Saturday, December 30, 2017

YOSO (1963)

Teinosuke Kinugasa is known outside Japan for two of his films. His Gate of Hell, an early color film from Japan, won the honorary Academy Award equivalent to the modern Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1954. He's probably best known now for a film made much earlier: the silent psychological horror film A Page of Madness from 1926 that Kinugasa himself rediscovered and restored in the 1970s. It could fairly be called the Japanese Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, not for aping German Expressionism in its set design or camerawork but for its escalating anxiety about the sanity of its point-of-view character. Kinugasa's much less widely known Yoso starts out as if it's going to be a horror film, but ends up a tragic romance apparently premised on the question: What if Rasputin was a good guy in medieval Japan?

Yoso's Rasputin is Dokyo (Raizo Ichikawa), a monk who after years of solitude and repeated transcription of Buddhist treatises has acquired supernatural powers. His first experiments appear malevolent: with a twist of his string of prayer beads he causes a mouse's skeleton (or is the effect supposed to represent its soul?) to leave its body, and then makes a snake curl up and wither. He's now ready to rejoin the world of men and quickly makes an impression by healing a thief apparently killed by guards. A man with his powers might be just the thing for an ailing Empress (Yukiko Fuji), and indeed, just as Rasputin supposedly could relieve the Tsarevich's hemophilia, so Dokyo can ease the frail ruler's oppressive chest pains. The monks of the palace think they should get some of the credit because of their constant prayers, and that the state should continue its ambitious temple building program.

Dokyo quickly realizes that the Empress is surrounded by a bunch of grafters both spiritual and secular who are bankrupting the state treasury with their building programs and subsidized prayers, not to mention their proposed public celebrations of the Empress's recovery. When he uses his new influence with the monarch to challenge their policies and demand reforms, the regime (led by Prime Minister Tomasaburo Wakayama) decides to eliminate him, but running him through with a sword has no effect thanks to his spiritual power. His rise to power appears inexorable as the Empress entrusts him with implementing a "New Deal" -- or so the translator calls it -- aimed at alleviating poverty. Only the Empress's own diplomatic sense of restraint keeps him from taking more radical action against the political hacks at court.

With Dokyo -- or Dokjo, as the Empress affectionately renames him -- invincible if not immortal, there's nothing the politicians can do to stop him. Luckily for them, Dokjo authors his own undoing. As his carnal attraction to the Empress and his temporal political ambitions grow stronger, his spiritual power dwindles until he is no longer able to ease the ruler's chest pains. Ironically, she's more a model of serenity at this point than he is. As he grows desperate to save her, she urges him to let her go, explaining that she can die happy after he gave her happiness. It's not in the cards for Dokjo to die happy, however, as his enemies, sensing weakness, close in for the genuine kill....

Yoso isn't particularly flashy, but it's effectively moody thanks to Kinugasa and his chief collaborators, cinematographer Hiroshi Imai and composer Akira Ifukube, who adds thunderously ominous piano notes to an unmistakably characteristic score. As Dokyo, Raizo Ichikawa makes a great, almost Gothic antihero, so grimly righteous, until he gives in to temptation, that you can hardly blame people, whatever their reasons, for thinking him a villain.  What makes Yoso work as a tragedy is that it isn't until you finally feel pretty certain that Dokyo is a good guy without ulterior motives that his plans start to fall apart. I suppose it may be a particularly Buddhist sort of tragedy that dooms the hero for wanting so badly to help the nation and its ruler, but whatever the spiritual or philosophical rationale, it's one of the most successful cinematic tragedies I've seen in some time.

Thursday, December 28, 2017


Claudia Jennings was the white Pam Grier. A Playboy Playmate of the Year turned action heroine, she didn't make it out of the Seventies, dying in a 1979 car wreck. She was one of a global generation of female ass-kickers that gave the decade's genre fare an unprecedented quality. Vernon Zimmerman's Unholy Rollers, one of her first starring roles, presents Jennings as a sort of female Kirk Douglas in self-destructive Champion mode. Karen is sick and tired of the dull routine and the obnoxious boss at her grungy cat-food cannery and after a fit of sabotage is angrily unemployed. She finds a new career in roller derby, which in those days wasn't the female-bonding/empowerment ritual it seems to be today. Instead, it was -- if you can imagine this -- a poor man's professional wrestling, with its enigmatic competition (the rules are, of a necessity, explained during the film) taking a back seat to the spectacle of good guys (the L.A. Avengers) and bad guys (the San Diego Demons have an enforcer who prances around in a green mask and cape). It's less rollerball than hockey with regularly scheduled worked fights. Unlike pro wrestling, roller derby has, to my knowledge, never added anyone to the pantheons of celebrity or folklore. That's how low-rent it was in the days of Unholy Rollers, but it's the sort of venue where someone like Karen, beauty marred by belligerent alienation, can become a sort of star. There's an underlying theme of salesmanship and fakery in the picture, little distinction being made between Karen's main job selling -- in the wrestler's sense of the word -- the violence of roller derby and her burgeoning side gig as a local commercial pitchwoman. Fame, such as it is, goes to her head. It also awakens a violent streak in real life. She's effortlessly proficient with firearms and reckless with them, taking potshots at signs while joyriding through the streets of L.A. Like early Kirk Douglas, Karen succumbs to self-immolating rage and self-loathing -- an attempt to be generous to her contemptuous mother is telling -- becoming more trouble to the management than she's worth as she passes the shelf-life of the typical roller-derby star. She finally rolls right off the track, onto the street, and into the path of an oncoming car, as if eager to throw elbows at the whole world. With such a character in the spotlight, one can't help wondering how much "supervising editor" Martin Scorsese may have contributed to this Roger Corman production beyond its conspicuous cutting. Unholy Rollers is a misanthropic, sleazy satire of the desperate ambitions of people on or just below the bottom rungs of fame, and of how easily even they can enthrall the consumer rabble. That doesn't really make it a good movie, though Scorsese helps whip it to a gallop and Jennings impresses as a gorgeous-ugly id monster, but it does make Zimmerman's picture a fascinating artifact of Seventies cinema.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

BRIGHT (2017)

Urban fantasy is a genre of popular fiction in which mythological creatures coexist with humans in modern cities. There are two broad categories of urban fantasy, one in which the fantasy creatures hail from the horror genre: vampires especially, but also werewolves and all the rest. In the other category, you have the creatures of Tolkienesque high fantasy: elves, dwarves, orcs and so on. David Ayer's Bright, now streaming on Netflix, is one of the first large-scale attempts to put that second type of urban fantasy on screen. Like many an urban fantasy book, it uses the cop or crime format, giving us as mismatched LAPD partners Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the latter being the city's first orc cop. Orcs are hated for their looks -- Nick is a "pig" even before he becomes a cop because orcs normally have tusks, though he's filed his down to fit in better -- and for their apparently treacherous role a long-ago war between the Alliance of the Nine Races and the forces of the Dark Lord. While this event explains centuries of human hate for orcs, it doesn't seem to have had any other major impact on the evolution of human society. Bright's LA is pretty much our LA, except that wealthy, beautiful elves live in their own exclusive enclave and some store signs are in non-human languages. Daryl Ward lives a normal suburban life (though his neighborhood is going gangsta and he wants to move out) apart from the occasional nuisance of a fairy buzzing around and being a pest.

Slices of life in Bright's America

There's a certain lack of imagination at work, but the point of the genre is the juxtaposition of the fantastic with the here-and-now, so there'd be no point in altering the here-and-now beyond recognition. More practically speaking, elves and orcs (or vampires) play the role in urban fantasy that Chinatown used to fill in pulp fiction: a community nearby and yet a world away, where people live by different rules from ours and often can get away with stuff we can't. Inevitably the world of urban fantasy invites comparison with the increasingly uncomfortably multiculturalism of here and now, and Bright directly invites comparisons when Daryl jokes, "Fairy lives don't matter today" when he swats a winged mini-humanoid pest with a broom. Nick Jakoby could be the oppressed minority or the distrusted refugee depending on your perspective. Despised by most fellow cops and society at large, he's also looked on as an "unblooded" sellout by the orc underclass. Daryl has even more reason not to trust Nick after getting shot by an orc gangster while Jakoby was preoccupied with buying his partner a burrito, and still more reason when evidence suggests that Nick let a suspect get away. It's sure to be a long, difficult day when Daryl returns to active duty, but neither he nor Nick could guess how difficult it gets.

