

Mady Christians was an Austrian star of German stage and screen who quit that country for Broadway in the year Hitler took over. She had enough of a rep that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took a chance on making a star of her. Since Christians was already 42 in 1934, Metro promoted her as a master thespian. What better way to demonstrate this than by casting the German emigre as a southern woman. Interestingly, in adapting a supposedly sensational novel by Anne Austin, writers Florence Ryerson and Zelda Sears transformed the protagonist from a Texan to a Louisianan from the bayou country. Whether this was done to accommodate the limits of Christians' mimicry is unclear. In any event, you can recognize that Christians is imitating some sort of southerner, but you can also at times recognize something irrepressibly Teutonic in her voice.

The story, as directed by Charles Brabin, is a cut-and-paste assembly of melodrama tropes. A long-suffering mother, our heroine Naomi, has to kill her violent, criminal husband while her children sleep. Although the old man is a fugitive, she's afraid that she can't prove that she acted in self-defense, so she sinks the body and tells the sheriff that she hasn't seen him. Turns out that the bum had been holding the family back. By taking in sewing, and later by attending night school, Naomi slowly elevates her family's station while exercising iron discipline over her kids. This is most resented by Rosanne, the younger daughter, who pays a heavy price for stealing a bit of fabric and lying about it. The scene in which Naomi burns Rosanne's rag doll in an oven while the little girl (Marilyn "Little Maria" Harris) howls in despair is nearly as traumatic, at least to sensitive viewers, as the same young actress's encounter with Frankenstein's monster.

After a name change to throw the old sheriff off their trail, through pluck and grit Naomi rises to run her own big-city fashion shop, while her oldest boy, Curtis (William Henry), becomes a reporter on a local newspaper. Meanwhile, Naomi has grown into a resentful Jean Parker, who defies her mom by carrying on a relationship with handsome but trashy Bill Renton (Robert Taylor in an early, heelish role). Rosanne tries to keep her trysts a secret but a blowup is inevitable. It comes after she and Renton have spent a night sleeping in a car. Rosanne chooses Renton over her family, but Curtis won't accept that decision without a fight. In that fight Renton knocks him down a flight of stairs, inflicting the sort of vague injury that requires suspenseful surgery. That's enough to turn Rosanne off Renton, but in an interesting coda to her subplot she tells her mom that she wishes she could be ashamed of herself, but she can't. Naomi accepts this, realizing that Rosanne genuinely loved the jerk.

The operating-room vigil is an opportunity for Naomi to bond more closely with Curtis's boss, the superficially crusty but kind editor Naylor (crusty-for-life Charles Bickford). Once Curtis recovers, the family urges Naomi to claim happiness, but she, seeing herself in the title's terms and remembering a recently reiterated vow to pay for her old offense, sneaks off to turn herself in for killing her husband. She hopes to account for that crime in secret, using her married name, but it apparently didn't occur to her that her son and gentleman friend are reporters. Nor did it occur to her that Curtis, way back when, had been awake for the killing, enabling him to give the crucial exculpatory testimony and ensure a happy ending. Well, we can assume it's a happy ending, even if the film ends oddly with some business from Sterling Holloway's comedy-relief character, a boyfriend of Rosanne's older sister whose primary attribute is his appetite. In sum, it makes an odd showcase for Metro's latest import at a time when foreign stars embodied cosmopolitan sophistication. For all that it supposedly showcases Christians' versatility, the part probably could have been played by any actress her age, foreign or domestic. It's no surprise that this was her only top-billed Hollywood film, though she'd have continued success on Broadway and steady work in films until the Red-hunters got to her.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

DANGER PAYS (1962)

