Monday, July 31, 2017

DVR Diary: IF I WERE KING (1938)

Predating the badass Elizabethan poets and playwrights by more than a century, Francois Villon may be the true OG, the first to combine thug life and art. In the 1930s he was a sort of pulp hero, the protagonist of a series of short stories in Liberty, one of the popular general-interest weekly magazines of the era, by John Erskine. As rendered by screenwriter Preston Sturges, adapting a hoary old play that had already been filmed in 1920, and directed by Frank Lloyd of Cavalcade infamy (and more recent acclaim for Mutiny on the Bounty), Villon (Ronald Colman) is a cross between Robin Hood and Moses. In his primary role as poet-thief, Villon looks like a scruffier Robin down to the feathered cap, and in general 15th century France seems to have been everyone's model for what Robin and his men of the turn of the 13th century looked like. It's a cool look that made an alternate silent version of the Villon legend, Alan Crosland's The Beloved Rogue, sometimes look like a Maxfield Parrish painting come to life. It suits Colman, who had played another noble thief, the "amateur cracksman" Raffles, a few years earlier. He proves equally suited to higher fashion when the main story kicks in. Villon, after robbing a government food storehouse, has made the mistake of badmouthing King Louis XI and boasting of what he would do if he were king -- he has a whole poem, mainly romantic, on the subject -- in the incognito presence of the monarch himself (Basil Rathbone). Impressed by Villon's bravado, and grateful that he's killed a high-ranking traitor during a tavern brawl, the curmudgeonly king challenges the poet to live up to his boast by making him the Constable of France, complete with fake title, a bath and a shave that renders Villon unrecognizable, at first, to the lady Katherine (Frances Dee), who had snubbed the impertinent writer in church shortly before. Villon's main task is to maintain morale in Paris and defend the city from the besieging Burgundians, but the poet's SJW approach to these problems -- lenience for his fellow thieves and further looting of the government storehouses -- annoys the establishment and puts the new Constable, thanks to some retroactive sentencing, in mortal peril.

This is unmistakably a Colman star vehicle, but that doesn't stop Basil Rathbone from stealing it with one of the most eccentric performances of his career. By 1938, a year before he started playing Sherlock Holmes, I assume people knew what to expect from Rathbone: vicious villainy backed, if the period permitted it, with masterly swordplay. I assume that people seeing Rathbone's name expected a "Basil Rathbone" performance, and that they, as I, were blindsided by what he actually gave them. Pop culture in those days apparently had a pretty specific idea of what Louis XI, the "spider king," was like, perhaps because character actors had been barnstorming through the part in stage versions of If I Were King since 1901. You get a somewhat more benign version of the character from Henry Davenport in William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame a year later: intelligent but lacking in imagination, almost unpretentious in his frankness, smarter than he looks but probably not as smart as he thinks he is. As scripted by Sturges, soon to make his mark as a director of high wit, Rathbone's king often gets the better of Villon -- or so I think modern audiences will think -- with various sardonic zingers. But Rathbone plays the man as if Ebeneezer Scrooge had usurped the throne of France and was having the time of his life doddering about arrogantly with the power of life and death and hee-heeing through the picture as if history were his private, royal joke. It's the funniest stuff from Rathbone I've ever seen, and now that I think of it I don't know why it surprised me. If he routinely went over the top dramatically (see Son of Frankenstein) why shouldn't he go over the top comically as well?

Given the year and the proximity to World War II, I can't help wondering whether Sturges had a message for Depression America by showing Villon strengthening France to face an enemy onslaught through the redistribution of wealth, or at least of food. Whether he did or not, If I Were King gains a certain timelessness by portraying Villon as a kind of comic Moses, an impostor elevated to great power who raids the granaries and is denied the promised land at the end. Grateful that Villon has led the people to turn back the Burgundians, but still resentful of the poet's thefts and impertinence, Louis spares Villon's life but banishes him from Paris, allowing him the run of the rest of France but denying him the city that was his life. In history, this banishment (for mere theft, the king having nothing to do with it) was Villon's cue to vanish from history. In the movie, it sets up a happy ending as Katherine follows him luxuriously into exile. Villon had a girlfriend among the rabble (Ellen Drew) who was portrayed so sympathetically that I thought the poet might ditch Katherine for her, until the brave guttersnipe died fighting the invaders. So much for social justice. It's still a fun, light historical entertainment made especially entertaining by Rathbone's one-of-a-kind performance and Colman's effortless panache.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

On the Big Screen: ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

This is a movie that stages a fight behind a movie screen projecting Stalker, perhaps so the filmmakers can boast that they got people who came to see Charlize Theron beat up people to learn about Andrei Tarkovsky on Google. It's a film that casts Barbara Sukowa in a bit part as if it were a homage to New German Cinema. It is, as I mentioned in passing, a film in which Charlize Theron beats people up, but that doesn't mean it can't be pretentious in its own fashion.

As a movie star, Theron was born in violence. In 2 Days in the Valley she was not just the hot new hottie but the one who got attention for bare-knuckle brawling with Terri Hatcher. She's always been something of an Amazon, and that  probably made it easier for her to earn acclaim and awards playing a Ms. Hyde version of the type, an uglyfied man-hating murderer in Monster. It has long seemed like her destiny to be an action star, especially as she advances into her forties past leading-lady territory. She made a move in that direction right after Monster, but Aeon Flux set back her cause for a while. More recently she's become an A-level genre fixture, finally established as an action goddess by Mad Max: Fury Road. I don't know what the hell she was doing in the last Fast and Furious movie, but for her latest star vehicle she's teamed with some of the people who miraculously transformed Keanu Reeves into a midlife badass in the John Wick films. The promise of Atomic Blonde is that Charlize Theron will not only beat people up, but will do so with style and devastating force and little winks to the movie nerds in the audience.

