Tuesday, December 30, 2008

National Film Registry Class of 2008

The Library of Congress has announced its annual list of additions to the National Film Registry, its hall of fame for landmark films. The wire service account I saw at my office emphasizes the inclusion of The Terminator on the list. It's a good film but an odd choice; I suspect it's there because of the star's subsequent political career as much as for any other reason. But maybe it's there because it's become part of the national folklore, even if people only know one line of its dialogue: "I'll be back." That's probably why Deliverance has also been admitted to the pantheon this time around.

The list as a whole is the usual eclectic mix of middlebrow classics, genre standouts, documentaries and art-film experiments. The unique film of the group from early accounts is Disneyland Dream, which happens to be a home movie of a trip to Disneyland in 1956 and is probably meant to serve as a document of what the place looked like in its original form.

I' m surprised that King Vidor's Hallelujah from 1929 is only just making it into the Registry, given its reputation as a pioneering location-shot musical with an all-black cast. Likewise, given its near-mythic status in film history, the 1914 serial The Perils of Pauline is just being enshrined. I don't know if Pauline is really any better than Hazards of Helen or Exploits of Elaine, but it's the one that most people know by name. The press release states that Pauline is being honored in part for its progressive portrayal of a female hero. By that criterion alone Helen or Elaine could also serve the purpose.

For me, the complete no-brainer on the present list is One Week, Buster Keaton's first starring short from 1920. Keaton's DIY nightmare is an amazing first effort and sets the tone for his entire run of short subjects. As a genre fan, I'm happy to see James Whale's The Invisible Man (1933) and the Juran-Harryhausen 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) make this year's list, and as a noir fan I'm equally enthused over the election of Robert Siodmak's The Killers (1946) and John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Other honorees likely to be recognized are A Face in the Crowd (1957), In Cold Blood (1967), Johnny Guitar (1954), The Pawnbroker (1965) and Sergeant York (1941), while silent buffs will applaud the inclusion of Von Stroheim's Foolish Wives (1922).

The one film I question is Flower Drum Song from 1961. I wasn't aware that this film was well-regarded even by fans of musicals. Is it even a good film? And if not, is its Asian casting reason enough to include it in the Registry, given that it doesn't really reflect Asian creativity? Whatever we think, the press release offers explanations for all the choices and a complete list of this year's group for you to judge for yourselves.

Monday, December 29, 2008


During the 1970s, Japan's Toei studio made a body of films that stands comparison with the Warner Bros. gangster cycle of the 1930s. I say this with some confidence, since I've only seen a few Toei films, ranging from Sonny Chiba's Street Fighter movies to the studio's magnum opus, Kinji Fukasaku's five-part "Battles Without Honor or Humanity" series of 1973-4 (available on DVD as Yakuza Papers). The Toei films I've seen are gritty, violent and vibrant. Sonny Chiba would be an equivalent to James Cagney in his charismatic ferocity, while Bunta Sugawara is more Bogart-like in Fukasaku's hardboiled, de-romanticized yakuza stories.

I don't know if Cops vs. Thugs is a very literal translation of "Kenkei tai soshiki boryoku." My Japanese only goes so far as to tell me that the original title means something vs. something. I'd like to think that the original title isn't as generic-sounding or misleading as the American label. "Cops vs. Thugs" might give a wrong first impression of a movie that's far from a conventional cops-vs.-criminals story, since it could as easily be called "Cops vs. Cops" or "Thugs vs. Thugs." Fukasaku, still going strong in the aftermath of "Battles," has given us another portrait of society in a state of moral chaos.

Like the "Battles" films and many other yakuza movies, this one is set in a specific place and time and purportedly based on real events. The setting is the city of Kageshima during the early 1960s. With the head yakuza boss in jail, two factions are jockeying for position. Hirotani is the heir apparent to the old boss, while Kawade has the support of a local politician and ties to Osaka drug dealers. The local police, most prominently Detective Kuno (Sugawara) have a cozy relationship with Hirotani. They dislike Kawade because his group is bringing more drugs into the city, but they save their real hatred for Communists. The cops also express a more personal affinity with the yakuza in general. As one cop says in a thematically crucial party scene, "Yakuza and cops are just the same ... We [are both] the dropouts of society." Like gangsters, the film suggests, cops are the kind of people who can't or don't want to hack it in the private sector.

Detective Kuno (Bunta Sugawara) and yakuza pals in COPS vs. THUGS
(screen captures from the French site

Kuno is a pretty complex character. He has no illusions about his own motives for being a cop. He tells his friends he does it so he can carry a gun, but he elaborates with memories of his childhood, when everyone in postwar Japan subsisted on black market rice, unless the cops confiscated it. He wants to be the one who takes instead of one who gets taken from. On one level, he doesn't think anyone is clean. As he tells the straight-arrow prefecture cop who pressures him later in the film, everyone was complicit in crime (smuggling, black market) after the war, so who's in a position to pass judgment on the yakuza? On the other hand, Kuno has an ambitious plan to be the arbiter of the Kageshima yakuza's future. Like his colleagues, he dislikes the Kawade gang, but he goes overboard in idealizing the rival leader, Ken Hirotani. In a flashback, we learn that this dates back to six years ago, when Ken had killed an important man and turned himself in at Kuno's house. Kuno gave him some dinner, then had a strange epiphany while preparing to call headquarters as he watched Ken wash his rice bowl. He became convinced that Ken was an honorable man, and that the city would be better off with him leading the yakuza.

Kuno makes the call to not make the call in COPS vs. THUGS.

"I'll never give up on you," he exhorts Ken in real time, "Succeed Ohara and become a boss." So he helps sabotage a land grab by Kawade so Hirotani can get the land that everyone expects to sell to an oil company and tries to protect Ken from the relentless prefecture cop Kaida, who accepts no fraternization with the yakuza. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that Kuno's personal life is a wreck. He gets drunk and lives in manga-strewn squalor with a woman provided by Ken, and one fine day his wife shows up at HQ to serve divorce papers on him. Who knew he was married? But he doesn't want a divorce, so she denounces him in front of his buddies -- "He's practically a yakuza puppet! You should lock him up!" -- until he slaps her.

Basically, Kuno's life is crumbling as his long-range vision falls apart. Boss Ohara is released from prison but soon falls under the influence of Kawade and his politician pals. Kaida's crusade drives Yoshiura, one of Kuno's pals, from the force and into Kawade's influence. Finally, Ohara anoints Kawade as his heir in the middle of a vicious gang war marked by outbursts of patented Fukasaku violence. The director had a knack for filming brawls that look like spontaneous mayhem, yet are always framed for maximum dramatic impact or shock effect. He wasn't above going to extremes, either. The climax of one street fight is a decapitation and a severed head bouncing down the stairs of a subway station. Things are falling apart for Hirotani, too, but he's unwilling to take Kuno's advice to let him resolve things. "Who must we kill to settle this?" he demands. When Kuno urges restraint, Ken's men accuse him of disloyalty to his "master," and that seems to mark the end of the friendship. But when a new wave of killings and kidnappings leave Hirotani under an intense police siege, Kuno may be the only one who can resolve the situation peacefully....

I invite the obligatory suspense, but anyone familiar with the genre can guess the outcome. Fukasaku's yakuza films from the 1970s stand out for their grimness, and of his films that I've seen to date, this one stands out in turn. Cops vs. Thugs would be a good introductory film for people interested in Fukasaku who might be daunted by the immensity of the "Battles" series. It covers a fairly limited time period compared to the 20-year span of the five-film series, and has a dominant central character with a personal storyline you can focus on. It's an excellent introduction to Bunta Sugawara, who has become one of my favorite actors thanks to these movies. He has a world-weariness about him that reminds me as much of Robert Mitchum as of Bogart, but his wiry intensity invites comparisons with Cagney or with Kirk Douglas in his more self-destructive roles. Kuno is a kind of tragic hero, trying to construct a new idealism out of his cynical experiences with disastrously predictable results at the end.

Overall, Fukasaku's pessimistic viewpoint fits well with the 1970s sensibility I usually associate with American cinema. For people with the patience to read the subtitles and keep up with the different factions in any given story, I readily recommend any of his yakuza films that I've seen, and there's plenty more available on DVD beside those. Fukasaku's career is a landmark in the wild world of cinema all the way to the scandalous triumph of Battle Royale in 2000, and any international movie fan ought to try him at least once.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Dark Knight: Banned in China?

