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.