Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Part 1 (BBC-TV, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night KPBS aired the new adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry IV, Part 1 produced as part of a four-episode BBC miniseries called “The Hollow Crown” — a title deliberately evoking comparison to An Age of Kings, the miniseries the BBC did in 1960 that consisted of 15 one-hour segments (though some were actually longer than that!) telling the entire history of England from 1399 to 1485 as depicted by Shakespeare in eight of his 10 plays about British history. (Most editions of Shakespeare’s works divide his plays rather arbitrarily into “comedies,” “tragedies,” and “histories” — though for some reason there are a few borderline cases like Macbeth that got lumped in with the “tragedies” even though it’s not only based on an actual incident in Scottish history but Shakespeare’s source for the story was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, which was also his source for most of the “history” plays.) In 1960 the BBC shot the entire cycle; in 2012 they only shot the first four plays (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) and they presented each play complete in a TV-movie format of 2 ½ to 3 hours instead of segmenting it in the middle to spread out the show into more and shorter episodes.

Also the producers of The Hollow Crown did not have the same actor play the same character wherever he (or she) appears. I noticed this almost from the opening credits, in which Jeremy Irons was prominently featured even though there was no indication of what part he played — which made me briefly wonder if he were going to play Sir John Falstaff, the character Shakespeare intended largely as comic relief but who captured the British imagination of the late 1500’s so much that not only did Henry IV, Part 1 become Shakespeare’s most popular play during his lifetime but he wrote two sequelae to it (Henry IV, Part 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor) just to exploit his popular character. Instead Irons played King Henry IV, taking over the part from Rory Kinnear, who played him in the series’ adaptation of Richard II. That meant we were deprived of the opportunity to see a single actor play the entire character arc of Henry IV from bold usurper through rebellion-wracked monarch to decrepit old man fearful of what’s going to happen when he croaks and his wastrel son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston, Loki in the Marvel Thor movies and a quite good actor even if he lacks the almost unearthly charisma of Laurence Olivier or Robert Hardy, who played this role in An Age of Kings), later King Henry V, takes over. In An Age of Kings Tom Fleming played Henry IV throughout and turned in one of the most remarkable acting tours de force ever put on film, but Rory Kinnear wasn’t offered a similar opportunity — not that I minded: from the moment the show depicted Henry IV and his court, Jeremy Irons’ authority as an actor, his ability to speak Shakespearean dialogue as if he talked that way all the time (some critic whose name I have long since forgotten said that was the sine qua non of making Shakespeare work on stage) and his obvious experience allowed him to create an unforgettable performance.

It also helped that this show had a different director from Richard II — Richard Eyre instead of Rupert Goold — and Eyre managed not only to bring the play badly needed energy but got the actors in general to behave far more naturalistically and with less of the deadly “reverence” for Shakespeare’s language (to paraphrase the Bard, too many actors who play Shakespeare today love him not wisely but too well) that largely sank Richard II. Where Henry IV, Part 1 was weakest, oddly, was in the casting of Falstaff: Simon Russell Beale got the part, and for a moment in his first scene (oddly Eyre, who did his own script from the play as well as directing, reversed the order of the first two scenes and had the play open with Falstaff and Hal in the Boar’s Head Tavern, then cut to Henry IV’s court) I thought that Beale might be agreeing with me that the actor who should have played Falstaff was W. C. Fields (that no producer ever thought of filming Fields as Falstaff is one of the great cultural tragedies of the 20th century; whether Fields ever read Shakespeare or not — he liked to pretend he was a school dropout and a cultural rube, but when he was offered Micawber in a film of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield he said that not only did he love the book, he loved Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers even better and would like to film it if Copperfield was a hit — he had essentially reinvented the overweight, alcoholic, braggart Falstaff character for the 20th century and both he and the rest of us deserved a shot at him playing the original) because he seemed to be speaking the lines with at least hints of Fields’ drawling, exaggerated delivery. As things went on, I got tired of Beale’s relentless humorlessness — made up with a grey but well-kempt beard that made him look like a slightly more dissolute version of Karl Marx, he seemed to have taken the hint that Falstaff was a figure of pathos as well as comedy too much to heart and lost sight of the comedy completely in search of the pathos. (Once again The Hollow Crown was the reverse of the 1960 An Age of Kings — the Falstaff in An Age of Kings, Frank Pettingell, went too relentlessly for the funnybone and missed the pathos almost completely.)

Eyre also made some weird changes in the script, eliminating the brilliant ending of the scene in which Falstaff and Hal take turns pretending to be Hal and Henry IV confronting each other and putting Falstaff’s speech lampooning the whole idea of “honor” before, not after, the Battle of Shrewsbury. It’s to this version’s credit that not only did they have a bigger budget to stage the actual battle, but Eyre knew what to do with it (though I still suspect Orson Welles’ staging of the same scene in his Falstaff movie, Chimes at Midnight, is probably the closest of anyone’s to what medieval war actually looked like), and the final confrontation between Prince Hal and Hotspur (Joe Armstrong — whose actual father, Alun Armstrong, plays Hotspur’s father Northumberland) is oddly disappointing. It doesn’t help that the younger Armstrong, though nice-looking and properly impetuous for the part, is up against the competition of the young Sean Connery, who played Hotspur in An Age of Kings — I don’t think Joe Armstrong is going to launch a franchise that will last decades and make himself a superstar! I think Charles summed up the difference between An Age of Kings and This Hollow Crown when he said afterwards that the makers of the 1960 version (producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes) were doing something “educational,” something that would introduce Shakespeare to a mass audience that hadn’t seen him professionally performed before (even if they’d had to read him in school!), whereas the makers of The Hollow Crown were going, not for education or entertainment, but for Prestige with a capital “P.” The message this version is sending out to the world is, “See what wonderful things we can do with the fabulous British actors, the words of the greatest English-language writer, and a decent but not lavish production budget! We can make movies of our natural treasures” — and embalm them in the process, though in fairness Henry IV, Part 1 in this series is a far better production than Richard II and doesn’t have the curiously embalmed quality either of its predecessor in the series or the 1974 film of The Great Gatsby, which didn’t so much dramatize Fitzgerald’s novel as encase it in amber.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Rules of the Game (Nouvelles Éditions de Films, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched one of the films Turner Classic Movies was showing as a tribute to French films of the 1930’s: Jean Renoir’s classic Rules of the Game (La Règle du Jeu), which had one of the weirdest post-production histories of any major film. Renoir made it in 1939, the first production of a company he and his nephew Claude had started themselves, flush with the success of La Grande Illusion (1937) and La Bête Humaine (1938). Renoir was concerned that France’s ruling elite had become too soft, too wrapped up in its own pleasures, not strong enough to stand up to the threat from Nazi Germany, and he intended this film as an exposé of the danger he felt his country was in from the irresponsible people who were running it. He came up with a 113-minute film that was so scathing audiences actively hated it. One theatre owner even got a phone call from someone threatening to burn down his theatre if he continued to show the film. So Renoir, desperate to save his investment, kept cutting and recutting the film until it was only 86 minutes long — and when the Germans did in fact conquer and occupy France, they banned the film from further showings and destroyed all extant prints. The warehouse in which Renoir stored the negative was blown to bits in an Allied bombing raid later in the war, and the film stayed pretty much out of public view until 1959, when two researchers for the Cinemathéque Française discovered most of the missing outtakes and, with Renoir’s help (he continued to work until 1969 and died in 1979, ironically in Beverly Hills even though he’d got disgusted with the re-editing of his films by Hollywood studios and had skedaddled back to France as soon as the war was over and enough of a French film industry was restored for him to be able to work in his homeland again), pieced a 106-minute version of the film together that Renoir said contained everything but one minor scene that had been in his original cut.

