Sunday, April 30, 2017


So I'm watching Five Came Back, Laurent Bouzereau's three-part Netflix documentary adapting Mark Harris's recent book about the World War II adventures of five canonical directors: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler. Sporting a bombastic kickass theme by Thomas Newman, the series, scripted by Harris himself and narrated by Meryl Streep, assigns five current directors as guides to its protagonists: Francis Coppola for Huston, Guillermo del Toro for Capra, Paul Greengrass for Ford, Lawrence Kasdan for Stevens and Steven Spielberg for Wyler. I'm not sure what criteria determined these assignments but the modern directors' comments are usually interesting, particularly when Coppola defends Huston faking battle footage for his San Pietro. Anyway, the first episode climaxes with Capra's intellectual masterstroke of detourning Leni Riefenstahl for his Prelude to War and Ford's baptism of fire when the Japanese attacked Midway Island. Greengrass is understandably a big fan of the short documentary that resulted, even if Ford's shaky-cam effects are purely involuntary. The documentary does a grand job of hyping The Battle of Midway as cinema verite if not avant-garde for Ford's willingness to show the film's rough edges, including frame jumps, as proofs of its authenticity. Netflix has conveniently made the documentaries mentioned in Five Came Back available for streaming alongside it, so I took advantage of the opportunity to watch Midway whole. It's only 18 minutes long but manages in that brief time to be very different from what Five describes.

The incredible footage Ford shot while being bombed (he was slightly wounded in the process) is there, but so is a lot of stuff that Five Came Back deemed not worth mentioning, revealing Midway as an uncomfortable mix of radical realism and Hollywood hokeyness. It must be remembered that Midway is primarily a propaganda rather than a documentary film; Ford's purpose was as much to manipulate public opinion as to record the events of the battle. As a propagandist Ford was learning on the run, puzzling out what his film needed to say as well as show. There's a note of humor early as he shows some birds that are Midway's only native inhabitants and his narrator -- there are several, including Donald Crisp of  How Green Was My Valley, as well as other guest vocal artists we'll mention later -- notes sardonically, "Tojo has promised to liberate them." Then the film threatens to spiral down into Fordian folksiness with a sentimental accordion solo and the most bizarre part of the film, when suddenly we hear voices (including Henry Fonda) discussing one of the soldiers onscreen, identifying him by name and hometown. The idea, I guess, was to anticipate or simulate the voices one might hear in a theater, should they recognize any of the soldiers as one of their own. We then take a quick jaunt to the soldier's home town, where we're shown his father working in a railyard and his mother knitting with one of those special banners honoring her boy's service. The voices will come back in and out of the film wishing the soldiers well or urging medics to help them during the battle. To we moderns these interventions are as jarring as the rough editing of the bomb attack must have been to the original audiences. They may well take you out of the picture, so corny do they seem now. Likewise, after the battle Ford returns to those birds and has a voiceover express their presumed opinion of the situation: "We're just as free as we ever were!"

You can see a bomb dropping from the Jap plane at far left above.
Below, a bomb impact nearly blows the film out of the camera
(the dark line near the top is the frame divider)

Of all the documentaries made by the Five directors, Midway probably has the most obvious directorial signature. That may be a matter of retrospection, since I'm struggling to recall how many funerals Ford filmed before Midway. The documentary may well have helped make such scenes specifically Fordian, and they must have had a strong impact on audiences at a time when many more such funerals could be anticipated. The government apparently feared that the burials of sea would have too strong and too wrong an impact, so that Ford had to butter up President Roosevelt by adding footage highlighting the proximity to battle of one of FDR's sons in order to ensure the film's release on his creative terms. Five Came Back emphasizes ironically how many of the films it covers flopped at the box office, but Midway went over big. It probably helped that Ford followed those grim scenes with a bombastic coda racking up the score of Japanese naval vessels taken out in the battle.

My one reservation about Five as a book and show is that its biographical focus on the big five directors overshadows a more complex account of movie propaganda during the war, but I'll concede that the way these masters (Huston was a comparative neophyte but had just made The Maltese Falcon) tried to work with the biggest story of their careers, and one they could never hope to impose creative control upon, is compelling in its own right. It's interesting to learn, for instance, that while Ford made it through Midway more or less with flying colors, D-Day broke him, driving him to a bender that ended his career as a wartime documentarian. Perhaps he no longer had the confidence in his ability to process what he saw with the Hollywood devices he'd used before.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES (1932)

