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.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

On the Big Screen: DUNKIRK (2017)

How ironic that reviewers have rushed to call Dunkirk Christopher Nolan's best film, as if in implicit rebuke to all his genre pictures, when all he did was make a war film just as he would make a genre picture. As for reviews declaring Dunkirk one of the greatest war pictures, don't make me laugh. It's neither that nor Nolan's best film -- for me, that is either The Dark Knight or The Prestige -- but it is a decent war film and admirable in its compactness at under two hours. More than anything else, Dunkirk is a battle movie done as a thriller, designed to keep the audience in constant suspense regardless of their knowledge of history. Most people going to the movie  know (I hope!) that the good guys win this one, that the British manage to evacuate their army with help from a cross-channel civilian flotilla. But that doesn't tell you whether Nolan's fictional characters will make it through or not. Unlike most battle films, Dunkirk is a micro-epic, focusing on whether a few particular characters whose individual fates are uncertain will survive or succeed. We don't really get the macro perspective except for Kenneth Branagh's scenes as an anxious naval commander, and unlike the classic World War II battle film template, we don't get the enemy perspective at all. On one level that hurts Dunkirk because it can't answer the question of why the Germans didn't make a serious effort to wipe out the British army, though any film of this story can't help but beg that question. On the other hand, it's a matter of artistic license not to care what the Germans were thinking.

The whole point of Nolan's Dunkirk is to immerse 21st century movie audiences in the terrifying immediacy of 20th century war, and it succeeds at that as much as any film can that simultaneously distracts the audience with Nolanesque gimmickry. To Nolan's credit, he's upfront about the gimmickry as he introduces his three storylines. The gimmick is that the three stories, while intercut with each other constantly, aren't actually concurrent until near the end of the picture. The opening story, dealing with some stray soldiers straggling to the beach and struggling to worm their way onto any available escape ship, takes place over the course of a week. A second narrative featuring Mark Rylance as a civilian boat captain taking part in the rescue mission over the objections of Nolan stalwart Cillian Murphy (who has a seemingly incomplete story arc of his own linking the beach and boat stories) takes place over the course of one day. The third thread, focusing on Tom Hardy's Spitfire pilot (the actor again spends much of a film behind a mask) battling German planes, plays out over the course of a single hour. There's no real reason to do this apart from "Christopher Nolan," but as long as audiences understand what the onscreen notes explain it doesn't really hurt the picture, either. None of the storylines spoil each other, allowing the audience to concentrate on each individual deathtrap or combat episode. Structurally, Dunkirk is not unlike those feature-length condensations of golden-age serials that include all the cliffhangers but leave little room for much else. Think of it as a Republic picture made with absolute mastery and a grown-up screenplay on an unlimited budget, with the added Nolan virtue of minimal fakery of the sea and air action. There's no disputing that Nolan is very good at suspense, and credit is definitely due the skill with which he (as sole writer) finally converges the three storylines, as Hardy battles to keep a German plane from slaughtering helpless soldiers, including our beach heroes, swimming from a sinking minesweeper to Rylance's boat. The hyperbole of early reviewers might provoke a backlash that the film doesn't deserve, but that hyperbole does compel me to say that Dunkirk, for all its virtues, is the most overrated film of 2017 so far.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

1898 (...Los ultimos de Filipinas, 2016)

There's something about the Philippines, I guess, that makes foreign soldiers very reluctant to leave. The U.S. definitely overstayed its welcome there, but at least we didn't leave last-ditch fanatics behind when we decided to leave. When I was growing up, however, the world was fascinated by stories of Japanese soldiers holed up in the islands for up to thirty years after the end of World War II. There was precedent for this, on a more modest scale, after the 1898 war in which the U.S. "liberated" the Philippines from Spain. Despite that crushing defeat, a Spanish garrison held out at Baler, in eastern Luzon, for nearly a year, surrendering only in June 1899. The siege of Baler was the subject of a heroic war film in 1945, during the Franco dictatorship. Salvador Calvo's remake is far less celebratory.

The garrison is made up mostly of recent arrivals from Spain, few of whom have any real training. Our point-of-view character among these recruits is an aspiring artist who befriends the resident priest. While the soldiers can hold out for months with the ammo available, the important thing for the priest and his new protege is a plentiful supply of opium. One important thing the unit lacks is nutritious produce. Berberi breaks out, killing the original commander. The men continue to hold out, though at least one deserts.

Meanwhile, as the besieging Filipinos well know, Spain is negotiating a sale of the islands to the victorious U.S. to bring the war to a definitive close. Anticipating their next war with the Americans, the natives would like to end the siege with minimal fuss and hope to convince the Spaniards with up-to-date newspapers. The new commander dismisses all reports as fake news, contrived to trick them into surrendering. Eventually, our artist hero is sent out on a mission to get authentic news from Manila, the capital. He's promptly captured by a courteous Filipino commander who sends him on his way in the hope that the truth will set everyone free. The commander still won't believe and condemns the artist as a drug-addled traitor. Our hero will survive the siege, but his artistic ambitions end up one last casualty of a hopeless war.