I first saw Rules of the Game in the early 1970’s, when PBS was doing a much-ballyhooed series of classic movies every Friday night (including films like The Blue Angel and M) and they showed it a few weeks after Grand Illusion, which had knocked me out: the doomed romanticism, the contrast between the aristocratic characters and the proletarians (and the idea that aristocrats from various countries formed a natural brotherhood that would win out over patriotism — the “grand illusion” of the title), the finely honed acting by three excellent principals (Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay and Erich von Stroheim — in one of the few performances he was ever able to give for a director as talented as himself) and the superb visual atmospherics (to be expected from a director whose father, Pierre Auguste Renoir, was one of the most famous artists in history!) combined to make an awesome movie that impressed me aesthetically and touched me emotionally. So when Rules of the Game was shown on the same program a few weeks later it totally threw me — and it still does. It’s a surprisingly cold, bitter film about a decadent aristocracy — though the story takes place in France in 1939 one could readily imagine it happening just before the French Revolution (though the heroic exploit one of the central characters, aviator André Jurieux, is returning from would have had to be a battle or a trans-Atlantic expedition instead of a flight), and for that matter it’s such an intense exposé of the irresponsibility and impunity of the 1 percent it could be set in any advanced capitalist country today

The film opens with a breathless radio reporter (Lise Élina) rushing through a crowd at Le Bourget airport on her way to greet returning aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain). Jurieux has just flown solo across the Atlantic — duplicating the feat Charles Lindbergh had pulled off 12 years earlier and beating Lindbergh’s time (one wonders if Renoir, in a film intended to awaken his countrypeople to the dangers of a Nazi invasion, deliberately referenced Lindbergh in connection with the famous aviator’s well-known pro-German sympathies) — and the reporter corners him for an instant interview, expecting some sort of heroic testament to his pride in himself, his plane and his accomplishment. Instead he whines that he made the flight for a woman, who has disappointed him by not showing up at the airport to greet him, and though he doesn’t name her he’s pretty egregiously embarrassed both himself and her. She turns out to be Christine Steiner de la Cheyriest (Nora Grégor), daughter of a famous Austrian symphony conductor and wife of Marquis Robert de la Cheyriest (Marcel Dalio, who like Renoir managed to flee to the United States after France fell but never rose above minor character roles in Hollywood — his most famous U.S. film is probably Casablanca, in which he plays the croupier at Rick’s Café). Robert is having an adulterous affair of his own with Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély) but is still jealous over André’s interest in his wife. All the principals end up spending a weekend at Robert’s country estate, where they go out hunting rabbits and ducks (one irony is that the hunt is organized with the precision of a military operation — the poor rabbits didn’t stand a chance and I couldn’t help but joke, “Where is Bugs Bunny when we need him?”) and where even the servants have their own set of romantic intrigues going on: Lisette (Paulette Dubost) boasts to her boss Christine that her husband lives in Paris while she stays at the country estate where she works, which allows her the sort of “freedom” French filmmakers were allowed to celebrate while their counterparts in Hollywood were obliged by the Production Code to pretend it didn’t exist.

The pointless people in the film’s dramatis personae couple, recouple and couple again — at times it comes off as a modern-dress version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses — and when they’re not doing that they’re hunting and watching each other perform bad songs and skits in the estate’s small built-in theatre. There’s also a subplot about Schumacher (Gaston Modot), Robert’s gamekeeper — once again his German-sounding name and origins in Alsace, a contested territory France and Germany were fighting over (Germany conquered it from France in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war and France won it back in World War I), references Renoir’s stated attempt (though not particularly apparent in the film itself) to do a preparedness warning to his fellow French people — catches poacher Marceau (Julien Carette) on the estate and, rather than bust him, offers Marceau a job as his assistant. In the end [spoiler alert!] Robert and Schumacher spot André while they’re taking a night walk, and Schumacher is armed with a rifle; Robert has Schumacher shoot André dead with the idea that he’ll say as a cover story that his gamekeeper mistook the famous aviator for a prowler or poacher and shot him accidentally. The murder happens — interestingly Robert was willing to fire the shot himself but Schumacher talked his boss out of it by citing his need for what would now be called “plausible deniability” — and though a couple of local officials are skeptical, the impression is that Robert will get away with it: the 1 percent win again! Rules of the Game — ironically, like Zero Dark Thirty and Kathryn Bigelow’s previous war-on-terror movie, The Hurt Locker — is the sort of film you respect more than you actually enjoy; Renoir’s breathtaking visual sense and his ability to use the moving camera (and also his wisdom over when not to!) come through, but the film also features a maddening detachment towards the characters.

One gets the impression Renoir simply didn’t like any of his principals that much — which is why he and his co-writer, Carl Koch, inserted a character played by Renoir himself: Octave, a musician, who comes off as a sort of goofy cross-breed of Harry Langdon and Fatty Arbuckle and who for no particular reason except director’s fiat ends up with Christine at the end. Octave’s function seems mainly to be to provide an island of sanity in the middle of a cast all of whose other members are playing various degrees of craziness. The film is full of classical music, conducted by Roger Desormière (whose name for some reason grows an extra “s” in the credits) — who would later record the first complete version of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande for French EMI during the war, and Ravel’s Bolero in the mid-1950’s for the Czech Supraphon label — and the composers include someone you’ve heard of, Mozart, and someone you haven’t, Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny (1729-1817), a French operetta composer who stopped composing in 1777 and  built up a fortune under the patronage of Louis XVI’s brother Philippe, Duke of Orleans, only to lose it all during the Revolution and be saved only when the staff of the Opéra-Comique in Paris voted him a pension and he was able to make a comeback as a music teacher. Much of Rules of the Game is quite good — the money, power and sheer cluelessness of the French aristocracy are vividly dramatized and Renoir had enough of his father’s eye that despite not having access to color he’s nonetheless able to make the French landscape glow, an ironic contrast to the sordid doings that are happening against this spectacular backdrop — but given its time it’s an oddly cold film, one which ironically seems modern today because like so many of the films of our time it looks at the characters with the emotional detachment of scientists looking at their lab rats, and one aches for the depth and richness with which Renoir brought the characters of Grand Illusion (and the three-hour film of Madame Bovary he made in 1934 in all the actual locations Flaubert had described in the novel — I haven’t seen it in 40 years, and even then I only saw a two-hour edit-down, but I have vivid memories) to life. It’s an appropriately somber film but also an oddly off-putting one — and Charles’ feelings (“You really have to be in the right mood for this,” he said, indicating that he wasn’t last night”) were similar to mine, if not more so.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (Columbia, Annapurna, First Light, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Zero Dark Thirty is a film purporting to tell the true story — more or less — of how the U.S. located Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, sent in a raiding party from SEAL Team 6 and killed him. It was made by director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, and apparently the project was first put into production while bin Laden was still alive and intended as the story of how the U.S. just missed getting him in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, just two months after the 9/11 attacks. It was clearly a follow-up to their film The Hurt Locker, about explosive ordnance details (EOD’s) in the war in Iraq — basically the U.S. Army’s bomb squads — and The Hurt Locker had already served notice on us that Bigelow and Boal, whatever their public protestations (Bigelow announced publicly during the controversy over Zero Dark Thirty’s endorsement of torture as a necessary weapon in the “war on terror” that she had actually signed a petition opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, as if that was supposed to establish her liberal bona fides), take a very strong, hard-line Right-wing view of the global war on terror. Like The Hurt Locker, which went out of its way to avoid any depiction of innocent Iraqi civilians — the movie is full of characters who appear to be innocent civilians but in fact are stone-cold terrorists out to kill as many Americans as possible — Zero Dark Thirty is the sort of movie Dick Cheney could love. It begins with the innocent heroine, Maya (Jessica Chastain), who seems to be the focus of the movie largely because Bigelow was tired of having the irony that she became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director for a film that had almost no female characters waved in her face, looking askance and a bit queasy over the out-and-out torture of detainee Amaar (Reda Kateb, who bears a striking resemblance to Bob Dylan around age 40) by Dan (Jason Clarke).