There were many backstage melodramas, musical or otherwise, made in the pre-code era, but if one of those pictures could be called the Showgirls of its time it would be this M-G-M Marion Davies Production directed by Edmund Goulding -- not because it's any more sexualized than its contemporaries, since it actually skips the opportunity to give us an overly erotic or salacious musical number, but because of its undercurrent of violence and its focus on the love-hate relationship between two ambitious women. Two women, Anita Loos and Frances Marion, collaborated on the script, and perhaps for that reason Blondie seems freer in portraying the extremes of female fremnity. It's basically the story of two girls trying to get out of their dead-end slum neighborhood by becoming showgirls. Lottie (Billie Dove) makes it first, inspiring Blondie (Davies), increasingly suffocated in her crowded household, to make her own try. These girls are trash, culturally if not morally. They're best friends but fight each other like sailors, oscillating between mutual admiration and violent jealousy. Their brawl in a tenement hallway, broken up when ZaSu Pitts, playing Blondie's older sister, clobbers both of them with her handbag, is only a warmup. Later, they'll throw each other off a yacht, and in the climactic "ballet" number, in which the cast of their show runs frantically in circles to one of Borodin's Polovtsian dances, Lottie will fling Blondie into the orchestra pit. The object of their rivalry is Robert Montgomery, who seems a rather unworthy idol, but in the end the girls make up (but don't kiss) and Blondie gets the boy.

Goulding seems to have thrived on the contrast in subject matter, having just finished Grand Hotel, which he subjects to parody with a guest-starring Jimmy Durante (apparently playing himself, but what else is new?) in the Barrymore part and Davies aping Garbo for a crowd of partygoers. The slum scenes and the scenes with Blondie's family (led by a gentle yet inflexible James Gleason) are the highlights apart from the Davies-Dove slugfests. They have a convincing cacophonous quality, from the crowded noises of the street to the know-it-all nattering of Blondie's unemployed brother-in-law (Sidney Toler). I now recognize Toler as one of Pre-Code's underrated character actors. His character here is really utterly harmless as well as useless and yet there's something aggressively pathetic about this loser that you wish ZaSu Pitts would brain him with a frying pan any time he opens his mouth. As for her, one of the weird things about this movie is that, amid all the grotesquerie she, skipping most of her usual shtick and apparently finding in George Barnes a very sympathetic cameraman, looks as nearly pretty as I've ever seen her. Nevertheless the picture belongs to those battling tops, Davies and Dove. Blondie belongs on the short list of performances you might use to refute the slanderous legend that Marion Davies was nothing more than the model for Susan Alexander Kane in all that character's absence of talent. Sadly, post-production interference by William Randolph Hearst, the model for Charles Foster Kane, reportedly so disgusted Dove, who he feared would steal the picture from his beloved, that she quit movies altogether. Even with much of her work on the cutting-room floor, posterity, if it's fair, will judge Blondie as a team picture rather than a star vehicle. It also leaves me convinced that, despite their advanced ages, Davies and Dove could take Blondell and Farrell in a fight.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017


April 24 was Armenian Martyrs Day in the U.S., and with that thought presumably in mind the movie The Promise, a romantic drama set in those dark days, was released last weekend. The producers gravely overestimated the moviegoing public's interest in that still-controversial episode of 20th century history. So if no one really wants to see Armenians victimized on film, how about a movie in which an Armenian is a villain? Set roughly at the same time as The Promise, Asif Kapadia's film adapts a 1930s novel credited to "Kurban Said," whose true identity remains a mystery today. Kapadia is a British director best known for his documentaries about the doomed race car driver Ayrton Senna and the doomed singer Amy Winehouse. Fittingly, his subject here is a doomed (or should we say star-crossed) romance between Ali, a Muslim Azeri prince (Adam Bakri) and Nino, a Christian Georgian princess (Maria Valverde) at the brink of World War I.

At that time, Georgia and Azerbaijan are territories of the Russian empire, and when war breaks out Ali's brothers join the Russian army, only to face discrimination due to their religion and nationality despite their largely westernized upper-class credentials. Back in Baku, the Azeri metropolis, Malik, an Armenian (Riccardo Scarmacio), tries to impose himself on Nino, but is killed by Ali in an oil field. Ali must flee to the sticks while Nino, shamed by the scandal in the eyes of Georgian society, faces the prospect of exile to Moscow. Instead, she persuades Ali's spiritual adviser Mustafa (Numan Acar) -- he wears traditional dress so that's what I'm guessing -- to take her to where her beloved is holed up. Here they consummate their romance, with Mustafa conveniently at hand with the credentials to make everything legal. In this apparently easygoing environment Nino is not required to renounce her faith.