In recent years American audiences were made acquainted with "Nikkatsu noir," the Japanese studio's sometimes gritty, sometimes stylish crime films of the 1950s and 1960s. Nikkatsu made other kinds of crime film as well, including this Ko Nakahira film that might best be described as Runyonesque in the manner, if without the music, of Guys and Dolls. It showcases a colorful crowd of cartoonish crooks, led by Nikkatsu noir standout Jo Shishido as Glass-Heart Joe, a petty purple peacock of a hood who putters around town in his tiny two-seater looking for the main chance. When gangsters on a larger scale hijack a truck carrying paper used to print currency, Joe figures out that there's counterfeiting to be done. The thing to do in such circumstances is to nab the top counterfeiter, an old man known as The Expert (Bokuzen Hidari), and ask a high price of the hijackers for his services. Unsurprisingly, Joe isn't the only guy to get that idea. He has to deal with two semi-friendly rivals: Slide Rule (Hiroyuki Nagato), so named because of his Mad Thinker-like habit of calculating the probabilities in any situation, and Dump Truck Ken (Kojiro Kusanagi), so named because that's what he drives. They have Joe's number because they know his weakness. Rub two pieces of glass together and the squeaky sound drives Joe bananas and renders him helpless.


These three cancel each other out initially, letting the hijack gang get away with The Expert, who proves a bit of a prima donna. He demands ideal work conditions, i.e., working in the basement of the Cabaret Acapulco  with a glass ceiling giving him a private angle on the showgirls performing on stage. His new employers prove quite accommodating, being desperate for a big payday when they exchange their counterfeit yen for authentic U.S. dollars from unsuspecting Hong Kong crooks.


The rest of the film follows the three small-timers' attempts to snatch The Expert until they're forced to join forces for their own protection. Along the way, Joe picks up a feisty sidekick when his machinations get Tomoko, an innocent secretary (Ruriko Asaoka) fired from her office job. She proves to be a judo and akido expert who gets to throw Joe across a room in one scene and gets into an extended brawl with a randy trucker in another. Pound for pound she's probably the toughest of our protagonists, as long as firearms aren't involved. She otherwise makes a helpful accomplice when Joe's trying to convince the hijackers, for his life's sake, that he's wearing a wire and the cops are listening in.


Since everyone's hoping for a big payday, the danger has to match the prize. However goofy the main characters seen, this is still a take-no-prisoners crime film. It opens with the original truck drivers getting murdered, and reaches its climax when our fighting foursome, after escaping a gassy deathtrap, somehow shoot their way out of an elevator shaft, slaughtering the entire hijack gang. The joke here is that two-fisted Tomoko gets ill at the sight of blood. The irony is that those gangsters gave their lives for nothing. On a whim, the Expert had tricked them, putting a subtle flaw in the engraving that renders the fake bills even more worthless -- but our heroes hope to put one over on the Hong Kong crew before those fools have a chance to figure things out....


It's a fun change of pace to see Jo Shishido in something like Rat Pack mode, and the probability that he'll bungle everything keeps him sympathetic throughout. The comedy is broad though not embarrassingly so, and the vivid cinematography of Shinsaku Himeda, a frequent collaborator with Shohei Imamura, makes the whole thing lovely to look at. International audiences don't get comedies like these as often as they get any country's more violent and cool genre pictures, but something like Danger Pays probably brings us closer to popular taste in Japan than the more arty or outrageous films. We need more comedies like this to round out our picture of one of the most prolific film industries of the golden age of international cinema.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Too Much TV: WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (2019-?)

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi's 2014 film What We Do in the Shadows is not only the greatest vampire comedy ever made, which is admittedly no great feat, but also one of the best comedy films of the current decade. Its mockumentary format and Waititi's increased prestige after Thor: Ragnarok probably made the film a natural candidate for a TV spinoff.  Waititi and Clement have taken an active role in the new production, Clement creating the new characters while each man directed three of the first season's ten episodes. Now playing on the FX channel, the show is set in the same "universe" as the movie, with Clement and Waititi recreating their movie roles for one episode, but the location has shifted to Staten Island NY, where another motley group of vampires share a home in a surprisingly suburban neighborhood. Unlike in the film, one of the vampires is female, Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) having emigrated generations ago with her husband Laszlo (Matt Berry). There's also greater diversity in the form of Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), a white-collar "energy vampire" who leeches people's life force by being a bore and shares none of the traditional vampires' vulnerabilities. Rounding out the main cast are de facto house leader Nandor (Kayvan Novak) and his long-suffering human familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillen). For the most part the vampires (apart from Colin) share the basic characteristic of the original film vampires, all suffering from a sort of arrested development exacerbated by decadence that renders them more obtuse and awkward than the sophisticated bloodsuckers of popular fiction without much compromising their ability to prey on the living.

