Saturday, March 16, 2019

DVR Diary: ANOTHER SON OF SAM (1977)

Aspiring North Carolina auteur Dave A. Adams reportedly wrote and directed his first film, originally called "Hostages," in 1975. It took two years for him to find an exploitation angle, but in late 1977 Adams anointed his film's killer Another Son of Sam. All it took was to preface the picture with a lineage of killers starting with Jack the Ripper and concluding with the then still active Hillside Strangler. It might not inspire confidence to see Adams attribute fourteen victims to the Ripper, but a friend tells me that many Ripperologists at least tentatively credit Jack with more than the canonical five killings. Whether Adams knew this is unclear, bur you'd be right anyway not to have confidence in him. For what it's worth, his original concept arguably owes more to another killer in Adams' list, Richard Speck, since Adams' killer spends much of his time in a girls' dormitory. This killer, Harvey, escapes from the hospital after a round of electroshock therapy and heavy sedation, despite being put in a straitjacket. He strangles one guard with a telephone cord, then impales another with a coat rack. Through all of this, we haven't seen the man's face, but we get repeated close-ups of his actually quite inexpressive eyes. No madness seethes there, nor does depravity glisten in them. Nevertheless, these repeated shots of his eyes are this film's equivalent of Bela Lugosi spreading his cape in Plan 9 From Outer Space.

Despite his murderous ways, Harvey is satisfied merely to knock his doctor unconscious. We're told that she's in a coma, but suffering more from shock than anything else. That's enough to enrage the doctor's husband, a plainclothes detective, though rage seems to be beyond the actor's emotional range. He's given a backstory that consumes the first reel of the picture and consists of speedboating and the patronage of a nightclub where Johnny Charro, a stereotypical hairy-chested real-life local lounge singer, performs. Charro's awful ballad, "I Never Said Goodbye," is a local hit, receiving radio airplay in at least one scene, and counts as the Love Theme from Another Son of Sam. As for the police detective, the most that can be said for our hero is that he's probably the most competent member of the Belmont police force. Once you see the picture, however, you'll realize that I'm not giving him much credit.

After he evades some cops in an urban park, Harvey follows two college students to their dorm. The girls' chatter introduces the major subplot of the picture, which is that one of them has stolen some money to finance an abortion. That this is implicitly obvious without abortion being mentioned is the one bit of cleverness in Adams' script. Harvey wanders through the building and for all I know is under the bed where the two girls have another chat, in order to justify more cut-ins of those evil eyes. We get a fake scare when one of the girls opens a closet door to fetch her pet mouse's cage, but instead of Harvey a large plush dog falls on her. Harvey will get his chance later.

The theft-abortion subplot provides an excuse for cops to be in the dorm when Harvey takes his first victim. A desultory siege ensues in which Harvey displays ninja skills relative to his inept police pursuers. At last a SWAT team is called in as Harvey menaces two of the girls we've already seen. He takes his time menacing them while the SWAT officer gingerly rappels into position, with orders to simply nose his rifle through an open window, part the curtain, and fire. One of the girls impatiently charges Harvey with one of those fraternity/sorority paddles, and at first it's unclear whether the madman has killed or merely kayoed her when she hits the mattress with blood trickling from her mouth. Meanwhile, the other girl makes her way to the window and tentatively parts the curtain. BANG! Score one for the cops. Then, another cop charges into the room, and for all his specialized training is immediately mowed down by Harvey. By this time the unconscious girl has come to, and she takes the carnage playing out around her with remarkable, almost inhuman calm.

Finally, Harvey's mother is brought to the dorm to talk him into surrendering. She tells a sob story, blaming herself for his going bad, and promises him on the cops' behalf that he won't be harmed if he turns himself in. Harvey, represented by the camera, steps into the hallway and stands in front of her, apparently staring at her handbag. The cops immediately open fire and it's as if the old lady has disappeared as Harvey, his face finally shown in mortal agony, is riddled with bullets. By way of an epilogue, the final girl from the dorm room gets the bad news from a doctor that her friend never regained consciousness, and she takes it with a great pout. We're left with no real insight into the homicidal mind, few quotably bad lines (though our hero's response to a false report of Harvey's capture, "There's a college girl here who would disagree with you -- if she could talk," is probably the 'best.') and nagging questions about the director's habit of freeze-framing the action while the dialogue continues. You might even ask whether this film every played in theaters, but as this was the Seventies, I'm sure that some drive-in or grindhouse did take it. Another Son of Sam isn't one of the laughably crazy bad films that provide genuine entertainment on some level, but if you'll settle for laughably inept it might still entertain you a little.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

THE TASTE OF VIOLENCE (Le goût de la ..., 1961)

In 1969 Robert Hossein directed and starred in one of the great spaghetti westerns, Cemetery Without Crosses. It turns out that Hossein had a head start on most European auteurs, having made his first western almost a decade earlier, before there was a phenomenon to label. To be more precise, Taste of Violence is a black and white precursor of the spaghetti subgenre commonly called the "Zapata western," those films set in Mexico or some place much like it during the early 20th century revolutionary period. Hossein's film is set in an unnamed and thus for all intents and purposes fictional country experiencing a revolt against an unpopular president. The film opens with a rebel band led by Perez (Hossein) having scored a great coup by capturing the president's daughter, Maria (Giovanna Ralli). The rebels celebrate by executing the soldiers who'd been escorting her before Perez and two others set out to deliver the young woman to their commander. Perez hopes for a hostage exchange, getting numerous rebel prisoners freed in return for his prize. But in a volatile landscape there are many who would take Maria off his hands -- including his own comrade, Chamaco (Mario Adorf) -- for personal gain.


A perilous journey ensues. The little band has to burn their way through a cornfield to escape a village of pursuers, but Chamaco remains the real threat, thanks in part to his influence over the youngster of the band, Chico (Hans H. Neubart). Circumstances keep Chamaco from carrying out his own schemes until Maria shows her own ruthlessness. Recognizing Chico's infatuation with her, she persuades him to escort her to safety, only to be intercepted by Perez and Chamaco, the latter of whom kills Chico. Later, Maria gets the drop on the two survivors, only to surrender to Perez after he kills Chamaco to keep him from shooting her. The romance between Maria and Perez seems implausible, as does Giovanna Ralli's somehow immaculate makeup, but rest assured that Hossein isn't too much of a romantic.


As the film nears its conclusion the tide has clearly turned against the rebels. In a bookend to the execution scene at the start, Perez and Maria enter a city where rebels are hanging by the neck practically door to door. In the end, after a brief rest break at his sister's house, Perez learns that his faction has been decisively defeated; there's no one left to whom to deliver Maria. Then he finds that the government forces have burned his sister's house to the ground and most likely killed her entire family. Maria is all he has left now -- except for one thing. This might be the point where another filmmaker would have Maria run off with Perez to make a fresh start somewhere. Instead, Hossein has his hero and heroine go their separate ways, Perez to carry on in one-man rebellion, quite consciously hopeless. Maria doesn't love him that much. The closing shot shows two tiny figures riding off in opposite directions across a vast, bleak landscape. Unlike the "zapatas" that came later, Hossein isn't interested in violent catharsis, ending his prototype film on a note of tragic futility that makes it something more than a genre picture. See this and Cemetery Without Crosses and you'll regret that Hossein -- still with us at age 91 but apparently retired -- didn't make more westerns with his exceptional sensibility.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019) in SPOILERVISION

