Friday, May 30, 2014

Now I've Seen Everything Dept: I Am Legend (s)

"Come Out, Ne-ville! Coooome Ouuuut!"


I have been in love with Richard Matheson's 1954 novel "I Am Legend" since I first read it in high school. A horror/sci-fi story, it tells of a world-wide plague that turns the world's populace into either corpses or vampires, except for the one man who carries the immunity from the disease, and who spends his days hunting the infected, and his nights being hunted by them.  

The images played out on the pages are searing, and Matheson's romantic way of writing the isolation of being "The Last Man on Earth" palpable. Plus, it has one ingenious kicker that makes the whole idea a perfect conceit that resonates and makes the story such a brilliant concept. It is literally mind-bending and perception-altering.

It has been filmed three times, each version having its own strengths (lead performances, always—what actor wouldn't want to play a role so dominant to the movie?) and weaknesses, but none of the them really coming to the heart (er, so to speak) of the story.

The Last Man on Earth (Ubaldo Ragona/Sidney Salkow, 1964) Vincent Price stars as Dr. Robert Morgan, the last survivor of a plague that has turned the majority of the Earth's population into vampires. By day, he lathes a number of wooden stakes and hunts down the creatures, driving the stakes into their hearts to kill them. This is the the closest the movies have come to Matheson's original concept, although the ending is changed, making Morgan an ersatz Christ-figure*, impaled by a spear in a church, his arms flung wide in a crucifixion pose. Made in Italy on the cheap, The Last Man on Earth is still a satisfying film merely for the strength of the ideas, the dusky black and white cinematography and Price's excellent performance. But don't take my word for it--you can download it or stream it here. It's been in the Public Domain for years (although MGM has come out with a nicely re-mastered version on DVD).

The Omega Man (Boris Sagal, 1971) Army Colonel Dr. Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) survives a world-wide plague as a result of a biological war between the Chinese and Soviets. Holed up in a bunkered apartment in Los Angeles he leads a solitary life: by day blasting the mutated victims with his high-powered, high-intensity-beamed assault rifle; by night listening to their taunts, armored against their organized attacks. The mutants are light-sensitive albino's, banded together as a sort of political/sociological cult ("The Family"), led by a zealot named Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), who see Neville as a threat to their way of life, and well, yeah, that's a pretty effective rifle he hauls around. Using his own blood's immunity, he's trying to bring back the pigment-challenged. One of Heston's interesting forays into sociological sci-fi in the 70's, The Omega Man lays it on a little thick and heavy with the race-relations metaphor, but the cast is uniformly excellent especially Heston and Rosalind Cash. Again with the Christ-allegory as Neville is impaled in a fountain, arms floating out in a crucifixion pose while giving his life-saving blood to the rag-tag band trying to carry on his work. Though not strictly Matheson, it does reflect the times in which it was made.
I Am Legend (Francis Lawrence, 2007) Lieutenant Colonel Dr. Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his German Shepherd Sam are the last surviving unaffected Manhattan residents of a plague brought on by a mutating vaccine. All the bridges have been destroyed in an attempt to halt the disease which has become airborne. Neville is unaffected. Animals, only by contact. And the two cruise the car-jammed streets looking for food, and trying to make their way through the entire DVD inventory at the local video store. At noon, he and Sam go to the South Street Seaport, waiting for someone--anyone to respond to his broadcast plea.
"My name is Robert Neville. I am a survivor living in New York City. I am broadcasting this message on all AM frequencies. I will be at the South Street Seaport every day, at mid-day, when the sun is highest in the sky. I can provide food. I can provide security. I can provide shelter. If there is anyone out there. Anybody. Please. **
You are not alone."
He has been waiting in his private hell for three years.

The effects work of a deserted Manhattan is nothing short of astonishing and several shots of Neville tracking deer in his Mustang GT500 are played out to please any action aficionado. Kudos to director Lawrence (who managed to salvage a good movie out of Constantine against all odds). Smith is amazing throughout this movie. He's the only game in town, literally, and he is extraordinarily frugal in what he displays throughout the first two-thirds of this movie. His rituals, his by-play with Sam, his clinging to normalcy, and his studied work ethic never give a hint that he's cracking up. Flashbacks in moments of unconsciousness are the only indication of his loss and his desperate feelings of responsibility. At some point, something's got to snap.