My local paper reported today that Warner Bros. would not be releasing its most popular film of the year in one of the world's biggest markets out of concern that a scene in which Batman invades Hong Kong to extradite a Chinese mob banker would offend Chinese cultural sensibilities. This is another account of the studio's decision. If you think about it, this story exposes what might be considered a plot hole in Christopher Nolan's film: why didn't the Chinese protest the kidnapping of one of their citizens or compel his release from Gotham City custody? The answer, of course, is that The Dark Knight operates according to a certain kind of movie logic, whereby things happen or don't happen based on a desired audience response. This isn't a knock on a movie that I'd rank among the best of 2008, but it's something that becomes more apparent on subsequent viewings. I just watched it for the second time this week, since someone was thoughtful enough to buy me the DVD for Christmas. I reviewed it on my primary blog after my first viewing, but I intend to post a reappraisal here in the next few days.

Friday, December 26, 2008


It seems wrong to even speak of a Christmas-themed horror movie in the wake of the Covina massacre, but since Theodore Gershuny's film does not involve a killer in a Santa Claus suit, I feel entitled to press on. There isn't really much of Christmas to the film at all. The season is invoked to justify the wintry visuals and an appropriately lachrymose rendering of "Silent Night" that plays over the opening titles and a crucial flashback sequence.

The story is presented to us in "I alone am escaped to tell you" mode by Diane Adams (Mary Woronov), who takes us back to December 24, 1950, the day Wilfred Butler came home for the last time. We see a man in flames burst out of the house, run a ways, then fall into the snow. Then we see him burn from inside the house, as someone plays an organ. Diane tells us that Wilfred left the house to his grandson Jeffrey, instructing him to "leave the house as I left it ... to remind the world of its inhumanity." Finally, however, Jeffrey's ready to sell. News of this provokes an wrench-wielding asylum inmate to escape in a nicely abrupt POV sequence. Meanwhile, Carter (Patrick O'Neal), "a lawyer from the city," arrives in town to handle the sale, and Diane (now a character in the story she's relating) drives past a disturbed-looking man standing beside a broken-down car. Once she's gone, he throws a fit and starts smashing his own car windows.

Carter meets with Mayor Adams, who is Diane's father, and several leading citizens to discuss the sale. One of these worthies is Towman, publisher of the local paper. John Carradine plays him in one of his lamest cameos ever. Gershuny must have caught him on a bad day, because Carradine never speaks in the course of the movie. Instead, he occasionally rings a bell as an interjection. The townsfolk are eager to acquire the house, but Carter asks for $50,000 on behalf of Jeffrey Butler, whom he admits he has never seen. After he leaves, the mayor asks Carradine what they should do with the house. Cut to a silent Carradine, then cut to a shot, presumably from his point-of-view, and a raspy, pathetic attempt to imitate him: "Tear it down!"

While Carter had his meeting, we got some POV shots of someone lurking in the Butler house. Carter is in town with his mistress, being estranged from his wife. He promises a surprise to his daughter over the phone. At the house, his girlfriend serves him dinner from the local deli. Carter tells her the building has a solid stone foundation that will give the bulldozers "the surprise of their lives" when they try to tear it down. They repair to the bedroom, but that other someone is still in the house. In a Psycho-style twist, this someone bursts in upon the lovemaking couple and kills them with an axe. Someone who seemed to be a major character has been eliminated less than half an hour into the movie. The killer leaves a Bible open and puts a crucifix into a bloody hand.

The sheriff's office gets a call from the Butler house. The caller identifies himself as Jeffrey and announces that Carter is missing. He sounds odd because he's sick, but he urges Tess, the sheriff's wife, to hurry over. Meanwhile, the weird-looking guy from the road steals Carter's car and drives to the Adams house. Diane sees him pull up, and holds a gun on him while letting him in. He identifies himself as Jeffery Butler. She wants to see some ID; there's an escaped maniac out there, you know.

"Do you want to see my maniac card?" he asks grumpily, "There's a big scarlet M on it so people won't get confused." Once he convinces Diane, he tells her he just wants to get into his house. She thinks the sheriff's deputy should be able to let him in. The sheriff himself pays a visit to Wilfred Butler's grave, and is suddenly axed to death. The murder scenes in this film are oldschool. They don't reflect any giallo influence, nor do they look forward to the slasher films of a few years later. They aren't "set pieces" but quick, brutal bursts of action for shock value only, and they're pretty efficiently done.

Failing to find the deputy, Jeffrey goes back to the Adams house. Diane offers him some bourbon ("It's cheap bourbon, but that's really popular around here"), then suggests going to his house together. Along the way they find the sheriff's car and sunglasses, but no sheriff. Now they go to Towman's office. He takes Jeffrey to Tess's house, which is filled with birds, while Diane hangs out at his office. Towman can't believe that Tess would go to the Butler house, since she supposedly hates the place, and in a fit of pique he leaves Jeffrey at Tess's place. At the office, Diane takes a call: "Tell him I have the diary ... he'll know Christmas Eve, 1935." Meanwhile, Tess finally arrives at the Butler house, only to be attacked in the dark, then placated with an offer to "Take my hand, Tess." It's a severed hand, and then it's time for the axe.

Going over Towman's files, Diane tries to piece a story together. She discovers that Jeffrey is a child of rape, just as he finally comes back and sneaks up on her -- meaning no harm, of course. He helps fill in the story by recalling that his mother Marianne died in childbirth, but Towman's files say that's not true. Hmmm. Meanwhile, we see a car get vandalized and burned. Now our heroes decide to try for the house again. Passing the burning car, they discover Towman wandering into the road, but not before Jeffrey plows the car into him, knocking him into a ditch. Examining the body, they discover that his hands had been cut off.

The mayor gets a call, purportedly from Marianne Butler, inviting him to the Butler house. "Marianne" tells him that his daughter's already there. The mayor heads out, but he's packing heat. At the house, Jeffrey discovers a manuscript from his grandfather Wilfred, illustrated for us by an overlong flashback sequence in faded colors. Wilfred had turned the house into an asylum, inviting experts to find a cure for Marianne's malady, but they merely took his money and took over the house for drunken revels. Wilfred knows what's wrong, anyway: he's guilty of incest, and Jeffrey is both his son and grandson! At some point, Wilfred had enough. He frees the inmates of the asylum, who invade the house with pitchforks, axes, etc. as the Silent Night, Bloody Night theme reprises. Problem was, in the confusion the loonies also killed Marianne. "All seasons have become as one," Wilfred wrote, "and that is a season of vengeance." I can admire what Gershuny was trying to do with the flashback, but it really does go on too long and pretty much kills the pace of the movie.

Back in the present, Jeffrey makes a deduction: Wilfred is still alive. He's learned that the town had been populated by the escaped lunatics, who've become the civic leaders we've seen getting whacked. Now the mayor arrives and finds Tess's corpse. We've been set up for a showdown in which each man thinks the other's the killer, with Diane in the middle and the real killer still lurking about. I'll leave the resolution for you to discover. Here are some of the visual highlights, or so the trailer claims.

Silent Night, Bloody Night has the virtues of modesty. It has the grungy lived-in feel of 1970s cinema, and the determined underplaying by Woronov and male lead James Patterson lend a touch of authenticity to the proceedings. Depending on your aesthetic sense, the lack of stylization or exaggeration gives the movie a certain kind of creepiness, but the backstory ends up being a bit too convoluted, and the exposition of it hurts the film's momentum. For a B-horror film from the period, however, I'd rate it above average. It's part of the Mill Creek Entertainment Chilling Classics box set, and while the print is predictably beat up, that doesn't do great violence to the desolate scenery, though it leaves some bits looking a bit too dark.
Reverend Phantom's Midnight Confessions blog convinced me to give the film a try. The Rev. posts "live reviews" of cult movies. That is, he records video commentaries including clips, stills and other visual references. He approaches his material with such enthusiasm that I could imagine him being a TV horror host back when there was more demand for that sort of talent. I think you'll find your visit to his site an entertaining one.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Five Favorite Christmas Movies

These are in ascending order.

5. 3 Godfathers (1948). Nothing gets you in the mood like an immediate invocation of the dead, and that's what John Ford gives us with his homage to Harry Carey. The story proper is a riff on the Three Wise Men, who here are three thieves who encounter a dying mother in the desert and promise to bring her newborn to civilization despite a posse hunting them down. Two of them don't make it. This is one of the last appearances of the younger, fallible, more vulnerable John Wayne, and he has a standout scene as the last survivor wandering through the desert, haunted by his partners and rambling like a madman. The gravity of the situation and the good work by Harry Carey Jr. and Pedro Armendariz earn the film its happy ending.

4. It's A Wonderful Life (1946). Familiarity breeds contempt (see Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and A Christmas Story), but Frank Capra's film is less omnipresent than it used to be. Again, the payoff is earned by pain, in this case James Stewart's lifetime of deferred gratification and small-town struggle. It may overstate the difference one man could make between decency and despair for so many others, but people probably need to hear that idea every so often. For some, the ideal chaser might be the Saturday Night Live skit with the "alternate ending" in which the cast lynches Mr. Potter. In fact ...

