Sunday, October 27, 2019

On the Big Screen: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

The sophomore jinx has hit Robert Eggers, whose feature-film debut was the rightly-acclaimed The Witch from 2015. His new film is another piece of period Americana, this time taking place in 19th century New England. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrive on an island for a four-week stint as keepers of its lighthouse. Wake is a vulgar, flatulent, superstitious drunk who drives Winslow relentlessly and tries to goad the apparent teetotaler into imbibing with him at dinnertime. On top of that, he forbids Winslow from entering the light of the lighthouse itself. Ephraim has issues of his own. A scrimshaw mermaid inspires him to masturbate frequently, while one particular seagull seems to make a point of getting in his way all the time. He's warned not to harm the bird -- Wake believes that seagulls harbor the souls of drowned sailors -- but the enraged Winslow finally takes the gull in hand and dashes him to pieces on a rock. As if by coincidence, a severe storm indefinitely delays the arrival of their replacements. If Wake had been somewhat mad before, Winslow quickly catches up with him....

The Lighthouse has no real subject other than madness, and madness as an end unto itself isn't firm ground to plant a film on. While in The Witch Eggers arguably was saying something about Puritanism, patriarchy, family, etc., in his new film the director (co-writing with his brother) seems more interested in evoking mood or genre. It may be wrong to ask what the point is, but viewers can hardly help doing so. The real problem may be that, at 110 minutes, the film is too long for its own good. The length tempts the Eggers brothers into too many self-indulgent twists as their characters struggle for dominance and deteriorate further into insanity. At one moment Wake is challenging Winslow's (and our) sense of reality by contradicting a version of recent events that we saw play out on screen as if it were objective truth. Not long afterward, Winslow has beaten Wake into such canine submission that he will walk, on a leash, into an open grave. But then Wake recalls himself and charges back inside for a perhaps-climactic attack. By this point both men have become so repellent that no rooting interest in either man is likely. No rooting interest is strictly necessary, to be fair, but by this point most viewers have probably lost hope at getting to the bottom of the whole situation. There seems to be no point to the exercise, or to the excellent black-and-white cinematography and production design, other than to have Dafoe and Pattinson act crazy. Dafoe is an old hand at this, but more eyes will be on Pattinson, whom we find at a pivotal point in his career. He is our next cinematic Batman, and by coincidence will have a high-profile role in Christopher Nolan's next film. By two years from now the ghost of Edward Cullen may be exorcised for good and Pattinson's real movie-star career will have begun. Will he be a respected actor by then? Some may argue that his work for David Cronenberg already should have earned him respect, but for most people the jury is still out or the memory of Twilight is still too strong. Can we see the future Pattinson here? He has deglamorized himself with an old-school moustache, several layers of grime and a slightly erratic character voice, while what might ungenerously have been called cow eyes a few years back are now capable of a penetrating gaze. Beyond that, it's hard to judge his interpretation of a character of whom his own author seems to lack a clear conception. We learn that Ephraim Winslow isn't what he initially introduced himself as, and the pressures of his situation further assail his sense of self, but neither Pattinson nor the Eggers brothers ultimately can give him the kind of empathetic reality that even characters in psychological horror films require. The problem isn't that we don't care what happens to him, but that we lose interest in the all too-protracted process.

While Eggers fails as a writer this time, he retains a strong directorial eye. Some of the best scenes are relatively simple but well-shot bits of Winslow struggling through his daily chores. If The Lighthouse feels ungrounded in other respects, it does feel grounded in a particular time and place. Strange as it may be to say, while panning this film I left it with the feeling that Eggers, with his firm sense of period and a visceral sensibility, might be the person to bring Cormac McCarthy's horrific western epic Blood Meridian to the screen. In other words, Lighthouse isn't the sort of disaster that exposes its auteur as some sort of fraud or one-trick pony. Instead, it's a failure that leaves much of Eggers' potential as a filmmaker intact, while leaving us hoping he'll find more critical collaborators next time.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD (Der Fluch der grünen Augen, 1964)

Hungarian director Akos Rathonyi filmed this German-Yugoslav production featuring a mostly German cast, along with African-American expatriate John Kitzmiller, who ends up being the most interesting thing about the film. Known as "The Curse of the Green Eyes" in its original language, the movie follows an Interpol inspector (Adrian Hoven) into a village where a serial killer seems to be at work. There's a lot of superstitious suspicion about the deaths of several young women, but the local doctor dismisses the twin puncture marks on the most recent victim's neck as "superficial scratches." The local witch tells a different story, urging Inspector Dorin to carry protection against vampirism. We soon find ourselves in a whoisit as a number of candidates for the role of the killer emerge, including the reclusive professor (Wolfgang Preiss) conducting blood experiments in an old castle, his lovely assistant, his black servant (Kitzmiller) and a belligerent deaf-mute (Emmerich Schrenk) -- and you can throw the aggressively skeptical doctor in, too, if you're in an expansive mood. Meanwhile, Dorin sleeps through a failed vampire attack thanks to the power of the cross, while a persistently disappearing corpse finally separates the doctor from his skepticism.

 Unfortunately for anyone expecting suspense, the perpetrator's true identity isn't that hard to guess, and that lack of suspense only underscores the picture's overall lack of thrills or scares. That leaves only the admirable black and white cinematography by Hrvoje Saric and the subplot involving Kitzmiller's character to admire. It's unusual if not unique for a European vampire film to go off on a tangent about racism, but that's what Rathonyi and his co-writer do here. John, the black servant, serves as sort of a red herring for a while, if only because of his color. He faces in-you-face hatred from the mute, who tosses him out of a tavern despite the innkeeper's own tolearance, and even the witch, otherwise treated as a benign character, mistakes him for a monster when he happens to look into her window one night. The film tries a tricky balancing act, since John is thisclose to being the stereotypical scaredy-cat black servant, but it also shows us that John has real reason to worry, though not so much about the supernatural. This subplot could have been better integrated into the main story; the witch's prejudice might have undermined her credibility with the more cosmopolitan inspector, for instance, maybe making him less likely to adopt her safeguards. As it is it seems all too easy to vanquish the vampires once their lair and leader are identified, but I get the impression that the filmmakers may have seen all the undead stuff as a Macguffin enabling them to say something more interesting about small-town Mitteleuropa. Their message comes across as muddled or muffled, but it's hard to say whether the English dub accurately represents what the creators actually wanted to say. But since the U.S. release was sure to maximize the film's scare quotient, the lack of real scares in that version is pretty damning. Cave isn't a bad film to look at, but I wouldn't make it a high priority when you're scheduling horror movies for Halloween season.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

DVR Diary: THE VALIANT (1929)

Future Oscar-winner Paul Muni made his movie debut in William K. Howard's Fox Film production, adapting a Broadway play. Watching it at the time, you might not have predicted an award in Muni's future. It's not that he's bad in the lead role, but that everyone speaks their lines in that stilted early-talking fashion exemplified by the legendary  "take him ... for ... a ride" from The Lights of New York. No one, it seems, can speak a full sentence without at least one pause, pregnant or otherwise. The artificial cadences are bad enough, but the implausible situation makes things worse. The Valiant is an exercise in the pathos of renunciation that thrilled Twenties audiences. The idea here is that our protagonist, a confessed and convicted murderer who's kept his real identity secret since turning himself in, will not identify himself to his sister when she visits Death Row, their aged, ailing mother suspecting from photos that "James Dyke" (he took his pseudonym from a commercial calendar at the precinct station) is the son she hasn't seen since before the Great War. He's stuck with the Dyke name despite the cops immediately recognizing the fakery in order to avoid disgracing his family, and thinks that his people will be better off believing he'd died long ago rather than say a real goodbye to a murderer. The title tells you what the filmmakers think of this. All of this sets up the centerpiece scene when the sister (Marguerite Churchill) interrogates the prisoner, hoping that he'll betray some memory of their shared youth. Instead, Dyke contrives a story of witnessing her brother's heroic death in the war as a comrade-in-arms. Believing that her boy died a decade ago supposedly will make the old lady feel better than knowing that her daughter got to see and talk to him. That's the psychology at work here, in a time when popular fiction was committed to concepts of honor that seem alien from the almost a century's distance.  Muni can't do much with the material and was clearly still learning how to act for the screen; a few years would pass before he fully figured it out. The film itself is dull and stagebound except for the opening sequence. After the Muni character kills his man offscreen, he staggers onto the street, already remorseful. He looks for a cop to arrest him, wandering through several slices of city life with adults and children going about their business or play with Brueghelian indifference to the protagonist's torment. Ironically, it's in these essentially silent bits that Muni shows promise as a film actor and Howard shows some skill as a director. The rest of the picture has that obsolete quality that doomed so many early talkies to actual oblivion.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