David Ayer may have formed an alliance with Will Smith after the dubious triumph of Suicide Squad, but the main reason he's here is his history of cop movies, beginning with his authorship of Training Day. His job is to maintain a veneer of verisimilitude as the proceedings grow increasingly fantastic. To a great extent, that's simply a matter of keeping the dialogue salty, or just the way Will Smith likes it. It's also a matter of restraint, and to the relief of anyone who saw Suicide Squad Ayer resists many opportunities to go over the top with special effects. Max Landis's story heads dangerously close to Suicide Squad territory as Daryl and Nick become embroiled in the hunt for a rare magic wand -- only a "Bright" of any race can use one without dying explosively -- that an evil elf (Noomi Rapace) wants to use to bring back the Dark Lord. A good elf (Lucy Fry, giving a strong Fifth Element vibe without the sex appeal) has the wand, but not only her evil sister but corrupt cops and both orc and human gangsters want it, hoping for everything from limitless wealth to a cure for the injuries that have left one crime boss in a wheelchair. Daryl has to kill four cops to stop them from taking the wand and whacking Nick, and from there the episodic chase is on, taking the three protagonists through a half-orcish, half-Hispanic underworld while the federal Bureau of Magic (led by an elfin Edgar Ramirez) scrambles to keep tabs on things.

You may have read some brutal reviews identifying Bright as one of the year's worst films. I've only seen the headlines in an effort to avoid spoilers, so I can only guess whether the reviewers have their knives out for Smith and/or Ayer, expressing reflexive hostility to the very premises of urban fantasy, or flinching from the implicit comparisons to real-world race relations. In all fairness, Bright is no instant classic and suffers from moments of gratuitous violence and story-sustaining stupidity -- e.g., why didn't the corrupt cops just blow Daryl and Nick away when they had a golden opportunity, or why does a sniper let the three protagonists run to shelter just after taking a deputy down with one shot? --  but it's easily better than Suicide Squad, to set the bar admittedly low, and not half-bad on its own terms. Smith and Edgerton develop a decent chemistry and Ayer maintains a better balance of fantasy and grittiness than he did in his previous effort. He passes one crucial test late in the picture by never having the portal or whatever the evil elf was working on open, and never showing us the Dark Lord. For the type of story he's telling this time, he didn't really need that extra spectacle. The climax, with an inevitable but still implausible revelation of another Bright, may induce groans, but by then the film should have earned just enough good will from indulgent audiences to be forgiven that ploy. 

This shot features some nice widescreen composition, some admirably grungy set design, 
and Lucy Fry's peculiar curiosity about restroom hand-driers.

Bright has a better overall production design than Suicide Squad, with Ayer's frequent cinematographer Roman Vasyanov also improving on his last collaboration. The real difference, I suspect, was that there was no nervous mega-corporation looking over the talents' shoulders throughout this production, which leaves Bright looser and sharper than the Warner Bros.-DC extravaganza. At the end of the day it's still an overblown B picture, and maybe too reminiscent of Alien Nation for its own good, but I found it a diverting experiment in translating pop fiction into a new movie genre.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Too Much TV: GUNPOWDER (2017)

People like their drama in hour-long doses, or else BBC One or HBO might have run this Kit Harrington three-parter as a one-night three-hour epic movie. Harrington, HBO's beloved Jon Snow, is star and producer of this thriller based on the 1605 Gunpowder Plot that made conspirator Guy Fawkes the focus of an informal British holiday. Fawkes (Tom Cullen) is not the protagonist of Ronan Bennett's teleplay, which rightly spotlights Harrington's distant ancestor, Robert Catesby, the instigator of the plot. Harrington's Catesby is a Catholic embittered by the persecution of his kind under Elizabeth I and her successor, James I (Derek Riddell). Already an unhappy widower who can't help blaming his young son for his wife's death in childbirth, Catesby is taken over the edge when a raid on a clandestine Catholic service on his family estate leads to the brutal execution of his mother (pressed) and younger brother (drawn and quartered). The King is actually less enthusiastic about the persecution than his paranoid secretary of state, Robert Cecil (Peter Mullan) and Cecil's henchman Sir William Wade (Shaun Dooley), the man who led the Catesby raid. Robert's downward spiral is inescapably evocative of modern Islamic extremism as he rejects all advice to find safety in a Catholic country in favor of destroying his homeland's Protestant tyranny.  While James believes that rank-and-file Catholics present no real threat to his country or his throne, Catesby is like Cecil's dream or nightmare come true, and historians have long suspected Cecil of egging on the plot in order to justify the larger crackdown he desired. Catesby is rebuffed by Spain, which claims a protectorate over English Catholics but sees no good coming from his schemes. Indeed, that country's "Catholic Majesty" ends up selling Catesby out when it's in Spain's national interest to do King James a favor. Nevertheless, Catesby persists in building a ragtag team, with more powerful support promised from exiles in France and dissidents in Northumberland should the plan to blow up the King in Parliament succeed. The famous Fawkes is introduced as a super badass who sees through and runs through a fake conspirator sent by Cecil before joining forces in Catesby's real plot. Throughout, Fawkes is shown as a more formidable fighter than history allows, but despite his prowess the deck is stacked against the plotters. Gunpowder has a moment of tragic irony when Catesby is accidentally ratted out by a frail but brave priest who survived torture and was rescued from prison by our hero. He didn't crack on the rack -- mentally, that is; the soundtrack gives a sickening snap when he suffers one ratchet too many -- but he proves all too trusting of the Spanish diplomats who claim to support Catesby's cause but plan to give him up to Cecil. Fawkes' arrest -- he might at least have taken out Cecil and the Parliament building had his fuse not been so slow -- leaves Catesby himself with a final fight-or-flight choice. Despite desperate advice from his cousin Anne Vaux (a dramatically deglamourized Liv Tyler), Catesby and a handful of followers decide to make a last stand, hoping form martyrdom despite Sir William's order to take the plotters alive....

By modern "Prime TV" standards Gunpowder is no more than an anecdote with no real other purpose than to invite the parallel with modern Islam or express Harrington's filial piety.  Acknowledging that, it's still a solid entertainment with strong performances throughout. Harrington himself is appropriately intense and stubborn while Tyler is a modest revelation in her relatively minor role and Tom Cullen acquits himself more admirably as Fawkes than in his current main gig on The History Channel's silly Templar drama, Knightfall. Strange to say, I was especially impressed by Shaun Dooley as Sir William. I'd last seen him as a henchman on The White Queen and Gunpowder confirms that he's very good as an enforcer-style villain. He seems to radiate menace as his character can walk the walk while talking the talk, more than holding his own against the fearsome Fawkes. Someone needs to make Dooley the big bad on a genre show sometime, if that wouldn't be beneath his dignity. The acting and overall production make Gunpowder easily worth the modest three hours it asks of us. I suspect that short-form serials along this line will find a receptive audience with the right performers or subject matter. And someone just might get the idea someday to serve such a show up in one serving. People could get used to such things and come to expect them on a regular basis. At some point, if they catch on, you might even start calling each of them a Movie of the Week....

