Monday, January 31, 2011


To your left is the worst movie poster of 2010. It gives you practically no clue as to the nature of Edgar Wright's film version of Bryan Lee O'Malley's mangaform graphic novel series, apart from the bare fact that it has something to do with someone in a band. A nondescript someone, too, since it doesn't even show us Michael Cera's face -- though considering how some folks hate Cera that concealment may have made sense. But on the other hand, how can any poster convey what the Scott Pilgrim movie is? Do you do one to look like Eighties game graphics, the way they primitivized the Universal logo and fanfare at the start of the show? No, since the movie has state of the art special effects, while "video game" is only the style or archetype through which the story is told. Do you use graphics from the actual comics? No, because then people might assume that the film is a cartoon and a rather ratty looking one at that. Then again, it is a cartoon of a sort, given its reliance on computer animation, comics-style framing effects, comics-style captions identifying characters, and Batman-style graphic sound effects. It's an advance on Zombieland's reliance on captions and lists, which seemed to have no justification whatsoever, since that film made no other effort to resemble a comic book or a video game. By comparison, Scott Pilgrim is arguably the first true video-game movie, as opposed to various bad movies that have been inspired by video games or have characters participating in video games. Pilgrim stands out for actually using video-game concepts as narrative devices, and for making "video game" a genre through which it tells its eccentric romantic-comedy story.

In short: Scott Pilgrim (Cera) is the 23-year old bassist for the Toronto garage band Sex Bob-Omb. He shares a dump of an apartment and a bed (platonically) with his gay roommate and whomever the roommate brings home. Dumped by the lead singer of The Clash at Demonhead, his new girlfriend is 17-year old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), who bonds with Scott while playing the Ninja Ninja Revolution videogame at the mall. As his bandmates aspire to earn a gig at the Chaos Theater by winning a battle-of-the-bands series, Scott falls abruptly in love with Amazon deliveryperson Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman he first saw in a dream. He places an order on the desperate yet accurate assumption that Ramona will deliver it, and pursues her while neglecting initially to break up with Knives. As both girls attend the first battle of bands, Sex Bob-Omb's set is interrupted by a man crashing through the wall and flying onto the stage to challenge Scott. This flying man, David Patel, had earlier e-mailed Scott notifying him of his new obligation to fight Ramona's evil exes to the death, but Scott had deleted it because it was boring. No matter: David is here and now Scott must fight.

Scott Pilgrim was one film not released in 3-D that maybe should have been.

I'd heard of O'Malley's comics but hadn't read them before watching Wright's movie. So at the moment of confrontation, I figure: Okay. Either Knives or possibly Ramona will have to teach the dweeb to fight, so that after a standard sequence of bungled training he will at last transcend his inadequacies and assert his rights as a man. In the next instant I stood corrected. Scott Pilgrim knows perfectly well how to fight. He has superhuman strength, speed and leaping ability, as do his antagonists. He is both a dweeb and a superhero. This is possible because he exists in a video game universe where he can accumulate points with every well-struck blow toward earning an extra life (he'll need it), where Knives and Ramona in fact do have super fighting abilities (and Ramona carries a giant retractable sledgehammer in her handbag) and where defeated enemies explode into clouds of coins.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona and --Jeeezus!!!

For all I know, anyone in the movie could fight like the main characters do, but most of them don't need to. That's because the fights are metaphors the way Astaire and Rogers's dances are metaphors, the latter for courtship if not consummation, the former for the modern struggles of lovers with one another's baggage of past but perpetually present exes. It may sound blasphemous to compare the work of Michael Cera's stuntman with the lyric agility of Fred Astaire, but the fight scenes and the dance scenes serve the same basic narrative purpose.

We can go further invoking the past. Scott Pilgrim isn't anything so much something new, apart perhaps as a matter of sensibility as it is a culmination of a century of genre evolution or a closing of an evolutionary loop. I've written in the past that the modern action film is an outgrowth of silent comedy, with the stunt-oriented work of Buster Keaton as the seminal influence (as recognized most explicitly by Jackie Chan) and The General as the first true action movie. Silent comedy itself derives from the burlesque tradition of vaudeville which exploits its inherent stage-bound unreality by making comedy out of exaggerated violence and the comic's ability to recover from it in mock-miraculous fashion. Early comic strips like Mutt & Jeff enhanced vaudevillian violence by liberating it from human limits, while movies emulated comic strips once liberated in turn by editing and special effects. With Scott Pilgrim, Edgar Wright takes everything that film has developed in special effects, stunts and fight choreography and renders it back into virtual cartoon form.

The film's historic and aesthetic achievements vary. Scott Pilgrim is actually a mixed metaphor, since it sometimes emulates its original comics medium as well as video games. But it only looks cheesy when sound effects for doorbells and telephones are inscribed on screen. There's really nothing more to do with that gimmick than what Batman did more than forty years ago.