By Marvel Studios standards Captain Marvel is relatively non-linear, which may be why it feels a little rough early on. We're immediately immersed in the adventures of some sort of space special-forces unit of the Kree empire, an entity moviegoers first encountered in Guardians of the Galaxy. The Kree are battling their traditional enemies, the shape-shifting Skrulls. One of the Kree team, a woman named "Veers" (Bree Larson) is the special protege of her commanding officer (Jude Law). Something about his team may give viewers pause, however; one of them is somebody (Djimon Hounsou) we've seen as a bad guy in Guardians. This is a minor detail compared to Veers' flashbacks, which focus on a middle-aged female (Annette Bening) who is also the form Veers sees when she communes with the Kree "Supreme Intelligence," which in comics is represented by a giant green blob-face. For each Kree, the Supreme Intelligence takes the form of someone familiar, but Veers has no idea who the woman is. Over the course of the film, she comes to realize there's a lot she doesn't know about herself. In fact, if I recall right, this is the first time Marvel has gone the "everything you thought you knew is wrong" route so familiar in genre fiction in general these days. The comics audience, of course, anticipates this, because they know that Veers is really Carol Danvers, the much-revamped heroine once known as Ms. Marvel, who was most recently upgraded into "Earth's Mightiest Hero. Watching the first half of Captain Marvel is a matter of waiting for Carol to rediscover the truth about herself, and that may explain why the early action has a somewhat perfunctory feel. There's nothing spectacularly original about the alien environment Veers works in; Hala, the Kree homeworld, looks pretty much like every other Marvel megalopolis, and there's little truly alien in a sci-fi sense about the Kree or the Skrulls, apart from the latters' morphing abilities. For a while, and maybe all the way through for some viewers, this film (directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck from a story and script from theirs and many other hands) feels like it might be the most generic, by-the-numbers Marvel movie of all apart from the title character's (who never uses that title) relatively nonlinear character arc.

It doesn't help that, when Veers goes crashing onto planet C-53 (i.e., Earth), it's the year of our lord 1995. In other words, cue the oldies soundtrack! Maybe I let this familiar marketing ploy bother me too much, since making movies out of Marvel Comics themselves is mere moneygrubbing from one point of view, but one might ask whether this film had to be set in the past at all, unless it's to market an oldies soundtrack. To be fair, also, this is far from the most cynical or implausible deployment of oldies (that would be Spider-Man: Homecoming). Still, there's something pandering about it that always leaves a bad taste in a killjoy mouth, but this will be just about my last complaint about Captain Marvel.

Anyway, it's 1995 and Veers crash-lands in a strip-mall Blockbuster Video, and who should be called onto the case but a young -- well, a younger Nicholas Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who was a much less serious person a quarter-century ago. He also, understandably, had much smoother skin, and the CGI wizards deserve some credit for the job they did on him, though their treatment of Clark (Agent Coulson) Gregg leaves a lot more to be desired. A nice detail about this film, which stands at the brink of the end-of-an-era Avengers: Endgame, is that it brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe just about to full circle by showing us that his encounter with Carol, the Kree and the Skrulls provoked Fury to launch what he initially calls the Protector Initiative before Danvers gives him one more inspiration. Nevertheless, it's an odd turn from Jackson, most memorable for Fury's misplaced affection for a precocious cat, though again you can argue that it's this experience that made him more serious about things. Anyway, with him as tag-along, Carol rediscovers her past by tracking down her best friend and fellow jet pilot (Lashana Lynch), whose daughter may turn up in a future, present-day film as yet another Captain Marvel. It's a long story and I'll save it for when I need it.

Meanwhile, as noted, Carol learns that a lot of what she thought she knew was wrong -- and one cute thing the film does to make some of this surprising is to exploit the recent typecasting of Ben Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Ready Player One, Robin Hood ...). He plays a Skrull agent who's taken the form of a S.H.I.E.L.D. commander in order to get at Veers, who has subconscious knowledge of an important science project the Annette Bening mystery woman was working on. But everything you thought you knew about Ben Mendelsohn is wrong! In this particular variation on the Kree-Skrull conflict, the green, waffle-chinned shapeshifters are the good guys, while the Kree are exploiting Carol Danvers by suppressing her memories of Earth as well as her full potential as a superbeing -- which once unleashed could be limitless. Since last year, Marvel has teased that Captain Marvel is the hero who can tip Thanos' precious balance, and watching her pull off Superman-style stunts like blowing up starships by flying through them may make more people believers. The directing team aren't really the most visionary or even efficient storytellers, but they do succeed at making Carol's realization of her full power, intercut with her memories of a lifetime of rising from adversity, an exhilarating moment, an ultimate comic-book power fantasy brought to cinematic life. While overall Captain Marvel is at best a mid-level Marvel movie, if its main purpose is to get people even more interested in Endgame, it probably should count as an unqualified success.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

ESCAPE FROM PATAGONIA (Fuga de la Patagonia, 2016)

Javier Zevallos' screenplay, co-directed with Francisco D'Eufemia, has been described for American audiences as a "gaucho western," but it struck me more as an Argentine variation on The Naked Prey, only with less nakedness. It's based on a real-life exploit of Francisco Moreno, a 19th century explorer of Argentina's Patagonia region. Moreno (Pablo Ragoni, in the left foreground above) was captured by a hostile tribe but escaped just before he was scheduled to be put to death. In the film, as presumably in life, he has two helpers, a white man, and a civilized native, each more worldly than the scholarly Moreno in some respects. It seems for a while as if Zevallos means for these characters to articulate contrasting viewpoints relevant to the story (and to Argentine history) as a whole, but about halfway through the picture Moreno is separated from them when the trio come under fire from some hostile whites. Whether these men are outlaws or merely settlers is left unclear. In any event, Moreno is shot in the shoulder, falls into a river and is carried downstream. Now, concerned lest his wound grow infected under primitive conditions, he has to make his way back to his friends or to the nearest fort, whichever might come first. Starting over, he encounters an army deserter who may or may not have murdered a family of natives. The one constant, of which Moreno is unaware until the end, is a native pursuer, his own godson (Gustavo Rodriguez), who has come (after a history related in flashbacks) to realize that while Moreno himself may be a man of good intentions, his work mapping the region is too useful to the more dangerous whites from Buenos Aires for him to be allowed to continue.


It's really a simple survival story told with admirable brevity, coming in at only 80 minutes. Apart from Ragoni, the real star is the Patgonian landscape, often showcased in a way that reduces Moreno and his various friends and pursuers to tiny figures whose movements remain legible thanks to Lucio Bonelli's cinematography. The number of tracking and following shots suggest that Terrence Malick's The New World was a big influence on the directors, and that strikes me as a good choice of influence. More modest in its ambitions than the American film, Escape From Patagonia is an engaging window into an area of world history still largely unexplored by American moviegoers.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

THE BAD BUNCH (1973)

Greydon Clark made his directorial debut and starred in this low-budget quasi-blaxploitation picture. It's not quite the real thing because Clark, a white man, is the point-of-view character throughout. It opens in Vietnam, represented by helicopter sound effects and some scrubby tall brush, as Jim (Clark) talks race relations with his black comrade-in-arms. This well-meaning person is about to reveal an idea he had for healing racial divisions when Charlie opens fire on the men, killing Jim's buddy. Stateside, Jim takes it upon himself to deliver a letter his buddy had written to his father, Tom Washington (Fred Scott). Arriving in Watts, Jim is immediately an object of suspicion and derision. Outside the old man's home, he has a tense encounter with a gang led by his buddy's brother, Tom Washington Jr. (Tom Johnigarn), or as he prefers, Makimba. As far as Makimba's concerned, it's Jim fault that his brother is dead, because Vietnam is a white man's war. The gang tracks Jim to a carnival and chases him down afterward. Before things get ugly, the cops show up. Then things get ugly, for the two middle-aged plainclothes white detectives (Aldo Ray and Jock Mahoney) are bigots looking for any excuse to take down black kids. Jim manages to defuse the situation but only earns the cops' contempt without winning any trust from Makimba.


