Tuesday, September 29, 2015


The U.S. isn't the only place where moviemakers have polished up comic-book heroes for new cinematic life. In Japan, Toei released Koichi Sakamoto's update of a character created in the 1960s by manga legend Shotaro Ishinomori to commemorate Ishinomori's 75th birthday. 009-1 seems to have been a "mature audiences" conceptual spinoff of Ishinomori's better-known Cyborg 009 series. Maybe he had a lucky number.009-1 became a live-action TV show and an anime series in the 21st century. Sakamoto's film is an even more "mature audiences" take on the concept, though one of its more hair-raising elements, the machine guns built into the title-character's cybernetic boobs, apparently was there from the beginning. While Hollywood often tries to legitimize comic-book subject matter by making it "serious" to a sometimes-oppressive extent, Japan apparently upgrades similar material for adult audiences by making it kinkier.


Ishinomori imagined a bipolar world divided between East and West in which "J-country" is a neutral zone in which agents for both sides operate. Mylene Hoffman (Mayuko Iwasa) is Agent 009-1, investigating a human-trafficking ring. We see she's a cool customer early on; when the trafficking kingpin arbitrarily kills a niteclub waiter for serving an improperly-cooked steak, 009, disguised as a dancer, is the only girl still dancing afte the gunshot while the others cower on the stage floor. That gets the bad guy's attention. He takes her off for sex, arousing his moll's jealousy, after which 009 kills him, arousing the moll's lust for revenge. While routing the traffickers, 009 rescues a young man, Chris (Minehiro Kinomoto), who hums a tune that stirs long-buried memories in Mylene. She flashes back to childhood, when the tune was a lullaby hummed by her mother, whose face she can't remember, to Mylene and her brother. 009 falls in love with Chris, apparently not guessing what audiences ought to have figured out immediately, but there's other stuff going on they won't have guessed.


Above: Mylene dances with herself
Below: Busted.

The bad guys are after 009-1's mentor and maker, Dr. Klein (Aya Sugimoto). After 009 rescues the doctor, a seemingly superpowered female fighter, possibly another cyborg, appears to reclaim her, routing Mylene and everything else in her path. Botching her assignment in her distracted state gets 009 in trouble with her bosses, but she resolves to rescue Klein again and learn more about her past. She won't like what she learns.

009-1 gets a mechanical tongue bath, or do robots identify people by taste?

Suffice it to say that Mylene is in for some jarring revelations until nearly everything she thought she knew is proven wrong. Worst of all is the revelation of Chris's true identity and his true agenda. How bad is it? Let me assure you that building an incestuous lesbian robot is only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Klein is determined not to be outdone, however. She distinguishes herself among modern mad scientists with her theory that cyborgs stacked with superweapons will be surpassed by undead mutants (in Japanese, "undead mutants"). The film distinguishes itself among modern mad movies by theorizing that Mylene, a cyborg, can telepathically read the minds of undead mutants. Their thoughts run along the lines of "please kill me," which would seem to prove Dr. Klein wrong, along with 009-1's ability to beat them all single-handedly. This is a film in which undead mutants are only preliminary adversaries, for there remains an uncomfortable reckoning with Mylene's dismal excuse for a family, with an exploding helicopter thrown in in case that gets dull....


On this evidence, the Japanese feel no need to legitimize comic-book stories by throwing money at them. End of the Beginning has the production values of a CW genre show, or slightly less. With most of the film's imagination spent on its icky plot, the action is unimaginatively staged and set mostly in the drab warehouse world of the B picture. CGI blood flows aplenty while a CGI helicopter is added to a background in order to explode on contact with a flying combatant, after which the filmmakers seem to forget that there should still be a burning hulk in some scenes. For all its theoretical transgressiveness, the picture proves strangely reticent about showing 009-1's deadliest weapons from the front.  End of the Beginning really does only two things successfully. It often fills the screen with attractive women, and that lullaby is one hell of an earwig. I watched this film a week ago and it's still looping through my brain. At the very least, this picture is a memorable experience. Whether you'll enjoy the memories is up to you.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: THE ROADHOUSE MURDER (1932)

Chick Brian (Eric Linden) is one of the dumbest heroes you'll ever see in an ostensibly dramatic picture. He's a reporter on the Daily Star, struggling to win the approval of hard-charging editor Dale (Roscoe Karns). Chick is in big trouble with his boss because his attempted expose of a diamond smuggler has blown up in his face: the alleged smuggler, whom he captured in a candid shot in her bathtub, is the mistress of the newspaper's owner and Dale has to bury the story. Chick desperately wants a big scoop to gain the editor's favor and secure his future with Mary Agnew (Dorothy Jordan), the police inspector's daughter. Chick and Mary get caught in the rain while spooning in his dysfunctional convertible. They find shelter at the Lame Dog Inn, an isolated roadhouse with a creepy German guy (Gustav von Seyffertitz) for a caretaker and a lone guest.They're barely settled in for the night when they hear shots. They find one man shot and the other strangled, and stumble upon the perpetrator (Bruce Cabot) and his moll (Phyllis Clare) hunting for loot. The gunman holds the young couple at bay as he and the moll make their exit through a window, the moll leaving behind an incriminating handbag. Mary wants to call the police right away but Chick is thinking scoop. Mary warns him that the longer they stay without calling the cops, the more likely they could be incriminated by mistake. Why, look: Chick dropped a cufflink on the floor! If a detective found that he could trace it to Chick and assume he's the killer, which makes it a good thing they've got the moll's handbag. Here's where Chick gets real stupid. He knows that he could be easily incriminated and easily exonerated. So why not frame himself? Why not leave more incriminating evidence like a torn-up envelope with his name and address on it, along with the cufflink? Why not let himself be suspected, and pursued, as long as he can clear himself at any time with the handbag, which presumably would lead the cops straight to the moll and her man? What a story that'd be!

