Thursday, December 14, 2017

National Film Registry Class of 2017

The Library of Congress yesterday made its annual announcement of films added to its National Film Registry for permanent preservation. With more than 120 years of American film history to glean from, the Registry list is once again strangely heavy on films made after 1960. This has struck me as a dubious idea given the priority of preserving older films, but it always makes sense from a publicity standpoint, since websites can headline the fact that a film most people have heard of has been canonized by the government. For that audience, the highlights of this year's list are such pop blockbusters as Titanic, Superman, Die Hard and The Goonies. Older but still familiar, and with a remake in the works, is Dumbo from 1941, while 1960's Spartacus owes what fame it has less to disaffected director Stanley Kubrick than to potentially deathless star and producer Kirk Douglas; it'll be in the public consciousness at least as long as he is. Every list includes films that are more classics than greatest hits, and most classic move fans will applaud this year's canonization of Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. They may not be as sanguine about Elia Kazan's Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) but that film may have an unassailable claim as a Best Picture Oscar winner, as all such may have eventually. As always, the Registry strives to compensate for its arguably excessive attention to pop hits by including documentaries, art films and other non-feature or non-narrative items, as well as films of ethnically specific historical interest. Of this year's crop, the film that elicits a "what took them so long?" response is Winsor McKay's 1918 wartime propaganda cartoon The Sinking of the Lusitania -- though I must confess that I neglected to include that when I compiled a list of eligible and deserving films in 2015. After three from that list were canonized last year, none of the remaining 47 were tapped this year. You can see the complete list for 2017 here.

Of course, my perception of the Registry's presentism is influenced by my age. My feeling has been that the Registry should prioritize older films, but there are plenty of people around today who think of films from 1978 or 1985 as "old" when I have a hard time doing so. From a certain perspective, all the films added to the registry, even Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000) are old movies, and given the attitude many people have today toward any entertainment option they can label as "old," I wonder whether the Registry's apparent strategy really has the effect its compilers hope for.

For historical and entertainment purposes, here's a copy of The Sinking of the Lusitania with an original soundtrack, as uploaded to YouTube by Tina Chancey:

Monday, December 11, 2017

DVR Diary: BAD LANDS (1939)

Robert Barrat is one of the relatively unsung heroes of the Pre-Code Warner Bros. stock company, a versatile character actor who enlivened many of the studio's pictures of that golden period. He only really got started in 1933, recreating his Broadway role as a psychopathic German strongman in Lily Turner but quickly escaping any accented typecasting to portray a variety of types, from the hypocritical Marxist tinkerer in Heroes For Sale to the benign judge in Wild Boys of the Road. It was a pleasant surprise to see Barrat get top billing in Lew Landers' RKO B-western, and Bad Lands is an interesting film in its own right. Reportedly a western remake of John Ford's The Lost Patrol, and a contemporary of Ford's Stagecoach -- and, for what it's worth, featuring the director's brother Francis as one of its posse -- its conceptual DNA makes it a very grim western for its time and a precursor of the next generation's "psychological westerns" in its attention to obsessions and irreconcilable personalities. Barrat plays a sheriff leading a posse in pursuit of the renegade Apache Jack, and as a relatively mild-mannered pipe-smoking authority figure he ends up something of a straight man to the more dramatic personalities in the cast. Rather than the star, Barrat is no more than first among equals in an ensemble cast that includes Noah Beery Jr., Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Columbia comedy star Andy Clyde as Francis Ford's sidekick. The characters aren't copies of the Lost Patrol; there's no counterpart, for instance, to Boris Karloff's religious fanatic. The nearest thing is a Mexican-American (Fred McDonald) obsessed with avenging the wife Apache Jack killed. Instead, the Bad Lands posse clashes over the relative courage and cowardice of its members and over the possible division of a massive "mountain of silver" they discover while tracking Apache Jack. The mine may as well be a trap, since their presence there exposes them to attack from Jack's unseen Indian cohorts. The 70 minute picture details the inexorable breakdown and virtual annihilation of the posse, until Barrat's sheriff is the sole survivor rescued by the cavalry, possible driven insane by his ordeal. It's possibly the most hard-boiled western the genre produced between the advent of Code Enforcement and the emergence of "adult westerns" a generation later, but its lack of star power and its obvious B status have consigned it to obscurity it doesn't really deserve. A money-loser at the box office, Bad Lands may have looked like a dead end in its time, but it shows, in theory at least, what westerns were capable of by the late Thirties, with a little infusion of new elements.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