But Maya soon comes to realize that we can’t fight the war on terror without torture — a debatable proposition but one this film accepts as a given — and the film is basically the story of how Maya the incorruptible and unswayable bureaucrat pushes the rest of the CIA to accept her theory that a mystery man named Abu Ahmed Sayad (Tushaar Mehra) is in fact Osama bin Laden’s personal courier and the key to locating him, and how she gets a raid ordered on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad even though her colleagues in the CIA are only 40 to 60 percent certain bin Laden is there. Like The Hurt Locker (whose victory over Avatar in the Academy Awards was hailed by Right-wing writers as a triumph of Americanism over the silly piss-ant eco-freak Leftism of James Cameron’s stunning fantasy), Zero Dark Thirty is an endurance test as a movie — indeed more so, since it lasts 157 minutes (26 minutes longer than The Hurt Locker) and, for a movie about the killing of the world’s number one terrorist leader, it’s surprisingly action-less. Much of the film takes place either in detention cells — the critics who called the first 25 minutes or so “torture porn” are absolutely right — or offices, and though Maya has a Forrest Gump-like tendency to turn up at the scene of virtually every terrorist incident between 9/11 and bin Laden’s death (and her best friend is killed in 2009 by a supposed Jordanian defector and his driver, a suicide bomber, in Afghanistan — once again underscoring the point Bigelow and Boal make in both their “war on terror” movies that there are no “innocent civilians” in these countries, that nobody is to be trusted and everyone in Iraq and Afghanistan is either a terrorist, a supporter of terrorism or a terrorist wanna-be), the overall plotting is sufficiently contrived that one has no problem believing the disclaimer at the end that though the film is loosely based on real events, a lot of the characters (including Maya) are composites or entirely fictional inventions and this movie shouldn’t be taken as history. Zero Dark Thirty was expected to be a major contender for last year’s Academy Awards but wasn’t, partly because it was actually denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate — both Dianne Feinstein and John McCain (the latter not only a former Republican presidential nominee but an actual torture victim himself when he was a POW in North Viet Nam) attacked the movie for its unquestioning endorsement of torture, as did then-acting CIA director Michael Morell — and I suspect also because of the jealousy of other women directors, who had been overjoyed when Kathryn Bigelow broke the glass ceiling and became the first woman Best Director winner for The Hurt Locker but didn’t want her to be the second one as well.

It’s a quite good movie if you buy into its political premises but it’s also a singularly action-less one; even the final raid on bin Laden’s compound, which takes 25 minutes of screen time (only six minutes shorter than the real event), is surprisingly dull, partly because a lot of it is black-on-black and it’s not all that easy to figure out what’s going on. The only time we get a clear view of the action is during the green-tinted scenes representing point-of-view shots of the SEAL team members wearing spacy-looking night-vision goggles with four lenses instead of the usual two. These are supposedly so they can retain peripheral vision but they have the odd side effect of making the raiders look almost inhuman, sort of like the Teutonic Knights in the film Alexander Nevsky. Much of the preparation and backup crucial to the actual raid — like the presence of additional helicopters to evacuate the members of the team, including the ones in the helicopter that crashed, and the practice raid on a mockup of bin Laden’s compound built in North Carolina — aren’t depicted here; Boal’s script makes it seem like the Army and the CIA had so little information on the interior of the compound they couldn’t have built a mockup and thus had to go in “blind.” (Several “Goofs” posters also noted signs advertising businesses with the Hindu names of their proprietors in scenes supposedly taking place in Pakistan but actually shot in India.) Like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie that’s powerful in a way but can hardly be called “entertaining,” and it’s neither the vivid piece of triumphalism the Right would have wanted (though maybe not; had bin Laden been killed while George W. Bush was still President the Right would have loved this film, but instead they were so fearful that the movie might make Obama look good in his re-election year — even though Obama is depicted only  via one film clip as a prissy little piss-ant whose niggling “moral” objections to torture only get in the way of the tough guys and tougher girls who are actually fighting terrorism — they put pressure on Sony Pictures to delay the film’s release until after the November 2012 election) nor the sort of self-doubting movie Bigelow’s liberal “buddies” would have wanted her to make. In the end it was a modest success but not the blockbuster hit the filmmakers and Sony were obviously hoping for — its theatrical gross was $95,720,716 and its budget was estimated at $40 million, so given the usual rule of thumb that a movie has to make twice what it cost to break even (the extra is for advertising, promotion and other expenses aimed at getting people to see it), it was a moneymaker but not much of one.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Monsters (Vertigo Films, Protagonist, Magnet, New Wave Entertainment, Magnolia Entertainment, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Monsters, a movie Charles had been especially curious to see since we located a copy of it in a $3 bin at Vons of DVD’s in cardboard sleeves (rather than the original plastic cases) labeled “Treasure Hunt!” Its central premise is explained in an opening title card reading, “Six years ago... NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A space probe was launched to collect samples but broke up during re-entry over Mexico. Soon after new life forms began to appear and half of the was quarantined as an INFECTED ZONE. Today... The Mexican & U.S. military still struggle to contain ‘the creatures’... .” Written and directed by Gareth Edwards for a $15,000 budget and shot entirely on location, with the “extras” simply being the people who happened to be present at the time, Monsters is the sort of movie that’s frustrating because it’s mediocre and could have been great. The basic plot line is the struggle of two people, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) — a photojournalist who’s ended up south of the “infected zone” and turned into a slacker — and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of Kaulder’s editor. The editor has ordered Kaunder to look after his daughter and get her safely north of the “infected zone” and into the U.S. so she can marry her fiancé. They miss both the train and the ferry that can take them back safely and as a result Kaulder has to use Samantha’s diamond ring to bribe some of the Mexican authorities to smuggle them through the infected zone to the U.S. side of the border. The result is a chase film that rips off classic sources ranging from It Happened One Night and The African Queen to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead, and for the first 45 minutes of the film’s 94-minute running time not much happens except we get to know our rather boring and uncharismatic leads. Monsters suffers from the problem of a lot of modern-day movies: a directorial point of view (and, as I’ve said before about disappointing movies that were written and directed by the same person, the director is also the writer so he has nobody but himself to blame) that looks at the characters with the detachment of lab rats. It doesn’t help that Edwards makes both his leads such actively unpleasant people — he’s supposed to be a professional but he seems more interested in drinking, partying and sleeping in afterwards than anything else, and she’s neither sympathetic (à la the heroines of It Happened One Night and the other classic-era screwball farces about runaway heiresses paired with proletarian men) nor actively bitchy. She’s just blah, and it also doesn’t help that neither of the leads is particularly sexy (though Scoot — not Scott, Scoot! — McNairy has a nicely hairy chest that we get to see a lot of, praise be).