There's a token storyline for the season that requires our vampires to embark on a "conquest" of Staten Island, but it peters out before the season does without affecting the quality of the comedy. It only underscores the main joke of the What We Do in the Shadows concept, which really is to reimagine vampires in the stereotypical images of some of their geeky, socially awkward fans in modern culture. Ironically, this becomes most clear when the show spends time mocking the allegedly virginal types who indulge in LARP-ing and other habits that supposedly keep them ideal prey for the vampires. At first glance this looks like a mean-spirited if not self-destructive swipe at part of the show's presumed core audience, but it's hard to resent it once you're reminded that the vampires are just as pathetic as their prey. Above all, the protagonists are hopelessly awkward socially -- though Colin Robinson is admittedly deliberately so.This is driven home every time they interact with the human establishment, from their trips to the convenience store to their dealings with bureaucracy. The standout episodes in this respect are the second, when Nandor attempts to take over Staten Island by appearing at a borough council meeting, and the fifth, where Laszlo in bat form is captured by an Animal Control unit. It may not surprise you, though in a way it may disappoint you, to learn that bureaucrats are immune to most vampire mind tricks.

The TV Shadows benefits from current short-form production trends. It has little chance to grow stale over a grand total of five hours' screen time. If it has a weakness, it's that Nandor, Laszlo and Nadja all seem like variations on the same basic character type, though Kayvan Novak stands out by making Nandor, his ostensible leadership and seniority notwithstanding, even more childish than the others. He and Demetriou also benefit from having supporting characters to interact with regularly -- Guillermo for Nandor and for Nadja both an apprentice vampire (Beanie Feldstein) and a reincarnated human lover (Jake McDorman), while Laszlo gets to embellish his character mainly through hobbies like topiary sculpting and a porno career dating back to the birth of cinema. All three actors do enough to individualize their characters and keep them interesting, wile Proksch can be depended upon to hit discordant notes at opportune times. To some extent Guillen's Guillermo is our point-of-view character, since the film crew that follows the vampires everywhere is barely acknowledged, but he's weird enough in his unswerving desire to become a vampire that he doesn't stick out as a mere trope, and in any event his character continues to evolve as the season ends, with more developments sure to come now that the show has been renewed. For the most part, Shadows has found a comfortable balance of quirky character comedy and social satire that inspires confidence in the future. It's even less of a feat, to be fair, to have made the best vampire comedy TV show ever than to have done the best movie in that category, but Clement, Waititi et al have done it just the same and deserve another round of credit for it.

Friday, May 31, 2019

NEFERTITI, QUEEN OF THE NILE (1961)

Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian, taken from Mika Waltari's best-seller, is remembered as a box-office flop that almost immediately killed the career of Edmund Purdom, who took on the title role after Marlon Brando abruptly quit the production. After the massive success of The Ten Commandments (1956), however, producers perceived a persistent market for things Egyptian onscreen. Italian producer Ottavio Poggi saw something salvageable in The Egyptian's setting, the reign of proto-monotheist Akhenaten, and in Purdom, the Egyptian himself. The actor was already making films in Italy, and Poggi brought in two more American stars to make his project more marketable in the U.S. From our perspective his biggest get would be Vincent Price, who had just embarked on his run of Roger Corman Poe films for American-International and had a period pedigree thanks to his performance as "master builder or master butcher" Baka in The Ten Commandments. For the title role, the icon of ancient beauty thanks to the famous bust, Poggi landed Jeanne Crain, an Academy Award nominee who apparently had reached the end of the line in A pictures back in Hollywood. Fernando Cerchio, a writer-director who had come to specialize in period pictures and had written for Purdom in Herod the Great, took the helm for Poggi.