Friday, December 15, 2017


In the late 1950s, on the strength of Roger Vadim's ...And God Created Woman and Dick Powell's The Enemy Below, Curt Jurgens became an international film star. Apparently a real-life "good German" during World War II, Jurgens seemed to Hollywood to be the next Emil Jannings, to the extent that he was cast in a remake of The Blue Angel. Star he may have been, but he's still a tough sell as the two-fisted he-man hero of Lewis Gilbert's shot-on location sea saga. Mark Bertram Conrad (he's half-English) is a gruff, belligerent alcoholic, the former captain of a junk confiscated by the Chinese government after the communist revolution. Ordered deported by the British government of Hong Kong for starting a brawl in a nightclub that may have influenced the opening scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Conrad is put on board of the Fa Tsan, a ferry operating between Hong Kong and Macau, to be dumped in the Portuguese colony. When Macau rejects him as an undesirable, Conrad becomes a kind of flying dutchman, making a makeshift home on the "Fat Annie" and making life miserable for its captain while befriending some of the regular passengers, especially algebra teacher Liz Ferrers (Sylvia Sims) and her schoolgirl charges, and renewing his acquaintance with ship's engineer Skinner (Noel Purcell), who keeps separate families in each city. As the captain grows desperate in his efforts to remove Conrad, the old reprobate gradually redeems himself, pressuring the captain to rescue survivors of a burning junk, then overriding the captain's orders to steer the ferry to safety during a typhoon, and finally organizing the resistance to a takeover by Yen, the Chinese pirate (played by Britain's answer to Tor Johnson, Milton Reid).

Jurgens is more convincing as a surly bum than as an action hero, but previous roles as military men presumably qualified him for such a part. But if you find him unconvincing in the hero's role, consider the alternative. According to Wikipedia, the original plan was for Jurgens to play the ferry captain -- a role originally intended for Burl Ives, who ended up playing something like it in Ensign Pulver -- while the man who actually did play Capt. Cecil Hart was supposed to play the hero. His name was Orson Welles.

A Rank Organization executive, presumably examining Touch of Evil, insisted that his lead actors switch roles. While this may have spared us a reprise of the Wellesian action hero as seen (and worse, heard) in The Lady From Shanghai, his new role gave the great man even greater temptation to indulge his hobby of silly accents. The discrepancy in quality between Welles the director and Welles the actor may not be as vast as in the case of, say, Quentin Tarantino, but when Welles was bad he was horrid, and he's pretty bad here. He reportedly had only himself to blame, since according to Gilbert and Jurgens Welles did his usual thing and rewrote his own dialogue to make his character more comical. This reportedly caused conflicts with Jurgens -- Welles told Peter Bogdanovich that this was the only time he feuded with a fellow actor while performing in a picture -- who wanted to keep the picture a straight drama, regardless of whatever impression he himself made on the audience.

Ferry may well feature Welles's worst-ever performance. His British accent is erratic, veering from a Charles Laughton impersonation to a more plummy approximation of Richard Haydn. If the latter name means nothing to you, think of the professor who makes super carrots that turn Bugs Bunny into a superhero. The voice actor, presumably not Mel Blanc, was imitating Haydn and doing a better job of it than Welles does. The characterization also sprawls all over the place, as Welles can't seem to make up his mind on whether Captain Hart is merely a pompous ass or a complete nincompoop. The film itself, on Welles's initiative or Gilbert's, resolves itself in favor of the captain as a nincompoop to a cartoonish degree -- he even gets blown up in classic cartoon fashion, largely unharmed but left dirty and disheveled -- before treating him with more pathos as the erstwhile Singapore Cecil loses his ship but redeems himself somewhat toward the end. At worst, he gets to wear a plank stuffed down the back of his shirt as a back brace. His recovery and redemption are signified by the removal of this impediment so he may bop a pirate on the bean with it, while Conrad's complete redemption, after leading the rout of the pirates, depends on a final fight with "the dragon." He's fallen in love with the algebra teacher, but as the film closes their union must wait until he cleans himself up fully. His decision not to enter the Dragon nightclub where his recent troubles began is our assurance that a happy ending will follow the actual ending at some point.

At least the location work is nice and Otto Heller's cinematography is often nice. Gilbert could write this nautical adventure off as a tryout not only for his subsequent Sink the Bismarck! and Damn the Defiant but also for a run of James Bond pictures, including a reunion with Jurgens in The Spy Who Loved Me. Fans of Orson Welles have mostly, and fortunately, forgotten this film, which presumably got some more of Don Quixote filmed, if nothing else. There probably were the makings of a better adventure film in the Max Catto novel Gilbert and others adapted, but a proper film required a sharper clash of stronger personalities than Ferry actually delivered. In the end, Welles's grotesque antics are the film's most interesting, if not most entertaining feature.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

National Film Registry Class of 2017

The Library of Congress yesterday made its annual announcement of films added to its National Film Registry for permanent preservation. With more than 120 years of American film history to glean from, the Registry list is once again strangely heavy on films made after 1960. This has struck me as a dubious idea given the priority of preserving older films, but it always makes sense from a publicity standpoint, since websites can headline the fact that a film most people have heard of has been canonized by the government. For that audience, the highlights of this year's list are such pop blockbusters as Titanic, Superman, Die Hard and The Goonies. Older but still familiar, and with a remake in the works, is Dumbo from 1941, while 1960's Spartacus owes what fame it has less to disaffected director Stanley Kubrick than to potentially deathless star and producer Kirk Douglas; it'll be in the public consciousness at least as long as he is. Every list includes films that are more classics than greatest hits, and most classic move fans will applaud this year's canonization of Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. They may not be as sanguine about Elia Kazan's Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) but that film may have an unassailable claim as a Best Picture Oscar winner, as all such may have eventually. As always, the Registry strives to compensate for its arguably excessive attention to pop hits by including documentaries, art films and other non-feature or non-narrative items, as well as films of ethnically specific historical interest. Of this year's crop, the film that elicits a "what took them so long?" response is Winsor McKay's 1918 wartime propaganda cartoon The Sinking of the Lusitania -- though I must confess that I neglected to include that when I compiled a list of eligible and deserving films in 2015. After three from that list were canonized last year, none of the remaining 47 were tapped this year. You can see the complete list for 2017 here.

Of course, my perception of the Registry's presentism is influenced by my age. My feeling has been that the Registry should prioritize older films, but there are plenty of people around today who think of films from 1978 or 1985 as "old" when I have a hard time doing so. From a certain perspective, all the films added to the registry, even Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) are old movies, and given the attitude many people have today toward any entertainment option they can label as "old," I wonder whether the Registry's apparent strategy really has the effect its compilers hope for.

For historical and entertainment purposes, here's a copy of The Sinking of the Lusitania with an original soundtrack, as uploaded to YouTube by Tina Chancey:

Monday, December 11, 2017

DVR Diary: BAD LANDS (1939)

Robert Barrat is one of the relatively unsung heroes of the Pre-Code Warner Bros. stock company, a versatile character actor who enlivened many of the studio's pictures of that golden period. He only really got started in 1933, recreating his Broadway role as a psychopathic German strongman in Lily Turner but quickly escaping any accented typecasting to portray a variety of types, from the hypocritical Marxist tinkerer in Heroes For Sale to the benign judge in Wild Boys of the Road. It was a pleasant surprise to see Barrat get top billing in Lew Landers' RKO B-western, and Bad Lands is an interesting film in its own right. Reportedly a western remake of John Ford's The Lost Patrol, and a contemporary of Ford's Stagecoach -- and, for what it's worth, featuring the director's brother Francis as one of its posse -- its conceptual DNA makes it a very grim western for its time and a precursor of the next generation's "psychological westerns" in its attention to obsessions and irreconcilable personalities. Barrat plays a sheriff leading a posse in pursuit of the renegade Apache Jack, and as a relatively mild-mannered pipe-smoking authority figure he ends up something of a straight man to the more dramatic personalities in the cast. Rather than the star, Barrat is no more than first among equals in an ensemble cast that includes Noah Beery Jr., Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Columbia comedy star Andy Clyde as Francis Ford's sidekick. The characters aren't copies of the Lost Patrol; there's no counterpart, for instance, to Boris Karloff's religious fanatic. The nearest thing is a Mexican-American (Fred McDonald) obsessed with avenging the wife Apache Jack killed. Instead, the Bad Lands posse clashes over the relative courage and cowardice of its members and over the possible division of a massive "mountain of silver" they discover while tracking Apache Jack. The mine may as well be a trap, since their presence there exposes them to attack from Jack's unseen Indian cohorts. The 70 minute picture details the inexorable breakdown and virtual annihilation of the posse, until Barrat's sheriff is the sole survivor rescued by the cavalry, possible driven insane by his ordeal. It's possibly the most hard-boiled western the genre produced between the advent of Code Enforcement and the emergence of "adult westerns" a generation later, but its lack of star power and its obvious B status have consigned it to obscurity it doesn't really deserve. A money-loser at the box office, Bad Lands may have looked like a dead end in its time, but it shows, in theory at least, what westerns were capable of by the late Thirties, with a little infusion of new elements.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

