Tuesday, September 19, 2017

INVASION 1897 (2014)

How much should you hold limited resources against an ambitious filmmaker? If his resources aren't adequate to the requirements of his vision, or to conventional standards of verisimilitude, should he even bother with the project? To put it differently, is there any way to discuss the possible artistic merits of Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen's patriotic epic without bringing up his hilariously horrendous costuming of his 19th century British soldiers? Imasuen is a typically prolific "Nollywood" director from a national film industry now increasingly represented in the Netflix streaming library. IMDB hasn't been able to keep up with his output; looking there, you'd think Invasion 1897 had killed his career. An unforgiving eye would think that just desserts. Imasuen wants to show the last stand of the Kingdom of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria) against British imperialism, describing its ruler (Mike Omoregbee) inaccurately (the Negus of Ethiopia says hello) as "the last African king." Were he a director in an authoritarian country, he might have gotten the resources -- money, costumes, extras -- such a story requires, but Nollywood directors are largely on their own, as far as I can tell. Authentic uniforms or authentic-looking Britons were beyond his reach. He appears to have rented the next best things -- to uniforms, that is -- from some costume store, with no regard possible for how they fit his white "actors," none of whom, as a matter of grooming, looks remotely like a 19th century British soldier. Worst of all, the costumes clearly weren't meant to help anyone pass for a soldier. The blatant, apparently irremovable "Anarchy" patches (complete with circle-A logo) suggest that they were made for some rock or punk band, if not simply for goofy parties. Is it possible to take Invasion seriously with this glaring handicap constantly recurring?

Note Anarchy patch on the soldier in white, amid the spectacle of British headquarters,
including a portable radio in 1897!

The best answer is maybe, if Imasuen were as ambitious in form as he is in content and could make genuinely creative use of anachronism. Unfortunately, he's extremely conventional in some ways and a vulgar sensationalist in others. I was about to write that he begins Invasion in most conventional fashion, with a framing sequence, but then I remembered that the film actually begins with an absolutely gratuitous beheading scene, highlighted with a lingering shot of blood spurting from the decapitated neck. Then we get the framing sequence, set in modern London, where Igie (Charles Venn) studies African history and learns that the famous Benin art treasures captured by the British were the kingdom's way of recording its history. This realization inspires him to break into a museum in a failed attempt to confiscate some of the bronzes and other sculptures. He pleads not guilty to attempted theft at his trial, daring the court to prove that the treasures had been sold or freely given to the museum by their original owners. These purely modern scenes are easily the most competently shot, and for what it's worth, they allow Imasuen to disclaim racial animus by giving Igie a sympathetic white girlfriend (Annika Alfoti).

The main body of the film is Igie's evidence for the theft of the Benin treasures. Benin is suffering hard times before the British get aggressive, as people seem to be dropping dead en masse while the king (or Oba) seems increasingly detached from reality. The Oba is as much a spiritual figure as a temporal ruler, and the film shows him and his inner circle experiencing a portentous vision, as a long-departed elder predicts doom for the kingdom. Meanwhile, the British show increasing disrespect to the Oba, finally provoking the massacre of a small unit that provides the pretext for a full-scale invasion.

To be fair, Imasuen makes good use of the one impressive prop he had, a gunboat that looks appropriately menacing, packed with Britons and native auxiliaries (in better looking uniforms) as it motors into Benin territory. He gets even better service out of it in the best single shot of the picture, a long take of the deposed Oba orating about the transience of victory and the mortality of all men as the boat takes him into exile. The rest of it is an ill-paced, overlong mess at less than two hours, turgidly punctuated with meandering dialogue scenes in which the Oba's retainers react with great deliberation to his latest utterances or the latest bad news from the front lines. Worse still are any scenes requiring British soldiers to talk to each other. Interlarded throughout are battle scenes showing superior British firepower -- illustrated with bargain-basement CGI explosions and flames -- occasionally outmatched by Bini mastery of native terrain. The sporadic mayhem keeps things somewhat lively, especially when the Binis get to use edged weapons, but the only real momentum comes from the Oba's seeming spiral into madness. Almost as an afterthought, British soldiers are shown stuffing the art treasures into sacks. If any flaw of many here can be singled out as fatal, it's probably Imasuen's failure to develop any character into a proper hero on whom we can focus our attention. Maybe there was none, and maybe it's to Imasuen's credit that for all his clear cultural patriotism, he doesn't really idealize Benin. But his rough approach to the subject leaves it little more than a bunch of bad stuff that happened, with the added moral that white men back then had a bad habit of going where they weren't wanted.

Returning at last to modern times, we learn that Igie's narrative, for which the main body of the film stands in, was enough to get the judge to drop the charges against him and advise him to contact the International Court of Justice. As his supporters celebrate his freedom, including his gone-native girlfriend, one can't help wondering whether simply having Igie tell the story in the courtroom would have been a better movie.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


For most of my life I've lived near Schenectady NY, and for a couple of years I actually lived in the Electric City. Naturally enough, when Theodore Kaczynski was arrested in 1996 on suspicion of being the Unabomer, the big story on our local news was the crucial role his brother David, then a Schenectady resident, played in cracking the case. David became an almost tragic hero, feeling compelled to turn in his brother, having recognized similarities between "F.C.'s" correspondence and Ted's letters, despite his fear, both as a sibling and a principled opponent of capital punishment, that Ted would be put to death. National media told pretty much the same story, and one of the last scenes of the Discovery Channel's eight-part miniseries shows David (Mark Duplass) being fawned over by reporters after Ted (Paul Bettany) pleads guilty to the attacks. The message of Manhunt: Unabomber, however, is that the media had lionized the wrong man -- not because David didn't do a very important thing, but because David's information might well have proved meaningless had not another man provided the theoretical framework for cracking the case. That man, seen departing the court house almost sulkily, ignored by the clueless press, was James "Fitz" Fitzgerald (Sam Worthington), for all intents and purposes the inventor of the field of linguistic forensics. His great contribution to the investigation was to emphasize the fundamental importance of UNABOM's writings, culminating in the manifesto "Industrial Society and its Future," in identifying the man who had killed or maimed two dozen people in his criminal career. Fitzgerald's theory was crucial, so the miniseries shows, in convincing a judge to issue the search warrant that enabled investigators to find more decisively incriminating material evidence in Ted Kaczynski's cabin in the Montana woods. For all this Fitzgerald earned little glory, after an ordeal that left him nearly as alienated against institutions, if not society in general, as his murderous quarry.

Conceived by Andrew Sodroski, directed by Greg Yaitanes, and loaded with producer credits including Fitzgerald himself and Kevin Spacey, Manhunt: Unabomber focuses on Fitz's role in the investigation. In interviews, Fitzgerald has described the miniseries as 80% accurate, while describing the onscreen Fitz as a composite character. In other words, onscreen Fitz does some important things that Fitzgerald never did. The writers, for instance, totally made up an early framing device that shows Fitz being summoned from almost-Kaczynskian isolation to try to persuade Kaczynski himself to plead guilty and thus avoid a trial that could prove embarrassing in more ways than one. These scenes are the some of the weakest in the whole miniseries because they're obviously intended to evoke a Lecter-Starling relationship between Kaczynski and Fitz, toying with the idea that Fitz agrees with some of Ted's ideas to a more than healthy extent. Taken as a whole, the earliest episodes are the worst because they also depend on the cliche of the insightful agent to whom no one will listen, apparently because everyone in the FBI hierarchy is an idiot. Fitz's superiors focus unimaginatively on physical evidence and a half-baked profile that infers the bomber's identity entirely from his choice of targets. Presented with the bomber's typewritten threatening letters, they want to know what sort of typewriter he used, but couldn't care less about what the letters actually say. Fitz believes that something more important can be learned from the letter writer's quirks of spelling and vocabulary, his idioms and the way he structures his texts. But no one will believe him! Oh, the fools!

Manhunt rights itself once it abandons the early non-linear format and goes into procedural mode. It gains momentum as the investigation gains momentum, as Fitz's colleagues slowly warm to his ideas and the letters provided by an initially reluctant David Kaczynski provide the key to the door Fitz posited. Fitz is shown traveling to Schenectady to cajole David into giving up the letters, after the younger Kaczynski had been assured by another agent -- on dubious grounds -- that Ted could not be F.C. I get the impression that that meeting never happened, but what else is new? For the sake of narrative economy, TV and movies often show one hero doing the actual work of many people, and I suppose you could argue for a certain thematic authenticity to the meeting that justifies the artistic license.