The film gets better when they actually cross over into the Infected Zone — and Edwards unexpectedly turns out to be one director who actually tried to copy the Val Lewton approach to horror and make it work in a modern context. For much of the film we hear the monster aliens but we don’t actually see them — and when we finally do see them it’s generally in a background of dark or fog, much the way producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin “teased” us with the appearance of the Martians in the 1953 War of the Worlds. They’re shown, all right — with modern-day digital effects you can do a surprisingly convincing alien monster even on a $15,000 budget — but it’s hard to get too much of a make on just what they are: they appear to be lobster-like body with multiple snake-like limbs that double for propulsion and manipulation, and they’re huge but also oddly delicate — powerful enough to overturn a truck and kill a four-year-old child therein in one of the film’s most chilling scenes, but also literally afraid of the dark (trapped inside a convenience store and menaced by one of the things, Samantha gets it to go away by unplugging the store’s security TV monitor. When I’ve seen Wes Craven’s films (which is rarely) I’ve had the feeling that Craven should have lived in the 1940’s and had Lewton as his producer — he’s certainly talented enough to scare audiences with Lewton-style indirection, but he’s also aware enough of what his market wants from his genre to oblige them and splash blood all over the screen in his final reels. Well, Gareth Edwards did in Monsters what Wes Craven and other potentially talented modern-day horror directors haven’t dared: he made a Val Lewton movie for the 2010’s, and as far as the horror elements are concerned he made it surprisingly well. Edwards is also a director with a spectacular visual eye — even though he had to cobble together a landscape from Texas, Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica to do it (one key scene takes place on the ruin of the Mayan temple at Yaxha, Guatemala, though we’re told it’s on the U.S.-Mexico border — where there aren’t any Mayan ruins: the big ones in Mexico are on the Yucatán peninsula); the film is full of spectacular twilight scenes and cruel beauties of nature that contrast vividly with what the story is about, particularly the Avatar-like sequences of the monster aliens attaching themselves to trees and literally budding off them with an unearthly light.

But what’s beautiful and what works about Monsters can’t make up for what doesn’t work about it, particularly the weak leads (we’ve seen some cheap modern-day movies with people who could act quite well, but this isn’t one of them) and the failure of Edwards to give us much of a reason to care about these people. Monsters has some thinly veiled elements of social commentary — when Kaulder sees the huge fence that has been built across the U.S.-Mexico border to keep the monsters out it’s hard not to think of the ferocious agitation of people on the Right to build a similar fence to keep the so-called “illegal aliens” out (though a “trivia” post on claims that Edwards said that was not his intent), and the final scene is a chilling one in which just as Kaulder and Samantha kissed (which seems more a bow to movie convention than any serious plot turn; they haven’t shown each other one jot of either physical or emotional attraction all movie until that point), they’re greeted by a team of U.S. soldiers in trucks whom they’ve been told were going to rescue them … and instead arrest them. But a story that involves putting your leads in mortal danger can’t work unless you can get the audience to root for them to survive — and that means making them, if not totally heroic, at least sufficiently sympathetic that viewers will like them and want to see them live, which the makers of The African Queen did and Gareth Edwards did not.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Hollow Crown: Richard II (BBC-TV, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I screened “The Hollow Crown,” an intriguing adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard II that appears to be part of a BBC-TV remake of their classic 1960 miniseries An Age of Kings, their edit of eight of the 10 Shakespeare history plays (Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III) into a continuous saga of Britain’s history between the fall of Richard II in 1399 and the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The listing for this on has it as a four-part TV miniseries dealing only with the first four plays in the cycle (which Shakespeare actually wrote after the later four) and using “The Hollow Crown,” which the makers of the 1960 An Age of Kings (producer Peter Dews and director Michael Hayes) used as an episode title for the first half of Richard II, as the name of the entire series. This time the director is Rupert Goold (that’s the spelling on his credit), who also did the adaptation, and the story is, of course, familiar. Richard II became King of England in 1377 at the age of 10, after the death of his grandfather Edward III (Edward III had seven sons but none of them actually became King; his oldest son, Edward the Black Prince, actually predeceased him by a year), and though a regent was appointed to handle the day-to-day affairs of state, the Peasants’ Revolt happened four years after Richard II was crowned — and both sides in the revolution thought that the appearance of the King would magically solve everything.

Richard II grew up, like the last Chinese emperor Pu Yi, literally knowing no other life, and it gave him an otherworldly air; he was a great patron of art and music (Flint Castle, where he hides out for a while in the middle of the play to get away from the burgeoning revolution against him, was actually a major seat of British culture at the time, and the entry on Richard II on mentions that he gave grants to Chaucer) but a weak and indecisive monarch at a time when, following the death of Edward III after a 50-year reign, Britain really needed a strong hand. It got one in the person of Henry Hereford a.k.a. Lancaster a.k.a. Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) — the tendency of the Brits to tack titles onto their upper-class men’s names makes the dramaturgy here confusing at times: just because a character is called something else than he was in the previous scene does not necessarily mean he isn’t the same person — who in the opening scene comes before Richard with his rival at court, Thomas Mowbray (James Purefoy), to accuse Mowbray of treason. Richard (Ben Whishaw) is ready to let the two knights literally duke it out on the battlefield, but just before they’re about to have at each other Richard throws his own scepter into the field, indicating that he’s ordering the combat to stop. He then sentences both Bolingbroke (I might as well call him that because that’s the name he uses most often) and Mowbray to exile, Mowbray for life and Bolingbroke for 10 years — though a tearful plea from Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt (Patrick Stewart) — fourth son of Edward III and therefore Richard II’s uncle — causes him to cut Bolingbroke’s sentence from 10 years to six. (It seems odd that Shakespeare’s dialogue refers to the harsh winters Bolingbroke and Mowbray will supposedly face when they’re forced to leave England, when noble Brits who were sent into exile in that period usually went to France, which has a relatively milder climate.)

The real reason Richard wants Bolingbroke out of the country is because his father, John of Gaunt, is about to die, and when he croaks Richard plans to seize John’s estates and all his treasures and use them to fight a stupid and unwinnable war he’s started in Ireland. (Gee, a member of an hereditary ruling class getting involved in a stupid and unwinnable imperialist war that ends up bankrupting his country — where have we seen that one since?) Bolingbroke hears of this in France, comes home illegally, starts rousing his friends and allies — including the earl of Northumberland (David Morrissey), who will become quite important in later parts of the cycle — and before long he’s put together an army strong enough to defeat the forces still loyal to Richard and force him to give up the crown. In a series of intense confrontations between the two men, Richard finally agrees to the inevitable and abdicates — leaving his queen, Isabella (Clémence Poésy — that’s really her name, though the official credits left off the accents), rather bereft since it means she will lose her position as well — in the belief that Bolingbroke will leave him alone and allow him to live out the rest of his life in seclusion. Instead Bolingbroke throws him in the Tower and a couple of Richard’s former allies, including the Duke of Aumerle (played by Tom Hughes as a twink), enter his cell and assassinate him — much to the disgust of the new king, Henry IV, who (like Elizabeth I, the ruling monarch when Shakespeare wrote the play, who held off ordering the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots for 20 years) didn’t want to establish the principle that losers in a succession battle got offed by the winners because that could as easily have happened to him.

Charles and I watched the complete cycle of the original An Age of Kings four years ago when it was finally released on DVD after moldering in the BBC’s vaults for 35 years (and we’re still waiting for the series with which the BBC followed it up: a similarly cyclical presentation of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) and were amused by the cheapness and tackiness of the production (“They were trying to do Shakespeare on a Doctor Who budget!” Charles said) but impressed by the speed with which director Hayes paced the plays and the naturalistic delivery he got from his actors, who answered the challenge of Shakespearean acting: making people believe you talk that way all the time. This version was the opposite on both counts: director Goold did a lot of location shooting (in their aborted duel, Bolingbroke and Mowbray really do look like they’re about to have a fight to the death) and found some quite spectacular settings, including a garden where the trees are cropped and pruned into regular shapes that make them look like giant chess pieces placed in the middle of the Nazca lines. The costumes are generally more convincing — at least the women aren’t wearing those bizarre chiffon headdresses they were in the 1960 version — and the production values all around are far superior. Alas, the great strengths of An Age of Kings — the zippy pace and the naturalistic acting — are negated here; the actors deliver their lines with an all too palpable sense that they’re not playing characters, they’re intoning Deathless Masterpieces of Literature (and the higher up the socioeconomic scale their characters, the less naturalistic and more staid their performances are).