Stuntman turned director David Leitch has filmed a screenplay adapted from one of those obscure graphic novels that Hollywood pays people to read -- don't envy them until you read a few hundred -- by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, who most recently wrote the second 300 movie -- the really bad one. I don't know whether he or the original writer deserves the "credit" for Atomic Blonde's utterly generic spy story, which depends on that old standby, the List. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall crumbles, the intelligence agencies of several nations are fighting over one of those lists, the existence of which automatically endangers vast numbers of operatives and assets. MI6's contender in this deadly sweepstakes is Lorraine Broughton (Theron), whose sole useful attribute, from what we see, is her versatility in hand-to-hand combat. She replaces a British agent who was killed, presumably by a traitor known as Satchel. She is to be assisted by David Percival (James McAvoy) an agent working on the other side of the Wall as a black marketeer. Percival has a back-up for the list: the German agent who created the list and has memorized all of it. If all else fails, this man is to be smuggled out of East Berlin. Broughton and Percival have a prickly relationship that happily doesn't consummate in romance, as might have been taken for granted a few years ago. Instead, our heroine has her very own Bond Girl in the form of a French agent (Sofia "The Mummy" Boutella). None of this can be told straightforwardly, of course, because this is the 21st century. Instead, the details are related after the fact during a framing-device debriefing that preempts any suspense about Broughton in Berlin. MI6 has been taken over by Hydra, it seems, since Broughton must answer for her actions to Arnim Zola and his U.S. counterpart (John Goodman). Any narrative (or erotic) momentum the film works up is broken up by its constant return to the inert framing device -- but let's face it. The narrative isn't really meant to have momentum of its own; it only has to transport us from one action setpiece to another, and while the story of the film is pretty tedious, and eventually predictable, those setpieces mostly live up to the advance hype. I'm not going to bother describing them, apart from citing one that plays out during a lengthy Rope-style "single take" as the piece de resistance. It will do to recommend Atomic Blonde as an action film that puts Theron over as an opportunistic, resilient brawler in a relatively realistic style. If Wonder Woman is too fantastic for your tastes, Atomic Blonde should end up your female action movie of the year, though it may try your patience at times when it tries to tell a story instead of doing what it's really good at.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

DVR Diary: THE BIG PARADE (1925)

Ever since Wonder Woman stormed through No Man's Land earlier this year I've wanted to take a fresh look at World War I movies, including those I'd seen before. It had been a while since I looked at King Vidor's 1925 blockbuster, the first major film about the war made after the armistice, with no need for propaganda. It made a superstar of leading man John Gilbert, real stars of romantic lead Renee Adoree and comic relief Karl Dane, and a bankable name of Vidor himself. I didn't remember it being as hard a slog back then. More than half the film is over before we get a battle, and most of that first half is seemingly interminable service comedy stuff with Gilbert, Dane and Tom O'Brien in France. That probably reflects the sensibility of Lawrence Stallings, whose novel Plumes formed the basis of the screenplay. Roughly speaking, Hollywood gave us two kinds of World War I movie between the world wars, not counting the German-point-of-view picture All Quiet on the Western Front. John Monk Saunders, the writer of Wings and many subsequent war pictures, brought a sort of "Lost Generation" post-traumatic sensibility to his work that makes his pictures more accessible today. To be cynical about it, his 1940 suicide probably gives Saunders additional street cred in our time, though if you want to play that game take note that by little more than a decade after Big Parade was completed Gilbert, Adoree and Dane were all dead. Stallings brings a different sensibility to war literature. His major contributions were Plumes and the play he wrote with Maxwell Anderson, What Price Glory, adapted into another blockbuster movie that inspired a spinoff comedy series about its bromantic heroes, Flagg and Quirt. Judging from Big Parade (assuming it to be a faithful adaptation of Plumes) and What Price Glory, it looks like Stallings saw the war as an occasion for the loosening of inhibitions as well as a perhaps pointless slaughter. Hence the girl-chasing in Big Parade as well as the notoriously salty "dialogue," available only to lip-readers, of the What Price Glory film. Saunders covers some of that territory as well, especially in Wings, but his stories always remain more grim than Stallings'. That's not to say that Big Parade doesn't get grim. In fact, it probably came across to its original audiences as very grim, since after building up Gilbert's buddies through that long first half of the picture Vidor promptly destroys them in his one big battle scene.

To back up a bit, Gilbert plays Jim Apperson, wastrel son of a successful businessman who enlists at the spur of the moment when the U.S. declares war on Germany without really thinking about it much. His dad thinks he's become a man at last -- an older brother stays home to help run the business -- but Jim doesn't want to make a big deal of it because he realizes, on his first second thought, that his mother will be horrified. Nevertheless, he leaves home and girlfriend behind to ensure basic training and the many indignities of military life (especially stable cleaning) alongside construction worker Slim (Dane) and bartender Bull (O'Brien). In France, they all have the hots for Melisande (Adoree), but Jim's an easy winner in that contest over his grotesque pals. Finally their unit is called to the front (the intertitles get hysterical about it: "Front! FRONT!" etc.) and Melisande can't stand to see Jim go. In a melodramatic high spot, she clings to the rear fender of the truck taking the men away until she can't hang on anymore, and then lies there abjectly after everyone else has left.