Before the arrest, Manhunt backtracks to finally showcase Paul Bettany in an episode recounting Ted Kaczynski's spiral into lethal alienation. While young Ted has a legitimate grievance against a Harvard mentor who subjected him to government-funded brainwashing experiments, he is shown to be hopelessly alienated from society for most-likely deeper reasons. He's capable of casually befriending fellow library patrons in his Montana community, but can't bring himself to accept an invitation to a birthday party for a teenage boy he'd been informally tutoring. If you, like some people, sympathize with Kaczynski's anti-institutional thinking, you might find this flashback episode one big ad hominem argument, but most people probably will see it as a misfit blaming society for his alienation when the causes are more likely irreducibly personal. I'm sure many people like to think that they could get along with others more easily if society were ordered differently, or if all societal rules were overturned, but my suspicion (as a relatively alienated person myself) is that blaming society for personal alienation is to put the cart before the horse. In any event, Bettany, taking a break from his main gig as The Vision in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, does a decent job talking American and a better one portraying Kaczynski's alienation and ultimate weakness in the face of stronger personalities. Determined to make a stand in defense of his principles rather than accept an insanity defense, he folds under mental intimidation from both Fitz and his own defense attorney (a swiftly devastating Rebecca Henderson), who tells Ted that if he isn't insane, she wouldn't know who is. Having hoped for a Hitler-like opportunity to turn public opinion in his favor, Ted's pre-sentencing statement sputters to a pathetic halt.

While Jim Fitzgerald was one among many producers of Manhunt, its ultimate portrait of Fitz is fairly unflattering. The idea that Fitz might feel any affinity for Ted as a victim, in his own mind, of institutional thinking only makes Fitz looks like a self-pitying jerk. While that may be an accidental impression, there's no mistaking the miniseries' intention to portray Fitz as a tunnel-visioned narcissist whose obsession with the case, and his desire to win credit for cracking it, ruins his relationships with women, including his wife, a sympathetic colleague and a potential new love interest. I don't know whether Fitzgerald signed off on that, but I don't know either whether it's a personal reflection on the actual man or just the cliched presentation of the obsessively flawed hero. While Manhunt freely invents encounters that never happened, it can't avoid the facts that render its conclusion anticlimactic. The early framing device and Kaczynski's post-arrest brainstorming have set up the idea that he will challenge the credibility of Fitz's linguistic forensics in an effort to  the quash the search warrant on which all other evidence depends. If this were pure fiction, the payoff would be Fitz on the witness stand vindicating his ideas and effectively closing the case against Ted, perhaps under cross-examination by Ted himself, but the judge in the case rejects the challenge to the search warrant with almost arbitrary decisiveness, leaving Ted to plead insanity or plead guilty and denying Fitz the moment that could have vindicated him as the hero of the whole story. Oddly, anticlimax suits this series. It seems right, at least, that the Kaczynski case ends with (an almost literal) whimper rather than a bang. If you can get past the first two lousy episodes, I'd recommend the whole thing -- with the archetypal grain of salt, that is.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017


This "based on true events" Chinese action film has an oldschool energy to it befitting its relatively oldschool director, Dante Lam. He's been making movies since the 1990s, the heyday of Hong Kong action cinema, and Mekong is pretty much a Nineties action picture with a tech upgrade. The true event at the heart of the film is a 2011 massacre of two Chinese cargo ship crews by drug traffickers in the infamous "Golden Triangle" near the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Public outcry in China led to the creation of an international task force and the deployment of Chinese investigators throughout the region. The film's ensemble of heroes are too many for all of them to have distinctive personalities, but this is the sort of film that doesn't depend on character development. We know them primarily by their nicknames -- they're named after Chinese gods in the original, while the English subtitles translate those to Olympian deities, including "Panoptes" (for Argus Panoptes) for the guy who operates the drone and "Aphrodite" for the team's only woman. That seems a bad fit because the film admirably refrains from sexualizing her in any way; "Athena" might have been a better fit. And there's a dog who gets perhaps the film's most startling or simply implausible moment. Used as a landmine detector, the animal dashes through a minefield and is simply too fast to be caught in the explosions he triggers. After that the poor creature gets shot -- the film makes sure to show us the mortal wound -- and its death proves one of Mekong's most sentimental scenes.  Like some Asian films, it has a sometimes uncomfortable mix of mawkishness and brutality that's probably genuinely foreign to many American viewers. The head drug lord has a cohort of child soldiers, high on his supply and already hopelessly vicious. We're introduced to them during a casual game of Russian roulette, and we see one of them lose. Later, one of them carries out a suicide bombing. Still another has to be shot in the back by one of our heroes to keep him from slaughtering people during one of the film's big action scenes. This element of the story will no doubt make some U.S. viewers squeamish, as violence against children in any context is still somewhat taboo here, but it's definitely effective in putting the film's villains over as amoral monsters. Despite those downer moments, Mekong is a giddy spree of mayhem, the controversial aspects of which -- the Thai government is touchy about the role of its nationals in the whole business -- won't matter to viewers outside Southeast Asia. The action scenes, if not outstanding, are at least energetic, especially one sequence that climaxes with a car chase inside a shopping mall. For those unlikely to shudder at its treatment of children, Mekong ought to be lightweight fun as well as an interesting exception to the CGI-driven action fantasies we usually get from China.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: BORN TO LOVE (1931)

The cynicism of Pre-Code cinema often is taken for granted, but film buffs and critics usually have the up-front themes and personalities of characters in mind. Hard times made cynical people, the thinking goes. But for real cynicism on the part of filmmakers you might not find a better example than Paul L. Stein's film of Ernest Pascal's screenplay.  Their cynicism takes the form of ruthless melodrama. Their story is of an American Red Cross nurse (Constance Bennett) who has a brief fling with an American flier (Joel McCrea) in London before he returns to the front, goes missing and is presumed dead. When it turns out that that fling got her pregnant, Sir Wilfred (Paul Cavanagh) steps in, offering to marry Doris and make her child legal. Predictably, the end of the war -- Born to Love is padded with a disproportionate Armistice Day celebration scene that's practically a standalone experiment in art cinema -- brings the real father, the flier, back from a POW camp. Sir Wilfred feels betrayed when Doris rekindles her romance with Barry Craig. He divorces Doris and claims custody of her child, practically daring her to challenge his right in court and have her boy dubbed a bastard. Instead, she acquiesces in a tragic accommodation, gaining limited visitation rights in return for renouncing Barry forever.

At this point Pascal has painted himself into a corner. Wilfred would be too good to be true if he renounced his rights and allowed a reunion of the child and his natural parents, and the lovers certainly aren't going to steal the child and flee to America. The best option, from a romantic standpoint, might have been for Doris to give up on the boy -- think of the pathos! -- and start over again with Barry, but I suppose audiences might have rebelled against an ending that left the kid to be raised by a spoilsport who was no blood kin. Somehow it was presumed more satisfactory to kill the boy. It's his birthday and Doris, living in modest circumstances (on settlement money from Wilfred?) has bought him a present. She's allowed to go to Wilfred's house to see the boy, after a very awkward exchange of pleasantries with her former husband that ends with him warning her not to go upstairs to the child's room. There's no stopping Doris, however, before she enters the room and finds (unseen to us) a little corpse. There's been no set-up for this, no discussion that I can recall of the kid's frailty. He just up and died because he was an inconvenient obstacle to the lovers' reunion. And of course, no sooner has Doris fled the place in raging despair ("Don't touch me!" she shrieks at Wilfred's pathetic attempt at consolation) that she finds Barry waiting in her flat, having been unable to walk away from her as she had urged. She breaks down sobbing in his arms, and it's a happy ending because you know they're going to be together now. These last scenes are awful in their contrivances -- why on Earth doesn't Wilfred tell Doris about the tragedy the moment she comes through his door? -- and show sharply why Constance Bennett, here a tragedienne, was better off in light comedy. She is quite bad here, especially when Doris gets to screaming at Wilfred, but no one's really good, though the film might be noteworthy for the most straightfaced performance ever given by Frederick Kerr, James Whale's irascible Baron Frankenstein, as the aristocrat hosting Doris for the duration. Wikipedia tells me that Born to Love was a modest hit despite mixed reviews. What that tells us about Pre-Code audiences is unclear, though for all I know the movie's Gordian Knot approach to Doris's dilemma may have appealed to Depression audiences impatient for similarly drastic solutions to the troubles from which Born to Love was a momentary, peculiar escape.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

DVR Diary: POLICE PYTHON 357 (1976)

