Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Review: "The Personal History of David Copperfield"

I admit I haven't read a lot of Dickens; like a lot of people I associate him with long, dreary tales of woe. "It is a far, far better thing" and all that. He sort of gets stuck in that continuum of “stuff you were made to read in school.”

Yet here is an adaptation of perhaps his most famous work that is full of light and color and joy. "The Personal History of David Copperfield" does some modernized tweaking of the story, but really it's the perspective that has shifted.

There are still untimely deaths, and pitiful poverty, and hissable evildoers, and unhappy marriages, and all the other attributes of Charles Dickens' semi-autobiographical tale. And yet director Armando Iannucci, who co-wrote the script with Simon Blackwell, manages to mold all that into a vibrant, upbeat story about perseverance and hope.

Jairaj Varsani plays Copperfield, a scrappy young boy raised in a home where he was showered with attention and love, including his widowed mother and beloved maid, Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper). Then he is mistreated by his new stepfather, Murdstone (Darren Boyd) and his sister (Gwendoline Christie), and eventually sent away to work in a wine bottling factor as a child laborer.

At this point Dev Patel takes over the role, as his fate and the name he is called continually change. For awhile he is a proper gentleman, supported by his wealthy aunt (Tilda Swinton), who insists upon calling him Trotwood, her married name. He goes to school with upper crust boys, fearful of his sordid past being found out by the likes of Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard), a snobby but charming sort who calls him "Daisy."

Later he becomes an apprentice proctor, which is a sort of lawyer (though Dickens, who himself was one, admits he never did figure out exactly what sort of law they practice). He becomes entranced by his boss' daughter, the daft but harmless Dora (Morfydd Clark). But then things come crashing down when his aunt loses all her money and Davis is faced with returning to the squalid ways he thought he'd left behind.

Let's stop a moment and talk about the mixed races of the cast. Dickens was, of course, a Brit and the characters in his books were overwhelmingly in the pale spectrum -- as was England in the 19th century. So what's going on with an Indian in the main role? And folks of African, Asian, Latin, and seemingly every other ethnic heritage bobbing all about as if this was any kind of accurate representation of the place and time?

I'm sure it will bother some people, but it doesn't me. The film aims to be a celebratory, colorful version of Dicken's novel, and that is deliberately extended to the hues of the people as well.

There purposefully isn't any rhyme or reason to it, so for instance all of David's relations are white even though he's a lovely deep brown. And Mr. Wickfield, the humorously drunken lawyer who is a friend to his aunt, is played by Chinese actor Benedict Wong while his daughter, David's best friend Agnes, is portrayed by a black Brit, Rosalind Eleazar.

Strangely we have reached a point in our societal (d)evolution where people from the extreme wings of both ends of the spectrum would object to this casting, one calling it racism and the other calling it cultural appropriation, though they both end up meaning pretty much the same thing.

They can all sod off.

Back to the movie. There are some really terrific supporting performances, starting with Tilton, whose Mrs. Trotwood is somehow both extremely rigid, furiously chasing donkeys off her property, while also being persuaded to listen to her inner heart. Her companion, Mr. Dick, is played by Hugh Laurie as an addled, nervous wreck who can be a genius when he settles down long enough for his mind to calm. He is convinced that the thoughts of King Charles I invaded his own after his execution, never mind that it happened two centuries earlier.

I also quite enjoyed Peter Capaldi as Mr. Micawber, an itinerant huckster who was David's landlord when he was a boy in London. Micawber owes money all around town, and most of his time is spent dodging collectors using trickery and disguises. He turns up again in David's life in college and thereafter, still grifting but somehow eternally occupying a warm place in his heart.

(Not surprising, considering Micawber is supposedly based on Dickens' own dad.)

Ben Whishaw makes an impression as the irrepressible Uriah Heep, a servant at David's school who is famous for his cloying, obsequious manner. Like Macawber he turns up again later in the story, though to no credit of his own.

The story moves along at a pretty good truck, and rather than risk getting sunk into the many subplots and characters of the book, the filmmakers choose to dance upon the lily pads above them. Don't feel bad if you can't keep track of everyone's names -- I had to look them all up in writing this review, with the exceptions of Copperfield and Heep.