There isn't really any trench warfare in Big Parade unless you count the dark night Jim and his buddies spend in a shell crater. Instead, the Americans advance on the enemy through a forest in a scene famously choreographed by Vidor to establish a rhythm of footsteps, gunshots and falling bodies. In its deliberateness this scene is far from the machine-gun pacing of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet  battles or the relentless tracking shots of Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, but it's a great way to build up tension as the Americans approach their baptism of fire. At a more intimate level, the night scene with the three soldiers in the crater must have been terrifying to the original audience as the men lose each other in darkness and light can mean death. The intertitles go over the top again in their own way -- blame them on movie writer Harry Behn rather than Stallings -- as Jim loses his buddies. "GOD DAMN THEIR SOULS!" he thunders at the Germans as he realizes that they've killed Slim. He gets a bit more explicit than that later, and while I recall seeing a version in which "bastards" is spelled out on screen, the version I saw on TCM (presumably more authentic) bleeps it down to "B---!" In any event, Jim barely survives, taken away in a singular burst of color by a Red Cross truck and sent home minus a leg. He learns that his girl has Dear Johned him with his brother and promptly heads back to France -- whether to stay with Melisande or bring her home to America is unclear. My gut feeling is that he stays, and I suppose there's a message there about the war experience for many Americans. You probably need a sense of Big Parade's place in film history to fully appreciate it now, or at least forgive the patches that have grown dull over time, but it's still essential viewing if you're interested in how Hollywood presented the war supposed to end all war.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

On the Big Screen: DUNKIRK (2017)

How ironic that reviewers have rushed to call Dunkirk Christopher Nolan's best film, as if in implicit rebuke to all his genre pictures, when all he did was make a war film just as he would make a genre picture. As for reviews declaring Dunkirk one of the greatest war pictures, don't make me laugh. It's neither that nor Nolan's best film -- for me, that is either The Dark Knight or The Prestige -- but it is a decent war film and admirable in its compactness at under two hours. More than anything else, Dunkirk is a battle movie done as a thriller, designed to keep the audience in constant suspense regardless of their knowledge of history. Most people going to the movie  know (I hope!) that the good guys win this one, that the British manage to evacuate their army with help from a cross-channel civilian flotilla. But that doesn't tell you whether Nolan's fictional characters will make it through or not. Unlike most battle films, Dunkirk is a micro-epic, focusing on whether a few particular characters whose individual fates are uncertain will survive or succeed. We don't really get the macro perspective except for Kenneth Branagh's scenes as an anxious naval commander, and unlike the classic World War II battle film template, we don't get the enemy perspective at all. On one level that hurts Dunkirk because it can't answer the question of why the Germans didn't make a serious effort to wipe out the British army, though any film of this story can't help but beg that question. On the other hand, it's a matter of artistic license not to care what the Germans were thinking.

The whole point of Nolan's Dunkirk is to immerse 21st century movie audiences in the terrifying immediacy of 20th century war, and it succeeds at that as much as any film can that simultaneously distracts the audience with Nolanesque gimmickry. To Nolan's credit, he's upfront about the gimmickry as he introduces his three storylines. The gimmick is that the three stories, while intercut with each other constantly, aren't actually concurrent until near the end of the picture. The opening story, dealing with some stray soldiers straggling to the beach and struggling to worm their way onto any available escape ship, takes place over the course of a week. A second narrative featuring Mark Rylance as a civilian boat captain taking part in the rescue mission over the objections of Nolan stalwart Cillian Murphy (who has a seemingly incomplete story arc of his own linking the beach and boat stories) takes place over the course of one day. The third thread, focusing on Tom Hardy's Spitfire pilot (the actor again spends much of a film behind a mask) battling German planes, plays out over the course of a single hour. There's no real reason to do this apart from "Christopher Nolan," but as long as audiences understand what the onscreen notes explain it doesn't really hurt the picture, either. None of the storylines spoil each other, allowing the audience to concentrate on each individual deathtrap or combat episode. Structurally, Dunkirk is not unlike those feature-length condensations of golden-age serials that include all the cliffhangers but leave little room for much else. Think of it as a Republic picture made with absolute mastery and a grown-up screenplay on an unlimited budget, with the added Nolan virtue of minimal fakery of the sea and air action. There's no disputing that Nolan is very good at suspense, and credit is definitely due the skill with which he (as sole writer) finally converges the three storylines, as Hardy battles to keep a German plane from slaughtering helpless soldiers, including our beach heroes, swimming from a sinking minesweeper to Rylance's boat. The hyperbole of early reviewers might provoke a backlash that the film doesn't deserve, but that hyperbole does compel me to say that Dunkirk, for all its virtues, is the most overrated film of 2017 so far.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

1898 (...Los ultimos de Filipinas, 2016)

There's something about the Philippines, I guess, that makes foreign soldiers very reluctant to leave. The U.S. definitely overstayed its welcome there, but at least we didn't leave last-ditch fanatics behind when we decided to leave. When I was growing up, however, the world was fascinated by stories of Japanese soldiers holed up in the islands for up to thirty years after the end of World War II. There was precedent for this, on a more modest scale, after the 1898 war in which the U.S. "liberated" the Philippines from Spain. Despite that crushing defeat, a Spanish garrison held out at Baler, in eastern Luzon, for nearly a year, surrendering only in June 1899. The siege of Baler was the subject of a heroic war film in 1945, during the Franco dictatorship. Salvador Calvo's remake is far less celebratory.

The garrison is made up mostly of recent arrivals from Spain, few of whom have any real training. Our point-of-view character among these recruits is an aspiring artist who befriends the resident priest. While the soldiers can hold out for months with the ammo available, the important thing for the priest and his new protege is a plentiful supply of opium. One important thing the unit lacks is nutritious produce. Berberi breaks out, killing the original commander. The men continue to hold out, though at least one deserts.

