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.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

AMAZONS (1986)

Sword and sorcery, a genre distinct from Tolkienesque "high fantasy," had its heyday in the 1980s, heralded by John Milius's Conan the Barbarian. The fad quickly faded in the U.S. but persisted elsewhere, fed by numerous Italian filmmakers and the likes of Roger Corman, who put an Argentinian protege, Alex Sessa, to work on Amazons, a film doomed never to live up to its Boris Vallejo poster. This film has a comparatively authentic pedigree, adapted by fantasy author Charles R. Saunders from one of his own stories, though from what I can tell the African-inspired story has been whitewashed, as they say now, to accommodate a caucasian cast of actors.


What we have here is a good kingdom, defended in part by an army of amazons, under attack by the forces of the evil sorcerer Kalungo (Joseph Whipp). Kalungo's powers are awesome: he can cast lightning from his fingers and bring multiple bolts blasting down on his enemies. In closer quarters, he can pull Jedi-style force tricks, inflicting suffering on his enemies without taxing the special-effects budget. The good wizard on the other side is no match for him, but the problem with evil sorcerers is that they often have unique vulnerabilities. Kalungo, for instance, is susceptible to the Sword of Azundati, the sort of legendary weapon that tends to be found on fantasy worlds. Fortunately for him, at least in the short term, it takes an arduous quest to find the sword.


Doubly fortunate for the evil one, the amazon general who orders the quest (Danitza Kingsley) is his secret ally, spy and lover. She assigns two warriors to the task: her own daughter Tashi (Penelope Reed) and Dyala (Windsor Taylor-Randolph), the daughter of her old dead rival. Tashi's mom killed Dyala's mom some time back, but not before the latter cut one of her hands off. Still carrying a grudge in her artificial hand, the general orders Tashi to kill Dyala once she has the sword. The shared dangers and mutual rescues involved in a quest draw the younger women together, however, and when the supreme moment comes, Tashi can't go through with it. Instead, she sacrifices herself when the were-cat sent by Kalungo to stalk the questers attacks, leaving Dyala to pursue a lone course of vengeance against the sorcerer and the traitorous general.


Amazons is cheap stuff. Whatever Saunders' intentions, the idea on the production side seems to have been to provide a platform for topless shots and a number of clumsily staged fight scenes. No one on screen impresses as a warrior or a performer, but at least Taylor-Randolph (perhaps better known as Mindi Miller) goes enjoyably over the top during Dyala's climactic fight with Kalungo, prefacing the final blow with a mighty "NOW! YOU! DIIIIIEEEE!"  There's clearly some imagination at work here, from the savages who sacrifice a pack of passive priestesses and ride a slave-drawn wagon with additional slaves as human hubcaps to the bizarre idea introduced near the end that Dyala has a spirit tree that can be chopped down to kill her -- except that it ends up falling on the traitor general who'd been chopping it down. But the production tends to homogenize whatever ideas Saunders had to the literal generic level, while the actors do next to nothing to bring those ideas to life.


One thing I did like about the picture was its unromantic treatment of its two heroines. Amazons proves to be a story of female friendship. Neither Dyala nor Tashi has a boyfriend, while the one amazon who consorts with a man is a traitor. In the film's happy ending, the sorceress who was custodian of the Sword of Azundati arranges for the martyred Tashi to return to life. She and Dyala ride off together, in theory to find more adventures. Depending on how you imagine amazons, they can be battle buddies or something more intimate, but that's up to you the viewer -- especially since the characters were never seen again on film.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: ALIAS FRENCH GERTIE (1930)

Veteran silent comedienne Bebe Daniels proved she had a voice with the 1929 hit musical Rio Rita.  Alias French Gertie, directed by George Archainbauld, was the first test of whether Daniels could carry a talking picture without songs. It's a romantic crime comedy co-starring Ben Lyon, whom Daniels would marry shortly after the film's release. She first appears as a society matron's careless French maid, but we soon learn that she's an American crook who insinuated her way into the household in order to get a crack at its safe and its jewels. Ace safecracker Jimmy (Lyon), who boasts of needing no tools in his trade, has the same idea, but is surprised to find the maid holding a gun on him. In the course of meeting cute and talking shop, these master criminals somehow forgot about a butler still hanging around the place. When that worthy calls the police, Jimmy chivalrously agrees to take the fall, after snatching a diamond necklace from out of Gertie's blouse, while allowing her to pretend to be a mere victim rolled up in a carpet. After serving some relatively easy time, Jimmy hooks up with Gertie again, but both are under the sentimental scrutiny of veteran detective Kelcey (archetypal pre-code cop Robert Emmet O'Connor). That doesn't stop them from building a nest egg by stealing from others', but when a social opportunity turns into a business opportunity, Gertie convinces Jimmy to go straight and invest their $30,000 worth of plunder into a straight partnership. The saps: they wanted to go straight, but their legit partner was really crooked. Jimmy and Gertie never bothered checking the books, apparently, so it comes as a major shock when they learn that their partner never invested any of his own money in the venture and was merely biding his time until he could skip off with their money. This understandably cools Jimmy on the idea of going straight, but Gertie doesn't want to go back to the old life. In a preposterous climax, as if reading Jimmy's mind, Gertie resumes her French-maid act and returns to her old employers in order to prevent Jimmy from returning to the scene of their first crime together and throwing his life away. Having already tipped off Kelcey on the basis of her psychic powers, Gertie decides to end Jimmy's criminal career once and for all by shooting him in his safecracking hand. Jimmy proves to be a remarkably good sport about this, and so does Kelcey, who decides that no crime has happened and lets our lovers start over somewhere else. While Daniels proves a charismatic performer, one can understand after watching this why RKO dropped her contract once her musicals started flopping. Daniels and Lyon bounced around Hollywood for several years more, with Daniels getting a small but prominent part in 42nd Street as the star eclipsed by Ruby Keeler, before finding their most enduring success on British radio. She probably deserved better than this film.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