Meanwhile, there's an imbalance to the presentation of the Evil Exes when one is portrayed by a star (Chris Evans), another by a sort of name (Brandon Routh) and the rest (not counting Jason Schwartzman as the ultimate boss) by whomever. Nor is there the sense of progression through increasingly difficult antagonists that I'd expect from a video-game format movie. Scott even defeats a pair of twin-exes with a superior sound system rather than fighting skills, as if Wright had decided that that mere fighting had grown monotonous, while Evans destroys himself through a foolhardy skateboard stunt. From the nature of the entire project, the comedy is going to be hit or miss, but overall Wright proves that he contributed something to his Simon Pegg vehicles in the form of timing and pacing. As a big budget comics adaptation, Scott Pilgrim inevitably looks impersonal compared to Sean of the Dead, but Wright and his ensemble of actors infuse it with a conviction and vivacity that make Pilgrim arguably the best fantasy film of 2010.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


It must have been tough for Alain Resnais to release a film like this one when he did, at at time when political radicalism was surging in French culture and the arts were expected to express commitment to revolutionary causes. The title alone ("The war is over") is a bit of a buzzkill, and from a radical perspective, the whole film could only be worse. It tells of a burnt-out revolutionary, a Spaniard in exile but working underground to subvert the decades-old tyranny of Francisco Franco. The Spaniard is played by Yves Montand, a radical among actors and one so French that a character has to remark that no one would mistake him for a Spaniard when he speaks French. The perpetual pressure of surveillance and pursuit are getting to him, and so is a growing sense of the futility of his work. The left lost the Spanish Civil War in 1939. The exiles and their handful of contacts inside Spain may still dream of toppling Franco by staging a general strike, but our hero -- who goes by several names -- finds it hard to keep dreaming.

Then again, he may just be suffering a midlife crisis. He has a mistress in France (Ingrid Thulin) who wants to have his baby, but he has the hots for Nadine (Genevieve Bujold), a student radical who stole her father's passport for our hero's use and pretended that he was her father when Spanish security called her. On more than one level, our hero, if we can call him that, is in a crisis of commitment. But is it just a midlife crisis in the conventional bourgeois sense of the word or is his disillusionment with the underground life driving him to question all his personal commitments? The latter, I think, since he proves just as unable to commit to Nadine's more radical cause. She and her student friends want him to smuggle explosives into Spain so their contacts can perpetrate terrorist bombings in order to damage the Spanish tourist industry. To him, this sounds as futile as his own comrades' general-strike idea. While revolutionaries young and old are capable of manipulating Leninist dialectic to justify anything they want to do and condemn naysayers, our hero insists on being realistic. He's no longer willing to do something or anything just to gratify a revolutionary whim. Maybe that's because he's seen too many friends pay the price without progress to show for it over nearly thirty years. But his own failure to commit isn't total; he isn't about to quit either, no matter what the risk to himself. And I don't have to spoil anything by revealing the ending, because the ending itself leaves us in suspense, as if suspense were our hero's natural state.

Gevevieve Bujold as the hero's sex fantasy (above) and his underground contact (below)

There's something noirish in the recurring narration as Resnais and screenwriter Jorge Semprun invite us to empathize with Montand's crises and temptations. But the film's style is modernist rather than expressionist, frenetically edited with the camera almost constantly on the move, the narrative moving sometimes at the speed of Montand's consciousness. This is a movie to which frozen screencaps can't really do justice, though every frame is handsomely shot. We see things through Montand's eyes, sometimes reflecting, sometimes anticipating, sometimes fantasizing. In a sense, La Guerre est Finie is a psychological thriller about a man in peril approaching a moral rather than a psychological breaking point. I can imagine that the film and its director were denounced just as the Montand character is denounced by oldschool Leninists and New Left radicals within the film itself. But I don't know if it really can be called an anti-revolutionary film. It's not as if Resnais and Semprun are calling for anyone to give up and accept Spain as it was. And it's not as if they're questioning revolutionary commitment itself. But the filmmakers are too committed to the literary imperatives of their art to ignore the human cost of revolution or resistance. A more dogmatic revolutionary consciousness might demand unconditional affirmation and assurance of ultimate victory. But by refusing to turn revolution into a fantasy, Resnais may only have made his troubled revolutionary more of a hero.

Friday, January 28, 2011


If I've noticed any recurring themes in the films I've seen directed by Phil Karlson, it's an almost paranoid terror at the omnipotence of organized crime. Flourishing in the Fifties, he seems to use crime syndicates and organizations as stand-ins for the reputedly repressive "organization man" lifestyle increasingly decried during the supposedly conformist decade. Karlson's films aren't films noirs as much as they're horror stories about the brutality of power, seedier or sleazier versions of the Orwellian boot stomping your face. They were probably redeemed in the eyes of their original audiences by cathartic comebacks by the oppressed who prove able, against the odds, of sometimes literally beating the system. The Phenix City Story was Karlson's epic expression of these themes, but they echo more intimately in smaller-scaled stories of individuals trapped in seemingly hopeless situations, like the framed fighter John Payne in 99 River Street or the duped mob accountant played by Richard Conte in The Brothers Rico, dutifully delivering his sibling to death.

Conte, a crime-film fixture from the Forties through the Seventies, is Eddie Rico, aspiring to civilian life as a laundry owner in Florida. He has two brothers, both deeper into the mob than he ever was. As he learns when brother Gino arrives in town, they were hired to kill a man, but things have gotten hot since youngest brother Johnny's new brother-in-law got wind of things and threatened to rat everyone out. Gino wants out of the country as quick as possible but doesn't know where Johnny is. The "organization" wants to know badly. Fronted by old family friend Sid Kubik, they tell Eddie that they want to help his brothers leave the country, too, until things cool down. But it's clear to us long before it's clear to Eddie that the organization really wants to kill Gino and Johnny rather than take any chance that these heretofore loyal men might squeal. Sid reminds Eddie of his longstanding loyalty to the Ricos and prevails upon him to travel the country searching for Johnny, even if that louses up the plans of Eddie and his wife to finalize the adoption of a child. Throughout the film, Eddie thinks he's doing right by his family, but he's actually doing everything in his power to destroy it.