When they do, they take the movie with it. Oh, things are intriguing for a good long time after that, and it appears that everything's fine--it's a bit like the plague really. But at some point, it becomes a confused muddle, story-wise and philosophy-wise, and that I place squarely at the hands of script-"doctor" Akiva Goldsman.***
Warning! Quarantine Zone!
Stand by for a retinal scan and display your ticket stub! This quadrant infected with Viral Spoilers! If you have not seen the movie, proceed no further!! I repeat, proceed no further!!!
First, let's back-track to the novel. In Matheson's original story, Neville discovers that not all the contaminated inhabitants have been turned vampiric. Some have been merely rendered sensitive to light, and during his daytime raids, Neville has killed a bunch of them. A representative from this group infiltrates his stronghold, and fills him in, telling him that he is now considered on the same scale as the the vampires of legend, coming to their houses in their sleep and killing them. Neville is eventually captured and sentenced to die for his crimes.  In his cell, waiting to be executed, he ponders the irony that, now, he is the legend of death, not the ones he was hunting down.
Pretty dang bleak. But a fascinating concept, and a mind-bender of a story-turn. But nobody's done it like that. In the films Neville dies, but always as the sacrificing Christ-figure who can one day restore the Human Race. Not the book. In the book, the Human Race is dead. Changed forever. No going back. And the last man of earth, the ancient old-guard, is the new source of horror. But the movies won't go that far—there's always got to be a glimmer of hope that the blood of the Savior can save Humanity.
Now, back to this latest movie. Things go swimmingly the first two-thirds of it, but things begin to snap after Neville rather ingeniously captures a female mutant to test his vaccine on (GA Series 319, compound 6, trivia-buffs). He makes a report that the mutants**** (standing in for Matheson's vampires) have stopped showing any sign of human behavior. Then he's immediately proven wrong in the most elaborate way possible--they emulate his own Rube Goldberg trap. Nothing is made of Neville's obvious miscalculation. By this time, his grief is too great and he's not thinking. And the movie is going someplace else and not using The Scientific Method doing it.
He is rescued at a very opportune time by two other survivors, who have heard his radio message and take him back to his apartment. All well and good. Something has to give in this version of the scenario or there's no forward momentum. The woman tells him that God directed her to him to take him to a Survivor Stronghold in Vermont, to which Neville (no doubt because he's a scientist) gives her the statistics of the disease (90% dead, a few percent mutant, who eat the immune-which when you think about it, might cure them, but no such luck) telling her that with such an effective kill-rate that there can't be a God, and that we did it to ourselves, thank you very much.***** She then replies that its easier to hear God when it's so much quieter (sounds like Goldsman with the happy-meal schizophrenia, again).

So, what happens? The mutants storm Neville's strong-hold for the Third Act Attack--a staple of any action movie, and our plucky survivors head for the fairly impregnable lab, where it becomes quite apparent that Mutant #1 is going to break through the glass to get to his souless-mate. Neville grabs his vaccine, gives it to the other survivors and tells them if they find the Survivor Stronghold to give 'em that blood sample--that un-refrigerated, bound-to-go-bad blood sample--to further his work, sticks 'em in a secret hidey-culvert and tells them to leave when it's light. Then he blows himself up with a grenade and takes the mutants with him, because, as we all know from watching the news, suicide-bombing is the very epitome of heroism these days.******

Fade to Black. Our two survivors end up at the fortress-walls of the survivor colony. What will they find when they get there? More mutants? A blasted Statue of Liberty in the sand? Harrison Ford and Sean Young in that other ill-considered feel-good ending to a sci-fi movie? No, the door opens on an idyllic little town with a Main Street, and in the background a white church-steeple with a bonging bell. They've come just in time for services, it appears. And hopefully the guards with the machine guns won't force them to attend.