THE HOT BOX (1972)

 The women's prison film was only the most common form of a captivity narrative that was strangely quite popular in Seventies cinema. These films are often girl-power stories in some way, yet the idea seems to be to give the girls something to really rebel against in place of mere male chauvinism -- or else it was to offer a sufficiently exaggerated metaphor for male domination to make audience's vicarious enjoyment of women's lethal revenge ultimately harmless. Whatever the deal was, Roger Corman proteges Jonathan Demme and Joe Viola joined forces in the Philippines to shoot this variation on the formula, with future Oscar-winner Demme as producer and co-writer. In this one, four American nurses working in the fictional Republic of San Rosario  -- two blondes, one brunette and one black -- are taken captive by a revolutionary army while on an outing with some native male friends. The men are set adrift while the bikini-clad Americans are led into the jungle by an especially rude band of rebels. These men are little more than mercenaries, but the revolutionary leader, Flavio (Carmen Argenziano) is a more honorable man. He needs nurses to tend his troops, and the girls can either join or die.


Margaret Markov, Pam Grier's co-star in The Arena and Black Mama, White Mama, is probably the best known of the actresses. Her character gets the radicalization angle, beginning to sympathize with the People's Army as she recognizes the desperation of their plight, while the black character (Rickey Richardson) takes an ironically stereotyped view of the "filthy" San Rosarians. If she wanted to take part in a revolution, she tells someone, she could go back home to Chicago. The nurses notice a rift between Flavio and one of his trusted lieutenants, the knife master Ronaldo (Zaldy Zchornack), who seems more pragmatic than his sometimes-bullheaded leader, who basks in the publicity provided by radical war correspondent Garcia (Charles Dierkop). As Ronaldo grows more dissatisfied, the Americans see him as their way out.

Sure enough, Ronaldo leads them to safety, or so he and they think. Instead, he's led them from the frying pan into the fire. It turns out that Ronaldo had been informing for the government because they were holding his brothers hostage. It also turns out that Garcia the journalist is actually a military officer planning to ambush and wipe out the clueless Flavio's forces. We see at last that the government, represented by Garcia, is far worse than the revolutionaries. The dishonorable officer has had Ronaldo's brothers put to death and promises the same fate for Ronaldo himself. He turns three of the nurses over to his men for a title-justifying stint in a cage bombarded by a steam hose, while reserving the fourth for his rapey self. Realizing the profound error of their ways, the nurses and Ronaldo manage to escape and warn Flavio of Garcia's plans, giving him a chance to ambush the ambushers in a climactic battle in which the American women take a fighting part.


The Hot Box is blatant, unapologetic exploitation. The nurses are often topless, sometimes against their will, and their long-legged good looks are the obvious main attraction. Inevitably they turn into amazons, and for the most part they look the part. Acting honors clearly belong to Dierkop, who goes from inconspicuous hanger-on all they way over the top to scenery-chewing big bad. It's not exactly a good performance, but it's great for this kind of film because he really makes you want his character dead. Viola's direction goes into another gear in sync with Dierkop's performance, enhancing an already pulpy story with wipes and other cartoony transitions as the pace picks up. The screenplay has some nice touches, like a surprise reappearance by the sleazy mercenaries and a two-part gag in which the nurses and Ronaldo steal a man's motorboat, only to return it neatly to him on their way back -- before stealing his truck. The film moves at a good clip and keeps busy, which is either the least or the most we can ask of such a project. By now films like this are objects of nostalgia as much as they are entertainments. This one in particular is the sort of film that doesn't get made anymore; you see neither its crude presentation of women nor their transformation into avatars of revolution. It can probably be only a guilty pleasure now, but if you're in the proper frame of mind it can still be unpretentious, energetic fun.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: HALF SHOT AT SUNRISE (1930)

My first encounter with Wheeler and Woolsey came when I was still a kid, when I discovered the PBS series Matinee at the Bijou. The idea was to recreate the old-time Saturday matinee with a program of short subjects, a serial chapter and a feature film from the 1930s or 1940s. The show used public-domain films, including Paul Sloane's service comedy, which for many years must have been most people's first encounter with the RKO comics. I remembered little of the film nearly forty years later, except that I was deeply unimpressed. It took several more experiments with the pair, thanks to Turner Classic Movies, before I warmed to them. When Half Shot at Sunrise (slang for "drunk") was run last week as part of a day of Wheeler and Woolsey films, it seemed like time at last to give the picture another try.

