Saturday, December 9, 2017

On the Big Screen: THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

THE OREGON TRAIL (1959)

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


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


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


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

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


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

Saturday, December 2, 2017

DVR Diary: THUNDER BAY (1953)

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

RED PEONY GAMBLER: GAMBLER'S OBLIGATION (1968)

Junko Fuji starred as Oryu, the Red Peony, in a series of eight films from the Toei Studio from 1967 to 1971. These are romanticized yakuza films of the sort that might have made Kinji Fukasaku vomit in his mouth. At the least, they make a distinction between good yakuza, the sort who run honest gambling parlors, and the less savory sort who, as in this second installment, prey on ordinary people through loan sharking and running sweatshops. The setting is the "Middle Meiji period," approximately the turn of the 20th century, so that characters use pistols, telephones and other nearly modern devices and a contrast can be drawn between people who go too modern, like this film's big-bad who goes back and forth between Japanese and western dress, and characters like Oryu who, despite her pistol, embody traditional values in their dress and demeanor.Oryu is a yakuza and, in theory at least, the oyabun of a clan inherited from her father, but unlike some women of the milieu, she doesn't flaunt her outlaw identity but dresses and behaves modestly, until forced into violent action. She can shoot, stab, slash and do judo throws like a champion, but while she travels around learning the gambler's trade and the ways of honorable yakuza, she remains somewhat ashamed of her vocation. She doesn't show off her yakuza tattoos, and only displays them to a female friend in this picture in order to warn her, in effect, "Don't end up like me." Badass Oryu may be, but like many wandering heroes of Japanese cinema, her life often seems like a curse, or at least an unhappy destiny.


Gambler's Obligation is helmed by cult director Norifumi Suzuki, who gives the proceedings plenty of widescreen panache. Oryu's having a good time as the film starts, working for the benign oyabun Togazaki and merrily banging a festival drum as the opening credits roll. A skilled gambler, she's able to shut down the winning streak of Oren (Mari Shiraki), a tattoo-flaunting women who recurs through the picture as a road-not-taken version of Oryu herself. Togazaki sends Oryu away for her own good when he decides to deal with his wicked rival Kasamatsu, which allows this sequel to reintroduce the comedy-relief yakuza clan from the first film, headed by Tomisaburo Wakayama. When Togazaki the elder is killed in the battle, Oryu returns to help the old man's son and daughter-in-law hold on to their businesses as Kasamatsu, backed by the quietly menacing Shiraishi (Bunta Sugawara), muscles in. Acquiring her own little band of followers along the way, Oryu travels to Tokyo to plead the Togazaki cause with a yakuza conclave, but the tide seems to be flowing inexorably against them.


This film does a good job establishing Kasamatsu as a real scumbag villain. He invites Oryu to decide the Togazakis' future in a dice game, with Oren as his proxy, whom he forces to cheat. Naturally, Oryu catches her at it, and Kasamatsu has the hapless woman beaten viciously for it. Then he does some additional cheating, convincing Togazaki's wife that her husband, whose liberation from prison has already been arranged by Oryu, can only be freed by her signing away the family carriage business -- and submitting to rape. She ends up disgraced, and poor Togazaki ends up getting killed after everything everyone's done for him. That only means it's time for Oryu to settle accounts with all the bad guys.


While the Japanese clearly liked badass fighting heroines before they really became a thing in the U.S., Gambler's Obligation doesn't quite go as far as fans might expect or hope. Everything seemed to point toward a battle between Oryu and the Bunta Sugawara character, but the way things actually play out makes you suspect that someone at Toei didn't think audiences would buy Junko Fuji beating Bunta in a fight. Instead, they bring in Koji Tsuruta in a glorified cameo as a good-guy interloper with his own reasons for fighting Kasamtasu. He gets to kill Bunta, while he and Fuji share in finishing off Kasamatsu before a random enemy blows him away, since Oryu does need to be the last person standing when the smoke clears. Despite this disappointment, Fuji certainly more than holds up her end of the action while lending her character the swan-necked dignity and superficial stoicism Oryu requires.