For a time the happy couple live in idyllic rural poverty, but the collapse of the Russian empire creates an opportunity for Azeri patriots. A democratic republic of Azerbaijan is proclaimed but soon finds itself menaced by the new Bolshevik regime in Russia, which covets Azeri oil. Nino is sent to Iran for safekeeping but can't stand it in that more traditional Muslim country, complete with a harem and a well-meaning eunuch whom Nino can't help but find repulsive. It takes a while for her to forgive Ali for leaving her there, but they're hardly reconciled before he has to join the troops once more in a heroic last-ditch defense of a railroad bridge against the Commie invaders.

Ali and Nino is one part Romeo and Juliet, one part For Whom the Bell Tolls, though to be fair the original novel appeared before the Hemingway story. Movie buffs might be reminded more of Doctor Zhivago, only with less snow. Kapadia's film is unlikely to inspire comparisons with future films, however, because it's only superficially epic. It features picturesque landscapes and cityscapes and picturesque young lovers, but Christopher Hampton's screenplay and its interpretation by the leads are almost perfectly vapid. It's a lovely picture to look at thanks to Gökhan Tiryaki's cinematography and the slam-dunk locations he gets to shoot, but for all the tragic elements the film sometimes feels like something shot as a musical with the songs left on the cutting room floor. I'm still satisfied with it because it introduced an unfamiliar bit of world history to me and it really does look good, but Ali and Nino also left me thinking that that same history could be the makings of a real movie someday.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

On the Big Screen: THE LOST CITY OF Z (2017)

You never know what director will get the spirit of old-time adventure. James Gray's Lost City of Zed (to use the film's pronunciation) reminded me of Bob Rafelson's Mountains of the Moon in its presentation of a classical exploration story by an unexpected source. But Gray has been moving in this direction at least chronologically, The Immigrant taking place in a roughly contemporary period. He's adapted David Grann's best-seller about Percy Fawcett (Charlie "your next King Arthur" Hunnam), the Englishman who searched South America for evidence of an ancient Amazon civilization. Originally a mere cartographer, Fawcett gets hints from the testimony of natives and scattered pottery that there was more civilization in the jungle than most of his contemporaries were willing to believe. In this account, Fawcett clearly sees his hoped-for discovery as the way to make his name after lagging behind his peers and never winning a medal in the military. In old-school heroic mode, he's willing to leave his family behind for years at a time to pursue knowledge and glory. While his wife (Sienna Miller) is Penelope-loyal, angry only that she never gets to go on any of his expeditions, his eldest son (Tom "your next Spider-Man" Holland) resents the old man's abandonment of them until the Battle of the Somme teaches him to appreciate pater's heroism. Zed is probably too episodic for its own good, breaking down into a sequence of feuds, first (and briefly) with the stodgy unbelievers in the Royal Geographic Society, then with tagalong James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), a former colleague of Ernest Shackleton who isn't up to the rigors of the Amazon and proves treacherous when sent home, and then with his boy, who reconciles in time to go with our hero on his final expedition. The Fawcetts' fate remains unknown and in Zed Gray leaves things ambiguous. We last see father and son drugged up and borne to some tribal ritual that could be anything from human sacrifice to adoption into the tribe, and in an epilogue Mrs. F. receives an artifact hinting strongly that Percy reached his goal after all -- as modern research suggests was possible insofar as there does appear to have been a somewhat advanced civilization in the vicinity once upon a time.

Visually Zed is nicely done, with Gray well aided by cinematographer Darius Khondji. The filmmakers acquit themselves equally well in jungle darkness, the musty interiors of Edwardian England and the Somme. Christopher Spelman's score leans a little too heavily on Ravel's Daphnis and Chloe for its own good, and throws in some Rite of Spring for extra measure. Charlie Hunnam doesn't exactly age well -- I should say convincingly -- in the lead role but does convey the force of Fawcett's personality, and he's supported by a solid ensemble, including an almost unrecognizable Robert Pattinson as Fawcett's sidekick for most of the picture, a hissably pathetic Angus Macfadyen as Murray and our old friend Franco Nero in a one-scene "Special Appearance" that shows that the great man can still make an impression. Ultimately I doubt whether Zed does much to distinguish itself among other exploration epics, though I feel more generous toward it than those critics who hold it to an impossible standard set by Werner Herzog's films -- but then again, to judge by the fate of that Gertrude Bell biopic, Herzog himself gets held to that same unfair standard. Gray's film is neither especially strong as a character study nor particularly visionary in its exploration of Fawcett's world -- Embrace of the Serpent leaves it in the dust -- but it's a solid piece of cinematic craftsmanship on a subject of enough inherent interest to make the Grann book popular and the Gray film worth a look.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Too Much TV: THE WHITE QUEEN (2013)