But let's move on.

3. A Holiday Affair (1949). I really like this movie for one scene: Wendell Corey's renunciation of Janet Leigh so she can hook up with Robert Mitchum. While making it clear that he realizes that Leigh is not the woman for him, Corey expresses himself with an extraordinary generosity of spirit that fits the season. "No time is wasted that makes two people friends" is one of my favorite lines in cinema, when I'm in a sentimental mood.

2. Batman Returns (1992). Christmastime in Gotham City is a season of miracles. Call it what you will -- rebirth, resurrection, transfiguration -- but Tim Burton's decision to set his sequel during the holiday season gives his peculiar approach to Catwoman's origin some thematic validity. The holidays often make me melancholy, so I dig the doomed romance of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, who is, arguably, Christlike in her ultimate determination to resist temptation and fulfill her purpose on earth. And of course there's a promise of a second coming at the end. It's a beautifully designed film and admirably performed by it's cast. It was my favorite Batman movie until this year, and topping Michelle Pfeiffer's performance is the one remaining challenge that might justify Christopher Nolan doing a third film.

1. Meet John Doe (1941). Long John Willoughby is even more of a Christ figure. He walks in the path of prophecy, under the shadow of the knowledge that the prophecy, Barbara Stanwyck's letter, was a lie. But as Gary Cooper says at the disastrous rally at Wrigley Field, "the idea is still good," and this erstwhile dupe decides that the only way he can redeem the idea, not to mention his demoralized followers and the woman he's come to love, is to fulfill the prophecy by killing himself. The climactic drama is played out on a snowy rooftop in a scene that Frank Capra notoriously shot several times over -- a testimony to the rich difficulty of his story rather than a failure of imagination. What Capra himself couldn't necessarily acknowledge was that his epic was incapable of conventional closure. He saw it in terms of two powerful forces cancelling one another out: the spontaneous popular movement generated by the John Doe campaign and the sinister political movement created to exploit it. But it's right to end the film with remnants of the forces still in the field, and with James Gleason's challenge: "There you go, Norton: the people! Try and lick that!" It may be maudlin for Stanwyck to dissuade Cooper from jumping by invoking Jesus (and thus repudiating the need for a new Christ figure?), but this is a Christmas movie, so the myth has an appropriate place in the story.

John Doe is one of my absolute favorite films and probably one of the most underrated in the "golden age" canon. It's a work of gigantic ambition, and clearly Capra's claim to supremacy over the upstart Orson Welles. I'm not sure how much Capra knew about Citizen Kane while he was working on Doe, but it seems more than coincidental that both films deal with the power of mass media. I see it as the conclusion of a thematic trilogy based on the actor Edward Arnold. In You Can't Take It With You Arnold's just a stodgy millionaire who succumbs to the eccentric family's silly charms by the end. In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington he's a local political boss who seems to be decisively thwarted by the end of Jimmy Stewart's ordeal. In Meet John Doe he's more powerful than ever as a media mogul who hopes to ride the John Doe movement to national political power, and you're left with the impression that his decision to abort the movement may only be a temporary setback. The escalating menace embodied by Arnold reflects Capra's engagement with his troubled times, and is, in John Doe especially, also a reflection on his own role as an entertainment titan with a reputation for manipulating populist sentiment. It's the sort of "troubled" production that should trouble people. Capra's deal with Warner Bros. allowed him to assemble a dream cast among whom, beside Cooper, Stanwyck and Arnold, James Gleason and Walter Brennan should be singled out. Gleason has a great drunk scene where his ideals (and some bad wartime memories) emerge from a carapace of cynicism and raise Cooper's consciousness, while Brennan gives what I consider the best performance of his career as Cooper's wary sidekick, "the Colonel," who exhibits a degree of paranoia toward people (aka "heelots -- a lot of heels") that's extremely unusual for the era. Meet John Doe is my favorite Christmas film because it's one of my favorite films, period. It's in the public domain, so you can watch it online at your leisure. Consider it my holiday recommendation.

STRYKER (1983)

The last great wave of international exploitation cinema in the 1980s followed the release of George Miller's Mad Max 2 (aka The Road Warrior). A slew of post-apocalyptic knockoffs followed, most from Italy of course. This one comes from Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago, who passed away earlier this year and is probably best known for TNT Jackson, and while the story is perhaps too complicated for its own good, I thought it made effective use of its locations. From a movie like this you want good outdoor action, and Stryker delivers adequately. The title character, played by Steve Sandor, gets caught up in a chase scene and becomes involved in a little war for control of all-too-scarce water. This clip from the opening section gives you an idea of the action.

From there, Stryker and his new sidekick (eventually called Bandit) encounter a small horde of hooded dwarves that remind you of Jawas or increasingly, later in the film, of Danny Kaye's little helpers in The Court Jester. The war pits the allies of Trune, the keeper of a secret spring, against hook-handed bad guy Kardis, against whom Stryker has a major grudge. Kardis is quite a sight anyway, but when he goes to war he decks himself out in black and red, reminding me for some reason of a Republic serial villain. Beside the dwarves, we also get some Amazon types in tight shorts and football shoulder pads and the usual motley survivors. At one point, Stryker dares raise the issue of whether Trune is much better than Kardis if he intends to remain a self-appointed keeper of the spring, but this question becomes moot when the hero's eventual vengeance turns Kardis into a kind of sacrifice that brings rain and I suppose saves the world.

There's nothing pretentious or even ambitious about Stryker, but its relatively minimalist presentation charmed me. This might be the sort of post-apocalypse movie that would get made after an apocalypse. It isn't memorably bad, and I have no goofy quotes to give you, but there's something inspiring about it. It's one of those movies you can look at and leave thinking that it'd be easy to make a movie. All you need are explosions, the great outdoors, and people willing to throw themselves off trucks and all around the landscape. Here's a more detailed and more extensively illustrated review from a specialist on post-apocalypse movies.

My copy of Stryker is part of Fortune Five's infamous Grindhouse Experience Vol. 2 box set. That means it's been copied from a VHS, complete with occasional tracking troubles. Because of the outdoor locations, the movie could probably stand a widescreen edition, but flaws aside the present copy is adequate. It shares a side with Ruggero Deodato's Atlantis Interceptors, a film which, as presented, makes nearly no sense whatsoever but has some really nice stuntwork. As a bonus, here's a trailer for it under its more official title, The Raiders of Atlantis.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What's So Funny?: Some Favorite Comedies

When it comes to comedy, the subjectivity of all film criticism becomes inescapable. You can't tell a person that a film's not funny if they're laughing at it. But there has to be a reason why you're not laughing. At a certain point, I suppose, criticizing a popular comedy becomes a critique of the audience, which is probably beyond the scope of a movie blog. I might want to argue that there is something objectively wrong with a culture that rewards the people who pass for comedians today, but that "objective" part would be tough to prove. I might only prove the extent of my alienation from contemporary popular culture. All I can do is put my cards on the table and declare my own preferences and dislikes.

As the discussion of Tropic Thunder this week suggests, I don't care for much of modern comedy. From the appearance of Ace Ventura in 1994, comedy has been dominated by performers who "act out" in grotesque or infantile ways that usually fail to amuse me. There have been different kinds of "infantile males" since the silent days. Harry Langdon was nicknamed "the baby," but that was due to a sort of stunted tentativeness rather than a tendency to tantrums. Lou Costello probably comes closer to what I mean by infantile, but I find I can stand him, maybe because he's balanced by the all-too-adult Bud Abbott. Jerry Lewis comes closer yet, and despite Dean Martin I can't stand him as much. Don Knotts might be considered infantile but I think he has other issues. But after Knotts we seemed to have a period where the infantile male was extinct until Jim Carrey's big break opened the floodgates -- a fluid metaphor probably isn't inappropriate. But infantilism is really a sub-category of awkwardness, which is always a major concern of comedy. You can probably trace a culture's anxieties by the kinds of awkwardness that become objects of comedy. In the silent and early sound eras you had immigrants trying to fit in and everyone dealing with technology. Lewis supposedly embodies a more profound anxiety that I can't explain, but what anxieties might the awkward, infantile males of our era represent? A quick assumption is that they don't want to grow up, but is that the culture's problem or theirs? I suppose it has to be some of both, or else those movies wouldn't be popular. But understanding doesn't lead to appreciation.

