Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Alexander Sokurov's FAUST (2011)

The latest film from the director of the acclaimed one-take stunt film Russian Ark has something in common with that perennial candidate for Worst Film of All Time, Manos: The Hands of Fate: an pathetically diabolical actor with grotesquely stuffed trousers. Happily, the resemblance ends there, unless you feel let down by Alexander Sokurov's refusal to show us a war in heaven or the more spectacular episodes of the Faust legend. He's freely adapted Goethe's famous verse play -- with my poor high-school German I still recognized some of the poet's original lines in the film -- but treats the legend as an epilogue (or prequel) to a trilogy of films about 20th century tyrants: Moloch (Hitler), Taurus (Lenin) and The Sun (Hirohito). We are invited to see in Heinrich Faust a precursor of their destructive will to power, and to make him a more immediate ancestor Sokurov has updated the legend to Goethe's own time, the early 19th century. Making a German Faust film he couldn't help but tread on F. W. Murnau's territory but Sokurov's Faust is more reminiscent of Murnau's Nosferatu, while the setting and the mania that drives both Faust and his deranged assistant Wagner are reminiscent as much of Werner Herzog as of Murnau. The film may be as much a riff on German cinema as a riff on German culture and history.

Faust contemplates man (above) and civilization (below)

Sokurov sticks to the first part of Goethe's play, which is fine since Goethe himself didn't get around to part two until almost the end of his life. This leaves us in a mundane setting in which Faust (Johannes Zeiler) and Wagner (Georg Friderich) go about their archetypal quest for knowledge by dissecting cadavers. Wagner is creepy from the start and gets creepier later. The ever-frustrated Faust falls in with Mauricius the moneylender (Anton Adasinsky), Sokurov's Mephistopholes. In a great performance, Adasinsky sets the tone for the film. Mauricius is a petty if not pathetic devil -- the bulges in his clothes suggest that his angelic and demonic physical attributes have been stuffed inside his own grotesquely gnarled flesh. As a moneylender, he's often busy collecting on debts in this world, and in that role he's more hated than feared. He makes the traditional promises to Faust, and Sokurov mystifies the proceedings enough with distorted lenses to indicate that Mauricius can back up his claims. Faust isn't sure what he wants from this strange man until he encounters Gretchen (Isolda Dychauk) in a public bath where Mauricius makes a ridiculous spectacle of himself by stripping and flirting with the other girls. As Faust's desire for Gretchen grows, Wagner grows madly jealous, while Gretchen takes interest in Faust, despite his apparent involvement in her brother's death in a pub brawl, as a form of rebellion against a controlling mother.


Anton Adasinksy as Mauricius, clothed (above) and sort of unclothed (below)

The story follows the barest bones of Goethe's outline, though Sokurov doesn't follow Gretchen's storyline to its melodramatic climax. Indeed, the way he ends the film is a stunning statement of, if not his own than Faust's indifference to the moral stakes involved in his dealing with the devil. Like just about everyone else in the picture, the doctor has treated Mauricius with scorn during their walks through town and countryside. After the moneylender finally entices him to sign the infamous pact with blood, and Faust has his night with Gretchen, Mauricius seeks to recruit Faust into some infernal army, giving him armor to put on while donning some himself for a trek into a wild landscape that might be Hell. The armor soon grows uncomfortable and ridiculous for both travelers. More unexpectedly, Mauricius is increasingly uncomfortable with the environment itself, while Faust is increasingly fascinated.  For the devil this is, presumably, both his domain and his punishment, while for the man it's just a new world to conquer by gaining knowledge of it. A geyser terrifies Mauricius while Faust adores it until it bores him with its repetition. Impatient and uncomfortable, Mauricius demands Faust's soul, but the doctor tells the devil to wait until he's dead -- and if he won't wait Faust is happy to stone the helpless, wailing moneylender until he's buried under rocks, leaving our antihero free to explore this wonderful, terrible new world.

Repulsive as Mauricius is, you may find yourself feeling sympathy for the devil, for rarely has his work been shown to be more thankless, even when he seems to be winning. If Mauricius is a rebel angel of myth his punishment seems to be an inability to enjoy whatever power he gains over men. In town, he's plagued by a woman who claims to be his wife, while Faust, as a contemptuous ingrate, may be typical of what our mediocre Mephistopheles has to deal with in his real work. It's an interesting take on the devil, but where does that leave Faust in Sokurov's scheme of things? If he wants us to link Faust with his historical subjects from the next century, the thing in common must be a certain arrogant fearlessness or an indifference to consequences -- or a failure to take his own soul seriously.

