Wednesday, October 26, 2016

DVR Diary: LAW AND ORDER (1953)

Seminal crime author W. R. Burnett (Little Caesar, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle) also wrote westerns. His 1930 novel Saint Johnson is based on the Tombstone legend, starring a fictional analogue for Wyatt Earp, who had only recently died. Universal Pictures turned the novel in to Edward L. Cahn's Law and Order, an early collaboration between star Walter Huston and co-writer John Huston. I've never read Saint Johnson and only dimly remember seeing some of the Cahn film when I was a kid, but my understanding is that Nathan Juran's 1953 film is a remake almost in name only. If the film is remembered it's mainly because Ronald Reagan starred as Frame Johnson, the Earp counterpart. He's actually pretty good as a stone-cold laconic lawman who wants to get away from that life and doesn't care what people think of him for doing so. Having cleaned up Tombstone, Frame decides to move on to Cottonwood, accompanied by brothers Luke (Alex Nicol) and hotheaded Jimmy (Russell Johnson), as well as their own personal undertaker, who sees no future in Tombstone after the Johnsons have annihilated the outlaw element. In Cottonwood Frame just wants to start a ranch and settle down with his girl -- Dorothy Malone's term of endearment for him is "You're big, you're ugly and you're stupid and I happen be in love with you" -- but the Johnson blood is inflamed by the unjust domination of Cottonwood by the Durling brothers, Kurt (Preston Foster) and Frank (Dennis Weaver), and their pet sheriff. Frame tries to keep out of it as long as he can, but when Luke is killed, and while Jimmy flirts dangerously with Frank Durling's sister, Frame enters the fray.

Interestingly, the ultimate showdown isn't between Johnsons and Durlings, but between Frame and Jimmy, who kills Frank Durling when caught with Frank's sister. Frame believes in the rule of law -- and it may alarm Reagan's idolators today to see the great man enforcing an aggressive gun-control policy in Cottonwood -- and so is determined to make sure that Jimmy stands trial -- his girl will testify in his favor so he'd likely get off if he isn't lynched -- but the Durling faction paradoxically breaks him out of jail in order to discredit Frame. Jimmy is a borderline misfit who'd joined a lynch mob himself earlier in the picture. He's turbulent, impulsive and impatient with a yearning for peace on Frame's part that sometimes looks like cowardice to the younger man. It's worth noting here, in light of Russell Johnson's now-total identification with the Professor on Gilligan's Island, that before that show he had become virtually typecast as a heavy on TV westerns. He seemed to project a certain mean weakness of character that here, early in his career but possibly his biggest and best role in movies, is redeemed by a romantic spirit. There's a certain anticlimactic integrity to Law and Order as it retreats from its fratricidal setup. Fugitive Jimmy wounds Frame, who refuses to draw on him, and immediately repents and surrenders to the happy ending awaiting all the surviving Johnsons. The film isn't much more than a B movie, but Juran directs with satisfying efficiency, apart from an overblown brawl between Reagan and Foster's stuntmen, and the film looks good overall. Reagan reportedly didn't think much of the film, probably seeing it as a comedown from his Warner Bros. pictures, but it's a perfectly respectable oater with a decent cast -- young Dennis Weaver is especially nasty --  that suggests that the future President wasn't the best judge of his own work.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

DVR Diary: RISEN (2016)

Tensions are high in Judea as occupying Roman armies fight pitched battles against insurgent Zealots while a cult leader is crucified in Jerusalem. Procurator Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) oddly wants a quick end to the spectacle of Yeshua's (Cliff Curtis) expected slow death and sends Centurion Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) to hurry things up. By the time he arrives at Golgotha, having not long before led the troops to victory over the Zealots, Yeshua has been up only a few hours, but appears to have already died. Clavius orders the other condemned men's legs broken so they'll die quicker and he can shut the site down. Without thinking much about it, he acquiesces when Joseph of Arimathea (Antonio Gil) claims Yeshua's body for burial in his own sepulcher. That should end the matter, but the local Jewish authorities warn that since Yeshua predicted his own resurrection, his fugitive disciples may try to steal the body and claim that he rose after all. Clavius assigns two guards to the sealed tomb who promptly get drunk, and somehow the body disappears from the tomb. It becomes Clavius' mission to find the body, or the disciples who might lead him to it, before rumors of Yeshua's return from the dead further inflame a volatile province.