THE GOLEM (2018)

As portrayed by German actor Paul Wegener, the Golem was the first cinematic horror icon. Compared to other iconic monsters, there have been relatively few Golem films, the most notable in English being the 1967 film It! Now an Israeli film, with Doron and Yaov Paz directing Ariel Cohen's script, revives the legend, linking the lore of 17th century Prague with more modern concerns. In this account, a young girl witnesses the destruction of the Prague golem (and its creator) after it had massacred the congregation it was supposed to protect. A generation later, the girl has grown into a midwife and all-around wise woman in an embattled Jewish community in Lithuania. In this same village, Hanna (Hani Furstenburg), has a Yentl-like ambition to learn the Kabbala, volumes of which are smuggled to her in baskets. Hanna's son drowned some years ago and she's been barren ever since -- or so it seems. She's actually taking treatments to suppress pregnancy, but when nearby gentiles blame the Jews for a plague, and their leader threatens the midwife and the village with death if they fail to heal his daughter, Hanna suggests creating a golem for community defense. Against everyone's advice, she performs the ritual herself, but instead of the hulking entity Wegener played, or the shape we saw in the Prague sequence, her golem takes the fleshy form of a young boy, triggering a dangerous maternal instinct in his creator.

Cohen and the Paz brothers reshape the golem myth to fit their thematic concerns and genre ambitions. Hanna develops an empathetic relationship with her golem, feeling the pain it doesn't when it's attacked, while he turns his fury on people, both Jew and gentile, Hanna perceives as threats. When she's unconscious (or preoccupied with sex) the boy golem's own defense instincts kick in. Though the golem looks like a child, it remains a super-strong force of destruction, enabling some cheap and sometimes laughable gore effects. Since the filmmakers didn't have the means to show the boy fighting his enemies, those unfortunates usually get torn to pieces off-screen, their bloody limbs flying across the screen. Better still, this golem is a scanner, causing his foes' heads to explode without touching them. Meanwhile, Hanna goes through the "my precious boy can't be evil" denial arc before the golem's inevitable, indiscriminate attack on villagers and gentile attackers alike forces her to do the necessary thing. That undermines whatever feminist message or other commentary the filmmakers intended while reducing the golem legend to all-too-common horror tropes. The awkward mix of thematic ambition and genre crassness renders this golem film a disappointment and leaves this reader wishing that someone with real ambition and genius would put Marge Piercy's great golem novel (crosscut with science fiction) He, She and It on the big screen. Until then, however, there aren't so many golem movies that people shouldn't try again.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

On the Big Screen: JOKER (2019)

This year's winner of the Golden Lion of Venice, directed by the maker of the Hangover films, probably impressed festival judges more as an homage to Martin Scorsese than as anything else. Its acknowledgment of King of Comedy is most obvious, down to the role-reversal stunt casting of Rupert Pupkin himself, Robert De Niro, as the late night talk show host on whose show the current film's title character (Joaquin Phoenix) longs to appear. But Todd Phillips' Joker is as much Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle as he is Rupert Pupkin, ironically beginning his career of murder as a sort of vigilante and lurking at the fringes of a political movement. The film is even set in a Scorsesean epoch, sometime in the 1970s or 1980s. It's less about the DC Universe, though the protagonist's fate is linked to that of Bruce Wayne's family, than it is about society in decline, as seen in the Seventies or today. Its ultimate concern, however, is with the perception of society and people in general as unbearably cruel and whether that perception is a rational or at least comprehensible response to verifiable injustice or an irrational reaction of hopeless, useless people. Failure to distinguish between these perceptions, and the fact that proto-Joker Arthur Fleck is presented as a pathetic victim for the first half of the film, leads some to worry that moviegoers will take the new Joker as a role model to emulate, even though he proves to be a profoundly sick and fundamentally vicious individual who disavows politics and any idea of justice. People may well empathize with Fleck early on, but the star and filmmakers strive to alienate audiences from the protagonist and appear to succeed. Their success, however, depends on an assumption that audiences are rational, and between the belief that society is made up mostly of bullies and the belief that life is just a big joke, maybe that assumption can't be taken for granted.

So here is a new Joker, little more than a decade after Heath Ledger's instantly-legendary portrayal, thirty years removed from Jack Nicholson's once-definitive performance, and not much further removed from Alan Moore's Joker-origin graphic novel The Killing Joke. I don't notice any complaints about yet another Joker reboot, perhaps because Jared Leto's interpretation in Suicide Squad is viewed as a failure. The idea, encouraged by Ledger's telling multiple tales in The Dark Knight, that there never can be a definitive origin story, may help build audience tolerance for each new attempt. There's more creative license to mold a Joker for any given historic moment than there is for comparatively canonical comics characters, and Warner Bros' retreat from their commitment to a universal continuity uniting all DC films since the catastrophe of Justice League created an opportunity for Phillips and his collaborators to do their own thing even as Matt Reeves works on the latest reboot of Batman and his rogues' gallery. All that being said, Joker isn't especially original in its approach. It echoes some of the pathos of The Killing Joke, without committing to Moore's "one bad day" account of the origin, while Phoenix's interpretation of the character is very reminiscent of his titanic performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, stripped of that character's redemptive cynicism. What the creators do well is to invite empathy for the downtrodden, bullied Fleck until showing the audience that Fleck himself is incapable of empathy. The crucial moment that makes him a criminal comes when Fleck becomes aware of his mother's belief that billionaire Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) is Arthur's father. Fleck visits Wayne Manor, only to learn that his mother (Frances Conroy) was insane, delusional and not his birth mother. After a visit to Arkham State Hospital confirms Alfred the butler's story, Arthur kills his mom and becomes a full-time murderer. I can't imagine anyone cheering for Joker after this point, though I guess you never can tell about some people.

