Saturday, September 30, 2017


I'm not familiar enough with vintage "Bollywood" cinema to have any idea whether Lekh Tandon's historical epic is typical of its time or exceptional. Wikipedia reports that Amrapali "wasn't a commercial success" but later "started being seen as a classic." It's certainly a lavish film, reminiscent for an American viewer of Cecil B. DeMille's work, yet with a culturally distinct Buddhist spin at the end that makes me reluctant to describe the story as a tragedy. In many respects that's exactly what Amrapali is: a tale of star-crossed lovers who were contemporaries of Siddhartha Gautama. In those days, the republic of Vaishali is menaced by the kingdom of Magadha and its aggressive ruler, Ajaat Shatru (Sunil Dutt, left in the screencap below). His army is state-of-the-art for its time, including war elephants, but the first major battle with Vaishali proves inconclusive at best. In fact, the king goes missing, leading the Vaishali people to proclaim victory.

Ajaat Shatru has been wounded and has gotten himself lost in a delirium. He finds himself in the care of Amrapali (Vyjayanthimala), a patriotic Vashali woman who has mistaken him for a soldier of her own country. Losing his well-known beard helps him stay incognito in the heart of the enemy camp, but a network of his own spies recognizes him and allows him to maintain contact with home, all unbeknownst to Amrapali, who starts falling hard for the unknown soldier after he rescues her from a falling, burning effigy of himself during a victory celebration.

Amrapali is moving up in the world. She's appointed the state courtesan, which apparently amounts to the entertainer-in-chief of the republic, after winning a dance-off with a rival whose misperformance of a traditional dance she publicly criticizes. She gets a statue made of herself by a soldier-sculptor who's been crushing on her the whole picture, and when she commissions a statue of her new soldier boyfriend, the sculptor recognizes him as the evil emperor and sculpts him as such. Realizing now how she's been tricked, Amrapali slices the statue in half and repudiates Ajaat Shatru, but refuses to denounce him. That gets her in trouble when the Vaishali authorities announce that they've captured the enemy leader in their midst. It's actually a lookalike the Magadha spies have provided in case of an emergency, but poor Amrapali doesn't know that. As far as she knows, the man she loved is dead, and she's in prison for treason.

Ajaat Shatru had already tarried too long in Vaishali and didn't get to say goodbye to his beloved dying mother, so he's already in a funk when he learns of Amrapali's arrest. That drives him berserk, and at this point Amrapali diverges from the path a western counterpart would have taken. In short, the Magadha monarch brings a mighty host down on Vaishali and utterly destroys it, sparing Amrapali but slaughtering virtually everyone else. He doesn't really comprehend why his beloved isn't happy to be liberated, and at this point you might expect the story to go fully tragic, western style, with Amrapali killing the king and then maybe herself. Again, no. Instead, Amrapali ditches Ajaat Shatru and heads into the forest, where mass chanting indicates that the Buddha is preaching. He's filmed in something like the old Jesus style, visible only from a distance. The noise of the chanting allows Ajaat Shatru to track Amrapali down, but when he hears the typical Buddhist message -- desire leads to fear, which leads to suffering -- he breaks his sword in a gesture of apparent renunciation. And that's it. The resolution isn't the couple living happily ever after, because Buddhism doesn't believe in that the way we do, nor the couple killing each other, for what would that prove? The only hope for either person in the tragedy, as for everyone according to Buddhism, lies in renunciation. The ending is a hopeful note, presumably, for its native audience -- though Buddhism has always been a bigger thing further east than in its native country -- while for many a westerner, Amrapali simply skids to a halt.

While Sunil Dutt was a legendary star in his own right, Amrapali is pretty much a one-woman show -- or a two-woman show if you give credit where due to the Marni Nixon of India, Lata Mangeshkar, who does Vyjayanthimala's singing. Surprisingly, Amrapali is the only character who gets to sing in the picture, and the film actually makes a fairly subtle transition to musical mode. The first "number" of any sort is the big victory celebration, which features a lot of festive dancing until the effigy collapses. Later comes the big dance-off for the Courtesanship, highlighting the star's putative versatility as a dancer, which I as an outsider to traditional Indian dance am not qualified to judge. Finally we get Amrapali expressing her moods privately in songs that are not public performances, but rather just the sort of numbers we expect in Hollywood musicals. These intrusions may make the film more campy than it really is in some eyes, but their main effect is to make the title character, appropriately enough, the absolute center of the picture. She's far from the only attraction, however, Dutt does a good job portraying the wild swings of Ajaat Shatru's personality, and the film's production design is mostly more impressive than you might expect from a 1960s India film. The big exception to that is the work of the film's armorers. While the battles scenes have the numbers (and elephants) to impress, and the director and editor Pran Mehra do a fine job reducing the final battle to an impressionistic montage, the armor and weapons often look suspect, and Ajaat Shatru breaks his sword far too easily at the end. Overall, taking cultural differences into account, Amrapali is an entertaining example of what the world's largest film industry was capable of fifty years go.