I remain unimpressed. Half Shot was RKO's first original screenplay for their team, who had hit big in support of Bebe Daniels in 1929's Rio Rita and then appeared in two more Broadway adaptations, including their first starring vehicle, The Cuckoos. Many hands, reportedly including those of an uncredited Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, were involved in the screenplay. The result reduces Wheeler and Woolsey to a pair of generic girl-chases A.W.O.L. in World War I Paris. Woolsey has a stash of insignia and decorations allowing them to pass for any rank of soldier they please, and the pair are nimble enough to slip the armbands off a couple of MPs when needed. In the spirit of cherchez la femme these representative Americans try to hit on every female they encounter. Their seduction techniques include a lot of unfunny wordplay and even less funny fake French, all lacking the endearing naivete or the dyspeptic cunning that came to define Wheeler and Woolsey's screen personae in later films. It includes an interminable sequence at an outdoor cafe table where Wheeler desperately tries to get Woolsey to look into a mirror and notice the MP who is practically breathing over his shoulder. It really feels like you could have inserted any two comedians into the roles.

Strange to say, Half Shot hardly registers as a Wheeler and Woolsey movie until Dorothy Lee, Wheeler's usual dance and romantic partner on film, shows up as the colonel's daughter. From her arrival the film becomes more of a musical, as that was still expected from the team. My assumption is that most of the musical numbers were cut from the Matinee at the Bijou broadcast, since the movie runs 78 minutes on its own while the show ran for only 90 and had to pack in more content. They neither improve or degrade my opinion of the picture. The rest of it is wartime farce involving the confusion between secret military orders and equally confidential correspondence between the colonel and his French girlfriend, under the nose of his shrewish wife (Edna May Oliver). Everything works out for the best, of course, which is another way of saying that the film eventually ends. After this belated, and to an extent regretted second viewing, I can at least acknowledge that the film's failings aren't really Wheeler and Woolsey's fault; they were stuck with the material written for them. In hindsight, it was wrong for my younger self to hold this film against them, but it was impossible to know that until I'd seen more of them. First impressions aren't everything, I guess. Maybe I'll even enjoy a Ritz Brothers film someday.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019) in SPOILERVISION

I laughed when the title of the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War was announced last year. "Endgame" is one of those cliche titles you see everywhere. Nearly every genre show has an "Endgame" episode. It seemed almost hilariously unimaginative of Marvel Studios to use it now. But while that made me laugh months ago, the surprising thing about the actual film is how consistently funny it is. I really shouldn't have been surprised, since humor has been crucial to the more-than-decade-long success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There seemed to be no room for comedy after the previous film, which saw half the life of the universe, if not 50% of all Marvel superheroes, snuffed out with a snap of Thanos' fingers. Yet there is such a thing as gallows humor, and there's always a new normal with room for jokes. That's how some people (or whatever Rocket is) cope with situations, after all. The really surprising thing about this is that the comedy star of the picture turns out to be Mark Ruffalo as The Incredible Hulk. In what may be his last turn in the role, Ruffalo gets to perform the popular variation of the character in which Ol' Greenskin has Bruce Banner's brain. It's alarming how at ease Ruffalo makes the mighty monster, compared to the pouty, childish Hulk of Thor: Ragnaraok and the default rage mode. This Hulk always has time to pose for selfies with fans -- for there are still fans in this traumatized world -- and, compared to normal, seems almost imperturbable, even when dealing with theoretical science over even Banner's head. There's a wonderful scene in which this new Hulk time-travels to 2012 New York during the climactic battle of the original Avengers film. In order to be inconspicuous on his mission (see below), he's advised to behave in his old self's smashing manner. The well-meaning yet hopelessly halfhearted way in which he goes about lazily growling and lackadaisically wrecking a car is, as of now, my favorite scene in the picture.

The Russo brothers and their writing partners, Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus, take an actually daring approach to the story, getting a much-anticipated catharsis out of the way about 30 minutes into the film when Thor (I shouldn't have to identify the actors by now) decapitates Thanos on the latter's retirement planet. The problem is, killing Thanos doesn't solve anything, since he'd already destroyed his Infinity Stones, making a reversal of his infamous snap impossible. From this empty bit of avenging, the film jumps forward five years to a world -- not to mention a universe, as new arrival Captain Marvel reminds us -- barely hanging on. Some of our heroes aren't even doing that. Thor has lapsed into drunken slackerdom, hanging out at New Asgard with some of his Ragnarok buddies while Valkyrie does most of the real work without anyone asking where she was when Thanos attacked the refugee ship in the last picture. Hawkeye, having lost his entire family, goes full vigilante on a global killing tour, less convinced than ever of some people's right to live. Only Tony Stark (along with the Hulk) seems better off, having given up and settled down to have a kid with Pepper Potts. Yet when Ant-Man gets randomly released from his post-credits predicament from last year, he intuits a solution from the fact that only a few hours passed by for him in the Quantum Realm while years went by outside. It takes a while to convince Stark, who worries that changing the recent past might wipe out his daughter, but once he's on board the film becomes Avengers: Timeheist -- an excuse for a valedictory tour of past MCU moments in search of Infinity Stones to preempt Thanos' seizure of them. While probably no one really wanted to revisit Thor: The Dark World, that mission gives Rene Russo an opportunity to make one of this film's many, many encore appearances by its supporting players. This middle act is more caper film than action picture, but comes to a dark climax as one team of heroes arrives at that planet where the Red Skull curates the Soul Gem, which as ever requires a love sacrifice. This results in a surprise exit from the franchise, but the sacrifice may be for naught. Thanks to a big gimme -- the idea that past evil Nebula can tap into the memories of her good future self, Thanos circa 2014 is tipped off to his future and endeavors to change some details. Thwarted then, he takes the battle to the present, only to be faced with an almost entirely replenished superhero army, plus the game-changing power of Captain Marvel. Ultimately, though, the only way to keep the Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos is to use it against him, and as Hulk experienced using it to reverse the Snap, it would very likely prove fatal for a human to wield it.