This version of "David Copperfield" is so enjoyable, in fact, that I'm tempted to take another crack at the book.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Labyrinth" (1986)

I had little interest in seeing "Labyrinth" when it came out in the summer of 1986. This despite the fact it was directed by Jim Henson in a similar vein of fantasy as "Dark Crystal," which I've always adored, and produced by George Lucas during his curiously underrated decade after "Return of the Jedi."

Adult-oriented fantasy was pretty much dead by 1986, subsumed by kiddie fare or laid low by diminishing box office returns. "Red Sonja" was a flop a year earlier, and "Labyrinth" was also a box office failure, grossing less than $13 million against a $25 million budget.

(That's about $59 million in today's dollars, which doesn't sound like a lot until you consider that year's #1 and #2 films, "Top Gun" and "Crocodile Dundee," were made for $15 million and $6 million, respectively.)

Despite being filled with puppets and explicitly aimed at children, it's a rather dark film with plenty of scary sections that likely turned off ticket-buyers. Even though Henson fretted about this and made efforts to inject more humor.

Time went on, and I still never got around to seeing it. The film's reputation grew and grew, one of the early examples of a movie being saved by home video sales and rentals. It became a particularly favorite among Millennial girls, and today even younger generations of mostly female audiences adore it.

(This probably didn't help my continuing reluctance to check it out.)

So I finally watched it along with my boys and am pleased to say I really liked "Labyrinth," bordering on love. Critics dismissed it as a visual spectacle with little in the way of story, and there's some truth to that. But the imagination is so incredibly dense, it more than makes up for the overly simplified fairy tale narrative.

To wit: a 16-year-old girl, Sarah (Jennifer Conelly), who resents her stepmother and baby half-brother, Toby, is challenged when Jareth the Goblin King steals the tyke and imprisons him in his castle. Sarah is given 13 hours to solve the incredibly complex labyrinth surrounding the castle or Toby will be turned into another goblin. Along the way Sarah encounters a menagerie of fantastical creatures, helpful and otherwise.

It's easy to see that this story is a mix of classical mythology and modern fable (notably "The Wizard of Oz"), and indeed author Maurice Sendak threatened to sue and shut down production because of the similarities to one of his books. Henson added an acknowledgement in the credits, and presumably some palms saw some grease.

The one thing I'm not completely wild about is David Bowie as the Goblin King. He wrote five songs for the movie and performed most of them, and I think at some point during the pre-production process someone had the idea of casting him, too. This despite the fact all the goblins and myriad other creatures are stunted little creatures performed by puppet masters, so why would their king be a fey, androgynous human who looks like he was the victim of the most vicious backcombing in history?

From what I've been able to learn, screenwriter (and Monty Python-er) Terry Jones and Henson repeatedly clashed and the script went through so many rewrites to the point Jones says it bears little resemblance to his work, even though he received sole credit. Henson was reportedly concerned that audiences found "Dark Crystal" too dark and unrelatable, so he wanted to cast a major pop star so they would have two primary human figures amidst all the goblins and trolls and dwarves.

It's also notable that in the story-within-a-story backbone of the tale, Sarah and the Gobin King are supposed to be in love despite their contest, and there's a beautiful dream sequence where they make moony eyes at each other from across a masked ball. I'm guessing someone realized a girl-on-felt-puppet romance wouldn't play well.

Bowie's songs are... OK, I guess, though none got me tapping a toe or humming a tune afterward. Though at least one of them, "Underground," charted decently at the time and another, "Magic Dance," was rediscovered after Bowie's 2016 death.

The most memorable is "Chilly Down," the only one Bowie does not sing himself. It's an encounter between Sarah and five red-furred creatures who refer to themselves as the Fire Gang, who can detach their heads and other body parts and play around with them. One of the members shows two long fingers, uses them to pluck out his own eyeballs, shakes them in his fist and tosses them like dice.

Unlike "Dark Crystal," the majority of the puppet work was achieved by humans wearing elaborate costumes with workable heads and limbs, with hand-held creatures as needed. The most significant is Hoggle, a dwarf with an oversized head who Sarah first meets outside the labyrinth while he's killing fairies with pest spray. He's quite arresting, with a knobby nose, age-spotted hands and huge, expressive eyes.

Brian Henson, Jim's son, provides Hoggle's voice while Shari Weiser performed inside the suit. He's irascible and peevish, but also acts as Sarah's guide and protector. Little does she know he's secretly beholden to Jareth, who shows up on a couple of occasions to browbeat Hoggle into thwarting Sarah's journey. He gives her a poisoned peach to feed her, causing her to fall into a forgetful slumber.