On the Big Screen: THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)

In American pop culture, the label "worst film ever made" is almost an honorific. It's an acknowledgment of, or a backhanded tribute to, unintentional entertainment value unlikely to be found in whatever the worst film really is, if the worst can be defined objectively. If it can, it would most likely be the least entertaining of movies -- and most likely an unfunny comedy -- yet defining the worst by a failure to entertain is problematic when entertainment can be seen as unintentional and recognized as the result of an arguably objective failure of technical competence or artistic verisimilitude. Is the bad film we laugh at better or worse than the bad film we don't laugh at? It depends on whether you're laughing at or with the film and its filmmakers. People may say that certain cult films, like Tommy Wiseau's The Room, are "so bad they're good," but once such a film acquires a cult following people definitely are laughing with it. The Room is an unusual candidate for Worst Film for people of my generation, who are used to the worst being films whose auteurs' reach exceeds their grasp: fantasies like Plan 9 or Robot Monster, without resources or conventional screenwriting. Wiseau's film is a domestic drama, theoretically in the manner of Tennessee Williams, though the auteur, trimming his sails, now describes his screenplay as a parody of some sort. Its entertainment value is based entirely on Wiseau's audacious incompetence as actor, writer and director. In some ways Wiseau is the antithesis of Ed Wood; he seems to have had a limited imagination but limitless financial resources. They're two of a kind, however, in their struggles to convey basic human thoughts and emotions through scripted dialogue. Their appeal may lay in the way they inspire in audiences a recognition of how difficult that task actually is -- or how artificial conventional screenwriting is compared to the raw, idiosyncratic authenticity of those bad movies that earn cult followings as moments of personal expression rather than as imitations of life. Parody as a genre has had the same appeal for just about as long as movie comedies have been made. The truly worst films, those that fail to entertain in any way, may be those that don't stray far enough from convention and don't fail spectacularly enough. If anything is worse than "the worst," it's mediocrity.

Wiseau and Wood, neither a mediocrity by any measure, now occupy the same spot in movie history as the objects of biopics, though James Franco's Disaster Artist is less a biopic -- since Wiseau remains something of a mystery man to this day --  than one of that emerging subgenre, the "making of" movie (e.g. Hitchcock, Saving Mr. Banks, etc.) As a result, there's something inescapably formulaic about the picture, which was written by Michael H. Webster and Scott Neustadter. The eccentric, difficult artist (Franco) realizes his dream against all odds and after numerous conflicts with collaborators. Unlike in Tim Burton's Ed Wood, we can't really face Wiseau directly, so the writers give us a point-of-view character in the convenient form of Wiseau's roomate and star Greg Sestero (Dave Franco), whose memoir of his experience gives this film its title. Disaster Artist thus becomes a buddy film or bromance, with Wiseau going through a betrayal experience -- Sestero moves out of his apartment to live with a girlfriend -- echoing the narrative of The Room -- yet reconciling with his onetime protege when Greg explains to him that audiences laughing at (or with) Wiseau's picture are actually showing their appreciation of a unique cinematic achievement. If Disaster Artist is to be more than a cult film about a cult film -- about half the people in the theater where I saw it had seen The Room, laughed at the mere sight of its characters entering beloved sets, and often recited dialogue ahead of the actors -- it's up to James Franco, whom some may see as a Tommy Wiseau who had better luck in the genetic lottery, to entertain the uninitiated as an actor.  He does so in championship fashion, managing to disappear into the Wiseau role -- the subject's signature mop of hair helps a lot here -- while giving one of the funniest performances I've seen in a long time. He'll probably win most people over in his very first scene, set in an acting class when, in response to the teacher's (Melanie Griffith) demand for emotion, turns the "Stella" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire into a sprawling, wall-climbing, furniture-tossing conniption fit that anticipates his Room performance. It sets the tone for a character for whom acting is synonymous with acting out, who justifies his neglect of convention (or common sense) with appeals to "real life," and whose self-pitying screenplay is ultimately a protest, as one bemused collaborator suspects, against his betrayal by the universe.

Wiseau, who sees himself as an all-American hero type, is betrayed by his own embodiment, partly voluntary, in a form reminiscent of a "vampire rapist" and a voice no one accepts, despite his insistence, as a product of New Orleans. Someone like him should never dare aspire to movie stardom when the odds are against even the geniuses, but the fact that he does dare, damning the consequences with a paradoxical contempt for the masses he aspires to entertain, makes him a kind of typically American hero, even when he behaves like a bully or a clueless ass, and earns The Room a measure of respect, the kind arguably reserved for the "worst films," as an act of pure will. Part of the appeal of the worst movies, I've long suspected, is their potential to inspire the rest of us to imagine ourselves making movies, bad or otherwise, and an all-round auteur -- or, if you prefer, a pretentious pretty boy -- like James Franco probably can't help empathizing with that feeling. His Wiseau is both a freak and an everyman in his innocence of craft who allows you to laugh with or at him with equal enjoyment. Once he wins you over, everything else is a bonus. The Disaster Artist may be the best of the "making of" movies so far, simply because the making of such an astoundingly bad film is easily more compelling than the making of a presumed masterpiece against whatever odds. It looks especially good in comparison with something like The Man Who Invented Christmas, which I only know from its trailer but looks, from that nauseating evidence, like something Tommy Wiseau could only improve upon.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


During the late 1950s, before he was rescued by Walt Disney and redeemed by Billy Wilder,  Fred MacMurray had been relegated to B-western stardom. To be fair, his films probably qualified as B+ westerns, but they were definitely programmers. The Oregon Trail, the last of that run of films, was a collaboration between writer-director Gene Fowler Jr. and co-writer Louis Vittes, who had worked together on their own run of movies including I Married a Monster From Outer Space, the early Charles Bronson vehicles Gang War and Showdown at Boot Hill, the juvenile delinquency drama The Rebel Set and the aviation adventure Here Come the Jets. That's a pretty eclectic filmography, and Oregon Trail has a few idiosyncracies of its own, as well as serious structural flaws.

The film is inspired, in a peculiar way, by Francis Parkman's travelogue of the same name, which is credited in the script with inspiring people to take the dangerous westward journey to Oregon. The filmmakers overstate their case just a little. Their film, set in 1846, opens with the aftermath of an Indian attack on a settler family. Amid the wreckage is a scorched copy of Parkman's book. The problem with this is that while Parkman had already published his narrative in serial format, The Oregon Trail wouldn't appear in book form until 1849. Parkman, who isn't a character in the film, is denounced by newspaper editor James Gordon Bennett, who perceives a greater danger on the trail to Oregon. He assigns ace reporter Neal Harris (MacMurray) to join a wagon train and investigate whether the U.S. government is infiltrating troops into Oregon for a showdown with Great Britain, which disputes the border between Oregon Territory and Canada. As it turns out, Bennett is right. President James K. Polk assigns Captain George Wayne (William Bishop, who was dead within months of the film's release) to make his way to Oregon with the very same train in which Harris is traveling. So far, so nearly the stuff of Seventies conspiracy films.