What we have here is one step beyond using Neville as a Christ-allegory. It's a pro-religion/anti-science zombie movie. If the Vatican was "consoled" by The Golden Compass's soft opening, they must be positively spilling wine on their cassocks celebrating over this one!
As good as it starts out, this one takes "I Am Legend" so much farther afield from its source material than the others, that I can't be happy about it. Smith is great. The abandoned Manhattan scenes are amazing. But...

The script obliterates a great book for another hokey feel-good ending. After all, isn't that how you're supposed to feel after a devastating plague with a 90% kill-ratio? The film ends with a Bob Marley tune (kudos to that, but Marley is used for another confused metaphor that in the context of the film is just stupid). Maybe they should've ended with a rousing up-beat group-sing of "Tomorrow" from "Annie."

Gloriosky in the highest.

* I could do a few dozen pages on "Christ-allegories-in-the-movies," but let's just point out a few of them: E.T., the Extra-terrestrial, Cool Hand Luke, The Star Wars films, Braveheart, Narnia (of course), Blade Runner, The Superman films (especially.."Returns"), The Matrix, and ad infinitum spiritu.

** In just one of the beautiful touches in his performance, Smith's voice cracks on that one word only. 

*** The name "Akiva Goldsman" on a writing or producing credit is enough to spoil any movie-going experience for me, although I have always given the benefit of the doubt--but than as I'm sure Goldsman would tell me, repeating any behavior expecting an outcome that never occurs is a sign of insanity. It was Goldsman who destroyed the first "Batman" movie franchise with his cartoonish, pun-heavy scripts. He "cracked" the script for A Beautiful Mind by reassuring movie-goers that schizophrenia was nothing more than delusions of grandeur with visions of Ed Harris and Paul Bethany included--forget any unpleasantness. His by-the-numbers adaptation of The DaVinci Code made it boring for anyone who read the book, and breezily incomprehensible for anyone who didn't. His scripts for Practical Magic and Lost in Space are overworked humorless muddles. And I, Robot had one good, recycled and paranoid idea in its empty little head and chucked the great ones of Isaac Asimov. I'm not sure "whose windows he's washing" to be so successful with so much hack-work in his resume, but the man is the 21st Century Joe Eszterhas.

**** I've been calling them Danny Boyle "Red Bull" zombies, as they have the same out-sized aggressive energy as Boyle's 28 Days Later zombies, but with a case of the energy drink in them. They are pigment-less, hairless albino's who start to burn at the first touch of sun, and during the day they apparently huddle in dark spaces and huff and puff spasmodically. And they screech a lot, with distended CGI-enhanced faces. So, they're basically vampires, but zombies have a higher "Q" rating, so they're called zombies. 

***** I will say, however, that how the mutating disease comes to be is not only a plausible scenario, but wickedly likely.

****** Ah, but wait.  This ending was a substitute for the one that didn't "test" well with preview audiences.  Evidently, they wanted more action, even if that action was ultimately destructive to the point of the story and hewed closely to the endings of the other adaptations. ("Hey, dude, just blow something up!").  Here is the original ending to the latest I Am Legend, where Neville does indeed have a perception-altering experience, and realizes that...maybe he was wrong.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The World, the Flesh and the Devil

The World, the Flesh and the Devil (Ranald MacDougall, 1959) In Casablanca, "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world" (according to Richard Blaine).

But in the cautionary tale, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, two's still company, but three is a global conflict.

Ralph Burton (Harry Belafonte), maintenance worker, is deep underground checking on tunnel infrastructure, when he loses communication and is stuck in a collapse. Making his way out, finally, he finds himself alone, with discarded newspapers telling of a nuclear attack ("nuclear poison" is how it is phrased, there's been no thermonuclear explosion, as the cities are intact and cars drive, so it must be a "dirty bomb" or neutron bomb).

