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.