The siege of Baler was something new to me, and that lent novelty to 1898. The siege was no Alamo and its conclusion -- the commander finally reads a piece of news he can't dismiss as fake -- is inescapably anticlimactic. The maiming of our artist hero serves as a symbolic catastrophe on top of the already pointless deaths during the siege. The film's real strength is its ensemble cast, led by Luis Tosar, Javier Gutierrez and Alvaro Cervantes as the artist. There's nothing really innovative here as far as battle films go, but for audiences outside the Spanish-speaking world 1898 provides a fresh look at the absurdity of imperialism and the folly of war.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

George A. Romero (1940-2017)

Romero died bitter. Once you get past today's obituaries, a Google News search will point you to interviews published earlier this month, as he struggled to raise funds for another Dead film that he had co-written and planned to produce. He railed against today's zombie movies and shows, convinced that such things as World War Z and especially The Walking Dead, products he apparently saw as bastardized versions of his vision, had made it impossible for him to get financing for his modestly-budgeted ideas. Romero apparently took it as an insult that he had been invited to direct episodes of Walking Dead, and he showed what strikes me as a reactionary blindness toward that show's significance, based on what fans of the show tell me, when he complained that it had reduced the "zombie apocalypse" to a mere backdrop for what he called soap opera, while the Dead films always were elevated, or so the auteur implied, by his inclusion of satiric subtexts. I don't watch The Walking Dead, but the impression I get from those who've watched and commented on it is that such a show can't help but comment implicitly on the world of here and now. In short, in his frustration Romero was unfair to those who followed in his footsteps or, as he may have seen it, stood on his shoulders to reach glories denied him. But George A. Romero was a filmmaker entitled to some indulgence of his unfair moods. The shows he despised at the end of his life were only further proof that Romero himself had made, in Night of the Living Dead, one of the handful of most culturally influential movies ever made. It introduced the world to what is still often called a "Romero zombie," to distinguish it from both the voodoo-driven thralls of past movies and the more articulate (sometimes muscularly, sometimes verbally) brain-eaters seen later. It was a milestone in horror cinema despite its tiny budget and its unlikely appearance as a black and white gore film in 1968. It was also indisputably a work of genius that earned his follow-up zombie films Dawn and Day the status of unique events, and not just because their standard-setting gore defied the ratings system and normal exhibition policies. A second trilogy of 21st century films was less successful, but Land of the Dead was still a great entertainment that advanced Romero's mythos in major, tantalizing ways, and Survival of the Dead proved him still a fine storyteller in the pulp tradition at the effective end of his career. It's important now to remind people of the great films Romero made outside the zombie genre. My favorites include his vampire film Martin and especially his neo-Arthurian biker movie Knightriders, while Creepshow, his and Stephen King's homage to EC Comics, still has many fans. In the end, Romero had a right to be bitter, if only because he never cashed in on the incredible popularity of his zombie innovation the way he should have, but lived to see many others feeding on the harvest he'd planted. But if history can be a solace, Romero should rest in peace -- unless, like John Leguizamo in Land, he wants to see "how the other half lives."...

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On the Big Screen: WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017)

Matt Reeves' Planet of the Apes trilogy has gradually moved away from the concept's dystopian foundation, as established by original novelist Pierre Boulle and original screenwriter Rod Serling, making the saga of Caesar the chimp revolutionary a crowd-pleasing fantasy series. His movies remain superficially dystopian, portraying the further decline of the human race, but by now they don't feel dystopian in any meaningful way because no one's rooting for the humans. From the beginning, the Apes myth has been the sort of dystopia in which the victims had it coming; Charlton Heston's final rant in the 1968 movie sets the tone. Keep at it and the victims are bound to lose viewers' sympathy, especially when the filmmakers don't treat them as victims, but villains. The best proof of Reeves' success is that people don't ask themselves whether, as human beings, they should be happy with the results of his films. A lot of people will credit this to Andy Serkis's by-now overrated (But still good! Don't kill me!) motion-capture performances as Caesar and the sympathy he earns for the apes, but it really comes down to the writing -- and maybe also to a more misanthropic spirit in our time. You might expect a divided audience, some identifying more strongly with the apes while identifying the humans with certain more obnoxious or oppressive members of the species, while some still regard even the purely fictional prospect of human extinction with horror. But I doubt whether anyone watching War is not on Caesar's side, no matter what that means for those who aren't.