Monday, September 25, 2017


In many respects, Stuart Hagmann's film is inescapably an artifact of its time, but it reminded me of more modern movies in two ways. First, Hagmann himself was given an important project as a first-time feature film director after working in TV. Second, I'm sure that part of the idea behind filming James S. Kunen's memoir of student protest was to make money off a soundtrack album. The recording artists included in the picture receive prominent mention in the opening credits, and to a great extent the Strawberry Statement soundtrack sounds much like what you'd probably get today whenever someone makes a film set in the same time-period. All that aside, Statement was a notorious box-office flop, part of a double-whammy for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, along with the more-ambitious Michelangelo Antonioni youth epic Zabriskie Point, that seemed to belie young moviegoers' presumed hunger for radical subject matter. Posterity may grow kinder toward these and other turn-of-the-decade pictures, forgotten precursors to canonical Seventies cinema, for their audacity in imagining a here-and-now dystopia for American youth. At this specific moment in American history, films like Statement may get more sympathetic viewings from people who expect the worst from the Trump administration or its supporters and expect it to look somewhat like Statement's climax.

If the film is actually memorable at all, it's for that bravura closing sequence, in which California college students -- Kunen's story took place at Columbia in New York City -- occupy a building and await a police attack. Audience anticipation builds as the students, including the romantic leads played by Bruce Davison and Kim Darby, sit down in circles and chant John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance," keeping time by thumping on the hardwood floor. Hagmann milks the suspense for all it's worth, cutting back and forth from the students inside to the convergence of forces and anxious spectators outside. Finally the cops attack. charging in with tear gas guns that look like futuristic nightmare weapons before systematically dragging the kids outside and clubbing the most recalcitrant. Hagmann and his editors let the scene take its time, giving it an air of semi-documentary authenticity that makes up for the relative lack of drama -- and probably makes the film more startling now than then -- but they err at the end by simply letting it stop -- literally freezing the action -- at the brink of a truly climactic moment, when Davison's semi-radicalized jock dives onto a group of cops who are clobbering the Darby character. It's as if they want to tease an all-out doomsday finish a la Easy Rider (or Beneath the Planet of the Apes) without really having one. That finish also shows a disinterest in resolving any character arcs still in play that probably makes any emotional investment in the main characters seem wasted. If the message is "These are the sort of kids who are getting beaten down (or worse) by the police," then I suppose the point is made, but Statement had seemed more character-driven, if episodic, than that until the climax. 

If the romantic plot seems like a dead end in retrospect, the film still has good or interesting moments throughout. There's a nice bit of cynical comedy when Davison goes to a corner grocery said to give away free stuff to student radicals, and learns that the grocer (James Coco) does this so he can claim insurance after reporting robberies. There's also a nice refusal to idealize the student cause or its adherents compared to other films of the period. In one scene, Davison and Darby are chilling in a park only to discover that they've trespassed on a black gang's turf. Fortunately, they get away with only Davison having a camera smashed, but the randomness of the encounter and the character's rage afterward ring true. In the end, though, Statement will more likely endure as a period artifact than as a work of art. Parts like the climax are ideal for anthologies or documentaries of proto-Seventies cinema, but the whole is definitely less than the sum of the parts. Statement may never become a lost film, but it'll most likely survive only in fragments in film lovers' collective memory.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: FROM HEADQUARTERS (1933)

Historical note: this ad from a Pittsburgh paper references a high-profile Chicago murder case of the time