Burton secures a car and drives up to the heart of New York and finds it completely abandoned, empty. There aren't even any bodies in the streets or in the cars that jam the bridges—the cities life-lines are clogged. In the familiar streets of New York, it is completely unfamiliar, because the city's essential ingredient is missing: no people. When have you ever seen film of New York when it isn't bristling with people? It's eerie, unsettling and depressing beyond melancholy.

In a film of quite a few fascinating images and concepts, this may be the best part of the film. Burton runs through the streets, shouting half-mad through the caverns of skyscrapers, his words echoing down the streets, trying to rouse survivors.

But none come. New York is devoid of life. He sets up power for a block of apartments and moves into one of them, bringing, in his hunt for food and supplies, mannequins for company, or a semblance of company. He finds a short-wave and, everyday at noon, sends out a signal to anyone, everyone, looking for just one voice to break the silence and the drone of wind that mourns through the skyscraper canyons. He has a routine to keep himself from going mad. He's put himself to use, restoring light and power to his corner of the city. But, power and light can't thank him, and the city is cold, sterile, and alien. A ghost town.
What he doesn't know is that he's being watched in his routine. Sarah Crandall (Inger Stevens, practically beautiful) has also survived the attack, and watches from the shadows and around corners to avoid detection. But, her presence can't be hidden in the stillness for long. A ploy brings her into the light, and the last two people alive in New York become friends. He sets her place up with electricity, they make meals together, but they go their separate ways, meeting again in the morning. If Sarah wants to become close, Ralph doesn't, despite the implications in "if you were the only girl in the world..." He can't get beyond the prejudice he faced before the instant war, and, who knows, there could be a lynch mob on its way. As for Sarah, the implications of the situation are clear, she's (as she puts it) "free, white and 21." capable of making up her own mind.

And besides...for crying out loud, he's Harry Belafonte!

But "free, white, and 21" is a phrase that just stings for Ralph. The "race" thing makes them both a bit neurotic: him, because he keeps Sarah at an emotional distance; Sarah, because she's the only woman in his world, and he keeps her at an emotional distance. They talk, they're kind, they misunderstand, they run away and go to their separate corners. One wonders if Adam and Eve had such a time in the Garden of Eden.

But, into every garden must come a snake. Ralph and Sarah see a tug pull into the harbor and on-board is Ben (Mel Ferrer), who's also "free, white, and 21" but also dehydrated, delirious and near-death. He's been looking for survivors, too. Ralph and Sarah nurse him back to health, but Ralph's neurosis leads him to abandon Sarah, in an attempt to bring her and Ben closer together, which is a fine idea to Ben.
Sarah, on the other hand, is not about to let the alpha males fight over her, and when the antagonism between Ralph and Ben bubbles to the surface, she objects to her role as the "trophy-bride," but that doesn't stop the men from threatening each other, Ben telling Ralph the next time he encounters him, he'll kill him. "What is this? World War Four?" asks an incredulous Ralph. 

Good line, that. Given the circumstances, though, it's entirely accurate, for all they know. Even when the world is reduced to just three people, still nobody can "just get along."

It's in the psychology sub-text, the "race thing" (that is supposed to make Burton noble to '50's audiences, but, now, only makes him look stupid and a little candy-assed) and (really) the third party, who, story-wise, seems like a fifth wheel that keeps TWTF&TD from being an unquestioned classic. A little "Twilight Zone," (particularly the third season premiere "Two" starring Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery) and a bit of "I Am Legend" (written in 1954), this one might have had some influence in how the filmed versions of that Richard Matheson book look and feel (I'll dig up a hat-trick review of those for tomorrow). 

It's the images of The World, the Flesh and the Devil that are its strength. Even when words fail, they communicate the desperate loneliness, the sadness, and tragedy of the situation in their uncluttered beauty. 
Inger Sevens: 1934-1970 "practically beautiful"

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Anytime Movies (Transplanted): - Only Angels Have Wings

While I have a few reviews "in the works," It's as good a time as any to re-boot (actually transplant from the old movie blog) a feature I started years ago, when it was suggested I do a "Top Ten" List. 

