Sunday, January 26, 2020

COLD WAR (Zimna wojna, 2018)

Pawel Pawlikowski's follow-up to Ida, though mostly praised by critics, didn't have the same impact in the U.S. as the earlier, Oscar-winning film. The lack of a Holocaust angle in the new film may be the simplest explanation for this, but Cold War itself may have been a little too foreign -- which is to say too nationalist -- for American art-house tastes. It marks a territory of tragic Polish exceptionalism that has no true home in either the Russian-dominated east or the American-dominated west, though the film has little or nothing to say about the U.S.A. or actual Americans. Instead, it asserts a nebulous Polish authenticity apparently incapable of true expression in the film's Cold War setting. The nebulous element finds form in the film's heroine, the aspiring singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), who pretends to be a peasant in order to join a folk-singing troupe organized in the late 1940s by musicologists Irena (Agata Kuleza) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). Wiktor falls in love with Zula, and the romance keeps him with the troupe after Irena quits in futile protest against the Communist government transforming it into a Stalinist propaganda vehicle. Its propaganda function allows the singers to tour the eastern bloc, including East Berlin, where Wiktor, as artistically frustrated as Irena, hopes to defect with Zula to the west. Alas, Zula never makes the rendezvous, so Wiktor defects alone.

Later in the 1950s, the troupe travels the wider world, and in Paris Zula encounters Wiktor again. Our hero will find a variety of work in the west, from composing film scores to playing in a niteclub jazz band. He still hopes to bring Zula to the other side, but his efforts to transform her into a jazz singer, including arranging a cool-jazz version of the folk tune that serves effectively as her theme song, only estrange them further. The issue isn't that she dislikes modern music -- she's seen dancing to "Rock Around the Clock" almost as a form of protest -- but that Wiktor is trying to make her into something she isn't for no good reason. Wiktor seems to realize this, too, and you could argue that for him she embodies the true Poland, to such a degree that he risks certain imprisonment in order to return home to be near her. In a melodramatic scenario mercifully underplayed by all involved, Wiktor can only be freed from prison by Zula marrying the party hack (Boris Szyc) who corrupted the folk troupe in the first place. In true melodramatic fashion, she becomes a lush until Wiktor finally emerges from prison, his artistic career apparently mangled (with his hand) beyond repair. With it already established that the west offers no real escape for them, the only remaining option is romantic suicide -- again carried out with respectable understatement. A point is made nevertheless, presumably one that found an appreciative audience in a newly-nationalist Poland. Cold War isn't exactly saying "a plague on both your houses," but it does say quite clearly that the freedom promised by the west wasn't really freedom, at least for some people -- or else that the west's freedom wasn't enough for some people.  Wiktor seals his fate, against the advice of a harshly realistic Polish diplomat, with the explanation, "I'm Polish." What being Polish entails, if not what it actually means, is Cold War's ultimate subject, and it should be no surprise that, good as the film is -- strongly acted, sharply shot, admirably succinct -- it doesn't travel as well as Pawlikowski's previous effort. It should do no harm to his reputation, however, and whatever he does next is sure to be, most likely deservedly, an art-house event.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

QUEEN OF THE HIGH SEAS (Le Avventure di Mary Read, 1961)

Best known for horror films, Umberto Lenzi began his career making period swashbucklers, starting with this 1961 outing inspired by the crossdressing pirate of the Caribbean, Mary Read. The film takes almost nothing from the little actually reported about Read, apart from her being a pirate and occasionally dressing in men's clothes. Her cohorts Anne Bonny and Jack Rackham don't appear in this picture, which seems to be set a few generations before Read's own time. Mary (Lisa Gastoni) is introduced in England as an aspiring master thief, attended by mentor/sidekick Mangiatrippa (Agostino Salvietti). Temporarily taken prisoner, she meets cute, within the confines of her male disguise, with wastrel aristocrat Peter Goodwin (Jerome Courtland). Goodwin will later be tasked with taking down the infamous pirate Captain Poof, not knowing that this is none other than Mary, whose true identity he eventually discovers. It wasn't always this way; once upon a time, believe it or not, there was a man named Captain Poof, but having accepted Mary as part of his crew, there soon was not enough room on his ship for two domineering personalities. Almost as a matter of course, Mary kills Poof and takes his place and his name. Having already proven herself an omnicompetent sailor, she soon demonstrates her mastery of pirate strategy to a crew initially reluctant to transgress beyond Poof's privateering mandate. In time, "Captain Poof" becomes the terror of all nations, but Mary eventually must choose to love or kill Peter Goodwin. Queen actually was Gastoni's Italian film debut, the Italo-Irish actress having spent her teen years in England and breaking into film there. She went on to do a number of swashbucklers, as well as some of Antonio Margheriti's sci-fi films, and I'm curious now to see whether those later films followed Queen's example and allowed Gastoni to be an action heroine. While the historical Read seems to have been little more than Jack Rackham's psycho doxy, Lenzi's protagonist is a virtual superwoman, at least by the standards of Sixties Euro-genre movies, as well as an irresistible charmer. Lenzi himself looks impressive as an (almost) first-time director. Whatever its budget, Queen appears to have better production values than many of Hollywood's soundstage-bound potboiler pirate movies of the previous decade. It may not have the intensity of violence Lenzi would later be known for, but it's still more energetic than many of its genre contemporaries. I suppose he would have been recognized as a promising talent, though the fulfillment of that promise would take forms unanticipated here.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Too Much TV: DRACULA (2020)