Richard Conte as Eddie Rico

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has packaged The Brothers Rico as part of its Film Noir Classics II collection of Fifties crime movies. I'm not sure it belongs in the set. As Martin Scorsese notes in brief remarks about the film, it has little of the trademark expressionistic shadowplay, being instead lit "flat" like a contemporary TV program. Scorsese himself seems at a loss to account for this Fifties trend, but it seems obvious to me that the more artless style is a sort of reaction against the stylization of Forties noir, aiming for a broad-daylight sort of naturalism instead. Somehow this seems more appropriate to the era of the lurid paperback original (Rico itself adapts an American-set Georges Simenon story) and EC Comics than the glamorous chiaroscuro of the previous decade.

More of a disqualification is Rico's use of its hero. I'm inclined to agree with the definition of noir proposed by Otto Penzler in his and James Ellroy's Best American Noir of the Twentieth Century collection, which emphasizes protagonists' inability to restrain their impulses. A noir hero dooms himself by greed or lust, as a rule. But Eddie Rico causes disaster mostly because he's naive and just plain dumb. I wonder, however, if the screenplay makes him look dumber than Simenon's original. The problem with the movie is that we the viewers don't trust Sid Kubik for a second, yet Eddie trusts him implicitly through two-thirds of the picture. Larry Gates gives such a fake performance in his early scene with Conte that we hardly need the proof we get almost immediately that Sid has bad intentions for the Rico brothers. Eddie talks a lot about all that Sid has done for the family, but we needed either a better actor playing Sid or an extra scene or two showing rather than telling why Eddie would consider Sid a friend. Without that, we find it hard to sympathize with or root for someone who just looks stupid.

In this nicely staged scene, Karlson plants his hero in the background to make him look as small as he feels as the big men in the foreground nonchalantly discuss his brother's death.

Worse, once it seems that the only way Eddie can redeem himself is by avenging his brothers, despite an apparently unviolent nature, and at whatever cost to himself, Karlson and his writers go over the top to give a film that seems like it shouldn't have one a happy ending. They also reach past plausibility to give audiences their catharsis, sending a boss like Kubik somewhere he probably shouldn't be just so Eddie can take a shot at him. Then, just as it looks like Eddie will endure a redemptive death, the too-good-to-be-true coda has him and the wife finally picking out a kid to adopt. It may be unfair of me to feel that Eddie doesn't deserve this simply because he was stupid, but the ending just stinks of Hollywood contrivance, and the film would be more noirish without it.

Despite all this, Karlson manages to cultivate that sense of terror in the presence of an implacable system. The organization has spies everywhere. We don't even have to see them tailing Eddie; it's just a given that they'll have men waiting wherever he goes. There's an extended sequence during which Eddie tries to bargain or beg for Johnny's life with an impassive Western criminal who has complete power over the hotel Eddie stays in and the community beyond. For his part the criminal tries to reason with Eddie, urging him to accept the unalterable circumstances and reconcile himself to his brother's doom. Harry Bellaver plays the gangster with an understated sinister stoicism that invests his scenes with an emotional brutality that compensates for the relatively limited physical brutality of this film. Adding to that is the terrified yet indignant performance of James Darren as the youngest Rico. Karlson's film has a lot of the right atmosphere, and Conte does all he can with his thankless starring role, but the weakness of the role keeps The Brothers Rico out of the first ranks of Fifties crime films or Karlson's filmography.

Here's the original trailer, uploaded to YouTube by adlerangriffe.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pre-Code Parade: BULLDOG DRUMMOND (1929)

Sapper was the fitting pseudonym of Herman Cyril McNeile, who served in the Royal Engineers during the Great War and first won literary note for tough-minded stories based on his own experiences. His career took a major turn in 1920 with the publication of Bulldog Drummond, the first of ten novels featuring the title character, who within the decade had appeared on stage and in four films, the last of the decade being the Samuel Goldwyn talkie production under consideration here. I have an edition of the first four Drummond novels, but I've only read the original so far. It's energetic, entertaining trash. Drummond in his original form is an upper-class twit who can kill you with his bare hands. His nickname comes at least in part from his professed yet purportedly charismatic ugliness, and in part from his itch for violent action. His adventures have been called fascistic in some quarters, and he and his pals do sometimes come across as the sort of thuggish war veterans who donned colored shirts in other countries and waged war on alleged bolsheviks, trade unionists, etc. Capt. Hugh Drummond is very much a British jingo, but the political implications of his personality are toned down in the American script by Sidney Howard, as is some of the novel's action. You will not see Ronald Colman fight a gorilla to the death in F. Richard Jones's film.

The American film is a superficially faithful adaptation of Sapper's first novel. Drummond starts at basically the same point: bored out of his mind by peace, he impulsively places an advertisement in the Times of London.

Many responses arrive, but one is particularly compelling. Phyllis Benton (Joan Bennett) wants Drummond to rescue her uncle from a "hospital" where he's supposedly being confined against his will by a corrupt doctor and an odd pair of criminals: Carl Peterson (Montagu Love) and his protege Irma (Lilyan Tashman). Drummond breaks into the facility several times to rescue the innocent and harass the guilty, thwarting the Peterson gang every time and eventually earning Phyllis's love.

Bulldog Drummond (Ronald Colman, right) reads his advance fan mail as Algy (Claud Allister) listens with amusement.

Missing from this is the geopolitical backstory Sapper establishes before even introducing Drummond. In his novel, Carl Peterson is the ringleader of an international conspiracy of German and American (!) businessmen who hope to subvert the British economy, thus advancing their own interests, by inciting a socialist revolution. The conspirators need another wealthy donor to finance their scheme, but that man proving unwilling, he is taken prisoner and more or less treated as we see in the film. The stakes are much higher than in the Goldwyn film, where the Petersons and their ally, Dr. Lakington (Laurence Grant) simply want to drain their victim's finances.