On the Big Screen: THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017)

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

THE OREGON TRAIL (1959)

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


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


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


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

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


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

Saturday, December 2, 2017

DVR Diary: THUNDER BAY (1953)

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

RED PEONY GAMBLER: GAMBLER'S OBLIGATION (1968)

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


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


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


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


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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

UNDER PRESSURE (1935)

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


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


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



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


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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) in SPOILERVISION

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

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

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

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK in SPOILERVISION

Taika Waititi is a cinematic miracle worker. His What We Do in the Shadows is not only the funniest vampire comedy ever made, which isn't much of an achievement in itself, but one of the funniest movies I've seen recently. His portrayal of vampires as almost childishly narcissistic apparently persuaded Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios that Waititi could be entrusted with the next chapter of their absurd Asgardian soap opera after the disaster of Thor: The Dark World. That Waititi could work wonders on a limited budget didn't hurt either, though now, by comparison, he would have money thrown at him. Working from a screenplay by three other people, he's made the most imaginative and funniest Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) while demonstrating an aptitude for epic action on a colossal scale -- though as always with Marvel movies, one must wonder exactly how much of the set-piece action was planned out and rendered on computers before Waititi first called "Action!"

For all the spectacle, Ragnarok is character-centered, reiterating more strongly the premise implicit since the beginning that Thor (Chris Helmsworth) and his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are a couple of spoiled brats of frighteningly immense power. This is re-established early as Thor, after thwarting the demon Surtur's scheme to initiate Ragnarok, the foredoomed fall of Asgard, quickly clears up the one dangling plot thread from Dark World, exposing Loki's impersonation of All-father Odin (Anthony Hopkins finally has some fun imitating Hiddleston) and overthrowing the self-indulgent trickster, who had placed the old man in a since-demolished retirement facility in New York City. Their arrival in Manhattan to claim Odin sets up the encounter with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) previewed in the epilogue to Strange's own origin film. The Strange scene shows Waititi's hand most plainly in the disorienting way the Master of the Mystic Arts teleports Thor all over his sanctum in a succession of jump cuts. The good doctor sends them off to some cliff where Odin has been waiting, before dying, to tell his boys that their elder sister Hela, goddess of death (Cate Blanchett), will be released from her prison upon his imminent demise. In other words, the grown-ups are taking over, as Hela, who grows an antler-like crest in combat mode, breaks Thor's favorite toy, his Uru hammer, and boots both him and Loki off Bifrost bridge en route to Asgard, where she promptly slaughters the Warriors Three (Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson and the other guy) on her way to the throne, while the boys tumble to parts unknown. I'm sure this perfunctory dispatching of three favorite supporting characters from the comics will annoy some people, but it really was a waste of time having Asano and Stevenson keep showing up for how little the films have used them. As for the other supporting players, Sif is AWOL (the actress has a regular gig elsewhere) while Heimdall (Idris Elba) conveniently went underground when "Odin" started acting weird, forcing the king to appoint the mediocrity Skurge (Karl Urban) as guardian of Bifrost. Skurge survives Hela's initial onslaught to give the villainess someone to whom she can tell the secret history of Asgard and offer the job she held under her father as Executioner of the ruler's will and enemies.