William Dieterle's early police procedural hardly runs longer than an episode of a modern TV police drama. It could almost serve as a prototype for how to do such stories in an hourlong format. Some might also see it as a prototype for multiple-POV films like Rashomon, except that no two characters involved in the killing of dissolute curio collector and part-time blackmailer Gordon Bates (Kenneth Thomson) describe the exact same events. Each is an individual puzzle piece to the mystery, arriving at the Bates department at a different time. The detectives don't have to choose between stories, since they rely on forensic evidence and other modern methods to narrow down the suspect list. With a stolid George Brent in the lead, Headquarters is a showcase for Warner Bros.' stock company of character actors, from Eugene Pallette as a thuggish detective too quick to jump to conclusions to Hobart Cavanaugh in a typically weaselly role as a safecracker, only a little more hard-boiled than usual, to Hugh Herbert in comedy relief as an aggressive bail-bondsman, to the always-watchable Robert Barrat as both villain and red herring simultaneously. Despite the film's brisk pace, Dieterle finds time to develop the melodramatic angle that a female suspect (Margaret Lindsay) is the Brent character's girlfriend, and to indulge in the semi-documentary spectacle of modern police work. The actual story doesn't even get underway until after a plotless tour of the overnight lock-up emphasizing the casual rapport of cops and crooks (not to mention the reporters who infest the station) and the practical jokes the former sometimes play on the latter. We see the wonders of a pre-computer card-sorting system that allows the cops to narrow their searches down to specialized profile; the thrill of guns being fired into wads of cotton so the markings on the bullets can be matched with those found on the murder victim; etc. etc. -- plus a rather creepy medical examiner. In true procedural fashion, the story keeps introducing new data to keep the audience guessing, though it may have overplayed its hand by having the Barrat character overreact to the Cavanaugh character recognizing him. That moment clears up one particularly mystifying aspect of the mystery, but what Barratt does afterward seems disproportionate to his actual involvement in the original crime. Of course, the writers want you to think he's more involved than he actually was, since they're saving a final twist for the end. There's something brazen and almost arrogant about that twist, because it brings a movie that until then had emphasized its ultramodernity to its close with one of the hoariest old cliches of whodunit fiction. Headquarters carries it straightfacedly enough to take itself almost to the realm of camp, but I suppose it was all just showmanship. Films as self-consciously modern as this one often make the best windows into our past as they age, but whether Headquarters serves that purpose for you or not, it's still an easy way to waste an hour without regret.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

INVASION 1897 (2014)

How much should you hold limited resources against an ambitious filmmaker? If his resources aren't adequate to the requirements of his vision, or to conventional standards of verisimilitude, should he even bother with the project? To put it differently, is there any way to discuss the possible artistic merits of Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen's patriotic epic without bringing up his hilariously horrendous costuming of his 19th century British soldiers? Imasuen is a typically prolific "Nollywood" director from a national film industry now increasingly represented in the Netflix streaming library. IMDB hasn't been able to keep up with his output; looking there, you'd think Invasion 1897 had killed his career. An unforgiving eye would think that just desserts. Imasuen wants to show the last stand of the Kingdom of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria) against British imperialism, describing its ruler (Mike Omoregbee) inaccurately (the Negus of Ethiopia says hello) as "the last African king." Were he a director in an authoritarian country, he might have gotten the resources -- money, costumes, extras -- such a story requires, but Nollywood directors are largely on their own, as far as I can tell. Authentic uniforms or authentic-looking Britons were beyond his reach. He appears to have rented the next best things -- to uniforms, that is -- from some costume store, with no regard possible for how they fit his white "actors," none of whom, as a matter of grooming, looks remotely like a 19th century British soldier. Worst of all, the costumes clearly weren't meant to help anyone pass for a soldier. The blatant, apparently irremovable "Anarchy" patches (complete with circle-A logo) suggest that they were made for some rock or punk band, if not simply for goofy parties. Is it possible to take Invasion seriously with this glaring handicap constantly recurring?

Note Anarchy patch on the soldier in white, amid the spectacle of British headquarters,
including a portable radio in 1897!