Harris and Wayne meet a variety of characters in the train, including a potential love interest for either man in Prudence Cooper (Nina Shipman), the grizzled guide Seaton (Henry Hull) and the eccentric Garrison (John Carradine), for all intents and purposes the legendary Johnny Appleseed. There's also the obnoxious Brizzard (Tex Terry), who likes to pick fights with Harris and favors a bullwhip. As Harris grows suspicious of Wayne and his sidekick, who can't help calling Wayne "Sir," the party encounters the grisly remains of the massacred family from the prologue and has to go on short water rations when a waterhole Seaton depends on finding turns out to have gone dry. Brizzard goes berserk when he sees Garrison watering his baby apple trees, assuming that the old crank is stealing water when he's actually sacrificing his own ration to keep the trees alive. Harris comes to Garrison's defense and brawls with Brizzard until a sudden rainstorm resolves the matter. The scene closes with an amusing, almost Brueghelian moment as the pioneers scramble to catch rainwater in any available basin while Harris and Brizzard, still brawling, roll obliviously through the fresh mud in and out of the frame, until Garrison finally breaks things up with a swat to Harris's rear.

After a while you wonder what the film is building up to, what the consequences might be of Harris exposing Wayne and the stealth American military buildup. The filmmakers themselves seem to have wondered about that before finally giving up and starting a virtually new story for the last half hour of the picture. At Fort Laramie, the troops are leaving to take part in the newly-declared Mexican War ("What's an Alamo?" a fur trader left behind asks) just before the sinister squaw man Hastings (John Dierkes) arrives with his half-breed daughter Shona (Gloria Talbott) in tow. The film doesn't hold anything against squaw men as a class; Seaton was one and a good guy, but Hastings, brusque with his daughter, quickly proves vicious, offering to shelter Harris, who'd been driven from the wagon train by Wayne, among his Indian friends, only to leave him to be tortured (alongside erstwhile enemy Brizzard) while pocketing the reporter's bankroll. Hastings decides that the cavalry's departure creates a perfect opportunity to play the red man's champion by organizing a massacre of the fort's civilians. However, he hasn't reckoned upon Shona's rebellious, righteous nature, expressed by stabbing an Indian guard in the back and freeing Harris so he can warn the fort of the impending attack. Despite the warning, Wayne and the handful of soldiers left behind at the fort are fooled by the reappearance of Brizzard, pressed into driving a Trojan wagon full of Hastings and hostiles through the gates to start the slaughter.

For much of the film Henry Hull guides the brave pioneers through the dangers of the great outdoors (above) 
and the perils of the 20th Century-Fox soundstage (below).

The Oregon Trail is an often brutal picture that doesn't flinch from the idea of showing children getting killed, though much of its grim spectacle is only suggestively gruesome. It has a maddeningly erratic look, mixing some effective location work -- and, I assume, some stock footage from more expensive westerns -- with miserably unconvincing studio sets with painted backdrops. The film's biggest problem is a screenplay that, unlike the pioneers, set out with no clear destination in mind. While Dierkes makes a good maniacal villain in his brief time onscreen, you could believe that his whole storyline was added just so Harris could get a girl of his own, Shona, after Fowler and Vittes decided to keep Wayne and Prudence together. While Oregon Trail has its moments and MacMurray was at worst a serviceable western star in this period, it's ultimately too much of a mess to recommend in good conscience.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

DVR Diary: THUNDER BAY (1953)

The fourth collaboration between director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart is set in 1946 and thus doesn't get the admiring attention of their classic run of westerns, but it's probably the nearest thing to a western of their team-ups outside the genre. It has the same sort of driven Stewart hero the westerns have, though he has no vengeance agenda to drive him. Instead, Steve Martin -- no relation to the American journalist who covered Godzilla's rampage through Tokyo a few years later -- is a heroic if somewhat ruthless entrepreneur. Down to his last dime -- if that -- he and his sidekick Gambi (Dan Duryea) have to convince an oil baron (Jay C. Flippen) to finance the construction of an oil rig off the coast of Port Pleasant LA. Steve clearly knows his stuff but there's still something of the huckster, if not the con man, to him, but that hustling quality earns him the oil baron's sympathy. "You've never had the pleasure of gambling your last dollar on a dream," he chides his corporate bean-counter, recognizing a kindred risk-taker. Steve doesn't earn the trust of the locals so easily. They're shrimpers and worry about the oil riggers disrupting the shrimp beds. Worse, the educated daughter of one of the shrimpers (Joanne Dru) spreads the impression that oil workers are trash. She seems to speak from personal experience, but Gambi, a party animal, doesn't help the oil men's case by promptly stealing another shrimper's girl. They shouldn't worry, since Dan Duryea is pretty much a good guy for once, but the conflict continues to escalate as the shrimpers make repeated efforts to sabotage the drilling while Steve's backers run out of money and patience.

Thunder Bay arguably was ahead of its time in portraying a conflict between energy prospectors and locals concerned about the environmental impact of oil drilling, but as a product of the 1950s it predictably reconciles all conflicts, revealing a harmony of interests as the drillers actually make it easier for the shrimpers to harvest a rare, valuable catch. This is actually one of the most pro-oil films you'll probably ever see, since the writers found it necessary to have Steve defend his drilling with a speech bluntly announcing America's dependence on oil. Without it, he says, the country begins to die, including the shrimpers. That speech may give the film a retroactive camp quality, or worse, for the politically or ecologically sensitive, but it really only makes the film a document of its time, dating it relative to Mann and Stewart's more timeless westerns.

Take away the stark landscapes that give those westerns an outdoor-expressionist quality and for a while Mann looks like a more ordinary filmmaker. Thunder Bay doesn't really come to life until the oil rig is built, and then Mann takes every advantage of his new toy. The picture's visual highlight is a fight between Steve and one of the shrimpers, the man who lost his girl to Gambi, who tries to plant dynamite on the rig just as a hurricane bears down on the site. Mann and cinematographer William H. Daniels give the fight an elemental quality, making the most of his rain effects and the roiling waters below. They achieve something similar when the riggers have to stop a salt-water blow and, on a more exhilarating note, once the well comes in and an oil-soaked Stewart shrieks with joy. This may not be a western, but it's definitely not as tame as The Glenn Miller Story or Strategic Air Command. It's not as good as the westerns, either, but those who love the westerns may still like this one a bit.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017


Junko Fuji starred as Oryu, the Red Peony, in a series of eight films from the Toei Studio from 1967 to 1971. These are romanticized yakuza films of the sort that might have made Kinji Fukasaku vomit in his mouth. At the least, they make a distinction between good yakuza, the sort who run honest gambling parlors, and the less savory sort who, as in this second installment, prey on ordinary people through loan sharking and running sweatshops. The setting is the "Middle Meiji period," approximately the turn of the 20th century, so that characters use pistols, telephones and other nearly modern devices and a contrast can be drawn between people who go too modern, like this film's big-bad who goes back and forth between Japanese and western dress, and characters like Oryu who, despite her pistol, embody traditional values in their dress and demeanor.Oryu is a yakuza and, in theory at least, the oyabun of a clan inherited from her father, but unlike some women of the milieu, she doesn't flaunt her outlaw identity but dresses and behaves modestly, until forced into violent action. She can shoot, stab, slash and do judo throws like a champion, but while she travels around learning the gambler's trade and the ways of honorable yakuza, she remains somewhat ashamed of her vocation. She doesn't show off her yakuza tattoos, and only displays them to a female friend in this picture in order to warn her, in effect, "Don't end up like me." Badass Oryu may be, but like many wandering heroes of Japanese cinema, her life often seems like a curse, or at least an unhappy destiny.