Jareth keeps getting Hoggle's name wrong, referring to him as "Hogwart," which makes me wonder if J.K. Rowling stole that name from the movie for her wizard's school (as she seemingly did everything else).

A couple of other, less consequential additions to Sarah's team are Ludo (voice and puppetry by Ron Hueck), a monstrously huge but gentle red-furred creature who has the power to command rocks, and Sir Didymus (voice by David Shaughnessy, puppetry by Dave Goelz), a one-eyed fox knight who rides a sheepdog as his steed. The two actually do battle when we first encounter Didymus, who is guarding a bridge in a swamp Sarah must travel through.

This place is the Bog of Eternal Stench, the place Hoggle fears more than any other, and the place Jareth keeps promising to banish him to. The bog is filled with whirlpools and geysers that continually issue forth farts and burps, and one step into the muck will leave you smelling terrible forever. Curiously, Didymus seems completely unaffected by the odor.

I was also entranced with a few other creature encounters. Sarah and Hoggle meet The Wiseman (Frank Oz and Michael Hordern), a wizened old creature who wears a large bird as a hat, and the two continually bicker, exchanging (not especially helpful) advice in exchange for donations. They also walk through a cave where the stones come to life into magic mouths uttering deep-voiced warnings to turn back, and Hoggle rudely cuts one off before allowing him to continue.

Then there's The Worm (Karen Prell and Timothy Bateson), a tiny worm in fine clothes who first gives Sarah clues how to navigate the labyrinth, pointing out some of the walls are just clever forced perspective illusions. However, he unwittingly sabotages her quest, telling her not to go left  because it's dangerous, only pointing out after she's left that it leads straight to the castle.

At several points in the story Sarah is forced to choose between two or more paths, including one where she's faced with a pair of guardians with heads protruding from above and below their shields, guarding doors leading to the path or certain doom. It's the classic conundrum of one who always tells the truth and the other who always lies.

She cleverly solves the riddle by asking one to say about the other, "Would he tell me that this door leads to the castle?" A similar encounter is with two living door-knockers. One has the ring passing through his mouth and can't speak well, while the other has it going through his ears and can't hear.

I also liked a plunge down a deep pit where she meets the Helping Hands, who break her fall and speak by using each other to form faces, including a working mouth.

Overall I actually enjoyed the more languid portions of the movie rather than the last act, where things speed up considerably and result in a lot of battles and derring-do. There's some clever stuff, like cannonballs that are actually tiny goblins inside ordnance, but it gets a little old fairly fast.

The deeper meanings of the tale are not immediately obvious, and subject to interpretation. The exact motivations of Jareth are mysterious, since all he seems to do is hang out in his castle with a bunch of goblins, occasionally breaking into song and dance. What he sees in Toby, Sarah's golden-headed baby brother, also remains a mystery other than growing his roster of minions.

The most likely answer is that the Goblin King is simply part of Sarah's psyche -- the portion of her that wants to remain a young girl who plays with dolls and makes pretend, and is scared of growing up and taking on adult responsibilities like looking after babies.

Connelly, just 14 when she was cast and dewy as a spring lily, is presented as completely innocent of sex, so having her fantasy lover be an androgynous  goblin (elf?) makes sense in that context.

I'm surprised at the lack of commentary on Sarah's acting ambitions. It's clear at the start at the story she is practicing the lines of a play, and in her room we see playbills and other newspaper clippings about a dark-haired actress that I first took to be Sarah herself. Upon second glance these are references to "Linda Williams," who must be her (presumably deceased) mother.

Jareth, who juggles crystals with visions inside them, offers Sarah to grant all her dreams if she gives up Toby. In the final scenes she is quite literally putting away childish things, including, it seems, of following in her mother's footsteps and stepping out onto the stage.

If so, this is a rather odd theme for a movie filled with flights of fancy and "hold onto your dreams" subtext.

Still, I have to say I found the experience of watching "Labyrinth" pretty magical. My boys loved it, which is surprising for a pair stubbornly devoted to all things Y-chromosome. I took care not to tell them beforehand it's a 'girls' movie' -- I knew which door to pick.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Review: "Unhinged"

"Unhinged" arrives in the same tradition as revenge/anger porn movies of the 1990s and early Aughts -- "Falling Down," "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "Changing Lanes." It's a gleefully entertaining B-movie that stokes resentment and then offers easy catharsis.