Joker boasts impressive cinematography by Lawrence Sher, an appropriately ominous score by Hildur Guðnadóttir and plenty of Scorsesean shots by the admiring director. It grows increasingly horrific as it plumbs deeper into the protagonist's unmedicated madness, but bogs down in the homestretch with an overlong confrontation on DeNiro's show, followed by the common problem of multiple endings. The film could have ended neatly with Phoenix dancing ecstatically amid scenes of fire and riot, but presses on to a final chat between an imprisoned Joker and a psychologist. This bit may exist only because Phillips wanted a gag with Joker leaving bloody footprints in a hallway, but the final image of security chasing Joker through the halls was too reminiscent of old cartoons for its own good. Maybe that was the desired effect, but it's a weak finish for a film that otherwise hits most of the notes it aims for. Heath Ledger probably will remain the definitive Joker for our time, but Joaquin Phoenix demonstrates that the Clown Prince of Crime is the sort of folkloric character that many actors can share.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Too Much TV: The Wednesday Night War

Professional wrestling is poised to make yet another comeback in American popular culture. It's been on television virtually from the beginning, of course, but it's been nearly twenty years since its last period of mass popularity. That was during the so-called Monday Night Wars, when World Championship Wrestling, the last survivor of the World Wrestling Federation's bid for nationwide dominance, made its ultimate assault on Vince McMahon's empire. Fueled by the rise of the NWO, a faction of former WWF stars joined by 80s superhero-turned-villain Hulk Hogan, WCW's Nitro program defeated the WWF's Monday Night Raw in the ratings for more than a year before a combination on WCW inmates taking over the asylum and the fortuitous emergence of such seminal WWF superstars as Stone Cold Steve Austin and future film idol Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson turned the tide. By the end of 2001 the WWF -- now World Wrestling Entertainment -- stood alone. Since then, small-scale alternatives have emerged and some, like Sinclair Broadcasting-owned Ring of Honor and Impact Wrestling, have persisted, while the overall audience for wrestling -- or as McMahon prefers, "sports entertainment," -- has withered away. Ratings for Monday Night Raw in 2019 are a sad fraction of its typical rating at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, Fox is paying WWE a huge amount of money to bring its Smackdown show to prime-time network television, starting Friday, October 4, while TNT, the long-ago home of Nitro, is hosting a brand-new wrestling company. A popular explanation for this is that wrestling is less expensive than scripted shows and never subjects its audience to reruns. The hope is that these higher-profile platforms may restore wrestling to something close to its fin-de-siecle glory, while the appearance of a new challenger to WWE raises big questions about how wrestling can be popular and buzzworthy again long after it was nearly universally acknowledged that the thing is fake. This was already widely known during the Monday Night Wars, but as wrestling slid from that peak more persistent fans asked more often how others could be made to care about pretend fighting. Those fans divide into two main schools of thought. One group emphasizes the reality at the heart of the fakery: the vastly-increased athleticism of the wrestlers. The best performers, by this standard, can pull off incredible feats of aerial acrobatics to thrill their fans. The other group, treating wrestling as essentially another scripted program, considers stories and personalities to be key. These groups' debates can be acrimonious. The "workrate" fans (wrestlers being "workers") often find the outrageous storylines and over-the-top characters favored by the other group cringeworthy, while that group sometimes finds today's heightened athleticism monotonous and meaningless without compelling stories and characters.

At first, it seemed like All Elite Wrestling's challenge to WWE would be a showdown between these competing philosophies of sports entertainment. Backed by the billionaire family that also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, AEW is largely the brainchild of Cody Runnels, the son of Southern wrestling icon Dusty Rhodes and brother to former WWE superstar Goldust. Runnels spent time in WWE as "Stardust" but really made his name in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, where a generation of American talent circulated through a faction known as Bullet Club. Until AEW, New Japan was seen as the most viable alternative to WWE, but Runnels took with him the Japanese company's most popular American talent, including their former champion Kenny Omega and tag-team brothers The Young Bucks, the latter being Cody's main creative partners in the new company. New Japan's "strong style" emphasized athleticism while downplaying without entirely dispensing with the angles and "heat" that define American wrestling. Fans who had grown bored with WWE during the John Cena era, finding the McMahon product hopelessly diluted by marketing impreatives, regarded Omega, who could go 60 relentless minutes at a time with his Japanese opponents, as the best wrestler on Earth. Cody has never enjoyed that sort of acclaim -- many regard him as a mediocre worker -- but he enjoys underdog appeal as someone typically underutilized by the increasingly stodgy WWE. Before the premiere of AEW Dynamite on October 2, the new promotion held several pay-per-view events while Omega and the Young Bucks promoted themselves on YouTube's "Being the Elite" series. AEW thus arrived with a built-in audience, though its true dimensions were uncertain until this week.

But if AEW was meant to be an anti-WWE, McMahon met the indirect challenge --  Dynamite doesn't go head-to-head with Raw or Smackdown's new Friday night time slot --  by fighting fire with fire. WWE has its own anti-WWE in the form of NXT,  previously a staple of the federation's streaming service. Originally conceived as a developmental company for new talent with a game-show TV format, NXT is run by McMahon's son-in-law and creative heir apparent, Paul "Triple H" Levesque. He turned NXT into the jewel in the WWE crown, in some eyes, by stressing athleticism and bringing in top talent from independent U.S. promotions and Japanese outfits. Critics argue that by appealing to "smarks" -- the pejorative for those who value workrate over everything else in wrestling -- Triple H has lost sight of the original goal of preparing talent for the main WWE roster. Raw and Smackdown have a larger proportion of more casual fans, so the argument goes, who need something more than in-ring action to hold their attention, while the regular NXT audience are like those aficionados who enthuse over instrumental solos while others just want a catchy tune. For every NXT talent who has succeeded in WWE, there's at least one other that has failed to catch on, their failures usually being blamed, by NXT fans, on McMahon's failure to understand their inherent appeal, and by NXT critics on their failure to develop interesting "larger than life" characters or speak (i.e. "cut promos") in a compelling manner. Ironically, in light of what was to come, NXT's promo class used to be taught by Dusty Rhodes. That aside, McMahon calculated that NXT's established appeal among hardcore wrestling fans would cut into AEW's potential audience. At the same time, bringing NXT to the USA Network would make up somewhat for taking Smackdown from them. While NXT's weekly show on the streaming service was a pre-recorded hour, it's a two-hour live broadcast on USA, to match Dynamite's running time.  For the first week of head-to-head competition, at least, the advantage lies with AEW, which easily outdrew NXT. It should be noted, however, that the combined audiences for the two shows is roughly equal to the average audience for recent Smackdown episodes on USA. There's no indication that either show has brought new eyes to professional wrestling. If that's going to happen, it'll be on Fridays on Fox.

In any event, and in a further irony, competing with NXT makes AEW look more like the WWE. That happens without AEW compromising its founders' workrate standards, though NXT arguably had the better workrate on October 2. To some extent, however, critics of both could argue with reason that the workrate grew repetitive as the same stunts (e.g. "suicide dives" out of the ring) recurred from match to match. The big difference between the two shows, really, was Dynamite's stronger focus on generating heat with traditional villainy. NXT has plenty of bad guys on its roster, but its heels often win without blatant cheating, though there was some outside interference in the tag-team championship match that ended the show. By contrast, there were clearly defined heels in every AEW match, and by the time the show was over an overarching heel faction had formed, led by their world champion Chris Jericho. Another former star of both WCW and WWE, as well as a rock band frontman and popular podcaster, the 49 year-old Jericho can be depended on to draw heat with words and deeds and share it with younger talent who have a shot at stardom. Not all AEW heels are affiliated with Jericho, but every match on the show was meant to create heat, on the obvious assumption that viewers will keep watching to see the bad guys get their comeuppances. On the other hand, NXT did a better job of making its several championship matches look and feel dramatic, with devices as simple as dimming the lights and spotlighting the wrestlers during their introductions, but as some have noted already it'll be a challenge to maintain that intensity from week to week, while Dynamite can only escalate its feuds from this beginning point. In short, both shows were good this week, but Dynamite seems more likely to improve as it goes forward. Whether the new rivals, along with Smackdown on Fox, can elevate wrestling back into pop prominence remains to be seen.