Phyllis (Joan Bennett, left) meets our villains: (l-r) Montagu Love, Lilyan Tashman and Laurence Grant.

Here, too, is a rare instance of a pre-Code Hollywood film toning down some salacious sexual subject matter. In Sapper's novel, Irma is identified as Carl Peterson's daughter, but hardly anyone believes in that relationship. Instead, despite Irma's efforts to seduce Drummond, it is assumed by anyone who knows them that Irma and Carl are lovers. This isn't confirmed one way or the other, and the possibility is left open, I suppose, that they are all of the above. For Sam Goldwyn's purposes, Carl claims that Irma is his sister, but it's established pretty quickly that they are lovers rather than family. In the novel, Irma intervenes occasionally in the action but Sapper may already have been consciously saving her for a time when she'd be the principal villain of the series. In the movie, she seems to be the dominant partner at times, more bold and more willing to see things through than either Carl or Lakington. If anything, Irma and Carl's romance redeems them somewhat. Since they're just crooks here, not subversives, we're practically invited to root for them to make good their escape at the end.

More typical of pre-Code Hollywood is the film's use of Dr. Lakington. The dramatic climax of the Goldwyn film is a scene in which Lakington has Drummond and Phyllis captive. The sinister looking doctor taunts our hero with hints of what he'll do to a heavily drugged Phyllis in the privacy of his lab. He'd tortured her uncle in there earlier, and torture and more appear to be in store for the girl this time. A few years later a film couldn't have a villain declare so obviously his intent to rape someone. Fortunately, Phyllis revives ahead of schedule and unleashes Drummond to beat Lakington to death in a brutally suggestive shadowplay fight scene.

One other big change from the novel is the elevation of Algy Longworth (Claud Allister) from only the most memorable of Drummond's pals who arrive to help him mid-novel to Bulldog's principal sidekick and comedy relief for the entire film. Allister serves up an exaggerated caricature of a severe upper-class twit, perhaps to make Ronald Colman look more rugged by contrast. My recollection of the novel was that Algy, like the rest of Bulldog's crew, were fellow war veterans, but the film's Algy looks like he was nowhere near a trench, however enthusiastic he appears about aiding his friend. The novel's humor comes largely from Drummond's proto-Bondian put-downs of the villains. The movie's comic relief is more forced, more theatrical, and ultimately more annoying.

Dramatic production design by William Cameron Menzies gives Bulldog Drummond a proto-comics visual flavor.

A certain theatricality is probably inevitable in an early talkie, though Bulldog Drummond was praised upon its release for setting new standards in naturalness in dialogue. Colman definitely earns his right to carry on as a sound star here, if he hadn't talked on film already. He makes a dashing hero, even if he doesn't really match the image of Drummond from the novel. That would be a Clive Owen or maybe even a Jason Statham; establish the brutality before you polish it with class. In any event, while Colman handles his dialogue with ease, others are more tentative, pausing awkwardly in the middle of lines for no dramatic purpose. I'm tempted to blame that on the director. F. Richard Jones was a nobody to me before this; that may be because he died the year after the film came out. He was a veteran of Mack Sennett shorts, with his most prominent silent feature probably being Douglas Fairbanks' The Gaucho, which I haven't seen. Here, Jones was doubly overshadowed by William Cameron Menzies's production design and the overall Goldwyn Touch. As an early talkie the film stands out for being slick and briskly paced. It must have looked and felt like a "roller coaster ride" to 1929 audiences. Even today, I think it'd entertain most viewers, even if it isn't as outrageous as a more faithful adaptation of Sapper could be.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Wendigo Meets SUBSPECIES (1991)

Were the years around 1990 the golden age of straight-to-video movies? At the time, that sounded like a category for which a golden age was unimaginable, but from the perspective of 2011, when genre films on TV seem all the more blandly prefabricated to SyFy's not exactly exacting standards (imagine greater my ass!), there's at least a temptation to find virtues in the films of the previous generation. They can't have been as self-consciously stupid, as insulting to the memory of honestly bad movies, as the stuff you see on Saturday nights nowadays. That doesn't mean they can't stink, and with that caveat Wendigo and I turned on the Netflix and selected Ted Nicolaou's history-making vampire story, the first of an eventual series of four films (and one godawful spinoff) made over eight years by Full Moon Entertainment. You used to see those films, or at least the early ones, on the shelves of all the old corner video stores in the last days of their struggles with Blockbuster -- how time flies for everyone! I'd never seen it before, and Wendigo remembered the first film only vaguely. For all intents and purposes we would both watch Subspecies with fresh eyes.

The history part is the fact that it was filmed in Romania. Subspecies was reportedly the first American movie filmed in the former dictatorship after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, and Nicolaou makes the most of the opportunity. As ever, creative use of locations compensates for limited budgets, and the touristy bits help pad the film out to a featurely 83 minutes. Since he was there, the director had no reason not to make a movie thick with folklore and history, even if most of it was made up.

Location, location, location: Romanian landscapes (above) and rituals (below) give Subspecies a traditionally exotic flavor.