Makimba might be the hero of a true blaxploitation picture, but here he's only a self-righteous asshole, kept from being an absolute villain only by the irredeemable racism of the cops and the audience's inferred understanding of the reality of places like Watts. He remains obsessed with getting some sort of revenge on the unoffending Jim. Meanwhile, Clark pads the film with an uninteresting love triangle involving Jim, his fiancee and a head-shop cashier he cheats on her with. You can't escape the impression that while he's supposed to be our hero, Jim's a bit of a sleaze who socializes at strip clubs, gets drunk and fears commitment. At the same time, Makimba is impotently resentful of the fact that his girlfriend has to turn tricks to pay the rent. Perhaps there's a faint echo here of the classic race-noir Odds Against Tomorrow, in which a white and black criminal who hate and ultimately destroy each other are shown to be pathetically miserable in their personal lives.


Somehow the plot contrives to get Makimba and his friends invited to a pool party thrown by Jim's friends in a Jewish neighborhood (Jim himself is Eastern Orthodox). It's an interesting scene that shows several of the gang loosening up and having fun with many of the whites while Jim remains gloweringly aloof. It's also an excuse for ample full-frontal female nudity, though as far as I noticed none of the men strips so completely before diving into the pool. An angry neighbor, offended at the site of "negroids" frolicking with whites, calls the cops on the party, forcing Makimba and friends to flee, almost missing the tardy Jim.


Makimba has only grown more paranoid about Jim because he's misinterpreted the white man's encounter with the cops at Tom Washington's funeral. Makimba's father had a fatal heart attack while scuffling with his son over the ammo for a rifle Makimba wants to shoot with. Jim wants to pay his respects and gets into an argument with the same racist cops from earlier in the picture. Seeing this from a distance, Makimba gets the idea that Jim has "fingered" him in some way. Thwarted at the pool party, Makimba desperately seeks another way to get at Jim, finally snatching the head-shop cashier and torturing her, despite the objections of his increasingly divided gang, to learn where Jim is. One of the gang is so repulsed by Makimba's mania that he actually rats his friend out to the racist cops, who race to the rescue only to get killed by the gang with knives, shovels, etc.


Now there's nothing left for Makimba to do but kill Jim, who has finally decided to go through with his marriage. Clark, who co-wrote the film, may have thought it a clever touch that Jim's overcoming his fear of commitment would prove his undoing, but since he does little, as actor or auteur, to make Jim an interesting personality, I doubt many in the audience cared much whether Jim got married or not. Unfortunately, I doubt many cared whether Jim got killed or not. For what it's worth, The Bad Bunch (also known as Tom or N----r Lover, after its title song) is a creation of its time, and so with characteristic pessimism it ends with Makimba killing Jim and a final split screen equating this murder with the death of Makimba's brother in war. While the film as a whole has a certain grungy authenticity that I appreciate in Seventies movies, its utterly one-dimensional treatment of Makimba undermines any point it meant to make about race relations. As an exploitation picture and a document of its time, however, it still has its moments of interest.


Thursday, February 21, 2019

BLACK KILLER (1971)

As far as I can tell, "Black Killer" is the original title of this Italian western, even in its country of origin. That probably explains why the title creates a false impression. Based on what actor-turned-director Carlo "Lucky Moore" Croccolo shows us, the title probably should have been "Killer in Black." As the presumptive title character, Klaus Kinski is a man in black befitting his dignity as an attorney-at-law. He rides into Tombstone (pre or post-Earp?) with heavy law books dangling from his saddle. The books are his most precious possessions, and he gets antsy when anyone else tries to handle them. We see enough of one volume which flips open, apparently hollowed out, to raise our suspicions about James Webb's true line of work.


In fact, Webb has one of the dumbest gunfighter gimmicks in spaghetti westerns. The books, or some of them at least, are hollowed out and carry guns inside. That's one way to conceal your firearms, I suppose, but Webb takes the gimmick too far. Although there seems to be no advantage at all to it, the lawyer keeps his weapons between their covers at all times, even when he's using them. He's so good a gunman, I guess, that he doesn't have to worry about aiming -- and for that matter, I'm not quite sure how he fires the things unless each volume has a hidden lever somewhere. At least Croccolo doesn't force us to worry about these practical matters until late in the picture. Until then, Webb is mostly a seemingly detached observer of the tribulations of the Collins brothers at the hands of the O'Hara gang that dominates the territory by stealing land from homesteaders. Peter Collins (Jerry Ross) keeps a modest but happy home with his Indian wife Sarah (Marina Malfatti), while brother Burt (Fred Robsham) has been made sheriff, at Webb's prompting, after killing several outlaws shortly after reaching town. In revenge, the O'Hara's attack Peter's home, killing him, injuring Burt and raping Sarah.  The murdered man's widow and brother become avengers, and say what else you will about this picture, it's a rare Italian western that gives us a fighting heroine, and a Native American at that. Sarah fights with bow and arrow (hitting her targets from sometimes impossible-seeming angles) and with guns, and even gets the drop on Webb when he acts suspiciously. She also provides some of the picture's gratuitous nudity, stripping to the buff so Burt can remove a bullet from her thigh. Most of the nudity is contributed by Consuelo the saloon girl (Tiziana Dini), who is as much an object of cinematic exploitation as Sarah is an exceptional heroine.


Alas, Sarah is made to sit out the final showdown pitting Webb and Burt against the remaining O'Haras, perhaps because "Lucky" realized that the Kinski character actually should accomplish something with his gimmicked lawbooks. I suppose you can read some kind of commentary into the gimmick on the inescapable violence at the heart of the rule of law, but I doubt anyone involved in this picture thought too much about it, and in any event Webb is not entirely a lawful character. He undoes the injustice of the land thefts, but keeps the gang's ill-gotten gains for himself, until Sheriff Burt demands a cut and gets it. At first this looked like one of those pictures Kinski would sleepwalk through, but Croccolo does a decent job exploiting the man's irrepressible presence as he glides desultorily through the proceedings. Webb isn't enough of a character to imagine a series of films about, and his gimmick really is dumb as a rock, but Kinski makes him fun to watch this one time without really doing much -- only just enough.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

On the Big Screen: ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019)

Robert Rodriguez, once known for making exciting films on the cheap, had a ton of money thrown at him by James Cameron in order to realize a project that had been stewing in the latter's mind for about twenty years. Wikipedia reports that Cameron had been turned on to Yukito Kishiro's manga by Guillermo del Toro, but del Toro by now is too big a deal himself to be anyone else's hired gun. Rodriguez did an uncredited polish on a screenplay Cameron collaborated on, so the finished product is as much his interpretation of the story as anyone's. He deserves credit for how well it turned out, and I suspect that Alita will prove a no-lose proposition for him, since those who don't like it will most likely blame Cameron. I suspect a lot of people won't like it, and I'm not sure I can blame anyone who doesn't. It's not for everyone, even if it needs to be to break even; it lacks that jenesaisquois that makes Star Wars almost uniquely accessible to the mass audience for stuff of this kind. There's an audience guaranteed to enjoy this, but another more certainly guaranteed to resent its story's demands on their attention -- and a lot of them write film reviews.

While Alita is undeniably a work of great craftsmanship and visual dynamism, I don't know if it's possible at this point to do enough to differentiate the film's setting from other cyberpunk dystopias. If you're not into the concept at the primal generic level Alita could well look like just another of its kind to those for whom any one is enough. The film is also indisputably repetitive, presumably covering multiple episodes of the original Japanese strip. We get multiple go-rounds on the Motorball track -- the sport of the future is basically Rollerball on cyber-roids -- and multiple fights with an evil but relatively dull cyborg who's really no more than a tertiary villain in a hierarchy where the top is mostly unseen. We can question the pacing of the film, again arguably a consequence of biting off more of the original than it could chew. The cyborg heroine (Rosa Salazar) has a boyfriend (Keean Johnson) caught in an inescapable mortal predicament resolved by Alita decapitating him but diverting some of her own bloodstream into his brain so the head can be installed on a cyborg body. This looks like the setup for a happy ending of cyborg love, but just a few minutes later the boyfriend is off on a suicide mission and this time Alita can't save him. It makes you question the point of saving him the first time around. Meanwhile, while Cameron, Rodriguez and co-writer Laeta Kalogridis may have bitten off more than they could chew of the complete manga, the film isn't actually complete. While there's no cliffhanger, it does leave things open-ended with a promise of future battles between Alita and the nebulous big-bad (Edward Norton) if she finally acts on her centuries-old directive to destroy the villain's elitist floating city. I can imagine some people groaning at the promise of a sequel that I suspect will never happen, based on the sparse crowd I saw the movie with. But as far as I'm concerned the scene of Alita, now a champion-level Motorballer, raising her sword in apparent salute to the spectators but also in an implicit threat to the floating city, makes for an awesome ending.