The modern generation isn't the first to "act out," though. As I thought about it, they started to remind me of the zany vaudevillians who infiltrated the early talkies. The Marx Bros. are the tip of an iceberg of comics who ran about acting wacky or talking funny with little reason, though sometimes with rhyme. The Ritz Bros., for example, leave me cold, but might have done well today. Another example from a little earlier would be Stan Laurel before he teamed with Oliver Hardy. I watched a DVD collection of his solo shorts, and they stink. He mugs and laughs at himself and presents himself as a kind of archetype of stupidity, and it only rarely works. Ironically, from my standpoint, he became successful once he developed a more infantile persona -- arguably imitating Langdon. Once he had a sense of himself as a particular character, Laurel's latent skills as a writer and gag man kicked in, which only proves that talent can transcend the categories I'm ineptly trying to establish. I'm going to have a Jim Carrey film on my list to demonstrate this point, though I'd like to think it's exceptional in his career. Ultimately, all I can say safely are that there are films I like and films I don't. I offer the following list as a potential guide for people who might use it to predict whether they'll agree with my views of other films. So with no further ado, here are ten films in alphabetical order.

Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). I have a soft spot for this one because it has the Universal monsters in it. As a kid I took seriously Larry Talbot's enmity toward Dracula, but as I watch this more often I appreciate the solid story construction and the teamwork and timing of the stars. I haven't seen all their films, but they seem note perfect here. It has one of my favorite dialogue exchanges. As Talbot, Lon Chaney Jr. explains that when the moon is full, he turns into a wolf. Costello: "You and fifty million other guys." It helps if you know what a "wolf" meant in '40s idiom, but there are also throwaway moments like Lou holding Glenn Strange's Monster at bay behind Dracula's cape, then nonchalantly lowering his guard to announce, "He thinks I'm Dracula" in a way that's almost inexplicably hilarious.

The Big Lebowski (1998). The most recent film on my list. It just occurred to me that this is another team comedy. It probably wouldn't work the same way if it were just Jeff Bridges as The Dude or just a blustering, belligerent John Goodman acting out. There's an element of danger in this film (like in Burn After Reading) that only makes it funnier for me compared to too many contemporary comedies in which stupidity never seems to have real consequences. But despite that danger, this has a charming temperament entirely opposite of the sneering misanthropy usually attributed to the Coens.

Blazing Saddles (1972). The definitive genre-parody movie, but definitely better without the scenes inserted for television. One of my favorite payoff lines: "Don't you know that man's a nig" -- the second time.

Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Does this really need explanation?

Duck Soup (1933). From the Marxes it was either this or Monkey Business, which I like for its lacking the usual musical interludes. But Leo McCarey's film has the best blend of Marxism and sight gags of the brothers' Paramount period, plus the all-too-plausible-for-its-period madness of Groucho ruling a country.

Dumb and Dumber (1994). More than halfway through my tentative top ten, we have three team movies and three ensemble casts. In this case I consider Jeff Daniels' contribution crucial. He has my favorite scene in the film: the snowball fight with Lauren Holly, highlighted by the sublime expression of insane rage that spreads across his face. This was when the Farrelly Bros. had the courage to let their losers lose. Kingpin was nearly on this level, but it's been steadily downhill from there.

Ghostbusters (1984). Arguably, Bill Murray exemplifies the period when the infantile male was absent from comedy -- making it that much sadder whenever he succumbed to the temptation, as in What About Bob? In this and Stripes Murray came the closest we ever got to a modern Groucho Marx, and here he's supported ably by Aykroyd, Ramis, and an incredible Rick Moranis. When I first saw this in a theater, the line "Now that's something you don't see every day" made me fall out of my chair.

Our Hospitality (1924). Buster Keaton's movies are great films but not necessarily great comedies. He's really the inventor of the modern action movie, and in his way the first action hero, The General being Exhibit A for an argument I intend to make at greater length in the future. But this earlier effort has some of the best sight gags of the silent era. I really like the bit when the adorable antique train is attacked by a rock-throwing man who provokes an attack of firewood from the engineer in reprisal. Once the train is gone, the man collects the firewood and goes home.

The Producers (1968). The date is important. The musical remake allows us to isolate what was essential to the original's success. So let's give credit where due to Dick Shawn as "L.S.D." the hippy whose "baby"-fied portrayal of Adolf Hitler turns the tide of the movie. Without the song "Love Power" ("I gave my flower to the garbage man/He put my flower in the garbage can"), it isn't the same show. Need I add that Kenneth Mars easily out-Nazis Will Farrell, and that role-for-role, the original outclasses the musical, and is still more transgressive?

Sleeper (1973). It used to be on TV more frequently and in those days I watched Woody Allen's sci-fi fantasy religiously. Of the movies on my list, it's most like Duck Soup in its combination of wit, slapstick and sight gags ("That's a big chicken"). I'm old enough to appreciate the comment about Howard Cosell being used to torture criminals, and including this movie among my favorites may be my most nostalgic gesture of the evening.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

In Brief: TROPIC THUNDER (2008)

I was inclined to call this the most overrated film of 2008, but it's still only the middle of December. It probably will hold up as the most overrated comedy. Reviewers make too much of the transgressive bits, some of which are amusing, and they make too much of Robert Downey's performance, as if the film was his personal star vehicle. Unfortunately, it wasn't. Downey had to share space with Ben Stiller, which was inevitable with Stiller directing, and with Jack Black, for whom there was no excuse. I just don't like those two. Maybe I'll get it twenty years from now, but now? Nothing. Meanwhile, why was I supposed to be impressed by Tom Cruise dancing about in a bald cap? Having Cruise in his movie was probably a dream come true for Stiller, but a little of him goes a long, long way. I admit to being no real judge of contemporary comedy because so much of it rubs me the wrong way, but I found Burn After Reading a funnier film, in part because the Coen Brothers, dare I say, take stupidity more seriously than Stiller does. If I must recommend a comedy about making a movie, the first one that comes to mind is And God Spoke, but it's been years since I saw that one. No offense to people who like Tropic Thunder, but it struck me as just another overproduced comedy about infantile men. It might be funny to some folks, but not so much to me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

ECCO (Mondo di Notte 3, 1965)

A friend recently suggested that since I like "mondo" movies I ought to seek out the Faces of Death films from the 1980s. I said they weren't the same thing; their focus is too narrow. Mondo movies are about more than exotic ways of dying. But from the friend's point of view the difference didn't seem that great. Aren't they just collections of weird stuff aimed at the exploitation market? At the barest level, that's what they are, but the best mondos aspire to a cumulative experience, created chiefly by editing, commentary and music, that might actually expand one's consciousness. The ideal may be best expressed by George Sanders' interpretation of the American title for Mondo di Notte 3. "Ech-co," as he enunciates it, means "Look, witness, observe, behold!"

Mondo movies are basically feature-length newsreels without the news, globetrotting travelogues in search of something we don't see every day. Sometimes the purpose is titillation. Sometimes the object is pure shock. But the unifying theme is the dramatic variety of life that still exists "out there," far from your home town movie screen. Sometimes the mondo filmmaker adopts a moralizing, usually hypocritically judgmental tone toward his material. Sometimes a worldly cynicism prevails. But then there's the music, usually from Riz Ortolani, that insists on a lush, romantic embrace of the world. Ortolani's music echoes the Shakespearean theme repeated by Sanders during Ecco: "there are more things in heaven and earth..." Here's an American trailer, provided by Something Weird Video.

For me, mondo movies have an added attraction as relics of the past. Much of the phenomena they display probably doesn't exist anymore. At least one suspects that ours is now Mondo Mundane, a homogenized virtual world, while the best of the mondos -- the works of Jacopetti & Prosperi, above all, -- make the past look like a more exciting place. Maybe some of it wasn't real, as some of the stuff in Ecco plainly isn't, but that's where artistic license comes in. Mondo movies are entitled to as much license as their more refined cousins, the personal essay-type films like Orson Welles' F for Fake or Fellini Roma.

Ecco is a typical mondo in its breadth of subject matter. In short order, it takes us from a Berlin dueling club near the Wall to a Japanese "hypno-pedagogy" facility and a karate school, and then to the Paris Opera's debutante ball, which is contrasted with the "cruel, almost provocative hilarity" of a drunken revel elsewhere in town. We cut from mountaintop monasteries in Greece to a patently fake "black mass" in the U.K. -- "a pale symbolic version of the original atrocious rites," Sanders assures us -- and then to Brazil for footage of Pele and the Mardi Gras. Voyeurism is a recurring theme as we watch Kenyan dancers who do native steps for the tourist trade, only to trade in their costumes for modern clothes to dance for themselves at jazz clubs, followed by a visit to the Treetops Hotel, home of "the safari of air-conditioning and very dry martinis," and a trip to Reno, where male bodybuilders perform in "the housewives' answer to burlesque."