Faust may leave you wondering what the ultimate point is, but it's a beautiful thing to ponder. Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography -- he's since worked with the Coen brothers brilliantly on Inside Llewyn Davis -- will put you in mind not just of Murnau and Herzog but of the paintings, contemporary with Goethe, of Caspar David Friedrich. Visually the picture is as much a masterful accomplishment for Sokurov as Russian Ark was, and the acting lives up to the images. Zeiler is great in the title role, but Georg Friedrich as Wagner nearly steals the film with a Kinskian tirade in which he demands to be called "the great Wagner," tries to convince Gretchen that he's really Faust, and shows her a homunculus -- a disembodied face, really -- he made all by himself to impress her. I must admit that I don't entirely get Sokurov's philosophical or spiritual points, but on a mere movie level Faust is a feast of elegant madness that can be enjoyed on that level -- depending on your taste, or your morals.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: LOVE IS A RACKET (1932)

William Wellman's film introduces us to an ambitious, crusading journalist who's working on an expose of a milk racket. The public may not care about bootlegging and other crimes, but the writer surmises that they'll care if they learn that gangsters are forcing up the price of milk through extortion and other measures. This would-be hero has the ear of his editor and wants the help of his paper's star gossip columnist, Jimmy Russell, who has a lot of underworld connections. Jimmy thinks the story's too dangerous, however, and his caution convinces the editor to kill it. Jimmy (Douglas Fairbanks Jr) is the hero of our story, so you can probably guess where this is going -- but since this is Pre-Code Cinema, you're probably wrong. Jimmy never does expose the milk racket, while the crusader is never shown to be other than what he seems to Jimmy: a reckless fool. He's dumb enough to call his city desk from inside a "speako" owned by head racketeer Eddie Shaw (Lyle Talbot), without realizing that one of Eddie's men is listening in upstairs. Since the crusader is still trying to get Jimmy involved in the story and mentions his name on the line, Eddie sends his head goon, the practical-joking bully Bernie (Warren Hymer) to Jimmy's apartment. Hard-boiled Jimmy isn't scared, or doesn't show it if he is, but he seems genuinely annoyed when Bernie explains why he's there and what the crusader is up to. He calls the pressroom and kills the milk-racket story -- Jimmy has Walter Winchell-like popularity and authority -- and Bernie in turn calls his men to call off a hit on the crusader. That's how things are done in the big city. Crime isn't Jimmy's business and he keeps it out of his column. He goes along to get along and really feels no regrets about it. Nor do the filmmakers expect anyone in the audience to share the crusaders' outrage over the milk racket. This is a comedy, after all -- I think.

The irony of Love is a Racket is that love is the racket that destroys Eddie Shaw. He has the hots for Mary Wodehouse (Frances Dee), the daughter and granddaughter of showgirls and Jimmy Russell's girlfriend. Mary loves Jimmy in spite of the skepticism of her grandma (Cecil "yes, it's a woman" Cunningham), an original Floradora girl, who doubts the reporter's moneymaking potential despite his rather impressive apartment. Still, Jimmy can prove useful, since he devotes his column to promoting Mary's career and hopes to land her a role in the newest production of big-time showman Max Boncur. Unfortunately, Mary is sort of living on spec and has written a number of bad checks. This is the sort of thing that gets people blackmailed, and who should end up with the bad checks but Eddie Shaw? Luring Jimmy out of town by planting a false item that he's gone to Atlantic City, Eddie expects Mary to come to his penthouse and make some sort of deal to get the bad checks back. In Atlantic City, Jimmy blunders into Eddie's trap and becomes Bernie's prisoner. Bernie is irked because he'd bet Eddie fifty bucks that no one would fall for such an obvious plant, and he takes it out on Jimmy by giving him hotfoots and setting his newspaper on fire. But Bernie gets too involved in his gags to keep Jimmy covered properly and the columnist makes his escape to set up the picture's climactic set piece.