Meanwhile, as the besieging Filipinos well know, Spain is negotiating a sale of the islands to the victorious U.S. to bring the war to a definitive close. Anticipating their next war with the Americans, the natives would like to end the siege with minimal fuss and hope to convince the Spaniards with up-to-date newspapers. The new commander dismisses all reports as fake news, contrived to trick them into surrendering. Eventually, our artist hero is sent out on a mission to get authentic news from Manila, the capital. He's promptly captured by a courteous Filipino commander who sends him on his way in the hope that the truth will set everyone free. The commander still won't believe and condemns the artist as a drug-addled traitor. Our hero will survive the siege, but his artistic ambitions end up one last casualty of a hopeless war.

The siege of Baler was something new to me, and that lent novelty to 1898. The siege was no Alamo and its conclusion -- the commander finally reads a piece of news he can't dismiss as fake -- is inescapably anticlimactic. The maiming of our artist hero serves as a symbolic catastrophe on top of the already pointless deaths during the siege. The film's real strength is its ensemble cast, led by Luis Tosar, Javier Gutierrez and Alvaro Cervantes as the artist. There's nothing really innovative here as far as battle films go, but for audiences outside the Spanish-speaking world 1898 provides a fresh look at the absurdity of imperialism and the folly of war.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

George A. Romero (1940-2017)

Romero died bitter. Once you get past today's obituaries, a Google News search will point you to interviews published earlier this month, as he struggled to raise funds for another Dead film that he had co-written and planned to produce. He railed against today's zombie movies and shows, convinced that such things as World War Z and especially The Walking Dead, products he apparently saw as bastardized versions of his vision, had made it impossible for him to get financing for his modestly-budgeted ideas. Romero apparently took it as an insult that he had been invited to direct episodes of Walking Dead, and he showed what strikes me as a reactionary blindness toward that show's significance, based on what fans of the show tell me, when he complained that it had reduced the "zombie apocalypse" to a mere backdrop for what he called soap opera, while the Dead films always were elevated, or so the auteur implied, by his inclusion of satiric subtexts. I don't watch The Walking Dead, but the impression I get from those who've watched and commented on it is that such a show can't help but comment implicitly on the world of here and now. In short, in his frustration Romero was unfair to those who followed in his footsteps or, as he may have seen it, stood on his shoulders to reach glories denied him. But George A. Romero was a filmmaker entitled to some indulgence of his unfair moods. The shows he despised at the end of his life were only further proof that Romero himself had made, in Night of the Living Dead, one of the handful of most culturally influential movies ever made. It introduced the world to what is still often called a "Romero zombie," to distinguish it from both the voodoo-driven thralls of past movies and the more articulate (sometimes muscularly, sometimes verbally) brain-eaters seen later. It was a milestone in horror cinema despite its tiny budget and its unlikely appearance as a black and white gore film in 1968. It was also indisputably a work of genius that earned his follow-up zombie films Dawn and Day the status of unique events, and not just because their standard-setting gore defied the ratings system and normal exhibition policies. A second trilogy of 21st century films was less successful, but Land of the Dead was still a great entertainment that advanced Romero's mythos in major, tantalizing ways, and Survival of the Dead proved him still a fine storyteller in the pulp tradition at the effective end of his career. It's important now to remind people of the great films Romero made outside the zombie genre. My favorites include his vampire film Martin and especially his neo-Arthurian biker movie Knightriders, while Creepshow, his and Stephen King's homage to EC Comics, still has many fans. In the end, Romero had a right to be bitter, if only because he never cashed in on the incredible popularity of his zombie innovation the way he should have, but lived to see many others feeding on the harvest he'd planted. But if history can be a solace, Romero should rest in peace -- unless, like John Leguizamo in Land, he wants to see "how the other half lives."...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On the Big Screen: WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

Matt Reeves' Planet of the Apes trilogy has gradually moved away from the concept's dystopian foundation, as established by original novelist Pierre Boulle and original screenwriter Rod Serling, making the saga of Caesar the chimp revolutionary a crowd-pleasing fantasy series. His movies remain superficially dystopian, portraying the further decline of the human race, but by now they don't feel dystopian in any meaningful way because no one's rooting for the humans. From the beginning, the Apes myth has been the sort of dystopia in which the victims had it coming; Charlton Heston's final rant in the 1968 movie sets the tone. Keep at it and the victims are bound to lose viewers' sympathy, especially when the filmmakers don't treat them as victims, but villains. The best proof of Reeves' success is that people don't ask themselves whether, as human beings, they should be happy with the results of his films. A lot of people will credit this to Andy Serkis's by-now overrated (But still good! Don't kill me!) motion-capture performances as Caesar and the sympathy he earns for the apes, but it really comes down to the writing -- and maybe also to a more misanthropic spirit in our time. You might expect a divided audience, some identifying more strongly with the apes while identifying the humans with certain more obnoxious or oppressive members of the species, while some still regard even the purely fictional prospect of human extinction with horror. But I doubt whether anyone watching War is not on Caesar's side, no matter what that means for those who aren't.