That's the setup for Kevin Reynolds' Christian procedural, written by Reynolds with Paul Aiello. Taking the police-procedural approach to the mystery of mysteries is an ingenious idea, though it's inevitably compromised by a Christian production company's imperative to affirm Yeshua's divinity. There's a specific moment when Risen stops being a procedural, when Clavius possibly prematurely abandons his investigatory skepticism. This is when his detective trail leads to a house where Yeshua, apparently alive, presides at a giddy gathering of his disciples. Clavius is understandably gobsmacked by the site, since he'd last seen Yeshua as a corpse, but there should still be room for skeptical suspense. After all, to this day people still speculate that there may have been a switcheroo somewhere, a lookalike dying in Jesus's place or an imposter passing for the risen Christ. The sight of Yeshua displaying his wounds for a not exactly doubting Thomas might preempt such doubt, especially in a more credulous age, but viewers may have developed enough respect for Clavius's intelligence by this point that they'd want to see him hold out a little longer. Instead, he follows the disciples to the Sea of Galilee after Yeshua pulls a vanishing act, in hope of meeting the living-dead man again in the disciples' old fishing ground.

Until that turning point, Risen is admirable for its unconventional presentation of a sacred story. I especially appreciated how the writers and actors transcend the performance cliches of Bible movies. You don't get the glassy-eyed heavenward gaze that often makes early cinematic Christians look brainwashed rather than converted. Instead, Clavius's first encounter with a disciple is with a rather goofy Bartholemew (Stephen Hagan) who seems to have been driven just a tiny bit crazy by the ecstatic news of Yeshua's return. There's a welcome consistent note of uncertainty among the disciples, since for all that the resurrection was prophesied, it's still hard for them to fathom in all its apocalyptic implications. It's fun to see an exasperated Simon Peter (Stewart Scudamore), probably still chagrined by his misadventure at Gethsemane, nearly go apeshit on Clavius when the Roman, startled awake by the disciple's offer of water, nearly hamstrings the big fisherman with his sword. You get the sense that these guys (and Mary Magdalene [Maria Botto], in her popular guise of former prostitute) are disciples, but not yet saints. As for their faith, Risen (like this year's Ben-Hur) soft-pedals Christianity as some vague philosophy of love, with no doctrinal strings attached that Clavius or the audience can see. That's probably necessary to attract as wide a Christian audience as possible, not to mention agnostics and secularists. I count myself in the latter category but I've always enjoyed Bible movies for their spectacle and have never felt threatened by their explicit or implicit messages. Risen is a perfectly unthreatening film, unless the mere reiteration of the Jesus story offends you. As a Bible movie fan, I appreciate this film's attempt to view familiar events from a fresh vantage point, if not from an actually different perspective.

Friday, October 21, 2016

UMRIKA (2015)

Indiana Jones is trapped on a rope bridge, with Mola Ram's minions closing from either end. His drastic solution is to cut the bridge in half and hang on for dear life. "Prepare to meet Kali ... in Hell," the hero tells Mola Ram -- at which point the audience in an Indian city starts throwing food and garbage at the screen. "Don't hurt Brother Amrish!" they yell, referring to the actor known elsewhere as Om Puri, who plays the villain in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It's just one of India's many conflicted encounters with American culture in Prashant Nair's film, which follows one village family from the 1970s -- it starts with Indira Gandhi's state of emergency -- through the 1980s. It's an era of promise that sees the village get electricity at long last, but that leads to the protagonist's father getting accidentally electrocuted. Still, a spirit of optimism prevailed, stoked by village scion Udai's journey to Umrika to make his fortune for his family. After a period of silence, letters begin arriving regularly, liberally illustrated with photos of the glamour and weirdness of American life. But after Udai's dad dies, as mentioned above, Udai's brother Ramakant (Suraj Sharma) discovers a guilty secret. Udai has actually written nothing since leaving; his father and uncle have been forging the letters and illustrating them with magazine clippings. Ramakant now embarks on a quest of his own to find out what became of his brother, targeting the fixer who was supposed to arrange for Udai's passage to Umrika.