A quarter-century before Alain Corneau's cop thriller came out, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret may have been the hottest couple in entertainment, at least in Europe. The Robbins and Sarandon of their day in their advocacy of left-wing causes, Montand was a pop singer turned actor who gained global cachet in The Wages of Fear, while Signoret was a major movie star on the strength of a string of art-house hits culminating in Diabolique. By the end of the 1950s both were doing high-profile work in English -- Signoret actually had started doing so at the start of the decade in Frank Tuttle's Euro-noir Gunman in the Streets -- she winning an Oscar for Room at the Top, he as an on-and-offscreen consort for Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love. They worked together occasionally, intriguingly in a French-language version of The Crucible and for the last time in Police Python 357. The years had not been kind to Signoret, nor had the cinematic double-standard that permitted Montand, looking by now almost like a gallic Walter Matthau, to be the onscreen lover of a woman 25 years his junior, while she, long since grown chunky, was reduced to playing his bedridden confidante. I'm probably reading real life into the movie, but I assumed that their characters -- he's a police detective, she's his superior's wife -- had had a romantic relationship in the past. In any event, he can talk freely with her about his current affair with the same woman (Stefania Sandrelli) his boss (Francois Perier) is sleeping with. This triangle grows unsustainable as the Montand character pressures her (with a slap) to commit to him, while she tries to goad the other man into pressing his claim more manfully.  Goaded too far, he finally presses his claim with a heavy ashtray, at which point Police Python becomes a cop-film version of The Big Clock, with Montand assigned to an investigation likely to incriminate himself.

Montand makes it through, despite a breakdown that sees him disfigure himself in an effort to throw off witnesses, but his victory seems quite pyrrhic. Corneau and cowriter Daniel Boulanger leave the impression that their protagonist can only destroy everything he touches, as lover, boss and confidante all end up dead. Montand's flic seems at heart to be a fighter, not a lover. Corneau sets the tone with a contrapuntal montage that plays over Georges Delerue's ominous theme, intercutting the making of breakfast with the making of bullets. Montand's proficiency on the firing range is pointedly contrasted with his deteriorating personal life. After all those disasters, Corneau closes the film with a climactic action scene in which Montand gets to play hero in reckless fashion, rescuing some cop buddies pinned down in an airport standoff by ramming his car into the bad guys.  He takes a bullet in the process but seems likely to survive, while one of the buddies tending to him discovers a clue that could implicate him all over again. The final implication, however, is that the grateful buddy is going to cover up for him. He's too good a cop to waste, but one can't help wondering what damage he may cause civilians once he's back on his feet.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Too Much TV: GLOW (2017 - ?)

Professional wrestling traditionally has been a puzzle for other media. Even at a point when most ordinary people realized that wrestling was fake -- the self-evident athleticism involved notwithstanding, outcomes are predetermined by the promoter -- movies or TV episodes often worked from the premise that it all was real. That probably was because writers and producers were most interested in the dramatic (or comic) potential of the action in the ring. Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch's Netflix series takes a different approach, as any attempt at a longform series about wrestling must do. GLOW is more of a "let's put on a show!" concept in which the results of matches count less than the overall success of a TV pilot and the success stories of individual characters who spend most of their lives outside the ring. It's based loosely on the actual GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) show that ran for four seasons in the late 1980s and a promotion that has never actually died. I've always had some interest in pro wrestling, though I've never been a full-on fan, and I remember the GLOW show as embarrassing to watch. To their credit, Flahive and Mensch don't exaggerate their characters' wrestling ability; by the standards of actual wrestling fans, even the climactic bout in the first-season finale was a mediocre affair. The creators don't really need to get over with wrestling fans, of course, but they do need to get their characters over and they do that pretty well. Our main characters are the aspiring and somewhat pretentious actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and her friend, onetime soap star Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin). Ruth is just about desperate enough to try anything, include a new women's-wrestling promotion produced by schlock film director Sam Sylvia (Marc Marron's character is inspired by real-life GLOW director Matt Cimber).  Debbie gets involved by accident when she tracks Ruth to the training facility after learning that her friend was sleeping with her husband. When she gets into the ring to attack Ruth, Sam recognizes Debbie's charismatic potential, while the real-life heat between the two women guarantees Ruth a place in the promotion after Sam had already fired her.

While the show takes time to establish many of the other aspiring wrestlers as personalities in their own right, beyond their cartoonish gimmicks, the frenmity of Ruth and Debbie is the first season's main event. Ruth proves a natural heel, i.e. a bad guy, but needs just the right babyface to get her Soviet villain character "Zoya the Destroyer" over. Everyone realizes that Debbie has to be the face, but it's not until she crushes on a babyface male wrestler that Debbie, whose marriage is failing, warms to the idea. While Ruth remains our nearest thing to a consistent point-of-view character, Debbie has the meatier storyline, increasingly torn between her ambition to perform and her needy, jealous husband. GLOW keeps us in suspense until almost the end over whether Debbie will stick with her fellow wrestlers, who are depending on her patriotic hero gimmick to get the whole promotion over, or stand by her man is dull domesticity.

As a Netflix series, GLOW can be edgier in many ways than a broadcast or basic-cable show. It can be more provocative in its presentation of gimmicks based on ethnic stereotypes, most notably when a black wrestler (real-life wrestling veteran Kia Stevens) takes on the character of Food Stamp-flaunting, Reagan-hating "Welfare Queen." In wrestling terms Welfare Queen is a tweener, sometimes playing the heel (as in the season finale) but definitely the face when she and another black wrestler fight a tag team in Klan robes. Somehow I doubt that the real GLOW could have gotten away with her gimmick (or the Klan wrestlers) on TV then or now, but in the meta-reality of GLOW it stands as a commentary on the perceived attitudes of the Reagan era. On another front, the alcoholic, drug-addicted Sam edges toward a relationship with a protege (Britt Baron) without realizing until almost too late that it also borders on incest. Over ten episodes the show does a decent job balancing the harsher material with the broader comedy so that it ends up fairly light fare. It's knowledgeable enough about the business to not make a wrestling fan squirm, yet not too obsessive about it to make the non-fan squirm. Overall, I think the writers make a good use of wrestling to highlight and exaggerate character traits and conflicts that might otherwise look all too ordinary. By wrestling's own standards, it got over enough with Netflix to get a second season, and who can argue with success? I see no reason to.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

NERUDA (2016)

Pablo Larrain has picked up his pace lately. The Chilean director, who made his name globally with a trilogy of films set during the Pinochet era in his country, cranked out three features in 2015-16, including his Hollywood debut Jackie. For the home audience, the man who may already be Chile's greatest director took on arguably Chile's greatest writer, the 20th century poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda, however, is less the poet's life entire than an episode filmed with awareness of its own fictionalization. Neruda was a politician as well as a poet and, like many of his type in those days, a Communist, shown early proposing a toast to the Red Army for defeating fascism. As a Communist, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) was elected to the Chilean Senate, only to find himself outlawed during a crackdown on the left. The story of the film is his flight into French exile -- where he's idolized by the likes of Picasso -- involving various disguises and the help of a cross-section of Chilean culture. The added detail is his pursuit by an obsessed government agent (Gael Garcia Bernal), whose voiceover narration is no doubt instantly reminiscent of film noir even for non-American audiences.

Larrain apparently set himself a task for 2016 to rehabilitate the biopic. The genre has fallen into disdain, at least with American critics who decry the Academy's tendency to bestow Oscars on performances that seem mainly imitative over those that appear genuinely creative, e.g. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in Theory of Everything over Michael Keaton in Birdman in 2014. Ironically, an arguably worthy biopic performance by Natalie Portman in Larrain's Jackie was ignored in the rush to honor La La Land at the last awards. Neruda shares with the American film an emphasis on its subject's less iconic, perhaps less admirable side, which creates the impression that the actor is interpreting rather than imitating. The Neruda of the film is as much a self-indulgent sensualist, for a fat guy, as he is The People's Poet, someone whose utopian vision is more hedonist than Stalinist, despite his shameful partisan praise for the Soviet despot. This side of the hero gives his trek an almost mock-epic quality that is only augmented by the detective's mock-noir pursuit. It ends up being hard to think of Neruda as a hero, but that's the uncanny think about art, and his clearly inspired lots of people.