Endgame is a fine film but lacks the relentless tension of Infinity War and barely makes it past the three-hour mark with more endings than The Return of the King, but its indulgent length feels earned. The battles aren't as ambitious or dramatic as in the previous picture, though yet again we have a strangely sexist moment when all the female heroes converge on one location for no special reason apart perhaps for the convenience of GIF makers. I suspect, however, that many people will like it more than its predecessor simply for the feels, both happy and sad. For the most part, the sequel exemplifies Marvel Studios' commitment to quality control in pursuit of a consistent defining tone. It quite self-consciously marks the end of an era, as half the original Avengers are exiting the franchise, but also takes time to point toward new directions: Thor teaming with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Sam Wilson as Captain America, etc. It is not the end some fatigued critics may have hoped for, but it does at least feel like the end of a chapter. The one-two punch of Infinity War and Endgame puts an exclamation point on what so far has been (with a handful of exceptions) an uncannily consistent run of epic entertainment.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

On the Big Screen: BLIND WOMAN'S CURSE (1970)

Teruo Ishii might be called the Tod Browning of Japanese cinema. He shared with his American precursor an interest in crime and an instinct for the grotesque. These converge in Blind Woman's Curse, an early starring role for 70s death-goddess Meiko Kaji that I got to see at the Proctor's GE Theater thanks to the It Came From Schenectady cult film society. If some of the film's virtually supernatural elements seem incongruous in a yakuza film, bear in mind that its setting is implicitly a fantasy film, one in which a yakuza boss can be described as pure in heart. That boss is our star, playing Akemi Tachibana, who inherited the mantle and the unquestioned loyalty of her henchmen from her father. She's a fighting boss, as demonstrated in a formal showdown with another gang during the opening credits, and almost unconsciously charismatic, as demonstrated when, serving time for her role in the fight, she converts some skeptical fellow convicts in a women's prison into future soldiers. Her clan controls a public market but is regularly challenged by her clownish rivals, the Aozora clan. These challenges aren't to be taken too seriously, since the primary attribute of the Aozora boss (Ryohei Uchida) is the long-unwashed loincloth that adorns his prominently displayed buttocks. But when a retaliatory raid on his gang goes terribly wrong, Akemi comes under increasing pressure to escalate the feud.

As we quickly learn, events are being manipulated by a third gang, led by the ambitious Dobashi (Toru Abe) and abetted by a traitor in Akemi's midst. The provocations grow more extreme as Akemi's followers are stripped of the dragon tattoos that adorn their backs and a dubious feline is seen licking at the flayed remnants. There are, in fact, still more players in the game. One is a soft-spoken swordswoman (Hoki Tokuda -- at the time Mrs. Henry Miller!) who happens to be blind. She happens to have been blinded by Akemi in that opening-credits fight, during which her brother was killed. She actually looks really good for someone who apparently had her eyes slashed, and of course, this being Japan, her handicap confers a compensatory advantage in fighting skill. A cat licking her wounds immediately after the injury probably helped as well. Anyway, you get the idea; she's out for vengeance against Akemi. Meiko Kaji is the object of vengeance for once, that is, but this was still early in her career before she was set in her ways.

What the story is with the blind woman's sidekick, who can say? Ushimatsu is hunchbacked performance artist, played by Tatsumi Hijikata, credited as a creator of the modern dance form of butoh.  We're treated to one of his strange performances, enhanced (if that's the word) by Ishii's (and Osamu Inoue's) frantic editing. We're also treated (if that's the word) to his hobby, which is maintaining a carny house of horrors featuring fake (???) severed heads, limbs, etc. Ushimatsu appears to go above and beyond whatever mandate the blind swordswoman or Dobashi gave him, and his exploits are pretty much the essence of this picture. At one point, after the more conventional thugs have bumped off Akemi's wise old uncle, the rare yakuza who has gone straight, the hunchback shows up to lick and fondle the corpse. Later, the apparently living corpse shows up to spook some people, but when the head promptly rolls off we see that Ushimatsu is just having fun with his new meat puppet. As far as movie hunchbacks go, this guy makes Paul Naschy in Hunchback of the Morgue look like Quasi from the Disney cartoon.