We learn the details as the film goes along, but let's sum it up all at once. Back in Vlad Dracul's time there were vampires in the land. One such band saved the town of Prejnar from the Turks by drinking the besiegers' blood. Before the vampires could turn upon the natives, a truce was sealed by the villagers' acquisition of the Bloodstone, a relic with the blood of the Catholic saints on perpetual tap. Offering this to the vampire king (Angus Scrimm) allowed peace to reign between living and undead. As time went on, the old king finally had to think of his legacy; not even vampires live forever. He has two sons. The elder, Radu (Anders Hove) is a hairy Orlok of a monster, perpetually drooling because he can't close his mouth with all those fangs in it. He was sired on an evil sorceress and inherited her evil nature -- as opposed to a vampire's whatever nature. The younger son, Stefan (Michael Watson) was sired on a virtuous peasant girl. He is pretty, studious and noble. Physiognomy is destiny.

The old king tells Radu that Stefan is getting the inheritance, including the Bloodstone. He somehow lures Radu into standing in exactly the spot that will allow him to be trapped in a descending cage. That was easy, except that Radu has an escape plan for occasions like this. The plan is to snap off a few of his hyperextended fingers and throw them on the floor. The fingers commence to bleed, and from the blood puddles spring four little red dudes, homunculi who serve Radu. For your information, these guys, and not the vampires, are the subspecies of the series title. As the king watches and apparently does nothing, these industrious fellows liberate Radu, who promptly kills his strangely unresisting dad.

Subspecies guys are helpful and curious. How could you feel threatened by those adorable little men?

At the same time, a trio of female college students descend on Prejnar to witness the Festival of the Undead while researching their anthropology dissertations. They're promptly set on a collision course with Radu, and everything you might expect to happen pretty much happens, from one of the girls falling in love with Stefan to at least one of them falling under Radu's skunky power. Aided by a knowledgeable villager with a shotgun full of rosary beads, Stefan is destined for a sword-swinging showdown with his obnoxious sibling, with somebody's soul at stake.

When Wendigo first saw Subspecies, he wasn't all that impressed. He's more impressed now. What makes the difference? The fact that Nicolaou was out to make an honest B-movie instead of a Saturday night joke. On top of that, Subspecies is an interesting, almost ambitious synthesis of true folklore (including the vampire-detecting white horse last seen in John Badham's Dracula) and Nicolaou's own idiosyncratic inventions. There's an inventive intelligence at work instead of a rote repetition of stock genre conventions.

Wendigo is also somewhat jaded by modern CGI, and thus more impressed by the reality of Nicolaou's locations and the film's practical and stop-motion effects. The director actually achieves some effective atmosphere, and the pictorial effect of the shadowy Radu (sometimes portrayed literally as a shadow rather than a man) stalking the village streets is genuinely creepy.

Subspecies is a film of its time, a moment when modern vampire lore was in flux. The Anne Rice influence hadn't yet saturated movie culture, and Subspecies finds the subgenre poised between the oldschool horror/gothic tradition and the more romantic fantasy trend that prevails today. Radu and Stefan embody the film's transitional nature, the master monster and the handsomely brooding antihero. Because "urban fantasy" hasn't been born yet, or at least hasn't spread, we're spared some of the commonplaces of future films like the police investigation angle. Wendigo found the absence of contemporary convention refreshing -- and it's not as if he hates contemporary conventions. He just likes creativity more.

The Vlaidslas Brothers: Above, Anders Hove as Radu; below, Michael Watson as Stefan.

One pleasantly old-fashioned aspect of the entire Subspecies series is its focus on the villain. Anders Hove is the only actor to appear in all four films, and in a different time he might have been a horror star for the rest of his days. He's unrepentantly unromantic, yet also truly charismatic as a master vampire should be. I don't think anyone ever roots for Radu, but the three sequels are testimony that people wanted to see him get another chance. The man definitely gives his all here, shamelessly. By comparison, Michael Watson's Stefan is beautifully bland, and in fact only a secondary character compared to his love interest, Michelle Morgan -- played here by Laura Tate and by Denise Duff in the sequels. Their romance points to the future of vampire film, as Radu's wickedness forces a choice on the lovers: let the girl die, only to become an evil vampire on Radu's pattern, or allow Stefan to finish her off, so at least she'll become a good vampire. Just plain death is apparently not an option, nor is a cure.

Michelle (Laura Tate) becomes a vampire fighter, while Radu (below) becomes a severed head. But dispatching a vampire isn't as easy as you were told.

The rest of the films will follow her war with Radu, since Stefan will be bumped off early in the second movie. That'll probably make the sequels seem even more modern. We'll find out eventually. Subspecies 2 is also available on Netflix, and we were impressed enough by the original that we'll be watching the sequel soon. Subspecies itself is the kind of cinematic junk food that cleans the palate with its simplicity and tempts you to want more.

Deadman36g uploaded this trailer to YouTube:

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Jean-Paul Belmondo is an icon of French New Wave cinema, a kind of charismatic front man for the movement as the star of Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless. Arthouse audiences in America and around the world probably gazed at his face on a movie poster the same way his character in Breathless dotes on a poster of Humphrey Bogart. In his homeland, however, Belmondo has never represented arthouse cinema exclusively. As I saw when I watched Le Professionnel last year, Belmondo was just as comfortable, if not more so, playing uncomplicated men of action in action movies. But while I can accustom myself to seeing Belmondo in junk, it was still jarring to see such a man of his era in period costume in Philippe de Broca's swashbuckling comedy.