Depending on one's temperament, the most disturbing parts of Ecco are the extended whale hunt off the coast of Portugal and the Paris stage act of Yvon Yva, the self-proclaimed "apostle of the will" who draws long needles through his pecs, his abs, and his throat to prove that "the psychic can dominate the physical body. Probably the fakest bit apart from the black mass is an extended night-time joyride through the streets of Stockholm by Swedish "teddy boys" and their girlfriends, culminating in sex on a car roof (which barely rises to the softcore level) as appalled elders look on. The movie keeps coming back to Paris, once for the final performance of the gore pioneers of the Grand Guignol theater, a meeting of a buttocks appreciation society, and a pretty hot strip show during market workers' cognac break, and later for Yva's performance and a visit to a lesbian nightclub. There seems to be enough material for Mondo Paris, but the movie ends with the juxtaposition of an English artificial-insemination clinic and the ordeal of a Roman woman who climbs up a church's steps on her knees in hopes of miraculous fertility, only to be bothered by a cameraman.

For some viewers, mondo films are less than the sums of their parts. Those folks have come for the sexy bits and only endure the rest. For me, the music and the overall attitude makes superior mondos more than the sum of their parts. In Ecco, director Gianni Proia doesn't get too heavy-handed with the editing. The most blatant transition you get is a cut from a woman's arm being lopped off at the Guignol to a statue's intact arm. Sanders seems like an ideal mondo narrator, but doesn't really contribute many of the witticisms you might expect from his jaded screen persona. Riz Ortolani's score is characteristic, ranging from electronic experimentation to choral bombast worthy of a Hercules film to catchy tunes in the mode of "More," the pop hit theme to Mondo Cane.

Mondo is a take-it-or-leave-it genre. Either you get it or it's just a bunch of stuff that happens. I like them enough to say that everybody ought to try one, and Ecco offers enough variety, especially in the widescreen DVD from Something Weird Video, to make that worthy of your experiment.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On the Big Screen: MILK (2008)

Has Sean Penn won something, or only been nominated?

Watch Milk and find out!

A confession of sorts: I suppose I'm a bit of a homophobe. That may be too strong of a word, but there's an "ick factor," at least where men are concerned (though I likes me that lipstick lesbian action), that to this day has kept me from looking at Brokeback Mountain or Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho. I try to compensate for this by strongly defending gay rights whenever the opportunity arises, but I admit that this is as much based on my antipathy to religious moralizing as anything else. It's probably because I can treat Van Sant's new movie as a political film about the struggle against homophobia, along with the fact that it's set in the 1970s, that I chose to see it today at Albany's praiseworthy Spectrum theater rather than Slumdog Millionaire, which I'll probably get to within the next few weeks.

As a political film, Milk follows the conventions of biopics. The hero has to juggle public and private responsibilities with very mixed results. Harvey Milk loses one boyfriend who wearies of political activity, while another kills himself because he hysterically resents the diversion of Milk's attentions away from an exclusive focus on himself. The movie complicates the formula a bit because Van Sant and company believe that the heritage of the closet influences much of the personal dysfunction that some might blame on homosexuality itself. Milk tells someone that three of four lovers he'd had to that point had killed themselves, and he blames the closet for that. The overriding message of the movie is that gays must go public for their own good. This is demonstrated in the main drama of the film's second half: the defeat of "Prop. 6," an initiative to set up procedures for purging homosexual teachers from public schools. Milk argues (presumably with statistical support) that straight voters are less likely to vote anti-gay if they know gay people personally. He instructs his campaign team to out themselves if they hadn't already, and gay spectators may well feel that Van Sant is addressing them directly through the screen.

Something that surprised and disappointed me about the film was that the ultimate drama of Milk's life, his death at the hands of former fellow San Francisco supervisor Dan White, comes as an anticlimax to the story. This should have been apparent from the beginning, since we see a clip of Diane Feinstein announcing Milk's death about two minutes into the movie. It's a historical fact, so there's no point in building false suspense. But if we concede that point, and we admit that Milk's victory over Prop. 6 is the true climax of the story, we have to acknowledge that too much screen time is actually given to Dan White. That's a reluctant admission for me, since White is played by Josh Brolin, whom I consider one of the hottest actors in Hollywood on the strength of Planet Terror, No Country for Old Men, W., etc.

If the assassination is going to be dramatized (at first I thought it wouldn't), that begs a deeper engagement with the enigma of White. Van Sant is content to leave him an enigma. Milk's team half-seriously speculates that White may be closeted himself, but Van Sant doesn't really commit himself to that interpretation. Nor does homophobia seem like more than a superficial motive for White's action, since he kills the straight mayor first. White may be a movie topic in his own right. Presented here as an outsider in San Francisco, he seeks and wins political office either without realizing or in spite of knowing that he couldn't support a family on a supervisor's salary. He urges Milk to support a pay-raise plan (Harvey thinks it unwise since both want to be re-elected), but it's unclear what money issues, or Harvey Milk, have to do with White's fateful decision to resign, and his more fateful change of mind. These questions may be relevant to a biography of Milk, but probably should be less so for a Milk biopic. This may just be a way of saying that the Milk-White-Moscone story may not yet be fully mined for its cinematic potential.

Dealing with the film on its own terms, I thought Sean Penn was back on form following more hammy recent work in Mystic River (I liked it in spite of him) and the All the King's Men remake. He's willing to do stuff with his hair, along with personal tics that I presume are modeled on the real Milk, that make him really vanish into his role. He has able support down the line, though Diego Luna's performance as Milk's suicidal paramour is problematic because of the difficulty of accounting for his conduct. As I suggested, Brolin is both overused and underutilized, but the force of his screen presence remains indisputable.

Reviewers have noted that this is a relatively conventional effort from Van Sant, and compared to something like Elephant (my favorite of his films) I'll agree. I didn't mind the heavy reliance on news footage because the important thing for a project like this is to embed it in history while making it relevant. When needed, though, Van Sant seems to have all the extras he needs, along with full cooperation from the city of San Francisco as far as locations went. For me, he was most effective at stoking my anger at religious bigots. Today's bigots might not be as blatant as Anita Bryant and her allies in invoking the un-American principle of "God's law," but that belief is still going strong and still claims majority support in much of the nation. I'd like to think that this movie might vicariously let some viewers "know" gay people and thus diminish their homophobia, but the people most in need of such treatment will steer clear of Milk. But apart from my structural complaint, I'd say that this movie would be good even for the lactose-intolerant, as well as those whose intolerance has less excuse.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Van Johnson (1916-2008)

Most of his work hasn't really stood the test of time, as far as I can tell, but Johnson was a big star in his time and one of the latest surviving male stars from that era. Two performances from the late period of his stardom, released in 1954, stand out for me: his curmudgeonly alcoholic sidekick to Gene Kelly in Brigadoon and his overmatched naval officer in The Caine Mutiny, caught between Bogart's Captain Queeg and Fred MacMurray's prodding provocateur. Also worthwhile is his work in Battleground (1949), William Wellman's miniature of the Battle of the Bulge. Other writers will likely tell you about other films, and Turner Classic Movies is sure to show us a bunch some day within the next few weeks. These three will probably make their playlist, but I'd like to see some films that don't get revived as often, if only to give Johnson one more chance for a fair appraisal from posterity. I'd be interested in hearing recommendations from the floor.

Bettie Page (1923-2008)

Here's the thing about her. I've seen clips from burlesque films from the 1950s and photos of star strippers from that era. They strike me as a worn, hardboiled lot for the most part. Then, when I see Bettie Page, she looks like one of us, like the first modern woman in a way. That may be why the cult caught on in the 1980s (thanks quite a bit to the late, great Dave Stevens) -- the times may finally have caught up with her at that point. At least by then they were seeking her out. Fortunately, they found her and she got to know how beloved she was. It was cool that she was a born-again but never (to my knowledge) in later life regretted or apologized for her career. She got to see herself become part of American folklore. And now she belongs to the ages.

How about a little Teaserama before we go home?

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I had the opportunity several years ago to see Max Ophuls' Lola Montes on a big screen during a college film series. I had already seen The Earrings of Madame De... on videotape some time earlier (and I like that one better of the two). My interest in Ophuls began when I'd read that he was supposedly an influence on Stanley Kubrick. I could see it in the mobile camerawork and long tracking shots Ophuls employed. His sensibility, however, could hardly be more different from Kubrick's. Ophuls is a compassionate romantic, a quality just as well illustrated by this anthology of tales from Guy de Maupassant as anything he did. It's another Albany Public Library acquisition that was recently released by Criterion.