A film within the film now begins as Thor crash-lands on Sakaar, better known to comics fans as "Planet Hulk" but ruled here by the self-styled Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) on bread-and-circus principles, with emphasis on circus. Big G relies on slave hunters like Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) to recruit talent for his gladiatorial games. He agrees with her assessment that Thor, rendered tractable by a classic sci-fi pain device, will make a good contender for his "incredible champion," whose identity was revealed in trailers long ago. Loki has ended up here as well, but is content to make money betting on Thor to lose. For his part, Thor has recognized Scrapper 142 as a Valkyrie -- for all intents and purposes, the Valkyrie or just plain "Valkyrie" -- one of a long-gone cohort of Asgardian women warriors, and apparently the sole survivor of an attack by Hela during her uprising against Odin. There's no hope of Thor pulling rank, however, since Scrapper/Valkyrie has grown cynical and alcoholic in her attempt to forget the loss of many close comrades-in-arms. But the situation isn't as hopeless as it looks, since Thor's powers over thunder and lightning prove innate rather than hammer-based, though it takes the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) nearly beating him to death to realize his potential. Ol' Greenskin has been on Sakaar since we last saw him in Avengers: Age of Ultron and has come both to like it here and to express his liking. Waititi and the writers give us a classically stupid Hulk (he had one of his increasingly common intelligent periods in the original Planet Hulk comics) with an almost-Trumpian insistence on taunting and "winning" regardless of appearances. Fans of the character will regret the wasting of one of Hulk's best-regarded storylines as a subplot to a Thor movie, but as Ruffalo himself has conceded that we'll probably never see another Hulk solo movie this is probably as good as it'll get for Marvel's Hulkamaniacs.

Thor's challenge now is to rally his three most likely collaborators into teaming with him on a breakout and reconquest of Asgard. Valkyrie would rather drink and forget, Loki is still out for himself and Hulk actually likes it on a planet where he's beloved by fight fans and hasn't had to turn back to Bruce Banner for ages. Those of you who found the buildup of a Hulk-Black Widow ship in Age of Ultron icky will be annoyed to learn that that's still a thing and key to Banner finally reappearing after Thor's own efforts to use Natasha's calming spiel fail miserably. The other pieces soon fall into place and we're finally on our way to a spectacular showdown in Asgard, assisted by Heimdall and, eventually, Skurge, whose machine-gun fetish allows him to recreate the comics character's classic last stand in Walt Simonson's 1980s comics, which are acknowledged in the end credits and regarded by fans as the best Thor stories since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's time. A lot of undead minions are wasted, Hulk fights a big dog, and Thor hits Hela with "the biggest bolt of lightning in the history of lightning," but the film still hasn't hit 11 yet....

While most of Ragnarok is generic Marvel spectacle on paper, on screen it benefits from Waititi putting a fresh set of eyes on it. As the Doctor Strange sequence shows, the style he developed collaborating on What We Do in the Shadows was not entirely homogenized into the Marvel machine, and that helps make the new Thor feel fresher than, say, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both films may share a retro sensibility in their soundtracks -- as do most recent Marvel movies, it seems -- but Ragnarok creatively enhances that retro feel with original music with hints of video-game soundtracks from Mark Mothersbaugh and a pictorial sensibility, assisted by cinematographer Javie Aguirresarobe, reminiscent of vintage van murals or Heavy Metal magazine covers come to life. The acting is a mixed bag, and a lot of it may disappoint people who expect something more like, as Tony Stark would say, Shakespeare in the Park from a Thor movie. Helmsworth and Hiddleston are fine, but as Hela Cate Blanchett arguably doesn't chew the scenery enough, or as much as one might expect from a barnstormer like her. You might have expected Galadriel with the Ring on, but she sometimes sinks to the overall glib level of the dialogue, referring to Odin as "Daddy," for instance. By now, of course, we should be reconciled to not getting authentic Stan Lee-style rodomontade from Marvel movie villains, but if you were going to get away with it in any Marvel movie, this was probably it. These are action movies anyway, and Hela's actions (both Blanchett's and uber-stuntwoman Zoe Bell's) speak louder than her words. As for the other villain, Jeff Goldblum gives, to no legitimate surprise, a Jeff Goldblum performance as the Grandmaster that makes that Elder of the Universe more capricious than truly threatening, but his participation in the interlude doesn't require him to be truly evil or scary. For all Waititi's efforts to maximize the comedy in the story, Ragnarok was only ever going to be an action spectacle, and the fact that he succeeds on that level gives us more cause to look forward to whatever he does next, for Marvel or on his own.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