It's been said that all movies are on some level manipulative, but some more so than others.

Russell Crowe plays Tom Cooper, a bad man having a bad day. His main difference with Michael Douglas' character in "Falling Down" is that he has no illusions that he's the bad guy. Tom feels he has been screwed over by everybody in his life and is ready and even eager to return the favor.

I've cracked jokes about Crowe's weight gain in recent years -- "the actor who ate Russell Crowe," as I recall -- but have to admit his size works for him here. Tom seems like an obdurate bison, lumbering around his little patch of turf, ready to charge all comers even if it isn't particularly worth of defending anymore.

(Crowe has done more press interviews in the last year than he did in the previous 20. He seems jovial and happy -- maybe I should just be happy for him?)

Director Derrick Borte ("The Joneses") and screenwriter Carl Ellsworth ("Disturbia") thankfully do not make any motions to defend or empathize with Tom. He's the dastardly villain and there's no two ways about it. Rather, Crowe uses his performance to explore the outer boundaries of rage -- how it resides in all of us, and what happens if an ordinary person decides to abandon any sense of altruism.

The main character is Rachel, a harried mom played by Caren Pestorius with tremendous emotional relatability. She's in the middle of going through a divorce, has her loser younger brother, Fred (Austin P. McKenzie), and his girlfriend (Lucy Faust) on permanent crash at her place, and is trying to keep a modest little trade as a hairstylist in the black.

As her day opens she is just trying to get her son, Kyle (Gabriel Bateman), who's about 10, to school on time in the rush-hour traffic. Tom has just had a major life event -- which I'll not reveal -- so when he tarries at a green light and Rachel lays on her horn at him, something snaps.

Actually, it's not this mild clash that provokes Tom, but Rachel's refusal to return his offered apology. Soon he's following her around in his malevolent gray truck, smashing into her Volvo's bumper and trying to run her off the road. The rest of the story plays out as a real-time action thriller, as Rachel tries to outmatch this seemingly unstoppable force that has decided she is the enemy.

It's not hard to see the subtext going on here. Tom is an older white dude who feels the world is not giving him his proper respect -- he even has a gentlemanly Cajun accent. And here's this mousy little woman defying him who must be taught a lesson about "what a bad day really is."

He's The Patriarchy, made (ample) flesh. (Sorry, last one.)

Both Tom and Rachel speak to a lot of constituencies right now. She's a beleaguered woman trying to last through a long slog of suck beyond her control and feels like nobody has her back. He's an emblem of a fading entitlement who deludes himself into believing his recent struggles give him rights to impose his darkest impulses on others.

It's interesting that the filmmakers didn't impose a racial animus element, especially as the story is set in the very multicultural city of New Orleans. Though that sort of thing is dicey these days, to say the least. Might as well put a MAGA hat on Tom and watch the newly-reopened theaters get picketed.

"Unhinged" has both reactionary and woke facets to it. It recognizes that everyone has a mad animal lurking inside of them and it's best to never let it out. Little nuggets of antipathy -- say, a nasty comment or tweet -- can lead to bigger reverberations. The problem with letting the beast out is we may never catch it, spreading his "always on" anger wherever he goes.

Would you want to live in that world? I wouldn't. But sometimes I fear we already do.

A P.S. from Your Friendly Neighborhood Movie Critic: "Unhinged" is the first major release in theaters in five months, and it's no exaggeration to say an entire industry's future hinges on how we do. If you think that cinema is best experienced in, well, a cinema, then please be smart if you go. Wear a mask, follow the rules and socially distance. Because a world where all new movies arrive on our phones rather than the local theater is a dreary place.

Review: "Desert One"

What do we think of when we think of the American hostage crisis in Iran? If you're like me and was a kid at the time, your first memory was of a bunch of angry, militant Muslims taking innocent people captive and holding them for more than a year.

You probably also think of Jimmy Carter, a well-meaning president whose response was ineffectual and weak. Most people think his lack of military action emboldened the Ayatollah Khomeini, the ersatz leader of a fundamentalist movement that would eventually bring its long, spidery arm to our shores.

Almost certainly, the failure to protect American lives contributed to Carter's stunning defeat in the next election, ushering in the era of Ronald Reagan. (Whatever you think of that.)