The mock-epic turns tragic when the detective dies in the snow during the chase, and Neruda reveals its true concern with who'll have the last word on history. Its own stance on Pablo Neruda will be problematic for some observers already because of Larrain's apparent indifference to the poet's opinion of Stalin. By putting anti-communist commentary in the noirish narrative of the doomed detective, Larrain and screenwriter Guillermo Calderon suggest that the anti-communist narrative of Neruda's career is not only fatally flawed but also generic, like noir, in the particularly limited sense of that word. Worse for the antagonist, he dies with something between fear and faith that Neruda will have the last word on his life, that he'll be remembered, if at all, as a supporting character in the poet's story, if not as a subject for his art. In a way, the fatal pursuit into the mountains is a metaphor for efforts presumably ongoing, in Chile and elsewhere, to define Neruda as a villain, or at least a fool, for his communist leanings. Neruda projects a confidence that the poet's art, if not the whole of his complex personality, will outlast the hunt.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A note on Tobe Hooper (1943-2017)

Longtime readers will remember my friend Wendigo as a vampire movie fan, and a fan of horror movies in general. One Halloween back in the 1990s I was going to spend the night at his house and wanted to entertain him with horror films he hadn't seen. As it turned out, neither he nor I had seen The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre at that time, and the local public library happened to have a copy. Afterward, he told me he never wanted to see that film again -- not because it wasn't good, but just because ...And that was while acknowledging that there was no real gore to speak of in Hooper's seminal film. It just had an unprecedented brutality, best illustrated by the suddenness in one scene with which Leatherface appears, bops a victim over the head, and drags the doomed one away to some terrible fate. To be fair, Wendigo could do without the one girl screaming all the time, but that was in keeping with the overall tone of the film. As a vampire fan, my friend is more appreciative of Hooper's Salem's Lot miniseries, and even of his Space Vampires-derived bit of craziness, Lifeforce. But neither he nor anyone else can deny that Texas Chain-Saw is Hooper's ticket to a place in cinema history. And now that he and George Romero have died in one summer, we sincerely urge John Carpenter to look after his health.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


This was the end of the line for Lon Chaney Sr. and director Tod Browning after a legendary run of films during the 1920s. Browning went on to make his sound-film debut later in 1929 with The Thirteenth Chair, which featured Bela Lugosi in a teaser of things to come. For Chaney, you could say Where East is East is the beginning of the end. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer kept its "Man of a Thousand Faces" silent for another year, making him one of the very last major stars to make his speaking debut, perhaps because they were unsure of how to present Chaney as a talking star, and perhaps because the health problems that killed him in 1930 were already apparent. In any event, East is a typical Chaney-Browning production, though creepier in its insinuations than in explicit content. It seemed creepy to me, at least, because I inferred a quasi-incestuous subtext in the close relationship between the white hunter Tiger Haynes (Chaney) and his daughter Toyo (Lupe Velez). Toyo is a grown woman, which makes the father-daughter horseplay at points seem just a bit excessive -- but maybe I'm just reading stuff into a Browning film (Waldemar Young adapted an original story by the director and pulp writer Harry Sinclar Drago) because you're supposed to. Even if you suppress such speculation, there's something creepy about the way Toyo's mother and Tiger's ex, the half-caste Madame de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), becomes Toyo's romantic rival for the affections of Bobby Bailey (Lloyd Hughes), who's come to Laos to buy tigers for his father's circus from Haynes. And because this is a Tod Browning film, Tiger keeps what I take to be an orangutan, though it might be a runt of a gorilla, in his house -- an orangutan with a grudge against de Sylva. That sounds familiar. The Chaney character is going to unleash the ape to kill his wife but something will happen, he'll change his mind and get himself killed, right? Not quite. It looks like Tiger Haynes is done for after locking himself in the room with the ape to keep it from getting loose and attacking the young lovers, but not before the avenging orangutan did what he had to do to the half-caste vamp.

Considering some of the unfilmed ideas Browning had -- he told a doozy to Herman Mankiewicz about Chaney as a violinist/mad scientist grafting women's heads onto gorillas' bodies -- this is fairly mild stuff, though it makes you confident that the Browning-Chaney team could have taken their act into the Pre-Code era with little trouble. There's really no reason for East, a May 1929 release, not to be a talkie except that the studio and/or director and/or star weren't ready just yet. Chaney's scarface makeup wouldn't have gotten in the way of dialogue and he wouldn't have had to attempt a foreign accent for his role. Yet I suppose the Chaney-Browning world worked according to a kind of dream logic, at the slightly unnatural speed of silent action, that would not translate, despite wishful thinking about Chaney as Dracula, to the gravity of sound. They belong to another universe the way the silent clowns did, and as a male star at M-G-M circa 1929, Chaney probably was doomed anyway.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Jerry Lewis (1926-2017)

Lewis carried the torch of auteur comedy stardom between the time of Chaplin and Keaton and the age of Woody Allen, and was the most successful actor-auteur in any genre during that period. His popularity on stage, screen and TV as Dean Martin's partner enabled him to be more prolific than contemporaries like Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde once he went solo. He was probably the last living legend of his era -- Kirk Douglas is revered but not as proverbial. Lewis is almost a folkloric figure for his paradoxical popularity, appealing both to the lowest common denominator and to intellectuals; it's his reputed popularity among French intellectuals that has become folklore in a way that usually doesn't reflect well either on Lewis or the French. I suppose they admired him as an auteur at a time when French critics were cheerleaders for anyone they could identify as one, and because they saw him as an auteur they credited him with more satiric ambition than he probably had, taking him as a critic of modernity along the same lines as their own man, Jacques Tati. The awkwardness that embarrassed so many Americans -- Lewis as a performer was more in the Harry Langdon tradition than a follower of Chaplin or Keaton -- the French and (presumably) other intellectuals took as a traumatic response to an increasingly dysfunctional modern society. It's easy to dismiss such pretension, but Lewis still was more than the contemptible geek others took him to be.

In an early directorial effort, The Bellboy, he made a point of proving that he didn't depend on his obnoxious voice to be funny, allowing himself only a couple of lines of dialogue toward the end of a picture designed as a showcase for his newly-learned virtuosity behind the camera. Bellboy was his most determined effort to work in the silent tradition, but it was telling that he could not think of a feature-length story to tell in that style, and made a collection of blackout vignettes instead. That picture is also noteworthy for an early appearance of "Jerry Lewis" as a character distinct from the normal on-screen Lewis persona. Egotistical without malevolence, Bellboy's "Lewis" is a rough draft for the auteur's most honored creation: Buddy Love, the lounge-singer Mr. Hyde of Lewis's consensus masterpiece, The Nutty Professor. On that film stands whatever justified reputation Lewis has as a satirist, though in hindsight it looks less like satire than a confession. Who can look at Buddy Love today and see him as a parody of Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra or anyone other than Jerry Lewis himself, or the Jerry he knew he was becoming, or had already become -- the one most of us saw only in the Seventies, once he spent most of his time playing himself on talk shows or his objectively admirable telethons? The fact that people can reasonably question whether Buddy Love was self-satire or score-settling illustrates Lewis's problematic place in pop-culture history. I cared little for him as a comedian -- though his turn in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy, more a send-up of Johnny Carson than a self-portrait, definitely deserves a shout-out -- and his telethons entertained me more as camp spectacles than as anything else, but on the occasion of his passing this weekend aesthetic judgments rightly take second place to an objective acknowledgment of his legendary status in the wild world of cinema.

Friday, August 18, 2017


From Nice to London to Charlottesville to Barcelona, the wonder is that it took so long for vehicular homicide to become a popular form of terrorism. On the Islamist side, I suppose you needed a generation not enthralled by Osama bin Laden's vision of spectacular attacks on a September 11 scale to come of age. Closer to home, the gun may still be the weapon of choice, but last weekend's atrocity in Virginia hints at the growing appeal of the car attack's lethal simplicity. All these tough guys follow in the footsteps of a 22 year old woman from the once-upon-a-time land of Czechoslovakia. Olga Hepnarova may not have been the first person to deliberately run down pedestrians en masse, but a Wikipedia list of mass vehicular homicides has her 1973 attack close to the beginning. Last year, filmmakers Tomáš Weinreb and Petr Kazda put her story on film, and you can stream it now on Netflix, where it is perhaps too exotic an item for its availability to be found insensitive.

Weinreb and Kazda show events leading up to Hepnarova's rampage in Prague, where she killed eight people and injured many more. Unlike today's auto-killers, Olga (Polish actress Michalina Olszanska) is a rebel pretty much without a cause, though she eventually portrays herself in court (and in a letter to the press mailed before the attack) as an anti-bullying avenger. We see some of this bullying early on, when Olga is beaten up in a shower by a gang of girls who we earlier saw making out two-by-two in their dormitory beds. Olga appears to be lesbian herself -- at one point she requests the Communist government to provider her a girlfriend -- but seems torn between her desire and a fundamental aloofness verging on the misanthropic. She makes little effort to get along with anyone, especially her long-suffering family, unless she's trying to seduce someone. At other times she's so reticent or phobic that she can hardly stand to claim her paycheck at her job because she'd have to say her name and talk to somebody.