I hadn’t heard of any of the people in this before except Patrick Stewart (yes, I know he was a trained Shakespearean actor on the British stage long before he starred in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but he’s still so totally identified with that role that every time he appeared I couldn’t help but think, “What’s a nice starship captain like you doing in a place like this?”) and David Sachet (who plays the Duke of York, Edward III’s third son and Aumerle’s father) — though James Purefoy’s name sounds familiar even if he wasn’t billed in the opening credits. But the performances are a bit on the stiff side and one doesn’t get the impression one did from the 1960 version that these are real people clashing over the most basic issues: politics, family, sex. It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that a TV adaptation of Richard II from 2012 would do more than one from 1960 with the hints of Gayness Shakespeare threw into his text — particularly involving the commoners Bagot (Samuel Roukin), Bushy (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Green (Harry Hadden-Paton) whom Richard invites to the court and who seem to be there as his sex toys. Under Goold’s direction, Ben Whishaw plays Richard considerably queenier than David William played him in 1960 — and does far less to suggest that Shakespeare may have intended Richard to be suffering from what’s now called bipolar disorder (just as in King Lear he gave Lear an almost clinically perfect case of Alzheimer’s — those conditions may not have had names or been identified as diseases in Shakespeare’s time, but surely they existed even if people back then didn’t know what they were!). There’s a bizarre series of scenes in which Richard is either painting a picture of St. Sebastian with one of his boyfriends as a model or modeling for one his boyfriend is painting — echoed at the end in which Richard’s murder is committed, not with daggers (as royally ordered or sanctioned assassinations usually were at the time) but with arrows, leaving Richard — who in his incarceration had been stripped naked except for a loincloth — looking like St. Sebastian.

Indeed, much of Goold’s adaptation emphasized the parallels between Richard and Jesus Christ; they’re there in the play (at one point Richard compares Bolingbroke to Judas, and later he says his disloyal courtiers are behaving like Pontius Pilate) but Goold ramps them up, making up and costuming Ben Whishaw to look like the standard depictions of Jesus and even showing him leaving the throne being led on a white mule like Jesus entering Jerusalem. This Richard II is a decent adaptation of the play, marvelously staged and decently acted within the limits of the “academic” approach to Shakespeare — Charles said afterwards that the 1960 An Age of Kings had “turned Shakespeare into television” while this version sought to turn television into Shakespeare, presenting the play in exactly the sort of way I praised the makers of the 1960 version for avoiding: “approach[ing] the language far too reverently — treating it like a dose of intellectual medicine (‘listen to this, it’s good for you’) and chanting the lines in an annoying sing-song pattern, as if they’re too frightened of the iambic pentameter even to try to utter it like normal speech.” Not surprisingly, the new adaptation is also considerably gorier than the old one; though some of the killings in 1960 were shocking by the standards of the day, this one features Bolingbroke’s executions of Bushy and Green in gruesome detail (we see their severed heads fall from the cliff where the executioner kills them to the sea below) and when Henry IV foils an assassination plot and his men bring back the severed heads of the conspirators, they roll them across the palace floor like bowling balls: one detail I could have done without — though Shakespeare’s stage was actually pretty gory, complete with actors wearing bladders filled with pig’s blood so they could bleed on cue when stabbed.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

There Goes My Heart (Hal Roach/United Artists, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was There Goes My Heart, a 1938 production from Hal Roach Studios at a time when Roach was using the profits from the Laurel and Hardy movies to build his little comedy outfit into, if not a full-fledged major, at least a top-flight independent to match Goldwyn and Selznick, capable of making sophisticated screwball comedies with “A”-list stars (here the male lead, Fredric March, was definitely “A”-list but his co-star, Virginia Bruce, was a “B”-lister whose talent certainly should have put her on the “A”-list; maybe if her greatest film, the 1934 Jane Eyre, had been made for a major instead of for Monogram … ) and a high level of production “finish.” There Goes My Heart was based on an original story by Ed Sullivan — yes, that Ed Sullivan; at that time he was a gossip columnist in New York and he was envying the success of Walter Winchell, who’d sold a story to Hollywood that became the hit film Broadway Through a Keyhole — worked up into a script by Eddie Moran and Jack Jevne, and directed by Norman Z. McLeod (whose reputation, if he has one at all these days, comes from his two films with the Marx Brothers, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, which at least showed he had a flair for zany comedy), but it’s really just another chip off the It Happened One Night log. Indeed, it’s so close that during the opening scene, which establishes that heiress Joan Butterfield (Virginia Bruce) is being held prisoner on her yacht by her grandfather Cyrus (Claude Gillingwater) and is told when he has to fly off the boat on business to London that she can go anywhere she likes on the yacht but she’s not allowed to leave it, I joked that he’d say, “If I let you off the boat, something horrible might happen — like you might meet Clark Gable on a bus!”

Instead she takes advantage of granddad’s absence to have the yacht sail to New York (it doesn’t look like it could survive an Atlantic crossing, and since her grandfather had said she could leave the boat “if there’s an emergency,” I wondered if the writers were going to have her tell her crew to follow the same course as the Titanic in hopes of running into an iceberg from which she’d have to be rescued), and when she gets there she sneaks off by disguising herself as her maid (though she’s wearing an expensive fur coat which one would think would have “outed” her immediately), and when she gets there she goes incognito as “Joan Baker” and takes a job at the New York outlet of Butterfield’s department store — working as a shopgirl in the store her family owns, and rooming with Peggy O’Brien (Patsy Kelly, who seems to have slimmed down from her Roach two-reelers and also have got rather nervous — though the script calls for her to be her usual voice-of-reason character, she pitches her voice higher than normal and seems annoyingly shrill, as if she’s on speed — which maybe she was to keep her weight down!). Reporter Bill Spencer (Fredric March, pretty much recycling his reporter characterization from Nothing Sacred) and his typical comic-relief photographer sidekick Flash Fisher (Arthur “Dagwood” Lake) discover Joan when they get thrown off her yacht, literally into the water, and Bill hits on an angle for the story his irascible editor Stevens (Eugene Pallette) wants him to write about Joan Butterfield (who frankly comes off as the Paris Hilton or Kardashians of the 1930’s!): he’ll meet a woman who works at Butterfield’s department store and do a profile of her as a contrast between the hard-working shopgirl and the irresponsible heiress living off the profits the work of the shopgirls generate. Of course, the hard-working shopgirl he decides to profile is Peggy O’Brien, whom he meets as she’s showing “Joan Baker” the ropes, and he realizes “Baker” is Joan Butterfield when he hears her use the phrase “if there’s an emergency.”