Jimmy knows that Eddie has the checks and heads for the penthouse through a signature Wellman rainstorm. Reaching the roof, he hears gunshots, then sees a figure -- it's Mary's grandma -- dart out and dump a gun in the shrubbery before exiting. Jimmy enters the apartment to find Eddie dead. Wellman learned something about soundtrack counterpoint in The Public Enemy, when he played "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles" on a record as Cagney's corpse is delivered to his ma, and he does something similar here. A radio broadcast from a jazz club plays as Jimmy discovers Eddie's body. "The show continues!" the announcer says between tunes. Realizing what's happened and its implications for Mary's future, Jimmy decides to cover up for the grandma. He pours whisky and disarranges furniture to make it look like Eddie had gone blind drunk. Then, after patting down some shrubbery, he drags Eddie's body out to hurl it down to the street. At this point, Jimmy's pal Stanley (Lee Tracy), a reporter for another paper, has shown up. Not knowing about the grandmother, he sees Jimmy lugging and dumping the corpse -- Wellman sends a dummy down and suggests the impact by showing a single shoe landing some distance from the rest of Eddie -- and draws his own conclusions. Lingering after Jimmy leaves, he also sees that Jimmy has left implicating evidence behind, but collects it to protect his friend. That's what reporters do for each other.

It's really a tragedy played as farce the first time around. Returning to the penthouse to report on Eddie's death, and not realizing what Stanley has done for him, Jimmy has a panicky moment when the cops discover a newspaper -- he had carried one with a damning phone number written on it -- and remark on their interesting discovery. It turns out to be a glamour-gal photo on the front page. The cops, being Pre-Code cops, are quite convinced that Eddie died accidentally and no one, presumably, is interested in autopsying Eddie's remains. Only after Jimmy is in the clear does Stanley give him back his own newspaper and tell what he thinks he knows. Naturally, to protect his prospective in-laws Jimmy doesn't set Stanley straight.

If all of this hasn't convinced you that love is a racket, the reporters return to Jimmy's pad with galpal Sally (Ann Dvorak), only to receive a telegram -- Jimmy fears worse when the buzzer rings -- announcing Mary Wodehouse's wedding to Max Boncur. This news inspires a tirade in which Jimmy states the theme and title of the picture and vows to get out of this particular racket for good, only to be stopped short when he finally sees in Sally's eyes what we and Stanley have seen all along. Jimmy doesn't exactly capitulate immediately, but his closing acknowledgment of Sally as "you racketeer" has a here-we-go-again tone that suggests a sequel we'll never see.

A case can be made for Fairbanks Jr. as a definitive male Pre-Code star if only because his Pre-Code persona is so different from the swashbuckling star, his father's son in effect, that classic movie fans actually remember. He's a revelation practically every time I see him, and I've come to like his youthful streetwise self, the one who sounds more Noo Yawk than English, better than his sometimes campier swashbuckling self, who seems a sort of surrender to his heritage after some success creating a distinctive persona that would suddenly be forgotten. Alongside Fairbanks the then fast-rising Lee Tracy is little more than a stooge as Stanley, a character who, depending on how you look at it, is pining for Jimmy from afar as much as Sally is. Fairbanks is really playing the sort of character Tracy would specialize in at his peak of stardom, and this is the rare Pre-Code in which Tracy isn't the most charismatically amoral character on screen. Junior fits the role quite nicely, and his arc of worldy-wise cynic made stupid and reckless by love makes Love is a Racket work, in a modest way, as a somewhat dark comedy, if also a relative trifle in Wellman's torrent of filmmaking at the time.

Here's the trailer from TCM.com:

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Real Pulp Fiction: ARGOSY, AUG. 19, 1939

I skipped reviewing the August 12 issue of Argosy because, well, it stunk virtually from one end to the other. The August 19 issue is far more interesting and entertaining across the board. Luke Short gets his cover-featured serial Hurricane Range off to a solid start, but I'll save a detailed discussion for another time. At the other end of the magazine, Charles Rice McDowell's sports serial The Ringer comes to an unexpected close as the hero ends up possibly crippled if not mortally injured in a car wreck on the verge of an adult career as a sports coach.  Toward the middle, even Jack Mann's The Ninth Life gets more interesting when Mann's hero "Gees" offers his heterodox opinion on the history of religions:

"It must be obvious that that slaughter of the firstborn of Egypt wasn't the work of the universal Power we are beginning today to recognize as the source and ruler of all life. The real God wouldn't go in for wholesale murder of his creations and bring mourning into thousands of homes just to let a horde of Israelites loose to go and do more wholesale slaughter in their promised land. Oh, no!
"By belief in their Jahveh, the collective belief of many thousands of people, and by sacrifices to him, these same Israelites created an actual Jahveh and gave him tremendous power. And you'll find lots of tales in the Old Testament of how the said Jahveh got angry and ran amok, as long as their collective belief and continual sacrifices kept him strong enough for manifestations."