Olga attempts suicide early in the picture, but the film leaves open whether she's really crazy until the end, after she's been sentenced to hang for her atrocity, when she develops (or affects) a separate personality who, unlike original Olga, considers herself innocent and doesn't want to die. A story like hers inevitably raises a three-way question: was she crazy, was she just doomed to be a miserable wretch, or does society bear some share of the blame for how she turned out? The filmmakers muddy the waters somewhat by having Olszanska portray Hepnarova as probably hotter than she actually was, in a glowering early Winona Ryder sort of way. The actress does what she can with body language and facial expressions to remind us of Olga's off-putting nature, but the fact that Olszanska is undeniably attractive, and the more questionable decision by the writer-directors to use her looks to titillating effect on occasion, might make you think that Olga could have had a happier life if she had a better attitude -- but I don't know if that's the auteurs' own conclusion. I'm not even sure they ever drew a conclusion. They keep a distance from the subject, both the woman and her crime, filming the actual attack in matter-of-fact fashion, from inside Olga's truck, as people go down like cardboard traffic obstacles. The black and white cinematography contributes to the distancing effect, though it also may be a shout-out to Czech New Wave cinema, which was a thing when Olga was growing up. The odd thing about that is that I was reminded less of Czech movies than of a particular French film. Combine the character's miserable existence, the actress's grim expressions, and the monochrome picture, I had the chilling feeling that Olga Hepnarova was Mouchette all grown up and taking an alternate path I'd imagined for her five years ago. You won't have to have seen Robert Bresson's classic to find I, Olga Hepnarova chilling, especially in our time, when it serves as stark evidence that nearly anyone -- never mind your profiles -- is capable of such a thing.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

DVR Diary: KISMET (1944)

The 1940 version of The Thief of Bagdad should go down as one of the most influential movies of the Classic Hollywood era, if you judge by the wave of Technicolor Arabian Nights style pictures made in the following years.The best known of these nowadays are the Universal films featuring Maria Montez, Jon Hall and Sabu, which are considered models of camp moviemaking. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer got into the game with a lavish remake of a now-lost 1930 Warner Bros. picture, itself a remake of a 1920 silent adaptation of Edward Knoblock's 1911 play. The lead role of Hafiz, the king of beggars in old Bagdad, must have seemed a natural for Ronald Colman to anyone who had seen him in If I Were King a few years earlier. There's something Chaplinesque about the idea of someone as indisguisably refined and irrepressibly arrogant as Colman playing a sort of heroic gentleman tramp. "I may be dirt to the caliph," Hafiz proclaims, "But to dirt I am the caliph!" It helps that Hafiz lives in a milieu where everyone talks in what we think of as an "Arabian Nights" style of florid rhetoric. It also helps that medieval Bagdad, which should be a totalitarian dystopia in the Islamophobic imagination of the 21st century, was seen for much of the 20th century as a fairy-tale land of sudden social mobility and fluid identity. Not only can Hafiz put on good clothes and pretend to be a prince, but an actual prince -- the caliph, in fact (James Craig) -- can put on humble clothes and mingle with the common people, pretending to be one of them. As the young ruler falls in love with Hafiz's daughter (Joy Ann Page), raised by her father in something like bourgeois respectability, Hafiz becomes embroiled in a plot against the caliph's life, masterminded by the typically treacherous grand vizier (Edward Arnold).

The producers must have known that screenwriter John Meehan and director William Dieterle would have difficulty explaining the power structure of old Bagdad, where there is not only a caliph but a queen. The Macedonian Jamilla (Marlene Dietrich) is neither the caliph's wife nor his mother, but is "queen" by virtue of her primacy in a harem that belongs to the grand vizier, not the caliph. Since the caliph is our juvenile romantic lead, he must be portrayed as monogamous, despite his entitlement to four wives and many more concubines. In any event, this "queen" business left me wondering whether the regal title was a stipulation of Dietrich's contract to appear in the picture. While Colman is billed above her (and the title), Dietrich generated much of the publicity with a dance scene in which her bare legs are painted gold. Dietrich wasn't much of a dancer, but the audience presumably got its money's worth as long as she showed those trademark legs. Anyway, I don't know whether we're to understand that as queen of the harem Jamilla is the grand vizier's wife, but it's a moot point since she's having an affair with Hafiz. As for Edward Arnold, I have to remind myself that the avuncular, chortling scoundrel he plays here really was a typical performance for him, while his great work for Frank Capra, who progressively drained Arnold of all humor and emotion to make him more of a menace, was the exceptional. And speaking of ill-utilized character actors, Hugh Herbert and Hobart Cavanaugh show up as Hafiz's supposed comedy-relief sidekicks, and they made me wonder whether Metro didn't originally have Laurel and Hardy in mind for those parts, until they realized that the characters didn't have enough to do to justify that casting. For that matter, a handful of songs here suggest that this Kismet once was meant to be a full-scale musical of the sort M-G-M got around to filming a decade later, after some musical plagiarists on Broadway ("I'm sure you recognize this lovely theme, A Stranger in Paradise...") wrote the songs for them. Cedric Gibbons' massive production design is more reminiscent of the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks/Raoul Walsh Thief of Bagdad than the 1940 film, but Technicolor garishness takes much of the magic away.  When all is said and done, Colman's character ends up much as his Francois Villon did in If I Were King: exiled from his beloved city, but consoled by his beloved woman. In many respects, the 1944 Kismet seems half-finished or ill thought-out, but the ending marks it as a Ronald Colman vehicle more than anything else.

Sunday, August 13, 2017


John Lee Hancock's biopic probably was doomed at the box office from the start. I'm sure most people, first hearing of the idea, assumed it would be some sort of infomercial for McDonald's. Even the actual screenplay, an ambiguous debunking of Ray Kroc's role as creator of the restaurant chain's global empire, probably struck very few people as compellingly cinematic. It was going to rise or fall on Michael Keaton's performance as Kroc, and once he was denied an Oscar nomination, the film was finished. He and the film were ripped off. Now streaming on Netflix, The Founder proves one of the best American films of 2016 and an unusually nuanced view of entrepreneurship that manages to educate by entertaining.

In 1954 Ray Kroc is an increasingly frustrated salesman for a milkshake-mixer manufacturer. Rallying himself daily with motivational recordings, Kroc pitches his machines at drive-in restaurants across the country, mostly in vain. Hancock and screenwriter Robert D. Siegel expertly establish Kroc as an impatient man, desperate to make sales and annoyed at the slow service from carhops at most drive-ins. He can hardly credit the news that one restaurant in San Bernadino CA has placed an order for six shake mixers. But if anything, the McDonald brothers, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) probably could use more of them. Dick has invented the "Speedie System," an assembly line for hamburger and fry preparation, making their burger place a local sensation. Kroc is incredulous at both the speedy service -- he has his order within a minute of placing it -- and the quality of the food. He also likes the atmosphere of the place, or perhaps the absence of the casual "hangout" atmosphere of other restaurants. Even the McDonald's name appeals to him as typically American. With no place or reason for juvenile delinquents to lurk about, McDonald's is the ideal of a "family" restaurant. Kroc becomes convinced that every community in the country should have one.