Chick reports the murder to the Star anonymously before calling the police and proceeds to act suspiciously as the cops investigate the scene, knowing in advance that two men, not one, are dead before they open the room where the second body lies. As they collect evidence, he knows it's just a matter of time before they piece the envelope together and suspect him of the murder. Without letting on that he can prove his innocence, he convinces Editor Dale to run his fugitive dispatches as front-page stories. Chick plans to milk the story for as long as possible before turning himself in and standing trial. The long-term plan is to prove his innocence on the witness stand, to have Mary bring the handbag into the courtroom at the crucial moment. I'm no legal expert, but I'm not sure that would work. The jury would only have Chick and Mary's word that they found the handbag at the crime scene, and that whatever evidence they produced out of it was in the bag when they found it. If authorities believe this, they should also believe that, at the least, our couple tampered with a crime scene and, at the worst, they obstructed justice by withholding evidence so Chick could publicize himself.

There's one problem with this brilliant scheme. The real killer, Dykes, knows who Mary Agnew is. We first see her posing for a newspaper picture with her dad, and when our villain reads the paper he recognizes the policeman's daughter as the girl at the roadhouse, who most likely has the incriminating handbag that his dumb moll left there. He's not taking chances until he can be more sure, but when Chick announces at the trial that he'll produce evidence to exonerate himself the next day, it's pretty obvious to those in the know what that evidence is. How exactly Dykes guesses that Chick wants Mary to deliver the handbag to him at the jail the night before the trial resumes, so he can reveal it from the witness stand, is unclear, but with criminal cunning Dykes manages to bump into Mary on the sidewalk, snatch the handbag and disappear. Oops.

Writer-director J. Walter Ruben really painted himself into a corner this time and had to resort to an unconvincing twist to save his hero, even if Chick really is too dumb to live. He and "additional dialogue" collaborator Gene Fowler must have realized they had a dud on their hands, for they attempted to redeem it with gratuitous, superfluous content. The opening sequence, Chick's attempted entrapment of the "smuggler," is pure Pre-Code titilation, the whole point being to see an actress strip (from behind, of course, and with the camera heading downward before her robe does) and get caught taking a bath. More gratuitous yet, more superfluous yet, and less forgivable, is the injection of stuttering specialist Roscoe Ates in two scenes as purported comic relief: an interview with a detective and a scene on the witness stand that seems to have no plausible motivation whatsoever except that stuttering is funny! Ates clearly was assumed to be an extra added attraction -- note the stuttering emphasis on him in the ad above -- but he only makes the picture worse for modern audiences. Pictures like The Roadhouse Murder are necessary reminders that the greater "frankness" of Pre-Code compared to the subsequent classic era of Code Enforcement isn't necessarily synonymous with sophistication, or wit, or even intelligence. I can imagine this same story being remade as a comedy today; that's how dumb it is.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: MAKE ME A STAR (1932)

Merton of the Movies began its existence as a short story by Harry Leon Wilson. Two knights of the Algonquin Round Table, George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, made it into a hit Broadway play in 1922. It was first made into a movie, now lost, two years later.  Paramount remade it as a talkie and for some reason redubbed it Make Me a Star. Did the studio executives worry that the story was already old hat in some eyes and needed to be disguised? Almost a generation later, M-G-M would take a crack at it and went back to the original title. It makes you wonder whether there's something qualitatively different about the Paramount film, directed by William "One Shot" Beaudine from an adaptation by three writers. Based on the evidence on the screen, one could believe that Make Me A Star is a somewhat darker version of the Merton story. It definitely taps into a sense of desperation appropriate to the Great Depression, especially when compared to Harold Lloyd's treatment of a similar subject the same year in Movie Crazy. That film was old hat insofar as it was the same old Lloyd persona from silent days, the bumbling but indefatigable go-getter, trying to make it in Hollywood. By comparison, Stu Erwin's title-fulfilling performance as Merton in Make Me a Star is a portrait recognizable to modern viewers of a troublingly obsessive personality, vested with as much pathology as pathos.

As spoken in the film by Merton Gill, the title is a prayer to God. Stardom is Merton's only possible escape from the small-town hell where he works as an assistant shopkeeper. His obsession ultimately estranges him from his adoptive father, who tells Merton that if he wants to get to Hollywood he better catch the morning train. Merton, of course, is only one of a talentless multitude trying their luck in the movie capital. His would be a dull story if he were only talentless, but the genius of the story is that he's pretentiously talentless. Merton is dedicated to the high dramatic art of moving pictures, despising comedy, but his idea of high dramatic art is the Buck Benson series of B-westerns (at best) made by Majestic pictures. In Hollywood he's determined only to work at Majestic, a mirror-universe version of Paramount where many of the real studio's real stars work and appear in pretty pointless cameos for publicity's sake. He haunts the Majestic casting office for days and weeks waiting for an opportunity, insisting that his correspondence-course acting class entitles him to consideration for speaking parts rather than extra work, until hard-boiled studio girl "Flips" Montague (Joan Blondell) takes pity on him and pulls strings to get him a bit part with one line in a Buck Benson picture. In an all too predictable progression, he nails the line in rehearsal but finds different ways to botch it in each live take, finally nailing it again after he's been thrown off the set and the crew breaks for lunch.