The serial's premise is that the Egyptian cat-god Sekhmet is kept alive by the worship and sacrifices not just of the mysterious vamp Cleo Kefrah, but by those of a more mysterious, more malevolent other. It's taken three chapters for the plot to really come together but Mann's story may yet redeem its deadly-dull opening chapters.

The stand-alone stories are this week's real highlights. Philip Ketchum's "The Valiant Arm," the latest in his Bretwalda series about the axe linked to the destiny of England, has more than normal interest because it pits the latest wielder of the axe against none other than William "Braveheart" Wallace. It will surprise readers who know the Wallace story only through the Mel Gibson movie first to learn the truth about the Battle of Sterling -- it was a turkey shoot, the Brits picked off as they crossed a bridge -- and then by Ketchum's neutrality between the Scots and the English. His King Edwards isn't the monster of Gibson's film but really a generic monarch, neither good nor wicked, who happens to have an evil advisor, the story's real heavy, who plays Edward (never called "Longshanks") and Wallace against each other in hopes of winning Scotland for himself. Wallace himself is portrayed as a kind of romantic hero or antihero, first encountered in disguise as a blind minstrel who helps the hero early and more unexpectedly later. Ketchum weaves a web of what-might-have-been by introducing a heroine whom the villain hopes to pass off as the "Maid of Norway," an heir to the Scots throne thought dead, and who turns out to be that very person, one who could pacify Scotland and end the war if she didn't prefer her obscurity and our hero's company. Ketchum can't change history, after all.

"The Kiss of the Cobra" is Walter C. Brown's latest Chinatown story. As readers may recall, Argosy has two Chinatown specialists: Brown and Arden X. Pangborn, who writes the Wong Soo stories. Here's the difference: Pangborn writes conventional mystery stories about a small-scale Charlie Chan, an informal Oriental troubleshooter in his neighborhood. Brown, I think, gets closer to the transgressive appeal of the Chinatown genre, because he almost always writes about oppressed underdogs who get away with murder while leaving white cops baffled. He does it again here, as his underdog hero takes up a cop's unwitting suggestion that a pet cobra could be used against an oppressor. The hero figures out an alibi for his snake all by himself, and is safely off to China, albeit to fight the Japs, before the dumb cops are any wiser. While pulp Chinatown has the allure of sheer difference, its lasting appeal must have something to do with the idea that normal American rules don't apply there, yet some sort of justice is served. They're some of the most fascinating, if sometimes also the most repellent stuff you can read in pulps.

Donald Barr Chidsey returns with the novelet "Flaming Acres," the prolific pulpster's most outrageous story yet during our survey. At least it's outrageous by our 21st standards the way the movie Reefer Madness is. In this one an abandoned real estate project is used as a hideout for gangsters growing "Muggles ... Grifo, mari, moota" -- marihuana!

It is known in Africa as Cannabis Sativa, colloquially dogga, choras, Leainba, or, in Morocco, schira. Cannabis Indica, or Indian hemp, comes sometimes in the form of bhang ("cementer of friendship"), a coarse powder; sometimes as gunja ("the laugh mover") in little bundles like tobacco. The Arabic name is hasheesh.
There is also a Cannabis Americana.
The three kinds are essentially the same; yet such is the enchantment distance lends, that people who speak with bated breath of the fabled exotic hasheesh sniff and shrug at the mention of marihuana, which for all they know may be growing right in their own backyard.
For it's a weed. It is not tropical or sub-tropical. It does not demand mountain air or desert aridity. In fact it is not fussy at all, requiring no fertilizer. It will grow practically anywhere. It seeds itself, spreads, multiplies. It is no fancy cultivated growth like the poppy of the erythroxylon coca. It doesn't any more care where it springs than it carew whom it kills. If its principal name happens to be Mexican, this does not cause it to feel any respect for the international boundary. It does at least as much damage north of the Rio Grande as south of that stream. It grows wild. It grows along railroad tracks and in vacant lots. Oh, it's a weed; though unlike most weeds it is not merely ugly but dangerous as well.

This story comes complete with giggling gunmen and other specimens besides:

A pudgy thing with a charlotte russe face bobbed smirkingly. It was about twenty years old and looked as though a breath of fresh air would kill it.
"Come in, buddy! Come in! You want a smoke?"
There were four other critters besides this worm, three of them horizontal, two completely out of the picture. One dragged very slowly at a cigarette as though it hurt him. He stared at the ceiling. But the upright one was chockful of animation. He drummed his fingers on the table at which he sat, chuckled and sang. When he saw Fred he counced up and down happily.
"Oh goody-goody! Company! [...] Sit down, sweetheart, and I'll buy you a pill. How'd you cut your head? Ta-ta-ti-ta! Look, you take the two low parts and I'll take the high parts and I'll be in Scotland before you. I'll do the orchestra accompaniment besides. All set? It's the quartet from Rigoletto. At least I think that's what it is. You'll recognize it anyway, once we get started."