INQUISICION (1976)

If no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, how is anyone gonna deal with the French Inquisition? That's the challenge of Jacinto Molina's directorial debut, a vehicle for his on-screen alter ego, Paul Naschy. Filmed in Spain while longtime dictator Francisco Franco was still dead, the production probably was careful not to give Spanish Catholicism a bad name. Naschy plays itinerant judge Bernard de Fossey, a hammer to witches who takes too much pleasure in his work. He struggles to suppress the sexual arousal he feels reading accounts of witches consorting with the Devil, and takes his distress out on accused witches who are almost invariably attractive and tortured in the nude. Bernard's not after your typical hag; that would kill his buzz more than he actually wants it killed.


Bernard stirs up hysteria when he arrives in town, especially when the boyfriend of Catherine (Daniel Giordano), a comely local lass, is murdered by hooded highwaymen. Obsessed with getting justice, Catherine consults an actual witch (Tota Alba) who shows her how to get in touch with Satan, who may, if he's in the mood, give her the key to the mystery. It's not quite that mysterious to us, because we've seen how Bernard looks at Catherine -- and veteran Naschy fans may have noticed something familiar about one of the highwayman's leaping attack on the victim. Sure enough, under the influence of a potion -- if not also Satan! -- Catherine envisions Bernard removing the hood. She decides to take the fight to him, fulfilling his own fears of temptation, but events quickly spiral out of either person's control.


One of the subplots in Molina's screenplay follows Renover (Antonio Iranzo), a one-eyed professional informer who spreads rumors of witchcraft out of misogynist resentment of women who won't give the poor scumbag a chance. When his aggressive advances on Catherine's friends end with two women dead and himself mortally wounded, he uses his ante-mortem statement to denounce Catherine and her witchy mentor. Bernard actually has tried to protect Catherine from prosecution but has no choice now but to put her through an ordeal. He seems taken by surprise when Catherine confesses, and then denounces him, after which damning corroborating evidence promptly appears to seal his fate. While Catherine goes to her death screaming in terror, Bernard seems resigned to his fate, if not relieved by it.


For an actor-turned-director Naschy/Molina was unusually self-effacing. I don't know how many people knew that Naschy and Molina, who'd already written many Naschy pictures, were one and the same, but I'd expect exploitation film producers not to take chances and tout director Naschy as the next Cornell Wilde or something similar. Make what you will of his creative split personality, but Inquisicion is clearly an ambitious work for a first-time director. Visually it's quite attractive in the way of many Euro horror films that take advantage of ancient locations, but also effectively expressionist in cinematographer Miguel Fernandez Mila's use of lurid reds in Catherine's vision of the Sabbat (with Bernard as the Devil) and Bernard's vision of Catherine as a crimson temptress. As a writer, Molina plots things fairly well, though his conclusion, with Catherine's denunciation following Renover's fatal encounter, feels anticlimactic, if only because we expect something more hair-raising from Paul Naschy. That he closes the film that way suggests that, despite the sleaze of the torture scenes, Molina saw this as something more than the typical Naschy vehicle.


Naschy's film is a late entry in a continental cycle of witchfinding pictures, a subset of a larger "history of cruelty" genre. While its torture scenes put it in the exploitation category alongside pictures like Jess Franco's Bloody Judge, Inquisicion sustains a more subtle ambiguity on the subject of witchcraft and the devil. The old witch is plainly a witch in the most mundane sense, knowledgeable about potions and such, but we're left to judge for ourselves, prompted by the film's one voice of reason, whether Catherine saw the Devil or not -- or whether Bernard even was in on killing Catherine's lover. Our only evidence for his guilt is Catherine's vision, the authority of which we're forced to question. If Catherine's community is cursed by anything, it's by a common human malice and hypocrisy that consumes clergy and laypeople alike. Overall it's an impressive debut, though it came a little too late in the history of Spanish horror for Naschy to build on it as he might have had he stepped up a few years earlier. It still goes down as one of both Molina and Naschy's best efforts.