George R. R. Martin says that the secret ingredient that has made his "Song of Ice and Fire" novels and their Game of Thrones TV adaptation so compelling is the influence of historical fiction. He has dubbed Maurice Druon's novels, set in 13th century France, as "the original Game of Thrones," but you can find similar qualities in many novels about the vicious intrigues of kings and queens. Philippa Gregory's "Cousins Wars" novels were written after Martin got his fantasy series under way, but they illustrate his point as well as any historical fiction. The BBC adapted three of the novels into The White Queen's ten episodes, and Starz premiere's a sequel, The White Princess, this weekend. By a coincidence only comic book fans can appreciate, the head writer for The White Queen was Emma Frost, who resumes that role for Princess. Her team took three Gregory novels, each of which apparently retraces the same historical ground from a different character's point of view, and made them one chronological narrative with three protagonists. The setting is 15th century England during the Wars of the Roses pitting the usurping house of York against loyalists of the house of Lancaster. The title character is the young widow Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), whose family, the Rivers, are Lancastrians. So naturally she falls in love, after some initial difficulties, with Edward IV (Max Irons) the Yorkist king of England. Edward's insistence on marrying Elizabeth angers his mentor, the Earl of Warwick (James Frain), who had been arranging his marriage to a French princess. Warwick's family, the Nevilles, and Edward's family, particularly his brother George (David Oakes) deeply distrust the Rivers family -- and not without reason. One of Gregory/Frost's conceits is that Elizabeth, at times accused of witchcraft, is guilty, learning various folk magics from her mother and later handing them down to her daughter, the title character of the sequel. Running parallel to Elizabeth's rise are the travails of Warwick's daughter Anne Neville (Faye Marsay), who becomes queen as wife to Edward's baby brother Richard (Aneurin Barnard) after her sister Isabel marries George (David Oakes), the treacherous and ultimately mad middle York brother, and the conspiracies of Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), whose son Henry Tudor has a distant claim to the English throne.

Edward's marriage to Elizabeth drives Warwick to an ill-fated rebellion in which George briefly participates. Forgiven, George seethes in peacetime, his hopes for land, wealth and power thwarted when Richard's marriage to Anne denies him control over the Warwick estate and Edward aborts an invasion of France. Finally, with his wife dying, George snaps, accusing witches of conspiring against him while retaining a sorcerer himself. Something that will surprise many viewers is the way George irredeemably plays the villain role usually reserved for Richard II, who in Gregory/Frost's revisionist scenario is a sometimes ruthless but relatively well-meaning prince and king, not to mention young, in a historically appropriate way, and handsome, which I write off to genre requirements. But if the popular image of Richard III is still largely shaped by Shakespeare's Tudor propaganda, which portrays him as a singular monster, he looks good by comparison on White Queen because just about everyone on the show is a monster.

The show may look superficially like shoulders-and-sheets romantic history, and offers a fair amount of female nudity to satisfy the market for that sort of thing, but its main virtue is its refusal to romanticize any of its queens or princesses. Elizabeth is all too conscious of the enmity of the Nevilles and is willing to use witchcraft against them; Anne, at first the most innocent of the girls, descends into paranoia about Elizabeth after her father and sister die; Margaret is a relentless fanatic out to destroy anyone in her (that is, Henry's) path to the throne. Informed by her supremely cynical later husband Stanley (Rupert Graves) that Henry will have to walk past five corpses -- Edward and his two sons, Richard and his -- Margaret puts her trust in God and gets to work sowing mutual distrust between the two households and particularly the two wives. She's probably the most hateful (and Hale the plainest) of the principal women, but by the end none of them are really likable. "Men go to battle; women wage war" was this show's motto, underscoring their common ruthlessness for family's sake, while the York tragedy shows that families all too readily could turn on themselves. With so much power and wealth so tantalizingly close, the characters have no other center of gravity. Morals are sacrificed to family interests, and family ties are sacrificed to personal ambition.  