We open with the war promised at the end of the last picture underway. Diminished as they are by the simian flu, humans in northern California still outnumber and outgun Caesar's band of artificially-evolved apes, but still can't overcome the ape defenses in the dense forest. Nevertheless, each skirmish brings unacceptable losses, and Caesar hopes to break out of the forest and head south, where there are, presumably, fewer humans. Col. McCullough (Woody Harrelson), the leader of the local army, isn't going to let the apes go so easily. Doubly resentful now that he's discovered that simian flu is a gift that keeps on giving, McCullough (referred to by everyone else as simply "The Colonel") intends to exterminate the apes through slave labor. He's put captive apes to work building a wall -- don't freak out, anybody; the screenplay was written before anyone took Trump seriously, and in any event the wall is meant to keep out fellow humans, fellow soldiers even. A main force further north hasn't taken well with the Colonel's method of controlling the spread of secondary simian flu, which is to shoot anyone who contracts it, including his own son. Despite his extinction agenda, McCullough has simian collaborators: followers of the late Koba (Toby Kebbell takes a few encores to haunt Caesar's dreams) who paradoxically make common cause with humans out of fear and resentment of Caesar. In his greatest blunder as a leader, Caesar sends the majority of the apes south while he seeks personal revenge for casualties inflicted in one of the Colonel's raids on the forest. He's accompanied by his stalwarts: Luca the gorilla (Michael Adamthwaite), Maurice the orangutan (Karin Konoval) and Rocket the chimp (Terry Notary) -- and by a little human girl (Amiah Miller) that Caesar's crew inadvertently orphaned, and for whom the kindly Maurice in particular feels responsible. We learn eventually that her muteness is a result of the secondary virus, but more on that later. While this motley band, joined eventually by the first evolved ape they've ever seen who isn't part of their original group, heads toward a border station where they expect to find the Colonel, that clever man swept down upon the refugee apes with such swiftness and efficiency that they all arrive there and are put to work before Caesar reaches the place.

I prefer to keep spoilers at a minimum for non-superhero movies so I won't say much about the rest of the film, except to describe it as a cross between Apocalypse Now and The Ten Commandments, the latter proving the dominant strain even though Reeves openly invites comparison with the former with a bald, crazy colonel and some "Apepocalypse Now" graffiti. There's clever symbolic labeling throughout the film; the Colonel's soldiers call the apes "Kongs" but dub their gorilla collaborators "Donkeys"; one soldier's battle slogan, written on his helmet, is "Bedtime for Bonzo." There's more overt humor here than in the previous films, perhaps because Reeves recognizes by now how popular these films are. We even get a comedy-relief ape in the aforementioned but just-now identified "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn), whose nebulous origin story opens the door to further exploration or the increasingly apish planet. He got smart like his fellow zoo apes but he honestly isn't very bright. His main trait is old-school comic cowardice of the sort that gets set aside when your buddies apply enough pressure. The little girl, who is given the easter-egg name "Nova" after one of Bad Ape's car-ornament trinkets, often proves more useful than this simian who never learned sign-language and thus can't communicate understand the other apes when Caesar's not around to translate. About the girl and her sickness: anyone who knows the history of Planet of the Apes can see that her plight evokes the mute humans Charlton Heston encounters. But what has happened to her exactly? For Col. McCullough the secondary flu is a fate worse than death because it robs people of speech. He also claims that victims are reduced to a "primitive" state, but we have only his hysterical word for that, compared to the evidence of Nova, who picks up the apes' sign language readily enough and displays numerous positive character traits that belie the Colonel's pejorative sense of "primitive." One could almost believe that the secondary flu has purified the girl, whose future is one of the more tantalizing threads that could be picked up in a post-Reeves sequel. For now, at least, it looks like Reeves and co-writer Mark Bombeck may have meant to make a point about our identification of sentience with speech or our reluctance to ascribe sentience to those without speech, but if so they fudge it a little by having Caesar talk more often than he probably needs to or should in story terms, for the obvious reason of reinforcing audience identification with the hero chimp.

As I said, the Ten Commandments gene ultimately overwhelms the film, inflicting a gratuitous disaster climax on top of the genuine climax of Caesar's escape from the Colonel's base in the middle of an air attack by the enemy army. It keeps up after that extra-climax with a sadly flat denouement at the edge of the promised land, with Maurice as Caesar's Aaron and Rocket as his Joshua, while Reeves can think of nothing better for Nova and Bad Ape to do than romp around in circles in something like a parody of play. But I won't hold the end of the picture against its actual story or Reeves' overall direction. War relies on emotional intensity rather than frantic action, often lingering on the wondrously expressive faces of Caeasr -- surely you can't credit Serkis alone for all of this -- and the other lead apes, and emphasizing Harrelson's profoundly menacing presence as the Colonel without requiring him to emote villainously. Reeves is at his best simply framing Harrelson watching the imprisoned Caesar from his balcony, or receiving the adulation of his troops while preoccupied with shaving his head. Harrelson does a tremendous job under Reeves' direction to compete with the lead apes, who probably are the best CGI creations on film to date, not counting Pixar movies. Reeves can shoot close-ups of their faces with Leonean intensity with full justification; you really do feel like you can see the inner workings of Caesar, Maurice or Rocket's mind when they're not talking or signing. War may not really stick the landing, but it should still go down as one of the best third films in a series. While there can and perhaps should be more films in this Apes series, Reeves' trilogy should stand for some time as one of the most impressive achievements in modern genre film.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017