After noticing his absence for several days from the casting office, Flips finds Merton foraging for scraps in the wreckage of former sets, lamenting how he'd stashed a plate of cold beans inside a desk only to have the desk taken away. He'd never left the lot because he was afraid he'd never be allowed back on after his debacle. Flips tries to find work for him and finally convinces the studio's comedy producer to try him out. The diabolical idea is that Merton, using his chosen screen name of Whoop Ryder ("I bet there's a story behind that!" Jack Oakie opines) will star in a parody of the Buck Benson films. The key to the comedy, the director believes, is for naive Merton to play the part absolutely straight according to his idea of high cinematic art. He must not be allowed to realize that he's in a comedy picture, and he's clueless enough for this to be relatively easy. The only stumbling block is the casting of Ben Turpin (himself), a vulgar comic Merton despises so much he can't even call him by name, referring to him only as "the cross-eyed man." He accepts the explanation that Turpin has long aspired to change his image and prove himself as a dramatic actor. Special effects will take care of the rest.

The sneak preview of the Whoop Ryder picture is a hit with the audience but a nightmare for Merton and Buck Benson. Benson can't stand the parody of himself, while Merton can't stand that he's being laughed at after being tricked by the studio. Beaudine films this so you empathize with Merton; the comedy isn't very good, really, yet people are making braying asses of themselves laughing at it. In a Producers-like reversal Merton is poised to be a comedy star but he's ready to head back home in self-imposed disgrace, until he hears two studio men talk about the genius of his performance. Then, determined to prove to Flips that he's no fool, he returns to her to explain how he knew what was going on all along. Parroting what he'd heard from the studio men, he tries to build himself up into a comic genius until he breaks down in the girl's arms. It's a brilliant climax to what's probably the best work Stu Erwin ever did on film and a genuinely great performance, eloquently incoherent, naively insane, vaguely disturbing but indisputably sympathetic. The irony of it, at least as the publicists told it later, was that after this picture Erwin could have written his own ticket in Hollywood, but turned down a lead role in a forthcoming Paramount picture because he didn't feel ready for stardom. I wonder whether you can draw a line linking that self-analysis to the performance he gave and how much of himself he put in it.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

DVR Diary: THE BASTARD (I bastardi, The Cats, Sons of Satan, 1968)

There's a small genre of Italian caper films from the late Sixties set and often filmed in the U.S., including Machine Gun McCain, They Came to Rob Las Vegas, and Duccio Tessari's I Bastardi, that are the nearest things to modern-dress spaghetti westerns. They reflect a fascination with modern-day American among imperialistic Italian filmmakers that found its most aggressive expression in Zabriskie Point. The Italian films share a critical fascination with American commercial art and architecture that make them arguably more valuable documents of what the country looked like than many Hollywood films. The other films like Bastardi presumably are less critical of American culture than Zabriskie, but is it possible that there are implicit criticisms of, or at least commentary on the culture in the more generic films? Commentary, I suppose, can be read into Tessari's casting of Rita Hayworth in his film, insofar as Hayworth was an icon of film noir by virtue of her title roles in Gilda and The Lady From Shanghai. It's definitely a sad commentary to see her here, clearly past her prime, playing a lush all too convincingly, though on the other hand this may be her last fully committed performance -- over the top, in fact, in a way I can't recall seeing her before. But how else could she convince us that she was Klaus Kinski's mother? She's more than convincing, in fact; Kinski is reduced to a straight-man in her presence, and not because he was phoning in his performance this time. But what could he do? In a typical scene Kinski is trying to have a conversation with Giuliano Gemma, who plays Kinski's half-brother and the default hero of the piece. They're seated on a sofa while Hayworth is parading and raving in the background, above their heads on the screen. She seems like comic relief at first, though seeing Hayworth this way isn't necessarily funny, but as the film goes on she develops into something more nearly opposite that.

Gemma and Kinski are crooks, sons of different fathers neither knew, bound by crime and mother-love. Otherwise they're rivals, with Kinski determined to muscle in on Gemma's latest score. Gemma is tough, Kinski clever. We see how clever when Kinski's gang finally seem to have Gemma and his girlfriend cornered. Where are the stolen jewels? Beating Gemma won't make him talk, so how about slapping his girlfriend around? How about yanking down her undies and teasing rape? Gemma can't allow that, so he spills -- and then he finds out that the girl was in cahoots with Kinski, or else had changed sides on the spot. Revenge would seem to be in order, but Kinski tries to preempt that by having the tendons of Gemma's shooting wrist severed, effectively paralyzing his right hand.

But when did mutilation get in the way of vengeance? Gemma stumbles into a new romance and gradually trains himself as a southpaw. Knowing that Kinski plans an armored-car heist, Gemma preempts him by planning his own operation with a counterfeit armored car. That's not vengeance enough, though; Gemma wants a definitive showdown, but Mom won't tell him where Kinski's laying low. Gemma figures it out from the return address on some of Mom's mail. Then a reunion with his old flame rekindles his old feelings -- and hers, it seems; she'll help set Kinski up for the kill. But we're not surprised to learn that she's still playing him for a sap; she's actually going to set Gemma up for Kinski to kill, and at this point Tessari and his two co-writers apparently realized that they'd plotted themselves into a corner.