Things can't go on like this forever -- can they? -- so finally Akemi's had all she can stand, til she can't stands no more. Once the traitor in her midst is exposed, she leads the climactic assault on Dobashi's headquarters, except that it's only a warmup for the inevitable showdown between our jingi-licious heroine and the blind swordswoman. Again, in Japan you always bet on the handicapped person in these encounters, even if it's Meiko Kaji on the other side. Only this time, you wouldn't collect, because nobody wins. After the damned cat tries to interfere and gets gutted for its trouble, it looks like Akemi is down for the count. She's waiting for the coup de grace, but it never comes, for the blind swordswoman can tell -- she usually can smell such things -- that our yakuza boss lady is genuinely repentant about killing her brother and the other stuff. She accepts this as an apology, takes her dying cat and goes home. But let's face it: anything after what we've already seen in this picture is going to be an anticlimax, and maybe that's for the best. Otherwise people are bound to leave the theater in a disoriented state dangerous to themselves and others. As it is, the downbeat-yet-upbeat finish gives viewers time to reflect on the fact that, for all its excesses and confusions Blind Woman's Curse is goofy fun, as long as you're in the right -- or fright -- frame of mind.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

On the Big Screen: PETERLOO (2018)

The Peterloo Massacre is the one moment I know of when journalists tried to make the "-loo" suffix derived from the Battle of Waterloo a thing like "-gate" is in American politics. The killing of approximately a dozen civilians by British troops took place during a mass demonstration at St. Peter's Field in Manchester on August 16, 1819. To some observers, it was like the war (against Napoleon) coming home, with some people involved in both events. Longtime radical filmmaker Mike Leigh uses Waterloo and Peterloo as bookends for his period piece portraying the erratic radicalization of one working-class family. We're introduced to them after Joseph (David Moorst) a bugler and traumatized survivor of the great battle, makes his way home to Manchester, then a cutting-edge industrial town with the inevitable exploitation of labor. Working people's main problem, however, was high food prices, artificially inflated by the protectionist Corn Laws that forbade the importation of foreign grain ("corn" in British English) and other foodstuffs. Employers imposing wage cuts proves the final straw for many, who now form a ready audience for orators local and national advocating for democratization of the parliamentary election process. In short, these people want regular elections on a "one man, one vote" basis in place of the infamous system of rotten boroughs and property qualifications for voting. The local grandees are having none of it, fearing a replay of the French Revolution that they and a European coalition had only just snuffed out. They're looking for any excuse to crack down on radical orators and publishers and intimidate workers into their proper deference to their betters. At St. Peter's Field, despite the best efforts of some organizers, the forces of reaction get their chance, with terrible consequences.

Peterloo left me wondering whether Leigh meant his history play as an implicit commentary on modern politics, or at least one aspect of it. The film is preoccupied with speech, to its detriment in some eyes. At first glance or listen, you might assume that Leigh is simply besotted with 19th century rhetoric in all its pyrotechnic pomposity. But it's important to note that the orators are hardly the heroes of the picture. They are often shown as self-indulgent, self-important and irresponsible. When a working-class woman comments that she can't understand much of what a female orator is saying at one women's meeting, Leigh means, I think, for us to sympathize with the humbler rather than the more progressive female. Elsewhere, a male orator clearly enjoys himself at least as much as his hearers enjoy him threatening the royal family with all manner of classical references. Such displays are inevitable with the stirring of liberty, but whether they further justice effectively is open to debate. The point of all the oratory isn't so much that Leigh is in love with the sounds of speech but that the speechmakers are in love with the sounds of their own voices -- a trait they share with their antagonists, who take much the same pleasure in their jeremiads against the poor, as individuals and a collective. There's an echo, perhaps intended as a premonition, of today's self-indulgent posturing in social media or partisan media in general. Peterloo leaves a cumulative impression that oratory didn't help matters as much as orators and their audiences may have assumed or hoped. Leigh definitely doesn't hold the orators responsible for the carnage -- the ruling-class characters are almost cartoonish in their flamboyant contempt for the poor and are quite capable of manipulating events to get the results they want -- but he does seem to be suggesting that a dependence on such spellbinders as "Orator" Hunt (Rory Kinnear) is more likely to lead to a dead end than other approaches. The fact that we don't get any epilogue title cards telling us when reform was finally achieved adds to that impression.

The climax -- the massacre -- is not as dynamic as movie buffs might want. It's definitely no Battleship Potemkin, for all the sabres slashing at helpless protesters, but it gets better as it goes on and the military charge devolves into a random sequence of individual fights between soldiers and demonstrators. These moments are more to Leigh's artistic scale and nicely illustrate how passions on both sides had been inflamed by the rhetoric of mutual hatred. Viewers should leave as outraged as Leigh wants them to be. It may be a bit heavyhanded to have the poor bugler of Waterloo meet his end at Peterloo, and then have reporters talk about the war coming home, but in our own reactionary age Leigh probably didn't want to be too subtle on his main point, which is the injustice of early industrial England before the emergence of a real labor movement or real labor party. Whatever a viewer may think the appropriate solution was to the situation, everyone watching Peterloo should agree that something had to be done. It's a history lesson worth taking, and if it gets you thinking about the way we do politics today, it'll be even more worthwhile.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