Beyond that, despite her initially creepily cartoonish computerized face Salazar as Alita won me over with her fairy-tale Frankensteinian (or Pinocchian) good-little-death-machine personality, while Christoph Waltz, an on-and-off character actor, was quite charming as her surrogate father, a techno-nerd variation on his benign bounty hunter from Django Unchained. Jennifer Connelly was fine in a semi-villainous role and ultimately tragic role as Waltz's ex-wife, while Mahershala Ali often seemed to sleepwalk through a literally superficial secondary-villain role that required him often to play his own puppetmaster. All this aside, the real star of the film is Robert Rodriguez, one the great genre minds of our time, who somehow manages to foreground personality amid the massive production design while staging several amazing action scenes. If the overall film feels repetitive at times, Rodriguez knows when and how to escalate the action. You can see this in the difference between the scene where Alita is only an eager spectator for Motorball and the big tryout game where she's in the middle of the action, literally the target for all the other competitors. You can also see it in the way Alita makes relatively short work of her most frequent antagonist in their final encounter; by then, there's no need for them to have another long battle. Alita is a film that feels longer than it actually is -- just over two hours -- but it's a good kind of long, the kind that immerses you in a densely detailed and constantly strange cityscape and keeps your eye constantly engaged. It's a film that gets a lot done, and it left me, at least, sort of hoping that that sequel does get me. I'm just the sort of dope that likes this stuff.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A GHOST STORY (2017)

David Lowery's film steers a middle course between the temptations of terror and romanticism and ends up being one of the saddest films I've seen in awhile. This is the film with the gimmick that its ghost (Casey Affleck) goes through the picture, after the character's death, wearing the iconic white sheet with eyeholes that western culture has identified with ghosts for who knows how long. The gimmick requires Affleck, an Oscar-winning performer, to rely on the most constrained pantomime to express anything, but it confers a degree of universality on his character's experience, and the reduction of his individuality probably has a point as well. The dead man is an aspiring musician who'd just agreed with his wife (Rooney Mara), after considerable stalling, to move out of their home. Killed in a car wreck outside the house, he "wakes up" in the hospital moments after his wife has viewed his body. Mute and invisible, he travels on foot to the house, and from that point he seems bound to the property. He watches his wife grieve by gorging herself to sickness on pie and has a brief poltergeist episode after seeing her drunkenly flirt with another man. It's clear, however, that she misses him greatly, for all the good that does either of them. Communication beyond moving objects seems impossible; our ghost is capable only of telepathic communication (rendered with subtitles) with another ghost who "lives" across the way. This other ghost's plight portends a bad fate for ours; it's waiting for someone to return, but can't remember who exactly.

Finally the widow moves out, but feels moved first to leave a note in a crack in a freshly-painted wall. Painting it over, she drives away behind the moving van and it's clear that our poor ghost will never see her again. There's no following her and witnessing the rest of her life; instead, he remains in the house as it changes hands a few times, mostly torpid but sometimes hauntingly angry, until it is finally demolished. Whether Lowery intended it or not, the wife's departure is an ingenious role reversal. Since we'll never see her again or hear of what became of her, the ghost may as well be the widowed and bereaved one, permanently cut off from the beloved as far as we can tell. There is something beyond, as we saw when a sort of doorway into "the light" opened for him in the hospital, but for any number of reasons he turned it down. Now, however, he wants to get at that note, not knowing whether it was addressed to him, the house, the future or whatever. And in a brilliant bit of timing, the moment he manages to scratch his way to it a wrecking ball hits the building and soon the house is gone.

The film grows more expansively fantastic from here. Our ghost remains on the property as it becomes the site of an office building while a great city encroaches on the once-rural community. The neighbor ghost finally gave up the ghost, so to speak, shortly after the demolition, but ours holds on for what must be decades more, wandering through the corridors until it ends up on the roof. The cityscape he sees is our signal of a great passage of time. In response, he jumps, and to be honest I'm not sure what he's trying to accomplish. Is he trying to destroy himself, or simply trying to escape his prison? In any event, he doesn't hit the sidewalk but plunges through history, landing nearly two centuries in the past as a pioneer family makes camp on the property. The daughter hums a tune resembling something the ghost wrote in life; did she inspire him from a distance, or is he possibly her reincarnation? In any event, she and her family are killed by Indians and from there history proceeds rapidly until the ghost sees himself and his wife moving into the house. We now see that he had haunted himself, having made the noises we'd heard wake the living man early in the picture. He reviews the post-mortem events, now a ghost of a ghost watching his sheeted self watch his wife until she once again departs. He knows now to get after that note promptly and finding it, he finds the closure that can end his earthly existence once and for all.

On the DVD, Lowery claims that he never knew what was in the note, having told Rooney Mara to write whatever she pleased, presumably in character. This suggests that the fact of the note rather than the content is what allows the ghost finally to let go of the property and break the time loop he seemed trapped in. Knowing this, each viewer can imagine the wife's message to your own satisfaction. It could be an ultimate disappointment like the feeling that led the other ghost to quit this sphere; it could be the ultimate farewell that he didn't get at the hospital; or it could simply have been an ultimate reaffirmation of his identity as something separate from the property that can freely depart from it. That's a good kind of ambiguity and appropriate to a movie addressing the mysteries of life's end. A Ghost Story's less-is-more approach proves very effective and helps it succeed on an empathetic level that transcends genre formulae. Some may find the sight of Affleck in a sheet hopelessly absurd or may be frustrated by the near-complete refusal of obvious acting -- Lowery actually could have kept a deleted scene of Affleck making coffee, as it establishes the stillness that characterizes the ghost -- but more, I hope, will see the film as testimony to the storytelling potential of the simplest image.

Monday, February 4, 2019

BLACK DEATH (2010)

Christopher Smith's film is a horror movie set during the mid-14th century plague that devastated Europe. It's a horror film by virtue of its treatment of paganism. Were it not a horror film, the village against which the knight Ulric (Sean Bean) launches a mini-crusade probably would be portrayed consistently as a utopian island of tolerance for many ways of knowing in a polluted sea of Christian intolerance. But because it is a horror film, the village's female ruler, Langiva (Carice von Houten) can be portrayed as just as vicious as Ulric's little band of secular inquisitors. They've heard rumors of a village that somehow has held the plague at bay, but allegedly at the cost of human sacrifice. They're guided to the place by Osmund (pre-stardom Eddie Redmayne), a monk recently freed from quarantine with an apparent clean bill of health. He's had enough of monastic life, however, and wants to run off with a local girl, Averill (Kimberly Nixon). Guiding Ulric to the mystery village will let Osmund keep a rendezvous with her, but it looks as if Averill is taken by local brigands whom Ulric's men barely fight off. Langiva's village looks like a welcome respite, even if it looks too clean and neat to be true to the experienced moviegoer's eye.