The best answer is maybe, if Imasuen were as ambitious in form as he is in content and could make genuinely creative use of anachronism. Unfortunately, he's extremely conventional in some ways and a vulgar sensationalist in others. I was about to write that he begins Invasion in most conventional fashion, with a framing sequence, but then I remembered that the film actually begins with an absolutely gratuitous beheading scene, highlighted with a lingering shot of blood spurting from the decapitated neck. Then we get the framing sequence, set in modern London, where Igie (Charles Venn) studies African history and learns that the famous Benin art treasures captured by the British were the kingdom's way of recording its history. This realization inspires him to break into a museum in a failed attempt to confiscate some of the bronzes and other sculptures. He pleads not guilty to attempted theft at his trial, daring the court to prove that the treasures had been sold or freely given to the museum by their original owners. These purely modern scenes are easily the most competently shot, and for what it's worth, they allow Imasuen to disclaim racial animus by giving Igie a sympathetic white girlfriend (Annika Alfoti).

The main body of the film is Igie's evidence for the theft of the Benin treasures. Benin is suffering hard times before the British get aggressive, as people seem to be dropping dead en masse while the king (or Oba) seems increasingly detached from reality. The Oba is as much a spiritual figure as a temporal ruler, and the film shows him and his inner circle experiencing a portentous vision, as a long-departed elder predicts doom for the kingdom. Meanwhile, the British show increasing disrespect to the Oba, finally provoking the massacre of a small unit that provides the pretext for a full-scale invasion.

To be fair, Imasuen makes good use of the one impressive prop he had, a gunboat that looks appropriately menacing, packed with Britons and native auxiliaries (in better looking uniforms) as it motors into Benin territory. He gets even better service out of it in the best single shot of the picture, a long take of the deposed Oba orating about the transience of victory and the mortality of all men as the boat takes him into exile. The rest of it is an ill-paced, overlong mess at less than two hours, turgidly punctuated with meandering dialogue scenes in which the Oba's retainers react with great deliberation to his latest utterances or the latest bad news from the front lines. Worse still are any scenes requiring British soldiers to talk to each other. Interlarded throughout are battle scenes showing superior British firepower -- illustrated with bargain-basement CGI explosions and flames -- occasionally outmatched by Bini mastery of native terrain. The sporadic mayhem keeps things somewhat lively, especially when the Binis get to use edged weapons, but the only real momentum comes from the Oba's seeming spiral into madness. Almost as an afterthought, British soldiers are shown stuffing the art treasures into sacks. If any flaw of many here can be singled out as fatal, it's probably Imasuen's failure to develop any character into a proper hero on whom we can focus our attention. Maybe there was none, and maybe it's to Imasuen's credit that for all his clear cultural patriotism, he doesn't really idealize Benin. But his rough approach to the subject leaves it little more than a bunch of bad stuff that happened, with the added moral that white men back then had a bad habit of going where they weren't wanted.

Returning at last to modern times, we learn that Igie's narrative, for which the main body of the film stands in, was enough to get the judge to drop the charges against him and advise him to contact the International Court of Justice. As his supporters celebrate his freedom, including his gone-native girlfriend, one can't help wondering whether simply having Igie tell the story in the courtroom would have been a better movie.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


For most of my life I've lived near Schenectady NY, and for a couple of years I actually lived in the Electric City. Naturally enough, when Theodore Kaczynski was arrested in 1996 on suspicion of being the Unabomer, the big story on our local news was the crucial role his brother David, then a Schenectady resident, played in cracking the case. David became an almost tragic hero, feeling compelled to turn in his brother, having recognized similarities between "F.C.'s" correspondence and Ted's letters, despite his fear, both as a sibling and a principled opponent of capital punishment, that Ted would be put to death. National media told pretty much the same story, and one of the last scenes of the Discovery Channel's eight-part miniseries shows David (Mark Duplass) being fawned over by reporters after Ted (Paul Bettany) pleads guilty to the attacks. The message of Manhunt: Unabomber, however, is that the media had lionized the wrong man -- not because David didn't do a very important thing, but because David's information might well have proved meaningless had not another man provided the theoretical framework for cracking the case. That man, seen departing the court house almost sulkily, ignored by the clueless press, was James "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), for all intents and purposes the inventor of the field of linguistic forensics. His great contribution to the investigation was to emphasize the fundamental importance of UNABOM's writings, culminating in the manifesto "Industrial Society and its Future," in identifying the man who had killed or maimed two dozen people in his criminal career. Fitzgerald's theory was crucial, so the miniseries shows, in convincing a judge to issue the search warrant that enabled investigators to find more decisively incriminating material evidence in Ted Kaczynski's cabin in the Montana woods. For all this Fitzgerald earned little glory, after an ordeal that left him nearly as alienated against institutions, if not society in general, as his murderous quarry.