Later, as I grew older and more informed, I learned about America's ill-conceived interference in Iran, toppling a democratically elected government in the 1950s to install a Shah who was amenable to our petroleum policies, as a succession of presidents (including Carter) turned a blind eye to his human rights abuses.

While this didn't change my mind about the despicable nature of the hostage takers, it colored my thinking about how anger is like a magic ball that, once put into motion, tends to just keep bounding around if you let it.

"Desert One" is the outstanding new documentary that takes a sobering look at the crisis with a focus on the one aspect most people have forgotten or never knew about: the failed rescue attempt.

Even as Carter's administration began negotiating for a diplomatic solution, they authorized the development of a military option. We get to meet these men, most of them members of the then-new Delta Force partnering with elite pilots of the Air Force. They spent months training for a very specific mission to break into the former American Embassy in Tehran and snatch up the hostages.

In April 1980, after it became clear the Iranians were stalling for time and basking in the glow of international attention for their brazenness, Carter gave the go-ahead. And everything immediately fell apart.

Director Barbara Kopple is a giant of the documentary genre, a two-time Oscar winner (including the immortal "Harlan County U.S.A.") who knows exactly how to present history in a way that's both illuminating and emotionally impactful.

She carefully traces the steps of the mission, talks to the actual men who took part as well as their wives and children, lands interviews with Carter himself and key administration figures like defense secretary Robert Gates. We listen to campaign officials who constantly fretted about the impact of the crisis on the reelection, even as Carter himself stoically separated duty and personal glory.

We also learn from some of the former hostages themselves. Then, for good measure, she talks to the Iranians on the other side of the equation, including government officials and members of the student groups who actually stormed the embassy and held its occupants captive for 444 days.

I learned much that I did not know. How the pilots trained to fly helicopters and C-130 planes using night vision goggles, a device previously only used by ground troops. And the mother of one of the hostage Marines traveled to Iran and spoke out critically about the American government's actions, a simple woman who couldn't see how her emotions were being exploited by the Iranian media.

The operation itself was a complicated puzzle involving multiple moving pieces that seemed impossible to ever fit together. But it was undone before they ever got close to the embassy by two factors: the omnipresent desert dust storms that fouled up the aircraft instruments and the decision to pick a staging area, called Desert One, that was near a virtually abandoned road.

Or so the faulty intelligence said. Turns out the road was frequently traveled upon, and within five minutes of setting down the soldiers encountered multiple vehicles, including a bus full of 40 family members and a tanker truck they inadvertently blew up, sending a towering column of fire into the sky like a beacon.

Then, even as it became clear the mission was fatally botched, the attempt to abort it turned it from a failure to a disaster, as a helicopter taking off for home flew blindly into one of the transport planes, blowing it up and costing the lives of eight men.

The hardest part of the movie to watch is the TV footage of the Iranians unwrapping their remains in front of huge crowds of people gloating their deaths. Kopple expertly contrasts the stoic recollections of the survivors with a woman in a hijab, one of the student captors, coolly recounting how happy she was to see their bodies.

"Desert One" feels like dry, forgotten history breathed back to life and writ large. The events of the hostage crisis and the failed attempt to end it are but half a lifetime ago, yet already fading from the public consciousness. Forgetfulness and doomed repetition and all that

My only real quibble with the movie was Kopple's choice to, very briefly near the end, discuss the "October Surprise" notion that Reagan's incoming administration interfered with negotiations to ensure the hostages would not be released until after Reagan's election. No direct evidence is offered, because there is none; it's pure conspiracy theory bunk, as determined by Congressional investigations lasting a dozen years.

To give it voice, even in the lackadaisical "who really knows" way that Kopple does, does her otherwise excellent documentary no credit -- not to mention the men whose memory it slurs.

Some things do come into clear focus after viewing. Like the utter decency of Jimmy Carter, a genuinely selfless and goodhearted man -- too good, perhaps, to make the harsh judgements required of an American president. Even Ted Koppel steps out of his reporter's reporter role to comment on how inept Carter's stance seemed at the time.

And how the Iranian people had lived for decades under the yoke of a tyrant who Americans supported, betraying their own commitment to freedom and democracy. Their anger and, to a point, their actions were not entirely unjustified. Still, it's not hard to see the seeds they planted bearing much more poisonous fruit.