Pierre Boule had an idea in 1963 that may keep going forever. His novel La Planète des Singes has inspired two successful movie franchises, not counting the one-off Tim Burton reboot from 2001. With Matt Reeves' third Apes film opening this weekend, it seemed time to give some recognition to two of the more obscure manifestations of the Planet phenomenon. After the original movie series wrapped with 1973's Battle for the Planet of the Apes, 20th Century Fox decided to start over in a different medium. Coming so soon after the last movie, the Planet of the Apes TV series must have looked like second-class stuff, despite the presence of Roddy McDowall, the Cornelius and Caesar of the movies. Objectively speaking, as a matter of production values the show was second-class, to be generous, and McDowall may only have confused fans by playing neither Cornelius nor Caesar but an entirely new character, the privileged dissident chimpanzee Galen. In fact, the cast of characters is entirely new except for the elite orangutan Zaius (Booth Colman), and in the most noteworthy change from the 1968 original, the planet's humans are intelligent and articulate, more serfs than cattle. This was a sensible and pragmatic change, since it gave the show's protagonists characters they could talk to who did not require ape makeup. Galen befriends two human astronauts, Burke (James Naughton) and Virdon (Ron Harper) who've made the usual crash-landing into their own world's future, only on the west coast rather than the east-coast setting of Charlton Heston's adventure. These three fugitives make their way up and down the coast, pursued by soldiers answering to the gorilla General Urko (Mark "Sarek" Lenard), and confronting different aspects of ape civilization along the way. The two astronauts are the show's great weakness. They're utterly whitebread bland, infinitely skilled in outdoor crafts and initially distinguishable from one another only by hair color, though one eventually shows a more cautious personality than the other. The show's real virtue, which only became apparent too late to save it from an early cancellation after 14 episodes, was its more in-depth exploration of the planet's society than was possible in any of the movies. It drove home that the Planet of an Apes was an oppressive regime even for most apes apart from privileged landowners and gorilla soldiers. At the same time, it rejected a simplistic apes bad-humans good dichotomy not just by having Galen along as a hero but by portraying a wide range of human responses to ape oppression, from servile collaboration to genocidal terrorism. Often the guest star characters were more interesting than our weekly protagonists, as was very often the case in that era before story arcs and metaplots. While McDowall and the writers sometimes played off Galen's increasingly misplaced sense of privilege, that wasn't enough to distinguish the TV character from the actor's generic gentle-ape performance, and the impression was inescapable that he wasn't really thrilled to be wearing the makeup again. The show might well have fared better without him, so long as McDowall's presence reminded audiences of what the show was not.

The next step down the evolutionary ladder, presumably, was Saturday morning animation. The 1970s were a dark age for TV cartoons, doubly constrained by cheapness and anti-violence censorship. At first glance, DePatie-Freling's Return to the Planet of the Apes was just another Seventies failure, surviving for only thirteen episodes. In fact, the show was almost a miracle. It's animation probably was as limited as any of its contemporaries, but it was still often impressive to look at thanks to production design by Doug Wildey of Jonny Quest fame. Where Return really excelled was in its writing. It has probably the tightest continuity of any Seventies cartoon series, being for all intents and purposes a serial. Rather than a follow-up to the TV show, it's another reboot, though it retained the Urko character as well as Zaius while bringing back the beloved Cornelilus and Zira, the former this time voiced by someone other than Roddy McDowall. The indigenous humans are primitive once more and mostly speechless except for the rebooted Nova from the first two movies. Thanks to cherry-picking from previous Planet mythology, Nova has been taught to speak by Brent, the astronaut from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, who in this Taylor-less reality has been living his life among the primitives. He's joined on the future world -- once again on the east coast -- by three new astronauts: Bill (white male), Jeff (black male) and Judy (white female). In a daring move for a Saturday morning cartoon in 1975, the first episode teases Judy's death. In a perhaps more daring move, the show expects us to remember this when it reveals, two episodes later, that Judy was rescued, and is now worshipped as the goddess Usa, by a race of telepathic human underground dwellers analagous to Beneath's bomb-worshippers. Once she rejoins her fellow astronauts Judy becomes a hugely important character (and, for what it's worth, a progressive exemplar) since she's the only one who knows how to fly the airplane that the apes have reassembled for human-hunting. The show does a fair job portraying the three astronauts as equals, but where it really excels is in its truly expansive survey of the ape planet.

Budgetary limitations aren't necessarily limits on imagination. Return is arguably the most imaginative version of the Planet myth to date, at once bringing us closest of all adaptations to Pierre Boule's own vision of a thoroughly modern ape civilization (TV, movies, more advanced weapons) while taking us away from the typical Ape City milieu to a Shangri-la like mountain colony of enlightened simians guarded by a giant, magically self-thawing yeti-like gorilla. Better still, it picks up plot threads only hinted at in the live-action series and runs with them like a pick-six. Mark Lenard's Urko was mostly a peevish, somewhat corrupt fellow with occasional outbursts of brutality and an increasing impatience with Zaius's supervision. On Return, voiced apoplectically by Henry Corden in a virtual rehearsal for the Fred Flintsone gig he landed soon afterward, Urko is an increasingly unstable menace to both the wild humans and the ape political order. He is often shown verbally duelling with Zaius in the courtroom-like setting of the ape legislature, while Zaius grows increasingly certain that Urko needs to be put down. Their conflict, with the more moderate Zaius abetted by Cornelius and Zira, and more indirectly by the astronauts, forms the backbone of the series, climaxing when Urko stages a series of false-flag attacks on Ape City, getting suspended from command after his conspiracy is exposed, and convincing his replacement to defy the civilian government by attacking the human settlement. By the standards of Seventies Saturday mornings, this is epic stuff, and while the show apparently was stopped short of any planned conclusion, it ends on possibly the most optimistic note of any version of the Apes myth. I don't remember whether I watched Return during its original run, when I was just a kid, so seeing it a few months ago on the El Rey network was a real revelation. For all its weaknesses, all handicaps of its time, it probably is the best American TV cartoon of the 1970s. It may just be hard to do "Planet of the Apes" badly. Something about the concept still resonates with us and inspires genuine creativity, even when the results are as radially different from earlier movies as the Reeves trilogy or the Seventies cartoon. We'll probably have more versions of the myth to talk about generations from now -- unless life actually imitates art beforehand.