White Queen may not really be a "Game of Thrones," since our title character makes it all the way through, and will be played by a new, older actress on Princess, and it had nothing like the HBO blockbuster's budget, but a similar spirit of fascinating hopelessness prevails, embodied by a terrific ensemble cast -- and there's magic! I steered clear of Queen until Starz started advertising Princess, mainly because I took it to be no more than historical soap-opera, despite the arresting poster image of Ferguson grabbing a sword by its blade. Now, thanks to Queen, while I can't help wondering how Princess won't seem uneventful by comparison, I won't be waiting to watch it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


The modern standard for Brazilian cop films was set by Jose Padilha's 2007 film Tropa de Elite, known in the Anglophone world as Elite Squad. Tomas Portella's film returns us to that violent milieu from the novel perspective of a female cop. Francis (Cleo Pires) is a bank employee who decides to try out for the police after rescuing a child during a robbery. To her disgust, she finds a bank security guard cowering in the same rest room where she'd taken the child. She proves a solid marksman, but learns quickly that shooting at targets is no substitute for the real thing.

While Francis turns out fairly badass, the film is realistic about her physical limitations. During one raid, she's bowled over effortlessly while guarding a stairwell when a suspect charges her. Portella and his co-writers also show her all too plausible terror during her baptism of fire, a combined car chase and fire fight. It's an impressively staged action scene, as are all the film's set pieces -- and it's made better by the director's emphasis on Francis's fear and discomfort as tight turns slam her from side to side of the car or bounce her off her partners. At one point, having struggled to pick her gun off the floor, she's crouched down in the back seat  after gunfire has blown out the rear window. One of her colleagues blasts away at the gangsters with his automatic next to her, and the empty cartridges rain down on Francis's neck while she frantically brushes them away.

That's Cleo Pires as Francis in the lower right in both shots.
Above, you can see a gangster jumping down from the upper left while another 
(in the little box just right of center) gets ready to open fire.

Francis careens from terror to recklessness in another major urban battle scene. The cops are trading fire with gangsters in a terraced apartment complex across the street, the gangsters hopping like mountain goats from terrace to terrace while gunmen try to cover their getaway. On the cops' side, a man is down and helpless with a leg wound, crying for help as Francis clings to cover. Finally she puts her own life in jeopardy, forcing her buddies to cover for her, as she drags the wounded man to shelter. She gets reprimanded for this, but it marks a turning point for her as she begins to overcome her rookie terror and win acceptance from her macho colleagues.

 The life of a cop is not all glamorous violence, but all over the world, that's what people pay to see.

Our heroes are federal police sent to a crime ridden town where an ex-cop is one of the leading gangsters and organized crime has much of the municipal infrastructure and public opinion on its side. At one point, the cops have to break out the candles and manual typewriters in order to take statements and file reports after their station loses power or, more likely, has it taken from them. I guess it's a good thing that they never throw anything out. The tide seems to turn after Francis loses a partner to a drive-by, but the politicians snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and reassign Francis and her team elsewhere. Despite that nod to the apparent facts of corruption in Brazil, Portella ends his film on an optimistic or at least a defiant note with the team arriving in a new town, ready for a new fight. Whether that means a sequel can be expected remains to be seen, but  Portella's skill as an urban action director and Cleo Pires' empathetic performance as Francis would make a reunion a welcome event.

Monday, April 10, 2017

On the Big Screen: FRANTZ (2016)

The U.S. marks the centennial of its entry into World War I this month. Hollywood will mark the occasion later this year with the release of Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, but Francois Ozon had a centennial present ready in advance. The arrival here of Frantz closes a circle, for the film is a French remake of a Hollywood movie (by a German director, Ernst Lubitsch) based on a French play, The Man I Killed. Lubitsch's dubiously retitled Broken Lullaby is a Pre-Code film I haven't yet seen, but after reading a synopsis I see that Ozon's screenplay, co-written with Philippe Piazzo, proposes an alternate ending to the original story, presumably with the idea of undermining whatever message of reconciliation Lubitsch or the original authors intended to send.

The setting is the German town of Qudelinburg, where in 1919, with the war freshly over, Anna (Paula Beer) mourns her fiance Frantz, who was KIA in September 1918, two months before the Armistice, with his parents, who have taken her in as a virtual daughter. One dreary day in this black and white world she finds that some stranger has placed flowers on Frantz's grave. The groundskeeper explains with a contemptuous spit that the stranger is a Frenchman. This proves to be Adrien (Pierre Niney), who gets a hostile response from the defeated Deutschers, among whom revanchist sentiment already stirs. Frantz's dad, a doctor (Ernst Stötzner), wants nothing to do with Adrien until the Frenchman reveals that he was no mere poilu but Frantz's best friend in Paris, where the young German studied art until called to war. His flashbacks to happy pre-war days are in color (Pascal Marti's tricky cinematography won last year's Cesar) and his repentant earnestness colors Anna' drab world a little. Improbably, Anna finds herself falling for the Frenchman, but before things can go too far Adrien makes a terrible confession: all his stories of friendship with Frantz were lies. In fact, Frantz was someone Adrien had encountered randomly and killed in a trench. The fact that the German had not tried to defend himself -- the letters he carried on him betrayed pacifist sentiments -- gave Adrien a case of guilty conscience that he hoped to cure by making a pilgrimage to Frantz's home and family.