Most of all, we see the bravery and dedication of men who were honed to a fine edge by their sense of duty and then betrayed by circumstances and poor planning. Sometimes true heroism is best seen when everything goes awry and the mission ends with tragedy and ignominy.

There's a poignant moment about some British military contractors delivering a message to the Americans right after their failure, which I'll not repeat here so you can fully experience it for yourself. It's the sort of thing you rightly remember for the rest of your life.

Certainly, I will remember "Desert One."

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Review: "Rob Schneider: Asian Momma, Mexican Kids"

"I used to be Rob Schneider. Now I'm just Elle King's dad."

He says this without a scintilla of resentment or regret. Rob Schneider is older, lumpier, possibly wiser, and most certainly funnier than he's been in years.

He shows all this off in his new Netflix comedy special, "Rob Schneider: Asian Momma, Mexican Kids," a meditation on aging and looking back on a career that, by his own admission, has cooled. And he seems fine with that.

Schneider looks more like Billy Crystal than Deuce Bigalow these days. And yes, he still dallies in "problematic" spheres of comedy, enshrining male lust and ethnic speech patterns. He just does it in the slightly more apologetic way of aging men who have come to terms with the fact they aren't cool anymore.

I've never had a very strong impression of Schneider. I liked him in his "Saturday Night Live" days, and I remember he would sing on some of the Christmas specials, imitating Elvis or what have you. He went onto a solo film career of comedies ranging from lowbrow to awful.

Schneider seemed like a guy smart enough to know his movies weren't very good, and he got quite thin-skinned and defensive about it. I recall he once publicly attacked a Los Angeles critic who trashed his latest flick in a huge ad he took out, which prompted Roger Ebert to respond with a scathing column that ended with, "Your movie sucks."

This later became the title of one of Ebert's collections of reviews.

This helped take the knees out of Schneider's star wattage, leading to leading roles in smaller movies and then supporting parts in other people's movies. For awhile he was part of the Adam Sandler "make work" projects for his buddies, notably "Grown Ups," but found himself left out of the sequel -- reputedly due to "scheduling conflicts," which is the Hollywood-ese equivalent to the corporate world's "spend more time with his family."

Schneider didn't even get to ride the "Hotel Transylvania" gravy train, and he's mostly done bit parts and voice work the last decade. Let's be blunt: he's a has-been.

"Asian Momma" reflects his acknowledgement of this fact, which at times takes on the tone of a confessional of the sniggering schoolboy who has grown up but still can't help cutting up.

I learned some things about him. Starting with the fact his eldest child is in fact Elle King, a crooner with a magnificently soulful voice. After his stand-up set Schneider brings her out for a duet of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" that is achingly haunting but also joyful. It's the first time they've ever performed together in public, he says.

I also discovered that Rob Schneider is Asian-American. No, really. His wife is Filipina and his repertoire of various Asian accents of English are collected from his childhood; he even breaks out in Cantonese at one point. He mimics his mother's constant demands for straight A's in schools and hectoring ways.

"It's not racist. It's accurate," he semi-apologizes after one long screed. He jokes that in the Great Awokening, he may be Asian but he's not Asian enough to get any jobs out of it.

Much of the second half of his set is devoted to Schneider's third marriage and two young children, ages 3 and 7. They've been married 10 years and he's lived in constant fear that she will divorce him. We understand why. Her Mexican accent gets its own parody-slash-pedestal, going through a long routine of pestering his wife for sex and getting shut down.

It's an old, familiar tune sung by many a comedian, but Schneider puts his own naughty-boy spin on it. I laughed plentifully, at first sympathetically and then genuinely.

There's also a brief moment of sober lucidity where he defends himself as mate, even though he's probably shorter, less handsome and (now) less of a celebrity than she might have once hoped.

"Maybe I am your Prince Charming," he insists, a joke with a bedrock of self-awareness.

Yes, Rob Schneider spent much of his lifetime scraping the bottom of the comedy barrel. He knows that now, even if he's not taking any of it back. The funny has not fled him.

Even if his movies did indeed suck, a third act to redeem the second seems not unreasonable.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Kiss the Blood Off My Hands" (1948)

Film noir is to movies what the blues is to music -- it looks/sounds great, but the storytelling isn't always terribly ambitious.

(To the offended blues fans -- I've always felt the wonderful soulful sounds would be better used if accompanied by more than a dozen or so words in the lyrics, rearranged slightly.)