SHAZAM! (2019) in SPOILERVISION

Pedantic genre fans probably have told you already about the convoluted publishing history of the protagonist of  David F. Sandberg's film and how another film's title should have been his. I'll limit myself to telling you that once upon a time, long long ago, the dude in the red costume with the lightning bolt was the most popular of all superheroes, but what to do with him in modern times has challenged DC Comics, his current publisher, for nearly half a century. There's been an effort to have it both ways with "the big red cheese," preserving him as an embodiment of a more innocent era of comics publishing and fandom, in part because co-creator C.C. Beck was a reactionary when it came to modernizing superheroes, but at the same time making him something of a laughingstock precisely for being the innocent among heroes. The occasional efforts to make him and his stories more complex generally haven't gone well. The default approach has been to treat him as a child in a super-adult body, sometimes emphasizing a seeming-inevitable naivete but more recently taking him in an arguably more sophomoric direction. Add to this Hollywood's preoccupation with the zero-to-hero paradigm and movie writers' own consensus on how a boy in a man's body would behave and Shazam! could have written itself with little significant input from credited screenwriter Henry Gayden.

Fortunately, the filmmakers gathered together a decent cast of child actors in support of a luckily likable Zachary Levi as the learning-on-the-fly (or learning-to-fly) hero who now takes the name of the old wizard (Djimon Honsou) who, as of old, empowers him. To be more exact, old Shazam empowers, as of old, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), the archetypal orphan who's just landed in a group home alongside his traditional playmates Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) and Mary Bromfield (Grace Fulton) and a bunch of other kids recently introduced in the comics. We're given to understand that the old wizard has to be less choosy than he'd like, since one of the kids he rejected 45 years ago has grown up to be Mark Strong calling himself Dr. Sivana. Maybe twice the size of the hero's comics arch-enemy, the movie Sivana has used tremendous corporate resources, and presumably some mad scientist know-how, to find his way back to the old wizard's stop on the subway and claim the powers offered him long ago (i.e. at the start of the picture) by the monsters known as the Seven Deadly Sins. The old wizard has wanted a champion pure of heart but will settle for the sullen, rebellious Batson before breathing his last.

Barely conscious of his purpose, the magically-roided up Batson goes about discovering his powers, trying out different names and performing acts of petty heroism as the film becomes something like a cross between Chronicle and The Tick. In recent comics the hero has been somewhat successfully reimagined as a bit of a smartass dork, but Levi's performance leans heavily sometimes in the direction of the typical Hollywood infantile man. That's okay, though, because the point of the picture is for him, unlike the typical Hollywood infantile man, to grow out of that mode. He does this by learning to love his new extended family while leaving behind the ideal of his real mother that made every other option seem inadequate to him. It's ironic, once you actually see Shazam!, to see some people call it Spielbergian, since it actually refrains from idealizing its mother figure in favor of a "love the ones you're with" message. It's a practical message, too, since its corollary is that there's strength in numbers. The film follows current comics most closely in its conceit that all of Billy's surrogate siblings are eligible to partake of the Shazam power and thus help him fight off Sivana and the Deadly Sins. The kids are hit-or-miss as characters and their hero-forms get even less time to introduce themselves, but their innocent joy in getting superpowers -- please never let any of them go to the dark side, producers! -- is infectious. Unfortunately, they also make the climax a bit too busy and lengthy, and the action scenes here were never going to break new ground. The best super-stunt comes much earlier, when Billy has to figure out how to deal with a bus falling off an overpass, and then has to figure out how to put it down safely when there's a dog in the way. The filmmakers have a nice habit of throwing in little details like that or the increasingly frantic Santa Claus who keeps getting caught in the middle of the super-battles. Sandberg shows an admirable eye for the absurd that helps lighten the tone throughout; you have to like a film that will move into a crowd celebration for a close-up of a dancing gingerbread man. Overall, Shazam! is the sort of film that you can tell means well even when it doesn't always work, and it's hard to hold its misses against it when it hits often enough to be unpretentious fun.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

DVR Diary: VENOM (2018)

For some time, Sony Pictures, clinging to the film rights to Spider-Man, has been struggling to create a cinematic universe capable of sustaining feature-film showcases for Spidey's supporting cast. Now that Spider-Man himself has been revived with help from Marvel Studios, the time seemed right to resume the larger project. The challenge presented to director Ruben Fleischer and his writers, however, was to make a movie about one of Spidey's relatively recent antagonists, only without Spider-Man. The challenge wasn't necessarily insurmountable, since Venom is one of those characters who's gone back and forth from villain to antihero since his introduction in the 1980s. Back then, disgraced journalist Eddie Brock sort of inherited the infamous black costume that Spidey acquired back in the equally infamous Secret Wars comic. The costume was, in fact, a malevolent symbiotic alien that Spider-Man, recognizing its malevolent nature, rejected. Brock, meanwhile, welcomed the opportunity to take revenge on Spidey, whom he blamed for his disgrace. The movie retains Brock (Tom Hardy) as disgraced journalist, but makes him a victim rather than an arrogant blunderer, crushed by an evil Elon Musk type (Riz Ahmed) rather than discredited for blaming the wrong man for murder. The corporate villain has acquired some gloppy aliens from one of his spacecraft and hopes to graft them onto humans in the hope of creating a hybrid spacefaring species. Nosy Brock, still sniffing a story, ends up acquiring a symbiote that encases him in an inky muscle suit and endows him with superhuman stength and speed as well as an obnoxious tongue. Much of the time, however, "Venom," as the alien critter calls itself -- is it translating to English or are those the actual syllables of its name? -- is a disembodied voice that taunts and torments Eddie by forcing him to conduct multiple conversations at the same time. Brock naturally resents this intrusion on his person, but he and the symbiote will have to work together to stop the inevitable corporate symbiote from facilitating a full-scale alien invasion of Earth.