The creators of Sherlock claim that one purpose of their free adaptation of Bram Stoker's famous character -- to call their Dracula an adaptation of Stoker's novel may go too far -- is to make the king vampire the central character, "the hero of his own story" as it were. They then open their first of three episodes with a framing device ensuring that, as ever, we will see Dracula through Jonathan Harker's eyes. Harker tells his story at the convent where he takes shelter in the novel, to an irreverent nun (Dolly Wells) who apparently is the sister of Abraham Van Helsing, sharing his preoccupation with the undead. Harker (John Heffernan) as narrator is an unsettling sight, far more damaged than we're used to seeing, as if Deadpool had mated with a 1980s AIDS patient. This comes to seem appropriate as Harker endures a more severe ordeal than even Stoker had imagined through the hospitality of a rapidly-youthening Count (Claes Bang). This all begins quite promisingly; for much of the first hour co-writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat succeed at making a Dracula story feel more disquietingly Gothic than Stoker's novel by introducing the idea of a secret prisoner in Dracula's castle and later showing how the Count treats some of his victims as experiments. This sets the tone for the rest of the story, establishing that Dracula, after so many centuries, remains uncertain about exactly how his vampiric powers work and whether they're inherited by his "brides," female or male. But a discordant note begins to creep in as the vampire, absorbing Harker's knowledge by drinking his blood, starts talking in a familiarly glib, almost slangy way, calling his guest Johnny and generally sounding more and more like a standard 21st century charismatic villain. At the same time, commenting throughout on Harker's story, Sister Agatha tends to quip in drastic hit-or-miss fashion. The writings clearly aspire to accessibility at whatever cost, and the tone becomes too comic -- however fun it may be to hear Sister Agatha taunt Dracula near the end of the first episode -- for its own good. But I'm probably mistaking my own idea of its own good for its creators' intentions.

The second episode -- all three run approximately 90 minutes -- comes closest to the Dracula-as-central-character idea, though it also interposes a framing device, this time with Dracula narrating his famous voyage on the Demeter to a surprisingly friendly yet still skeptical Sister Agatha.  This second episode is also the worst by far of the three, introducing a shipload of thinly sketched passengers for the vampire to victimize before Agatha breaks out of the framing device and reclaims the upper hand. Inclusiveness substitutes for substance here as the passenger list includes an Indian scientist and his mute daughter as well as the black gay lover of this episode's walking in-joke, the decadent Lord Ruthven. Yet this group may as well have come from a Russian novel of Stoker's time compared to the cartoon characters who pass for the Demeter's crew. They all amount to vampire fodder, of course, and with Dracula the focus rather than his victims his attacks are more reminiscent of Bugs Bunny's inevitable triumphs than they are horrific to any extent. It becomes less a question of which of the crew or passengers will survive than whether the viewers will survive -- and yet it's all nearly redeemed by the episode's closing twist.