Sure enough, Langiva has drugged the wine she offers to Ulric's men and soon has them penned up for sacrifice -- unless they recant their Christian faith. She's not only as intolerant as her antagonists, but she has, if anything, less honor. When one of Ulric's men cracks and recants, she has her henchmen escort him away, only to execute him at a discreet distance from the village. What was the point of that but pure malevolence? Yet at the same time, there's a hint that Langiva has real power. She reveals to Osmund that she's recovered Averill's body, and later shows that she can resurrect the dead. And yet, unsurprisingly, something's not right about the revived girl. She can't talk and seems to have lost her mind. Convinced that she's suffering a fate worse than death, Osmund heartbrokenly restores her to the grave -- only for Langiva to torment him with the cruel truth. Of course she was a fraud all along and had simply pulled a Serpent and the Rainbow type stunt on Averill to impress her followers and Osmund. Averill had never actually died until her beloved killed her.

Needless to say, Osmund is a ready collaborator when Ulric finally makes his move, which proves surprising, plausible and cruelly vindictive. Earlier in the picture, he'd had to put down one of his own men who'd come down with the plague. Now, before Langiva has him quartered, the aspiring martyr reveals that he, too, has the plague -- and, presumably, so will much of the once-pristine village.  Of course, this means that a lot of arguably innocent people are going to suffer, while Langiva herself manages to slink away to an unclear fate.

Perhaps there's a lesson to be learned here about the consequences of mutual intolerance, but because Black Death is a horror film it has the courage not to let anyone learn the lesson. Instead, the denouement shows Osmund as a remorseless, delusional witch hunter, torturing innumerable women, guilty or not, in pursuit of the elusive Langiva. I dig a bleak worldview like that, and the action and acting here weren't bad, either. It's no masterpiece by any stretch, but Smith's horror approach gives us probably the best possible Black Death that we could expect.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Too Much TV: TITANS (2018 - ?)

In response to DC Comics' dominance of broadcast television, Marvel Comics formed an alliance with Netflix and quickly earned a reputation for edgier superhero shows. That alliance is winding down as Disney, Marvel's corporate parent, prepares its own streaming service for Marvel, Star Wars and other properties. DC and Warner Bros. beat them to the punch by starting the DC Universe streaming service last fall. It features many DC-based movies, cartoons and TV shows, a library of DC comics for your e-reader, a weekday program of news and promos, and original shows, starting with Titans. If Marvel's Netflix shows had more edge than DC's shows on The CW and elsewhere, DC Universe promised to be edgier still with an instantly notorious trailer in which Dick Grayson, aka Robin the Boy Wonder, sneers, "Fuck Batman!" at a bunch of criminal victims. That set the tone for Titans, the latest iteration of DC's old Teen Titans formula teaming up the kid proteges of the company's long-established heroes. It pulls as well from the most popular version of the concept, the New Teen Titans comics of the 1980s, using two characters created for those books alongside Grayson (Brenton Thwaites) and Gar "Beast Boy" Logan (Ryan Potter), originally the kid mascot for the Doom Patrol, who'll get their own show later this year after a preview appearance here.

 Grayson has quit his job as Batman's sidekick and has become a midwestern policeman, hoping to overcome a violent streak acquired under Bruce Wayne's tutelage by keeping his distance from Gotham City. He gets involved in the case of Rachel (Teagan Croft), a girl whose foster mother is murdered, who then kills the murderer with a mysterious display of power. In a masterstroke of disorientation, the story abruptly shifts to Germany, where Kory Anders (Anna Diop) seems to be either a whore or a hitwoman -- despite her trampy blaxploitation outfit she's unsure herself. She, too, has mysterious powers that she uses to incinerate some local gangsters.The one thing she seems sure of is that she has to find the girl we know as Rachel and comics fans know as Raven -- just as they know Kory as Starfire, aka Princess Koriand'r of the planet Tamaran. Much of the suspense of the show comes from the delayed, and by season's end still not quite complete reveals of these characters' true selves. While fans may feel they know who all these people are, the show's clear creative license keeps things mysterious and keeps us wondering about the degree of Grayson's alienation from Batman and his style of crimefighting. We get the impression that being a kid sidekick is a rough life that may are glad to be out of, not just from Grayson but from Donna Troy (Conor Leslie), formerly known as Wonder Girl but now some sort of federal agent who retains the superhuman strength and magic lasso of your typical Amazon. Those who still enjoy the life, whether grass-roots crimefighter Hank Hall or Batman's punk of a new sidekick, Jason Todd, seem dangerously self-destructive, or simply dangerous.

We actually meet quite a few costumed crimefighters and weirdos in this eleven-episode opening outing, and for the most part Titans maintains a nice balance between its several digressions and its main story, which has some nebulous corporate-seeming entity pursuing Rachel with a murderous family of androids and other resources, seeing the troubled girl as some sort of savior or harbinger of a new world. Rachel herself is determined to track down her birth mother, who's been locked up in an asylum, even as she dreads each fresh manifestation of her powers. Titans presumably takes place on a different one of DC's multiple earths from those we see on The CW or in the movies, and the characters' confusion and backstory bitterness should make the viewer highly curious to know what's different about this world, while meeting denizens of it (e.g. Hawk and Dove) who so far seem exclusive to the DC Universe universe. Some folks may like superhero shows to feel familiar and treat any creative deviance from established texts as error, but the extreme difference in tone from other shows -- even though TV mogul Greg Berlanti made this as well as most of the others -- makes this more exciting than its story alone would necessarily make it. For better or worse, there's a sense that now there are no constraints imposed by TV networks or advertisers and that DC is its own master in a way that Marvel. great as it often is, never really can be. Whether subsequent DC Universe shows can maintain and justify this feeling will be one of the intriguing pop-culture stories of 2019.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

DVR Diary: REVOLT OF THE SLAVES (La rivolta degli schiavi, 1960)

The Emperor Maximian never ruled the Roman Empire on his own. Made a partner in rule by Diocletian in the late 3rd century, he later formed part of a tetrarchy. At Diocletian's urging he retired with him to establish an orderly procedure for procession, but soon reclaimed a share of the throne, only to be forced out by Constantine. But from the evidence of Nunzio Malasomma's film Maximian (Dario Moreno) is sole and absolute ruler of Rome. Diocletian was a great persecutor of Christians; in this picture that's Maximian's work. It's a tough job, since a good chunk of Rome's ruling class are clandestine Christians, to the dismay of headstrong, chariot-driving Claudia (Rhonda Fleming). Revolt of the Slaves is the story of Claudia's discovery of Christian love, and her romance with a rebellious Dalmatian slave, Vibio (Lang Jeffries, early in his short stint as Fleming's husband). The title may create expectations of a Spartacus-style adventure, but there's really only a late uprising of militant Christians determined to free their brothers and sisters from the arena. We get a bit of gladiator action as well, including a whip fight over a burning pyre, but the martyrdom is actually pretty dull stuff. Each Christian is made to run for their lives, only to get a spear through his or her back. You'd think Romans would be jaded by such stuff but the crowd cheers every kill until Agnes gets them on her side by refusing to run. Instead, she gracefully walks over to pay homage to her spiritual teacher, who's being crucified and slow roasted at the same time. So impressive is her performance that when Vibio and his gang burst into the arena, they promptly decide to drop their weapons and die. Claudia decides to die as well, and it looks like we'll get the Sign of the Cross finish until the mob in the stands demands that Maximian spare the Christians. He's about to have his African personal guard massacre the Nazarenes but the Praetorian Guard, usually the bad guys in Roman stories, shows up to cancel the African threat and force the Emperor to declare a happy ending. This African element may have been the most provocative part of the film for American audiences. History says that the Praetorians lost their traditional standing as the emperors' personal guard during the Tetrarchy, but it doesn't appear that Maximian or his partners relied on Africans instead. In the film, the African commander Iface (Van Aikens) is an unprincipled schemer -- his troops are often made to look incompetent when fighting Vibio and friends -- who's willing to take a huge bribe from Claudia to let some Christians go, only to spurn her when he gets a chance to become the emperor's chief of security. He taunts and threatens Claudia (and even lays hands on her) to the point that it surprised me that he didn't suffer any real comeuppance. I wonder if those scenes were cut out in some parts of the U.S. In any event, Revolt is a well-staged, well-budgeted but indifferently performed Italian epic, worth seeing mainly for its production design and cinematography. I was glad to see TCM run it letterboxed, since it's still relatively rare to see peplum pictures that way on American TV. This particular picture might not deserve too much respect, but the genre as a whole, from Hercules knockoffs to more ambitious stuff like this, might not be so despised if more people could see them the way they were meant to be seen.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: THE FALL GUY (1930)