I don't like those: they're rather arbitrary; they pit films against each other, and there's always one or two that should be on the list that aren't because something better shoved it down the trash-bin. 

So, I came up with this: "Anytime" Movies. 

Anytime Movies are the movies I can watch anytime, anywhere. If I see a second of it, I can identify it. If it shows up on television, my attention is focused on it until the conclusion. Sometimes it’s the direction, sometimes it’s the writing, sometimes it’s the acting, sometimes it’s just the idea behind it, but these are the movies I can watch again and again (and again!) and never tire of them. There are ten (kinda). They're not in any particular order, but the #1 movie IS the #1 movie.

While in college, I worked as a movie projectionist, and had an opportunity to show many great films for the various film courses being taught. But one film left a distinct impression—over the course of five days I had to show it eight times. I got to know it pretty well. Its name is -Only Angels Have Wings and it was directed by one of the great director-producers, Howard Hawks.

Hawks directed all types of movies, many of them classics of their genre: westerns (
Rio Bravo, Red River); mystery/noir (The Big Sleep); adventure (To Have and Have Not, Hatari!) and comedy (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday). He even produced one of the first truly classic science fiction films (The Thing! [From Another World]), and an iconic musical (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Despite the genre, and despite the decade in which it was produced each film is unmistakably a Hawks film – a group of men (and women, but usually men) of diverse talents must come together to achieve a singular goal, be it to drive a huge herd of cattle to Missouri, or contain the alien threat, or capture a live rhinoceros, or get the bad guy to the Marshall (alive if possible) or ferry the refugees to safety, or find the dinosaur clavicle, or land a millionaire.

Conflict is achieved by introducing a newcomer to the mix who doesn’t understand the synergy of the group and who must learn “the code” to belong, and that keeps the group in cohesion. And so much the better if they do it without talking about it much.

That’s the Hawks formula, and he was able to create enough variations in the design that his films all seem different, even though they’re always telling the same basic story—a story that’s a metaphor for movie-making.

“Hello, professional”

Why -Only Angels Have Wings out of all those classics? It is the ultimate Hawks movie. Watch any of those others and you’ll hear similar lines and see similar situations, but in Angels, everything is distilled to the basic essence of the tale to become the best Hemingway story Hemingway never wrote. Distilled? The majority of the film takes place in one set! For this band of professionals, the goal is to fly the mail from the port city of Barancca through a narrow passage in the Andes utilizing one of a number of prop aircraft, all in need of repair. The men realize they’re merely links in a chain getting the mail…or a doctor…or a shipment of nitro-glycerin…to its destination with the threat of death flying right alongside. So hazardous is the job for these civilian-pilots that their base is a revolving door for the new blood who have to prove themselves. It’s "The Right Stuff” twenty years before Tom Wolfe popularized the phrase.
Grant, Barthelmess, and Mitchell play one of a few triangulations in -Only Angels Have Wings

And it’s prime Hawks. For instance, watch the cigarettes. In a Hawks film, they’re visual short-hand for relationships—who’s in need and who can provide, who’s giving, who’s dependable, giving, taking, reading other's thoughts, . More than any other Hawks film, except perhaps Rio Bravo, the flame that’s there when you need it is a gambit that crams twice the information into the film, and reveals more about the characters than their deliberately circumspect dialog—what
Frank Capra called Hawks’s “three-corner dialog”—was allowed. To come right out and say things point-blank, well, not only would it be corny and unbelieveable…it just wasn’t done in Hawks's circles.

Hawks also liked to use music to convey mood. But it usually isn’t a Hollywood background score it's indigenous music—in this case, the bar band at Dutchy’s bar/mercantile and air terminal (this is a couple of years before
Casablanca). They set the mood, provide a little extra entertainment value, some local color for a set-bound movie and when the time is right and there’s a meeting of minds it’s reflected in a musical number in which everyone participates. Again, no one has to come out and say ”We’re all thinking the same way.” They’re all singing the same song, so it’s understood.

"Boy, things happen fast around here, don't they?"