Monday, October 30, 2017

DVR Diary: THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975)

Because the post-apocalyptic community in Robert Clouse's film is led by a man known as "The Baron" (Max von Sydow), there may be a temptation to see The Ultimate Warrior as a distant precursor to the current TV series Into the Badlands, in which parts of the onetime U.S. are divided among a group of Barons. That would make Carson (Yul Brynner) the original Clipper, but in Clouse's picture, which he wrote as well as directed, warriors like Carson are mercenaries rather than feudal vassals. He appears in a ruined city -- civilization has collapsed, a la No Blade of Grass, due to a plant-killing plague, among other things -- and makes himself conspicuous, standing shirtless on a prominent ledge, to declare his availability. Ultimately Carson is just passing through on his way to relatives on an island off the Carolina coast, but the idea of a distant safe haven with a more natural landscape appeals to the Baron, whose prime asset is the ultimate gardener (Richard Kelton), to whom the little barony owes a precious crop of fresh veggies. That crop is hopelessly vulnerable to the depredations of such human vermin as Carrot (William Smith) and his gang; hence the appeal of an ultimate warrior, not only to safeguard the crop and its gardener, but possibly as an escort for a breakout to that island, where the gardener could raise larger crops. The situation, from the security of the garden to the Baron's grip on his people, proves unsustainable, forcing Carson to make his break with nothing but a bag of seeds, a pregnant woman and his own very special skills.

Clouse directed the non-combat action of Enter the Dragon and thus, following Bruce Lee's death, was typed as a martial-arts expert in his own right. He was hired to try to put over martial-arts talent, from Dragon co-star Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones) to Jackie Chan (The Big Brawl) to Kurt Thomas (the infamous Gymkata) to Cynthia Rothrock (China O'Brien). As a martial-arts director, Clouse presumably was only as good as his talent, and 55 year old Yul Brynner could only be an ultimate warrior in a relative, very specific context. Fighting skills have deteriorated with every other aspect of civilization by Carson's time, so that being able to sidestep and stab or slash accurately with a fairly modest knife is enough to establish his ultimacy. You might have seen William Smith mentioned as his ultimate antagonist and thought, "Good lord, Smith should kill Brynner with his bare hands," but Carrot turns out to be the sort of villain who leads from behind until he's the last man left standing. At that point he pulls out a ball and chain and puts up something of a fight before falling into a hole. Brynner, apparently coasting on a sex appeal that had been mysteriously re-established by his robotic turn in Westworld, is in reasonable shape for a man his age, but by the frightening standard set that decade for his age group by Charles Bronson in Chato's Land you could well doubt whether Carson is any more ultimate in any physical situation than Jim Hellwig, the war-painted inheritor of his title, was during the late 1980s.

Fortunately for all involved, The Ultimate Warrior is less a martial-arts picture -- though I wondered whether it began with an idea Clouse had for Bruce Lee -- than a sincere post-apocalyptic dystopia. Perhaps necessarily, it is less interested in choreographed sensationalism than with conveying a truly depleted society near the end of its rope. It's a demoralizing picture, perhaps especially for anyone going in expecting epic action, and that proves to be a good thing, even if I'm reluctant to call this a good movie. A sense of Seventies-ish exhaustion hangs over all the proceedings, including the tired performances of Brynner and von Sydow, who actually play off each other quite well, with Brynner refreshingly relaxed in their dialogue scenes. Von Sydow, early in a run of odd career choices, is persuasive as someone who's a good leader in theory but not really in practice, benevolent and selfish at the same time, someone who could help save civilization but not secure it. Smith, meanwhile, is ironically effective as a largely inactive villain, since his inactivity leaves you questioning Carrot's courage or competence until he finally has to fight it out with Carson. Overall, compared with what would come just a few years later, The Ultimate Warrior seems calculated not to romanticize the fall of civilization by making it primarily a liberation of violent impulses. Even when it's not really satisfactory as a genre picture, there's still something decent about it, even if only in a passive, negative sense, that's worth saluting.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE (La morte negli occhi del gatto, 1973)