Belmondo and de Broaca worked together most prominently in a later film, The Man From Rio, which historically marked the actor's emergence as a pop movie star. I know of that film but haven't seen it, but Cartouche seems to be a similar sort of movie, a genre pastiche that mocks its conventions while embracing them at the same time. Belmondo is the title character, the name being a literal nom de guerre adopted when Dominique Bourguignon enlists in the 18th century French army. Dominique is a thief by profession -- rogue might be more appropriate -- who needs an easy exit after he revolts against the bullying, extortionate ways of Malichot (Marcel Dalio), the reigning king of thieves. His co-enlistees are La Taupe ("Mole," Jean Rochefort), who looks the part, and La Doucer ("Gentle," Jess Hahn), a good-natured brute. They become heroes when they're the only survivors of a battle. The battle is the film's most cartoonish episode, climaxing as Frenchies and Redcoats shoot each other two by two until there's literally no one left but our trio, who have wisely hidden from the shooting. Honor is nice but it doesn't fill the pockets or the belly. With a senile general planning fresh slaughter, and telling his subalterns to withhold pay until after the fight, Cartouche and friends come up with a plan to hijack the payroll wagon and make off with the money.

Dominique (Jean-Paul Belmondo) doesn't bow easily or for long, whether to an off-frame aristocrat (above) or to thief-king Malichot (Marcel Dalio, below left)

Stopping at a tavern, the trio terrorizes some aristocratic diners and Cartouche himself liberates a pretty thief, Venus (Claudia Cardinale) from her military captors. After the 18th century French equivalent of a barroom brawl, everyone ends up back in the big city and Cartouche settles accounts with Malichot. As the new king of thieves, with Venus as his queen, Cartouche rules fairly, enriching everyone with a reign of rapine and leaving a big C as his Zorro-esque signature. Life is good, but Cartouche has an itch he needs to scratch. Early in the picture Dominique been made to bow before the haughty aristocrat Gaston de Ferrusac (Philippe Lemaire), the sort of lordly creep who enjoys presiding over public executions. Gaston's wife Isabelle is at least less bloodthirsty, a more delicate character and a looker as well. Cartouche wants to avenge his honor at Gaston's expense by scoring with Isabelle. He still loves Venus, but this is simply something he's got to do, and Venus respects that. She proves enviably loyal and a true leader of men in Cartouche's absence, utterly selfless in her devotion in more ways than one -- and at least one way too many.

The women in Cartouche's life: Venus (Claudia Cardinale) in peril, above;
Isabelle (Odile Versois) in thought, below.

The more I look at older movies, the more they seem inconsistent in tone by today's standards. What I mean is that many older films seem capable of sweeping shifts in mood that might seem jarring to modern audiences. If we see a comedy now, we expect it to maintain a consistent level of wit or goofiness, while comedy might seem disruptive in some of the more self-consciously profound projects. I worry that a contemporary audience might watch Cartouche and end up irked by such a boisterous, often blatantly comic film having such a downer ending. Won't that seem wrong somehow?

Maybe our grandparents were open to a greater diversity of emotional experience at the movies than we've been for a while. One proof that they were was the popularity of the concept of pathos back in the day. If the term means anything to anyone it's probably identified with a tendency of silent slapstick comedy to turn tearjerker on us. If you went to a Charlie Chaplin feature, for instance, you expected to laugh but you might also feel challenged to shed a tear or two as the Tramp again renounced a hopeless love for the solace of the road. It was his aspiration to pathos that raised Chaplin to the dignity of an artist in the eyes of his early intellectual admirers. On the other hand, you knew that something had changed in the culture when critics began to exalt Buster Keaton, the "Great Stone Face," who largely eschewed pathos in favor of coolly choreographed mayhem, at Chaplin's expense. Keaton didn't threaten our growing mistrust of "emotional manipulation." I say that not to criticize Keaton, who I happen to like better than Chaplin, but to explain that a growing preference for him over Chaplin reflected a cultural change in what we wanted, or didn't want, to see in movies.

Cartouche certainly has plenty of slapstick.

The point of this digression, in case you were wondering, is that Cartouche, while it sometimes looks like a genre parody, is also an exercise in pathos that hearkens back to an older era of film. Its ending reveals the film as a tragicomic romance, and it's actually a great example of the type. To spoil things,...

Cartouche didn't reach the U.S. until July 1964, but was considered enough of an event to open a new New York arthouse.

Venus leads the army of thieves to rescue Cartouche from his captors, he having been captured while attempting a romantic tryst with Isabelle. In the course of a general melee, Venus takes a bullet in the back, shielding her beloved. The battle won, the thief army marches on the Ferussac estate, not to take revenge, but to take the jewelry of the Ferussacs and all their lordly guests. These jewels aren't prizes for the thieves, but a funerary tribute for Venus, whom Cartouche crowns with a tiara while heaping the rest upon her stilled chest. Thus bejeweled, Venus is lovingly loaded into a coach which is itself loaded into a lake, all the plunder going to the bottom, hers for all time. Fin.

A Viking funeral, without the fire.
I think it'd be hard not to be moved by the ending, but modern viewers might resent feeling moved. They'd probably prefer a happy ending, or they might feel that, if anyone should pay at the end of the picture, it should be the reckless, rather caddish Cartouche himself. That he learns a lesson too late is probably not punishment enough for him for some people. But such feelings, if I guess them right, may tell us more about a modern audience that is actually more judgmental about such things than their presumably more moralistic predecessors than it tells us about any failings of de Broca's movie.