The Depression already seems to loom over this June 1930 release from Radio Pictures, but when you realize that The Fall Guy began life as a play in 1925 you're reminded, as some films from the Depression strove to remind people, that lots of people had it tough long before the stock market crashed. Tim Whelan's adaptation of the play by George Abbott and future character actor James Gleason, directed by Leslie Pearce, doesn't do much to open up a play that presumably had a single set, the Quinn family apartment. Four adults live here: recently-fired Johnny (Jack Mulhall), his wife Bertha (Mae Clarke), his sister Lottie (Wynne Gibson) and Bertha's brother Dan (Ned Sparks). Johnny's unemployment puts the household in jeopardy; its small savings run out fast and the repo man keeps coming back after Dan's saxophone. Johnny wants to work (unlike Dan) but is picky about the job he takes and gets especially prickly when "Bert" tries to find one for him. He falls into the orbit of Nifty Herman (Thomas E. Jackson), a shifty character with connections to the mysterious drug store magnate known only as Kilpapa. Nifty promises to help Johnny land a managerial position in the Kilpapa chain if he proves his reliability in a variety of odd jobs, including the stewardship of a humble-looking suitcase. Bertha doesn't trust Nifty and doesn't want Johnny associating with him, but he tires of her nagging and takes the suitcase, determined to reaffirm his manhood as head of the household. Finding out about it, Bertha says it's me or the suitcase, and Johnny meekly tries to return it to Nifty. Failing at that, he tries to hide it back at the house, only for Sis to trip over it while the family is entertaining her boyfriend, who proves to be a federal agent on Nifty's trail. Johnny is horrified to find that the suitcase contains heroin instead of the high-class hooch he assumed was inside, and with genuine remorse, and to save his skin, he convinces the cops to let him try to smooth-talk Nifty into spilling the beans on Kilpapa, their real target....

Fall Guy has an unlikely finish -- to spoil things, Nifty confides in Johnny, with the rest of the cast listening in the next room, that Kilpapa is only an alias of his -- but it's a modestly entertaining slice of life at the brink of the Depression, strongly conscious of the pressures of poverty from the threat of dispossession to the hell of incompatible people living together. To prove the last point, the highlight of the picture is the improbable comedy relief turn by dyspeptic character actor Ned Sparks as Johnny's no-account brother-in-law. Dan is the sort of character we imagine today living in his parents' basement. While his spiritual descendants might play the guitar or practice rapping today, Dan has been learning the saxophone on the installment plan for a year to little audible effect. He boasts of becoming the breadwinner once he lands a gig with a jazz band, but until then he's the household moocher, never venturing out except to hit the pool hall. He looks forward to having guests over, he tells one, because Bertha always serves bigger portions then, especially of his favorite food, mashed potatoes. He is defiantly deadbeat, almost joyously so, the sort of ingrate who gripes when Bertha can't afford sperm oil for his sax, then says, "I guess I'll just spit on it." Wikipedia tells us that years later Sparks, by then typed as a sourpuss, once defied people to find a picture of him smiling. He smiles a lot here, sporting a giant, Stan Laurel-like, smugly idiotic grin as he congratulates himself for seemingly putting something over on somebody. Sparks was nearly 50 here, yet he nails the character's arrested development so convincingly that you can almost imagine him being a generation younger. It's only appropriate that he's the butt of the film's final gag, after all the domestic sturm und drang are done, when the long-suffering repo man finally manages to snatch away that evil saxophone, no doubt to the audience's applause.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

DVR Diary: RIO RITA (1929)

The legendary Flo Ziegfeld opened the Broadway theater bearing his name with the premiere of Rio Rita in February 1927. It was a massive hit and as such was ripe for adaptation in a Hollywood just learning to talk and sing. Comedy relief actors Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey were brought west from Broadway to recreate their roles as a divorcee and his lawyer, with the slight change that Wheeler's character now was a bootlegger. Bebe Daniels had the title role as Rita, a Mexican beauty in love with a Texas Ranger (John Boles), yet anxious to keep him away from her brother, who is suspected of being that notorious bandit, the Kinkajou. He may sound like a Pokemon, but he actually takes his formidable name from the Central American "honey bear." In the comedy plot, Woolsey tries to arrange a Mexican divorce for Wheeler so he can marry another woman (Dorothy Lee), but some mix-up leaves Wheeler in legal jeopardy as a bigamist. Fortunately, his first wife (Helen Kaiser) appears and promptly falls in love with Woolsey. It's a double score for him since she's also come into an inheritance. Their story has very little to do with the Kinkajou story; the two plots seem merely to occupy the same space in this mostly stagebound production, directed by the undistinguished Luther Reed. Rio Rita's massive success revived Daniels' career and made Reed briefly Radio Pictures' (aka RKO) musical specialist, but the massive flop of Dixiana, which reunited Daniels, Wheeler and Woolsey a year later, put a stop to that. That setback notwithstanding, Rita made Wheeler and Woolsey in Hollywood, and rightly so. The film is alive only when they're on the screen, or during the song and dance number Wheeler and Lee share. Their best moment is their last big scene. While their girlfriends sing their love song at opposite ends of the foursome, Wheeler and Woolsey play pattycake with each other, but the play inexorably escalates into slapping and prodding until the two throw each other into the Rio Grande, with the girls tumbling after. This bit, like the last half hour of the picture, was shot in two-color Technicolor, which adds at least some visual interest to the main story. The loss of color in many early musicals really hurts their reputation as cinema because it flattens out the compositions. Seeing a comparison between a black and white print of such a musical and footage in restored Technicolor is almost like seeing a 3-D movie in its original format for the first time after years watching it on TV. Back in the day, though, color wasn't enough to keep the public interested in musicals, as long as they were feeble operettas like this one. They regrettably left their imprint on many comedy films subsequently burdened with insufferable singing romantic leads in an effort to please those parts of the audience presumably unsatisfied by comedians' antics. It's a testimony to Wheeler and Woolsey's success that they were able to escape that formula, and after seeing them in Rio Rita you can understand why everyone left the doors unlocked.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

A FIELD IN ENGLAND (2013)

There's some El Topo and some Dead Man and obviously some Peter Watkins in the creative DNA of Ben Wheatley's picture, which seems like the sort of film more likely to have appeared forty years before it actually did. Written by his wife Amy Jump -- the couple collaborated on the editing -- it had a bit of Samuel Beckett flavor at first, in part because of its motley cast of eccentrics wandering through emptiness and in part because the first third of the picture looks very much like a filmed play. Characters mutter and mumble at the edge of an English Civil War battlefield to little purpose, and Wheatley seems clueless, though this was his third feature film, about framing their dialogue to make it dramatic or meaningful. It turns out, of course, that he was saving the bravura visuals for later. Only after the characters gorge themselves on magic mushrooms does it come to life as a movie, though the meaning may well remain unclear for many viewers. Suffice it to say that things get interesting when our protagonists, on little immediately apparent pretense, tug mightily on a rope to disinter a seeming corpse that quickly reasserts its vitality and dominance over the group. This is O'Neill (Michael Smiley), a treasure hunter and an enemy to Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) or to Whitehead's offscreen "master." Whitehead claims authority to place O'Neill under arrest, but his antagonist quickly demonstrates his superiority, "arresting" Whitehead and doing something more, suggestively implicit, in his tent in order to exploit Whitehead's apparent dowsing powers for his own ends. The menials are soon set to digging, but one by one they die of their own violence and the rivalry of the principals, though death is only a temporary setback for some of these characters -- though you may wonder by the end whether the idea was that they -- the characters other than Whitehead or O'Neill -- were dead all along. Don't expect to learn anything about Cromwell or Charles I from this picture, as the setting seems to have been chosen purely for aesthetic purposes, if that's the right word for the blasted locations. Do expect to be impressed by the intensified monochrome cinematography of Laurie Rose in the second half of the picture as it assumes Whitehead's manic or merely intoxicated perspective. You probably can argue that Wheatley and Jump have made an honest effort to recreate the mystic mentality of many in the seventeenth century in their film's more visionary and violent moments. But you probably could also argue that A Field in England is simply a film best appreciated under the influence of the same mushrooms the characters consume with such fervor.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