I don’t think you need two guesses to determine what happens next: Bill and Joan fall genuinely in love with each other, he decides to tear up the story he’s written about her that makes her look ridiculous, but Stevens has his staff reassemble it from the torn pieces and he publishes it. This causes the inevitable one-reel glitch in their relationship, but Stevens, “Flash,” Peggy, her boyfriend — aspiring chiropractor Pennypacker Z. Pennypacker (Alan Mowbray), who in one of the film’s most charming running gags is always practicing on Peggy and leaving her looking decidedly “twisted” — and even grandpa Stevens, who like his predecessor in It Happened One Night (played by Walter Connolly, who also played the irascible editor to March’s reporter in Nothing Sacred), turns into a good sport at the end and realizes his granddaughter has found a man worthy of her, all stage a ruse that involves sending telegrams to Bill and Joan to meet at Bill’s ramshackle beach house on a deserted and definitely déclassé stretch called “Sand Island” (all this is supposed to be happening in New York but the actor playing the boatman who drives Bill there uses a New England accent). They meet, a convenient thunderclap brings them together (it’s been established that Joan is deathly afraid of lightning), and a minister (Harry Langdon, uncredited but easily recognizable) engaged by Peggy and Pennypacker turns up to marry them. The door of the beach house closes and “The End” is spelled out in seashells on the sand. The writers deserve credit for a few intriguing variations on their plot template, but it still remains the sort of movie that falls back on so many clichés you think you’ve seen it before even if you haven’t — and one sequence at a skating rink, in which Bill and Joan take a series of pratfalls and the movie suddenly falls into the sort of slapstick comedy the Roach studios still did best, is considerably funnier and more delightful than the rest, which is a nicely sophisticated piece but one that’s just too familiar to be memorable.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Personality Kid (Warner Bros., 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a movie, the next in sequence in the four Warner Bros. “B”’s I’d recorded last month as part of TCM’s “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to Glenda Farrell: The Personality Kid, a 1934 boxing movie starring Pat O’Brien as Ritzy McCarty, a middleweight boxer whose style is to dance around the ring and wear out his opponents until they make stupid moves and he can knock them out — sort of like Muhammad Ali three decades later. His career is being managed by his wife Joan (Glenda Farrell), who wants him in the fight game only long enough to make $25,000, which she intends to use to buy them a vineyard so they can raise grapes. His fights attract the attention of a couple of crooked promoters, Gavin (Robert Gleckler) and Stephens (Henry O’Neill), who sign him and then set up a series of fights to get him a shot at the championship. He doesn’t realize the fights are fixed — his opponents are being paid to lose — until one day, after beating Biff Sullivan (played by real-life fighter “Mushy” Callahan), he hears Biff in his dressing room telling Gavin and Stephens that he could have beaten Ritzy easily if he’d been allowed to and he ought to get a shot at Hollywood because he’s such a good actor he made the audience believe the fight was on the level when it wasn’t. Ritzy confronts the promoters, who tell him that his wife was in on the deal and agreed to the set-up — and then he confronts Joan and learns that that’s true: she did know the fights were fixed, and she agreed to it because she didn’t have enough confidence in the strength of Ritzy’s punch to believe he could be a legitimate contender.

Sports reporter Rankin (Thomas Jackson) overhears enough of this to break the story, meaning that Ritzy gets suspended by the Boxing Commission, the earnings for his fight against Sullivan are withheld from him, he leaves Joan in disgust for the well-to-do woman Patricia Merrill (Claire Dodd, who must have got awfully tired of these “other woman” villainess roles) who was essentially toying with him while he was on his way up, only to find that she’s no longer interested in him on his way down. Eventually another set of crooked promoters offer Ritzy $100 to participate in a fixed fight to build up their next Great White Hope — and while all this is going on Ritzy also gets an invite to a hotel room where he thinks Patricia is waiting for him, only she’s really shown a good heart after all: the woman actually in the hotel room is Ritzy’s wife Joan (ya remember Joan?) and she’s done this to arrange a reconciliation between Mr. and Mrs. McCarty, especially since the Mrs. is about to bring another McCarty into the world. By this time we can pretty well guess what’s going to happen: Ritzy, aided by his old trainer Shamrock (Clarence Muse, who’s allowed to act in this one with a relative degree of dignity — Charles noted one spot in the movie in which Muse accidentally dropped the high-pitched whine with which Black actors playing stupid-servant stereotypes were obliged to speak and played the telephone scene in which he learns of the birth of the McCartys’ child in a deeper, more resonant voice that sounded like an intelligent man who’d earned a Ph.D. in history), turns around in round five after he learns of the birth of his son, discovers a power punch he didn’t know he had, wins the fight he was supposed to lose, then gets beaten up by the gangsters who fixed it in the first place — but wins back Joan’s love, the audience’s respect and a chance at a comeback in the fight game.

What’s fascinating about The Personality Kid is how much this movie, directed by the unusually talented Alan Crosland (best remembered today as the director of The Jazz Singer) from a story by Gene Towne and C. Graham Baker, scripted by F. Hugh Herbert and Erwin Gelsey, anticipates tropes found in later boxing movies. Not only does the plot line of a disgraced fighter redeeming himself by winning a bout he was supposed to lose reappear in late-1940’s films like Body and Soul and The Set-Up (though The Set-Up was based on a 1920’s poetic novel by Joseph Moncure March and it’s possible someone on the writing committee read it and ripped off this plot device), and the gimmick of the innocent boxer who doesn’t know his route to the championship is being paved with opponents willing to take a dive for pay reappears in the 1956 film The Harder They Fall (Humphrey Bogart’s last movie), but the split-second cuts between close-ups of the two fighters Crosland uses in the film’s two big fight sequences makes The Personality Kid look like a boxing movie from the 1960’s instead of the 1930’s. It’s also noteworthy that Pat O’Brien is reasonably attractive (though far from drop-dead gorgeous) in boxing shorts, and that he’s allowed to show chest hair — which hardly ever happened in 1930’s movies: usually males doing shirtless scenes either didn’t have chest hair naturally or were obliged to shave it if they did. The Personality Kid is several cuts above the norm for a Warners programmer of the period, and Pat O’Brien rises to the challenge of playing an edgier character than usual. It also helps that, like a lot of the football films of the day (notably College Coach — which also starred O’Brien — Saturday’s Heroes and the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers, which satirized the real-life college football scandals the other films on that list depicted seriously), The Personality Kid took a surprisingly dark view of the sports world, showing it as a den of corruption that wasn’t to be taken seriously.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I’ve Got Your Number (Warner Bros., 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was I’ve Got Your Number, a snappy little 67-minute Warners “B” from 1934 (the last year of the so-called “pre-Code” era, which showed in quite a few plot points and bits of “business”) centered around the telephone business and how important it had become in American life even though in 1934 there were still people with living memories of a time without phones and quite a few rural areas of the country where phone service was either spotty or nonexistent. It begins with a marvelous montage sequence showing various uses to which people put their phones, from a stockbroker using it to make what would now be called day trades to a woman placing a call to a married woman friend of hers to warn her that her husband is on his way home unexpectedly early, but fortunately the back door out of their bedroom still works. (Charles not surprisingly groaned at that one.) Then we meet our principals: Terry Reilly (Pat O’Brien) and his assistant John (Allen Jenkins — one of the kinkiest “pre-Code” aspects of this movie is Jenkins’ weirdly homoerotic tones as he upbraids Terry for being too interested in women), repair people for the phone company; Marie Lawson (Joan Blondell), a switchboard operator at the Hotel Eden (I made a bad joke about someone calling the Hotel Eden to ask them to page Adam and Eve, and Charles responded, “Cain’t do it — we’re not Abel!” I said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t get in touch with Cain either — he’s Nodding out,” and the jokes fortunately stopped before they got even worse); and Bonnie (Glenda Farrell — I recorded this off a Turner Classic Movies “Summer Under the Stars” tribute day to her, even though she’s only in two scenes), a phony psychic who gets busted when Terry and John catch her using her phone lines to broadcast fake messages from the dead to the customers at her séance. Why she relied on her phone lines instead of installing her own sound system remains a mystery — the writers, William Rankin (story) and Sidney Sutherland and Warren Duff (script), never explain it — but Terry and John use it as a pretext to rip out both her phone lines. However, John, despite his previous “women — yuck” attitude, is smitten with Bonnie and they pair off — as to Terry and Molly, who have one of those hate-at-first-sight that blossoms into love relationships that abounded in 1930’s movies.