The actor Jean Servais narrates as the voice of de Maupassant, who asks us to imagine him sitting next to us in the dark, telling his stories. We open in darkness as he introduces himself, and then we see a crowd gathering outside the Palais de Danse, including what looks like a heavily made-up dandy who's introduced by a master of ceremonies as Monsieur Ambroise, "the great quadrille dancer." He's actually not so great -- enthusiastic but awkward is more like it. Then he collapses on the dance floor. The rest of this short story consists of a doctor discovering that the man is wearing a mask, and is an old man beneath it. The doctor takes him home to a poor neighborhood and up several flights of stairs to a humble apartment, where the old man's wife explains that "He once had more triumphs than all the tenors and generals." She's glad he's grown old, but at the same time, exasperating as he can be, she wants him to "live long and carry on dancing." In a way, she's happy to see him happy.

The second segment is the longest of the three. "Don't think I write only sad stories," the narrator says before introducing us to what he calls "one of those houses," -- what an American counterpart would call a "disorderly house." It's a favorite hangout for many of the leading men in town. Cleverly, Ophuls shows us the activity inside exclusively through windows, often barred, making the place more tempting. It's really too good to be true, a gaggle of girls ruled over by a benevolent madam who closes up shop to take them all into the country to visit her brother and attend her niece's first communion. You get the feeling that the villagers may suspect what the women are, but no one seems to hold it against them. The mood is mildly comedic throughout, the humor derived from the quite innocent pleasure the prostitutes, garbed in their finest finery, take from the communion service and the chance to pick flowers in a meadow. They take their mood back home, and the reopened whorehouse experiences "a wave of innocent joy" when the regulars return. This, the narrator tells us, was "the meeting of pleasure and purity," while the final tale is a meeting of pleasure and death -- "not a physical but a moral death."

An old man at a beach recounts a tragedy from thirty years earlier. He recalls the time his best friend, an artist, fell in love with Josephine, a model (Simone Simon of Cat People fame) at a museum. She inspires his first successful work, and he buys them a home with the proceeds. But "contempt has always followed possession," and the artist begins to grow tired of her. He leaves her, but she tracks him down to his friend's pad, where they have a fateful showdown. In contrast to the mellow melancholy of the earlier segments, this story takes a sudden, shocking turn which I'm able to show you thanks to an intrepid You Tube poster. Spoiler warning: don't watch it if you want to watch Le Plaisir later with virgin eyes.

That bit gives you a hint of what Ophuls could do with a camera in the years before the Steadicam. And the end leaves us pondering all the stories we saw. The Criterion DVD translates the last line a little differently: "There's no pleasure in happiness," the narrator concludes. But aren't they the same? Maybe there's an element of escapism in the pleasures of Ambroise or the whores in the second episode that the artist can no longer afford, and whatever he gets in return, he'll always be conscious of a trade-off. But I'd rather leave the philosophical speculation to people who see the film themselves.

Neither Le Plaisir nor any of Ophuls' films will work for you if you can't empathize with the director's mood. His is a tragic sensibility tempered by compassion, if that qualification isn't redundant. Compassion may be the difference between the tragic and the cynical, and it's what makes Ophuls' films uplifting even when they're sad. Visually, this is one of those films (The Leopard is another) that are almost magic windows through which you can convince yourself that you're looking right into the 19th century. The cinematography is as colorful as black-and-white film can get, and the mobile camera immerses you in a richly visualized world. When you're in the right mood for a mild world of cinema that gets occasionally wild, this one may be worth your while.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


The Pearl Harbor anniversary passed by a few days ago and put me in the mood to see something from World War II. So I consulted Mill Creek Entertainment's Combat Classics box set and came up with an early effort from director Joseph H. Lewis, who later made such classic noir films as Gun Crazy and The Big Combo. It's also a relatively late effort from Anna May Wong, the pioneering Asian star, who in fact gets top billing here. It probably had to be from Producers Releasing Corporation for Wong to get star treatment. PRC was Poverty Row par excellence. It best known products are Edgar Ulmer's cheapie masterpiece Detour and the Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat. Bombs Over Burma is probably a more typical PRC product than either of those eccentric entries, leaning probably more in the Ulmer direction than the Lugosi because of Lewis's early efforts at artistic composition and dramatic editing.

Our star plays a Chinese schoolteacher. For the first few minutes, she conducts her class in Chinese. A little boy named Ling comes in late and has to stand in the corner, wearing a dunce cap. A peddler strolls into class, shows off his wares -- and a secret message for Wong. Once he's gone, she abruptly lapses into English without benefit of a Judgment at Nuremberg/Hunt For Red October style "Armageddon" transition. She attempts to lead the class in the song "Yankee Doodle" but is interrupted by a Japanese bombing raid. This is conveyed by stock footage, some of which doesn't really fit. The Japs are supposed to be bombing a populous city, but some shots show bombs falling toward the ocean. Teacher has evacuated the class, but Ling has lingered to throw papers around and watch the show overhead. Lewis tries to build suspense by intercutting the stock footage and Ling pathetically pretending to shoot down the planes, but the scene goes on too long before the brat is finally strafed to death, just before Wong can return to retrieve him.

We next see her boarding a bus in Burma, conveying supplies to China. She seems to be the only Chinese passenger. The others are a motley collection of white folks: the cool Brit Sir Roger; Nick, a slovenly fatso of uncertain heritage; Slim, a Bogart-esque driver; a turbaned Hindu called Hallam, and others. Our star has had some unfortunate hair styling. You can sort of make it out on the Alpha Video box cover, and it puts you in mind of Dragon Seed starring Minnie Mouse.

The bus has to stop outside a monastery where the travelers will stay the night. While the monks make the guests comfortable, Wong snoops as the head monk heads downstairs and disappears into a secret chamber. We see that he's receiving a shortwave radio transmission, but we don't know what it's about. At dinner we learn that they'll be stuck there longer because someone stole the bus's distributor. The monastery is shelter enough from a bombing raid, but damage outside threatens to delay them further.

Wong attempts small talk with Slim, the American:

Q. What brings you to China?
A. It ain't what brought me here, it's what keeps me here.
Q. And what keeps you here?
A. I like rice.

But Slim's being facetious. He really admires the perseverance of the Chinese people. He hopes to emulate them. Life's been tough for him, but "I can stand up and take it now, and I can give it back."

"Like China?" Wong suggests. "Yeah, like China," Slim agrees. This is typical learn-to-love-your-ally propaganda from the period, the same treatment the USSR got in more retroactively embarrassing films. But East is still East, West is still West, and the relationship between heroine and hero stays quite chaste.

We see the head monk at his radio again. He transcribes a message, which Lewis translates for us: "Your query about party received. Party is as you suspect. HQ." He goes upstairs and wakens Wong. Nick the slob notices and wakes up Sir Roger, who alerts Hallam. The monk, apparently, is Wong's father, unless this is co-scripter Lewis's idea of how Chinese people address each other politely. In any event, he warns Anna that one of her party is a spy. Meanwhile, Sir Roger and Hallam fake the disappearance of the Brit's dispatch case, which holds a message meant for Chiang Kai-shek himself. Sir Roger accuses Nick the slob of taking it. But he claims to know who stole the distributor and threatens to "spill it, like Niagara." Instead, he's stabbed to death, presumably by Hallam. Murder puts the Hindu in a reflective mood while Sir Roger spies on the head monk. They compare notes.

Hallam: You find out something about monk?
Sir Roger: Yes, he's praying.
H: I pray too, Sahib. After I kill, I feel bad, so I pray, and pray and kill, pray and kill.

All right, then. After that, there's nothing for it but to go downstairs and surprise the monk and make him open his secret chamber. "A shortwave radio," Sir Roger observes, "Interesting hobby for a priest. What do you get on it, heaven?" Hallam has fetched Anna May, to whom Sir Roger accuses the monk of "exchanging love letters with the Japanese." When Slim shows up, Roger shows him the radio. Slim seems convinced that the monk and Anna are bad guys. "Boy, what a chump I am," he muses, "I ought to get a blue ribbon and pin it on myself." Spurning Wong's entreaties, he "wouldn't believe you on a stack of Buddhas" until she explains that an approaching convoy is a decoy meant to draw out saboteurs. Then they hear interference over the monk's radio. The interference is caused by Sir Roger sending messages with his battery-operated electric razor.

Now it's up to Slim to choose sides. Anna challenges him and Sir Roger to share a ride in the lead truck with her. They agree. As planes approach, she urges Slim to bail out, but he says he'll wait and see. Instead, Sir Roger decides to bail out, with some nice stuntwork involved. He's the spy, but how could one of our British allies be such a rat? The answer is simple: Anna explains that he isn't British at all, but a German impostor. Then she rends the air with a piercing whistle that summons a band of farm implement wielding peasants. "Sir Roger" is surrounded. Lewis milks this for more than it's worth, building up what he hopes is a montage of mounting fear as the villain realizes his fate and the peasants close in. But like the bombing of the school, the scene goes on a little too long because the film has to force itself past the 60-minute mark. Once we learn that the planes weren't really Japanese bombers, but more decoys to draw out the spy, the film is done -- and we don't know what's become of Hallam. Is he praying, or killing, or both?

