Saturday, December 30, 2017

YOSO (1963)

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 28, 2017


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

Sunday, December 24, 2017

BRIGHT (2017)

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

Slices of life in Bright's America

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Too Much TV: GUNPOWDER (2017)

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

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

Friday, December 15, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 14, 2017

National Film Registry Class of 2017

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

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

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

Monday, December 11, 2017

DVR Diary: BAD LANDS (1939)

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

Saturday, December 9, 2017

On the Big Screen: THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 2, 2017

DVR Diary: THUNDER BAY (1953)

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

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

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