Add to all this a dramatic scene in which the hero is buried alive in a truckload of pot plants and Flaming Acres is right! From the vantage of 75 years later Chidsey's story may be more camp than pulp, but it's bound to entertain one way or the other.

Rounding out the issue is "Crying Hound," a hunting story by Jim Kjelgaard, and Richard Sale's short story "Benefit Performance." Following closely after Sale's railroad ghost story, you expect something similarly Twilight Zoney when a superannuated Civil War veteran has a mental breakdown after his great-grandson jokingly accuses him of assassinating Abraham Lincoln. Old Abe himself appears before the old man's deathbed to set the record straight, but Sale turns the tables by showing us that Abe is just an actor hired by concerned relatives to reassure the veteran, and that the oldtimer knew this all along. It's a cute note to close on for this week.

I'll have to skip another week simply because I don't have access to the August 26 issue, but this feature will return the following week with yet another Richard Sale story, an E. Hoffman Price tale of the Ethiopian resistance and plenty more where those came from.


Monday, August 18, 2014

THE RAID: REDEMPTION (Serbuan Maut, 2011)

The decade's new standard for martial arts movies was set by a police thriller combining Indonesian performers and a Welsh director. Gareth Evans's Raid is the sort of action movie that may compel some American viewers to suspend disbelief as it segues from conventional cop action to martial arts mayhem. Where did the guns go? There's plenty of shooting early, but as the raiding cops, having no hope of backup and actually set up, fight their way up a tenement tower, practically a panopticon of peril, to the lair of crime lord Tama, we go from guns to machetes and finally to feet and bare hands. The transition is nearly seamless if you know what you're getting into, but Evans, who writes as well as directs, overplays his hand just a little when he has Mad Dog, one of Tama's sub-bosses, make a speech about how much more he enjoys beating people to death with his hands than he enjoys shooting or stabbing them. All pretense of urban realism falls away in that moment and The Raid stands revealed as pure pulp fiction. Anyway, Indonesia probably isn't as much of a gun culture as the U.S. or some other places. As The Act of Killing ably illustrates, people of the peninsula are often quite inventive about dispatching their enemies.

The Raid remains very much a cop film after it shows its true genre colors. Its behind-the-scenes subject is the treacherous politics of policing. The raid's commanding officer, Wahyu, doesn't tell his men until they're already in too deep that they can't expect backup because his is an unauthorized mission, his rogue action to kill or capture Tama. Wahyu's agenda is so close to his vest that he's ready to betray his men to the ultimate extent. Yet he proves a dupe, or so Tama claims when he tells the officer that he'd been tipped off about the raid and invited to kill a troublesome cop, the rest being a bonus. One gets the sense that the Jakarta police are authoritarian, ruthless and corrupt, except for an honest handful, many of whom end up sacrificed to the ambitions or rivalries of higher-ups. I could see an American film on the same subject, except it'd be guns all the way to the top floor.

I'm not complaining about The Raid, because the martial arts lived up to the film's already-lofty reputation. The highlight and instant entry in the best-fight-scene-ever sweepstakes is the two-on-one climax pitting the aforementioned Mad Dog (fight co-choreographer Yayan Ruhian) against a surviving cop and another sub-boss who happens to be the cop's brother. Again, Mad Dog takes the story into preposterous pulp territory; he has his erstwhile partner chained and is pummeling him like a heavy bag when the cop shows up. There's a pause while Mad Dog frees his captive, who proves hardly worse for wear, so our villain can test his might against two antagonists. Fastidious Mad Dog even raises the chain back up the ceiling so it won't impede the action or be used unfairly. If that sounds silly in the description, especially when I mention how the brothers wait patiently for him to finish, it's also a brilliant way for Evans to build anticipation for a battle that justifies the wait. For all the all-out mayhem he directs, Evans also proves himself quite good at suspense. He's happy to bring things to a halt after a gangster has plunged his machete repeatedly through a flimsy wall like a magician running his swords through the magic trunk with the girl in it. Our cop hero is behind the wall with a wounded partner and has just had his cheek sliced by that machete when something distracts the criminal. He has to stand there with that blade literally in his face, and he has to make sure somehow that there's no blood to tip off his pursuer when the blade is finally withdrawn. Nicely done.