Conceived by Andrew Sodroski, directed by Greg Yaitanes, and loaded with producer credits including Fitzgerald himself and Kevin Spacey, Manhunt: Unabomber focuses on Fitz's role in the investigation. In interviews, Fitzgerald has described the miniseries as 80% accurate, while describing the onscreen Fitz as a composite character. In other words, onscreen Fitz does some important things that Fitzgerald never did. The writers, for instance, totally made up an early framing device that shows Fitz being summoned from almost-Kaczynskian isolation to try to persuade Kaczynski himself to plead guilty and thus avoid a trial that could prove embarrassing in more ways than one. These scenes are the some of the weakest in the whole miniseries because they're obviously intended to evoke a Lecter-Starling relationship between Kaczynski and Fitz, toying with the idea that Fitz agrees with some of Ted's ideas to a more than healthy extent. Taken as a whole, the earliest episodes are the worst because they also depend on the cliche of the insightful agent to whom no one will listen, apparently because everyone in the FBI hierarchy is an idiot. Fitz's superiors focus unimaginatively on physical evidence and a half-baked profile that infers the bomber's identity entirely from his choice of targets. Presented with the bomber's typewritten threatening letters, they want to know what sort of typewriter he used, but couldn't care less about what the letters actually say. Fitz believes that something more important can be learned from the letter writer's quirks of spelling and vocabulary, his idioms and the way he structures his texts. But no one will believe him! Oh, the fools!

Manhunt rights itself once it abandons the early non-linear format and goes into procedural mode. It gains momentum as the investigation gains momentum, as Fitz's colleagues slowly warm to his ideas and the letters provided by an initially reluctant David Kaczynski provide the key to the door Fitz posited. Fitz is shown traveling to Schenectady to cajole David into giving up the letters, after the younger Kaczynski had been assured by another agent -- on dubious grounds -- that Ted could not be F.C. I get the impression that that meeting never happened, but what else is new? For the sake of narrative economy, TV and movies often show one hero doing the actual work of many people, and I suppose you could argue for a certain thematic authenticity to the meeting that justifies the artistic license.

Before the arrest, Manhunt backtracks to finally showcase Paul Bettany in an episode recounting Ted Kaczynski's spiral into lethal alienation. While young Ted has a legitimate grievance against a Harvard mentor who subjected him to government-funded brainwashing experiments, he is shown to be hopelessly alienated from society for most-likely deeper reasons. He's capable of casually befriending fellow library patrons in his Montana community, but can't bring himself to accept an invitation to a birthday party for a teenage boy he'd been informally tutoring. If you, like some people, sympathize with Kaczynski's anti-institutional thinking, you might find this flashback episode one big ad hominem argument, but most people probably will see it as a misfit blaming society for his alienation when the causes are more likely irreducibly personal. I'm sure many people like to think that they could get along with others more easily if society were ordered differently, or if all societal rules were overturned, but my suspicion (as a relatively alienated person myself) is that blaming society for personal alienation is to put the cart before the horse. In any event, Bettany, taking a break from his main gig as The Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, does a decent job talking American and a better one portraying Kaczynski's alienation and ultimate weakness in the face of stronger personalities. Determined to make a stand in defense of his principles rather than accept an insanity defense, he folds under mental intimidation from both Fitz and his own defense attorney (a swiftly devastating Rebecca Henderson), who tells Ted that if he isn't insane, she wouldn't know who is. Having hoped for a Hitler-like opportunity to turn public opinion in his favor, Ted's pre-sentencing statement sputters to a pathetic halt.