Like many an Italian giallo, Antonio "Anthony M. Dawson" Margheriti's film takes place in that hotbed of horror, the United Kingdom. The time is the early 20th century, a point when the theories of Sigmund Freud are still a novelty. The location is, more specifically, Scotland, where Corringa MacGrieff (Jane Birkin) is returning to the ancestral stead, Castle Dragonstone, to visit her mother. It's a tense reunion. There's a fight over whether or not to sell the castle, and the family eccentric, Lord James (Hiram Keller) is being an arrogant jerk as usual. Also, there's some sort of ape in the castle. It gets worse from there.

Corringa's return to Dragonstone Castle exposes her to menaces in many forms.


When Corringa's mother is killed, there are many suspects to choose from, from her bitter sister (Francoise Christophe) to her lover (Anton Diffring), who's two-timing her with the apparently bisexual French tutor Suzanna (Doris Kunstmann) to Lord James and the ape, also named James. Once more people start to die you have to add another suspect to the list: the mother herself, who if the family legends are true will have returned from the dead as a vampire. The family cat jumping on her coffin is one of the tip-offs, and as the title indicates, this grumpy cat is a malign presence most of the time and a witness to (if not a perpetrator of) most of the killings.

Margheriti's direction isn't really ambitious or audacious, but Carlo Carlini's cinematography has its moments.


More gothic than giallo -- the murders are rather simply staged -- Seven Deaths follows a whodunit formula only to blindside you with a final revelation that you most likely won't have anticipated while trying to separate the real suspects from the red herrings, yet is typically gothic itself. Generally more spooky than sleazy, Margheriti's film benefits from a genre-perfect location and appropriate cinematography by Carlo Carlini. The performances, including English dubbing, are what they are and seem right for the setting, even if some of the dialogue sounds even more stilted than is typical in translation. The versatlie Margheriti may do nothing special visually here, but nailing the mood the way he and Carlini do is most of the battle, and the rest is just a matter of having fun with the undemanding horrors and the extra bits of Euro weirdness that make this genre so endearing.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

On the Big Screen: PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN (2017)

When Wonder Woman made her big-screen debut last year in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, comics fans wondered why it took Hollywood so long to put the medium's most famous female character in the cinematic spotlight. Ironically, hard on the heels of a blockbuster Wonder Woman solo film comes the first-ever big-screen biopic about a comic-book creator, featuring Princess Diana's inventor, William Moulton Marston, aka Charles Moulton. It's not as if no one else's story had cinematic potential. The riches-to-rags saga of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, would make a great cautionary tale, for instance. Once Stan Lee passes from the scene, his turbulent collaborations with Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Dr. Strange) and Jack Kirby (just about everything else) might make epics of pop-culture history. But there's a more obvious hook to the Marston story, the same one that made Jill Lepore's Secret History of Wonder Woman a best-seller a couple of years ago. Depending on your perspective, Marston was a sexual progressive, a sexual predator, a pervert or simply a creep whose preoccupations made the early issues of the Wonder Woman comic some of the most peculiar reading of the medium's Golden Age. Long story short: Marston, a proponent not merely of gender equality but female supremacy, was a bondage fetishist who lived in a menage-a-trois in which the two women were the breadwinners most of the time while Marston himself, a disgraced academic who failed to profit from his development of a lie-detector, struggled to write something that would sell.  I imagine anyone who's read Lepore's book will share the author's ambivalent view of a man whose theories of erotic submission as the key to world peace could well be interpreted as mere rationalizations for his fetishistic fantasies. Angela Robinson's version of the Marston story is somewhat less ambivalent.