Maybe I'm wrong, though, and my peers would enjoy Cartouche as much as I did. It works when it's funny and it works when it's sad. Belmondo does not look out of place in a period picture and makes an engaging swashbuckling hero. Cardinale is gorgeous and a true heroine. Rochefort and Hahn are enjoyable comic relief. The cinematography, sets and location work are superb and the score by Georges Delerue matches the movie's moods moment by moment. The film is great fun, and that fun isn't compromised by the ending. I think there is a kind of fun that covers the widest range of emotions, and consists of feeling those emotions. As a New Wave icon, Belmondo embodies a kind of coolness for which the emotional manipulations of something like Cartouche are probably abhorrent. Belmondo himself probably knows better, and with his help Cartouche is a rich viewing experience with ass-kicking action, anti-war satire and, yes, perhaps a tear or two. Don't hold those against it.

Here's a French trailer that gives the name Cartouche Shazam-like significance, as long as you know French. It gives everyone some idea of the film's visual virtues, and it was uploaded to YouTube by manuel 19771

Friday, January 21, 2011

SKIRT DAY (La Journee de la Jupe, 2009)

Isabelle Adjani has won a pile of awards for her work in Jean-Paul Lilienfeld's rabble-rousing schoolroom drama, her first film after a five-year absence from the screen. Her Cesar award gave her the record for the most such wins by a French actress. Thinking the film over, I have to attribute the praise to some sense that Adjani was making a comeback, or to some imperative to affirm the militantly secularist message of Lilienfeld's really rather familiar story.

The setting is the College Maxim Gorky, but we've seen the place before in American films from The Blackboard Jungle forward; Class of 1984 would make for a better analogy. Adjani is Sonia Bergerac, a theater teacher near the end of her tether. Her students are the dregs of the banlieue, mostly Muslims if in name only or as a matter of ethnic pride. The boys are thugs, except for Mme. Bergerac's pet, Mehmet; the girls are barely more civilized. They're as irreverent or apathetic as you'd expect, heckling anyone who takes the stage to perform the scenes they were supposed to have memorized from Moliere's Bourgeois Gentleman. "Skirt Day" means that, against the advice of her peers, Sonia is wearing a skirt (not to mention high-heeled boots) to class, which is asking for trouble from her Muslim charges. She clearly feels threatened by them but is determined not to appear intimidated, but her commands carry little authority, just as her subject carries little apparent relevance for the sweathogs' miserable lives.

Hearing the sounds of a scuffle in the back of the classroom, Sonia interrupts a fight over a duffel bag. In the tug of war a gun pops out of the bag. As luck has it, Sonia grabs the weapon before either of the boys, who try to talk her into giving it back. In her confusion she ends up winging the worst of the kids, Mouss, in the leg. A bunch of kids flee, but she locks a handful of stragglers in the room with her, now determined to teach them all a lesson in more than one sense.

Reached via cellphone by the police, Sonia convinces them that she's a hostage of Mouss. Meanwhile, she drills her charges into memorizing Moliere's real name. When Mouss proves recalcitrant despite his wound, Sonia head butts him, then goes into a victory dance chanting the name of Zinedine Zidan, the soccer star who earned infamy by head-butting an opponent in the 2006 World Cup final. She mocks the kids' trash culture by making them vote, reality TV style, to determine who'll be the first to, um, leave the room. She shows herself a militant advocate of French laicite, forcing one Muslim kid to take off his skullcap and reminding another that the laws against ethnic slurs cover anti-Semitism as well. On the other side, her unsympathetic fellow teachers (she seem to have only one friend on the faculty) are calling her a crazy racist after a spy camera finally reveals that she's the one with the gun and the power.

On Skirt Day we dance! Isabelle Adjani celebrates a small victory.

As Sonia bargains with a RAID negotiator -- one of her demands is a national Skirt Day in public schools -- power changes hands a few times inside the classroom. Mouss plays possum at one point so he can attack her, but the gun ends up in the hands of Nawel, an Algerian girl with an agenda of her own: to lambaste the stupid boys who think they know Islam and to expose some of them as participants in the gang rape of another student. Ultimately, Nawel gives the gun back to Nadia after her moment in the spotlight, but the twists keep on coming as we wonder whether everyone will walk out of the room alive....

Skirt Day is all about female empowerment; a gun for every girl!

La Journee de la Jupe isn't even 90 minutes long, but it grows tiresome well before the end. It becomes apparent in time that Sonia Bergerac is less a character than a platform for Lilienfeld's editorializing and Adjani's tirades. The actress's role is less a performance than a succession of turns and stunts. We learn that she has a troubled marriage, but it hardly seems relevant to her meltdown in the classroom. Lilienfeld's cavalier attitude toward character and motivation is best demonstrated by the big ironic revelation, late in the film, that Sonia is herself a Muslim, or at least of Muslim parentage (Adjani herself is half-Algerian). There's no point to this reveal except to make a debating point of some kind. Apparently Sonia practised what she now preaches, assimilating into and embracing French culture. Does that make her a heroine, or even a martyr? It's hard to answer since Lilienfeld leaves us wondering whether she was just plain crazy. Is there a point to that? Sonia's character is left so sketchy that it's hard to answer, and that's one reason why it's hard to like this film. Another reason is the pointless character development of the negotiator (Denis Podalydes) who's torn between his police work and maintaining his relationships at home, yet must strive to resolve the matter peacefully before a more militant officer takes over. Lilienfiled should note that having characters refer to the movie The Negotiator does not make his situations any less cliched. Little seems original or even real here. The kids are barely one-dimensional. The film doesn't have scenes; it has statements, though Adjani is encouraged to make a scene at every opportunity.