We open with the war promised at the end of the last picture underway. Diminished as they are by the simian flu, humans in northern California still outnumber and outgun Caesar's band of artificially-evolved apes, but still can't overcome the ape defenses in the dense forest. Nevertheless, each skirmish brings unacceptable losses, and Caesar hopes to break out of the forest and head south, where there are, presumably, fewer humans. Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), the leader of the local army, isn't going to let the apes go so easily. Doubly resentful now that he's discovered that simian flu is a gift that keeps on giving, McCullough (referred to by everyone else as simply "The Colonel") intends to exterminate the apes through slave labor. He's put captive apes to work building a wall -- don't freak out, anybody; the screenplay was written before anyone took Trump seriously, and in any event the wall is meant to keep out fellow humans, fellow soldiers even. A main force further north hasn't taken well with the Colonel's method of controlling the spread of secondary simian flu, which is to shoot anyone who contracts it, including his own son. Despite his extinction agenda, McCullough has simian collaborators: followers of the late Koba (Toby Kebbell takes a few encores to haunt Caesar's dreams) who paradoxically make common cause with humans out of fear and resentment of Caesar. In his greatest blunder as a leader, Caesar sends the majority of the apes south while he seeks personal revenge for casualties inflicted in one of the Colonel's raids on the forest. He's accompanied by his stalwarts: Luca the gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite), Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval) and Rocket the chimp (Terry Notary) -- and by a little human girl (Amiah Miller) that Caesar's crew inadvertently orphaned, and for whom the kindly Maurice in particular feels responsible. We learn eventually that her muteness is a result of the secondary virus, but more on that later. While this motley band, joined eventually by the first evolved ape they've ever seen who isn't part of their original group, heads toward a border station where they expect to find the Colonel, that clever man swept down upon the refugee apes with such swiftness and efficiency that they all arrive there and are put to work before Caesar reaches the place.

I prefer to keep spoilers at a minimum for non-superhero movies so I won't say much about the rest of the film, except to describe it as a cross between Apocalypse Now and The Ten Commandments, the latter proving the dominant strain even though Reeves openly invites comparison with the former with a bald, crazy colonel and some "Apepocalypse Now" graffiti. There's clever symbolic labeling throughout the film; the Colonel's soldiers call the apes "Kongs" but dub their gorilla collaborators "Donkeys"; one soldier's battle slogan, written on his helmet, is "Bedtime for Bonzo." There's more overt humor here than in the previous films, perhaps because Reeves recognizes by now how popular these films are. We even get a comedy-relief ape in the aforementioned but just-now identified "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn), whose nebulous origin story opens the door to further exploration or the increasingly apish planet. He got smart like his fellow zoo apes but he honestly isn't very bright. His main trait is old-school comic cowardice of the sort that gets set aside when your buddies apply enough pressure. The little girl, who is given the easter-egg name "Nova" after one of Bad Ape's car-ornament trinkets, often proves more useful than this simian who never learned sign-language and thus can't communicate understand the other apes when Caesar's not around to translate. About the girl and her sickness: anyone who knows the history of Planet of the Apes can see that her plight evokes the mute humans Charlton Heston encounters. But what has happened to her exactly? For Col. McCullough the secondary flu is a fate worse than death because it robs people of speech. He also claims that victims are reduced to a "primitive" state, but we have only his hysterical word for that, compared to the evidence of Nova, who picks up the apes' sign language readily enough and displays numerous positive character traits that belie the Colonel's pejorative sense of "primitive." One could almost believe that the secondary flu has purified the girl, whose future is one of the more tantalizing threads that could be picked up in a post-Reeves sequel. For now, at least, it looks like Reeves and co-writer Mark Bombeck may have meant to make a point about our identification of sentience with speech or our reluctance to ascribe sentience to those without speech, but if so they fudge it a little by having Caesar talk more often than he probably needs to or should in story terms, for the obvious reason of reinforcing audience identification with the hero chimp.

As I said, the Ten Commandments gene ultimately overwhelms the film, inflicting a gratuitous disaster climax on top of the genuine climax of Caesar's escape from the Colonel's base in the middle of an air attack by the enemy army. It keeps up after that extra-climax with a sadly flat denouement at the edge of the promised land, with Maurice as Caesar's Aaron and Rocket as his Joshua, while Reeves can think of nothing better for Nova and Bad Ape to do than romp around in circles in something like a parody of play. But I won't hold the end of the picture against its actual story or Reeves' overall direction. War relies on emotional intensity rather than frantic action, often lingering on the wondrously expressive faces of Caeasr -- surely you can't credit Serkis alone for all of this -- and the other lead apes, and emphasizing Harrelson's profoundly menacing presence as the Colonel without requiring him to emote villainously. Reeves is at his best simply framing Harrelson watching the imprisoned Caesar from his balcony, or receiving the adulation of his troops while preoccupied with shaving his head. Harrelson does a tremendous job under Reeves' direction to compete with the lead apes, who probably are the best CGI creations on film to date, not counting Pixar movies. Reeves can shoot close-ups of their faces with Leonean intensity with full justification; you really do feel like you can see the inner workings of Caesar, Maurice or Rocket's mind when they're not talking or signing. War may not really stick the landing, but it should still go down as one of the best third films in a series. While there can and perhaps should be more films in this Apes series, Reeves' trilogy should stand for some time as one of the most impressive achievements in modern genre film.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Pierre Boule had an idea in 1963 that may keep going forever. His novel La Planète des Singes has inspired two successful movie franchises, not counting the one-off Tim Burton reboot from 2001. With Matt Reeves' third Apes film opening this weekend, it seemed time to give some recognition to two of the more obscure manifestations of the Planet phenomenon. After the original movie series wrapped with 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox decided to start over in a different medium. Coming so soon after the last movie, the Planet of the Apes TV series must have looked like second-class stuff, despite the presence of Roddy McDowall, the Cornelius and Caesar of the movies. Objectively speaking, as a matter of production values the show was second-class, to be generous, and McDowall may only have confused fans by playing neither Cornelius nor Caesar but an entirely new character, the privileged dissident chimpanzee Galen. In fact, the cast of characters is entirely new except for the elite orangutan Zaius (Booth Colman), and in the most noteworthy change from the 1968 original, the planet's humans are intelligent and articulate, more serfs than cattle. This was a sensible and pragmatic change, since it gave the show's protagonists characters they could talk to who did not require ape makeup. Galen befriends two human astronauts, Burke (James Naughton) and Virdon (Ron Harper) who've made the usual crash-landing into their own world's future, only on the west coast rather than the east-coast setting of Charlton Heston's adventure. These three fugitives make their way up and down the coast, pursued by soldiers answering to the gorilla General Urko (Mark "Sarek" Lenard), and confronting different aspects of ape civilization along the way. The two astronauts are the show's great weakness. They're utterly whitebread bland, infinitely skilled in outdoor crafts and initially distinguishable from one another only by hair color, though one eventually shows a more cautious personality than the other. The show's real virtue, which only became apparent too late to save it from an early cancellation after 14 episodes, was its more in-depth exploration of the planet's society than was possible in any of the movies. It drove home that the Planet of an Apes was an oppressive regime even for most apes apart from privileged landowners and gorilla soldiers. At the same time, it rejected a simplistic apes bad-humans good dichotomy not just by having Galen along as a hero but by portraying a wide range of human responses to ape oppression, from servile collaboration to genocidal terrorism. Often the guest star characters were more interesting than our weekly protagonists, as was very often the case in that era before story arcs and metaplots. While McDowall and the writers sometimes played off Galen's increasingly misplaced sense of privilege, that wasn't enough to distinguish the TV character from the actor's generic gentle-ape performance, and the impression was inescapable that he wasn't really thrilled to be wearing the makeup again. The show might well have fared better without him, so long as McDowall's presence reminded audiences of what the show was not.