The final scenes have a deus ex machina quality that ends up suiting the tragedy Tessari had in mind. Gemma's staying in a motel in a small New Mexico town near Kinski's hideout and just going to bed when he notices a suspicious movement. The suspicious movement is coming from the ceiling lamp. Soon the whole room is moving; an earthquake has shaken up everyone's plans. Hayworth learns from a poorly staged TV broadcast that an unprecedented quake for that region has killed thousands of people. These were the good old days of TV news; the anchor is on for about a minute with this ghastly news, and then he sends us back to the regularly scheduled program. But things don't go back to normal for Hayworth, since she realizes in screaming horror that her boy Kinski's in harm's way. Meanwhile, Gemma has gotten out of his motel deathtrap and is running through the desert to chez Kinski, now a ruin. His old flame has been snuffed, but Kinski is buried alive. Gemma rescues him, but only because he won't let anything deny him vengeance, not even God. But while he may insist on the final word on the whole matter, there are other interested parties who'll have something to say before the film is over.

Bastardi isn't Tessari's best work -- the Alain Delon vehicle Tony Arzenta is his masterpiece as far as I'm concerned, and his Chicago-shot Three Tough Guys is a pulpy guilty pleasure. The problem here is that Gemma (at least as dubbed into English) is a relatively dull hero or antihero, with little of the charisma he brings to other films I've seen, while Hayworth's antics overshadow everything and keep the tone uncertain until the end. Kinski comes off the best with a restrained performance reminiscent to me of the weaselly characters the young Kirk Douglas played in his earliest noirs, the twerp who temporarily outwits the noble lug. The tragic finish cinches the impression that Tessari had attempted a kind of updated, broad-daylight film noir, with a genre veteran (Hayworth) blessing/cursing the next generation of lugs, thugs and femmes fatales. The pieces don't quite fit together the way he hoped, but to an extent you can admire the ambition.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

THE MAFIA KILLS ONLY IN SUMMER (La mafia uccide solo d'estate, 2013)

It's good to see that the Italians can still come up with wacky verbose titles to their movies. This time we have to assume that the title sounds funny on purpose, since Pierfrancesco Diliberto's film is a comedy. As "Pif," Diliberto is a popular TV personality in Italy, apparently a satirical news reporter of the sort we see on cable TV in the U.S. His first movie as writer, director and star is a satire of Italian crime and politics from the 1970s into the 1990s, as well as a kind of romantic-comedy bildungsroman that equates coming of age with coming to terms with truth. Pif takes a potentially treacherous path juxtaposing comedy and real-life tragedy, as if Forrest Gump had been witness to the political assassinations of the American Sixties, and he manages to pull it off with style.

La mafia uccide tells the story of Arturo (played by several actors, finally by Pif himself), whose life has been shaped since conception by proximity to crime. Pif means this literally. As Arturo's parents consummate their marriage, a St. Valentines-style massacre -- with hitmen disguised as cops -- is being staged nearby. As a CGI cartoon demonstrates, nearly all the father's sperm are frightened away from the mother's egg by the gunfire, but one little sperm, the slowest of all, carries on to fertilize the egg that will become Arturo. Throughout, Arturo will be something of a slow learner, but when he finally speaks his first word, it's the most dangerous one possible in Palermo.

Arturo grows up in a land where everyone evades the truth. Mafia killings happen all the time, it seems, but are always blamed on disputes over women. In this environment of awkward evasiveness, Arturo becomes an awkward child with a strange fixation on Giulio Andreotti, the longtime leader of the Christian Democratic Party. Between this film and Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo, an outsider can conclude that Andreotti was Italy's Nixon, a figure defined as much by his physical and emotional awkwardness as by his ethical shadiness. It's hard to tell whether Pif is riffing on the real Andreotti or on Tony Servillo's Andreotti in Il Divo by having Arturo dress up as Andreotti and mimic his peculiar mincing, hands-folded shuffle for a costume party. The boy looks a little like a vampire with Andreotti's pointed ears and wins the costume contest, albeit by mistake; the judges thought he was the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Arturo seems to empathize with Andreotti's awkwardness, starting with a TV appearance in which the premier describes making a marriage proposal in a cemetery. The rest of the film will trace Arturo's very gradual disillusionment with a man who did much, it seems, to keep Italy in denial about the Mafia. Andreotti was a cold character, apparently. When other politicians flocked to the funeral of a Mafia victim, he told reporters, "I prefer to go to baptisms."


Diliberto establishes a pattern and sticks to it, keeping Arturo (and his lifelong beloved, Flora) at the edge of violent history. Arturo aspires to be a journalist and wins a reporter-for-a-day contest for one of the city newspapers; the award ceremony is interrupted by news of the latest killing. In his new role, the boy will sneak into a government compound to interview an important police official, challenging him with Andreotti's assertion that the real crime problem is anywhere but Sicily. Arturo will be one of the last people to see him alive. Later, Flora (Ginevra Antona as a girl) has to leave the country with her father on short notice, while Arturo scrawls a love note on the sidewalk in front of her apartment building. We see her finish packing her clothes and dragging her suitcase out of her old room; seconds later her window shatters from a car bomb. Later still, the adult Arturo, making ends meet as pianist to a Franco-Italian talk show host, is passed by motorcyclists while riding in a car with his employer, whom the bikers recognize as a celebrity. The camera follows the motorcycle as it turns onto another street so the bikers can kill a politician. Again, it's a delicate balancing act in terms of tone, but the comedy is actually funny and the history is appropriately horrific.