There’s also the unspoken ethos of the professional—you do your job to the best of your ability and you don’t talk about it. You don’t brag. You don’t cut corners and you don’t dwell on it. You do your job, you move on. You do your job right and people will notice. Do your job wrong and everyone suffers. In this way the group can depend on each other while staying out of their debt. In this movie-atmosphere, bit-players are allowed to shine. Yeah, the movie revolves around
Cary Grant (and the only role where he would be more stoic than he is here would be playing the icy spy Devlin in Hitchcock’s Notorious) and the delightful Jean Arthur—she could turn on a dime from tragedy to comedy and not miss a step— but even the lowliest of character-actors get great moments of screen-time. Also of note are a very young Rita Hayworth at the start of her career and Richard Barthlemess—a former silent screen star who didn’t make the transition to “talkies.” He plays a pilot who must prove himself to the others and that he can “cut” it in their world. Art imitates life.

And then there’s
Thomas Mitchell, who might well be the greatest character actor to never achieve name-above-the-title status. A veteran of many a Frank Capra comedy—and whose most prominent role would be as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone with the Wind—here he plays a character with the title “The Kid,” even though he’s the oldest of the pilots. So much of the movie centers on him that his one character fulfills every plot device except love interest, although with Hawks one could never be too sure of that, either. **

Ultimately it’s Mitchell’s Kid who provides the means for Grant’s character to express his feelings, which, typically, he does without really having to, and in a way that makes it obvious to everybody involved. And as if anybody missed the point how dependent everyone is on each other, most of the pilots wind up injured, “winged” so that by the end of the movie, two pilots have to perform the job of one to fly each mail-run. Perhaps the better title may have been “-Only Angels Have Two Wings.”

It’s all done so economically, so breezily and with so little in the way of “action” that one may get through the entire movie before realizing that mostly everybody just talked…without really coming out and saying what they mean. Everything is shot at eye-level. There’s nothing fancy in the camera-work. The story is the King, and everyone is working towards making it work…like professionals.

Cary Grant needs a match. Jean Arthur carries a torch.

The Searchers
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
American Graffiti
To Kill a Mockingbird

Bonus: Edge of Darkness

* Hawks was well-known for taking different stories and turning them into the Hawks formula, sometimes rewiting the entire film on a day to day basis to get there. The most extreme example of this is El Dorado, which after ten minutes of one story suddenly veers into becoming a remake of the earlier Hawks-John Wayne western Rio Bravo. When Hawks called John Wayne to ask if he’d star in yet another western, Rio Lobo, Wayne knew exactly what he was getting into. “Do I get to play the drunk this time?” he drawled.

** Someday, someone far more intelligent than I is going to go through the Hawks filmography with an eye towards sexual politics—whether it’s the leering banter between 
Montgomery Clift and John Ireland in Red River, or Cray Grant in drag in Bringing Up Baby (“I went GAY all of a sudden!!”) and I Was a Male War Bride, or some of the more bizarre stagings of musical numbers in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  And then there’s the long line of husky-voiced women in his movies who are one of “the boys,” from Rosalind Russell to Lauren Bacall all the way up to future Paramount Studios exec Sherry Lansing. For all the macho posturing exhibited in his movies, there are hints that Hawks never completely “bought” into it and is enjoying winking at it. He may well be second only to James Whale in sneaking so much gay subtext into his movies.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

"Well, It's Complicated..." (All My X's Live in Excess)

Bryan Singer returns to the super-hero franchise he started 14 years ago, and abandoned to make the almost fetishistic Superman Returns leaving "The X-men" in the hands of director Brett Ratner to the series' detriment. It was given a shot of mutated adrenaline a couple years back with Matthew Vaughn's spirited re-boot, X-Men: First Class, which had fun re-tooling the series' DNA, featured some inspired re-casting, and also had a bit of fun poking fun at the film's 60's setting .