Writer-director Robinson follows a standard biopic formula, using a late-career crisis as an opportunity to tell Marston's story as a lengthy flashback. As in real life, Marston faces criticism from National Comics' (aka DC) educational consultants over Wonder Woman's kinkier content, as well as scrutiny, perhaps more so than in real life, over his personal background. Robinson elects to start the story proper at Radcliffe College in 1928, at the time when Marston (Luke Evans, who's played Greek gods in the past) was already long-married to his intellectual partner Elizabeth Holloway (Rebecca Hall, in a performance that strongly resembles an Emma Thompson impersonation), but just meeting junior muse Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcoate, wearing what strikes me as anachronistic non-bobbed hair), a student turned teaching assistant. In fact, this happens in the wrong year and the wrong college, but there's no point to calling out all Professor Marston's errors and anachronisms. By now, once you see "Based on True Events," you should know what to expect. Dramatic license dictates that the Marstons are still struggling to develop their lie-detector, so the proof of its success can also be an early emotional climax of the story. In any event, Marston hires Olive because he has the hots for her, while Elizabeth allows it as part of her film-long effort to appear more progressive than she often feels. Another expression of this, and practically a character trait in its own right, is her habit of saying "Fuck" in approximately every other sentence. She has a lot to curse about, since Harvard Law is unwilling to award her a doctorate and her husband's a bit of a dick. But -- and here the film has raised controversy and riled descendants of the Marstons -- it develops that Elizabeth shares William's attraction to Olive, who possesses a certain progressive glamour as the niece of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger. After Elizabeth catches Olive in a lie and discovers, in classic biopic fashion, the key to the lie-detector, the Marstons test their device on their protege, who makes a negative confession of her desire for both husband and wife.

This leads to a three-way that is at once ingeniously prophetic and intrusively anachronistic. The trio invades the costume department of the school's theater-arts building for some role-play. Olive puts on a Fay Wray like fairytale princess costume, while William throws on a uniform that makes him a precursor of Steve Trevor and Elizabeth wears a leopard-skin coat evocative of Wonder Woman's arch-enemy, the Cheetah. The year is still 1928 or 1929, but the scene is scored to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" from the Swingin' Sixties. That's just another hint that the filmmakers would rather not have dealt with the Twenties at all. They've already moved events forward in time so that the characters aren't too old when Wonder Woman hits big -- the trio hardly seems to age over approximately twenty years -- and the music heard in a speakeasy early on didn't sound authentic, either. Was there no erotic music back then? That can't be true, but I guess whoever compiled the soundtrack gave up too quickly.

Olive's doubly-cuckolded fiance denounces the menage and gets the Marstons fired from Radcliffe. Elizabeth is forced to become a secretary while William pounds the typewriter at home -- in fact, he spent time in Hollywood experimenting with monitoring audiences' emotional responses to movies -- and Olive does ...? In bad times Elizabeth takes her frustrations out on Olive, but their estrangements never last long. Meanwhile,  William's discovery of a fetish store in Greenwich Village leads inexorably to his invention of "Suprema, the Wonder Woman" after he discovers how the proverbial French postcards illustrate his DISC principle more effectively than all his treatises.  National Comics impresario M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt) finds Martson pretentious but bites on the idea, suggesting only that they do without the "Suprema" part. Apparently the kinky bits that caused such trouble later -- Marston's scripts were very detailed about knots, for instance -- troubled Gaines not at all initially. But before long proto-suburbanites are holding merry book-burnings and the Marston kids are getting into fights at school after a neighbor wanders through an unlocked front door (these really were more innocent times) and finds our trio in a compromising position. Once more, Elizabeth folds almost instantly and Olive is driven into exile, but in another biopic tradition, William's tense meeting with the consulting board coincides with a health crisis -- somehow he doesn't cough up blood -- that brings everybody back together for good. The Marston makes a speech somewhere, for some reason, and the movie ends.