As the mafia wars escalate with the rise of a particularly nasty boss, Toto Rinna, Arturo can no longer believe Andreotti's evasions and denials. In turn, he has to disillusion Flora (Cristiana Capotondi as an adult), who has become a naive Christian Democrat operative handling a particularly unpromising candidate. Arturo gets involved in the campaign but proves incompetent as a partisan stooge. He nearly blows his latest chance to score with Flora by criticizing the anti-crime speech she's written for the candidate. He's never said anything like this before, he says bluntly, so why should he start now. Yet for all the candidate's weakness he's still unacceptable to the mafia; he's the man the motorcyclists kill. There are still more killings to go before mass revulsion spills becomes mass action that finally unites hero and heroine for good. Diliberto closes the show on a note of earned poignance. Arturo is going to raise his own son differently from how he was raised. We see him taking the boy on a tour of all the memorials to the people murdered -- characters he's met and others in the background -- by the mafia, and we end with a collage of news clippings honoring Italy's anti-crime martyrs. Pif's mix of comedy and grim history might seem insensitive to overly sensitive audiences in the U.S., but his success on his first try as a cinematic satirist has me looking forward to whatever he may do next.

Monday, September 14, 2015

DVR Diary: CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 (1978)

The film with a title like a football score -- it refers to a signpost at a fork in the road -- is a late mating of the Italian spaghetti western with the American revisionist western.  The Italians contributed the script, most of the crew and cast, including action star Fabio Testi, who was top billed on posters in many markets. The Americans contributed director Monte Hellman, whose cult westerns Ride the Whirlwind and The Shooting were contemporary with the spaghettis' golden age a decade earlier; Warren Oates, who needs no introduction to western fans and is top-billed in the film itself; and sex. China 9 is a more adult film in its concern with the call of the flesh than most spaghettis, and for that reason, probably, it feels more like an American film. It feels especially like a revisionist film in its apparent repudiation of violence at the very end, though that comes about, in a part, in a positively archaic manner. It's less an "end of the west" film than an "end of the western," since there's a sense of exhaustion about it that overshadows its positive qualities.

We start with an archetypal spaghetti situation: gunfighter Clayton Drumm (Testi apparently speaks his own accented dialogue in the English version) gets a reprieve from hanging on the condition that he kill a former railroad enforcer whose land (and his stubborness) stands in the way of progress. Matt Sebanek (Oates) knows Drumm for what he is, and the mutual recognition forms the basis for mutual respect. If anything, the fact that Mrs. Sebanek (Jenny Agutter) has the hots for Drumm makes him more reluctant to kill Matt. But when he decides to leave Matt alive and leave the territory, she can't resist one more try, and finally he can't resist. Once Matt realizes what's happened he's ready to kill Drumm and slaps the shit out of Catherine, but she's a fighter, too. She stabs Matt in the shoulder with a kitchen knife and beans him with the housewife's archetypal weapon, the rolling pin. Convinced that she's killed the merely kayoed Matt, she runs off to join Drumm.

Somehow managing to extract the knife -- Hellman shows us his earlier futile effort but leaves the resolution offscreen, Matt gathers his brothers and hits the vengeance trail. Meanwhile, the railroad men send killers after Drumm, who failed to kill as ask, and Matt, whom they wanted dead in the first place. Matt's clan finally catches Catherine and wounds a fleeing Drumm, but as his brothers abuse his wife -- one tries to rape her -- Matt's own anger ebbs. All trails converge back at the Sebanek place, where Drumm and Matt team up to wipe out their pursuers before having their own showdown.

A brilliantly shot scene conveys how Drumm and Matt are men apart. Before everything goes bad, Matt's brothers come to his place for a party. The brothers set up some bottles for target shooting and are pretty bad at it. While we see them fire away ineptly, we see the two real gunmen quietly going about some business. Later, as the extended family sits at a picnic table for some music, we can see Drumm and Matt discussing the former's plans -- he has told Matt he's moving on -- in a far corner of the screen. Overall the film is nicely shot by Giuseppe Rotunno, who had The Leopard on his resume and would move on to All That Jazz between Fellini gigs. Pino Donaggio's score leaves something to be desired, sounding a little too contemporary for its own good. Hellman, who directed some of Oates's best performances in Two Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, gets dependably good work from here, while Testi struggles for credibility between his accent and his designation as beefcake but manages somehow to project the right attitude of weary arrogance. In the end, there's something too good to be true about Clayton Drumm. In the climactic gunfight he actually shoots Matt's gun out of his hand like a Saturday matinee singing cowboy. Matt is chagrined and a little disgusted, telling him that soft-hearted gunfighters -- Drumm is sparing Matt's life, you see -- don't last long in this territory. The final twist to the story is that Matt takes his own advice to heart. He keeps his wife but quits everything else, burning his house down after they pack their goods on a wagon instead of holding out against the railroad. These end notes of reconciliation and renunciation seem like a betrayal of the hard-eyed realism of the revisionist westerns and the cynicism of the spaghettis. It's arguably valid on the film's own terms but it still looks like giving up, and it looks less like Matt giving up on his land than the filmmakers giving up on the western. Appropriately enough, this was just about the end of the line for the Italian western, while the American genre was in such a virtual dormancy that attempted revival films of the Eighties like Silverado would look like historic events. China 9, Liberty 37 signifies two directions a traveler can take, but the film itself, good as it often is, looks like a dead end.