Saturday, July 8, 2017


The official beginning, after a high-profile cameo appearance in Captain America: Civil War, of the third Spider-Man movie cycle of the still-young century brings with it a huge risk of reboot fatigue. Who needs, much less wants, to see the origin story yet again? Not I and not you, presumably, and neither, fortunately, do director Jon Watts and his five co-writers. You never see or hear of poor Uncle Ben, whose tragic fate is only implicit in a reference to everything that's happened to Peter Parker's Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) in recent times. Homecoming is the sort of superhero movie we need at this point, less concerned with beginnings or becoming, though it's still all about Peter (Tom Holland) proving himself as a hero, than with the everyday business of fighting crime and helping people. The stakes are lower here than in any other Marvel movie except Ant-Man: the climactic battle has Spidey thwarting a mid-air robbery rather than saving the city or the world. Yet they don't feel insignificant, and Homecoming feels less like an "ordinary" superhero movie than, say, Age of Ultron does. This reboot isn't just a do-over for its own sake to indulge a new generation of creators, but an effort by Sony Pictures to get Spider-Man right, with the help of Marvel Studios, after the retrospective debacle of the now-underrated Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield films. The new film is a more successful effort to translate many of the tropes of the earliest Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics to the 21st century.

Peter is back in high school, on this time he and his usual supporting cast of age-peers, many of them racially diversified with little fuss, all attend an intellectually elite science-and-technology school. That includes archetypal jock-bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), who here becomes an underachieving asshole, while Peter remains the archetypal outcast, for the ironic reason that he's always bailing out on school activities to seek out crime as "the Spider Man from You Tube" while awaiting a summons from Tony Stark (must I say?) to join the Avengers. He's chafing at the bit, his superheroism kept on a tight leash but also largely ignored by Stark henchman Happy Hogan (as usual, Jon Favreau) and various infantilizing protocols built into his Stark-designed deluxe costume. Peter sees a chance to impress Stark when he stumbles upon bank robbers using exotic high-tech weapons that nearly devastate Parker's neighborhood. Thanks to a prologue, we know that these are the handiwork of Adriam Toomes (Michael Keaton), a disgruntled blue-collar entrepreneur who has his salvage contract for sites wrecked by the alien invasion from The Avengers abruptly snatched away by a federal government collaborating with Stark. Toomes and his inventive techies decide to keep what they've gleaned, retooling the alien tech into weapons, and in Toomes' case, a flying costume that earns him the nickname "Vulture," for stealing more alien tech to sell on the black market. Spider-Man's skirmishes with Toomes' gang escalate, with neither side fully appreciating the destructive power in play, until the Washington Monument and the Staten Island Ferry are nearly wrecked -- at which point Tony Stark grounds Peter. Like the typical parent who doesn't get it, and with a great irony that the man himself partly appreciates, Stark only sees his young protege behaving irresponsibly and dangerously, blaming him rather than the bad guys (who should be left to the authorities to deal with, Stark says hypocritically) for all the destruction. Stripped of his high-tech suit, which he'd hacked with the help of best buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) in order to access extra features, Peter now must really prove himself by continuing his war against Toomes, even after he learns that Toomes is the father of Liz (Laura Harrier), Peter's current crush, and after Toomes quickly deduces that the awkward kid taking his daughter to the homecoming dance, who looks at him with a constant expression of horror, is more than he lets on...

Like Civil War, Homecoming is sort of a generic "Marvel Universe" movie, or at least an Iron Man 3.25 thanks to the participation of Downey, Favreau and Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as Captain America himself (a shameless Chris Evans) in a private hell of mind-numbing PSAs. It cleverly calls back to Civil War by showing us the buildup to that film's famous airport fight from the vantage of Peter's cellphone and teases the hero's graduation to the Avengers, only to have Peter keep his distance, as Marvel and Sony presumably will keep their distance hereafter, in order to remain, in Stark's own words, a friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man. That's a good call, because Homecoming leaves us ready to explore Peter Parker's milieu more. Like Sam Raimi's cycle, if not more so, Watts gives Spidey's world a real-life feel as Peter scrambles to keep up with schoolwork, struggles to have a social life, and patrols his inner-city neighborhood. Tom Holland and the other kids all seem to have the right amount of charisma, the standouts being Batalon as a kid living out his sidekick dream of being "the man in the chair" and Zendaya as the sardonic school rebel who may yet end up the love of Peter's life. The villain role doesn't demand much of Michael Keaton at a time when he's become one of our leading character actors, but he lends the part authoritative menace and the overall idea of a working-class villain is in keeping with the early comics. In some ways, and not just because of Stan Lee's dependable presence, this new film is more faithful to those earliest comics than even the Raimi films, down to a recreation of Spidey's most famous inspirational feat of strength from the Ditko era. I'm not prepared to say that Homecoming is the best Spider-Man movie, but I definitely liked it better than the Webb films and was happily surprised to find it not imitating the Raimis very much. In short, Homecoming amply justified its existence as a new take on Spider-Man, but one thing about it really annoyed me. This is a film set in the present day, either 2017 or 2020 depending on when you think The Avengers took place, yet its high-school students sure listen to a lot of oldies music, mainly from the Eighties.Really? I don't even consider myself a fan of modern pop music, but I find this preposterous and clueless, even as I can guess why Marvel does this. All this tells us is that we've yet to see a superhero movie fully integrated with modern youth culture, but until we see such a thing -- if we really want to, that is -- Homecoming will do.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: NO MARRIAGE TIES (1933)