Bombs Over Burma is compromised by its cheapness, and the print Mill Creek used for its DVD is almost literally moth-eaten, but you can see that it's somewhat more ambitious than most PRC films. As I hope you've seen, Lewis adds some quirky touches that catch your attention. The acting is undistinguished -- Wong is pretty wooden -- but some of the cast are stuck with superfluous roles and little to do. That's not a typical problem for a Poverty Row film, but it's a problem just the same. I can't really recommend it for anyone but students of Anna May Wong or Joseph H. Lewis, but the casual viewer who picks up Combat Classics (a typically eclectic 50-movie set from Mill Creek) may find it amusing depending on your interest in the subject matter.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Forrest J. Ackerman (1916-2008)

I never read Famous Monsters of Filmland. It was still around when I was growing up, but I wasn't really a "monster kid" as a kid. I liked the old movies when they came on TV, but I didn't really get involved in a fan culture until I was in college and started buying Filmfax and Psychotronic. My interest at first was historic rather than generic, in movies as part of 20th century pop culture. I appreciated the magazines' biographical detail and critical approach to their subject matter, and everything I read or heard about the legendary magazine that came before made it seem like a less interesting product, while everything that emanated from Ackerman himself just seemed corny. In time, I learned to appraise him objectively as a kind of print equivalent of those cool horror hosts that got written up in Psychotronic that I wished I had in my town. Ackerman came from the generation that taught us that it was okay to like films that didn't aspire to the literary qualities favored by middlebrow critics and Academy Awards voters. So I have no fond memories of the man or his works, but history requires me to say that I probably wouldn't be doing a movie blog if not for him.

For those still wondering who he was, exactly, here's the New York Times obit.

Will Smith: Emasculated Man?

Almost as a sequel to my remarks on Hancock (see below), here's an internet item from the MSN network by none other than the editor of the BadAzzMoFo fanzine on the subject of Will Smith's persistent failure to "get the girl" in many of his most popular films. It's a telling commentary that points out how some scripts have been altered after Smith signed on (often as a second choice or less), and how I Am Legend emerged as a sexless remake to The Omega Man -- though it should be noted that the alternate ending of Legend available on DVD at least leaves open the possibility of a relationship. David Walker recognizes that movies have backslid from the heyday of Jim Brown and his peers from the '70s, but to some extent that was a backlash against films which themselves seemed to spread a stereotype about black men without necessarily offering a positive model of sexual relations. Interracial sexual relations are an issue fraught with politics and hypersensitivity on all sides, so Hollywood seems content to avoid the issue and Will Smith seems to make money without his fans demanding sexual satisfaction for him. But it is something that makes you wonder if you bother thinking at the theater or in front of the monitor.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Guillermo Del Toro's second collaboration with comic-book creator Mike Mignola is an improvement in scale and overall quality on the first Hellboy movie. As a comics reader and fan of Mignola's Hellboy comics, I resented the first efforts fumbling attempts to make its concepts more accessible to general audiences. Most of all I resented the inclusion of a typical "newbie" audience-identification character, to whom things can be explained, and who is thankfully gone from the new film. With the first film's success, Universal apparently conceded that we don't need to view Hellboy and his milieu through a "normal" person's eyes. Still, the movies aren't as hardboiled as the comics are. The title character is more a "no hugs, no learning" type in his original format and isn't nearly as angst-laden as his cinematic counterpart. But as much as I could do without romantic subplots in a Hellboy movie, I suppose they're necessary for the coveted general audience. Too literal a translation of comics source material into movies takes us into Sin City territory -- and in my opinion, that's not a good place.

The sequel strikes me as a more complete wedding of Mignola and Del Toro's styles. Apparently blessed with a bigger budget and boosted by the director's post-Pan's Labyrinth prestige, this looks like a more lavish film, but controlled by an artistic temperament. Sets and CGI are melded quite convincingly most of the time in well-conceived compositions. You know it's a Del Toro film because there are sewers. You know it's a Hellboy movie because there's a hilarious scene in which our hero is pummeled by a haunted locker, along with more dramatic encounters on a more monstrous scale. The filmmakers oversell the Hellboy-is-hated-and-feared angle, which never really comes up in the comics, but I guess that's part of imposing a character arc on him that he rarely needs in his home medium. My objections to the screenplay are aesthetic, not structural. If the film has a real fault, it may be a lack of any true sense of urgency in the menace. Faeries don't really rank with Nazis and Lovecraftian terrors in our hierarchy of nightmares, even if they're rendered as martial-arts badasses who could pass for Elric of Melnibone.

Prince Nuada wishes you ill in his capacity as villain of HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY.

The simplest test of a Hollywood genre sequel is whether you'd want to see another one. My answer this time is yes, but with Del Toro dedicated to The Hobbit for the immediate future, I wonder whether Universal would entrust the series to other hands, or whether I'd trust the series in them. On the other hand, I'd rather see Del Toro do more along the lines of Pan's Labyrinth and Devil's Backbone when he has free time, so the continuance of the Hellboy franchise under his flag would be a mixed blessing. As long as Mignola has some quality control over future productions, the series continues to hold promise. But to be true to the comics, they can't be afraid to go over old ground, as Hellboy can never fight enough Nazis. He hasn't yet had a proper fight with an ape on film, though, so there's a challenge for someone.

Nina Foch (1924-2008)

If people match names to roles, most probably know Foch best as Bithiah, Pharaoh's daughter who raises Moses as a prince of Egypt in the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments. But I think this clip from one of her first film roles, The Return of the Vampire, besides happening to be available for embedding, makes a better memorial. At least some of Lugosi's words take on a new poignancy now, if not a new truth.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Keitel and Kinski in STAR KNIGHT (El Caballero del Dragon, 1985)

There's a prejudice against dubbing foreign films in America that gets in the way of a wider circulation of international cinema in this country. The troubled but often amusing efforts applied to Japanese monster movies, Italian westerns and other genres have led many people to discredit the whole concept of dubbing on principle. But certain movies that don't aspire to literary quality are sometimes enhanced, admittedly sometimes at the expense of original artistic intentions, by the dubbing process. The American dub of King Kong vs. Godzilla, for instance, is one of my all-time guilty pleasures, and I dread ever seeing the original Japanese version because it might not be as funny as the version I know. Dubbing is a performance art in its own right, and bad dubbing can be valued for its entertainment value just as bad movies themselves are. We ought to be grateful, for example, to whoever prepared Star Knight as the English-language version of the Spanish sci-fi period comedy El Caballero del Dragon, for only thus has Harvey Keitel's indelible English-language performance been preserved for the amusement or bafflement of film buffs.

I don't know enough about Keitel's career to understand exactly what he was doing in this film. Following his firing from Apocalypse Now, he spent most of a decade working in Europe before Martin Scorsese revived his standing in America with The Last Temptation of Christ. This seems like a career decline except that Keitel really hadn't risen very high since De Niro stole Mean Streets from him. But I don't really know if he went to Europe because he lacked opportunities at home, or because he found the opportunities there more interesting. He did respectable work there, as far as I can tell from his filmography, and he still does a good deal of work outside America, but Fernando Colomo's El Caballero del Dragon looks like nothing but something done for the money -- which probably explains Klaus Kinski's presence alongside him.

Readers of my political blog may know "Chrymethinc" as a longtime friend and colleague at the Think 3 Institute. He tipped me off to the existence of Star Knight, and it's his DVD that I'm reviewing here. He's not as omnivorous a movie consumer as I am, but he's always on the lookout for interesting fantasy films, and he's taken an interest in Klaus Kinski's career. On the former front his explorations have had mixed results. We suffered together through his copy of Vidocq, for instance. On the Kinski front, meanwhile, we were gratified by his presence in another guilty pleasure of mine, The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe. I find some of his work overrated (did I miss something or did he do nothing as Renfield in Franco's El Conde Dracula, for instance?) but more often than not Kinski adds interest to a film.

Kinski didn't dub his own performance for Star Knight, and it's unlikely that Spanish audiences heard him either in El Caballero. Nevertheless, he seems to be having a moderate good time playing a relatively rare good-guy character. He's Boethius, a sage and alchemist who has a close encounter of some kind to open the film. He's actually top-billed in the credits, while Keitel is the only actor to receive billing on the Echo Bridge DVD cover, which wildly misrepresents the film.