Remarkably, Evans has not yet been assigned a Hollywood tentpole -- the Godzilla people went with a different Gareth -- though he did contribute to last year's portmanteau film V/H/S2. Instead he released The Raid 2 earlier this year and has announced a Raid 3, while an American Raid is reportedly in the works with little if any input from the original director. Evans may simply prefer to work in his adopted homeland, and it's not as if he hasn't made a name for himself worldwide from that base. Watch this space for a review of Raid 2 before the year is out; that should give some idea of whether Evans bears further watching.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

On the Big Screen: GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

This is a time of turmoil in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Next year's Ant-Man is the studio's first publicly troubled production following the departure of director Edgar Wright after he spent years convincing the company to make a movie with the character. For me, the big mystery surrounding this debacle has been why Wright was unable to work with Marvel while the company has just released a film by the director of Super, a particularly irreverent and brutal superhero parody. One difference, reportedly, is that Super's James Gunn is a great pal of Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon. This might mean Gunn could get away with more, but it more likely means Gunn proved more of a team player than Wright. Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy remains a Marvel movie first and foremost, but it has a split personality, reflecting not so much Gunn's sharing of screenplay chores with Nicole Perlman but a desire by all involved to please multiple audiences at once. It mocks and indugles the tropes of the genre simultaneously. Well, not literally simultaneously, but Guardians is like a movie that had scenes reshot but kept both versions of each scene. It could be accused of satirizing its own sentimentality, but sometimes the scenes are in the wrong order. One of the film's funniest moments comes when Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) declares his friendship for his recent companions as they embark on a likely suicide mission. His soul soars as he turns to each new friend, while his language grows progressively more insulting. You are my friend, he tells Peter "Star-Lord" Quill (Chris Pratt), and the "dumb tree" Groot (voiced minimally by Vin Diesel) is his friend, and this "green whore" Gamorra (Zoe Soldana) is also his friend! Bautista, a professional wrestler who should be the breakout star of this film, nails the moment; he has a knack for deadpan throwaway utterances of absurd things that shows great comic timing on his and Gunn's part. I suspect that Drax is the character closest to Gunn's heart, or to the spirit of Super. Not long afterward, the film lurches toward tearjerking as one character makes the ultimate sacrifice to save the others, and later still it's nearly as treacly when the survivors clasp hands to share the ordeal of containing unimaginable cosmic power. But any perceived inconsistency in tone isn't necessarily contradictory. Most of the audience most likely laughs at Drax's friendship speech and chokes up just as readily later. The sentimental moments are among the film's weakest, starting with the mawkish scene at the deathbed of Peter's mom back in 1988. You can believe that Gunn and/or Perlman can't take these moments seriously, yet recognize their necessity for some in the audience and for their own effort to sell Guardians as a film about Friendship. The great thing about tentpole movies is that you can eat your cake and have it, too. I'll remember Drax's speech and similarly snarky or hard-boiled moments and others will remember this as a rollicking buddy picture. What reconciles these perceptions is the idea that the whole -- the team and the film -- is greater than the sum of its parts.

For Marvel, Guardians is a major opening-out of the cinematic universe to begin to encompass the vastness of the comic-book cosmos. Comics fans will recognize many of the names dropped, yet I wonder whether moviegoers will remember the shadowy Thanos (Josh Brolin) as the death-courting figure glimpsed briefly at the end of The Avengers. Here he's like the godfather of cosmic crime, and a wicked stepfather to Gamorra and her evil cyborg sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). Thanos will be a major figure in the third cycle of Marvel movies, or so we presume, but he was actually somewhat of a disappointment in his first real appearance. But this is a rare modern adventure film in which the villains are easily the weakest characters, including Nebula and the immediate antagonist Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). None of them has much of a personality beyond blunt malevolence, but since the point of the picture is to put over the personalities of the Guardians it can be forgiven some lackluster villainy. The Guardians do enough bickering among themselves to make up for it. As a result no overarching plotlines are much advanced -- the Collector (Benicio del Toro), introduced at the end of Thor: The Dark World as a seeker after Infinity Stones, is no further along in his quest, while Thanos doesn't seem to have any agenda of his own at the moment.