I accuse myself sometimes of having different standards for foreign and domestic films. I know that I tend to give the foreign stuff extra credit for exoticism, virtual-tourism or time-machine appeal, and so on. These things often enhance a foreign film's entertainment value aside from narrative merit. I bring this up now to warn you that if I say that a foreign film like Skirt Day is bad, it may well be really bad for other viewers.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

LOURDES (2009)

The pilgrimage shrine at the spring where St. Bernadette is said to have seen the Virgin Mary, where the waters are reputed to have healing powers for the faithful, has been a ripe subject for satire almost from the beginning. In Austrian director Jessica Hausner Lourdes has found a relatively benign satirist. She avoids what might look like the obvious object of satire from the secular humanist perspective, the mythos of heavenly visitations and miraculous healings. Instead of an attack on faith and spirituality, Lourdes is a critique of the de-sacralization of the pilgrimage experience through custom, bureaucracy and commodification.

Hausner follows a tour group of pilgrims, who look much like any tour group found in any tourist trap, except for a disproportion of wheelchairs. They're thoroughly supervised, with the most handicapped assigned "helpers" who feed them and wheel them around if they haven't loved ones to do that for them. For the helpers, in many cases, working at Lourdes is just another job and not the most appealing among all those available to young people. For the clergy, too, a certain institutional cynicism sets in after a while. A priest tells this joke: Jesus, Mary and the Holy Spirit are discussing where to go on vacation this year. The Holy Spirit suggests Bethlehem and Jerusalem, but Jesus shoots down those ideas because they've gone to both places so often. How about Lourdes, then? The Blessed Virgin thinks that's a great idea -- "I've never been there before!"

One of our tour group is Christine (Sylvie Testud), who suffers from MS. She isn't the most enthusiastic or the most devout pilgrim, especially compared to her roommate, Frau Hartl (Gilette Barbier), who often proves more of a helper to Christine than the young woman who actually holds that job. The Lourdes environment isn't exactly conducive to spirituality, except perhaps for the most simplistically devout. Frau Hartl will make her devotions to a life-size Virgin statue in a hotel lobby, but pilgrims in town can pass souvenir shops filled with thousands of smaller-scale statues without batting an eye. If anything, the clergy seem determined to dampen expectations of miracles. We learn over the course of the film that the Church is actually admirably objective, though almost to a demoralizing degree, about appraising healings. They don't want to jump the gun before a relapse; to qualify as a miracle, a cure has to be permanent. As if to foreshadow the main event of the film, characters discuss a reputed recent miracle in which another MS patient rose and walked. A priest cautions them that with MS especially remissions and relapses are frequent.

Naturally, it's Christine who rises and walks. The news is received with skeptical tentativeness by the authorities, with reflected glory by some pilgrims, and with barely-concealed jealousy by others. The fortunate one gets a particularly dirty look from one mother whose daughter experienced a sort of near-miss earlier in the pilgrimage, recognizing and responding to her parent before lapsing back into unresponsiveness. The ways of God being, as ever, inscrutable, people wonder how Christine, of all pilgrims, deserves His grace. The mystery of His ways grows deeper as a helper suffers a seizure and is hospitalized, freeing up a spot for Christine, who had been disqualified earlier due to her disability, to go on the group's mountain-climbing trip. The group is eager, of course, to have their picture re-shot with an ambulatory Christine for the historical record. The lucky woman herself seems bemused rather than transfigured, and the story of her fellow-sufferer from the earlier pilgrimage clearly troubles her. Still, she takes advantage of every opportunity to climb mountains, dance with the uniformed male helpers and eat dessert with her own hands. Will it last? Christine takes a tumble on the dance floor, but she's still on her feet to accept the Best Pilgrim award at the end. Beyond that?...

Lourdes leaves the final answer ambiguous. To spoil things, it ends with Christine settling back into her wheelchair, which Frau Hartl has thoughtfully kept near, but that alone isn't enough for us to conclude that she'll never walk again. Taking her seat may be an act of simple weariness -- the spectacle of the helpers performing like asses at a final party is admittedly wearying -- or it may be a gesture of resignation. The most troubling thing about it is the sense that it doesn't matter one way or the other, to Christine or the other pilgrims. From a spiritual perspective, one of several from which viewers can choose, the message may be that the "miracle" itself doesn't matter, that there's no point to Christine staying on her feet because no one, her included, has responded to the healing with the appropriate reverence. An alternate message can be that Christine may as well sit down because the cure hasn't really changed the empty life to which she must return now that the pilgrimage is over. I don't find the ambiguity frustrating; it actually testifies to the subtle realism of Hausner's narrative. There may or may not have been a miracle, but Lourdes takes place in an environment where theme doesn't impose a single meaning on events.

Give our star a round of applause; Sylvie Testud, ladies and gentlemen!

Had this film been made in the United States, Sylvie Testud might have been a front-runner for the Oscar last year, since her role is what we tend to think of as awards-bait. I say "might have been" because she gives a nicely understated performance, unburdened by vocal tics or the need to give revelatory speeches, that might not have set off the Academy's master-thespian meter. As it is, Testud won a European Film Award for her trouble, which may prove that the less-is-more principle is appreciated somewhere.

The film itself plays out with commendable clarity, making its satirical points obviously enough but not blatantly. The nature of its satire reminded me a little of Robert Altman's movies, though Hausner does largely without the American's diffusive sprawl, keeping us consistently focused on Christine while emphasizing a few supporting characters enough to cinch the sense of a realistic social environment. Lourdes might have made a great subject for Altman (not to mention, closer to home, a subject for Jacques Tati), while the closest American equivalent to its concern with recovery and relapse is arguably Penny Marshall's Awakenings. Hausner's Lourdes is better than that and deserves some belated recognition in the U.S. as one of the better European films of the past year or so.