Sunday, September 29, 2019


As El Santo, the Man in the Silver Mask, Rodolfo Guzman Huerta was Mexico's own action hero of the 1960s and 1970s. A champion luchador at a time when wrestling was banned from Mexican television, El Santo reached a wider public through movies that portrayed him as part Batman, part James Bond: a nearly superhuman troubleshooter with official ties who wrestled on the side and wore his mask everywhere he went. In 1969 director Rene Cardona teamed Santo with one of Mexico's top comedy stars. As Capulina, Gaspar Henaine Perez had only recently ended his long partnership with Marco Antonion "Viruta" Campos. The team-up with Santo may have reflected some uncertainty over Capulina's ability to carry a film on his own. The Capulina character was simply a big bumbler, distinguished by his topless hat. Santo Contra Capulina is more a Capulina than a Santo film. The comic is introduced first, accompanied by heavyhanded "waa-waa" comedy music, as a lazy night watchman at some warehouse. As he takes a nap in a furnished shipping crate, two robbers infiltrate the warehouse. They in turn are attacked by the masked man Capulina immediately recognizes as the famous El Santo. His fandom doesn't stop him from preventing the hero from catching the thieves after a very protracted fight scene. Initially annoyed, Santo's good-guy instincts kick in as he recruits Capulina into the effort to catch the thieves. He even gives the watchman a signal watch like Jimmy Olsen's, though he isn't even out of the building before Capulina summons him back to his crate, just to see if the watch works. The comic also manages to cage an autograph and testimonial from the mighty luchador in return for information he doesn't have. Kids love Capulina, you see, and Santo's endorsement will only make them love him more as he leads them -- usually from the rear -- on their daily race-walking workouts.

El Santo (above) and Capulina (below)
in characteristic settings   

Meanwhile, we learn that the thefts are part of a larger plan by some old enemy of Santo's to lure the luchador into a death trap. The mastermind is assisted by a scientist and his pretty daughter, who disguises herself as a reporter in hopes of getting Santo to unmask. The scientist, we learn later still, is working reluctantly for his daughter's sake, while the daughter has somehow been convinced that Santo is some sort of murderer. The scientist's specialty is the making of robot duplicates who take the places of kidnapped men -- eventually including Capulina. The robot-vs.-wrestler fight justifies the title and looks more plausible than you'd first assume, once you see that Capulina is actually bigger than Santo. Eventually, though, the real Capulina escapes his captors but must pretend that he's his own robot duplicate or, as he understands it, a "rubber man." As well, the scientist's daughter realizes the error of her ways and helps our heroes defeat the mastermind. Good inevitably prevails.

By American standards, there's not much humor here beyond the inherent absurdity of the cinematic El Santo concept. He gets an understatedly weird solo moment set at his presumably impressive home, where he interrupts his breakfast to dump his secretary/mistress (?) into his pool, her explosion revealing her as one of the villains' robots. It's too bad such genius can't be used for humanity's betterment, Santo muses. That bit amused me more than all of Capulina's antics, but the comic's amiable idiocy sort of made me understand his popularity, which endured to the end of the 20th century. There's an audience for such bumblers in most places, but comedy, especially in the sound era, doesn't travel as well as fighting men in masks. Genre film buffs around the world know El Santo, I expect, but fewer know Capulina. Both are Mexican cultural icons, but Capulina seems more exclusively Mexican -- and they can have him.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

DVR Diary: THE LONG SHIPS (1964)

Richard Fleischer's The Vikings (1958) inspired a cycle of Viking films in Europe, including two by Mario Bava, but U.S. audiences apparently had seen enough the first time. Jack Cardiff's The Long Ships, a British-Yugoslavian co-production boasting Hollywood stars, was enough of a bomb at the U.S. box office to earn a mention in the Medved brothers' Hollywood Hall of Shame book. It's perhaps the most eccentric item in Sidney Poitier's filmography: a rare if not sole outing as a villain, reportedly ballyhooed as his first "non-Negro" role. He plays a Moorish ruler, al-Mansuh, who covets a legendary golden bell forged by Christian monks generations earlier. A storytelling beggar in his territory, Rolfe (Richard Widmark), claims to know where the bell can be found. Rolfe boasts of his Viking credentials, but you might share al-Mansuh's skepticism when this clean-shaven man throws off his robes to reveal the vest and shorts that supposedly serve as his bona fides. Chased from the territory, Rolfe appears to swim all the way back home to Norse-land, to reunite with his brother Orm (the actual protagonist of Frans Bengtsson's source novel, played by Russ Tamblyn, also clean-shaven) and his troubled lord and father (Oscar Homolka in comedy relief). The bell story gets him a crew who help him steal the longship dad had just handed over to his overlord, King Harald (Clifford Evans). While Rolfe has been built up as a rogue if not an outright liar, it turns out that he does know where the bell can be found, but he doesn't quite know how to land his ship in the right location. Wrecked in a whirlpool, he and his men fall into al-Mansuh's hands, but the lure of gold convinces the Moor to build Rolfe a fresh ship for one more try at the bell. If he fails, Rolfe and his men will have to ride the steel mare, and one doesn't do that and live to tell about it....

Poitier as a Moor with Widmark as his antagonist can't help making you wonder what they could have done as Othello and Iago. That seems more in Widmark's line than the role of Rolfe. Widmark had a respectable range, encompassing irascible authority figures and psychopathic imbeciles, but he lacks the swashbuckling panache that Rolfe requires. Similarly, Poitier doesn't fully take advantage of this one great opportunity to go over the top, though he could be excused for thinking that his costumes and his pompadour wig had already done the work for him. Neither is awful, but neither is really up for the type of performance this story seems to need. Russ Tamblyn's dance background makes him more of an action-hero type, but he would have been better served by a more faithful filming of the novel. As an action film, The Long Ships is a mixed bag. There's a terribly shot battle on a beach in which Rolfe's Vikings throw a wave of spears at Moorish cavalry. Cardiff cuts to horses and men tumbling under the impact of apparently invisible missiles. On the other hand, a disastrous attempt to drag the great bell down from its perch atop a cliff is very well done, and as far as special effects are concerned the waterborne model work is mostly quite good.  The film veers in tone from tragic violence to dubiously broad comedy, e.g. the Viking's lusty invasion of al-Mansuh's harem and the general abuse of a comedy-relief eunuch. Overall, it's a more comical film than I remember from childhood viewings, and also somewhat better than my dim memories. But while it's the sort of thing I'm tempted to find inherently entertaining, I can also see why American audiences left it rather than taking it to heart.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

DVR Diary: EMITAI (1971)

World War II wasn't the "good war" everywhere. Far from Europe, in Europe's colonies, what Hitler was up to hardly mattered. In some places the Allies, the good guys of the usual narrative were the oppressors. That's the context of Ousmane Sembene's war picture, which shows the war's impact on the Diola people in French-ruled Senegal. They and their crops are resources for France to draw upon at will. Emitai starts with colonial troops pressing villagers into military service. The young men must listen to a French officer praise them for volunteering and exhort them to revere and obey Marshal Petain, at that moment (Spring 1940) France's last hope against the Nazis. One year later, Petain leads a collaborationist regime, but France's alignment means little to the Diola, who are now required to give up their rice crops to the colonial power. The village elders debate the necessity for revolt and, perhaps more importantly, the will of the gods. Their chief has grown skeptical toward the pantheon -- if not toward their existence, then toward their effectiveness in this modern crisis. Ironically, it's he, mortally wounded in a futile uprising, who receives a vision of the gods. They chide him for his lack of faith, while he reproaches them for their apparent indifference to their worshipers' dire situation. After he dies, the film slows down as the village prepares for the chief's funeral, the remaining elders -- in hiding from the colonial troops -- ponder how to appease the gods and/or the French, while two French officers and their native troops hold the women and children hostage, with rice as the ransom. Sembene's deliberate, novelistic pacing -- he was a novelist before taking up the camera -- immerses the viewer in the life of the embattled village while steadily heating up indignation against the elders' preoccupation with the gods. They balk (rightly) at sacrificing rice to the French, but then one sacrifices a goat to the gods on impulse. The bawling animal has its throat cut and bleeds out before being dumped like so much garbage. Sembene respects Diola culture in the broadest sense but is clearly secular in his sympathies, or at least highly critical toward religion. The elders' folly sometimes nearly overshadows the oppression of the French, who switch sides in the world war, abandoning Petain for de Gaulle, with no change in their treatment of the Diola. But the film ends with a sharp reminder that, whatever their faults, the elders, like their fellow villagers, are essentially villagers of a regime that must have seemed little better to them than any tale of Nazi rule the French might have told them. Unsurprisingly, several years passed before either Senegalese or French people could see Emitai, but films like Sembene's are valuable, not necessarily as correctives to a particular narrative of World War II, but as examples of perspectives from which the moral drama of that conflict is not and never will be central, and the winners of it may never be the good guys.