While Jim Fitzgerald was one among many producers of Manhunt, its ultimate portrait of Fitz is fairly unflattering. The idea that Fitz might feel any affinity for Ted as a victim, in his own mind, of institutional thinking only makes Fitz looks like a self-pitying jerk. While that may be an accidental impression, there's no mistaking the miniseries' intention to portray Fitz as a tunnel-visioned narcissist whose obsession with the case, and his desire to win credit for cracking it, ruins his relationships with women, including his wife, a sympathetic colleague and a potential new love interest. I don't know whether Fitzgerald signed off on that, but I don't know either whether it's a personal reflection on the actual man or just the cliched presentation of the obsessively flawed hero. While Manhunt freely invents encounters that never happened, it can't avoid the facts that render its conclusion anticlimactic. The early framing device and Kaczynski's post-arrest brainstorming have set up the idea that he will challenge the credibility of Fitz's linguistic forensics in an effort to  the quash the search warrant on which all other evidence depends. If this were pure fiction, the payoff would be Fitz on the witness stand vindicating his ideas and effectively closing the case against Ted, perhaps under cross-examination by Ted himself, but the judge in the case rejects the challenge to the search warrant with almost arbitrary decisiveness, leaving Ted to plead insanity or plead guilty and denying Fitz the moment that could have vindicated him as the hero of the whole story. Oddly, anticlimax suits this series. It seems right, at least, that the Kaczynski case ends with (an almost literal) whimper rather than a bang. If you can get past the first two lousy episodes, I'd recommend the whole thing -- with the archetypal grain of salt, that is.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


This "based on true events" Chinese action film has an oldschool energy to it befitting its relatively oldschool director, Dante Lam. He's been making movies since the 1990s, the heyday of Hong Kong action cinema, and Mekong is pretty much a Nineties action picture with a tech upgrade. The true event at the heart of the film is a 2011 massacre of two Chinese cargo ship crews by drug traffickers in the infamous "Golden Triangle" near the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Public outcry in China led to the creation of an international task force and the deployment of Chinese investigators throughout the region. The film's ensemble of heroes are too many for all of them to have distinctive personalities, but this is the sort of film that doesn't depend on character development. We know them primarily by their nicknames -- they're named after Chinese gods in the original, while the English subtitles translate those to Olympian deities, including "Panoptes" (for Argus Panoptes) for the guy who operates the drone and "Aphrodite" for the team's only woman. That seems a bad fit because the film admirably refrains from sexualizing her in any way; "Athena" might have been a better fit. And there's a dog who gets perhaps the film's most startling or simply implausible moment. Used as a landmine detector, the animal dashes through a minefield and is simply too fast to be caught in the explosions he triggers. After that the poor creature gets shot -- the film makes sure to show us the mortal wound -- and its death proves one of Mekong's most sentimental scenes.  Like some Asian films, it has a sometimes uncomfortable mix of mawkishness and brutality that's probably genuinely foreign to many American viewers. The head drug lord has a cohort of child soldiers, high on his supply and already hopelessly vicious. We're introduced to them during a casual game of Russian roulette, and we see one of them lose. Later, one of them carries out a suicide bombing. Still another has to be shot in the back by one of our heroes to keep him from slaughtering people during one of the film's big action scenes. This element of the story will no doubt make some U.S. viewers squeamish, as violence against children in any context is still somewhat taboo here, but it's definitely effective in putting the film's villains over as amoral monsters. Despite those downer moments, Mekong is a giddy spree of mayhem, the controversial aspects of which -- the Thai government is touchy about the role of its nationals in the whole business -- won't matter to viewers outside Southeast Asia. The action scenes, if not outstanding, are at least energetic, especially one sequence that climaxes with a car chase inside a shopping mall. For those unlikely to shudder at its treatment of children, Mekong ought to be lightweight fun as well as an interesting exception to the CGI-driven action fantasies we usually get from China.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: BORN TO LOVE (1931)

The cynicism of Pre-Code cinema often is taken for granted, but film buffs and critics usually have the up-front themes and personalities of characters in mind. Hard times made cynical people, the thinking goes. But for real cynicism on the part of filmmakers you might not find a better example than Paul L. Stein's film of Ernest Pascal's screenplay.  Their cynicism takes the form of ruthless melodrama. Their story is of an American Red Cross nurse (Constance Bennett) who has a brief fling with an American flier (Joel McCrea) in London before he returns to the front, goes missing and is presumed dead. When it turns out that that fling got her pregnant, Sir Wilfred (Paul Cavanagh) steps in, offering to marry Doris and make her child legal. Predictably, the end of the war -- Born to Love is padded with a disproportionate Armistice Day celebration scene that's practically a standalone experiment in art cinema -- brings the real father, the flier, back from a POW camp. Sir Wilfred feels betrayed when Doris rekindles her romance with Barry Craig. He divorces Doris and claims custody of her child, practically daring her to challenge his right in court and have her boy dubbed a bastard. Instead, she acquiesces in a tragic accommodation, gaining limited visitation rights in return for renouncing Barry forever.