The title of Hancock's film is deliberately ambiguous. Superficially, it's ironic, if not a lie, because Ray Kroc did not invent the Speedie System or build the first McDonald's restaurant. But he did invent the global McDonald's restaurant chain, against the resistance of the McDonald brothers, whose early experiment in franchising ended early when they could not maintain quality control. Kroc's determination to become a salesman for the Speedie System by spreading franchises clashes quickly with Dick McDonald's stubborn resistance to any compromise of his vision. It would have been too easy for the filmmakers to make Kroc a pure villain, a ruthless exploiter of the Siegel and Shuster of the restaurant business. But Hancock and Siegel are more subtle than that. From one perspective, Dick McDonald is an Ayn Rand hero, the entrepreneur as an artist entitled to absolute authority over his intellectual property, but the filmmakers make it just as easy for audiences to see him as an irrational control freak. And while Dick may think of Kroc as an increasingly-aggressive parasite, the film emphasizes how hard Ray works to make his vision for McDonald's a reality. In a crucial sequence, Kroc recognizes that some of his first franchises in the midwest are going the way the brothers feared from their own experience: deviating from the minimal burgers-and-fries menu, encouraging people to loiter, etc. Ray himself is so dedicated to getting his own place right that he personally sweeps the parking lot at night. He realizes his mistake in offering franchises to absentee investors, rentiers more than entrepreneurs, who are interested only in reaping profits. He turns instead to hustling salesmen like himself. A Jewish salesman hawking Catholic bibles is the type he wants -- and with relative understatement The Founder emphasizes (unless it fictionalizes) the inclusiveness of Kroc's vision. He recruits in synagogues and at mixed-race gatherings and doesn't appear to discriminate in his hiring. We can't tell the McDonald brothers' attitude on such matters, but we can guess that they weren't bigots from the fact that they're not portrayed as such. Suffice it to say that for Kroc, McDonald's is ideally American because of the opportunity it offers for upward mobility as well as its idealized family atmosphere. By comparison, Dick McDonald, abetted by his sickly brother, sees McDonald's entirely as his (or their) thing -- and it can only be what he says it is. The film sides with Ray against Dick so long as the main question is: why shouldn't the rest of the country have McDonald's?

Those who did go to The Founder might feel that the original McDonald's restaurants looked more like a Five Guys or some other 21st century deluxe burger joint than the too-familiar fast-food place that is most likely no one's standard of quality now. Inevitably Kroc has to start the company on the slippery slope, and the moment comes during a fateful stay in Minneapolis, where he meets Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), a banker's wife for whom Ray will eventually dump his long-suffering first wife, Ethel (Laura Dern). Joan, a nightclub pianist, has a head for business herself, leading a cash-strapped Ray -- he has to give too much of his cut to the brothers -- to an opportunity to save money, ironically enough with a new way to make milkshakes. To Dick McDonald using powdered milk for shakes is an abomination, and the audience might share his revulsion at the cost-cutting compromise, but by now, on the other hand, they might see Dick as an unreasonable rentier with no sympathy for Ray and others in the trenches. The film is deliberately coy about the quality of the powdered shakes, but whether they were good or bad, they hasten the inevitable showdown between Kroc and the McDonalds. Thanks to the deus (or demonicus) ex machina intervention of an eavesdropping lawyer, Ray finds a way to checkmate the brothers, and only at this point does he fully become a villain, kicking them while they're down -- while also buying them out for millions -- as payback for their holding him back so long. By this point, also, audiences may have turned against Kroc for his treatment of Ethel, going all the way back to his mortgaging their home without consulting her. Even here there's an interesting irony in the Krocs' contrasting notions of upward mobility. Ethel is something of a social climber, seeking fulfillment in elitist club memberships among the kind of idling rich Ray comes to despise, while Ray comes to prefer the company to be found in lodge and bingo halls, people presumably of his own kind. Joan is attractive to him not only because she's attractive but because she proves herself the same sort of person -- an imaginative entrepreneur if not a take-no-prisoners corporate buccaneer. In the end, Ray Kroc's most unforgivable act is his failure to live up to a handshake agreement to pay the McDonald brothers millions in annual royalties, but while his refusal -- mentioned only in a text epilogue -- is despicable you can still ask what, exactly the brothers deserved from him. Any final summing up should conclude that Dick McDonald was the necessary but not the sufficient cause of today's McDonald's empire, and there probably would not have been millions in royalties to withhold from him had Dick had his own way from the start. His ultimate defeat may have been unfair, but there's also something of a comeuppance to it, at least in this viewer's eyes.

It's a measure of the seriousness of this film's ambitions, or its limited budget, that a picture set mostly during the 1950s is not infested with oldies on the soundtrack. Instead, Carter Burwell's score aspires to a less time-specific evocation of nostalgia, and while it's fairly generic music I welcomed its relative unobtrusiveness. Another point where I can't tell whether the producers were pinching pennies or showing restraint is a scene where Kroc goes to the movies to see On the Waterfornt. We neither see a clip or hear any of the soundtrack, and I prefer to see this as heroic resistance to the temptation of beating audiences over the head with Brando's contender speech and its obvious relevance to Ray's situation. The Founder makes the right choices most of the time, including hiring Michael Keaton, who since Birdman has surged into the Ben Kingsley zone of automatically watchable character stardom. Between losing his best chance yet at an Oscar to someone impersonating a handicapped person and not even getting a nomination this time, I start to wonder what the Academy has against him. Maybe the more diverse membership will show him some respect the next time they have a chance. He has a terrific tightrope act here, as at any moment Ray Kroc can be a compelling antihero or an outright monster, but Keaton makes barely a bobble. He and The Founder deserved more than they got at awards time -- tellingly, their only honors came from AARP -- but here's hoping that Netflix helps get them some overdue favorable attention. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

TAG (2015)

TAG may or may not have been a nostalgic exercise for Sion Sono, but watching it was a nostalgic exercise for me. Back when I bought my first DVD player, I rushed about trying to see as many exotic movies as were now available to me, picking from the tremendous inventories to be found in places like Borders in those long-gone days. One early purchase was Sono's Suicide Club (also known as Suicide Circle). That film memorably opens with a bunch of schoolgirls marching into a subway station and leaping arm in arm in front of an oncoming train. Waves of blood splashed back onto the platform. Since then, Sono has been a very prolific and eclectic filmmaker. I'd be tempted to call Tag his Sucker Punch if not that there are probably a lot of Sucker Punches in his filmography. In any event, the opening scene will bring back memories for anyone who's seen Suicide Club/Circle. This time the schoolgirls are taking a bus to a field trip. A pillow fight breaks out while Mitsuko (Reina Treindl), apparently an aspiring writer, scribbles in her notebook. Dropping her pen, she ducks down to pick it up off the floor of the bus. That fortuitous move saves her life as a freakish wind shear, which had already torn apart the bus in front, takes the top halves off Mistuko's bus and all her fellow passengers. The driver is seated lower down and only loses her head. The bus slowly comes to a stop as our dazed heroine-by-default stands amid the blood-spurting trunks of her school chums. All righty then....

It occurs to Mitsuko to get off the bus and seek cover. She manages to duck a second wind shear (others aren't so lucky) and makes her way to a pond in the woods, where she finds more bisected corpses. Finding at least one clean set of clothes, she switches into them and makes her way to a school. It's not her school, but everyone there seems to recognize her. She quickly falls in with new friends who decide to play hooky in another part of the woods -- or is it the same location with the bodies gone? Finally they head back to class, but Mitsuko's new teachers prove to be strict disciplinarians, opening fire on their students with machine guns. Again, Mitsuko ends up the final girl, but this is not the final chapter for her.

She finds herself being prepared for a wedding, except now everyone calls her Keiko, and she has actually become a different person (Mariko Shinoda). There are familiar faces among the bridesmaids, however, who advise her that she's going to have to fight her way out of her wedding. By now, when all the wedding guests are girls, audiences may have noticed that we haven't seen a man in the film yet. The girls' congratulations turn to taunts as many strip to their underwear and drag Mitsuko/Keiko to the altar, where the boar-headed groom awaits inside an upright coffin. An ally comes to our heroine's rescue, and as they fight free our protagonist finds herself again transformed (into Erina Mano) and in the homestretch of a distance race, though her teammates are again familiar. Her enemies are following her from one reality to another now as the boar-man and two of the killer teachers join the race. But where in hell is she going?

The truth of the matter isn't too surprising. Crossing over into a male-dominated if not male-only world, she sees herself on a poster advertising "Tag," a virtual-reality game incorporating the scenarios our heroine has survived. The decrepit inventor -- possibly a directorial self-satire? -- explains that all the characters are clones of his long-ago contemporaries: living beings who die real deaths in the game where Mitsuko is the protagonist and final girl. The other girls are slaughtered repeatedly simply to signify her peril. But all through her odyssey, the motif of falling feathers has prompted Mitsuko to question the fatedness of existence, and now she realizes that she can change the course of the game to end the cycle of destruction....