Venom may be the ugliest superhero movie I've ever seen. The protagonist, fully costumed, is pretty much a spasmodic black blob whose activities have a certain ejaculatory quality that may help explain his/its long-term appeal. The climactic fight pits him against a slightly more silvery variation on the same basic design, and while the splattery conflict may inspire nostalgia among some for the over-rendered comics of Venom's heyday, it struck me as simply tedious. A character whose face gets covered in glop periodically seems tailor-made for Tom Hardy, who probably thought that going way over the top was only doing justice to the source material. Instead, his performance helped show that Sony, with less input from Marvel this time, lacks Marvel's knack for making its protagonists likable even when they act like jerks. Hardy is hardly helped by the uncinematic reduction of Venom to a mere voice in scenes that require Brock to act like a madman. The results are at least sometimes meant to be funny but usually fall flat. Meanwhile, as Eddie's ex, Michelle Williams collects a paycheck, while Woody Harrelson in a Raggedy Andy fright wig promises much fan service in the sequel this film somehow earned. I'd like to say that Venom's success was improbable, but it was probably the sort of superhero film many longtime comics fans had been waiting for. The best I can say about the thing is that I hope they enjoyed it.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

DVR Diary: THE BURGLARS (Le Casse, 1971)

There's no point to judging Henri Verneuil's free adaptation of David Goodis' noir novel The Burglar by its fidelity to the source material. Goodis himself wrote a previous film adaptation which by definition must stand as definitive, so we may as well accept Le Casse for what it is: a vehicle for Jean-Paul Belmondo designed for the international-cast market. Goodis provides the bare bones of the story in which a slick safecracking gang goes to pieces while waiting to sell their plunder, but from there it's all Verneuil and co-writer Vahe Katcha. The action has been moved to Greece, where a crafty, somewhat corrupt police detective (Omar Sharif) picks the gang apart. The Belmondo character obviously proves the toughest nut to crack, so a local entertainer (Dyan Cannon) is called on to seduce and keep tabs on him. All of this is a framework on which to hang the action set pieces that audiences by now expected from Belmondo, who arguably qualifies as the missing link between Buster Keaton and Tom Cruise through his commitment to crazy stunt work. Keaton himself no doubt would have been proud of a then-unfakeable moment -- possibly inspired by Buster's own Seven Chances -- when Belmondo is dropped from a close-up position in the back of a truck down a steep gravel pit, with plenty of rocks following him down. Elsewhere, he clings from the outside to the window of a moving bus to avoid pursuers, only to transfer to another bus in the middle of a busy street. Beyond Belmondo's antics there's plenty here to suggest that Verneuil was a student of silent film. The picture opens with a fascinating, almost wordless sequence that shows how sophisticated a safecracker Belmondo is. The man basically carries a portable computer with him that allows him to program product specs and grind out a master key to order. If a film set around 1970 can qualify as steampunk, this scene should make La Casse eligible for that label. At the other end of the movie, the final fate of Sharif's character hearkens all the way back to D. W. Griffith's A Corner in Wheat or maybe Carl-Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr. Of course, a caper or crime film from this period wouldn't be complete without a proper car chase, and this one definitely delivers, even if it comes too early to be climactic. So much goes on in this picture that the car chase could almost be forgotten in the mix. Euro-stalwarts Robert Hossein and Renato Salvatori are along for the ride but this is clearly Belmondo's show, which means he doesn't have to do much with his character but live up to his pop persona. Some of his exploits wouldn't fly today -- it's meant as a gag when he slaps Cannon so hard and repeatedly that he sets off a room's light controls -- but for a good part of the world in his heyday he was the fantasy ideal of a man's man, and nothing about La Casse would change that. It's pretty much the opposite of the sort of noir one might expect from a Goodis adaptation, but on its own terms it's an often very entertaining action picture sure to appeal to Euro-Seventies fans.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

DVR Diary: L'ASSASSIN HABITE AU 21 (1942)

Henri-Georges Clouzot is "the French Hitchcock," a master of the thriller genre best known for his films The Wages of Fear and Diabolique. He started out, however, with a film that on story terms is nearly on the level with the Poverty Row stuff of 1940s Hollywood. "The Murderer Lives at Number 21" is a sequel, or at least in the same series, as a film Clouzot had recently written, Le Dernier de Six. Both are taken from detective novels by the Belgian writer Stanislas-Andre Steeman, who co-wrote the screenplay for L'Assassin. Steeman's detective is Wens Vorobeychik (Pierre Fresnay of Grand Illusion fame), a policeman tasked with capturing the brazen serial killer known as "Monsieur Durand." This Durand leaves a calling card on the bodies of his victims, presumably to taunt the police. We see him at work -- more accurately, we walk in his shoes as he stalks a drunken lottery winner in an early scene made up of a nice tracking shot. Wens is under the typical pressure from higher-ups to crack the case, but he also has to worry about his girlfriend Mila (Suzy Delair, still with us at age 101), an aspiring singer-actress who decides to hunt down the killer as some sort of publicity stunt. You've seen her type in many an American film.