I'm probably not the ideal audience for Professor Marston because I've read Lepore's book, but I tried to be indulgent toward dramatic license, except that superficial things like the Nina Simone song annoyed the hell out of me. I can't help feeling that the film would have been better off starting before Olive and doing more to establish the progressive milieu from which the Marstons emerged. In the final analysis I don't think Robinson or Luke Evans ever really figured out what to make of Marston. Was he a martyr for sexual freedom -- despite the factual cancer diagnosis film logic implies that persecution hastened his demise -- or a pretentious jackass, as he is sometimes shown to be? Perhaps we should accept that he was a little bit of both, just as you can decide that Elizabeth and Olive were to some extent his partners, and to a lesser extent his victims. The greatest act of creative license in the picture is its imagining of a sexual relationship between the two women, which their descendants deny. At the end of the movie its they who live happily ever after, after Marston's death, but to this day it's still subject to debate whether we can assume that two women who raised a family together were lovers, or whether such an assumption is stereotypical. Making the main relationship a true threesome arguably makes Marston look less bad, though I doubt that was the intention so much as to make Elizabeth and Olive more like "wonder women" as sexual progressives by modern standards. In all likelihood the jury is still out on William Marston, and his story remains fascinating enough that, like many a comic book character, it could stand to be "rebooted" sometime by better filmmakers.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

BEYOND MOMBASA (1956)

Here's an unpretentious but colorful programmer George Marshall directed for Columbia Pictures that features a fun star turn by Cornell Wilde, one of Christopher Lee's more substantial pre-Dracula parts, and a vivid combination of African location shooting by Freddie Young. The story, adapted by Richard English and Gene Levitt from an apparently unpublished story, is pure pulp. Wilde plays Matt Campbell, an amiable boor who arrives in Kenya to learn that his brother, a uranium miner, had just been killed. He was the victim not of the Mau-Mau, those predictable villains of a contemporary cycle of African movies, but of a resurgent cult of leopard men, sacred killers who don leopard skins for their dirty work. Matt wonders whether that's the truth of a story someone else made up, as his brother had some questionable business associates, particularly the sleazy white hunter Gil Rossi (Lee) and fellow miner Hastings (Ron Randell). Possibly more dependable are the missionary Ralph Hoyt (Leo Genn), an expert on the leopard cult, and his anthropologist neice Ann Wilson (Donna Reed). Rossi, Hoyt and Wilson take Matt to the site of the mine, which "clicks" according to the last letter from Matt's brother, which means whoever owns it has a fortune. Matt's his brother's heir, Hastings was his partner and Rossi was a 1,000 pound investor in the project. Matt instinctively looks on the other men with suspicion, but they're not the only people he has to worry about, as the leopard men seem to be all too real...

Cornell Wilde flirts with Donna Reed in Beyond Mombasa


Once Ralph Hoyt admitted he was only a lay missionary you could add him to the list of suspects, especially since Genn gives the sort of meek-and-mild performance that becomes increasingly suspicious as the film proceeds into the jungle, arriving finally in the ruins of an older civilization where our protagonists end up besieged by the leopard men and a white ally. I will spoil things only partly by letting you know that even before audiences identified him with movie villainy, Christopher Lee made a good red herring.


Wilde, who would famously return to Africa for his own project, The Naked Prey, is easily the best thing about Beyond Mombasa. His Matt Campbell is a bit of a goon, a tough guy who'd been working in Saudi Arabia before this opportunity turned up, a master of drunken fighting but also terrified of the local wildlife, including a chimp the Reed character decks out in a dress for nebulous purposes of scientific observation. Once they're on safari and under fire -- from spears, blow darts and rocks, that is -- Matt becomes more of a standard he-man hero, but his blatantly flawed nature earns our interest and sympathy more than if he'd been too good at everything to be true.


The three-way bickering of Wilde, Lee and Randall keeps things pretty hard-boiled most of the way, and when the film finally goes over the top it has the lurid flavor of men's adventure magazines of the period. I like that in a Fifties movie, and while Mombasa has no delusions of grandeur it does provide 90 minutes of two-fisted fun for those who appreciate that sort of thing.