The finale picks up threads of Stoker's story in the present day, as Dracula wakes from more than a century of recuperative slumber underwater to walk into a trap set nearly that long ago by a vampire-hunting organization founded by none other than Mina Murray, whom Dracula spared from a bad predicament at the end of the first episode for no apparent better reason than that the writers needed someone to found this organization. Working for this shadowy group is a familiar face: Zoe Helsing, Agatha's great-great-grandniece. She survives a vampire attack because her blood sickens the Count, for the all-too-mundane reason that she has terminal cancer. Other stories make dead people's blood potentially fatal to vampires, so this arguably is a modestly plausible leap forward. Zoe's organization wants to preserve Dracula and experiment on him, but they're thwarted by, of all things, a lawyer. Try and guess his name! After this presumably powerful, possibly malevolent organization meekly gives up its prisoner, the episode introduces us to a 21st century Lucy Westenra (Lydia West) and her familiar suitors -- minus one if the gay guy was supposed to be Arthur Holmwood. Dracula becomes obsessed with this reckless girl without really understanding why as we pick up the thread that may unravel the vampire after all. Just as he's never fully understood his own powers, this show proposes that Dracula has never understood, or at least hasn't fully come to terms with, his own nature. Inquisitive Agatha had wanted to know why Dracula fears Christian symbols -- apparently, their being holy never satisfied her inquiring mind, and in any event we'd seen another vampire in the first episode regard the same stuff without fear or pain -- and the Count's own half-baked idea that Christianity's bloody history makes the cross a symbol of death isn't satisfactory either. His fascination with Lucy -- who suffers an even more horrific fate than in the novel -- offers an important clue, but Zoe needs to drink Dracula's own blood in order to get insight from her feisty precursor Agatha. The resolution of all of this is weak: Dracula the mighty warrior, it turns, out, has always been ashamed of his own fear of death, and flinches from the traditional portents of his extinction -- the cross, the sun, etc. -- even when they won't hurt him at all, as Zoe/Agatha proves by aping Peter Cushing's heroics from Hammer's Horror of Dracula. So enlightened, our protagonist decides he may as well die. I'm not sure if that follows, but I suppose it effectively preempts any talk of another season -- unless, of course, the vampire rises to shrug, "Well, that didn't work!" and goes on about his business, should the ratings require it.

Monday, January 13, 2020

THE KING (2019)

He may not play the title character, but the true auteur of David Michôd's history play may well be its co-producer, co-writer and co-star, Joel Edgerton. The King is an innately audacious project: a do-over of the story of King Henry V of England, the subject not only of Shakespeare's play but of two highly acclaimed films made from the play: Laurence Olivier's of 1944 and Kenneth Branagh's of 1989. Edgerton, however, has assigned himself perhaps the most audacious task of all: a dramatic makeover of one of Shakespeare's most beloved characters, Sir John Falstaff. That puts Michôd and The King on a collision course with Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight on top of its other challenges. Edgerton himself may have written the film's most audacious line, in which his Falstaff compares the fate Michôd and Edgerton have planned for him with a more ignominious finish which is pretty much what Shakespeare gave the character, and declares the King version the better ending. Except that Edgerton to a great extend underplays the role, his conception of Falstaff is what you might imagine Marlon Brando doing with the character, albeit without that actor's dubious British accent. That is, Edgerton and Michôd make Falstaff the conscience if not the outright hero of their story. The fat knight's aversion to combat is here more a matter of principle than it is in the original, in keeping with the new film's overall antiwar stance. But then Falstaff is shown to be the author of the winning strategy of the Battle of Agincourt, staking his own life on it by leading a virtually-suicidal feint intended to goad the French enemy into an even-more suicidal cavalry charge against English longbowmen on muddy terrain. For what it's worth, this Falstaff is neglected for a time but never publicly shunned by his old pal Prince Hal (Timothee Chalamet), who later resents the fat knight's refusal to commit war crimes but respects his counsel too much to hold it long against him. To each his own Falstaff, of course; Welles, selectively following the letter of Shakespeare, still made the character largely a mirror of himself. If Michôd and Edgerton's Falstaff seems sometimes like a mirror-universe version of Shakespeare's, the core idea of their conception seems to be the traditional fool who can tell a king the truth -- something the writers feel that Henry V desperately needed to hear.

The King's Henry shares Falstaff's aversion to mass slaughter, but is dangerously sensitive to personal slights that threaten his standing as a new, young heir to a usurping father. That makes Henry even more dangerously susceptible to manipulation by war-seeking advisers, particularly the Poloniesque William Gascoigne (Sean Harris), who manufactures conspiracies against Henry to be blamed on France and expendable colleagues. It doesn't help matters that the French Dauphin (Robert Pattinson in a critic-proof performance as a complete idiot) wants to get into some kind of pissing contest with the new king, or at least wants to fart in his general direction. Falstaff and later the French princess Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp) act as Henry's conscience against the tide of war, constantly questioning the need for war and reinforcing his own instinctual skepticism, born of resentment of the belligerent ways of his father (Ben Mendelsohn). Henry's the type who prefers to settle things by single combat when possible, as he does with the archetypal Hotspur rather than see his own brother waste an army and his own life in a pointless battle. A nice touch in this film is the way it shows Henry becoming Hotspur, i.e. the son his father really wanted despite Hotspur's treason. Another touch is the way that character arc ends with a parody of the early Hotspur fight, as the Dauphin challenges Henry to single combat after the big battle -- Michôd acquits himself fairly well in the shadow of past auteurs, by the way, and Chalamet works hard in long, violent takes --  but can't put one armored foot in front of the other without sprawling into the mud. The film ends with Catherine replacing Falstaff as Henry's good conscience and his evil counselors done away with all too neatly. But while it's all too obvious when actors are mouthpieces for the writers' opinions rather than real characters, and the film is absolutely not to be taken seriously as history, The King is a nicely made piece of work and mostly quite entertaining, especially if you're a sucker for historical epics like I am. It's just too bad that as a self-conscious alternative to the Shakespearean "Henriad," it's doomed to comparison with greater films instead of facing judgment on its own terms. 