The next step down the evolutionary ladder, presumably, was Saturday morning animation. The 1970s were a dark age for TV cartoons, doubly constrained by cheapness and anti-violence censorship. At first glance, DePatie-Freling's Return to the Planet of the Apes was just another Seventies failure, surviving for only thirteen episodes. In fact, the show was almost a miracle. It's animation probably was as limited as any of its contemporaries, but it was still often impressive to look at thanks to production design by Doug Wildey of Jonny Quest fame. Where Return really excelled was in its writing. It has probably the tightest continuity of any Seventies cartoon series, being for all intents and purposes a serial. Rather than a follow-up to the TV show, it's another reboot, though it retained the Urko character as well as Zaius while bringing back the beloved Cornelilus and Zira, the former this time voiced by someone other than Roddy McDowall. The indigenous humans are primitive once more and mostly speechless except for the rebooted Nova from the first two movies. Thanks to cherry-picking from previous Planet mythology, Nova has been taught to speak by Brent, the astronaut from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, who in this Taylor-less reality has been living his life among the primitives. He's joined on the future world -- once again on the east coast -- by three new astronauts: Bill (white male), Jeff (black male) and Judy (white female). In a daring move for a Saturday morning cartoon in 1975, the first episode teases Judy's death. In a perhaps more daring move, the show expects us to remember this when it reveals, two episodes later, that Judy was rescued, and is now worshipped as the goddess Usa, by a race of telepathic human underground dwellers analagous to Beneath's bomb-worshippers. Once she rejoins her fellow astronauts Judy becomes a hugely important character (and, for what it's worth, a progressive exemplar) since she's the only one who knows how to fly the airplane that the apes have reassembled for human-hunting. The show does a fair job portraying the three astronauts as equals, but where it really excels is in its truly expansive survey of the ape planet.

Budgetary limitations aren't necessarily limits on imagination. Return is arguably the most imaginative version of the Planet myth to date, at once bringing us closest of all adaptations to Pierre Boule's own vision of a thoroughly modern ape civilization (TV, movies, more advanced weapons) while taking us away from the typical Ape City milieu to a Shangri-la like mountain colony of enlightened simians guarded by a giant, magically self-thawing yeti-like gorilla. Better still, it picks up plot threads only hinted at in the live-action series and runs with them like a pick-six. Mark Lenard's Urko was mostly a peevish, somewhat corrupt fellow with occasional outbursts of brutality and an increasing impatience with Zaius's supervision. On Return, voiced apoplectically by Henry Corden in a virtual rehearsal for the Fred Flintsone gig he landed soon afterward, Urko is an increasingly unstable menace to both the wild humans and the ape political order. He is often shown verbally duelling with Zaius in the courtroom-like setting of the ape legislature, while Zaius grows increasingly certain that Urko needs to be put down. Their conflict, with the more moderate Zaius abetted by Cornelius and Zira, and more indirectly by the astronauts, forms the backbone of the series, climaxing when Urko stages a series of false-flag attacks on Ape City, getting suspended from command after his conspiracy is exposed, and convincing his replacement to defy the civilian government by attacking the human settlement. By the standards of Seventies Saturday mornings, this is epic stuff, and while the show apparently was stopped short of any planned conclusion, it ends on possibly the most optimistic note of any version of the Apes myth. I don't remember whether I watched Return during its original run, when I was just a kid, so seeing it a few months ago on the El Rey network was a real revelation. For all its weaknesses, all handicaps of its time, it probably is the best American TV cartoon of the 1970s. It may just be hard to do "Planet of the Apes" badly. Something about the concept still resonates with us and inspires genuine creativity, even when the results are as radially different from earlier movies as the Reeves trilogy or the Seventies cartoon. We'll probably have more versions of the myth to talk about generations from now -- unless life actually imitates art beforehand.