Gambler's Obligation is helmed by cult director Norifumi Suzuki, who gives the proceedings plenty of widescreen panache. Oryu's having a good time as the film starts, working for the benign oyabun Togazaki and merrily banging a festival drum as the opening credits roll. A skilled gambler, she's able to shut down the winning streak of Oren (Mari Shiraki), a tattoo-flaunting women who recurs through the picture as a road-not-taken version of Oryu herself. Togazaki sends Oryu away for her own good when he decides to deal with his wicked rival Kasamatsu, which allows this sequel to reintroduce the comedy-relief yakuza clan from the first film, headed by Tomisaburo Wakayama. When Togazaki the elder is killed in the battle, Oryu returns to help the old man's son and daughter-in-law hold on to their businesses as Kasamatsu, backed by the quietly menacing Shiraishi (Bunta Sugawara), muscles in. Acquiring her own little band of followers along the way, Oryu travels to Tokyo to plead the Togazaki cause with a yakuza conclave, but the tide seems to be flowing inexorably against them.

This film does a good job establishing Kasamatsu as a real scumbag villain. He invites Oryu to decide the Togazakis' future in a dice game, with Oren as his proxy, whom he forces to cheat. Naturally, Oryu catches her at it, and Kasamatsu has the hapless woman beaten viciously for it. Then he does some additional cheating, convincing Togazaki's wife that her husband, whose liberation from prison has already been arranged by Oryu, can only be freed by her signing away the family carriage business -- and submitting to rape. She ends up disgraced, and poor Togazaki ends up getting killed after everything everyone's done for him. That only means it's time for Oryu to settle accounts with all the bad guys.

While the Japanese clearly liked badass fighting heroines before they really became a thing in the U.S., Gambler's Obligation doesn't quite go as far as fans might expect or hope. Everything seemed to point toward a battle between Oryu and the Bunta Sugawara character, but the way things actually play out makes you suspect that someone at Toei didn't think audiences would buy Junko Fuji beating Bunta in a fight. Instead, they bring in Koji Tsuruta in a glorified cameo as a good-guy interloper with his own reasons for fighting Kasamtasu. He gets to kill Bunta, while he and Fuji share in finishing off Kasamatsu before a random enemy blows him away, since Oryu does need to be the last person standing when the smoke clears. Despite this disappointment, Fuji certainly more than holds up her end of the action while lending her character the swan-necked dignity and superficial stoicism Oryu requires.

This first sequel ends on a sad note as Oryu returns to the site of the opening-credits festival. Many of her fellow celebrants are dead now, and it's a lonely climb to the tower where she beat the drum so happily before. Now she beats it again in mourning for all the friends she's lost, if not also for the hope for a normal life that seems just a little more lost now. Earlier, the Tsuruta character had explained to her the history of her rival Oren and her lover. They seem to lead a miserable life, but Tsuruta observes, almost with a note of envy, that they'll never leave each other. If in some ways Oren seems like an Oryu gone wrong, the film suggests that, despite all Oren suffers, she has something Oryu doesn't and may never have. There are many films to go in this series, but I doubt that this will change.

Saturday, November 25, 2017


Borden Chase is known as a writer of western screenplays, most notably for Anthony Mann, but when he was getting his start in pulp fiction his first specialty was virtually his own subgenre, based on his own experiences as a "sandhog" on  work crews digging tunnels under rivers. In the pages of the weekly Argosy, starting in 1934, Chase described the dangerous work of the mighty tunnel men, who worked in pressurized air that made them vulnerable to the bends but protected them -- most of the time -- from the crushing flood of the waters surrounding them. He broke into movies adapting his Argosy serial East River, which had already been picked up by Fox Film at the time of the first installment's appearance in October 1934. That issue announced on its cover that East River would soon appear onscreen with Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe in the lead roles. Just four months later, Under Pressure hit theaters. For all I know, Chase had sold Fox an original screenplay and then adapted it into a serial novel, with help from Edward Doherty.

The main characters seem tailor-made for McLaglen and Lowe's long-established battling-bros screen personae, dating back to the blockbuster war comedy What Price Glory (1926), a lip-readers delight that spawned a series of Pre-Code sequels that saw the stars wreak havoc around the world. Here as there, the stars play ball-busting he-men for whom friendship is indistinguishable from angry rivalry for accolades or ladies' attention. Their sandhogs are working from one end of the East River as another team, led by an even greater asshole (Charles Bickford), vies for the prestige of meeting in the middle first. There's not much plot beyond that. If anything, the screenplay is more episodic than the pulp serial, a 72 minute feature necessarily being but a digest of the novel.

Above, Edmund Lowe kayoes a dues-paying Ward Bond.
That makes him credible when Victor McLaglen threatens to throw down with him (below).

The sandhogs -- a racially integrated workforce, though the blacks (in Argosy, Chase identifies them as Senegalese) are segregated into specific grunt-labor roles -- struggle to avoid a catastrophic "blow" resulting from a tunnel leak, while an intrepid girl reporter (Florence Rice) befriends our main men after rescuing a co-worker from an attack of the bends. Naturally, Jumbo (McLaglen) and Shocker (Lowe) jostle for position with the reporter, though it's clear enough that Jumbo's heart ultimately belongs to Amy Hardcastle (Marjorie Rambeau), who runs a tavern catering to sandhogs. Ultimately, Jumbo's recklessness gives him a nearly-crippling case of the bends, which he conceals from his men to keep up their confidence. After all, he doesn't need two good legs for the last part of the process, which requires him to dig away at a wall of dirt with his bare hands, almost like a dog, to force his way into Bickford's tunnel before the hated rival does the opposite. In fact, Bickford gets through first, but is promptly put back through his hole, McLaglen following to deliver the coup de grace.

Under Pressure isn't considered a major film in Raoul Walsh's filmography, but he gives the picture both the punch efficiency the story requires and a convincingly cramped and sweaty atmosphere in the tunnel scenes. More credit arguably belongs to whoever was responsible for the art direction that helps how dangerous the workplace is for the sandhogs. Walsh, the director of What Price Glory and two sequels, was an old hand with McLaglen and Lowe, who are just what they need to be here and no more -- but maybe a little less, in the period of Code Enforcement. The only really uncomfortable aspect of the picture is Walsh's employment of black extras for a bit of eye-rolling comedy relief that I don't recall in the original serial, which tended to portray the Senegalese as silent but stalwart. You get used to stuff like that when you're a fan of Thirties films, of course, and if that describes you I think you'll find Under Pressure a modest spectacle in a novel setting that preserves much of the pulpy flavor of the original story. It doesn't necessarily point to the Borden Chase of the great western screenplays, but unless you're an auteurist that shouldn't be a big deal.

Saturday, November 18, 2017


It's not that bad as a whole, but to be honest, the first half-hour of Zack Snyder's new film, with credited co-writing and uncredited reshoots by Joss Whedon, is awful: a jumble of scenes attempting to establish an important trait of parademons (the bug-winged creatures Batman [Ben Affleck] saw in his Dawn of Justice nightmare); remind us urgently that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) exists; and remind us more clumsily that the world is worse for the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in the aforementioned Snyder production. Nothing really flows together and you might believe that several films, not just the Snyder and Whedon footage, had been awkwardly spliced into something crudely approximating a feature film. Nor are things helped much by the introduction of the film's villain. Steppenwolf, here embarking on his second stab at world conquest after millennia of dormancy, is a relatively minor character in Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" mythos, which few at DC Comics have really known what to do with since the King laid down his pencil. His presence here looks like a hedging of bets, as if Snyder, co-writer Chris Terrio and DC producer Geoff Johns didn't want to waste Kirby's actual big bad, the oft-misused Darkseid, on this particular movie and chose Steppenwolf as his proxy. No effort was made to give this substitute villain any personality beyond his generic lust for conquest, but I suppose you could argue that the villain of this piece was never meant to be anything more than a Macguffin, since the real story of Justice League is the formation of DC's in-print precursor and cinematic answer to Marvel's Avengers. Picking up the hints dropped like anchors in the last film, Batman and Wonder Woman set out to recruit the three supposed superbeings discovered by Lex Luthor's researchers: Arthur "The Aquaman" Curry (Jason Momoa), the bastard child of Atlantean royalty and quite the strongman on land; Barry "Flash" Allen (Ezra Miller), the young Central City speedster; and Victor "Cyborg" Stone (Ray Fisher), a man now more than half machine desperately trying to keep up with his evolving alien technology. The real purpose of this movie is to get you interested enough in these three to seek out their solo films as they appear, beginning with next year's Aquaman.