The results may surprise students of Egyptian history. Akhenaten, or Amenophis IV (Amadeo Nazzari) is a bit on the psychotic side, but overall seems a well-meaning fellow. Having just defeated a Chaldean army shortly before ascending to the throne, the prince is impressed by the monotheistic preaching of a captured Chaldean holy man (Carlo D'Angelo). On the homefront, his buddy Tumos (Purdom), a sculptor, has fallen in love with Tenet (Crain), a woman about whom he actually knows very little. He does know that it's dangerous to love her, since Tenet's dad doesn't approve. The old man sends goons to beat up Tumos, but he gets away to find sanctuary with Amenophis' army. The pharaoh-to-be promises to permit nothing to interfere with Tumos' romance with Tenet, but he himself knows little about the girl. He goes out of his way to be nice to Tumos as a rule because he has a nasty tendency of trying to kill his friend during the occasional psychotic break. Thankfully, Tumos tends to be a good sport about this.


Tenet turns out to be not merely the ward but the daughter of Benakon (Price), the high priest of Amon. Dad has been batting away suitors so that he can marry the girl off to the next Pharaoh, to improve his own connections in the royal household. He puts Tenet through a symbolic ritual sacrifice, "killing" her by shedding a single drop of blood so she can be "reborn" as Nefertiti. A marriage is quickly arranged, with poor Amenophis having no reason to know, thanks to the name switch, that he's broken his word to Tumos. The new pharaoh is preoccupied with theological speculation and his guilty conscience over all the men he's killed in war and appears to be impotent, marking this as an alternate reality in which King Tut will never exist.


Amenophis (he never changes his name to the more familiar one) thinks he's doing his pal a favor by commissioning him to carve the famous Nefertiti bust, but the sculptor only feels betrayed by both pharaoh, who didn't know better, and queen, who had no choice in the matter. He doesn't notice how Merith (Liana Orfei), the workshop's resident model, exotic dancer and archer, is pining for him. Merith is the sort of character the modern audience would want to see win out in the end, since she's a fighting heroine on top of being arguably more attractive than the legendary queen. Her archery comes in handy several times, including the film's obligatory -- The Egyptian had one, after all -- lion fight, which Tumos, being no Victor Mature, isn't going to win by himself.


Meanwhile, with Amenophis's encouragement, the Chaldean priest is building a monotheist cult, to the dismay of High Priest Benakon. Just to show that monotheists have no monopoly on intolerance, Benakon stirs up a riot during which the Chaldean and many of his followers are murdered. This backfires on the high priest when the angry pharaoh makes monotheism the national religion and bans all other cults. There's nothing left now but to stir up an army and overthrow Amenophis, regardless of the consequences to Benakon's daughter, the queen. Can a loyal army outside the capital save the day? Can Nefertiti get Amenophis to show some backbone and stand up to the rebels? I'll spoil that one: the answer is no, because our alternate-reality pharaoh has killed himself in a fit of war guilt. Well, can Tumos save the day? Again, the answer is no, because he's about to get himself stabbed to death by Benakon before Merith puts an arrow into the high priest to end the insurrection once and for all.


Purdom is weak and Crain is pretty much wooden, required almost literally to be nothing but a pretty face. Vincent Price does what he can with his villain role, but seems uncomfortable in his high-priest regalia. Liana Orfei nearly steals the picture but doesn't quite get enough screen time to pull off the heist. Cerchio has some of the same shortcomings as other peplum directors, particularly an inability to make mass battle scenes interesting, but he's better at staging and framing dramatic confrontations in the film's interiors. The production falls short on the exteriors, however, and overall you get the feeling that Poggi blew his wad on signing the Hollywood talent and had to cut corners elsewhere. Nefertiti is interesting as an eccentric take on the Akhenaten story and is worth a look for Vincent Price fans, but is probably too close to The Egyptian for its own good, or its audience's.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: CAUGHT PLASTERED (1931)