At this point Pascal has painted himself into a corner. Wilfred would be too good to be true if he renounced his rights and allowed a reunion of the child and his natural parents, and the lovers certainly aren't going to steal the child and flee to America. The best option, from a romantic standpoint, might have been for Doris to give up on the boy -- think of the pathos! -- and start over again with Barry, but I suppose audiences might have rebelled against an ending that left the kid to be raised by a spoilsport who was no blood kin. Somehow it was presumed more satisfactory to kill the boy. It's his birthday and Doris, living in modest circumstances (on settlement money from Wilfred?) has bought him a present. She's allowed to go to Wilfred's house to see the boy, after a very awkward exchange of pleasantries with her former husband that ends with him warning her not to go upstairs to the child's room. There's no stopping Doris, however, before she enters the room and finds (unseen to us) a little corpse. There's been no set-up for this, no discussion that I can recall of the kid's frailty. He just up and died because he was an inconvenient obstacle to the lovers' reunion. And of course, no sooner has Doris fled the place in raging despair ("Don't touch me!" she shrieks at Wilfred's pathetic attempt at consolation) that she finds Barry waiting in her flat, having been unable to walk away from her as she had urged. She breaks down sobbing in his arms, and it's a happy ending because you know they're going to be together now. These last scenes are awful in their contrivances -- why on Earth doesn't Wilfred tell Doris about the tragedy the moment she comes through his door? -- and show sharply why Constance Bennett, here a tragedienne, was better off in light comedy. She is quite bad here, especially when Doris gets to screaming at Wilfred, but no one's really good, though the film might be noteworthy for the most straightfaced performance ever given by Frederick Kerr, James Whale's irascible Baron Frankenstein, as the aristocrat hosting Doris for the duration. Wikipedia tells me that Born to Love was a modest hit despite mixed reviews. What that tells us about Pre-Code audiences is unclear, though for all I know the movie's Gordian Knot approach to Doris's dilemma may have appealed to Depression audiences impatient for similarly drastic solutions to the troubles from which Born to Love was a momentary, peculiar escape.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

DVR Diary: POLICE PYTHON 357 (1976)

A quarter-century before Alain Corneau's cop thriller came out, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret may have been the hottest couple in entertainment, at least in Europe. The Robbins and Sarandon of their day in their advocacy of left-wing causes, Montand was a pop singer turned actor who gained global cachet in The Wages of Fear, while Signoret was a major movie star on the strength of a string of art-house hits culminating in Diabolique. By the end of the 1950s both were doing high-profile work in English -- Signoret actually had started doing so at the start of the decade in Frank Tuttle's Euro-noir Gunman in the Streets -- she winning an Oscar for Room at the Top, he as an on-and-offscreen consort for Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love. They worked together occasionally, intriguingly in a French-language version of The Crucible and for the last time in Police Python 357. The years had not been kind to Signoret, nor had the cinematic double-standard that permitted Montand, looking by now almost like a gallic Walter Matthau, to be the onscreen lover of a woman 25 years his junior, while she, long since grown chunky, was reduced to playing his bedridden confidante. I'm probably reading real life into the movie, but I assumed that their characters -- he's a police detective, she's his superior's wife -- had had a romantic relationship in the past. In any event, he can talk freely with her about his current affair with the same woman (Stefania Sandrelli) his boss (Francois Perier) is sleeping with. This triangle grows unsustainable as the Montand character pressures her (with a slap) to commit to him, while she tries to goad the other man into pressing his claim more manfully.  Goaded too far, he finally presses his claim with a heavy ashtray, at which point Police Python becomes a cop-film version of The Big Clock, with Montand assigned to an investigation likely to incriminate himself.

Montand makes it through, despite a breakdown that sees him disfigure himself in an effort to throw off witnesses, but his victory seems quite pyrrhic. Corneau and cowriter Daniel Boulanger leave the impression that their protagonist can only destroy everything he touches, as lover, boss and confidante all end up dead. Montand's flic seems at heart to be a fighter, not a lover. Corneau sets the tone with a contrapuntal montage that plays over Georges Delerue's ominous theme, intercutting the making of breakfast with the making of bullets. Montand's proficiency on the firing range is pointedly contrasted with his deteriorating personal life. After all those disasters, Corneau closes the film with a climactic action scene in which Montand gets to play hero in reckless fashion, rescuing some cop buddies pinned down in an airport standoff by ramming his car into the bad guys.  He takes a bullet in the process but seems likely to survive, while one of the buddies tending to him discovers a clue that could implicate him all over again. The final implication, however, is that the grateful buddy is going to cover up for him. He's too good a cop to waste, but one can't help wondering what damage he may cause civilians once he's back on his feet.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Too Much TV: GLOW (2017 - ?)