Monday, September 16, 2019

1984 x 2

George Orwell's dystopian classic 1984 was published in 1949. Between 1953 and 1956 it was filmed three times: first as an American teleplay, then for British television and finally as a British movie with an American star. Worries about the reputed brainwashing of American POWs during the Korean War may have sparked this Orwellian spree. The first rendering, for the hourlong Studio One anthology program, I haven't seen yet. Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame wrote the British adaptation and gave Peter Cushing a big push toward stardom. For the movie version, William Templeton, who did the Studio One condensation, collaborated on the screenplay, which was directed by Michael Anderson, whose Around the World in 80 Days appeared that same year. Edmond O'Brien played a relatively well-fed Winston Smith for the movie, presumably as a draw for American audiences. An American Winston wasn't entirely implausible, since the novel's Oceania was an Anglo-American superstate. More to the point, however husky he appeared, O'Brien often played weaklings and mediocrities like Orwell's protagonist. His participation in the film, however, apparently made it necessary to change the name of the novel's inquisitor from O'Brien to O'Connor. The movie also changes the name of Big Brother's arch-enemy, the Trotsky to B.B.'s Stalin, from Goldstein to the (less Jewish-sounding?) Cellador. For what it's worth, the Kneale and Templeton scripts have in common Donald Pleasance, who plays Winston's co-worker in the British version and his neighbor in the movie, in essentially the same sniveling mode.

The basic story remains the same: Winston, discovering fellow party member Julia's love for him, gradually works himself up into potential rebellion against the Big Brother regime, but both are duped by O'Brien/O'Connor, who tricks them into thinking that he is an underground leader. Instead, the inquisitor systematically breaks them down, though we only see his handling of Winston. His goal is to reduce them to such a state of self-loathing that they find solace and meaning only in love for Big Brother. Each version has its virtues. While the Anderson film, actually shorter than the Kneale teleplay, spends more time, to more dramatic effect, on the physical and mental torture of Winston, Kneale actually drives home more effectively the sadism Orwell, embittered by his experiences in Spain and elsewhere, saw underlying totalitarian movements. The novel's famous line about imagining the future as a boot stomping a face forever is quoted by Kneale but not by Templeton and Ralph Bettison. The film tries to make the breaking of Winston more stark and tragic by establishing the protagonist as something of a rebel from the very beginning, first showing him starting a clandestine diary and questioning the party after abjectly unpacking his bags in front of his interactive home telescreen. Cushing's Winston awakens more gradually, but it's implicit that Smith's work at the Ministry of Truth, where he rewrites news reports to confirm Big Brother's infallibility, is bound to make him question the party's bending of reality. Kneale spends more time explaining the insidious design of Newspeak to reduce people's ability to think outside the parameters set by the party, while the film, again presumably looking to the U.S. market, eschews such egghead talk. The rewriting of history Winston must do is awful enough.

The two versions are roughly equal in my eyes, with a slight advantage going to Kneale, but watching both in quick sequence regrettably made Orwell's dystopia seem quaint, and not just because of everyone's limited imagination regarding the telescreen.  Neither Orwell nor his cinematic translators could be expected to anticipate how the thing they warned against most passionately -- the willful distortion of reality by power and self-interest -- has spread beyond the totalitarian sector. When appeals to objective reality are widely seen as little more than power grabs, many people today seem to find the insistence that two and two make four oppressive. Freedom may not yet be slavery, but when freedom becomes a matter of believing whatever you want to believe -- on climate, on vaccines, elections, people, etc. -- with no reality beyond people's opinions to constrain you, it can be an Orwellian word in a not quite Orwellian world.

Sunday, September 8, 2019


Sergio Corbucci's follow-up to Django feels more like a conventional American "adult" western than the more exotic product we think of as a spaghetti western. Its protagonist does have a sort of gimmick weapon or two -- in addition to the golden pistol he has a canteen he can convert into a grenade -- but the story is more character-driven and moralistic than Italian westerns in general are thought to be. Bolzoni and Rossetti's screenplay is less a celebration of the amorality of the bounty killer than an affirmation of the rule of law. Accordingly, it really has two protagonists: not just Johnny Ringo aka Johnny Oro (Mark Damon) but the sheriff of Coldstone (Ettore Manni), with whom Ringo, momentarily his prisoner, allies against lawless outsiders. Johnny Oro may seem not merely conventional but conservative in its treatment of Mexicans and especially Indians -- relatively rare figures in spaghetti westerns -- as pure villains. Matching the film's two heroes are two villains: the bandit heir Junaito Perez (Franco de Rosa), who seeks vengeance on Johnny for the deaths of his brothers, and the Apache chief Sebastian (Giovanni Cianfrigia), first seen getting thrown out of a Coldstone saloon by the sheriff. The crux of the story is Johnny's arrest by the sheriff for a petty crime that will keep him in jail for less than a week. During this time, Perez demands that Johnny be delivered to him for revenge, or else he and Sebastian's warriors will descend on the town. As a bounty killer, Johnny isn't especially popular with many of the townsfolk, some of whom, wanting to restore the modus vivendi that existed with Juanito's brothers, urge Norton to turn him over to Perez. They realize too late that it's no longer possible to negotiate with Perez. Having made his alliance with the Apaches, Juanito is committed to letting them sack the town, so long as he has his way with Johnny. This news provokes a mass exodus from Coldstone, while the remaning people, led by the sheriff and ultimately joined by Johnny, resolve to resist the invasion. Corbucci had what looks like a decent budget to work with here, so the flight and the subsequent attack are impressively if not excessively staged, the latter climaxing in some massive explosions before the final showdown between Johnny and Juanito. Johnny Oro doesn't appear to rank high in the Corbucci canon, perhaps because it's relatively square and maybe because Mark Damon lacks the badass charisma of Franco Nero or other Cobucci stars. But Damon is personable enough as a cynic who shows he has a conscience, or at least some compassion after all, and the screenplay boasts a nice range of well-defined, well-performed characters, including a saloon girl (Valeria Fabrizi) whose love-hate relationship with Johnny ends tragically without particularly embittering our hero. He keeps up his blithe front even at the ultimate moment, when he seems helpless before a gloating Juanito but for a convenient bit of reflective material. Johnny Oro -- or Johnny Ringo for those markets where the Ringo name had Django-like magnetism --  is a likable enough rogue who might have been worth following in later adventures had Corbucci not moved on to ultimately better things.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: DOUGHBOYS (1930)

Buster Keaton reportedly liked Doughboys, his second talking feature, the best of his pictures for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Keaton fans realize that this isn't saying much, but the film apparently appealed to Buster's nostalgia for his time entertaining the troops in Europe. It was one of a cycle of war comedies that included Harry Langdon's A Soldier's Plaything, Wheeler and Woolsey's Half Shot at Sunrise and Anybody's War, featuring the blackface team of Moran and Mack. These films were contemporaries of All Quiet on the Western Front, and their advertising could play, as the newspaper ad shown here did, on the already-famous title. Whatever personal meaning Doughboys had for Keaton, there's really little to distinguish it, apart from the military setting, from his soul-crushing output under Metro's creative control. It's the talkie debut of Keaton's millionaire persona -- like Harold Lloyd, he could play any social class, at least in silent film, as each film required. At the same time, however, Keaton is the pathetic "Elmer" character Metro had burdened him with since his last silent feature, Spite Marriage. In fact, there's little consistency in Keaton's performance. He tries to put on airs appropriate to Elmer Stuyvesant's class in some scenes, but whenever he tries to court Mary, the girl of the picture (Sally Eilers), he comes across as more pathetically awkward than a wealthy man probably should have been. In those courting scenes -- for starters, Elmer awaits Mary's departure from work every afternoon, attended by his butler and chauffeur, only to be rebuffed daily -- he resembles a drunk vaguely recalling some of Langdon's baby-man shtick. Even at his most aristocratic, Keaton is obliged to speak demoralizing joke-book dialogue. Mistakenly enlisting for the Great War, Elmer is asked where he was born, and of course says it was in a hospital. "Were you sick?" the recruiting officer asks sarcastically, and of course Elmer answers that he can't remember exactly because he was very young at the time. From there, it's standard service-comedy stuff. Keaton is supported by more vocally-interesting performers, including ukulele-strumming Cliff Edwards as his eventual buddy and Edward Brophy as a drill instructor and romantic rival for ambulance-driver Mary. With his gruff yet high-pitched voice, the bloodthirsty and often apoplectic Brophy nearly steals the picture from Keaton, whose physical comedy here is mostly uninspired, howevermuch he enjoyed the material.