Marie gets fired when she’s tricked into playing what she thinks is a practical joke on a customer — re-routing a call he’s expecting into another room — only it’s a plot to rip him off, the hotel blames her and she loses her job. Terry talks a rich friend of his into offering her a job at his company — and Marie is tricked again by the boyfriend of a girlfriend of hers, with the result that her sponsor, John Schuyler (Henry O’Neill), loses $90,000 in negotiable bonds to the crook and naturally blames Marie as having been in on the theft. Terry is convinced of her innocence and agrees to meet her, not knowing that the cops have put him under surveillance as a way of finding and arresting her — and when she’s pinched she accuses him of double-crossing her. But Terry and John get the evidence to free her by illegally wiretapping the crooks’ phone line — Terry from the crooks’ hideout (where they catch him and hold him) and John back at the phone company’s headquarters — and John rallies the rest of the phone company’s repair people, they crash the crooks’ hideout, rescue Terry and hold the crooks until the police can come and arrest them. Directed by one of Warners’ hackiest contractees, Ray Enright, I’ve Got Your Number is saved by the cleverness of the montage sequences (indeed the opening reel is probably better than the whole rest of the movie!), the nicely drawn (if predictable) antagonism between Terry and his immediate supervisor, Joe Flood (Eugene Pallette), and above all by a strong performance by Blondell in her best world-weary mold — even though the film lacks the fireworks of the movies in which Blondell and Farrell actually worked as a team and lit sparks off each other. As for Pat O’Brien, this may be one of the most actively unpleasant roles he ever played; though he softens at the end (when he’s alone with Blondell on their wedding night and the other phone guys crash their bedroom as a practical joke), for the most part he’s so nasty and unscrupulous throughout the movie you rather dread that he and that nice girl are going to end up together at the end.

I’ve Got Your Number is actually a quite good example of Warners’ “proletarian” movies, the sort of film they specialized in about everyday working-class occupations other studios, particularly MGM and Paramount, generally considered themselves and their audiences “above” — and as I’ve pointed out before, that’s largely due to where the theatres owned by the big studios were located. Paramount’s and Loew’s (MGM’s parent company) theatres were in the most affluent areas of the major cities, and therefore those studios made films that would appeal to the upper and upper-middle classes. Warners, flush with the success of Al Jolson’s early sound vehicles The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool (the last, a 1928 release, was the highest-grossing movie ever until Gone With the Wind 11 years later), bought the First National company, a group of theatre owners that had formed their own studio in 1918 to make sure they could get star product — and as a result, from 1928 on, Warners had large numbers of theatres in working-class and rural areas Paramount and Loew’s hadn’t felt were worth serving, and therefore needed to make films about people like those in their audiences — even though Jack Warner was able to parlay the money he made on his gangster films, working-class stories and musicals (where he mashed up the elitist fantasies of Busby Berkeley’s production numbers with the proletarian stories of piss-poor performers desperately trying to get along until their shows opened and hopefully became hits) into the remarkable run of mid-1930’s movies that established Warner Bros. once and for all as a first-tier major: Madame DuBarry, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Anthony Adverse, The Green Pastures, The Story of Louis Pasteur and Warners’ first Academy Award Best Picture winner, The Life of Émile Zola.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Foyle’s War: The Eternity Ring (BBC, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the latest episode of the BBC TV series Foyle’s War, a limited-run series (they only make three episodes per year) that’s been running on BBC since 2002 but which I just caught up to now. It’s basically about Christopher Foyle (Michael Kitchen), the police chief in a small town called Hastings until World War II starts, Hastings is bombed to smithereens in the Blitz, and Foyle ends up in the U.S. At the beginning of this episode, “The Eternity Ring,” the war is winding down and Foyle finds himself along with physicist Prof. Fraser (Stephen Boxer) and Fraser’s wife Helen (Kate Duchene) witnessing the Trinity test of the world’s first atomic weapon at Alamogordo, New Mexico. Then he ends up back in England — not to Hastings but to London, where he’s forcibly recruited by MI5 (the British counterintelligence service, their counterpart to the counterintelligence division of the FBI — their intelligence service, the CIA equivalent, is MI6) and told his job is to break up the “Eternity Ring,” an extensive spy ring that’s so deeply penetrated Britain’s scientific and intelligence community that Moriarty’s organization looks like a weekly poker game by comparison. Foyle teams up with his prewar driver, Samantha “Sam” Wainwright (played by an actress with the virtually impossible name “Honeysuckle Weeks” — when her credit flashed on the screen both Charles and I assumed that was the name of a person!), who’s being framed with a fake photograph to make it look like she’s a contact of the Eternity Ring.

Also among the dramatis personae are Aleksei Gorin (Dylan Charles), a defector from the Soviet embassy in London who steals important diplomatic papers and delivers them to MI5 — though they’re not sure whether he’s a genuine defector or a “mole” — and his theft of the papers is given some highly successful suspense editing and visual atmospherics by director Stuart Orme, whose work through the rest of the show is pretty TV-conventional; Maureen Greenwood (Gabrielle Lloyd, who comes off as the person the BBC calls when they can’t get Judi Dench), the formidable woman MI5 executive in charge of the manhunt for the Eternity Ring; known Soviet spy Marc Vlessing (Nathan Gordon); Max Hoffman (Ken Bones), a physicist colleague of Fraser’s at the British military’s secret nuclear weapons lab, a German expat who was a Communist before the Nazi takeover and who naturally is thereby suspected of being part of the Ring (his defense is that before 1933 if you lived in Germany and had any political involvement at all, you were either a Communist or a Nazi); Tomasz Debski (Gyuri Sarossy, the hottest male member of the cast), a Polish expat who sneaked over into Britain to fly with the RAF, flew 40 missions, then had what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder and deserted; and Sam Wainwright’s husband Adam (Daniel Weyman), who’s being interviewed by a Labor Party candidate selection committee to see if he’s worth running in a Tory-dominated district in an upcoming special election (or “by-election,” as the British call them).

The sheer number of characters and the quirky relationships between them make this show quite hard to follow — at one point a shadowy male figure entered the scene and both Charles and I wondered, “Is this someone new, or are we supposed to recognize him as someone we’ve seen before?” — and the fact that all the dramatis personae are white and Gavin Struthers’ cinematography, in the worst modern manner with virtually everything either dank green or dirty brown, de-emphasizes their differences in facial features and thereby makes them look very much alike (you can tell the men apart from the women, and the relatively old characters like Foyle from the younger ones, but that’s about all). Charles also had a distaste for the use of the Cold War in the plotting, though that bothered me less than it did him — after all I’ve liked films like Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest that used the Cold War in their plotting because, as St. Alfred says, it really doesn’t matter what the spies are after anyway; the political background of an espionage thriller really isn’t important compared to the characterizations and the suspense. I hadn’t seen Foyle’s War before but I quite enjoyed this episode — more, I suspect, than Charles did — and I’d like to watch the other two in this year’s installments as well.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hot Guys with Guns (Wolfe Distributors, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan – Copyright (c) 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan – All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I attended the FilmOut San Diego screening of Hot Guys with Guns, a special event at the Birch North Park Theatre advertised as an action movie for the Gay male audience, a sort of spoof of the James Bond mythos that judging from the advance publicity was going to be a film about a super-spy attempting to foil some horrendous international crime scheme and – this being aimed at a Gay male audience – in the process bedding an assortment of “Bond boys” instead of “Bond girls.” Actually the film turned out to be considerably better than that, owing quite a bit less to James Bond and more to the 1960’s TV series I Spy, particularly in the pairing of a white and a Black character as the leads and the rather diffident relationship between the two – the white guy more impulsive and daring, the Black guy more reasoned and “cool.” Three of the key creative personnel – writer/director Doug Spearman, composer Mervyn Warren (a five-time Grammy Award winner and friend of Spearman’s; the director asked him to pick some songs for the source music on the soundtrack and Warren was so enthused about the project he agreed to compose the background music and also write and perform a theme song), and actor Trey McCurley (who turned in a beautiful performance as Robin, the airheaded second lead, perfectly portraying the mythic figure of the young hot blond guy who comes to Hollywood with ambitions to be an actor, with the right combination of beauty and vacuity) – were present at the screening, and when Spearman was briefly introduced in the audience and turned out to be African-American my hopes went up. “At least,” I thought, “this isn’t going to be another fantasy about incredibly hot and incredibly stupid Gay white men.”