Sono is adapting another author's novel, but Tag can't help but look like a commentary on the excesses of his own work, though in that case it'd also be a case of eating your cake and having it too, indulging his violent imagination while implicitly critiquing it. For all I know, it's just another job of work for a busy filmmaker, but there's enough auteurial personality in every Sono film I've seen -- though those are relatively few -- to make me doubt that. It may still be just another movie in the sense that it marks no special milestone or turning point, but I'll need to see more of his movies before I can judge. It seems easier to see them now than it might have been fifteen or so years ago. The teachers-murdering-students bit might have made Tag taboo in the U.S. once upon a time, but in 2017 you can stream the thing on Netflix. Do so only if you have a strong stomach; the exercise in style may justify your effort.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

On the Big Screen: DETROIT (2017)

If you have a good-sized used bookstore in your town, you might find a paperback copy of John Hersey's 1968 best-seller The Algiers Motel Incident, a  report on the events at the center of Kathryn Bigelow's new film. So when the ads claim that Detroit is telling an untold story, what they really mean is "Tis new to thee." And yet I suspect that it will not seem new, nor old, to most audiences -- only all too familiar. Bigelow's film is the nearest thing I can think of to an American counterpart of Paul Greengrass's docudrama Bloody Sunday. In its first act (of three), Bigelow approximates Greengrass's pseudo-verite style, immersing us in the buildup to the 1967 Detroit riots with jumpy immediacy, with great help from her Zero Dark Thirty editor, William Goldenberg. Over time, we are introduced to the characters who will converge on the Algiers Motel, including the members of the Dramatics, an aspiring soul act whose gig at the Fox Theater is abruptly cancelled by the riots; a reckless cop (Will Poulter) who's allowed back on the streets after shooting a looter in the back despite orders not to fire at looters; and a security guard (John Boyega) whose uniform gives him some immunity from suspicion on the part of white police and National Guard troops.

At the Algiers, where the Dramatics crash after their disappointment, we meet a pair of white girls (Kaitlyn Dever and Hannah Murray) and Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), tenant who puts a scare into the other guests by staging a parody of police interaction with blacks while waving a gun at his "suspect." He seems a crazy man when he actually opens fire, but it was all a gag and his gun was just a starter's pistol. It's also just a gag, though it proves him really crazy, when Carl decides to fire the starters' pistol at National Guard troops across the way from the motel. The bad cop (given a fictional name) is one of the officers responding to the shot, while the security guard, practiced at defusing racial tensions, lends his aid. The cop promptly shoots Carl in the back without knowing whether he was the gunman or not. The rest of the night is a nightmare for the motel guests as the cops, with the uncertain backing of the National Guard, line them up against a wall, demanding that someone identify the gunmen in the shooting most didn't even see. Impatient and keyed up, and with nothing to lose, apparently, after his misadventure earlier in the day, the cop threatens the guests, including the two white girls, with immediate execution if they don't cooperate. He's actually playing a good cop-bad cop game, but there are no good cops in sight. One by one, he has suspects taken into separate rooms, telling his men to kill them if they don't talk. Twice over, the other terrified guests hear a gunshot, but we see that the interrogators are firing into the floor or ceiling, meaning only to scare the people left in the hallway into telling whatever they might know, while their prisoners are instructed to lay quietly "or the next one will be real." Unfortunately, a rookie cop in the group is unfamiliar with this procedure and takes the bad cop's orders literally.

Detroit's second act is a horror movie climaxing in the second killing, masterfully set up by Bigelow and writer Mark Boal with the earlier fakeout scenes, with great help from Jack Reynor, the actor playing the babyfaced cop. The naive seriousness on his face tells you to expect something terrible this time, while Bigelow lets your imagination do the work by having the shooting done offscreen, behind closed doors. Poulter is a true monster in these scenes, as vicious toward the white girls (whom he assumes to be prostitutes) as toward the black men. His character is one you want to see get his comeuppance, but Detroit's third act turns into one of the most deliberately infuriating courtroom dramas in American film. I won't spoil the ways in which a seemingly airtight cases against the cops is picked apart; each new viewer should experience them as fresh slaps in the face. Such is history, though it can be argued that Bigelow and Boal cheat by juxtaposing the historic acquittal of the cops with their admittedly-conjectural account of events (one of the white girls was a technical advisor), which is presented with more obvious certainty, thanks to directorial omniscience, than was possible in court. More scrupulously, they show the survivors undercutting their own credibility at times, as when Boyega's security guard, himself a suspect in the killings, claims that he didn't arrive at the motel until all the victims had been killed. Because Detroit is likely to be inflammatory, depending on how well it performs at the box office, we should expect a backlash emphasizing the film's deviations from fact or dismissing it as Black Lives Matter propaganda. Yet it seems indisputable that injustice was done, by cops, at the Algiers Motel, and in court, where the culpable men get away on the sort of technicalities and lawyer tricks that in a different context would enrage any reactionary critics of this film. In 2017 it may be impossible to watch a film with Detroit's subject matter without bringing in some form of prejudice, but all sides should agree that Bigelow does a virtuoso job pushing her audience's hot buttons. Like Christopher Nolan with Dunkirk, she succeeds in making old news freshly visceral and menacing for today's moviegoers.

Monday, July 31, 2017

DVR Diary: IF I WERE KING (1938)

Predating the badass Elizabethan poets and playwrights by more than a century, Francois Villon may be the true OG, the first to combine thug life and art. In the 1930s he was a sort of pulp hero, the protagonist of a series of short stories in Liberty, one of the popular general-interest weekly magazines of the era, by John Erskine. As rendered by screenwriter Preston Sturges, adapting a hoary old play that had already been filmed in 1920, and directed by Frank Lloyd of Cavalcade infamy (and more recent acclaim for Mutiny on the Bounty), Villon (Ronald Colman) is a cross between Robin Hood and Moses. In his primary role as poet-thief, Villon looks like a scruffier Robin down to the feathered cap, and in general 15th century France seems to have been everyone's model for what Robin and his men of the turn of the 13th century looked like. It's a cool look that made an alternate silent version of the Villon legend, Alan Crosland's The Beloved Rogue, sometimes look like a Maxfield Parrish painting come to life. It suits Colman, who had played another noble thief, the "amateur cracksman" Raffles, a few years earlier. He proves equally suited to higher fashion when the main story kicks in. Villon, after robbing a government food storehouse, has made the mistake of badmouthing King Louis XI and boasting of what he would do if he were king -- he has a whole poem, mainly romantic, on the subject -- in the incognito presence of the monarch himself (Basil Rathbone). Impressed by Villon's bravado, and grateful that he's killed a high-ranking traitor during a tavern brawl, the curmudgeonly king challenges the poet to live up to his boast by making him the Constable of France, complete with fake title, a bath and a shave that renders Villon unrecognizable, at first, to the lady Katherine (Frances Dee), who had snubbed the impertinent writer in church shortly before. Villon's main task is to maintain morale in Paris and defend the city from the besieging Burgundians, but the poet's SJW approach to these problems -- lenience for his fellow thieves and further looting of the government storehouses -- annoys the establishment and puts the new Constable, thanks to some retroactive sentencing, in mortal peril.

This is unmistakably a Colman star vehicle, but that doesn't stop Basil Rathbone from stealing it with one of the most eccentric performances of his career. By 1938, a year before he started playing Sherlock Holmes, I assume people knew what to expect from Rathbone: vicious villainy backed, if the period permitted it, with masterly swordplay. I assume that people seeing Rathbone's name expected a "Basil Rathbone" performance, and that they, as I, were blindsided by what he actually gave them. Pop culture in those days apparently had a pretty specific idea of what Louis XI, the "spider king," was like, perhaps because character actors had been barnstorming through the part in stage versions of If I Were King since 1901. You get a somewhat more benign version of the character from Henry Davenport in William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame a year later: intelligent but lacking in imagination, almost unpretentious in his frankness, smarter than he looks but probably not as smart as he thinks he is. As scripted by Sturges, soon to make his mark as a director of high wit, Rathbone's king often gets the better of Villon -- or so I think modern audiences will think -- with various sardonic zingers. But Rathbone plays the man as if Ebeneezer Scrooge had usurped the throne of France and was having the time of his life doddering about arrogantly with the power of life and death and hee-heeing through the picture as if history were his private, royal joke. It's the funniest stuff from Rathbone I've ever seen, and now that I think of it I don't know why it surprised me. If he routinely went over the top dramatically (see Son of Frankenstein) why shouldn't he go over the top comically as well?