In Broken Lullaby, the German girl convinces the French boy to keep up the noble lie, and he remains in Germany to fill the hole in the bereaved family. In Frantz, Adrien returns home after asking Anna to tell Frantz's parents the truth. Now it is Anna who tells a noble lie by refusing to tell the old folks the true story, telling them instead that Adrien was called home on family business. After a thwarted suicide attempt, she decides to go to France -- I'm sure that the homonymity of Frantz and France is no accident -- and reunite with the Frenchman. She has few clues to work with, but at least she's as fluent in French as Adrien was in German, and after a brief tease of Adrien's suicide she finds him in his country home -- with a woman who is either his wife or fiancee. She heads for home the next day, but not before making another stop at the Louvre to look at Edouard Manet's The Suicide, the sight of which, she says cryptically, makes her want to live.

If Frantz is a remake of Broken Lullaby it also has a little Vertigo in its DNA, from its motifs of imposture and suicide to its near-obsessive attention to a painting in a museum to some Hermannesque hints in Philippe Rombi's score. It may be that Vertigo, less that film's extreme fatalism, is what you get once you strip Broken Lullaby of its fairy-tale romanticism. It may be that Frantz is telling us that there can't be the sort of imposture Adrien indulges in without betrayal and bitterness. Whatever his good intentions, Adrien's mission inevitably has a self-indulgent, self-serving aspect that can't help but leave Anna feeling, as I presume she does ultimately, exploited and abused. Maybe I'm reading my knowledge of events to come into Ozon's ending, but I can't help thinking that what really keeps Anna going after the end is the thought of revenge, a hint of the revenge Germans probably hoped already to take on France. Ozon's thought may have been that Broken Lullaby needed a do-over that reflects the history to come of which Lubitsch and his writers were innocent. Perhaps a more faithful remake could be set after World War II, since reconciliation did seem to come then, nationalist stirrings in 2017 France notwithstanding. In any event, Frantz is a grim, fascinating bit of cinematic revisionism with the sort of ambiguous ending designed to keep people talking well after they leave the theater. From what I've read about Broken Lullaby, I doubt whether it provoked much discussion, so in that respect, at least, Frantz is a rare remake that improves on the original. It's up to each movie fan, of course, to decide which sort of story he or she would rather see.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: SING AND LIKE IT (1934)

As the Pre-Code era neared its end William A. Seiter was at the height of his powers as a comedy director. His best known work from this period is the Laurel and Hardy vehicle Sons of the Desert, but Sing and Like It, from the following year, is a neglected gem. It's less well known today because it doesn't sport any titans of comedy, but features an ensemble cast led by ZaSu Pitts, Nat Pendleton and Edward Everett Horton, all key players in Pre-Code Comedy but usually in supporting roles. While Pitts gets top billing Pendleton's really the star player and sets the film's distinctive tone. He plays T. Fennimore Sylvester, a successful gangster in the "snatch" field. He aspires to a high-class lifestyle and frowns on the show-business ambitions of his moll Ruby (Pert Kelton), preferring that she not mingle with mere showgirls. His uptight attitude toward the world of entertainment changes when he leads his gang in a break-in just as the National Union Bank Little Theater Players are rehearsing their annual show in the same building. Fenny is enraptured when he overhears Annie Snodgrass (Pitts) perform her number, "Your Mother." Since this song must be heard to be believed, here's the magic moment as uploaded to YouTube by Jim Melcher.

Moved beyond reason, Fenny now wants to be Annie's artistic patron. Convinced that she deserves a Broadway showcase, he identifies Adam Frink (Horton) as the leading producer of the day and muscles into Frink's latest production. Frink knows disaster when he sees it but Fenny makes him the sort of offer people can't refuse. As Ruby seethes with jealousy, as does Annie's long-suffering paramour (John Qualen), Fenny learns that the show isn't getting much buzz. He tries to change that publicizing a fake kidnapping of Annie that momentarily turns real. Then, informed that reviewer Abercrombie Hitchcock can make or break any play just by his responses in the theater, even before he writes his review, Fenny arranges that he respond the right way. The show presumably succeeds, and Annie is willing to pay the price she presumes Fenny will extract for his patronage, but with his opening-night triumph Fenny feels that he's paid his debt to art, as he puts it and demands nothing else from his muse, who now has stardom, her old boyfriend, and the ransom the boyfriend managed to collect after hijacking the kidnapping.