As things turned out, this was a much better film than the advance publicity made it seem; after a marvelous credits sequence using Warren’s song under a set of visuals cribbed from the 1960’s Bond movies, the original I Spy credits and just about every other 1960’s film in the genre, the opening scene turned out to be a decent-looking but decidedly not hot middle-aged man awakening from a drugged stupor with a lot of younger and hotter but similarly indisposed bodies draped across his bed. It turns out his stupor wasn’t his idea; he threw a sex party but it was crashed by two interlopers, one dressed in a black hoodie and a death’s-head mask and the other more or less au naturel, who entered it and set off an aerosol bomb containing a mixture of party drugs and anesthetics to put the entire crowd under so they could rob them. The principals turn out to be Danny Lohman (Marc Anthony Samuel), a Black Gay actor who’s taking a course on how to be a private detective – not because he wants to do that for a living but because he’s up for a part as a P.I. in a TV series called Crime and Punishment (incidentally there was recently an actual series called Crime and Punishment but it wasn’t on the air long and was one of Law and Order producer Dick Wolf’s less successful efforts); and his ex-partner Patrick “Pip” Armstrong (Brian McArdle, whose other main credit on is a voiceover narration for a documentary called It Is No Dream about Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism), a spoiled rich white kid who lives with his mother Patricia (a wonderful bitch-goddess performance by Joan Ryan) and dumped Danny for another aspiring actor, Robin (Trey McCurley), who’s hot-looking but is enough of an airhead we in the audience definitely get the impression he’s trading down. When Pip is a guest at the next sex party that gets hit by the mystery bandits with their drug bomb, and his Rolex watch (important to him because it’s the only legacy left to him by his father, who abandoned the family for reasons we’re never told) and his car are stolen (and the car is recovered, stripped and covered with anti-Gay graffiti), Danny decides they should use the skills he’s learning in detective class and solve the crime themselves. Despite saddling it with the silly title that makes it sound like a hard-core porn film (which it isn’t, though we get a nice amount of soft-core sex even though Spearman never goes full-frontal on any of his actors, darnit), Spearman manages to pull off something that’s eluded a lot of more prestigious and better-known directors: he manages to fuse comedy and drama so the mystery and the satire reinforce each other instead of clashing.

There are technical problems that reflect the film’s low ($200,000) budget – at one point Spearman ran out of money and had to stop shooting and reorganize his production before he could resume and finish it – notably some scenes in which the sound is over-recorded and key words of dialogue become unintelligible (though that may be a flaw, not of the film itself, but of the Birch North Park Theatre’s lousy sound system) – but for the most part Hot Guys with Guns is a nicely wrought comedy-thriller that owes as much to the comedy-mysteries of the 1930’s as the film noir masterpieces of the 1940’s Spearman cited as his models (he called his film a Gay remake of Double Indemnity – though I didn’t see any resemblance – and said if he gets to produce the sequel he has in mind, it will be based on Sunset Boulevard), and particularly the 1936 film The Ex-Mrs. Bradford. This was an engaging offshoot of the Thin Man series produced at RKO with William Powell (the Thin Man series lead, on loan from MGM) and Jean Arthur as a divorced couple who join forces to solve a mystery and in the process realize they’re meant for each other and reconcile – as do Danny and Pip in Hot Guys with Guns. Spearman said he particularly wanted to build the film around two contrasting Gay male couples, one good and one evil, and though he didn’t stress the point in his commentary both are interracial. He’s also a good enough writer to make his characters relatively complex and morally ambiguous, and when Danny and Pip finally confront the villains they learn that they have a motive for their crimes – revenge against Hollywood’s Gay “A”-list for having been drugged and gang-raped at an earlier party – and one of the bad guys gives a nicely written speech denouncing the superficial materialism of the people he robbed and saying they burned most of the loot because they weren’t really interested in it, just in stealing it as part of their revenge against its possessors. There's also a quirky similarity between the relationship of the two guys in the "bad" couple and Lawrence Tierney and Elisha Cook, Jr. in the surprisingly homoerotic sequences of an otherwise forgettable 1947 RKO noir called Born to Kill, particularly when one of the baddies wants to kill people for no reason except he hates them and the other tries to talk him out of it and, echoing the advice Tierney got in his star-making film Dillinger, tells him never to kill anybody without a reason.

The film also has a core of Spearman’s anguish over being yet another Hollywood aspirant trying to make a career for himself in a town that’s stacked against him; he got as far as a role in a Gay-themed TV series called Noah’s Arc, where he met a lot of the creative personnel he used in this film, but it was on the short-lived Logo ultra-premium cable channel for Queer-themed programming that never got available on enough cable systems to turn a profit. (I guess there’s not much room after the plethora of sports channels we’re inundated with whether we want them or not – and which we pay for in high cable bills whether we ever watch them or not.) Much of the background of this film rings true, including the sheer number of people who come to Hollywood hoping to grasp the brass ring of stardom, and the desperation that afflicts them and leaves them willing to do almost anything for a part. Not surprisingly, the film features casting couches both straight and Gay – at one point, dragooned into serving as butler for a party Pip is throwing for a West Hollywood City Council candidate, Danny is told bluntly by Pip that the guests are the power brokers in the industry he’s trying to crash and he ought to take advantage of his presence there and suck up to them, in more ways than one – and Danny eventually loses the role he was up for in Crime and Punishment after the series’ Black female lead decides he’s either not hot enough or too Gay to be a suitable playmate for her off-screen. There’s also a marvelously funny sequence in which, staking out the home of one of the victims, Danny starts delivering a voiceover narration in the persona of the P.I. character he’s auditioning to play on TV – and the dialogue is a perfectly turned parody of Raymond Chandler’s prose, particularly his penchant for blender-mixed metaphors.

Hot Guys with Guns is a quite capably produced and written mystery, well acted by a strong ensemble cast, though Marc Anthony Samuel in the lead stands out. With Denzel Washington already having aged out of the Black juvenile category and Will Smith rapidly following suit, Samuel, playing a part Spearman wrote for himself but at the last minute realized he was too old for, looks like a good candidate to take over these parts. I also enjoyed the work of Alan Blumenfeld as Jimmy Peppucelli, the teacher of Danny’s P.I. class, though it did seem odd for Spearman to give the character an Italian last name when both the actor himself and the characterization are both so obviously and stereotypically Jewish. Though driven by his own sexual desires, notably for  the tall woman with big breasts who’s a student in his class (and whom he’s grading, shall we say, on the curves), for the most part Jimmy comes off as a welcome voice of reason much the way Dann Florek does as the captain on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Doug Spearman said that so far the prime audience for the film, or at least the people who’ve enjoyed it the most, has been, surprise, straight men. He thinks it’s because they respond to the film’s dramatization of what straight men think Gay men’s sex lives are like, particularly the old joke that Gay men have the sort of sex lives straight men would have if straight women would let them. Spearman admits he’s well aware it’s not like that in real life, though the kinds of Hollywood players who represent the 1 percent in his movie are the kinds of people who by controlling access to the brass ring of celebrity do have the power to get anybody they want to have sex with them, male, female or anything in between, but nonetheless he thinks the straight men who are fans of his movie are responding to just that fantasy that straight men have to take their prospective sex partners to dinner and romance them and then maybe they actually get them sexually, and maybe they don’t, while Gay men just express mutual glances of interest and then drop their pants for each other.