"Kiss the Blood Off My Hands," despite that memorably grisly title, is more or less a forgotten entry in the film noir genre, despite starring heavyweights Burt Lancaster and Joan Fontaine. Perhaps because it's set in London and all the actors except Lancaster speak in British tones, ranging from Fontaine's erudite high-class lilt to the clanging Cockney of the more common folks.

The story isn't terribly meaty, and director Norman Foster doesn't seem to have a good bite on the material. He was a journeyman most known for the "Mr. Moto" series. But it's a fantastic-looking film with some first-rate work by director of photography Russell Metty, full of shadows, slanting light and tilted angles.

It's now out in a gorgeous reissue on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber that shows off its cinematography to wonderful effect.

Metty is one of those quiet legends who worked with many giants of cinema, including Orson Welles on "Touch of Evil," Howard Hawks on "Bringing Up Baby," Steven Spielberg on an episode of "Columbo," John Huston on "Misfits" and Stanley Kubrick on "Spartacus," working steadily from the 1930s to the 1970s.

He won an Oscar for "Spartacus," though he clashed with Kubrick constantly over his slow pace, lighting choices and micromanagement approach to the camera.

Burt Lancaster stars as Bill Saunders, a Canadian (by way of Detroit) ex-soldier who was a POW in a German camp for two years, is still hanging around Europe and in many ways he never really left World War II behind. As the narration sets up, Bill is one of those lost souls who is deeply impacted by the horrors of war and has never truly healed.

The interesting thing is that Bill really is a villain by the contemporary standards of Hollywood movie-making. As the story opens he kills a bartender by accident and then flees from those trying to apprehend him. In the course of the rest of the story he threatens several other people, steals, robs, schemes, pummels a policeman and imprisons Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine), a humble nurse whose flat he breaks into while on the lam.

There are several scenes that indicate Bill is always just a second away from giving into rage and violence. Jane eventually recognizes this after a budding romance develops between them, and shuns him for a time, mostly owing to finally his actions catch up to him and doing six months in prison.

We wonder if his penchant for brutality will ever turn her way. It seems inevitable, though in the convention of a classic Hollywood film she is the angelic muse who bends his will toward goodness.

At 79 minutes, "Kiss" is based on a book by Gerald Butler, screenplay by Leonardo Bercovici with adaptation by Ben Maddow and Walter Bernstein, with additional dialogue by Hugh Gray. (If you're wondering how to parse what those credits mean and how they reflect each person's contribution, I haven't the faintest.)

The romance is pretty cut-and-dried: after Bill breaks into Jane's apartment and threatens her into remaining silent, he steals a cigarette lighter that belonged to her beau, a soldier who was killed in the war. This is a ruse to give him an excuse to see her again to return it, and he follows her about incessantly, pestering her for attention.

It's only when he suffers a panic attack in the zoo -- flashes from his long imprisonment -- that she starts to feel affection for him. Later on as various threats start to surround them, they talk about running away to somewhere, anywhere, with a ship to Lisbon as their first stop.

Having gotten a job as a truck driver at Jane's hospital delivering penicillin and other sought-after medical supplies, his initial plan is to trade a load of stolen drugs -- hilariously labeled "DRUGS" on the wooden boxes -- to pay their passage.

Lancaster and Fontaine both seem very invested in their roles, though there's a notable contrast in the acting styles. She seems rather restrained in the British way and struggles with her better instincts. Lancaster had a thing for playing men ruled by their passions, an early man/boy screen idol.

Aside from the photography, the best thing about the movie is Robert Newton as Harry Carter, a sort of dandy con artist who spends half the movie trying to enlist Bill as his partner. Harry was present when Bill accidentally killed the bartender and uses that as subtle -- and later not so subtle -- extortion to get him to participate in various schemes.

Bill eventually gives in and agrees to let Harry and his henchman steal the hospital truck, with the proviso that they beat him up to make it look convincing and that he takes no cut from the job. But then Jane decides at the last minute to accompany him on the trip -- her first real outreach to him after their split -- and Bill has to fight off Harry and company off instead.

Harry's big scene is where he drops in on Jane unannounced professing to be a friend of Bill's, and he gradually turns from ingratiating fop to nefarious kingpin all in one scene, the camera leering at him in fish-eye lens closeup as he threatens her. She gets the better of him with some sewing scissors, fearing killed him, and it's up to Bill to clean up the mess.