Things do pick up a little when the awkward squad reaches Europe. One of the intended highlights is a show put on by the troops in which some of the performers, including Elmer, hit the stage in drag. The joke is that Elmer's out of sync with the other "ladies," and that's about it, as if Keaton's mere awkwardness was supposed to be hilarious. Somewhat better is his performance, still in drag, in the dreaded Apache dance, but it's merely violent without the grace a silent Keaton might have lent the scene. My favorite bit is when Elmer blunders into a German trench, only to find his former butler (Arnold Korff) leading a band of starving but friendly troops. Tasked with taking prisoners, Elmer takes their orders for dinner -- they want all the stereotypical Teutonic favorites -- but gets involved in a final adventure with Mary and an unexploded shell before the war ends and the enemy can be fed. There's something dimly Keatonesque about Elmer and Mary's pathetic attempts to deactivate the shell, but it'll only make you think of what a Keaton with full creative control might have made of the war. The ending at least has some redeeming nastiness. Elmer has inherited the family business in peacetime and has installed his war buddies as directors, while hiring Brophy the drill instructor to be a humble janitor, but this scene of triumph is disrupted by the riveting at a nearby construction project, which sends all the veterans scampering for cover. I guess we don't laugh at such moments anymore, but in an M-G-M Keaton picture you take your laughs wherever you can.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

On the Big Screen: ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

The ninth film by Quentin Tarantino has become slightly controversial for a bit of historic revisionism. It appears to assert that Bruce Lee was not the greatest fighting machine ever to live, but rather more of a pretentious braggart than most who knew him recall him being. In the film, stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) fights Lee (Mike Moh) to at least a standstill after throwing the martial-arts master into the side of a car, having caught him in mid-flying kick. This brawl, provoked by Lee claiming that he could beat "Cassius Clay" in a fight, gets Booth blacklisted as a stuntman, forcing him to work full-time as a chauffeur, handyman and overall stooge for Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the actor for whom Cliff doubled on the western series Bounty Law. But before we get too deep into the main story of the picture, let's linger on the Bruce Lee scene. It's interesting that, while Booth is a co-protagonist of the movie, Tarantino doesn't make him the obvious good guy of the scene by having him, unlike Lee, call Muhammad Ali by what was then his proper name. The writer-director shows impressive discipline here, since by showing Hollywood 1969 from the point of view of two white male has-beens, he adopts a reactionary perspective that's not necessarily his own. There's no objective corrective to Booth's implicit disdain for Lee's kung fu prowess, for instance, nor for Dalton's disdain for spaghetti westerns or both character's contempt for hippies. Tellingly, Hollywood is the first Tarantino film in almost forever with no participation whatsoever by Samuel L. Jackson, whose footnote-narrator function in Inglourious Basterds is taken over by Kurt Russell, who also has an onscreen role as the stunt coordinator who blacklists Booth. It actually surprises me that people don't think of Hollywood as a Trumpian film, though I have no idea whether Tarantino sympathizes to any extent for the current President or his agenda. This is a film which, like Basterds, rewrites history on the assumption that history is already changed by the existence of the auteur's creations, though the extent to which history is rewritten is left unclear at the end.

Why Tarantino stops where and when he does no doubt means something, but let's stick with Bruce Lee a bit more. In his pretentious speech to the Green Hornet stuntmen, Lee complains that martial-arts exhibitions are mere stylized fakery compared to the genuine mortal combat in the boxing ring. While Tarantino's Lee is wrong to say that boxers like Ali and Sonny Liston literally are trying to kill each other, his distinction between fakery and reality sounds like a thematic statement for the film as a whole. This seems most apparent in the central section of the film, which intercuts between Dalton's struggles on the set of the Lancer show, where he plays a villain, and Booth's visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where old-timer George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is held a virtual prisoner by the Manson Family. A hungover Dalton suffers some existential lunchtime agony after blowing his lines a couple of times, but nails his last scene of the day. Oddly, while Tarantino has shown us clips of Bounty Law and other Dalton TV appearances in a realistic pastiche of Sixties techniques, he films the Lancer shoot with no regard for realism, framing the action to fill the widescreen and magnify the moment to suit its presumed significance for Dalton's career. Meanwhile, Booth rides into a scene of real menace, a lone hero against a potential mob (albeit without its leader; Manson himself only appears once in the picture). The sense of danger is real and strong, and yet it's fair to say that this scene above all establishes Hollywood as Tarantino's third consecutive western, even if it also serves as a bookend companion to Basterds bracketing the two more obvious westerns, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. In any event, Booth seems to embody a reality principle -- he's a real-life killer as both a war hero and the reputed murderer of his wife -- while Dalton represents a fantasy TV world. By establishing Dalton as the next-door neighbor of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Tarantino seems to be setting up the ultimate intrusion of lethal reality into the TV star's fantasy world by giving Dalton a front-row seat to Tate's murder. It should be clear by now, however, that Tarantino plays by his own rules, but we still need to find the point of his doing so this time.

So, to spoil the ending a month after the film's release, Dalton's mere existence as a drunken TV cowboy diverts the Manson killers from their original mission. After he berates them for stalling their noisy car outside his house, the Mansonites decide that Dalton is a more fitting target since he and his generation of TV stars taught the hippie generation to kill. Their attack on chez Dalton ends in happy disaster thanks to the presence of an acid-addled Booth and his pitbull buddy, though Dalton himself gets to carry out the coup de grace with a flamethrower left over from one of his movie projects. His reward is to be admitted into the presence of Sharon Tate and her un-doomed friends, while the wounded Booth is taken to a hospital. During the first half of the film, Tate has been a rising star while Dalton has struggled to arrest his decline. While they are next-door neighbors, Dalton actually sees Tate and Roman Polanski for the first time on the February 1969 day that takes up the film's first act. It's like having a version of A Star is Born where the falling and rising stars actually don't know each other. Unlike the hippies who so bother Dalton and Booth, Tate is a benign embodiment of the youth movement that's driving the likes of Dalton out of the spotlight. Tarantino finally finds an artistic use for his foot fetish by having Tate kick off her shoes while watching her performance in The Wrecking Crew on the big screen, linking her with the barefoot girls who both tempt and repel the middle-aged protagonists. I'm not much younger than Tarantino so I can testify to the scandalous symbolic power of bare feet in this period, even if it isn't something the protagonists themselves comment on. In her idealized form here, Tate represents a reconciliation of youth with old Hollywood. By changing history to rescue Tate, Dalton reconciles old Hollywood with now-grateful youth on a fantasy level, after gratifying a darker fantasy by helping exterminate less-grateful youth. Tarantino presumably depends on us knowing that all of this was not to be, and assumes that he can indulge in this fakery precisely because it's only a movie. It's the sort of fantasy men like Dalton and Booth might have more than it is Quentin Tarantino's own fantasy, and while Kurt Russell occasionally speaks up to correct Dalton's misstatements, this final fantasy is allowed to stand, presumably out of sympathy for the Daltons of real life who continued to decline -- unless they lived long enough to be embraced by Tarantino himself. The director has given us not an unreliable narrator but an unreliable narrative or an unreliable experience of how things might have been had some people had their way, or if the world worked the way they presumed it would.