The real work of Guardians, apart from establishing its team, is to make the Marvel cosmos a welcoming place full of humanoid aliens rather than interchangeable reptilian-insectoid hordes. The prevalence of humanoids reminds some viewers of Star Wars but really only makes Guardians an old-school space opera with modern badass elements. Gunn and Perlman avoid the pitfall of trying to explain the cosmos, apart from introducing the concept of the Infinity Stones. Most thankfully, they avoided making Peter Quill a point-of-view character who has to have everything explained to him. The writers most likely realized that audiences don't really need to understand how the whole Marvel universe works, and that they don't really care (any more than the writers) about the fate of the planet Xandar. If anything, Marvel space looks too familiar, Xandar a little too much like Asgard and other places too much like the dark worlds of Thor movies. Rather than impose a tour guide on us, the filmmakers ground or experience with an oldies soundtrack, Peter's "Awesome Mix" casette of Seventies tunes. This itself is a bit of pandering but at least it means that Guardians doesn't sound like every other superhero movie, and it really was cool to see them do their hero march to The Runaways' "Cherry Bomb," even if Gamorra can't repress a yawn.

Peter himself is a familiar heroic loser type and not really a strong character, and an inevitable quest to find his father doesn't look promising. He's overshadowed by Drax and even more by Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a belligerent vivisected "lower animal" who resents the "raccoon" label without even knowing what a raccoon is. Hell, even Groot overshadows the relatively bland Peter and Gamorra with his possibly limitless repertoire of powers and his ability to invest "I am Groot" with as many meanings as a wookie's wail. None of the Guardians is entirely immune to pathos, and sometimes the writers overcompensate, as in a late scene when Rocket and Drax ask the Xandar authorities whether it's okay for them, newly pardoned, to steal and kill respectively. That's one of the few comic scenes in the picture to completely fail, but overall Guardians is the sort of hit-or-miss venture in which activity counts most. When a picture throws so much at you, all the way to the surprise appearance of a former Marvel movie star after the credits, it can stand a lot of misfires and still keep a healthy batting average. While I'm not sure what these guys can do in a second picture, even though the writers already have ideas, I won't mind spending another couple of hours in their raucous company.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


In 1936, someone at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer looked at their young contract player James Stewart and saw a homicidal maniac. You can see the results of such thinking in After the Thin Man, and you might have seen it here as well, in a project W. S. Van Dyke inherited in 1937 after the sudden death of Richard Boleslawski, had some other producer wanted Stewart for another picture. The gossip columnists reported that poor Stewart had badly wanted the role of Him to whom They Gave a Gun, but that now Metro would seek to cast an unknown. They ended up casting Franchot Tone, not exactly an unknown, and while They Gave Him a Gun might have been a game-changer for Stewart, following so closely after After, it probably made little difference in Tone's career. Still, Tone looks like a better fit for the part than Stewart would have been. He seems innately sicklier, which seems to be what the role of Jimmy Davis requires. Adapted from a novel by sometime writer-director William J. Cowen -- who at one point hoped to direct this himself -- the screenplay combines antiwar attitudes that would soon go out of fashion with pop psychology about crime. In our own time there's a temptation to think of gangsters romantically as warriors, even knights of a sort in their own feudal world, or as superpredators standing above us civilians on the food chain and thus superior in at least a practical way to the rest of us. By contrast, during the Thirties, when figures as diverse as Al Capone and John Dillinger changed the face of crime, it was asserted, as a matter of propaganda if not professional opinion, that the gangster was really a misfit, a loser, inferior mentally and or physically to bourgeois man and thus unsuited to bourgeois work habits. In short, the gangster was nothing without his guns. In its crudest form, this point is illustrated in early superhero comics when Robin the Boy Wonder can take out three or four crooks with his bare hands, after they've been challenged to take him on without their weapons.Gangsters were less than nothing, in fact, but actually outright cowards without their guns.

Jimmy Davis, as imagined by the screenwriters if not the novelist, demonstrates this thesis. A mild mannered draftee during the Great War, he faints at the prospect merely of sticking his bayonet into a practice dummy during basic training. Someone like this, the film says, has no business fighting a war, yet he was taken by conscription and sent to Europe, where his buddy the carny barker Fred Willis (Spencer Tracy, nearly typecast after Dante's Inferno) looks after him. Jimmy's war is part Full Metal Jacket, part Saving Private Ryan. Like Kubrick's Pvt. Pyle, Jimmy finds that marksmanship is the one thing he's good at, and he starts to feel fond of his weapon. He becomes a super sniper, but before his moment of grace undergoes an ordeal of cowardice. Stumbling upon a dead German while climbing a flight of stairs, Jimmy mistakes the corpse for a live soldier drawing a bead on him and instantly surrenders. Realizing his error, he ascends and finds he has a perfect nest to annihilate an enemy machine gun position. Gleefully he takes the Germans out one by one before his own position is blasted.