On September 22, 1927, arguably the biggest sporting event in the U.S. during the 1920s took place: the rematch for the heavyweight championship between Gene Tunney and the man he had dethroned the year before, Jack Dempsey. The Chicago Reflector assigned star sportswriter Bruce Foster (Richard Dix) to cover the fight, but Foster is too busy getting drunk to see the famous Long Count. He's preoccupied with a novelty game that requires him to lift a little ball with his breath and latch it onto a tiny hoop. By comparison, arch film drunkard Arthur Housman is the model of sobriety as a sympathetic speakeasy bartender. By the following morning Foster has lost his job, but he makes a new friend in Peggy Wilson, one of those too-good-to-be-true movie dames, more like a screwball comedy heroine, who doesn't give a damn about anything and is only amused by Foster's erudite inebriation. Peggy's a lucky girl, winning a jackpot on one of the speakeasy slots on her first try, and she clearly has an instinct for befriending the right drunks, as Foster, though blackballed from journalism, soon finds himself an advertising executive.

Bruce just happens to be haunting the bar on a night when a real ad executive (Alan Dinehart) is chewing out an incompetent copywriter (Hobart Cavanaugh) who can't come up with a strong slogan for toothpaste. Bruce proves to have a knack for slogans, an instinct for fearmongering. He wins a job, and eventually a partnership, with something along the lines of "Don't Let Your Teeth Kill You!" Director J. Arthur Ruben and his writers clearly had in mind Listerine's long-lived ad campaign warning that halitosis could ruin anyone's career and social life. As a successful ad man, Foster applies that principle to all his clients, and just as he doesn't scruple at exaggerating the threats the products can remedy, he doesn't scruple at exaggerating the products' benefits. Peggy's along for the ride as the agency's new graphic artist -- her stuff is "pretty bad," but that's getting off lightly at company conferences -- but Bruce has his eyes on bigger game.

Told by his increasingly disillusioned partner that no truly classy client will sign with him, Foster picks a name at random and applies his personal brand of supersalesmanship on Deane Cosmetics. Adrienne Deane (Doris Kenyon) is an entrepreneurial superwoman in her own right, not only designing her own products but modeling in her own ads, but in Bruce's hands, after he sneaks into her office disguised as a chemist, she turns to emotionally needy mush. He confuses winning the account with winning the woman until he realizes that he's been a heel to Peggy, whose artistic ambitions can no longer be contained by advertising work. Foster decides that the right thing to do is break off his engagement with Adrienne, but he's hardly returned to his office before word comes by phone that Deane has killed herself. This drives home to our hero the pitfalls of false advertising, and lest the great agencies who presumably placed ads for RKO Radio Pictures in all the magazines take offense at this picture's portrayal of their trade, he delivers a numbing mea culpa in praise of the ad industry and its important contributions to the nation's economic growth, blaming any excesses of the profession on bad people like himself. And so Bruce Foster returns to his level, getting wasted at the same old speakeasy before finally figuring out the breath game. As if on cue, Peggy returns from a European sojourn and embraces the big slob once more. This "Mad Men of 1933" is interesting as a wishy-washy satire of advertising but unimaginative in its melodrama and preposterous in imagining a drunk Richard Dix as irresistible to anyone, much less two seemingly intelligent women. I suppose it was a kind of power fantasy of making a fortune through misanthropy and bailing out before any real comeuppance with the assurance that someone still loves your true pathetic self.  There probably was an audience for that sort of stuff during the Depression, and for all I know you could remake No Marriage Ties today and win over similar people.

Sunday, July 2, 2017


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had a fascination with noble savages during the golden age of Hollywood that found expression not only in Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies but in a small cycle of pseudo-ethnographic films that includes White Shadows in the South Seas, Eskimo and this picture, presumably filmed on some French Polynesian locations also used for Mutiny on the Bounty. Richard Thorpe, who moved on to Tarzan pictures from here, directed a screenplay by John Farrow that reunited the romantic leads of Eskimo, "Mala and Lotus," aka Ray Mala and Lotus Long, with the implication that, despite their previous film appearances, the stars -- Inuit and Japanese-Hawaiian respectively -- were natives of the location, speaking their authentic language. Last of the Pagans is one of the first Hollywood features, to my knowledge, to use subtitles translating foreign-language dialogue into English while the characters speak. Previous experiments, including Eskimo and the German scenes in Hell's Angels, used silent-style intertitles for translation. You can tell especially with Mala that you're dealing with actors of some experience, at least in the lead roles, but the foreign dialogue helps sustain an illusion of authenticity.