Professional wrestling traditionally has been a puzzle for other media. Even at a point when most ordinary people realized that wrestling was fake -- the self-evident athleticism involved notwithstanding, outcomes are predetermined by the promoter -- movies or TV episodes often worked from the premise that it all was real. That probably was because writers and producers were most interested in the dramatic (or comic) potential of the action in the ring. Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch's Netflix series takes a different approach, as any attempt at a longform series about wrestling must do. GLOW is more of a "let's put on a show!" concept in which the results of matches count less than the overall success of a TV pilot and the success stories of individual characters who spend most of their lives outside the ring. It's based loosely on the actual GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) show that ran for four seasons in the late 1980s and a promotion that has never actually died. I've always had some interest in pro wrestling, though I've never been a full-on fan, and I remember the GLOW show as embarrassing to watch. To their credit, Flahive and Mensch don't exaggerate their characters' wrestling ability; by the standards of actual wrestling fans, even the climactic bout in the first-season finale was a mediocre affair. The creators don't really need to get over with wrestling fans, of course, but they do need to get their characters over and they do that pretty well. Our main characters are the aspiring and somewhat pretentious actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and her friend, onetime soap star Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin). Ruth is just about desperate enough to try anything, include a new women's-wrestling promotion produced by schlock film director Sam Sylvia (Marc Marron's character is inspired by real-life GLOW director Matt Cimber).  Debbie gets involved by accident when she tracks Ruth to the training facility after learning that her friend was sleeping with her husband. When she gets into the ring to attack Ruth, Sam recognizes Debbie's charismatic potential, while the real-life heat between the two women guarantees Ruth a place in the promotion after Sam had already fired her.

While the show takes time to establish many of the other aspiring wrestlers as personalities in their own right, beyond their cartoonish gimmicks, the frenmity of Ruth and Debbie is the first season's main event. Ruth proves a natural heel, i.e. a bad guy, but needs just the right babyface to get her Soviet villain character "Zoya the Destroyer" over. Everyone realizes that Debbie has to be the face, but it's not until she crushes on a babyface male wrestler that Debbie, whose marriage is failing, warms to the idea. While Ruth remains our nearest thing to a consistent point-of-view character, Debbie has the meatier storyline, increasingly torn between her ambition to perform and her needy, jealous husband. GLOW keeps us in suspense until almost the end over whether Debbie will stick with her fellow wrestlers, who are depending on her patriotic hero gimmick to get the whole promotion over, or stand by her man is dull domesticity.

As a Netflix series, GLOW can be edgier in many ways than a broadcast or basic-cable show. It can be more provocative in its presentation of gimmicks based on ethnic stereotypes, most notably when a black wrestler (real-life wrestling veteran Kia Stevens) takes on the character of Food Stamp-flaunting, Reagan-hating "Welfare Queen." In wrestling terms Welfare Queen is a tweener, sometimes playing the heel (as in the season finale) but definitely the face when she and another black wrestler fight a tag team in Klan robes. Somehow I doubt that the real GLOW could have gotten away with her gimmick (or the Klan wrestlers) on TV then or now, but in the meta-reality of GLOW it stands as a commentary on the perceived attitudes of the Reagan era. On another front, the alcoholic, drug-addicted Sam edges toward a relationship with a protege (Britt Baron) without realizing until almost too late that it also borders on incest. Over ten episodes the show does a decent job balancing the harsher material with the broader comedy so that it ends up fairly light fare. It's knowledgeable enough about the business to not make a wrestling fan squirm, yet not too obsessive about it to make the non-fan squirm. Overall, I think the writers make a good use of wrestling to highlight and exaggerate character traits and conflicts that might otherwise look all too ordinary. By wrestling's own standards, it got over enough with Netflix to get a second season, and who can argue with success? I see no reason to.