Saturday, September 12, 2015


It was a low bar to hurdle, but Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement deserve credit all the same for writing, directing and starring in the funniest vampire comedy ever made. There may not be much competition -- qualitatively speaking, that is -- but such competition as exists only proves how hard the task has been. How did these New Zealand comics pull it off? I compared notes with my longtime friend and longertime vampire-movie fan "Wendigo" and among the things we agreed on was that this film benefited from not focusing on one specific vampire film or personality to parody. Instead, it's a fairly comprehensive survey of vampire archetypes without stooping to impersonation. This is a film where no one does a "blah, blah" version of Bela Lugosi's voice, but there is an Euro-accented romantic-tragic vampire, Viago (Waititi) and a vampire inspired by the pop-mythological Vlad Tepes, Vladislav the Poker (Clement), who share a Wellington NZ house along with Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), whom Wendigo had to tag for me as an Ann Rice-type vampire gone to seed, and Petyr (Ben Fransham), a mute Nosferatu type who spends most of his time in the basement. The creators resist any remaining temptation to parody the Twilight cycle, but instead get laughs out of 21st century vampire Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) boasting implausibly that he inspired the books. The simple idea of What We Do in the Shadows is to throw these types together in one cramped setting, where none of them really fit, and let them bounce off one another. In short, it's reality TV or, more accurately, mockumentary, the gimme being that these vampires have allowed a documentary crew to film their activities, promising not to kill them and, indeed, keeping their word. The description doesn't sound very promising, really, and Wendigo in particular was skeptical about the rave reviews the film was getting, but the vampires' desire -- Viago's more than anyone else's -- to publicize themselves gets us quickly to the heart of the parody. Above all, the vampires (not counting the indifferent Petyr) are narcissists almost to the point of neurosis and don't really want to be in the shadows at all. In short, they're a lot like us.

It really was that simple. Give us vampires with the full panoply of powers -- mesmerism is especially important for them, particularly when police have to inspect the house shortly after one of the vampires has gone up in flames -- but make them almost mundane in their humanity, or almost human in their mundanity. That's the sort of comic gambit we might have expected in the 1950s, the golden age of parody, only now it comes out somewhat less Yiddish than it might have then. More to the point, whereas most vampire comedies aspire to an Addams Family mentality, What We Do in the Shadows is more like The Munsters, though the vampires in the picture are more like Herman than Grandpa, the actual vampire on the show. For all their irrepressible exoticism, there's something laughably bourgeois about their squabbling over household chores, their glee at getting admitted into trendy niteclubs with the help of Nick, their newest recruit, their still greater glee when Nick's still-human buddy Stu (Stu Rutherford) wires their home for the Internet and really introduces them to the 21st century. While most vampire comedies take the glamour of vampirism for granted, What We Do in the Shadows constantly punctures the glamour while exploring the paranormal underworld of Wellington. Our vampires trade insults with an equally bourgeois band of werewolves; their "Dark Masquerade" that climaxes the film takes place in a bowling alley banquet hall. Just as important, the film doesn't try to get laughs out of dumb humans getting seduced or waylaid by the vampires. It does quite well without an "audience point-of-view" character, the most prominent human character, Stu, being noteworthy for his utterly passive fearlessness in the vampires' presence. If anything, his technical knowhow makes him as fascinating and exotic a character to the vampires as they should seem to him.

All of the above would only add up to good intentions if the cast didn't deliver fully committed character turns. Each of the vampires (apart from Petyr) has a storyline running through the picture: Viago's pining for a still-living human lover he was separated from 70 years ago; Vladislav's much-hinted at feud with "the Beast," and his squabbles with his current human servant Jackie (Jackie van Beek), a local housewife impatient for eternal life; Deacon's growing jealousy of Nick, now the most modern and fashionable of the group, even as he seems to ape Deacon's fashions; Nick's own imperilment of the group's safety by his public boasting of his new status. What We Do in the Shadows keeps a lot of balls in the air while most vampire comedies can barely hold on to one. I won't go into further detail because it's a good enough comedy not to have its gags spoiled. It's no masterpiece by any means, and if I find it one of the funnier movies of the past few years I have to add that I seek out relatively few comedies. But it is the best of its kind and that justifies some hyperbole, as well as renewed astonishment that it too cinema so long to do this right.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

THE SKIN (La Pelle, 1981)

The ending of Liliana Cavani's account of the ambiguous liberation of Italy feels like a culmination of trends high and low in postwar Italian cinema. After spending most of the picture in Naples, the American army is finally closing in on Rome. Once the locals are persuaded that the men on tanks aren't Germans, they welcome the advancing troops, singing, dancing and waving American flags.  It's the sort of image Americans got used to seeing in newsreels. Here's a guy waving a flag with his kid riding on his shoulders, dancing backwards in front of a tank, until he stumbles and falls.


Cavani pulls no punches here. For one moment she nearly out-gores all her Italian peers. The effect is crude but effective and the director lingers on it. We get one more close look at the bloody sludge that had been a man moments ago -- his son managed to fall between the treads and scrambles out from under once the tank stops -- and then we see Marcello Mastroianni observing the spectacle.



Mastroianni is only the most obvious Felliniesque element in this account of la dura vita. He's playing Curzio Malaparte, the author whose book Cavani adapted, a onetime fascist and onetime prisoner of Mussolini's regime, now commissioned as a captain and acting as an interpreter for the Americans. There's something odd about the interpreting that makes me question whether the Cohen Media DVD has the definitive soundtrack. Their edition is in Italian but dubs the American actors (or actors playing Americans) almost entirely into Italian, so that an Italian character will speak Italian, and then an American character will ask Malaparte, in Italian, what the Italian said, and Malaparte will translate from Italian to Italian. Maybe that didn't bug the Italians the way it bugs me, but it would have been cool to hear Burt Lancaster's own voice. Lancaster for the Italians seems to have been what Olivier was for Americans: the mark of quality for a prestigious production with international aspirations. For once the American star plays an American in an Italian film. While IMDB and Wikipedia identify his character as General Mark Clark, the film's English subtitles dub him Mark Cork, perhaps out of deference to the actual Clark, who was still living when the film was first released. Cork is not flattering to Clark. He's an egoist fond of referring to himself in the third person and describing the army he commands as his personal possession. He spends most of the film negotiating with a local mafioso (Carlo Giuffre) over the transfer of a few hundred German POWs. They haggle over the local's compensation: he wants to be paid back for feeding his prisoners, by the pound. At least the Germans are assured of eating heartily, whether they want to or not.