The story -- Wikipedia says it's based on Herman Melville's Typee but since my sole experience with that novel is another film adaptation, Alan Dwan's Enchanted Island, I saw little resemblance -- is that Taro (Mala) claims Lilleo (Lotus) as his bride in his island's time-honored fashion, by raiding another tribe with his buddies and stealing her away. Lilleo is little more than irked by this, probably having been brought up to expect it, and then only temporarily, for Taro is good humored, a good provider, and presumably good in other ways that Hollywood under Code Enforcement could not suggest as plainly as they used to. The problem is, the local chief has eyes for Lilleo as well, and takes advantage of the arrival of a white trading ship to recommend Taro to the whites as an ideal candidate for a five-year labor contract in a faraway phosphate mine. This matter-of-fact expose of French colonialism -- all the European characters speak English, by the way -- got this film heavily censored in France, but the chief's selfish complicity in sending many of his young men off this way makes him the film's real villain.

Initially rebellious, Taro's forced to work in shackles until a near-disaster allows him to show the whites his true good character. He's in such good graces after that that arrangements are made to bring Lilleo to the mining colony, but it soon becomes apparent that taking her from the chief could create a crisis on his island. Lilleo is allowed to make a conjugal visit -- and despite what I said about Code Enforcement it could not be more clear why the bosses allow Taro to quit early when she arrives -- but Taro only learns later that it's to be a temporary and last visit from her. He's not having that, however, and stages a breakout with her, defying a storm and eventually finding a new island to live on free from oppressors of all races.  That denies us a perhaps-desired showdown between Taro and the chief, but such a climax may have underscored the picture's pulpy nature too strongly for audiences struggling to suspend disbelief. It's a pretty thin story but has some documentary value, presumably, in its presentation of the phosphate mine if not in its portrait of tribal life. Last of the Pagans benefits from a halfway-decent budget and especially from lead performances by actors whose charisma really needs no translation. It may be hooey, but at least it's entertaining.

Friday, June 30, 2017

DEVIL'S BRIDE (Tulen Morsian, 2016)

Saara Cantell's film turns a 17th century witch craze on a Swedish-ruled Finnish-speaking island into something of a Christian allegory. That's an interesting twist when most of the film feels like The Crucible with Abigail Williams -- the Winona Ryder character from the most recent movie version -- as the heroine. Anna (Tuulia Eloranta) lusts for a married man and tries to ruin his wife by accusing her of witchcraft. All she wants, though, is to drive the other woman from town, as Anna's own mentor, Valborg the midwife (Kaija Pakarinen) is banished early in the picture. It's not Anna's fault that the witch mania escalates to a lethal degree. The persecution is driven by hypocrisy and learned intolerance. The local pastor is the hypocrite, a serial rapist of young women whose main beef against Valborg seems to be that she performs abortions, presumably killing his children. The local judge (Magnus Krepper), for whose mother Anna works as a maid, is a pharisaical figure as intolerant of "superstition" as his like in future generations would be toward religion itself. He flaunts the latest thinking from academia, somehow more credulous toward rumors of witchcraft than the literature of his mother's time, which Anna, a bright girl, is able to read. As Valborg's banishment opens a flood of accusation, the patriarchs increasingly demand death for the accused, who in all too familiar fashion are tortured into confessing and denouncing others.

To her credit, Anna is horrified by this. She never really wanted her supposed rival, Rakel (Elen Petersdottir) to die, and the death sentence pronounced on the innocent wife crushes Anna's spirit. She begs forgiveness of the prisoner, promising to baptize Rakel's newborn daughter and eventually (and blasphemously?) doing it herself, but Rakel is understandably reluctant to forgive. Guided by the judge's mother, whose wits remain sharp despite a stroke, Anna challenges the entire premise of the witch trials, only to have the old literature scoffed away by the judge -- who nevertheless suspects that something is fishy about the anti-witch evidence pushed by the pastor. Finally, there's only one thing Anna can do to save Rakel. It won't be enough to admit her original lie. She has to accept guilt for all the fantastical sins others have attributed to the other woman, or that Rakel has been forced to admit -- in effect, to confess to witchcraft and effectively sentence herself to death.

Cantell may be best known in her own country for a popular series of films about the friendship between two young girls, so Tulen Morsian must have been a profound change of pace for her and those familiar with her work. She nails the terrifying escalation of the witch-craze, from the minor tragedy of Valborg's banishment to brutal mass executions. These are the makings of a horror movie, but  Devil's Bride proves to be a powerful emotional experience as Anna accepts martyrdom -- though the film teases us with a legend of her miraculous escape -- in order to expiate her own sins and those of the entire community. The awakening of her sexuality initially drives Anna wild and makes her a menace, but the awakening of her conscience -- her true coming of age -- redeems what might have been written off as a misogynist stereotype and makes a real heroine of her.  Taking the viewpoint of an accuser strikes me as a novel approach for a witch-trial film, and the gamble of inviting identification with an apparent villain pays off emphatically. In many ways Tulen Morsian is as horrifying and infuriating as any film in its grim genre, but in a modest way, with less of the barnstorming bombast of The Crucible (which is still tremendously entertaining in its own right), it's one of the most sincerely moving of witch-trial films.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Too Much TV: IRON FIST (2017 - ?)