The results are mixed. All three actors succeeded in making their characters interesting, and they establish decent chemistry with each other and the established heroes. But I still question whether any of them can carry a feature film by today's standard of what such films should be. The future of the DC movie franchise now rests on the shoulders of Jason Momoa, and I'm glad to report that, liberated from his grim typecasting, the actor gives easily the best performance I've ever seen from him. But I still doubt whether whatever good will he's earned will make people interested in exploring DC's Atlantis, all too little of which was shown here apart from introducing Aquaman's eventual love interest Mera (Amber Heard). As Cyborg, Ray Fisher does probably as good as anyone could do with Marv Wolfman's character, making him sardonically bitter rather than self-pitying and adding a certain coldness that inclines the character to agree with Batman much of the time. But Cyborg has always been a hard sell as the black face of the DC Comics universe since Geoff Johns gave him that role by putting the character in his "New 52" era Justice League. Popular though he may be as one of Wolfman and George Perez's Teen Titans, Cyborg never seems to have clicked as a solo character despite Johns and other writers' stubborn efforts, and he has so little personal mythos that I find myself wondering what on earth a Cyborg movie would be about. Meanwhile, the development of a Flash movie is an ongoing nightmare for Warner Bros. Laboring in the shadow of the popular CW TV series, which automatically begs that question of what a feature film can do differently other than spend more money, the project can't hold on to a director as everyone struggles to fine-tune the property. The one thing different about Miller's Flash so far is his relative youth and his jittery Spider-Manic personality that makes him Justice League's comedy relief character. I thought Miller was likable enough to get away with it here, but I don't know if he can carry his own movie doing the same stuff. I'd be happy to see all of these guys again in another Justice League film, but despite this film's post-credit scene there are no immediate plans for another that I know of, and the drubbing the film is getting from Snyderphobic reviewers is unlikely to speed the day of their return.

I probably should talk about the story some more. The plot is right out of a serial: an artifact hunt. If Steppenwolf gets all the artifacts he can activate "the Unity," which won't be a good thing for anybody. Despite their being salted away on Atlantis, Themyscira and ... somewhere Cyborg knows about, he gets them. Fortunately, the good guys had just used that last one to resurrect their old pal Superman who, acting true to comic-book form, starts fighting them until Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and tells him that the sun's getting real low, or something along those lines. Honestly, though, even in comics if Superman is messed up and not behaving right, mind-controlled, amnesiac or whatever, Lois is your best antidote. There was this one comic where to snap Superman out of Poison Ivy's mind-control, Batman has Catwoman throw Lois off a building, or at least that's how I remember it. But I digress. Anyway, Supes still needs some work in the shop so Lois takes him back for (ahem) debriefing in Smallville while the rest of the gang goes to some Sokovia-like place where Steppenwolf, his Unity and his army of parademons make life miserable for one humble family -- to, you know, make the situation more real for us, I guess. Determined that this shall not stand, the as-yet-unnamed Justice League -- I think the only person who actually describes them as a "league" is Lex Luthor (our old friend Jesse Eisenberg) in a post-credits secene -- go about delaying the bad guy until Superman is cleared for action, after which point there's really no contest.

Sounds stupid, right? Well, it kind of is, but while this is regrettably one of those films where the whole is less than the sum of its parts, a lot of those parts are quite entertaining. While Fisher, Miller and Momoa held up their end of the deal, Affleck, Cavill and Gadot were once more their reliable selves, though our Batman is much more mild-mannered than in his last appearance, to a degree that's left some again questioning his commitment to the franchise. I actually liked the change of pace and the way some things (like Bruce Wayne's whiskey-swilling) remained the same. So the acting was fine, apart from the helpless Ciaran Hinds, tasked with voicing Steppenwolf. As one might expect from Zack Snyder, some of the action is spectacular. The highlights include an extended battle on Themyscira as the Amazons run a desperate relay race to keep their artifact from Steppenwolf; a flashback establishing Steppenwolf's backstory featuring a super-epic battle pitting Amazons, Atlanteans, Olympian gods, Green Lanterns, etc. against old-timey parademons; and the guilty pleasure of the JL's brawl with the reawakened Superman, who seems capable of matching the Flash's speed (Miller sells this wonderfully) and trading head-butts with Wonder Woman all day. For all its many flaws, the film ultimately entertains. I'd reverse the conventional reviewer consensus and contend that Justice League is marginally worse than Dawn of Justice, and almost the weakest of this year's good crop of superhero movies -- after a second viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I'm inclined to leave that at the bottom. Snyder and Whedon have done Warner Bros. no great favors as far as Friday morning reviewers are concerned, but I close with the observation that at my half-full multiplex screening the audience applauded the film.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

On the Big Screen: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

After an unlikely period as a director of high-profile tentpole pictures -- Thor, Jack Ryan, Cinderella -- Kenneth Branagh returns to more personal filmmaking with this new adaptation of Agatha Christie's beloved novel, previously filmed to great effect by Sidney Lumet in 1974. It's a more personal picture this time because, unlike those recent efforts, this one stars Kenneth Branagh, following in the prominent footsteps of Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, and the deeper tracks of David Suchet, by taking on the role of Christie's fussy Belgian, Hercule Poirot. For that you need an accent and a moustache. Branagh's Poirot accent -- I don't know whether it can be described accurately as a Belgian accent -- is at least superior to his attempts at an American accent; he's one of the few British actors who can't really do that well. It's with the moustache that Branagh really tries to differentiate himself from past Poirots. Certainly the preemptive favorite for the Best Moustache Oscar, should that category suddenly come into being, it's big, brown and bristly where the typical Poirot look is small, black and oily. As the years tell on the former boy-wonder actor-director, you wonder sometimes whether this is a Poirot mystery or The Sam Elliott Story. Ultimately, however, there's no mistaking the familiar story of a murder with a seemingly ever-expanding number of likely suspects, and if you've seen the Lumet movie (I have) or read the Christie original (I haven't) the only suspense the new film offers is whether Branagh's writer, Michael Green -- who was very busy this year with Wolverine, Alien and Blade Runner sequels -- would dare change Christie's ending. Spoiler alert: he doesn't.

That leaves it up to Branagh and his cast of actors to make the story fresh in other ways. There are some stabs at progressive casting that let Penelope Cruz and Leslie Odom Jr. into the picture, but only Willem Dafoe as the Pinkerton man (with an extra level of imposture) is arguably an improvement over his 1974 predecessor. The other actors aren't bad, though Michelle Pfeiffer goes maybe too far over the top, but as a director of actors Branagh, for all his Shakespearean experience, is no Sidney Lumet. He proves that further by indulging in overblown camera movements in an effort to give what should be an economically staged story -- apart from the Orient Express's necessarily luxurious furnishings -- a quasi-epic feel. If two characters are chatting in a boxcar, he'll have the camera hovering at some distance, and then he'll have it rise from below, or descend from above. Toward the end he rolls out a long shot following Poirot through a number of train cars, but it only reminds you that he'd done a much more impressive tracking shot in his debut film, Henry V, nearly thirty years ago. He even gives Poirot a Bond-style prologue as a mystery-solving peacemaker in the Old City of Jerusalem, and for all we know, given the nod toward Death on the Nile at the very end, he may have a franchise in mind, if audiences demand it. The theater where I saw the film is a neighborhood arthouse where the audience skews older, and there was a healthy crowd for a second matinee on a cold November afternoon, but I doubt the houses will look the same at the multiplexes. If he wants and gets another chance at Poirot I'd recommend that Branagh not go for the pre-sold titles but look for stories that have not been filmed as theatrical features. His Murder is not a bad film by any means, but in the end it did nothing to make me forget the Lumet film or what I knew to expect from the Christie mystery. But as someone who remembers a 43 year old movie fondly, perhaps I wasn't this film's target audience. Maybe those who know nothing of Agatha Christie or Sidney Lumet are the ones who'll rightly decide this film or this franchise's fate.