This first sequel ends on a sad note as Oryu returns to the site of the opening-credits festival. Many of her fellow celebrants are dead now, and it's a lonely climb to the tower where she beat the drum so happily before. Now she beats it again in mourning for all the friends she's lost, if not also for the hope for a normal life that seems just a little more lost now. Earlier, the Tsuruta character had explained to her the history of her rival Oren and her lover. They seem to lead a miserable life, but Tsuruta observes, almost with a note of envy, that they'll never leave each other. If in some ways Oren seems like an Oryu gone wrong, the film suggests that, despite all Oren suffers, she has something Oryu doesn't and may never have. There are many films to go in this series, but I doubt that this will change.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

UNDER PRESSURE (1935)

Borden Chase is known as a writer of western screenplays, most notably for Anthony Mann, but when he was getting his start in pulp fiction his first specialty was virtually his own subgenre, based on his own experiences as a "sandhog" on  work crews digging tunnels under rivers. In the pages of the weekly Argosy, starting in 1934, Chase described the dangerous work of the mighty tunnel men, who worked in pressurized air that made them vulnerable to the bends but protected them -- most of the time -- from the crushing flood of the waters surrounding them. He broke into movies adapting his Argosy serial East River, which had already been picked up by Fox Film at the time of the first installment's appearance in October 1934. That issue announced on its cover that East River would soon appear onscreen with Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe in the lead roles. Just four months later, Under Pressure hit theaters. For all I know, Chase had sold Fox an original screenplay and then adapted it into a serial novel, with help from Edward Doherty.


The main characters seem tailor-made for McLaglen and Lowe's long-established battling-bros screen personae, dating back to the blockbuster war comedy What Price Glory (1926), a lip-readers delight that spawned a series of Pre-Code sequels that saw the stars wreak havoc around the world. Here as there, the stars play ball-busting he-men for whom friendship is indistinguishable from angry rivalry for accolades or ladies' attention. Their sandhogs are working from one end of the East River as another team, led by an even greater asshole (Charles Bickford), vies for the prestige of meeting in the middle first. There's not much plot beyond that. If anything, the screenplay is more episodic than the pulp serial, a 72 minute feature necessarily being but a digest of the novel.


Above, Edmund Lowe kayoes a dues-paying Ward Bond.
That makes him credible when Victor McLaglen threatens to throw down with him (below).



The sandhogs -- a racially integrated workforce, though the blacks (in Argosy, Chase identifies them as Senegalese) are segregated into specific grunt-labor roles -- struggle to avoid a catastrophic "blow" resulting from a tunnel leak, while an intrepid girl reporter (Florence Rice) befriends our main men after rescuing a co-worker from an attack of the bends. Naturally, Jumbo (McLaglen) and Shocker (Lowe) jostle for position with the reporter, though it's clear enough that Jumbo's heart ultimately belongs to Amy Hardcastle (Marjorie Rambeau), who runs a tavern catering to sandhogs. Ultimately, Jumbo's recklessness gives him a nearly-crippling case of the bends, which he conceals from his men to keep up their confidence. After all, he doesn't need two good legs for the last part of the process, which requires him to dig away at a wall of dirt with his bare hands, almost like a dog, to force his way into Bickford's tunnel before the hated rival does the opposite. In fact, Bickford gets through first, but is promptly put back through his hole, McLaglen following to deliver the coup de grace.


Under Pressure isn't considered a major film in Raoul Walsh's filmography, but he gives the picture both the punch efficiency the story requires and a convincingly cramped and sweaty atmosphere in the tunnel scenes. More credit arguably belongs to whoever was responsible for the art direction that helps how dangerous the workplace is for the sandhogs. Walsh, the director of What Price Glory and two sequels, was an old hand with McLaglen and Lowe, who are just what they need to be here and no more -- but maybe a little less, in the period of Code Enforcement. The only really uncomfortable aspect of the picture is Walsh's employment of black extras for a bit of eye-rolling comedy relief that I don't recall in the original serial, which tended to portray the Senegalese as silent but stalwart. You get used to stuff like that when you're a fan of Thirties films, of course, and if that describes you I think you'll find Under Pressure a modest spectacle in a novel setting that preserves much of the pulpy flavor of the original story. It doesn't necessarily point to the Borden Chase of the great western screenplays, but unless you're an auteurist that shouldn't be a big deal.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) in SPOILERVISION