In short, villagers misinterpret their encounters with the spacecraft as attacks by a dragon. The Count of Rook dispatches his men, more or less led by aspiring knight Klever (Keitel) to deal with the monster, while Boethius and Friar Lupo (Fernando Rey) compete for influence over the Count. Boethius sees the dragon (or whatever he sees) as a potential source of knowledge, while Lupo sees it as a thing from the devil. In any event, Princess Alba is abducted while skinny dipping but falls in love with the Vanilla Ice-like alien in charge of the craft, who comes to be called I.X. Meanwhile, Klever pines for the princess and hopes to win her hand and other honors by destroying the dragon or "the knight of the dragon." His labors are complicated by the fact that he's an idiot. Other elements in the plot include "the Green Knight" who challenges everyone but never fights anyone who crosses his bridge and a surly peasantry compelled to dye their clothes according to the moods of the Count.

El Caballero del Dragon is really just a mediocre, derivative comedy under the influence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with extra inspiration, perhaps, from the bit from Life of Brian when the hero is abducted by aliens. Kinski is probably too benign for his own good, while Fernando Rey is probably the only other actor who lends his own voice to the English version -- otherwise why let the character have such a thick accent? The only real reason to bother with the film, or to expect any entertainment from it, is to hear Keitel's line readings. They have to make Star Knight a profoundly different experience for Anglophone audiences than El Caballero is for Spanish speakers, who didn't hear Keitel's own voice.

Harvey Keitel as Klever, a knight of woeful countenance, in Star Knight
(photo poached from http://www.badmovieplanet.com/)

In the English script, it's established that Klever is some kind of exceptional weirdo. He's the only character in the story to talk in the pidgin-Shakespeare dialect people of my age will recall from the Mighty Thor comics. After an early outburst against the peasants ("Ye shall obey the law! Ye shall pay!"), the Count asks, "Must you talk like that?" Apparently he must.

Unless I remember wrong, there's a scene in Last Temptation of Christ in which Jesus hallucinates a lion speaking to him in Judas's voice, -- that is, the voice of Harvey Keitel. If I remember right, the lion says something like, "Dontcha recognize me?" at which point it may as well have spoken with the voice of Bert Lahr. Whether that scene actually happens in Scorsese's film or not, the entirety of Keitel's performance in Star Knight is just like that. It's a comedic mystery. Keitel is supposed to sound funny because his character is supposed to be stupid. But his accent and the lines he must utter ("Touch not the most beautiful Alba, damn you, whosoever you may be!" is a highlight) leaves you wondering where the intentional comedy ends and the unintentional begins. When it most certainly is intentional, as when he answers the Green Knight's challenge with, "Are ye talking to me?" it's just appalling. With all due respect to Mr. Keitel, I find his performance more amusing the more I believe that he doesn't really know what he's doing. Yet he reads his lines with such enthusiasm, perhaps with more than he actually shows on screen, that you wonder whether he's achieved some esoteric state of intentionally acting so bad that he's good.

There's no online record of Keitel's performance available to my knowledge, so Keitel completists or bad acting connoisseurs must take their own chances if they want to experience Star Knight for themselves. Bad movie buffs will most likely be disappointed, since the film isn't really that awful. The target audience may be Keitel fans who want to see and hear their hero make a fool of himself. The rest of you may just want to keep your ears open if it shows up on a station near you.

For a more detailed review of the story, look here.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


It's Tate Kimbrough's wedding day in the little town of Sundown, and he's treating the town to drinks. People are coming in from all over for the event, but not all are well-wishers. Dr. John Storrow ("Doc") isn't fond of the groom, nor is Morley Chase the rancher. Nor is Ruby the town trollop happy to see Tate marry Lucy Summerton; she considers herself his girl, but he urges her not to sit in the front pew at the wedding. Finally the bride is walked down the aisle, and Rev. Zaron makes the customary call for anyone who might object to the wedding.

Bart Allison objects. He's been lurking around town all day with his sidekick Sam, badmouthing Tate and telling anyone who'll listen that Lucy's "making a big mistake" marrying the man. He's made an enemy out of sheriff Swede Hansen by refusing to drink Tate's health. Now he confronts Tate. "We never laid eyes on each other before today," he says, "and we're not strangers....Remember Sabine Pass?" Tate claims not to, but Bart calls him out, warning Lucy that "If you marry this man you'll be a widow before sundown" and paying Zaron in advance for Tate's funeral. He and Sam exit just ahead of an impromptu posse.

The remainder of Decision at Sundown shifts from Bart and Sam holed up in a stable and Tate's situation deteriorating outside. This is the third collaboration between actor-producer Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher, and the second included in Sony's "Collector's Choice" box set. Scott and Boetticher (and co-producer Harry Joe Brown) made B-level "adult" or "psychological" westerns in the mode of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart. Many critics now consider Scott and Boetticher the peers of the more prestigious team, and this movie is strong evidence for that argument. Here's how Columbia Pictures tried to sell it to western fans at the time of its original release.

Well, if "a new kind of hero" means hardly a hero at all, Bart Allison definitely qualifies. He's certainly on the "vengeance trail," but Scott, Boetticher, and writer Charles Lang are on a subversive mission of their own to challenge the legitimacy of Allison's agenda. They don't show their hand immediately. We're inclined to take people's word for it that Tate Kimbrough is a villain who has, in Doc's opinion, destroyed Sundown. How he's done it is unclear, but we're probably supposed to presume that he's a gambler or pimp. Our instinct as moviegoers is to root for Bart to take Tate down. But under siege, Sam (Noah Beery Jr.) begins to question Bart's vendetta. Worse, he only now seems to understand that his friend has pursued Kimbrough for three years for no better reason than that Kimbrough seduced Bart's wife, Mary. When Lucy Summerton, trying to negotiate a peaceful end to the standoff, suggests that Bart's grievance doesn't justify killing anyone, Bart harshly throws her out of the stable, making Sam more incredulous. When he suggests that Lucy has a point, then tells Bart that "Mary wasn't the girl you thought she was," Allison hauls off and decks him. We assume from what Sam tells Doc later that Mary was a tramp who finally killed herself "on account of the way she was, there was nothing else she could do," -- but Allison can't accept this. He's become fanatical about revenge in a way that goes deeper and darker than Stewart's vendetta against his brother in Mann's Winchester 73. When Swede's men kill Sam, Bart is beside himself with rage. Randolph Scott is one of the typical laconic western stars of his era, but here he works himself up to the closest he could probably get to hysteria. He's less righteous than self-righteous when he kills Swede to avenge Sam. Meanwhile, we're still waiting for the ultimate payoff: the showdown between Bart and Tate.

To this point, Tate Kimbrough has been the schemer and manipulator, sending others out to deal with Allison by any means necessary. For the final act, we get the moment that appears to be characteristic of the Scott-Boetticher films, in which the villain is humanized. He has every opportunity to flee Sundown and leave Allison to his fate. Ruby's urging him to flee with her, but Tate decides that survival means more than merely staying alive. Admitting that he's scared, and needing liquid courage to fortify himself, he decides to end the crisis by calling Allison out, even while enemies like Doc and Morley taunt him and tell him he's finished no matter what happens. Fairly or not, he compares favorably with Swede, whom everyone (including Tate) had called a coward for his reluctance to storm the stable or do anything without overwhelming force on his side. Now the viewer is ready to concede that Tate is capable of honor as he goes out alone to face someone who has increasingly appeared like a maniac.

Boetticher's team has set us up for a scene that's a climax and an anticlimax at the same time, in which the denial of expectations can prove perhaps more devastating than anything we expected. In genre terms, good has won, the town is redeemed, but Bart Allison isn't. Here, at least, I think Scott and Boetticher surpass Stewart and Mann. The latter pair usually had their hero back away from the abyss and find hope or redemption with some woman. But in Decision at Sundown Scott's character is denied satisfaction or closure, and while he doesn't do the worst he could, he leaves the town that now celebrates him a ruined man, with Doc concluding, "There's nothing anyone can do for him."

Decision at Sundown looks like it had a lower budget than the previous film, The Tall T. Except for an opening sequence on the road to Sundown, it all goes down on a standard western town set, or inside the stable where Bart and Sam are besieged. While it lacks the dramatic landscapes of The Tall T, this film shows off Boetticher's forceful efficiency as a visual storyteller and Lang's ability to suggest rounded, complex characters with quick strokes. It's all done in 78 minutes and doesn't need to be any longer. The screenplay has a whiff of misogyny to it, or else it leaves you wondering whether it would have been okay for Bart to kill Tate if Mary hadn't been a tramp, but that only slightly mars the overall effect. Randolph Scott gives what for him must have been a very brave performance, and as both actor and producer he reminds me of Clint Eastwood in his willingness to subvert genre expectations and his own heroic image. The supporting cast has few familiar names (though Richard "Mel Cooley" Deacon is unsettling to look at as the alcoholic minister in the middle of a personal meltdown), but all acquit themselves well. The DVD looks good except for the grainy titles, and features an introduction to the film by Taylor Hackford. For me, so far, the box set is two for two with three to go.