Saturday, November 4, 2017


Taika Waititi is a cinematic miracle worker. His What We Do in the Shadows is not only the funniest vampire comedy ever made, which isn't much of an achievement in itself, but one of the funniest movies I've seen recently. His portrayal of vampires as almost childishly narcissistic apparently persuaded Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios that Waititi could be entrusted with the next chapter of their absurd Asgardian soap opera after the disaster of Thor: The Dark World. That Waititi could work wonders on a limited budget didn't hurt either, though now, by comparison, he would have money thrown at him. Working from a screenplay by three other people, he's made the most imaginative and funniest Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) while demonstrating an aptitude for epic action on a colossal scale -- though as always with Marvel movies, one must wonder exactly how much of the set-piece action was planned out and rendered on computers before Waititi first called "Action!"

For all the spectacle, Ragnarok is character-centered, reiterating more strongly the premise implicit since the beginning that Thor (Chris Helmsworth) and his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are a couple of spoiled brats of frighteningly immense power. This is re-established early as Thor, after thwarting the demon Surtur's scheme to initiate Ragnarok, the foredoomed fall of Asgard, quickly clears up the one dangling plot thread from Dark World, exposing Loki's impersonation of All-father Odin (Anthony Hopkins finally has some fun imitating Hiddleston) and overthrowing the self-indulgent trickster, who had placed the old man in a since-demolished retirement facility in New York City. Their arrival in Manhattan to claim Odin sets up the encounter with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) previewed in the epilogue to Strange's own origin film. The Strange scene shows Waititi's hand most plainly in the disorienting way the Master of the Mystic Arts teleports Thor all over his sanctum in a succession of jump cuts. The good doctor sends them off to some cliff where Odin has been waiting, before dying, to tell his boys that their elder sister Hela, goddess of death (Cate Blanchett), will be released from her prison upon his imminent demise. In other words, the grown-ups are taking over, as Hela, who grows an antler-like crest in combat mode, breaks Thor's favorite toy, his Uru hammer, and boots both him and Loki off Bifrost bridge en route to Asgard, where she promptly slaughters the Warriors Three (Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson and the other guy) on her way to the throne, while the boys tumble to parts unknown. I'm sure this perfunctory dispatching of three favorite supporting characters from the comics will annoy some people, but it really was a waste of time having Asano and Stevenson keep showing up for how little the films have used them. As for the other supporting players, Sif is AWOL (the actress has a regular gig elsewhere) while Heimdall (Idris Elba) conveniently went underground when "Odin" started acting weird, forcing the king to appoint the mediocrity Skurge (Karl Urban) as guardian of Bifrost. Skurge survives Hela's initial onslaught to give the villainess someone to whom she can tell the secret history of Asgard and offer the job she held under her father as Executioner of the ruler's will and enemies.

A film within the film now begins as Thor crash-lands on Sakaar, better known to comics fans as "Planet Hulk" but ruled here by the self-styled Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) on bread-and-circus principles, with emphasis on circus. Big G relies on slave hunters like Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) to recruit talent for his gladiatorial games. He agrees with her assessment that Thor, rendered tractable by a classic sci-fi pain device, will make a good contender for his "incredible champion," whose identity was revealed in trailers long ago. Loki has ended up here as well, but is content to make money betting on Thor to lose. For his part, Thor has recognized Scrapper 142 as a Valkyrie -- for all intents and purposes, the Valkyrie or just plain "Valkyrie" -- one of a long-gone cohort of Asgardian women warriors, and apparently the sole survivor of an attack by Hela during her uprising against Odin. There's no hope of Thor pulling rank, however, since Scrapper/Valkyrie has grown cynical and alcoholic in her attempt to forget the loss of many close comrades-in-arms. But the situation isn't as hopeless as it looks, since Thor's powers over thunder and lightning prove innate rather than hammer-based, though it takes the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) nearly beating him to death to realize his potential. Ol' Greenskin has been on Sakaar since we last saw him in Avengers: Age of Ultron and has come both to like it here and to express his liking. Waititi and the writers give us a classically stupid Hulk (he had one of his increasingly common intelligent periods in the original Planet Hulk comics) with an almost-Trumpian insistence on taunting and "winning" regardless of appearances. Fans of the character will regret the wasting of one of Hulk's best-regarded storylines as a subplot to a Thor movie, but as Ruffalo himself has conceded that we'll probably never see another Hulk solo movie this is probably as good as it'll get for Marvel's Hulkamaniacs.

Thor's challenge now is to rally his three most likely collaborators into teaming with him on a breakout and reconquest of Asgard. Valkyrie would rather drink and forget, Loki is still out for himself and Hulk actually likes it on a planet where he's beloved by fight fans and hasn't had to turn back to Bruce Banner for ages. Those of you who found the buildup of a Hulk-Black Widow ship in Age of Ultron icky will be annoyed to learn that that's still a thing and key to Banner finally reappearing after Thor's own efforts to use Natasha's calming spiel fail miserably. The other pieces soon fall into place and we're finally on our way to a spectacular showdown in Asgard, assisted by Heimdall and, eventually, Skurge, whose machine-gun fetish allows him to recreate the comics character's classic last stand in Walt Simonson's 1980s comics, which are acknowledged in the end credits and regarded by fans as the best Thor stories since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's time. A lot of undead minions are wasted, Hulk fights a big dog, and Thor hits Hela with "the biggest bolt of lightning in the history of lightning," but the film still hasn't hit 11 yet....

While most of Ragnarok is generic Marvel spectacle on paper, on screen it benefits from Waititi putting a fresh set of eyes on it. As the Doctor Strange sequence shows, the style he developed collaborating on What We Do in the Shadows was not entirely homogenized into the Marvel machine, and that helps make the new Thor feel fresher than, say, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both films may share a retro sensibility in their soundtracks -- as do most recent Marvel movies, it seems -- but Ragnarok creatively enhances that retro feel with original music with hints of video-game soundtracks from Mark Mothersbaugh and a pictorial sensibility, assisted by cinematographer Javie Aguirresarobe, reminiscent of vintage van murals or Heavy Metal magazine covers come to life. The acting is a mixed bag, and a lot of it may disappoint people who expect something more like, as Tony Stark would say, Shakespeare in the Park from a Thor movie. Helmsworth and Hiddleston are fine, but as Hela Cate Blanchett arguably doesn't chew the scenery enough, or as much as one might expect from a barnstormer like her. You might have expected Galadriel with the Ring on, but she sometimes sinks to the overall glib level of the dialogue, referring to Odin as "Daddy," for instance. By now, of course, we should be reconciled to not getting authentic Stan Lee-style rodomontade from Marvel movie villains, but if you were going to get away with it in any Marvel movie, this was probably it. These are action movies anyway, and Hela's actions (both Blanchett's and uber-stuntwoman Zoe Bell's) speak louder than her words. As for the other villain, Jeff Goldblum gives, to no legitimate surprise, a Jeff Goldblum performance as the Grandmaster that makes that Elder of the Universe more capricious than truly threatening, but his participation in the interlude doesn't require him to be truly evil or scary. For all Waititi's efforts to maximize the comedy in the story, Ragnarok was only ever going to be an action spectacle, and the fact that he succeeds on that level gives us more cause to look forward to whatever he does next, for Marvel or on his own.