Saturday, July 8, 2017


The official beginning, after a high-profile cameo appearance in Captain America: Civil War, of the third Spider-Man movie cycle of the still-young century brings with it a huge risk of reboot fatigue. Who needs, much less wants, to see the origin story yet again? Not I and not you, presumably, and neither, fortunately, do director Jon Watts and his five co-writers. You never see or hear of poor Uncle Ben, whose tragic fate is only implicit in a reference to everything that's happened to Peter Parker's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) in recent times. Homecoming is the sort of superhero movie we need at this point, less concerned with beginnings or becoming, though it's still all about Peter (Tom Holland) proving himself as a hero, than with the everyday business of fighting crime and helping people. The stakes are lower here than in any other Marvel movie except Ant-Man: the climactic battle has Spidey thwarting a mid-air robbery rather than saving the city or the world. Yet they don't feel insignificant, and Homecoming feels less like an "ordinary" superhero movie than, say, Age of Ultron does. This reboot isn't just a do-over for its own sake to indulge a new generation of creators, but an effort by Sony Pictures to get Spider-Man right, with the help of Marvel Studios, after the retrospective debacle of the now-underrated Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield films. The new film is a more successful effort to translate many of the tropes of the earliest Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics to the 21st century.

Peter is back in high school, on this time he and his usual supporting cast of age-peers, many of them racially diversified with little fuss, all attend an intellectually elite science-and-technology school. That includes archetypal jock-bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), who here becomes an underachieving asshole, while Peter remains the archetypal outcast, for the ironic reason that he's always bailing out on school activities to seek out crime as "the Spider Man from You Tube" while awaiting a summons from Tony Stark (must I say?) to join the Avengers. He's chafing at the bit, his superheroism kept on a tight leash but also largely ignored by Stark henchman Happy Hogan (as usual, Jon Favreau) and various infantilizing protocols built into his Stark-designed deluxe costume. Peter sees a chance to impress Stark when he stumbles upon bank robbers using exotic high-tech weapons that nearly devastate Parker's neighborhood. Thanks to a prologue, we know that these are the handiwork of Adriam Toomes (Michael Keaton), a disgruntled blue-collar entrepreneur who has his salvage contract for sites wrecked by the alien invasion from The Avengers abruptly snatched away by a federal government collaborating with Stark. Toomes and his inventive techies decide to keep what they've gleaned, retooling the alien tech into weapons, and in Toomes' case, a flying costume that earns him the nickname "Vulture," for stealing more alien tech to sell on the black market. Spider-Man's skirmishes with Toomes' gang escalate, with neither side fully appreciating the destructive power in play, until the Washington Monument and the Staten Island Ferry are nearly wrecked -- at which point Tony Stark grounds Peter. Like the typical parent who doesn't get it, and with a great irony that the man himself partly appreciates, Stark only sees his young protege behaving irresponsibly and dangerously, blaming him rather than the bad guys (who should be left to the authorities to deal with, Stark says hypocritically) for all the destruction. Stripped of his high-tech suit, which he'd hacked with the help of best buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) in order to access extra features, Peter now must really prove himself by continuing his war against Toomes, even after he learns that Toomes is the father of Liz (Laura Harrier), Peter's current crush, and after Toomes quickly deduces that the awkward kid taking his daughter to the homecoming dance, who looks at him with a constant expression of horror, is more than he lets on...

Like Civil War, Homecoming is sort of a generic "Marvel Universe" movie, or at least an Iron Man 3.25 thanks to the participation of Downey, Favreau and Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as Captain America himself (a shameless Chris Evans) in a private hell of mind-numbing PSAs. It cleverly calls back to Civil War by showing us the buildup to that film's famous airport fight from the vantage of Peter's cellphone and teases the hero's graduation to the Avengers, only to have Peter keep his distance, as Marvel and Sony presumably will keep their distance hereafter, in order to remain, in Stark's own words, a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man. That's a good call, because Homecoming leaves us ready to explore Peter Parker's milieu more. Like Sam Raimi's cycle, if not more so, Watts gives Spidey's world a real-life feel as Peter scrambles to keep up with schoolwork, struggles to have a social life, and patrols his inner-city neighborhood. Tom Holland and the other kids all seem to have the right amount of charisma, the standouts being Batalon as a kid living out his sidekick dream of being "the man in the chair" and Zendaya as the sardonic school rebel who may yet end up the love of Peter's life. The villain role doesn't demand much of Michael Keaton at a time when he's become one of our leading character actors, but he lends the part authoritative menace and the overall idea of a working-class villain is in keeping with the early comics. In some ways, and not just because of Stan Lee's dependable presence, this new film is more faithful to those earliest comics than even the Raimi films, down to a recreation of Spidey's most famous inspirational feat of strength from the Ditko era. I'm not prepared to say that Homecoming is the best Spider-Man movie, but I definitely liked it better than the Webb films and was happily surprised to find it not imitating the Raimis very much. In short, Homecoming amply justified its existence as a new take on Spider-Man, but one thing about it really annoyed me. This is a film set in the present day, either 2017 or 2020 depending on when you think The Avengers took place, yet its high-school students sure listen to a lot of oldies music, mainly from the Eighties.Really? I don't even consider myself a fan of modern pop music, but I find this preposterous and clueless, even as I can guess why Marvel does this. All this tells us is that we've yet to see a superhero movie fully integrated with modern youth culture, but until we see such a thing -- if we really want to, that is -- Homecoming will do.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: NO MARRIAGE TIES (1933)

On September 22, 1927, arguably the biggest sporting event in the U.S. during the 1920s took place: the rematch for the heavyweight championship between Gene Tunney and the man he had dethroned the year before, Jack Dempsey. The Chicago Reflector assigned star sportswriter Bruce Foster (Richard Dix) to cover the fight, but Foster is too busy getting drunk to see the famous Long Count. He's preoccupied with a novelty game that requires him to lift a little ball with his breath and latch it onto a tiny hoop. By comparison, arch film drunkard Arthur Housman is the model of sobriety as a sympathetic speakeasy bartender. By the following morning Foster has lost his job, but he makes a new friend in Peggy Wilson, one of those too-good-to-be-true movie dames, more like a screwball comedy heroine, who doesn't give a damn about anything and is only amused by Foster's erudite inebriation. Peggy's a lucky girl, winning a jackpot on one of the speakeasy slots on her first try, and she clearly has an instinct for befriending the right drunks, as Foster, though blackballed from journalism, soon finds himself an advertising executive.