By 1931 the first Hollywood musical craze was dead, so RKO began putting Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey in straight comedies. Caught Plastered, directed by William Seiter, follows a template set by the team's late 1930 film Hook, Line and Sinker. It's the pattern later followed by the Marx Bros. at M-G-M, according to which the anarchic and potentially alienating clowns theoretically are made sympathetic by helping relatively normal people. In this case, our stars are out-of-work vaudevillians bumming a ride into a new town. What went wrong with their act? The theater manager told them that he doesn't tolerate profanity, Wheeler recalls. But we don't use any, Woolsey replies. No, but the audience did, Wheeler retorts. Having scored a railroad detective's badge after their latest narrow escape, Woolsey blusters his way into a free streetcar ride for himself and Wheeler by pretending to be a traction company. On board, they encounter an old woman weeping quietly. Mother Talley (Lucy Beaumont) runs a failing drug store and may have to sell out to an insistent creditor, Harry Watters (Jason Robards the elder) to afford to live in a retirement home. Inspecting the place, the ever-entrepreneurial Woolsey thinks something can be done with it, as was done with the run-down hotel in Hook Line and Sinker, while the surprisingly pragmatic Wheeler has his doubts. Somehow in these stories, whatever his past failures, the Woolsey character is shown to have a formidable gift for promotion, which in those days probably was equivalent to being a master con man. With such talent you wonder why he ever has to hide out in boxcars, but during the Depression nearly everyone, regardless or talent, was one bit of bad luck away from something like that. But perhaps the Woolsey character is better at promoting others than at promoting himself or his partner.

Whatever the reason, through aggressive sales tactics and a readiness to risk on modernization and advertising, he transforms the store into an all-purpose store with the midcentury drug store's typical food counter and soda jerky and publicizes it on a local radio program broadcast from the store, featuring the film's one musical number. Meanwhile, following the natural law, Wheeler falls in love with this film's version of Dorothy Lee, the police chief's daughter who's also desired by Harry Watters. Woolsey's business ideas are ruining the villain's plan to buy the store on the cheap and -- horror! -- convert it into a speakeasy. To sabotage Woolsey, Watters arranges to frame him by having one of his bootlegger friends sell Woolsey a supply of spiked lemon juice. While this sounds like a plan Woolsey himself would adopt as a matter of ruthless instinct, here he and Wheeler must affect outraged innocence as their clientele are, in fulfillment of the title's promise, caught plastered by the police chief. However, it's a simple matter to trick their supplier into betraying his business relationship so the drug store can be saved. If you came to know Wheeler and Woolsey from their more anarchic films from later in the Pre-Code period, Plastered will look like tame stuff, but it's not unpleasant to sit through. Films like these earned the team considerable good will that carried them through the Depression and into the Code Enforcement era until Woolsey's death in 1938 broke up the act.

Friday, May 17, 2019

COBRA WOMAN (1944)

Here's another in Universal's wartime cycle of exotic Technicolor adventures featuring Maria Montez, Jon Hall and sometimes Sabu. The whole cycle, which began with Arabian Nights and thus was presumably inspired by The Thief of Bagdad, is considered a milestone of camp cinema within the Hollywood studio system, while Cobra Woman in particular is often considered the campiest of them all. Future director Richard Brooks co-wrote it, having taken sole credit for a previous film in the cycle, White Savage, while Robert Siodmak directed. Siodmak was in the middle of an interesting run of films for Universal that included the proto-noir vampire film Son of Dracula, the noirish Cornell Woolrich adaptation Phantom Lady, and the still more noirish Deanna Durbin-Gene Kelly musical, Christmas Holiday. There's nothing noirish about Cobra Woman, but Siodmak's straight-faced direction, apart from scenes with a chimp in a kilt, no doubt enhances the film's camp qualities. To the extent that Siodmak takes the material seriously, the film probably looks less campy today and more like the typical studio fantasy blockbuster of our own time, within the limits of a Universal budget.


Ramu (Hall) and Tollea (Montez) are mission-educated natives on a south sea island who are about to get married. Ramu's wingman, or third wheel, is Kedo (Sabu), who on his way to the wedding has an odd encounter with a blind, mute mendicant who plays some reed instrument in the minor key that indicates that the man, despite his handicap, is up to no good. This unfortunate person is Universal's Master Character Creator, Lon Chaney jr., who is done dirty here by not being allowed to speak. Perhaps he couldn't be trusted to remember lines for this particular picture, but it's more likely that someone thought his distinctive husky honk of a voice would break Cobra Woman's delicate illusion of ethnographic realism. But I digress.