On paper, Sing and Like It sounds like a precursor of both The Producers and Bullets Over Broadway, but Seiter gives the film its own special, perhaps inimitable flavor through his control over the actors. For starters, this film is more relentlessly cynical than either later picture. Annie Snodgrass's triumph isn't a fairy tale or an ironic satire, but a matter of brute force, with Abercrombie Hitchcock compelled to laugh at horrible jokes and hail Annie's singing literally at gunpoint. Fenny's gang come across as more menacing versions of Damon Runyon's comical Guys and Dolls sort of gangsters. The key to Seiter's triumph here is that while his gangsters sometimes seem clownish, they never act like clowns -- except for the utterly unfunny Junker (Matt McHugh), who acts as Fenny's court jester and writes the "jokes" for Frink's show. The big joke is that Fenny and his circle really have no sense of humor or taste at all, but take themselves very seriously. They are terse and to the point, and Laird Doyle writes nearly note-perfect dialogue for them. In the clip, you see Annie and her boyfriend come out of an elevator that's been hijacked by Fenny's gang. When they arrive at the ground floor and push the button, a gangster operates the machine and barks out the simple command, "Get in!" After a wild ride, the door opens on their floor as they're sprawled on the floor of the elevator. "Get out!" the operator orders. Later, during opening night, the funereal Ned Sparks, playing Fenny's right hand man and translator of big words, holds the gun on Hitchcock. When the reviewer seems confused over how to react to what he sees on stage -- the movie audience no doubt shares his dismay -- Sparks says simply, "You like it." Hearing one of Junker's jokes, Hitchcock asks, "It is funny?" Sparks answers, "What do you think?"

On the directorial side, Seiter illustrates Fenny's self-importance with a slow buildup to his appearance in Frick's office. One of his goons appears first, glaring at Frick, who mistakes him for the head man. Then Sparks appears, and again glares at Frick. Finally, after a wait almost worthy of Sergio Leone, Fenny enters the office. We are never allowed to forget that these men are capable of real violence -- and in true Pre-Code fashion much of that violence is directed at Fenny's moll. In retrospect, the film's most intolerable detail today is its use of Ruby's black eyes for sight gags. It's a joke, immediately after she's ratted out as the mastermind of Annie's actual kidnapping, that she comes out of Fenny's car with a black eye. Then, after they discover that someone has removed Annie from where she left her, Fenny turns on her again and we transition to the next scene with a wipe effect resembling an explosion. Now we're back in Fenny's penthouse and Ruby's wearing dark glasses. He tells her to take them off. She does, revealing a second black eye. Glancing her way, he orders her a second time to take the glasses off. Some people are never going to find this sort of thing funny, but in context Ruby has it coming and what else would you expect of these savages? Fenny's violence is a needed reminder of the threat that hangs over anyone who won't play ball with him, though Frick (an unusually apoplectic turn from the peevish Horton, but perfect counterpoint to the ponderous gangsters) gets away with a lot. Ironically, top-billed Pitts really has little to do but sing her nightmarish song, but Annie's own pretentiousness -- she agrees, after all, that "Your Mother" is a great song -- gives the film's collective delusion its original spark. In a way, Sing and Like It looks forward to the screwball comedy of the Code Enforcement era, but this underworld screwball has a mean streak often missing from later screwball films. It might look like an evolutionary dead end, but that would be because something about it would soon be killed by Hollywood.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


Thanks to Netflix, Americans have readier access to a more complete range of films from around the world than they ever had before. That means not just art-house or cult/exploitation fare, but middle of the road stuff that represents each country's popular cinema. Labirent, for instance, is a Turkish counterterrorism thriller written and directed by Tolga Örnek, and in many ways it's like counterterror thrillers you might see anywhere. Adorned with 24-style split-screen effects, the film shows the complicated hunt for an Islamist terror cell (with some roots in Germany) carrying out suicide attacks in Turkey. What's different about it is a critical but not quite hostile attitude toward the west, here represented by a British spy (Martin Turner) who collaborates with the Turkish heroes but clearly serves his own country's agenda, even when it compromises the Turkish operation. What comes through is Turkish resentment of the western attitude, probably portrayed here accurately, that doesn't really trust the Turks to keep their own house, much less the region, in order. After all, this is the Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist of sorts in his own right with alleged authoritarian tendencies. Labirent, however, doesn't appear to represent Erdogan's point of view.