Most of the people in Sicily aren't as assured of daily meals, and for the most part La Pelle chronicles their survival measures, most of which involve offering themselves to G.I.s or whoever shows up seeking supple flesh. Whatever indignities fascism imposed on Italians, liberation brought something seemingly new: the commodification of modern man. While the powerful men haggle over the sale of former warriors, the poor can only sell themselves, or their children. The common American soldier proves a willing customer -- the lines at a brothel wind down several flights of stairs -- but the higher-echelon types Malaparte has to show around get indignant at Italians' apparent surrender of dignity. For much of the picture our hero has to squire around Col. Deborah Wyatt, a military aviatrix and powerful politician's wife (Alexandra King, apparently in her only film role) whom Cork wants to get rid of as soon as possible. Some characteristic Mastroianni comedy ensues, particularly an upside-down airplane ride that Caviani ought to have milked for more of Marcello's comic discomfort but films flatly with an exterior process shot. Things get more Felliniesque as Malaparte introduces Wyatt to the dregs of society. Here are mothers prostituting their young sons to turbaned strangers -- where on earth are they coming from in the middle of a war? Here is some sort of homosexual party (with some rocking Sicilian folk music) highlighted by the ritual birth to a male mother of a mythologically endowed baby; its phallus is as big as the rest of him. Wyatt is horrified by it all, as are other idealistic Americans; none of this matches their expectations for the behavior of a liberated people. Malaparte has to remind them that the Italians have lost the war, and that women and children have lost more than others.

Curzio Malaparte seems to have been an early observer of American indignation at the inadequate (or perhaps inappropriately abject) gratitude of liberated peoples. The point certainly isn't that Italians were better off under fascism, but it does have something to do with the rather heedless manner in which Americans rush about liberating people and expect them to begin living happily ever after immediately. An aristocrat jokes that the Americans are the first occupiers of Sicily who took the trouble to knock before coming in; Gen. Cork jokes back, noting the damage from bombings to her ceiling, that perhaps we knocked a little too hard. If the Americans of La Pelle often seem obtuse, I don't think that makes the picture anti-American. The historical coincidence of an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius -- the mass evacuation under a fiery shower is one of Cavani's best sequences -- suggests analogically that the American occupation is a similar force of nature, no more comprehending of the damage it does and no more malicious at heart. The occupation seems like a supreme subject for Italian cinema, so it's surprising that it fell to Cavani, whose main credential was that triumph of arthouse Nazisploitation, The Night Porter, to put The Skin on film. She's not enough of a stylist, nor enough of a comedian, to make the film fully successful, but it has plenty of memorable moments and has clear historic interest as one of the last gasps of Italian cinema's aspiration to world leadership, and one that seems like a summation of everything that cinema had to offer in its golden age.

Saturday, September 5, 2015


If "zero to hero" is the popular paradigm today, the reverse of the coin is the villain who has his reasons. Just as we seem uncomfortable with characters who are inherently good or effortlessly competent, so we seem, if anything, more uncomfortable with characters who are innately wicked, neither reformable nor redeemable. Given a widespread inclination to see the mythic Dracula -- a modern amalgam of Bram Stoker's fictional character as interpreted in numerous films and the historic Vlad Tepes -- as a tragic figure, something like Dracula Untold was inevitable. It's not exactly "hero to zero," since this film's Vlad is always too scrupulous and sensitive to truly go bad, but it still reflects audiences' presumed obsession with the becoming of heroic or legendary figures, and in this case especially, to understand is to excuse.

Vlad Dracula (Luke Evans) is the stren, protective ruler of his people after a hard childhood as a hostage and child soldier of the rising Ottoman Empire, where he learned the fine art of impaling and its strategic uses.Gary Shore's film is at pains to tell us that Vlad doesn't impale folks gratuitously, but as a deterrent, for all the good that does when Islam is on the march. But despite what I just said, Dracula Untold admirably underplays the Turks' religious aspect. For this film's purposes they're generic invaders and enslavers, the better to make clear that Vlad does what he must for his people to survive. Understanding that the odds against him are hopeless, he takes interest in a legend of a powerful, demonic figure dwelling in a cave recently occupied by now-dead Turkish troops. This mystery man is a very old vampire (Charles "Tywin Lannister" Dance) who offers Vlad a deal. He'll let Vlad drink his blood, which will give the prince vampire powers for three days, time enough to fend off the Turkish threat, and when those days expire that will be that -- unless Vlad should drink human blood, at which point he'll become a full-time vampire, while his sire will be freed from his cave prison to pursue some nebulous mission of vengeance that may require Vlad's assistance down the line. An optimistic judge of his own integrity and willpower, Vlad accepts the generous offer.