DAY OF ANGER (I giorni dell'ira, 1967)

 Few films identify themselves so blatantly as star vehicles in their opening titles , 
but the first-ever teaming of red-hot western stars Gemma and Van Cleef was one of this one's main attractions.
At first glance, Tonino Valerii's film appears to be based on an English-language novel, but on further review source author Ron Barker was really German scribe Rolf O. Becker, and in any event the filmmakers claim that the screenplay was more inspired by than adapted from Becker/Barker's Death Rode on Tuesdays. Nevertheless, Day of Anger is one of those spaghetti westerns that feels more like an American western in its focus on the main character's moral crisis. To be Germanic about it after all, it's a kind of western bildungsroman in which a naive youth learns what it means to be a gunman under the tutelage of rival mentors.


Scott (Giuliano Gemma) is the town pariah in the community of Clifton, for no better reason than his illegitimate birth. He's given the most disreputable tasks, particularly trash collection, and is despised by respectable townsfolk. His life changes when Frank Talby (Lee Van Cleef) rides through town on his way to Bowie. He seems to sympathize with Scott's outcast status and seems offended when Scott reveals that he has no last name. Since his mother's name was Mary, Frank dubs him Scott Mary and insists on treating him to drinks in the local saloon, where he kills one of Scott's tormentors. A court calls it self-defense, but everyone feels that the victim meant no real harm, so Frank is urged on his way, and Scott follows him, riding his faithful mule Sartana (!!)


On their journey together Talby takes it upon himself to teach Scott a number of valuable life lessons, most of which boil down to cynical pragmatism. It sometimes means treating Scott rough, but Frank seems sincere about wanting to toughen up his new protege. His efforts pay off as Scott saves him from a criminal gang, friends of the man he came to Bowie to meet. He and Wild Jack (Al Mulock) had been involved in a bank robbery in Clifton, for which Frank had served time in prison. Jack tells him that the town fathers of Clifton had had a hand in the robbery and had screwed him out of his (and Frank's) share -- about $50,000. Frank decides to assume Jack's claim on the city and after eliminating Jack and his gang with Scott's help he returns to Clifton for a reckoning.

 Cinematographer Enzo Serafin is fond of showing characters in mirrors  (left)
before they enter the frame proper

At this point it sounds like the Point Blank scenario, but Talby has more ambitious plans. After burning down the leading saloon and destroying those who plotted to destroy him, Frank opens his own opulent gambling joint and settles down. The realization that Talby is driven ultimately by greed rather than revenge hastens Scott's estrangement from him. The disillusionment continues as Scott's old friend and fellow stable bum Murph (Walter Rilla), who taught Scott a fast draw with a wooden gun, reveals himself as a former gunfighter who once drove Talby from another town. Recognizing Talby as an incorrigible bad man, Murph braces up and becomes the town marshal while advising Scott on tactical firearm modification. After Talby kills Murph, Scott finds a special gun the old man had tailored just for him, just to outdraw Talby....

Lee Van Cleef is The Master ... of ceremonies  

 Day of Anger stands out for some things the writers refuse to do. All the way through I waited for a shoe to drop and for Talby or someone else to identify himself as Scott Mary's father, but it never happens and it didn't need to. It observes Talby's mentorship of Scott without comment, except to perhaps endorse Murph's view that Frank simply wants a younger man as extra muscle. Another interesting detail is that, while Scott gradually turns against Talby, Frank never really does anything to betray his protege, apart perhaps from bringing in extra gunmen rather than rely on Scott exclusively. He may be vicious in general, but the people of Clifton and environs demonstrate constantly that he lives in a vicious world, as he tries to convey to Scott. There's an admirable ambivalence about Talby that allows you to conclude that, yes, he would resent a guilty town's mistreatment of an innocent boy and, yes, he could take advantage of that boy's resentment and ambition for his own ends. It helps greatly that Lee Van Cleef gives the part such gravitas. This film, among others, confirms what Sergio Leone saw in him that Hollywood had missed for so long. It's a tremendous showcase for Van Cleef's baleful charisma and perhaps his best performance in an Italian western outside of Leone's films. It's a shame you can't have a version of the film that allows Van Cleef to speak English while Gemma speaks Italian, for while screencaps convey nicely the Italian star's portrayal through facial expressions and body language of an ambitious naif increasingly horrified at the prospect of his own hardening, the English dub saddles him with a dumb yokel voice that makes it hard to take Scott seriously as consistently as we should.


As an obvious "A" spaghetti western Day of Anger has predictably good cinematography (by Enzo Serafin) and even better set design that makes Clifton one of the most fully realized fictional towns in the genre. The highlight, of course, is Frank Talby's saloon with its giant guns flanking the entrance, its unusual placement of the stage on an upper tier, and almost psychedelic design motifs -- the common influence seems to be Art Nouveau -- inside. Riz Ortolani does the music for this one and gives it a brassy swagger on top of the characteristic guitar sound. If anything, his score contributes to the film's slightly excessive length and occasionally dragging pace. There are numerous scenes of Van Cleef and Gemma riding through not exactly spectacular landscapes simply so Ortolani's music can play. It's not bad music at all, but moments like those make Day of Anger feel more like a modern soundtrack-padded American film than a contemporary western. For the most part, however, it looks and sounds like what it is: one of the best of the spaghetti westerns.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

DVR Diary: LOVE ON THE RUN (1936)

This W.S. Van Dyke comedy is a midpoint between It Happened One Night and Too Hot to Handle in Clark Gable's evolution into a lovably amoral hero. As in the other films, Gable plays a reporter, and as in Too Hot he has a rival, here played by Franchot Tone. Gable draws the short end and has to cover the wedding of an American heiress (Joan Crawford, then Mrs. Tone) and some petty prince only to witness the bride bolting the ceremony. He latches on to her, keeping his vocation a secret as long as possible, as reporters must in such stories, while sending dispatches at every opportunity during their flight from London, which begins literally in an airplane Gable barely knows how to pilot. The pair quickly realize that the plane, belonging to an aristocratic aviator Tone is interviewing, actually is a vehicle for espionage. Thus begins a would-be merry chase across the continent, with Tone and the spies constantly butting in. The problem is that the mutual attraction of Gable and Crawford is taken for granted rather than plausibly developed, while their adventures are almost childishly silly, particularly their unlikely night in the Fontainebleau palace and their romp with a pixilated caretaker who takes them for ghostly royalty. Meanwhile, the film pauses every so often to showcase William Demarest's repetitive conniption fits as Gable's editor, while Tone, who must have found the whole experience humiliating, is made to look like a complete idiot throughout compared to the more worthy rival to Gable played by Walter Pidgeon in Too Hot to Handle. Where that film rises to a truly entertaining cartoonishness, Love on the Run seems merely as blandly corny as the worst you might expect from the era of Code Enforcement.  The sad part is that this made a profit,and the later film didn't.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

CENTURION (2010)