Örnek made his name in part with an admiring documentary film about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the man who abolished the Islamic Caliphate and founded the secular Turkish republic. A picture of Ataturk is conspicuous in this film's anti-terror headquarters, and perhaps even more conspicuous, if not scandalous in the eyes of culturally conservative Turks, is the prominent heroic role of Reyhan (Meltem Cumbul), a female anti-terror operative who serves as the film's second lead after its more tragic male hero Fikret (Timuçin Esen, who speaks fluent English in scenes with Turner). Reyhan is a generic international superwoman, and I say that with admiration. Captured by the terrorists, she's put to the torture, punched repeatedly in the face, subjected to long electrical shocks, and made to watch a friend executed in front of her. Apparently beaten unconscious, she's only playing possum, waiting for just the right moment to untie herself and beat her torturer to death. For a fleeting, almost fatal moment she comes face to face with her antithesis -- a girl terrorist wearing traditional headcovering and wielding a gun, but in the next moment Reyhan's buddies come to the rescue.

One moment Reyhan is down (above), the next she's up and the other guy's down.

Labirent is a little too self-consciously dour and tragic to be that much fun most of the time, and like many a counterterror thriller it grows repetitive portraying terrorists out on walks being stalked by strolling antiterror agents. It has just enough local flavor and attitude to make it not quite as generic as it could be, but fans of the genre from around the world probably could sit through this without finding anything really alien about it. I'm still not sure if that's a virtue or not.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

On the Big Screen: GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

It's been more than twenty years since I saw the seminal cyberpunk-style anime that inspired Rupert Sanders' new film, and to be honest I don't remember much about it apart from the giant holographic signs and Kenji Kawai's tremendous theme song, which gets a welcome reprise over the new film's end credits. After doing some research to refresh my memory, I see that there's only superficial resemblances between the two films. The new screenplay boils down to a very ordinary "everything you thought you knew is wrong" story in which The Major (Scarlett Johansson), a highly skilled cyborg working for a shadowy department of the Japanese government, learns during her investigation of a crime wave masterminded by a cyborg terrorist that her makers fed her a fake story about her human origin. The one clever thing about this is that it inscribes the controversy over the "whitewashing" of the main character into the film itself. Since Ghost is known worldwide as a Japanese product, offense was taken -- more in the U.S. than in Japan itself, as I'm given to understand -- that an American actress got the lead role. Never mind that Scarlett Johansson probably is the most popular female action star on Earth right now, and that while Marvel Studios insanely refuses to put her in a solo Black Widow movie she has been typecast in recent films (Her, Under the Skin, Lucy) as a higher form of life. Never mind that the ability to make a cyborg look like whatever regardless of the "ghost's" true identity is part of the point of the project. What mattered to those this bothers, I suspect, is mainly that Johansson, so to speak, took away someone's rice bowl. In any event, the new film tells us that the Major herself has been whitewashed, that she was Japanese in her corporeal life but changed into something else, presumably because the head man of the robotics company is white himself. This still may not make sense given that she was purchased by the Japanese government and lives and works in Japan. Taking this into consideration, shouldn't she have been designed as a Japanese? Write it off as the whim of a villain, but note also that this film's Japan is quite the cosmopolitan place.

The Major's boss (a deceptively feeble looking Takeshi Kitano, splitting the difference between his directorial and thespian billings as " 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano" in the credits) has an international but Anglophone team of agents, including rising global star Pilou Asbaek as Major's sidekick Batou, who understand his Japanese but talk to him in English, which he understands just as well. Cybernetics, I guess. I waited the whole film for Takeshi to talk English in some badass moment, but the great man actually is so badass that he doesn't have to talk anyone else's language. Indeed, this is as international a film as you'll get this year, co-financed by American and Chinese companies and boasting Juliette Binoche, reigning queen of global cinema, in its supporting cast. Unfortunately, probably for the same reason it feels as completely generic a film as any you'll see this year. It's certainly not a bad film, but by 2017 there's no way that a live-action Ghost can be the sort of conceptual forward leap that the anime Ghost was in its time. It touches only lightly on the implicit horror of an age in which identity has grown almost helplessly vulnerable to manipulation, its best scene demonstrating the point during the interrogation of a hapless human implanted with false memories, who comes to realize with horror under questioning that everything he thought he knew was ... well, you get the idea. For all its spectacle, Sanders' Ghost is merely competent rather than visionary. It's Johansson's movie but I suspect that if anyone gets a rub from it it'll be Asbaek, who cements his action-hero credentials as Batou. Overall this isn't really a bad movie, but for a work of science-fiction contemplating a possible post-human or trans-human future it suffers a possibly insurmountable handicap of appearing to look backward rather than forward.