It's not that bad as a whole, but to be honest, the first half-hour of Zack Snyder's new film, with credited co-writing and uncredited reshoots by Joss Whedon, is awful: a jumble of scenes attempting to establish an important trait of parademons (the bug-winged creatures Batman [Ben Affleck] saw in his Dawn of Justice nightmare); remind us urgently that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) exists; and remind us more clumsily that the world is worse for the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in the aforementioned Snyder production. Nothing really flows together and you might believe that several films, not just the Snyder and Whedon footage, had been awkwardly spliced into something crudely approximating a feature film. Nor are things helped much by the introduction of the film's villain. Steppenwolf, here embarking on his second stab at world conquest after millennia of dormancy, is a relatively minor character in Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" mythos, which few at DC Comics have really known what to do with since the King laid down his pencil. His presence here looks like a hedging of bets, as if Snyder, co-writer Chris Terrio and DC producer Geoff Johns didn't want to waste Kirby's actual big bad, the oft-misused Darkseid, on this particular movie and chose Steppenwolf as his proxy. No effort was made to give this substitute villain any personality beyond his generic lust for conquest, but I suppose you could argue that the villain of this piece was never meant to be anything more than a Macguffin, since the real story of Justice League is the formation of DC's in-print precursor and cinematic answer to Marvel's Avengers. Picking up the hints dropped like anchors in the last film, Batman and Wonder Woman set out to recruit the three supposed superbeings discovered by Lex Luthor's researchers: Arthur "The Aquaman" Curry (Jason Momoa), the bastard child of Atlantean royalty and quite the strongman on land; Barry "Flash" Allen (Ezra Miller), the young Central City speedster; and Victor "Cyborg" Stone (Ray Fisher), a man now more than half machine desperately trying to keep up with his evolving alien technology. The real purpose of this movie is to get you interested enough in these three to seek out their solo films as they appear, beginning with next year's Aquaman.

The results are mixed. All three actors succeeded in making their characters interesting, and they establish decent chemistry with each other and the established heroes. But I still question whether any of them can carry a feature film by today's standard of what such films should be. The future of the DC movie franchise now rests on the shoulders of Jason Momoa, and I'm glad to report that, liberated from his grim typecasting, the actor gives easily the best performance I've ever seen from him. But I still doubt whether whatever good will he's earned will make people interested in exploring DC's Atlantis, all too little of which was shown here apart from introducing Aquaman's eventual love interest Mera (Amber Heard). As Cyborg, Ray Fisher does probably as good as anyone could do with Marv Wolfman's character, making him sardonically bitter rather than self-pitying and adding a certain coldness that inclines the character to agree with Batman much of the time. But Cyborg has always been a hard sell as the black face of the DC Comics universe since Geoff Johns gave him that role by putting the character in his "New 52" era Justice League. Popular though he may be as one of Wolfman and George Perez's Teen Titans, Cyborg never seems to have clicked as a solo character despite Johns and other writers' stubborn efforts, and he has so little personal mythos that I find myself wondering what on earth a Cyborg movie would be about. Meanwhile, the development of a Flash movie is an ongoing nightmare for Warner Bros. Laboring in the shadow of the popular CW TV series, which automatically begs that question of what a feature film can do differently other than spend more money, the project can't hold on to a director as everyone struggles to fine-tune the property. The one thing different about Miller's Flash so far is his relative youth and his jittery Spider-Manic personality that makes him Justice League's comedy relief character. I thought Miller was likable enough to get away with it here, but I don't know if he can carry his own movie doing the same stuff. I'd be happy to see all of these guys again in another Justice League film, but despite this film's post-credit scene there are no immediate plans for another that I know of, and the drubbing the film is getting from Snyderphobic reviewers is unlikely to speed the day of their return.

I probably should talk about the story some more. The plot is right out of a serial: an artifact hunt. If Steppenwolf gets all the artifacts he can activate "the Unity," which won't be a good thing for anybody. Despite their being salted away on Atlantis, Themyscira and ... somewhere Cyborg knows about, he gets them. Fortunately, the good guys had just used that last one to resurrect their old pal Superman who, acting true to comic-book form, starts fighting them until Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and tells him that the sun's getting real low, or something along those lines. Honestly, though, even in comics if Superman is messed up and not behaving right, mind-controlled, amnesiac or whatever, Lois is your best antidote. There was this one comic where to snap Superman out of Poison Ivy's mind-control, Batman has Catwoman throw Lois off a building, or at least that's how I remember it. But I digress. Anyway, Supes still needs some work in the shop so Lois takes him back for (ahem) debriefing in Smallville while the rest of the gang goes to some Sokovia-like place where Steppenwolf, his Unity and his army of parademons make life miserable for one humble family -- to, you know, make the situation more real for us, I guess. Determined that this shall not stand, the as-yet-unnamed Justice League -- I think the only person who actually describes them as a "league" is Lex Luthor (our old friend Jesse Eisenberg) in a post-credits secene -- go about delaying the bad guy until Superman is cleared for action, after which point there's really no contest.