Whether the exercise was worth the effort, posterity will judge. That being said, Hollywood boasts what may be Leonardo DiCaprio's greatest performance to date, a total immersion into a character to a point, once Dalton adopts a new hairstyle, where the star almost ceases to be recognizable. Playing a more conventional hero type, Pitt isn't as impressive but is still convincing as a man's man of the time. Overall, the film's a dense audio-visual collage combining a wide range of soundbites with detailed recreations of the 1969 cityscape with inevitable echoes of Zabriskie Point, while the violent climax owes something, at least, to the conclusion of Last House on the Left, another attempted exorcism of violent youth. While it's a long film, in some ways it feels less Tarantinian than previous films, with fewer digressive conversations, though Rick Dalton's attempt to describe the novel Ride a Wild Bronco (is it real???) to a precocious child actor is a poignant moment. A day after watching it, I'm not sure how I'd rank Hollywood in the Tarantino canon, or among films in general. Whether it's a point in its favor or not, this one, more than the others, feels like one that needs to be seen more than once to be fully understood or appreciated -- yet I could understand people not wanting to give it that extra time. It's definitely a more ambiguous film than its apparent popularity indicates, and I expect that discussions of it will get more interesting as the momentary controversies subside.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Pre-Code Parade: PEACH O'RENO (1931)

 Indignant Matron: How can you look me in the face?
Robert Woolsey: Well, I guess I've gotten used to it.

Once upon a time, Reno NV was the divorce capital of the United States. It was a resort town where people stayed for the minimal period that made them eligible for a divorce under Nevada law as of the early 1930s. Gambling had been made legal in the state around the same time, and the combination of easy divorce and the promise of easy money made Reno "the biggest little city in America." It was an almost inevitable destination for Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, as directed this time by William A. Seiter. I was growing used to a Wheeler and Woolsey formula that starts them off as desperate transients living by their wits, i.e. not particularly well until an improbable opportunity enables Woolsey to flex his con-man -- er, I mean entrepreneurial muscles. Peach O'Reno skips the origin stage to present our heroes, here calling themselves Wattles and Swift, as established, aggressively entrepreneurial divorce lawyers. In the fantasy land of Reno, their bustling office, staffed by girls in bellhop livery, transforms into a casino, the girls stripping down (and almost going overboard until ordered to halt) into skimpy waitress costumes. The transformation sight gags make Peach of a piece with RKO's contemporary cartoonishly absurd musical comedies like Melody Cruise and Down to Their Last Yacht and it all makes me wonder how Wheeler and Woolsey never crossed paths with Astaire and Rogers at their shared studio. We can ponder that another time. For now, know that Wattles and Swift's aggressive business practices have made bitter enemies of the more established firm of Jackson, Jackson, Jackson and Jackson, one of whom arranges for his election as a judge in order to thwart their rivals, regardless of the self-evident conflict of interests. Worse, their success as divorce lawyers has made Wattles, at least, a mortal enemy in the rancher and gambler Ace Crosby (Mitchell Harris). He appears in Reno as Wattles and Swift take on the case, one on each side, of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Bruno, who are determined to separate after a bitter fight at their silver anniversary party. Their daughters hope to prevent the breakup; one of them, inevitably, is Wheeler's regular song-and-dance partner Dorothy Lee.

To secure a divorce, Wattles and Swift must provide evidence of unfaithful correspondence; their clients must catch their spouses with companions of the opposite sex. Somehow Mrs. Bruno (Cora Witherspoon) is hooked up with Crosby the gambler, while Mr. Bruno (Joseph Cawthorn) is attached to a cross-dressing Wattles, whose coquettish ways attract the worrisome attention of Crosby. This is a great film if you want to see Bert Wheeler in drag, and it'll also make you reflect on how poor a shot a westerner can be. Once Crosby figures out Wattles' disguise, a bullet-proof vest saves the lawyer from an early demise, but he then makes the mistake of taking off his vest and walking out of the death-chamber before Crosby is safely out of the casino. Crosby resumes fire at near point-blank range, always aiming for the ass as you do in comedies, but always manages to miss the crawling, scurrying Wattles until the police collect him. That leaves the big divorce trial, at which point the filmmakers lose track of the narrative. Judge Jackson (Sam Hardy) presides, but rather than sabotage the lawyers he seems perfectly content, if not outright amused, to play his part in a vaudeville sketch, alongside the jurors and an intrusive radio announcer. No matter: this is the sort of film where a divorcing couple thinks better of their plans at the last minute and fall sobbing into each other's arms. Not only are they reunited, but they now have sons-in-law in Wattles and Swift. It lacks the anarchic edge of Wheeler and Woolsey's most outrageous films but Peach O'Reno is amiable enough and if you like the RKO team as a matter of habit you'll definitely like them here.

Sunday, August 4, 2019


Also known as "Doom Magnet" and "An Honorable Young Man," Jean-Pierre Melville's first color film is widely regarded as the weakest film of his great 1960s run, and that looks like a fair assessment. Something's off right from the start. Star Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a mediocre boxer entering the ring for a make-or-break fight. The crowd is entirely unresponsive as the fighters are introduced and while they fight during the opening credits. After Michel, Belmondo's character, loses on points, part of the crowd comes to life to heckle him as he leaves the arena. Perhaps we've learned something about Michel; to lose the way he did in an uneventful bout suggests that he lacks heart. He definitely lacks something. After two weeks he's reduced to abandoning his apartment to avoid paying rent and selling his and his girlfriend Lina's spare clothes, and the only reason he doesn't sell her heirloom necklace, regardless of what he tells her later, is that the thing is actually worthless. To be fair, Michel is looking for work and manages to land a promising gig as a "secretary" to Dieudonne Ferchaux (Charles Vanel), a banker who's fleeing France to avoid prosecution for murdering some Africans back in colonial days. The only catch is that Michel has to leave with Ferchaux immediately. That means sneaking out on Lina (Malvina Silberberg) as she sits at an outdoor cafe table without a sou to her name. Our protagonist has been established as just about as unlikable as possible.

Ferchaux is bound for the U.S., where he has funds stashed in a safe-deposit box. He can't get the bulk of his money out of his American bank accounts because of the extradition threat, however, and to keep one step ahead he heads south with Michel, toward the ultimate goal of Venezuela and another safe-deposit box. The second half of the film takes place around New Orleans and includes a nice little travelogue of the city's red-light district. Michel grows increasingly weary of Ferchaux as the older man, less lordly on the run, grows more emotionally needy -- almost like a girlfriend. He thinks of taking the money and running, but a group of unsavory locals led by Jeff (American character actor Todd Martin), a French-speaking veteran who runs a diner, is getting the same idea.  By now Michel has an American girlfriend (Michele Mercier), which gives him extra motivation to grab the money. But once he does so, he has second thoughts that reach back a great distance. He reminds himself of what he did to Lina back home, and that seems to inspire him to return the money. When he goes back to Ferchaux's lair, he finds the old man fighting with Todd and his crew. Michel comes to the rescue, but Ferchaux is already mortally wounded. As a final act of generosity, the dying man offers Michel the key to the safe-deposit box in Caracas. "You and your money can go to hell," Michel answers as the film fades out. You get the impression that he did the right thing at the end not so much out of loyalty to Ferchaux but to make virtual amends to Lina, if not simply to do the right thing for once. While Melville based this film on a novel by Georges Simenon, France's 20th-century master of mystery and crime fiction, it comes across as an inflated anecdote, padded with second-unit American footage. Melville's protagonists are rarely good guys, but they often have some quality that earns some sympathy from the audience, but Michel is too much of a selfish mediocrity for most of the film to be worth caring about, while Vanel's Ferchaux is a monster who turns into a wretch. I get the impression that we were supposed to appreciate the color and the atmosphere more than anything else while waiting for Michel's moral awakening, but that wasn't enough. This wasn't a terrible film, only unengaging beyond its value as a travelogue for parts of 1960s America. Fortunately, Melville's best work was still ahead of him.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