Wens gets an important lead when a burglar is arrested with a bunch of Monsieur Durand business cards in his pocket. The crook explains that he stole them from the boarding house at 21 Junot, which must be where the murderer lives. The place is infested with possible suspects or red herrings: a stage magician, a toymaker exploiting the terror by crafting faceless Monsieur Durand dolls, a presumably blind former boxer, etc. Like any great detective, Wens hopes to sort out the suspects by disguising himself as the newest boarder, a Bible-clutching Protestant clergyman. At around the same time, however, the killer starts to strike very close to home. And before long, Mila takes a room as well.

The story may be silly, but Clouzot shows a precocious sure hand with his actors -- I especially like the scene where the magician keeps up a calm, bland conversation with Wens while performing all manner of tricks with his hat -- and keeps his audience hopping with abruptly discovered kills that disrupt the detective's deductions. It actually takes a flash of intuition on Mila's part to get to the bottom of the mystery, though we may be meant to assume that Wens had reached the same conclusion by other means. The climax is simply dumb, spelling the truth out in the most blatant way -- ask yourself why everyone in the scene needs to be there -- and depending on pulp assumptions about criminals' need to boast and explain their methods in order to delay Wens' demise until reinforcements can arrive. To be fair, the film has no real ambition apart from being a goofy comedy-mystery, and it's made with enough panache that you can't really hold its stupidity against it. As a French variation on a Anglo-American potboiler formula it has inherent interest for the cosmopolitan cinephile, as well as flashes of the talent that had masterworks in its future.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

BUYBUST (2018)

 Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines has faced international criticism for its draconian drug war as waged by a thuggish, purportedly authoritarian leader. Filmmaker Erik Matti reportedly is a critic of the Duterte government, but his ambitious action film feels like an attempt to have it both ways about the drug war. Both sides, pro and anti-Duterte, can read what they want into it. One side can point to a gruesome orgy of excessive force and the film's peeling away of layers of police duplicity and corruption. The other may find confirmation in the film of a belief that the slum dwellers among whom the drug dealers flourish are little better than rabid animals. The desired effect may well be to call a plague down on both houses, crooks and cops alike.

 

Basically a cross between The Raid and The Warriors, the film follows an elite police unit into one of the worst slums in an attempt to capture a notorious druglord. New to the team is Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis), recently the sole survivor of a bungled earlier raid. In training for her new role she's undisciplined, determined to take the initiative when her instructors insist on her following orders. As you might expect, exactly those qualities the instructors deplore will come in very handy when this raid also falls apart and proves to be a trap set for the cops. Lured into a labyrinthine urban kill-box, the team must undertake a grim anabasis back the way they came, fighting their way through neighborhoods mobilized to kill them. Some of the slum dwellers are clearly drug-crazed; others hope to earn a bounty on the cops; others still simply hate cops for making their communities collateral damage in the drug war. Others yet are plainly terrorized into cooperating, or else too terrified to help the police.


The force is winnowed down to two as we near the climax: Manigan and the hulking, Diesel-esque and almost indestructible Yatco (Brandon Michael Vera). They fight with increasing savagery even when repeated stabs and slashes should have worn or bled them out. However implausibly, Manigan outlasts the valiant Yatco and against all odds manages to capture the druglord. Her confrontation with Biggie Chen (Arjo Atayde) leads to a perhaps-predictable all-you-thought-you-knew-was-wrong moment when the gangster informs on Manigan's superiors, who prove all too eager to silence Biggie and possibly Manigan as well. Meanwhile, the news media reports thirteen killed in the raid when audiences might find ten times that number a conservative estimate.


Whatever critical intent Matti had is probably undermined by his heroine's almost cartoonish resilience and her slightly unconvincing prowess as a killing machine -- Anne Curtis is a pop singer and variety-show hostess in real life, but then again Takeshi Kitano was a game show host once upon a time -- and also by his arbitrary, inconsistent treatment of the slum dwellers. He wants them to be seen as victims as monsters at the same time, but since we presumably want Manigan, who is not corrupt, to survive we presumably root for her to annihilate all the obstacles in her path. The violence goes way over the top at times as Yatco decapitates a female attacker with garden shears after smacking her in the face with a cactus and he and Manigan escape a mob thanks to a mass electrocution. If over-the-top action is all you're looking for then I can recommend BuyBust as a compelling compendium of carnage enhanced by excellent cinematography by Neil Derrick Bion. But as a commentary on the Duterte drug war it's too enthusiastic about its ghoulish work and too easily tempted to dehumanize the actual victims of the story to say anything meaningful beyond the obvious. Something is clearly very wrong in that country, but BuyBust may be more a symptom than a diagnosis.

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.