Wednesday, June 19, 2019

DVR Diary: MILE 22 (2018)

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

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

Monday, June 17, 2019

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (2018)

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 9, 2019

DARK PHOENIX (2019) in SPOILERVISION

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 7, 2019

DVR Diary: A WICKED WOMAN (1934)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

DANGER PAYS (1962)

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


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


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


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


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

Sunday, June 2, 2019

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 31, 2019

NEFERTITI, QUEEN OF THE NILE (1961)

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


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


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


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


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


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