Turk-trained Vlad is already a formidable fighter; we see him take out a half-dozen Turks singlehandedly to save his own son from enslavement. Now, with vampire blood seething through him, he's literally a one-man army, not to mention a one-man flock of bats. It's no longer cool enough for Dracula to turn into a bat; he's got to be lots of bats, a cloud of them, though there's no practical point to this. Shore clearly though it was a cool video-gamey effect for him to turn into a cloud of bats when he flies speedily from one opponent to another, but wouldn't it make his task easier if he could, in bats-form, attack multiple foes at once? Well, it's a moot point, since even in his own pokey one-at-a-time fashion he can take out an entire Turkish army by his lonesome. This show of power takes his people aback ever so slightly, but it's not until he starts to sizzle in sunlight that they really start to take offense. Still, they're going to need him when his childhood pal Mehmet II, the Conqueror, the man who took Constantinople (Dominic "Howard Stark" Cooper), comes calling with the main Turkish army. For the big battle he gets help from an actual flock of bats, and when his lady love (Sarah Gadon), dying from Turk treachery, begs him to drink the blood he'll need to finish the job, even at the cost of his soul, it looks like another rout. But Mehmet's not "the Conqueror" for nothing. He lays a trap for Vlad, luring him for a final battle in a tent piled ankle-deep with silver coins, nullifying our hero's vampire powers. But don't assume that history's a guide to what happens next, because there weren't vampires in history, after all.

Dracula Untold is unrepentantly preposterous but the director and writers brought some redemptive imagination to what could have been simply a by-the-numbers origin story. The fight in the silver-tent is an inspired idea, and despite the inevitable dull CGI skies the picture has some decent production design. Its main fault is its dogged refusal Dracula become truly evil -- though I suppose you could see something evil on the level of hypocrisy about the denouement. While Vlad's been fighting Mehmet the Turks have pretty much massacred his incompetent subjects. Our hero finds a handful of wounded survivors to whom he offers vengeance via vampirism. A total wipeout of the Turks results, until the only humans left alive our Vlad's son and a monk. The other vampires are his people now, but Vlad suddenly grows less protective of them. To be fair, their desire to drink his son's blood has something to do with that. After sending his son off with the monk, Vlad uses his vampire magic to part the clouds and expose himself and everyone else to purging sunlight, but before he can join them in deserved oblivion, a gypsy proto-Renfield he met earlier in the story (Zach "Captain Charles Vane" McGowan) drags his scorched form to shelter, and that leads us to the present day. Has Vlad lived out Dracula's legendary career of wickedness or has he just hung around Transylvania as a benevolent spirit? The film isn't telling, but the filmmakers feel that one thing Dracula must do is meet a reincarnation of his lost first love -- and it also chooses this point to remind us that Vlad still owes that older vampire some service, hopefully in a sequel that a worldwide gross of a quarter-billion dollars may justify. I understand that hopeful filmmakers like to leave their pictures open-ended, but it was kind of demoralizing to have this film's last words be "Let the games begin." The film we have is a tale told by talented idiots, but a lot of that was due to the pictorial potential of the period, and I doubt strongly that they can repeat what modest success they had with a period piece in modern dress, especially when burdened with the tired gimmick of the reincarnated lover. Better, I think, to quit when they're slightly ahead and leave the rest of this story untold.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: THE NARROW CORNER (1933)

One of the things insisted on most vehemently in the period of Code Enforcement, from 1934 through the mid-1960s, was that movie characters couldn't get away with crimes, especially killing. Something like The Narrow Corner, despite its literary credentials as a W. Somerset Maugham novel, probably couldn't be made as a movie a year or two after Alfred E. Green's film came out. The hero (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) is clearly a fugitive as the film begins, though we don't find out why he's on the run until later in the picture. An American (or English) fugitive in exotic exile was a popular motif at this time; the idea combines the appealing prospect of starting over with the persistence of threat if not outright guilt for whatever you've done. This time there's the added terror of repeating your original mistake. Fred Blake, it turns out, killed a man back home. Green illustrates this awkwardly, in a manner presumably inspired by the Rouben Mamoulian Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, using a split screen to show both Fred telling the story and the story itself in flashback. Showing Fred talking really adds nothing to the sequence, which is highlighted by the faceless shot of a woman's hand putting a gun in Fred's hand as he grapples for life with her husband. This matters because Fred is falling in love again with another man's woman. The man is Ralph Bellamy in something like his eventual archetypal role as the loser boyfriend, the guy who gets dumped in favor of the more charismatic star. But this was still a time when Bellamy could win the girl in some of his pictures, and even when he doesn't you're in for a fight if you try to take his woman. In Narrow Corner he sort of wins but definitely loses, choking out Fairbanks in a fit of jealous rage but horrified immediately by what he's done. "I killed him," he moans in exactly the tone of voice you associate with those guilt-stricken, stupid predators who think they've done in Bugs Bunny, but before Junior can pop up and kiss him the inconsolable lug goes and kills himself. Bellamy dies, dead, as Old Ygor might explain it, Junior dies, live! The way is now clear for Fred Blake to get the girl, and as long as he can steer a boat through some treacherous reefs he and she can start over, presumably without worries over the man he did kill or the man for whose death he bears at least a little responsibility. Not that I object morally, mind you, but a lot of people in 1933 did seem to object to such seemingly triumphant immorality. For me it was just in keeping with the admirable seediness of the whole project, and it's preferable to some stories I've seen where the big twist is that the hero (or heroine) didn't actually kill anyone back home. Fairbanks, Bellamy and female lead Patricia Ellis are surrounded by a strong cast of grotesques, from alcoholic sea captains and opium-addicted doctors to cantankerous old codgers boasting of their ancient conquests in the islands. The show is purely studio and soundstage bound but the special effects for the story's dangerous sea voyages are, if modest, at least dramatically effective also. Narrow Corner is another entertaining Pre-Code star vehicle for Fairbanks Jr., for whom the period meant freedom, above all, from having to be his father's son on film. He showed a range in these few years at Warner Bros. that, his other virtues notwithstanding, he would never show again.