Bruce just happens to be haunting the bar on a night when a real ad executive (Alan Dinehart) is chewing out an incompetent copywriter (Hobart Cavanaugh) who can't come up with a strong slogan for toothpaste. Bruce proves to have a knack for slogans, an instinct for fearmongering. He wins a job, and eventually a partnership, with something along the lines of "Don't Let Your Teeth Kill You!" Director J. Arthur Ruben and his writers clearly had in mind Listerine's long-lived ad campaign warning that halitosis could ruin anyone's career and social life. As a successful ad man, Foster applies that principle to all his clients, and just as he doesn't scruple at exaggerating the threats the products can remedy, he doesn't scruple at exaggerating the products' benefits. Peggy's along for the ride as the agency's new graphic artist -- her stuff is "pretty bad," but that's getting off lightly at company conferences -- but Bruce has his eyes on bigger game.

Told by his increasingly disillusioned partner that no truly classy client will sign with him, Foster picks a name at random and applies his personal brand of supersalesmanship on Deane Cosmetics. Adrienne Deane (Doris Kenyon) is an entrepreneurial superwoman in her own right, not only designing her own products but modeling in her own ads, but in Bruce's hands, after he sneaks into her office disguised as a chemist, she turns to emotionally needy mush. He confuses winning the account with winning the woman until he realizes that he's been a heel to Peggy, whose artistic ambitions can no longer be contained by advertising work. Foster decides that the right thing to do is break off his engagement with Adrienne, but he's hardly returned to his office before word comes by phone that Deane has killed herself. This drives home to our hero the pitfalls of false advertising, and lest the great agencies who presumably placed ads for RKO Radio Pictures in all the magazines take offense at this picture's portrayal of their trade, he delivers a numbing mea culpa in praise of the ad industry and its important contributions to the nation's economic growth, blaming any excesses of the profession on bad people like himself. And so Bruce Foster returns to his level, getting wasted at the same old speakeasy before finally figuring out the breath game. As if on cue, Peggy returns from a European sojourn and embraces the big slob once more. This "Mad Men of 1933" is interesting as a wishy-washy satire of advertising but unimaginative in its melodrama and preposterous in imagining a drunk Richard Dix as irresistible to anyone, much less two seemingly intelligent women. I suppose it was a kind of power fantasy of making a fortune through misanthropy and bailing out before any real comeuppance with the assurance that someone still loves your true pathetic self.  There probably was an audience for that sort of stuff during the Depression, and for all I know you could remake No Marriage Ties today and win over similar people.

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had a fascination with noble savages during the golden age of Hollywood that found expression not only in Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies but in a small cycle of pseudo-ethnographic films that includes White Shadows in the South Seas, Eskimo and this picture, presumably filmed on some French Polynesian locations also used for Mutiny on the Bounty. Richard Thorpe, who moved on to Tarzan pictures from here, directed a screenplay by John Farrow that reunited the romantic leads of Eskimo, "Mala and Lotus," aka Ray Mala and Lotus Long, with the implication that, despite their previous film appearances, the stars -- Inuit and Japanese-Hawaiian respectively -- were natives of the location, speaking their authentic language. Last of the Pagans is one of the first Hollywood features, to my knowledge, to use subtitles translating foreign-language dialogue into English while the characters speak. Previous experiments, including Eskimo and the German scenes in Hell's Angels, used silent-style intertitles for translation. You can tell especially with Mala that you're dealing with actors of some experience, at least in the lead roles, but the foreign dialogue helps sustain an illusion of authenticity.

The story -- Wikipedia says it's based on Herman Melville's Typee but since my sole experience with that novel is another film adaptation, Alan Dwan's Enchanted Island, I saw little resemblance -- is that Taro (Mala) claims Lilleo (Lotus) as his bride in his island's time-honored fashion, by raiding another tribe with his buddies and stealing her away. Lilleo is little more than irked by this, probably having been brought up to expect it, and then only temporarily, for Taro is good humored, a good provider, and presumably good in other ways that Hollywood under Code Enforcement could not suggest as plainly as they used to. The problem is, the local chief has eyes for Lilleo as well, and takes advantage of the arrival of a white trading ship to recommend Taro to the whites as an ideal candidate for a five-year labor contract in a faraway phosphate mine. This matter-of-fact expose of French colonialism -- all the European characters speak English, by the way -- got this film heavily censored in France, but the chief's selfish complicity in sending many of his young men off this way makes him the film's real villain.

Initially rebellious, Taro's forced to work in shackles until a near-disaster allows him to show the whites his true good character. He's in such good graces after that that arrangements are made to bring Lilleo to the mining colony, but it soon becomes apparent that taking her from the chief could create a crisis on his island. Lilleo is allowed to make a conjugal visit -- and despite what I said about Code Enforcement it could not be more clear why the bosses allow Taro to quit early when she arrives -- but Taro only learns later that it's to be a temporary and last visit from her. He's not having that, however, and stages a breakout with her, defying a storm and eventually finding a new island to live on free from oppressors of all races.  That denies us a perhaps-desired showdown between Taro and the chief, but such a climax may have underscored the picture's pulpy nature too strongly for audiences struggling to suspend disbelief. It's a pretty thin story but has some documentary value, presumably, in its presentation of the phosphate mine if not in its portrait of tribal life. Last of the Pagans benefits from a halfway-decent budget and especially from lead performances by actors whose charisma really needs no translation. It may be hooey, but at least it's entertaining.