As Jimmy recovers, the romantic triangle plot kicks in. Jimmy and Fred are fond of the same nurse, the hard-boiled Rose Duffy (Gladys George). She prefers Fred despite giving him a lot of sass and a little physical abuse, but he goes missing during a big offensive while Jimmy's recovering. By the time Fred returns, having been a P.O.W., Jimmy and Rose are engaged. Fred can tell that Rose will dump Jimmy if he says so, but he also sees that Jimmy is too psychologically fragile to stand the loss. It's time for some pathos of renunciation as Fred lies to Rose about a wife and kids at home and earns her hatred for seemingly having strung her along.

According to one review I've read, Cowen's novel describes in detail Jimmy's troubles readjusting to civilian life, perhaps portraying him as a Forgotten Man driven to crime by the lack of other opportunities. The movie skips directly to Fred's rediscovery of Jimmy, who has an office in a building from which a sniper has just shot a gangster to death. The coincidence makes Fred, who now runs his own circus, suspicious, but Mrs. Rose Davis takes her husband as what he claims to be, a now-successful businessman. Inevitably, with Fred hanging around again, she grows suspicious of Jimmy, visits his office after hours and finds him plotting a St. Valentines style massacre with killers in cop uniforms. She rats him out and he goes to jail. He pleads guilty to keep his gang from whacking her and appears determined to go straight, but a fellow con goads him into a breakout. Jimmy tracks Rose to Fred's circus and demands that she go on the lam with him. She's willing as a matter of wifely duty but Fred's having none of it. He dares Jimmy to shoot him, asserting his own dominance by pretty much telling him he's nothing without a gun -- and Jimmy buys it, since Fred's always talked straight to him. He also figures out the score between Fred and Rose, which leaves him one honorable thing to do....

The film's final lines try to nail it down as an antiwar film. One of the cops hunting Jimmy is his and Fred's old drill instructor, to whom Fred says of Jimmy, "You oughta pin a medal on him. He was your prize pupil." This seems unfair, if only because the soldier/cop hasn't been a big enough character in the story. It may also muddle things, especially to more modern viewers for whom guns alone may suffice to explain Jimmy's tragic career, without bringing the military into it. Moreover, Cowen's original argument seems to have been that the system as a whole, in peace as well as war, deformed Jimmy by turning him into a killing machine only to kick him to the curb when it didn't need killers anymore. By leaving out Jimmy's pre-crime efforts to readjust, the movie makes it look like he made a beeline to crime and makes him look more like a villain than the victim it claims him to be at the end. The movie's real problem is that it needs to be Jimmy's story, but we mostly get Jimmy from Fred's point of view. The fact that Fred emerges from the war unscathed further undermines the closing argument that militarism mutated Jimmy into the monster Fred discovers in civilian life. Above all, the fait accompli that forces us to accept that misfit Jimmy has become a powerful gangster without seeing his ascent is deeply unconvincing, Franchot Tone being no more plausible in this respect than Jimmy Stewart might have been. In simplest terms the movie tries to explain too much and leaves too much unexplained. Since 1937 is still early in the "Code Enforcement" era, the filmmakers may have gone out of their way to steer clear of anything that might have looked like "glorifying" crime while portraying Jimmy's rise to power. Yet They Gave Him a Gun reminds us that the Code Enforcement (or "Classic") era was not a monolithic period of consistent rules. Not long after 1937 no one would have dared suggest that anyone's personality could be warped by the military giving him a gun. From the vantage point of World War II, 1937 looks like a period of relative freedom in movies, however it looks in comparison to Pre-Code Cinema. They Gave Him a Gun may be a failure, but Metro deserves some credit for taking a chance on an ambitious subject.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)


This seems like another order of magnitude from yesterday's news. From Howard Hawks to Lars Von Trier -- put it that way and has anyone had such a career? As Bogart's consort, Bacall has been a legendary figure almost from her start in movies, seventy years ago. Arguably from the instant she appeared in To Have and Have Not she was the coolest woman on film. Her passing leaves us closer to the end of our live ties to Hollywood's classic era. She probably was the most iconic survivor of those days until now. Her filmography isn't huge or deep, but for a while you could believe that everyone knew her, and anyone who saw her and heard her will remember her. And for the hell of it, I suppose, she did a voice for Family Guy this year, so people who don't know her have heard her. Give a whistle in her honor if you know how.