Given the year and the proximity to World War II, I can't help wondering whether Sturges had a message for Depression America by showing Villon strengthening France to face an enemy onslaught through the redistribution of wealth, or at least of food. Whether he did or not, If I Were King gains a certain timelessness by portraying Villon as a kind of comic Moses, an impostor elevated to great power who raids the granaries and is denied the promised land at the end. Grateful that Villon has led the people to turn back the Burgundians, but still resentful of the poet's thefts and impertinence, Louis spares Villon's life but banishes him from Paris, allowing him the run of the rest of France but denying him the city that was his life. In history, this banishment (for mere theft, the king having nothing to do with it) was Villon's cue to vanish from history. In the movie, it sets up a happy ending as Katherine follows him luxuriously into exile. Villon had a girlfriend among the rabble (Ellen Drew) who was portrayed so sympathetically that I thought the poet might ditch Katherine for her, until the brave guttersnipe died fighting the invaders. So much for social justice. It's still a fun, light historical entertainment made especially entertaining by Rathbone's one-of-a-kind performance and Colman's effortless panache.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

On the Big Screen: ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

This is a movie that stages a fight behind a movie screen projecting Stalker, perhaps so the filmmakers can boast that they got people who came to see Charlize Theron beat up people to learn about Andrei Tarkovsky on Google. It's a film that casts Barbara Sukowa in a bit part as if it were a homage to New German Cinema. It is, as I mentioned in passing, a film in which Charlize Theron beats people up, but that doesn't mean it can't be pretentious in its own fashion.

As a movie star, Theron was born in violence. In 2 Days in the Valley she was not just the hot new hottie but the one who got attention for bare-knuckle brawling with Terri Hatcher. She's always been something of an Amazon, and that  probably made it easier for her to earn acclaim and awards playing a Ms. Hyde version of the type, an uglyfied man-hating murderer in Monster. It has long seemed like her destiny to be an action star, especially as she advances into her forties past leading-lady territory. She made a move in that direction right after Monster, but Aeon Flux set back her cause for a while. More recently she's become an A-level genre fixture, finally established as an action goddess by Mad Max: Fury Road. I don't know what the hell she was doing in the last Fast and Furious movie, but for her latest star vehicle she's teamed with some of the people who miraculously transformed Keanu Reeves into a midlife badass in the John Wick films. The promise of Atomic Blonde is that Charlize Theron will not only beat people up, but will do so with style and devastating force and little winks to the movie nerds in the audience.

Stuntman turned director David Leitch has filmed a screenplay adapted from one of those obscure graphic novels that Hollywood pays people to read -- don't envy them until you read a few hundred -- by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad, who most recently wrote the second 300 movie -- the really bad one. I don't know whether he or the original writer deserves the "credit" for Atomic Blonde's utterly generic spy story, which depends on that old standby, the List. In 1989, as the Berlin Wall crumbles, the intelligence agencies of several nations are fighting over one of those lists, the existence of which automatically endangers vast numbers of operatives and assets. MI6's contender in this deadly sweepstakes is Lorraine Broughton (Theron), whose sole useful attribute, from what we see, is her versatility in hand-to-hand combat. She replaces a British agent who was killed, presumably by a traitor known as Satchel. She is to be assisted by David Percival (James McAvoy) an agent working on the other side of the Wall as a black marketeer. Percival has a back-up for the list: the German agent who created the list and has memorized all of it. If all else fails, this man is to be smuggled out of East Berlin. Broughton and Percival have a prickly relationship that happily doesn't consummate in romance, as might have been taken for granted a few years ago. Instead, our heroine has her very own Bond Girl in the form of a French agent (Sofia "The Mummy" Boutella). None of this can be told straightforwardly, of course, because this is the 21st century. Instead, the details are related after the fact during a framing-device debriefing that preempts any suspense about Broughton in Berlin. MI6 has been taken over by Hydra, it seems, since Broughton must answer for her actions to Arnim Zola and his U.S. counterpart (John Goodman). Any narrative (or erotic) momentum the film works up is broken up by its constant return to the inert framing device -- but let's face it. The narrative isn't really meant to have momentum of its own; it only has to transport us from one action setpiece to another, and while the story of the film is pretty tedious, and eventually predictable, those setpieces mostly live up to the advance hype. I'm not going to bother describing them, apart from citing one that plays out during a lengthy Rope-style "single take" as the piece de resistance. It will do to recommend Atomic Blonde as an action film that puts Theron over as an opportunistic, resilient brawler in a relatively realistic style. If Wonder Woman is too fantastic for your tastes, Atomic Blonde should end up your female action movie of the year, though it may try your patience at times when it tries to tell a story instead of doing what it's really good at.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

DVR Diary: THE BIG PARADE (1925)

Ever since Wonder Woman stormed through No Man's Land earlier this year I've wanted to take a fresh look at World War I movies, including those I'd seen before. It had been a while since I looked at King Vidor's 1925 blockbuster, the first major film about the war made after the armistice, with no need for propaganda. It made a superstar of leading man John Gilbert, real stars of romantic lead Renee Adoree and comic relief Karl Dane, and a bankable name of Vidor himself. I didn't remember it being as hard a slog back then. More than half the film is over before we get a battle, and most of that first half is seemingly interminable service comedy stuff with Gilbert, Dane and Tom O'Brien in France. That probably reflects the sensibility of Lawrence Stallings, whose novel Plumes formed the basis of the screenplay. Roughly speaking, Hollywood gave us two kinds of World War I movie between the world wars, not counting the German-point-of-view picture All Quiet on the Western Front. John Monk Saunders, the writer of Wings and many subsequent war pictures, brought a sort of "Lost Generation" post-traumatic sensibility to his work that makes his pictures more accessible today. To be cynical about it, his 1940 suicide probably gives Saunders additional street cred in our time, though if you want to play that game take note that by little more than a decade after Big Parade was completed Gilbert, Adoree and Dane were all dead. Stallings brings a different sensibility to war literature. His major contributions were Plumes and the play he wrote with Maxwell Anderson, What Price Glory, adapted into another blockbuster movie that inspired a spinoff comedy series about its bromantic heroes, Flagg and Quirt. Judging from Big Parade (assuming it to be a faithful adaptation of Plumes) and What Price Glory, it looks like Stallings saw the war as an occasion for the loosening of inhibitions as well as a perhaps pointless slaughter. Hence the girl-chasing in Big Parade as well as the notoriously salty "dialogue," available only to lip-readers, of the What Price Glory film. Saunders covers some of that territory as well, especially in Wings, but his stories always remain more grim than Stallings'. That's not to say that Big Parade doesn't get grim. In fact, it probably came across to its original audiences as very grim, since after building up Gilbert's buddies through that long first half of the picture Vidor promptly destroys them in his one big battle scene.

To back up a bit, Gilbert plays Jim Apperson, wastrel son of a successful businessman who enlists at the spur of the moment when the U.S. declares war on Germany without really thinking about it much. His dad thinks he's become a man at last -- an older brother stays home to help run the business -- but Jim doesn't want to make a big deal of it because he realizes, on his first second thought, that his mother will be horrified. Nevertheless, he leaves home and girlfriend behind to ensure basic training and the many indignities of military life (especially stable cleaning) alongside construction worker Slim (Dane) and bartender Bull (O'Brien). In France, they all have the hots for Melisande (Adoree), but Jim's an easy winner in that contest over his grotesque pals. Finally their unit is called to the front (the intertitles get hysterical about it: "Front! FRONT!" etc.) and Melisande can't stand to see Jim go. In a melodramatic high spot, she clings to the rear fender of the truck taking the men away until she can't hang on anymore, and then lies there abjectly after everyone else has left.

There isn't really any trench warfare in Big Parade unless you count the dark night Jim and his buddies spend in a shell crater. Instead, the Americans advance on the enemy through a forest in a scene famously choreographed by Vidor to establish a rhythm of footsteps, gunshots and falling bodies. In its deliberateness this scene is far from the machine-gun pacing of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet  battles or the relentless tracking shots of Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, but it's a great way to build up tension as the Americans approach their baptism of fire. At a more intimate level, the night scene with the three soldiers in the crater must have been terrifying to the original audience as the men lose each other in darkness and light can mean death. The intertitles go over the top again in their own way -- blame them on movie writer Harry Behn rather than Stallings -- as Jim loses his buddies. "GOD DAMN THEIR SOULS!" he thunders at the Germans as he realizes that they've killed Slim. He gets a bit more explicit than that later, and while I recall seeing a version in which "bastards" is spelled out on screen, the version I saw on TCM (presumably more authentic) bleeps it down to "B---!" In any event, Jim barely survives, taken away in a singular burst of color by a Red Cross truck and sent home minus a leg. He learns that his girl has Dear Johned him with his brother and promptly heads back to France -- whether to stay with Melisande or bring her home to America is unclear. My gut feeling is that he stays, and I suppose there's a message there about the war experience for many Americans. You probably need a sense of Big Parade's place in film history to fully appreciate it now, or at least forgive the patches that have grown dull over time, but it's still essential viewing if you're interested in how Hollywood presented the war supposed to end all war.