A randomly comprehensive survey of extraordinary movie experiences from the art house to the grindhouse, featuring the good, the bad, the ugly, but not the boring or the banal.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
National Film Registry Class of 2008
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
COPS VS. THUGS (1975)
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 http://www.wildgrounds.com/)
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?
Friday, December 26, 2008
Only A Movie: SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT (1974)
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Five Favorite Christmas Movies
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.
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
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)
Monday, December 15, 2008
ECCO (Mondo di Notte 3, 1965)
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!
Friday, December 12, 2008
Van Johnson (1916-2008)
Bettie Page (1923-2008)
How about a little Teaserama before we go home?
Thursday, December 11, 2008
LE PLAISIR (1952)
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
BOMBS OVER BURMA (1943)
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)
For those still wondering who he was, exactly, here's the New York Times obit.
Will Smith: Emasculated Man?
Sunday, December 7, 2008
In Brief: HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY (2008)
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)
Thursday, December 4, 2008
Keitel and Kinski in STAR KNIGHT (El Caballero del Dragon, 1985)
Harvey Keitel as Klever, a knight of woeful countenance, in Star Knight
(photo poached from http://www.badmovieplanet.com/)
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.
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
DECISION AT SUNDOWN (1957)
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.