Now, as if to atone, Singer is back and has combined both versions of the X-men series (Vaughn was going to direct, but begged off to helm previous collaborator Mark Millar's new The Secret Service adaptation) in X-Men: Days of Future Past—somewhat based on the storyline by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne (the major difference being that Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) does not go back into the past to set things right, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) does, presumably because the character is so popular—popular enough to have his own rather unexciting film series—that the film-makers hedge their bets by using their "big gun." Page's Pryde merely provides the transportation, spending the entire movie hovering over Jackman in what seems like a waste of the character and the actress.
"I see bell-bottom pants!!"
The movie revolves around events that we've not been privy to in the previous "X-men" movies. Since 1973, the American government has had a program in place to take care of the "mutant" problem; an American industrialist, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, at rather low wattage) has designed a squad of robots, the Sentinels, to eradicate all "muties," using information he's acquired studying the blood of one mutant in particular, "Mystique," the shape-shifting assassin Raven Darkhölme, originally played by Rebecca Romijn, and for the past played by Jennifer Lawrence.  Her murder of Trask in '73 accelerated the program, and has led to a genocide of all mutants...and quite a few humans suspected of it. 
Pres. Nixon (Mark Camacho) rolls out the Sentinels in 1973
Now, in the present day, when the Earth is devastated by the results of the Sentinel war, only a solid paragraph of them are left, led by Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellan), Storm (Halle Berry), Wolverine, Pryde, as well as previously seen X'ers Collossus (Daniel Cudmore), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Sunspot (Adan Canto), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Blink (Bingbing Fan) and a new member, Bishop (Omar Sy). We watch as most of them are taken out by Sentinels with the ability to absorb mutant powers, giving Kitty and Bishop enough time to transport their consciousnesses back in time to warn their younger selves that the attack will take place to avoid it.
Sunspot takes on a Sentinel: Forget this ever happened because it didn't.
A neat trick that.  But one wonders where the duplicate Kitty's and Bishop's are. (Answer: there aren't any, their consciousnesses only went back and erases all presence of their existence at that point in time and place, but then the Sentinels shouldn't be there, either, as there's no reason for them to be). One wonders, also, why we've never heard of any Sentinels in the previous X-movies, considering they've been around since 1973. One can explain it away by saying, it only happened because X-Men: First Class happened—even though it should have happened, anyway—or one can presume that each movie is its own pocket universe, separate and distinct from the others, except that we've seen events from this series affect other events in subsequent films (they're even reprised here in flash-backs) and...

Well, it's about this time that one should suffer a headache like you have an adamantium claw stabbing through your skull—I began to ponder why Daniel Craig has never run into Sean Connery, but that's another series and another alternate universe—and one should really focus on the film, despite the fact it has worm-holes and fluctuations in the space-time-film continuum you could drive a Sentinel transport through.
This did happen in X-Men: First Class because they mention it in X: DOFP
Besides, you could miss some neat stuff. Let's just say that Wolverine goes back in time (his consciousness, katra, ch'i, whatever) to try and talk some sense into Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and maybe knock Mystique's Trask-targeted bullet out of the air, to stop the Sentinels before they start. Going back to the overgrown School for Gifted Youngsters, he finds a disengaged Charles Xavier, giving up his powers for the use of his legs by way of a serum taken from the blood of the Beast (Nicholas Hoult), who is care-taking him. Wolverine being Wolverine, this leads to a fight—he seems to fight with everybody here—before persuading Xavier, Beast and a young mutant named Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters) to break Magneto out of a non-metal high-security prison deep underneath the Pentagon. This leads to the best sequence of the film: Maximoff is "Quicksilver," a teen-aged speedster who does everything very, very fast; in the blink of an eye, he can do dozens of things while we, the normally-paced, are just starting the thought of it.
The Quicksilver messenger service
In the midst of the Magneto-break, Pentagon guards burst in with their plastic guns (which Magneto can't manipulate). As Maximoff puts the ear-buds of his Walkman (not invented until 1978, but then he's very quick) into his ears, the guards fire, and Maximoff takes off, running around the room, literally around the circular room, the images super-slowed down, so we can see everything he's doing to foil the guards. Set to a dreamily perfect song (from 1972 and I won't spoil it, although I'm not so sure Maximoff would listen to it), the scene is perfect and may be the best representation of super-speed put on film (and hey, I was a fan of The Flash, growing up), done with a reckless glee and amusing execution. 
The nearly-nude Mystique's action scenes need to be very carefully 
choreographed, even in the Nixon Oval Office.
Would that the rest of the film live up to that sequence. But, as you can guess from earlier in the review, there's a lot of stuff going on, some of it rather arcane, a lot of which we have to take on faith. And Singer is not the most reliable director for that, quite deliberately. His M.O. is to withhold information, to disguise intentions, and, often, to go for the highly dramatic just to pull the plug on it, ramp up the tension...and needlessly. Watch how he handles Wolverine's slashing and stabbing of victims (off-screen), how he shows the nearly naked Mystique in battle (mostly from the top, and if any leg action is required, everything waist-level is kept in darkness (even in well-lighted rooms—one can't veer from a PG-13 rating) Time-travel is his perfect trick, because he can do something over-the-top and then say "see, it never happened." 
Meeting of the X-minds: McAvoy and Stewart play the same role in different times.
Which leads me to suspect the motivation for doing this film—and this story—to begin with. Why this one, and why now? The answer must be with Singer's presence directing. It's been stated that this one is the "last hurrah" for the original "X-men" cast (they'll continue with the "First Class" McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence) and one must admit that Ian McKellen is indeed getting a little long-in-the-tooth to be cavorting around and levitating. I suspect that this was Singer's chance to "make things right," using the time-travel scenario as the catalyst to tweak the X-men Universe. He does more than that, for this film and the entire series, in a coda that cures all sorts of Wolverine's flash-backs from this film. Maybe it is atonement, after all.*  