If you're looking for an Indian's adventures in the U.S., find another film. Umrika is more about the idea of America in Indian minds and their identification of it with modernity, progress and a certain arrogant eccentricity. Nair is smart enough not to make his characters total marks for American culture. The heckling of Indy and some characters' skeptical discussion of the concept of Groundhog Day remind us that the Indians aren't total simpletons, though a certain naivete is necessary to fuel the drama. Ramakant's coming of age is fraught with disillusionments, but they aren't as melodramatic as a synopsis might suggest.  Nothing horrible has happened to Udai, it turns out, but that only underscores Ramakant's sense of disappointment while fueling his resolve to push forward where Udai fell short. Ramakant's determination finally creates a sense of real danger as he enters the Indian underworld and finally embarks on an uncertain journey to Umrika. If the film has been largely satiric, and sometimes sentimental, it closes on what seems to me a darker note as Ramakant and a shipping container full of would-be immigrants are loaded onto a freighter for the long voyage. Meanwhile, his mother and his village will continue to believe a myth, watching with adoration a videotape the brothers filmed together against a patently-fake Times Square backdrop, supposedly made in New York. Perhaps a sequel with an adequate budget will follow Ramakant to the U.S., but it's more likely that Prashant Nair has made his point already.

Monday, October 17, 2016

DVR Diary: SPEEDWAY (1929)

William Haines is a recognizable ancestor of the boy-men who continue to infest Hollywood, and as such he was one of the biggest stars of the late silent era. Sound and scandal snuffed out his career soon afterward, and the former alone might have done it -- Haines was gay and refused to go through with a studio-arranged marriage to cover it -- because, on the evidence of the talkies of his I've seen, his shtick came on too strong in sound. He is possibly at his most obnoxious in Harry Beaumont's racing melodrama, but his obnoxious qualities -- he seems to have been arrested in development at adolescence -- were packaged to be tolerable to movie audiences. The archetypal Haines story portrays him as arrogant and selfish, albeit with an innate harmless charisma that makes women warm to him, but while today's boy-men stop right there, Haines usually suffers some comeuppance that leads him to redeem if not necessarily mature himself. In Speedway he's part of the pit crew for Ernest Torrence's long-suffering Indy-car driver, a sort of savant with engines and ambitious to race himself yet neither very ambitious nor disciplined. In Indianapolis he spends most of his time hitting on Anita Page, who turns out to be an aviatrix and inflicts a comic comeuppance on our hero by taking him on a wild, ultimately destructive plane ride. Haines makes a spectacle of himself attempting to seduce her at a diner, and later stages a fake auto accident to get her attention. I guess the girls in these pictures are supposed to be bowled over by his good looks once they realize that he means no harm, but I don't know if I buy it.

Meanwhile, Haines grows estranged from father-figure Torrence, who hopes to finally win the 500 in his final race. Our hero is seduced himself by John Miljan's dirty driver, Torrence's longtime rival, who promises that Haines can drive his car in the big race but only wants the naive young man to soup up his engine. The melodrama really kicks in when Torrence's doctor tells him his heart won't last 500 miles. With Haines now allied with his enemy, Torrence has to hand the wheel to his other pit man, Karl Dane. Miljan reclaims his car just before the race, and when Dane can't hack it as a driver, Torrence pulls a switcheroo and lets Haines drive for him. Most of the film was shot on location and while this is no Ben-Hur with motors there are a few money shots of Haines and Miljan driving on the actual race track. Haines overcomes a four-lap deficit, and just as he's poised to pull away he fakes an eye injury in an act of filial piety, the idea being to let Torrence finish the race and take the long-coveted checkered flag. This he does, only to pass out in the winner's circle, but the film isn't so melodramatic that it will kill the man off. Speedway was Haines' last silent film -- he had already spoken on screen -- and it's enlivened by racing sound effects in place of music during the climax. It is not the picture to explain Haines' appeal to modern viewers, but I don't know if any of his films can explain it now. As a very late silent, premiering in the fall of 1929, it was destined to the memory hole, but unlike some other Haines vehicles from this period, at least Speedway survives to play sometimes on Turner Classic Movies. It's arguably even more obsolete than many late silents when you consider that within five years of its release William Haines was finished as an actor and Ernest Torrence and Karl Dane were dead.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

On the Big Screen: SHIN GODZILLA (Shin Gojira, 2016)