Word of mouth was already toxic by the time Netflix released the thirteen episodes of Iron Fist in March. The consensus among those who'd had an advance look was that it was easily, by far, the worst of the Marvel Studios Netflix productions. It was troubled before the reviews started coming in, thanks to a stunning bit of "p.c." overreach that saw people demand that the protagonist, Danny Rand, be played by an Asian man. The idea that a blonde white man would become the world's greatest martial artist, offended many who decried a "white savior" trope, as well as some who no doubt simply wanted an Asian actor to get a big payday. Once people finally saw it for themselves, Iron Fist seemed to add injury to insult. Not only was a white man the world's greatest martial artist, at least theoretically, but the martial arts themselves, to many observers, were lame. People simply expected a very different sort of show -- something more like Into the Badlands in modern dress, perhaps -- from what Marvel and Netflix delivered.

Iron Fist stands apart from its sibling shows in the Defenders cycle by abandoning the grungy inner-city milieux of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage for the corporate heights of Marvel's Manhattan. Danny Rand (Finn Jones) is super-rich in the comics and is supposed to be on television, but the show introduces him as an Oliver Queen-like castaway reintroducing himself to 21st century America, albeit without the publicity attending the TV Ollie's rescue. A disheveled, barefoot Danny returns home after growing up, having survived the plane crash that killed his parents, in the magical land of Kun-L'un, where he was taught to be The Iron Fist, a living weapon of defense against The Hand, the yellow peril last referenced in Daredevil's second season. As Iron Fist, Danny can channel his chi to make his punching hand like unto a thing of iron, as they used to say in the funnybooks. It glows white-hot and can punch through walls with devastating force. Despite the responsibility placed upon him, Danny's in New York to reclaim his heritage as heir to Rand Enterprises, which has been maintained since the Rand family's disappearance by the children of Harold Meachum, the partner of Danny's dad. The kids, Ward (Tom Pelphrey) and Joy (Jessica Stroup) don't know what to make of this hairy hobo beating up guards in the lobby of corporate headquarters. Ward, an addict who bullied Danny when they were kids, distrusts the stranger whether he's Danny or not, while Joy more quickly comes to believe our hero's odd story. While he struggles to sort things out with the corporation, Danny hangs out at a more Netflix-typical inner-city dojo run by part-time cage fighter Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick). It's so typically Netflix a setting that Defenders mascot-in-advance Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) is one of Colleen's students.

The corporate shenanigans continue as we learn Harold Meachum himself (David Wenham), believed long dead by the general public, is alive and in hiding from The Hand, represented by Mme. Gao (Wai Ching Ho) from the Daredevil show. Harold is Ward's puppetmaster but finds himself at odds with his boy, who'd like to get rid of Danny while Dad thinks the kung-fu kid could be useful to him. Publicly acknowledged, Danny has a tumultuous stint on the Rand board of directors that leads to he and the Meachums getting sacked by the board majority, while he, Colleen and Claire battle drug smugglers in New York and China. Things get still more complicated as we discover that The Hand has contending factions, one of which has Colleen as a member, while Ward decides to free himself from his father but finds him very difficult to get rid of, and Danny's old Kun-L'un schoolmate (Sacha Dhawan) arrives in Manhattan to convince our hero to resume his duties at the alma mater.

I actually appreciated the change of pace and setting Iron Fist provided, and one of the show's most pleasant surprises is Ward Meachum's character arc. Ward starts out as the show's number-one scumbag, but as he sobers up and recoils from his dad's unnatural antics he gradually becomes one of the good guys. Tom Pelphrey gives the best performance of the series so far, except maybe for David Wenham's unpredictably devious Harold. Finn Jones has come in for a lot of criticism for a perceived lack of charisma, acting talent and martial arts skills, but those are the limitations of a generic fish-out-of-water character, not necessarily those of an actor who proves himself likable enough. More likable still is Jessica Henwick, if only because Colleen Wing brings more obvious passion to her fight scenes, and is likely to inspire more passion in the male audience. As for the fighting, it is plainly less dynamic, though often better lit, than the standard-setting scenes on Daredevil or the superhuman stunts of Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. You can't help thinking that Danny will be the weakest member of The Defenders later this summer, but if Iron Fist disappoints as a martial-arts show it's mainly because the writers had a lot of story to tell and not so much time for fighting as fans would have liked. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, however, I found myself in later episodes marking time impatiently before something (violent) happened. In a way, there was both too much and not enough going on much of the time, and I also suspect that Iron Fist had the lowest budget of any of the Marvel shows so far. It's hard to dispute that it's the weakest of the four shows, but the others set a high enough standard that this one can fall short and still be at least okay. In any event, let's reserve judgment until Defenders on whether we want to see more of Danny Rand after that.