Sounds stupid, right? Well, it kind of is, but while this is regrettably one of those films where the whole is less than the sum of its parts, a lot of those parts are quite entertaining. While Fisher, Miller and Momoa held up their end of the deal, Affleck, Cavill and Gadot were once more their reliable selves, though our Batman is much more mild-mannered than in his last appearance, to a degree that's left some again questioning his commitment to the franchise. I actually liked the change of pace and the way some things (like Bruce Wayne's whiskey-swilling) remained the same. So the acting was fine, apart from the helpless Ciaran Hinds, tasked with voicing Steppenwolf. As one might expect from Zack Snyder, some of the action is spectacular. The highlights include an extended battle on Themyscira as the Amazons run a desperate relay race to keep their artifact from Steppenwolf; a flashback establishing Steppenwolf's backstory featuring a super-epic battle pitting Amazons, Atlanteans, Olympian gods, Green Lanterns, etc. against old-timey parademons; and the guilty pleasure of the JL's brawl with the reawakened Superman, who seems capable of matching the Flash's speed (Miller sells this wonderfully) and trading head-butts with Wonder Woman all day. For all its many flaws, the film ultimately entertains. I'd reverse the conventional reviewer consensus and contend that Justice League is marginally worse than Dawn of Justice, and almost the weakest of this year's good crop of superhero movies -- after a second viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I'm inclined to leave that at the bottom. Snyder and Whedon have done Warner Bros. no great favors as far as Friday morning reviewers are concerned, but I close with the observation that at my half-full multiplex screening the audience applauded the film.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

On the Big Screen: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

After an unlikely period as a director of high-profile tentpole pictures -- Thor, Jack Ryan, Cinderella -- Kenneth Branagh returns to more personal filmmaking with this new adaptation of Agatha Christie's beloved novel, previously filmed to great effect by Sidney Lumet in 1974. It's a more personal picture this time because, unlike those recent efforts, this one stars Kenneth Branagh, following in the prominent footsteps of Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, and the deeper tracks of David Suchet, by taking on the role of Christie's fussy Belgian, Hercule Poirot. For that you need an accent and a moustache. Branagh's Poirot accent -- I don't know whether it can be described accurately as a Belgian accent -- is at least superior to his attempts at an American accent; he's one of the few British actors who can't really do that well. It's with the moustache that Branagh really tries to differentiate himself from past Poirots. Certainly the preemptive favorite for the Best Moustache Oscar, should that category suddenly come into being, it's big, brown and bristly where the typical Poirot look is small, black and oily. As the years tell on the former boy-wonder actor-director, you wonder sometimes whether this is a Poirot mystery or The Sam Elliott Story. Ultimately, however, there's no mistaking the familiar story of a murder with a seemingly ever-expanding number of likely suspects, and if you've seen the Lumet movie (I have) or read the Christie original (I haven't) the only suspense the new film offers is whether Branagh's writer, Michael Green -- who was very busy this year with Wolverine, Alien and Blade Runner sequels -- would dare change Christie's ending. Spoiler alert: he doesn't.

That leaves it up to Branagh and his cast of actors to make the story fresh in other ways. There are some stabs at progressive casting that let Penelope Cruz and Leslie Odom Jr. into the picture, but only Willem Dafoe as the Pinkerton man (with an extra level of imposture) is arguably an improvement over his 1974 predecessor. The other actors aren't bad, though Michelle Pfeiffer goes maybe too far over the top, but as a director of actors Branagh, for all his Shakespearean experience, is no Sidney Lumet. He proves that further by indulging in overblown camera movements in an effort to give what should be an economically staged story -- apart from the Orient Express's necessarily luxurious furnishings -- a quasi-epic feel. If two characters are chatting in a boxcar, he'll have the camera hovering at some distance, and then he'll have it rise from below, or descend from above. Toward the end he rolls out a long shot following Poirot through a number of train cars, but it only reminds you that he'd done a much more impressive tracking shot in his debut film, Henry V, nearly thirty years ago. He even gives Poirot a Bond-style prologue as a mystery-solving peacemaker in the Old City of Jerusalem, and for all we know, given the nod toward Death on the Nile at the very end, he may have a franchise in mind, if audiences demand it. The theater where I saw the film is a neighborhood arthouse where the audience skews older, and there was a healthy crowd for a second matinee on a cold November afternoon, but I doubt the houses will look the same at the multiplexes. If he wants and gets another chance at Poirot I'd recommend that Branagh not go for the pre-sold titles but look for stories that have not been filmed as theatrical features. His Murder is not a bad film by any means, but in the end it did nothing to make me forget the Lumet film or what I knew to expect from the Christie mystery. But as someone who remembers a 43 year old movie fondly, perhaps I wasn't this film's target audience. Maybe those who know nothing of Agatha Christie or Sidney Lumet are the ones who'll rightly decide this film or this franchise's fate.