In an alternate universe, Hollywood's second film in its latest attempt at a Godzilla franchise is due in 2018. In the real world, Toho studios returned to the game it invented this past summer with a picture modestly entitled "New Godzilla." It's as new as a New Godzilla can get, since if I'm not mistaken this is the first film since the 1954 not in continuity with that film. That is, Shin Godzilla shows the ever-popular kaiju attacking Tokyo for the first time in the year 2016. That's a big part of its novelty as envisioned by screenwriter and co-director Hideaki Anno. He and co-director Shinji Highuchi are fascinated by the idea of 21st century Japanese society, and especially its government bureaucracy, confronting a "giant unidentified creature" without any precedent. It allows them to reconstruct many of the old monster-movie tropes from scratch, with what strikes me as a new touch of satire. The first half of the film in particular may make American audiences impatient with all the bureaucratic conferences and talking heads, no matter how the directors try to keep things lively with whipcrack editing. Shin is a kind of apocalyptic procedural, and a quick Google search just now shows that I wasn't the only person who felt a resemblance to another movie that would fit that description: Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964). I don't know whether either of the filmmakers have acknowledged any debt to Lumet, but little details like intercom conversations between heads of governments, with translators standing by, and a brief mention of a theoretical nuclear strike on New York City make me wonder. Ultimately it's a trivial question, since Anno and Higuchi do an admirable job giving their Godzilla film its own identity.

Theirs is a new Godzilla in this sense, too: when you first see it, you won't be sure what the hell you're looking at. It seems that this sea creature has been chowing down on nuclear waste in the vicinity of good old Ohdo Island for the last 60 years before deciding to explore Japan, and it takes him a while to get his land legs. He crawls ashore, creating waves of boats, cars and trucks in his wake as he putters along, looking very little like his traditional self in this almost larval state. He finally hauls himself to his feet on the side of a tall building, only to immediately flop again. The poor creature seems to have a puppet face grafted onto a CGI body, but he soon outgrows this. He proves capable of auto-mutation and quickly becomes more or less bipedal, plus tail. He's still pretty wobbly, though, and you can believe that the Self-Defense Force could have taken him out if not for two stragglers, one on the other's back, getting in the way when they should have been evacuated. The Prime Minister, terrified of collateral damage, scratches what proves the last best chance to nip the creature in the bud.

In effect, Godzilla -- so the Americans have called him, having learned of a creature living near Ohdo Island years earlier, though the Japanese quickly correct this -- can program himself to grow. After slinking back into the ocean, he returns in much larger, more familiar form. He's still rather ropey looking, with perhaps his tiniest hands ever and quite the snaggletoothed and largely immobile face, but you'd definitely call him Godzilla, or Gojira if you insist. Now the full might of the SDF is unleashed on him, but from bullets to bombs they have no effect. It takes an American bunker-buster to get to the monster, and that only makes him mad. In the film's most outlandishly original moment -- one that drew applause from the monster-loving crowd at my local theater -- Godzilla unloads with not only laser breath but tail lasers and dorsal fin lasers, shredding large parts of the capital and nearly wiping out the government. Fortunately, even though the creature is a living nuclear reactor, he can't quite go all night and now needs to rest.