There's another terrific scene near the end where Jane, hiding out in Bill's apartment, starts to feel her mind unravel. Metty appears to use a dolly shot -- rare in those days, especially for indoor scenes -- with a distorted lens following her as she walks, the angles morphing like a tilt-a-whirl. Brilliant.

"Kiss the Blood Off My Hands" ends on the barest of hat tips to morality codes of the day. With Harry dead, a truck full of drugs in their possession and no police on their immediate trail, Bill and Jane decide at the last minute -- quite literally, the last minute of the film -- to instead turn themselves in and face the consequences for their actions.

Bill had already gotten away with manslaughter, and doesn't seem to have much qualms about his other acts, which include beating and robbing a rich man in a tuxedo in a darkened alley. So it registers as a cheap conversion tacked onto the movie.

It would be easy to imagine if this film was made in the 1970s instead of the '40s that Bill would be a complete anti-hero who relishes inflicting pain and Jane is the upstanding woman who falls, literally, for his bad boy ways.

Overall I think I'd rather see that movie than this one, though the gorgeous black-and-white photography is the main reason to give "Kiss" a look.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Review: "The Secret Garden"

What a beautiful film.

And I don't just mean the visual splendor of "The Secret Garden," which is considerable. No, I mean what a lovely portrait of broken people attempting to put the pieces back together. Here is a movie that is sad but also hopeful, that recognizes terrible things happen and people often react to them in unhealthy ways -- but everyone still retains a chance of redemption.

The novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, about an orphaned British girl sent to live with her reclusive uncle after World War II, was previously turned into a 1993 movie directed by Agnieszka Holland (seen by me but, alas, little remembered). Jack Thorne wrote this adaptation, which was directed by Marc Munden.

It's a film of bright colors and deep shadows, of pessimism and regret, but also light and grace. Dixie Egerickx is a revelation as Mary Lennox, a smart girl living in India whose parents died of cholera. She loved to tell stories and invent characters, but was tormented by a mother who seemed distant and uncaring.

Egerickx has an immediacy as an actor you rarely see in child performers; she seems always very much in the moment. The words that come out of Mary's mouth feel like they have just spontaneously formed there, rather than something a kid is trying very much to read.

Colin Firth plays Lord Archibald Craven, a lonely widower living in a massive castle (at least us Yanks would call it that) called Misselthwaite Manor. Once a grand place, it's fallen nearly into ruin. Lord Craven has a hunchback and spends most of his time stewing in his study or throwing away things that remind him of his dead wife.

Mary is soon ensconced in one of the many rooms, left virtually to herself by Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), the stern sergeant-at-arms who runs all of the household affairs. She stomps about the halls with clanking keys and a set frown. Mary doesn't even get to meet her uncle for a few days, exploring the vast overgrown estates and meeting a stray dog she soon befriends.

She eventually learns that she has a cousin, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who is sickly and cries all the time. And she meets Dickon (Amir Wilson), the younger brother of Martha (Isis Davis), the maid who shows Mary some of the only kindness she encounters. Dickon is sort of a feral boy wandering the foggy moors, and becomes Mary's guide and companion.

The biggest discovery is, of course, the garden, which used to belong to her aunt but has been locked away behind a high wall and left to rot. It's a place of magic and mystery, helped by lovely CGI as plants seem to grow their branches toward her in friendship and birds and other creatures nudge her toward secrets and clues. As she and Dickon spend more time there, the garden starts to revive and bloom.

Mary becomes convinced that Colin will be healed by his mother's garden, if only she can finagle a way to get him into his wheelchair and outside. He's a stubborn nut, desperately lonely but also resentful of Mary's presence. Meanwhile, Mrs. Medlock is closing in with her spying and interfering, intent on seeing that Mary is sent off to a boarding school and out of her uncle's hair.

Maeve Dermody and Jemma Powell play Mary's mother and aunt, respectively, who speak no words but acts as a kind of peaceful, ghostly presences, lingering around Mary's memories and visions. Initially haunted by her memories of her mother, Mary starts to accept the idea that the sadness that kept them apart was not her fault.

At its heart, "The Secret Garden" is a story about pain. We needn't shut ourselves off from pain, it insists, because pain is inevitable and most be felt in order to be endured and eventually overcome. It's a lesson grownups spend their whole lives trying to learn, let alone children who have been orphaned.

There is beauty in this message and this film, which seems both timeless and timely.