DEVIL'S EXPRESS (Gang Wars, 1976)

First-time director Barry Rosen bet on a Seventies genre trifecta by making a blaxploitation martial-arts horror film, and while I wouldn't call it a good movie it is an often-fascinating document of the fantasy life springing from the grungy state of urban life at that time. In its Mummy-inspired prologue, ancient Chinese monks lower a mysterious casket, with an amulet attached, into a hole in the earth. To ensure that no one knows the location of the burial, the leader of the little group kills everyone else before putting himself to the sword. While he might well have waited until they'd all done something to cover the hole, no one actually discovers the mystery inside until centuries later.

In 1970s Harlem, martial-arts instructor Luke (Warhawk Tanzania) spars with his friend Cris (Larry Fleischman). It's a tense friendship since Luke is black and Cris is a white cop, but as Luke explains to his suspicious students, he owes Cris a favor. In any event, Luke and his student-buddy Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan) are soon off to Hong Kong for some elite training. Rodan's head really isn't into the discipline -- he's more of a thug at heart -- but Luke earns a diploma after a match with the master. After that, Luke is sent to an island to meditate, while Rodan is tasked with watching over him. Bored by it all, Rodan just happens to discover the pit that generations of random explorers and possible treasure hunters managed to miss. Lowering himself in with ease, he snatches the amulet and takes it home to America with him.

The Hong Kong-New York steamer has another passenger: a Chinese man who suddenly finds himself possessed by some unseen entity. By the time he reaches the U.S. he's a staggering, bug-eyed mess terrified by every bright light and sharp sound until he finds a sort of shelter in the subway system. Now whatever's inside him can come into its own, though the filmmakers don't quite have the money to do more than suggest a chest-bursting exit with a lot of bleeding.

Meanwhile, Rodan and his gang buddies escalate their feud with a Chinese gang after he gets ripped off in a cocaine deal. In a violent variation on West Side Story the Chinese and black/Hispanic gangs perform martial-arts rumbles in the slums of New York, where the producers enjoyed extensive municipal cooperation despite their film's unflattering snapshot of Seventies squalor. As the gang war escalates, Cris and the rest of the police begin investigating a subway serial killer. While his comedy-relief partner invokes urban legends of mutant animals, Cris suspects that the killings are gang-related, despite Luke's vehement pushback against that suggestion. Luke's attitude toward his friends is strangely ambivalent. He warns them constantly against using martial arts in anger, but it's unclear whether he even realizes that Rodan is a drug dealer or if he would care. He lives in a sort of ebony tower, content to make love to his girlfriend and improve his knowledge until the killings come to close to home.

As you might guess, the subway entity is drawn to Rodan for the amulet he wears -- but by the time it finally catches up with him, the Chinese gang has snatched it away. That's how their wise old mentor is finally able to explain the actual situation to Luke, once the Chinese convince him that they weren't the ones who slammed Rodan face-first into a transformer. Only Luke has the mental discipline to defeat the monster, which adds an arsenal of psychic attacks to its arsenal for the final showdown in the tunnels. It takes a variety of forms, including Rodan and later two fighters at once, before trying to convince Luke that trains are bearing down on him. For Rosen it's a brave effort at something trippy and supernatural, but when the monster finally shows its true form and goes for a death grapple the scene is too dark to appreciate either the monster get-up or the climactic action.

While Devil's Express ends on an underwhelming note, it's an admirable B-film in which everyone seems to be trying hard to make an impression. Warhawk Tanzania (who made only one more film) is no real actor but at least errs on the side of excess, and while the fighting isn't much by Chinese standards (and the gore effects are mostly laughable) Rosen and his co-writers manage to invest each encounter with some dramatic urgency. They also find time for gratuitously entertaining stuff like a fight between a male bully and a female bartender at Luke's favorite watering hole and a cameo by misanthropic performance artist Brother Theodore -- he may be remembered from the early years of David Letterman's late-night show -- as a priest slowly driven mad by the subway killings. There's a likable cacophany to the pre-climactic scene where Luke negotiates with the cops to let him go into the tunnels alone while the priest rants to the assembled crowd about dead gods, pestiferous rats and whatnot. Rosen's enthusiasm makes it regrettable that he directed only one more film, though he's gone on to a long career as a TV producer. For Devil's Express he threw a lot of stuff at the screen to see what would stick, and that's almost certain to leave at least something for some of us to like.

Friday, July 26, 2019

LIGHTNING BOLT (Operazione Goldman, 1966)

The American title of Antonio Margheriti's Eurospy film presumably has "lightning" in its title because the James Bond film Thunderball had only recently come out, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Woolner Brothers, who distributed the film here and partly financed it, worried that the original title would make the thing sound Jewish. As far as the original writers were concerned, or so Wikipedia tells us, the hero was called Goldman because of his unlimited expense account -- and as a play on Goldfinger, or course. For U.S. consumption he's "Lightning Bolt" but is mostly known by his real name, Harry Sennett (Anthony Eisley). He answers to Captain Pat Flanagan (Diana Lorys), who's introduced in a manner that teases that she'll be the dominant character. Her share of the action is relatively light, however, though she does get to save Harry by shooting an enemy female. At other times she may as well be a damsel in distress. While the judo-throwing lady on the U.S. poster hints at female empowerment, you don't really get much of that here.

Instead, Flanagan and Sennett are tasked with figuring out how recent failed space shots from Cape Kennedy -- represented by archival footage -- might have been sabotaged. While the globe-trotting storylines of 1960s spy films were a big part of their appeal, Lightning Bolt restricts itself to Florida and environs, where our protagonists pursue various leads on their way to discovering the saboteur.

Goldman makes up for its limited scope with an admirably absurd villain. Beer magnate Rehte, played by Italian actor Folco Lulli done up as the stereotypical crew-cut, "pig-eyed" German, has a hankering to rule the world. The key to his plan is installing a superweapon on the moon that will allow him to blackmail all nations with the threat of mass destruction. He can't have other countries landing anything on the moon before his plans are complete -- hence the sabotage. Director Margheriti tries to further make up for his film's lack of variety in locations by giving Rehte a relatively impressive villain's lair in an underwater complex that somehow was built near Florida without the Americans finding out about it until Sennett and Flanagan applied themselves. The omnipresent Rehte brand also gives the film a modest Pop Art touch.

It's not enough for Rehte to rule an underwater city, scheme for world rule and brew beer of uncertain quality. He also has ways of dealing with insubordinate or incompetent henchpeople. He puts them in cryogenic suspended animation, a fate close to death that leaves victims the hope of revival. Rehte keeps one of his henchwomen in line by keeping her father in this state, but when he punishes her by thawing dad out and reducing him to a rapidly-moldering corpse, it only drives her once and for all to the good guys' side. Their task is to rescue a Scots-American rocket scientist Rehte had kidnapped (Paco Sanz) while destroying the brewer's rocket and his entire complex while they're at it. There's a respectable amount of destruction in the end. but at the end of the day the villain isn't compelling enough for his downfall to really impress us. Eisley lacks the charisma or more plausible prowess of Brad Harris and Tony Kendall in the Komissar X films. Overall, Lightning Bolt barely manages to distinguish itself in a momentarily very crowded field.