Once a hot genre director, Neil Marshall will release his first theatrical feature film in nine years when the Hellboy reboot -- heralded by an unimpressive trailer in theaters now -- premieres this April. Marshall, who made his name worldwide with The Descent in 2005, has been stuck directing TV since Centurion flopped in 2010. It's a film I've long been curious about, but maybe it's part of the problem that I've only just gotten around to seeing it. Whatever the case, now that I have seen it I can say it wasn't that bad, but there are some things I didn't care for. The CGI blood sprays are unrealistically instantaneous, for instance, and I still find it jarring to hear Roman soldiers from nearly 2,000 years ago using modern swear words. I understand it's meant to make them relatable as common men rather than antique aliens, but just as when I tried to watch the Spartacus TV show it always threatens to take me right out of the story. Hollywood has conditioned me too well, I guess. Anyway, on the positive side of the ledger Centurion is an often-impressive outdoor action picture that suggests a symbolic birthing of Britain from the mating, promised at the end, of the best of both worlds, Roman and Briton (or Pict), though each is in a tiny minority. Starting out as the sole survivor of a Roman outpost overrun by the woad-wearing savages, Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender) escapes only to lead the remnants of the almost-annihilated Ninth Legion back to safety behind the new line of defense, Hadrian's Wall. For his trouble he's targeted for death by unscrupulous officials who want no one to tell of the legion's sad fate -- led into an ambush by a treacherous guide (Olga Kuryenko) who was trusted by the highest authorities. Marshall likes his strong female, so the guide Etain becomes the primary antagonist of the picture, leading the Picts with her super tracking skills while Quintus rallies a motley band, not all of whom are worth saving, to safety. Along the way the Romans take shelter with Arianne, a woman exiled by the Picts for alleged witchcraft (Imogen Poots) who seems the nearest thing to a "real" Englishwoman on screen. She knows Latin (the Picts speak in subtitles, making the natives the "other" against the multicultural but all Anglo inflected Romans) just as Quintus has mastered Pictish, each finding in the other at last an object for sincere cross-cultural communication. In the environment established by Marshall Arianne seems too good to be true, but I suppose such people are exceptional everywhere. The point seems to be that she and Quintus aren't going to find good people anywhere else. The main point, however, is that the action scenes justify this film's existence. Marshall arguably is a good enough action director that he doesn't need to punctuate his combats, but once a horror guy, always a horror guy. After a while the decapitations and such started to seem sophomorically superflous, but in the climactic fight, with the last three Romans defending an abandoned fort (introduced in a scene like something out of Northwest Passage) against a foolhardy final Pictish attack, Marshall focuses on drama rather than effects and makes the best scene in the film. You can see why he's remained in demand for genre projects, though maybe the film as a whole also shows in its excesses why he hasn't been given a chance to do something of his own for so long now.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Too Much TV: ESCAPE AT DANNEMORA (2018)

From prison, Joyce Mitchell has denounced Ben Stiller's true-crime miniseries, calling the director a "son-of-a-bitch liar" for the way he, writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin and actress Patricia Arquette portrayed her. For his part, Stiller has appealed to court records corroborating most of what the writers put down about "Tilly" Mitchell's relationship with the escaped murderers David Sweat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro). For her part, Mitchell's gift of free publicity to the series while it was still running only confirms the impression the series creates of a bitter, stupid woman. For those who missed it all, Mitchell ran a textile shop at the Clinton prison in Dannemora where Sweat and later Matt were given positions of responsibility that included, according to most accounts apart from hers, sexual relations with Mitchell. Bored with her oafish second husband (Eric Lange), Tilly begins to collaborate in Sweat and Matt's elaborate escape plan, smuggling crucial tools to them inside packages of hamburger indifferently conveyed to Matt by a lazy guard (David Mose). In Shawkshank fashion -- the tabloids gave Tilly the cruel nickname "Shawskank" -- Sweat cut his way into a network of catwalks and ventilation pipes finally leading out of the prison while Matt kept Mitchell interested, so to speak. The hope of all of them, if only for a moment, is to take a joyride to Mexico, but when Tilly chickens out at the last minute rather than poison her husband, the escapees are left to their own devices in an attempt to reach Canada through the tracts of wilderness surrounding the prison town.

This all played out quite a distance from where I live in New York State, but local news media covered it as a major story. I remember seeing the news of Sweat's capture, a few days after Matt's death, appearing on TVs in a restaurant as I was being treated to dinner on my birthday in 2015, so it was an odd sensation seeing those events recreated on film -- especially in something more ambitious than the typical true-crime docudrama. Stiller's series is an exercise in social realism like something by Zola, Dreiser or Frank Norris, an attempted unflinching gaze at mundane human depravity. It eschews sensationalism -- prison rape apparently isn't a worry for honor-block cons like Matt and Sweat -- but grows more unsettling, if not repulsive, as you see the depths to which characters sink. I regret to say that that includes the utterly cynical way in which Matt romances Tilly, played with fearless grotesquerie by Arquette as a would-be femme fatale, if not simply a sociopathic nympho in the body of a middle-aged, snaggle-toothed frump. Yet you can almost empathize with Tilly as she endures the pressure to meet quotas inside the prison-industrial complex and deals with the well-meaning imbecility of her husband Lyle. I thought Eric Lange's performance some over-the-top caricature and unfair on Stiller's part until I saw photos of the real man, but even if he looks like the world's stupidest man Lyle emerges as probably the most sympathetic of all the characters, guileless if not selfless in his love for Tilly. Pretty much everyone else on the show is lousy in some way or other, from Morse's bored guard who tries to be Matt's buddy at one moment only to lamely assert his autori-tah! in the next to another who has no apparent purpose except to bully the prisoners with words if not deeds.

As for the escapees, Paul Dano shows a side of himself as a performer I've never seen before. I'm used to seeing him play little weirdos going back to There Will Be Blood, but here, as David Sweat, he's the most level-headed, capable and pragmatic character despite obvious and sometimes self-defeating anger management issues. It's fascinating to see him play stooge to Del Toro's swaggering Matt, only to see the worm turn once they're out of prison and forced to rough it. Matt comes across as one of those "institutionalized" types who are cocks of the walk inside the walls, but have lost the ability to function outside. Richard Matt fancied himself an artist and was respected as one by Tilly and other guards, but his art is utterly impersonal and crass -- yet he keeps at it almost until the end, sketching a horse on the wall of an abandoned home that looks almost like a Lascaux cave painting. He has the artistic temperament in the negative sense of lacking nearly all common sense once he's free, as if the only way he can express his freedom is by getting drunk and making noise when Sweat desperately needs him to be quiet. If Matt's the dominant personality in prison, he becomes more like a Lennie to Sweat's George once they're out -- which is only fitting since Del Toro more closely resembles Lon Chaney Jr. now than he did in The Wolfman.

Seven episodes over nearly eight hours gives Stiller the opportunity to display a range of pictorial styles. The early chapters are all gritty realism and do a great job, thanks also to location shooting, immersing us in the drab world of Dannemora. For episode five, featuring the breakout, the director shifts styles suddenly, giving us action-movie style long takes and dramatic music as Sweat makes a dry run from his cell to the outside before summoning Matt to join him. The direction can't help but create a sense of exhilaration after we've followed the prisoners patiently through their labors, and that has to be why Stiller and the writers waited until the next episode to flash back and show us exactly how Sweat and Matt ended up in prison. Matt's crime is especially horrific as he tortures a former employer to find a hoard of money that doesn't exist, finally killing him more or less by accident and then brutally dismembering the body. An especially interesting choice was to wait until after that to tell how Tilly hooked up with Lyle. The story underscores further how much of a sap Lyle was while stripping away what sympathy we might have granted Tilly for sparing him in the previous episode, once we see how she set him up to take a beating as part of a plan to get custody of her son from the husband she dumped in Lyle's favor. Of course Tilly's schemes aren't as terrible as the crimes of Sweat and Matt, but the more valid conclusion to be drawn, Joyce Mitchell's protests to the contrary notwithstanding, is that she was as ruthlessly selfish as the two murderers. That penultimate episode probably was the most harrowing hour of TV I saw in all of 2018, and Escape at Dannemora as a whole was one of the best TV programs of that now-departed year.