On her wedding day, Tollea vanishes. Evidence left behind indicates that the mendicant kidnapped her, and that he came from nearby Cobra Island. Ramu embarks on a rescue mission, with Kedo tagging along as a stowaway. Meanwhile, Tollea wakes up to find herself not quite a captive. The mendicant, Hava ("hey-va"), who only feigned his blindness but still can't talk, is one of the good guys of Cobra Island, a servant of its dowager queen (Mary Nash). The old lady explains that Tollea is a twin who was removed from the island early in life for her own safety, but must return to take the mantle of high priestess from her identical sister Naja, who under the influence of the evil counselor Martok (Edgar Barrier) has gone mad with power.


It might have been helpful for the old queen to have sent someone who could explain the situation to Tollea's friends. Instead, Ramu and Kedo reach the island and promptly discover who they take to be Tollea taking an elegant walk, attended by numerous ladies-in-waiting, to her afternoon swim. Knowing no better, and not exactly curious about his girl's change in condition, Ramu promptly dives in to join the high priestess. His assumption of privileges eventually gets him into trouble and before long he's tossed into a dungeon. Luckily, he overpowers Martok, steals his clothes, and is back on the loose. Unluckily, Kedo, wondering what's become of his buddy, breaks into the dungeon, sees a body in Ramu's clothes, and helpfully frees Martok.


Kedo is promptly put to the torture, but is rescued by Hava and the aforementioned chimp after a tense scene in which the ape virtually hypnotizes a guard by threading a needle, giving Hava, who clearly has a rapport with the precocious primate, time to sneak up and snap the man's neck. Kedo is barely reunited with Ramu before they're both recaptured. The pair are slated for sacrifice and are sure to be fed to the resident angry volcano unless Tollea can screw up the courage to confront her evil twin and usurp Naja's power. Fortunately, Naja never had to fight her way to power, and it shows. 75 years later we no doubt would get an elaborate, CGI-enhanced back-flipping fight to the death between the sisters. In Cobra Woman, Naja manages to topple backwards out a window after chucking a spear at Tollea and missing by a mile. It won't be enough, though, for Tollea to claim Naja's authority. She must prove herself as high priestess by performing the King Cobra dance we'd seen Naja do earlier in the picture.


That earlier scene is the highlight of the film. As high priestess, Naja's main responsibility is selecting people to be sacrificed to the volcano. The King Cobra dance starts the selection process. Once the priestess gets the snake's attention and dodges its strike, she's empowered to carry out the selection. Maria Montez does this with gusto, sashaying down the temple runway to point her finger of doom at the predestined victims. Once she points the finger, each pointee tries to run for it -- oh they of little faith! -- only to be nabbed by the rest. We see her select several victims, putting different english on the finger point each time -- Zap! You're going to die! And bam! You're going to die! -- clearly enjoying the hell out of herself.  This scene probably had a special resonance for its original wartime audience, since Naja's is the sort of nightmare fantasy of absolute power in a lunatic's hands that Americans were fighting against in Europe. Even now, there's a guilty giddiness about it that tempts you to share in Naja's pleasure, even if you excuse your pleasure as unintended laughter.


The scene repeats itself at the climax, except that innocent Tollea faints before the cobra, somehow more phallic now than during Naja's turn, can strike at her presumably virginal self. This is bound to disappoint the modern audience since it makes Tollea look weak, but we couldn't have the real swashbuckling finish, with Ramu and Kedo swinging all over the place on convenient ropes and Hava tossing Martok into a pit of spears to put the island's tyranny to a definitive end. There's also more stuff with the chimp, proving again that Cobra Woman is a film for the whole family and not just for the gay men who presumably canonized it as a camp classic. I guess I can see what they saw in it, from the beefcake courtesy of Hall and Sabu to the fantastic costumes of the Cobra Island folk, but I assume that the film had, pun intended or not, more universal appeal back in the day. It's definitely silly stuff, but it's also an eye-grabbing spectacle and a comforting allegory of liberation in the midst of war.