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Happy New Year: 1917 (2019)

So what happened? Nothing, really -- if anyone was wondering. There was just a period where I didn't watch much worth writing about, or else I found myself having nothing I thought worth writing about the things I saw. The turn of the year usually encourages increased productivity, however, and by then I had seen some things I wanted to write about. It then became a matter of resuming the old habit. Finally getting back to a movie theater after a few months provided the occasion, and from here I'll backtrack a little to cover some stuff I saw less recently. Where better to start, though, then more than a century in the past?...

*   *   *

Now that history has taken World War I beyond living memory, it finally starts to feel like just another war. For a time, it seemed like it actually might be the war to end all war, because it seemed to be the one that discredited war as a concept. It stood for futility and tragic stupidity, an indictment of leaders military and political alike. But the most recent Great War movies -- at least in English -- have been far less bitter about the conflict than the classic familiar takes on the subject. Peter Jackson's documentary They Shall Not Grow Old and Sam Mendes' new film are inspired by ancestral memories on the grunt level, where the war was perceived, so it seems, as just another job of work. There is little in either film of the indignation characteristic of Great War movies going back at least to All Quiet on the Western Front and at least as far forward as Gallipoli. In fact, 1917 is to some extent Gallipoli with a happy ending. If that exaggerates things slightly, it's still fair to say that neither the Mendes nor the Jackson film is explicitly an antiwar film, as nearly all World War I movies were implicitly for a long time. Saying this isn't an indictment, only an observation of a change in tone that comes with a change in perspective.

It may exaggerate things even more to call 1917 World War I as a video game. It certainly will look that way to some people, but the effort by Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins to make their film look like a handful of long takes -- however obvious the cutting points actually are -- really seems rooted in an engagement with past war films. All Quiet remains arguably the most indelible of Great War films because of Lewis Milestone's epic horizontal tracking shots of advancing troops mowed down by machine gun fire, while Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is well remembered for its lengthy tracking shots in the trenches and on the battlefield. 1917 may not be so much an attempt to top these films but a resort to a common cinematic language that somehow seems suited to the subject. Film buffs associate that war in particular with long takes and tracking shots, so if Mendes was going to make a film about that war, this was the way to make it feel especially like a World War I movie -- at least superficially.

Watching 1917, I had the obscure thought that Mendes and Deakins would have been ideal adapters of the work of Leonard H. Nason, an unsung author whose 1920s pulp stories of American soldiers blundering their way across the western front capture something of the chaos of war with considerable black or at least hard-boiled comedy. Instead, of course, Mendes and co-writer Krysty Winston-Cairns took inspiration from tales told by Mendes' grandfather. Whether grandpa told the future director a tale with a Private Ryan-style "mission is a man" hook, however, I don't know. The idea is that two soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman and George McKay) must traverse dangerous terrain on foot in order to prevent a sure-to-fail attack that will jeopardize the life of the brother of one of the protagonists. Their journey inevitably is full of incidents, and as I hinted earlier, their mission ultimately is a success by the narrowest of margins. Your archetypal World War I movie probably would have ended differently, but 1917 plays out, to mix historical metaphors, like an Apocalypse Now that finds the colonel at the end of the long trail a surprisingly reasonable man. Crossing historic boundaries to make that comparison feels justified because 1917 is as much a tour de force for Deakins as the Coppola film was for Vittorio Storaro. The beloved cinematographer not only gives you your standard Great War mudscape, but also a wide range of settings permitting a more vivid and sometimes lurid palette of colors than we might expect from the archetypically monochrome imagery of that conflict. Whatever you think about the story -- which comes with a twist or two and may actually depend on our expectations for Great War films to maintain suspense -- 1917 is a treat to look at, as long as your definition of "treat" includes lots of moldering corpses. The horrors of war are plainly there to see, but at this point in movie history Mendes feels little need to editorialize over them. That certainly doesn't make this a pro-war film, but longtime movie fans will feel a difference from earlier Great War pictures, whatever they make of it. 1917 feels more like an exercise in style for its own sake, both because of its stunt quality and because the characters aren't really that interesting, than its famous precursors, but I think it'll be safe to say that it won't make anyone wish they could have their own World War I adventure, except perhaps in the comfort of their game room.