The last phase of the picture is a race against time as a team of malcontents and renegades led by fast-rising bureaucrat Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) rushes to perfect their wild plan to freeze the monster from the inside out before the UN, pressed by the US, Russia and China, greenlights a preemptive thermonuclear strike on Tokyo. This isn't as dire as threat as it could have been since Godzilla's dormancy gives the Japanese a fortnight-window to evacuate the city and a conscientious world pledges massive contributions to reconstruction, but the Japanese understandably resent the idea of taking yet another atomic hit. For that matter, so does our hero's American liaison, a Japanese-American U.S. Senator's daughter (Satomi Ishihara) whose grandmother survived the Hiroshima bomb. She has ambitions of becoming the first Asian-American President, but Americans viewers can't avoid noticing that the actress doesn't sound like a native English speaker. No matter. While there's plenty of (again) understandable bristling at American domination throughout Shin Godzilla, the filmmakers don't try to demonize all Americans and shows the military willing to help out crucially in the alternate plan. The big finish is epic stuff in which the city of Tokyo is virtually weaponized, the very buildings claiming payback against their tormentor. Maybe I'm a mark for "destruction porn," but I found it one of the best action sequences I've seen in a while. It was fun to root against Godzilla for once, other audience members notwithstanding, and it was exhilarating to see Yaguchi's plan come together against the odds after Godzilla had come to seem, well, godlike in his invincibility. Despite many dry moments -- I imagine an actual American edition, as opposed to the subtitled original playing limited engagements this week, would cut out a lot of the bureaucratic satire -- and despite some initial difficulty trying to follow two layers of subtitles, one for the dialogue, another for all the Japanese on-screen subtitles identifying characters, weaponry, etc., Shin Godzilla is a fun film for monster-movie fans, happily unencumbered by the mundane character arcs that burdened the most recent American Godzilla, despite its virtues. It's a textbook reboot, proving that something like the original narrative could be made fresh again after all these years.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Lee Hae-young's picture belongs to a subgenre popularized if not invented by Guillermo del Toro: the fascist gothic. The year is 1938 and the setting is Japanese-occupied Korea. Cha Ju-Ran (Park Bo-yong) is the tubercular daughter of a privileged family that has dumped her in a boarding school while they go to Japan, which is apparently where all ambitious Koreans want to go. Like all the students -- like all Koreans, I assume -- Ju-Ran is given a Japanese name, Shizuko, which makes things awkward with her new classmates, on top of all the travails of the new girl,  because there had just been a Shizuko there who went away abruptly. There's a heavy emphasis on athletics at the school, because the two top athletes will go to Japan. Those who know history might think this has something to do with the 1940 Olympics that were supposed to take place in Tokyo, as Koreans would compete under the Japanese flag as they had in previous Games. But there's something more to it than that, and that something moves the film away from its gothic trappings and toward the realm of Marvel Comics movies.

In a twist strongly reminiscent of origin stories told about the Black Widow, it turns out that the school is trying to create super-soldiers, the gimme being that teenage girls are the ideal test subjects for the wonder drugs that will do the job. The effects on Ju-Ran are miraculous. On her first day of track and field she can't even make it to the end of the long jump track without succumbing to a coughing fit. After some treatments she proves a prize pupil, leaping far past the pit. But she doesn't like what's happening to her and her schoolmates, or what the treatments are making her do to others. When she and her one real friend try to escape, and the friend comes to a bad end, she likes it even less. That sets up the inevitable reckoning with the headmistress and the Japanese soldiers behind her.

Overall, The Silenced -- the generic English title hardly approximates the original "Gyeongseong School: The Lost Girls" -- manages the balancing act of mixing gothic horror and comic-book sci-fi by maintaining an overall mood of mystery and dread that should carry the viewer through the presumably preposterous moments. Inevitably the story must resonate more with Korean audiences still conscious of the history of Japanese rule, while the contempt some characters express for Korea must have made those audiences almost as queasy as the more violent moments. It's an allegory for both the nation's exploitation by the colonial occupier and the latent power that would make South Korea a global economic competitor later in the 20th century. For the rest of us its a modest hybrid picture that manages somehow to transcend its derivative nature through an earnest lead performance and an indispensable willingness to take itself seriously as if all its ideas were new.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Andrzej Wajda (1926-2016)

Wajda, arguably Poland's greatest filmmaker, died on October 9 at age 90, just one month after his latest film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. He made his name in the 1950s with a series of grim, gritty war movies. He became a chronicler of Polish history, including (at his own risk) the history-in-the-making of the early 1980s. Lech Walesa played himself in Wajda's Man of Iron, and was the subject of a Wajda biopic thirty years later. When things got too hot Wajda became an international (albeit European) filmmaker, his most notable product of exile being the French Revolutionary drama Danton. With the end of the Cold War the west seemed to lose interest in him but international acclaim returned with his 2007 picture Katyn, a further settling of scores with the Russians who oppressed his country. His last film, Afterimage, appears to be a vindication of art against the claims of Marxist-Leninism through a painter's struggle against Socialist Realist orthodoxy. Despite living under Communism for much of his career, Wajda still created a formidable body of work within Poland, which was perhaps more liberal toward art than other Warsaw Pact countries. His best work, one hopes, will transcend ideology over time. I've reviewed a few Wajda movies over the years, so follow the links to learn more about Kanal, Promised Land, Man of Marble, Man of Iron, Danton and Katyn. I hope you'll then go on to look at some of the actual films by this great director.