But, in its sloppy rush to a satisfying ending, it left me with a bunch of questions. Does Wolverine have his metal claws back (he had the adamantium sucked out of him in the last "Wolverine" movie, and has bone claws throughout this one)? Is this the last we've seen of the Sentinels? Did Magneto cause the gaps in Nixon's secret tapes? Just how many people can they pack into an X-men movie (including cameo's?) Do I toss the old X-men movies in my DVD collection since this one makes them mute..uh, moot? 

To paraphrase The Usual Suspects: Is the greatest trick Bryan Singer ever pulled to convince the world they don't exist?**
Roll-call (L->R): Colossus, Blink, Sunspot, Quicksilver, Rogue, Charles Xavier (the younger), Iceman, Magneto, Wolverine, 
Magneto (the younger), Mystique, Professor X, Beast (the younger), Storm, Kitty Pryde, Warpath, Bishop
 (and believe it or not, they left "a couple" out).
Clip and save for reference in the theater.

* Which makes it doubly appropriate that James McAvoy is here.

** And, oh yes, there is an "End-Credits coda" but unless you brought a "Marvel-zombie" to the theater with you, there is no way you will understand it.

Monday, May 26, 2014

107 Years of The Duke

Written on the centenary of John Wayne's birth.

Marion Morrison would have been 100 years old today.

Two stories to start--one certainly apochryphal, one probably true.

Story one:
George Stevens was directing The Greatest Story Ever Told and in one of the egregious examples of "stunt-casting" that mars that movie is John Wayne as "The Centurion." Wayne was dressed improbably in Roman armor, and when Jesus "commends his spirit" and the heavens open, Wayne had one line, looking at the cross--"Surely this was the Son of God!" They did a take and Stevens wasn't satisfied. "It needs more, John! This is Jesus and he's just died...I need more awe...can you put more awe in it, John?" Take two: Wayne looks up at the cross and says...."Awww, surely this was the Son of God!"

Story two:
Ward Bond was a member of director John Ford's stock company of players (of whom Wayne was probably the most famous). He was in the great majority of Ford's movies playing many different roles. He was also, like Wayne and Walter Brennan, a vitriolic right-winger and anti-communist, who in the hey-day of the 50's red-scare would brow-beat members of cast and crew into signing loyalty oaths. A crew-member came up to Ford and complained bitterly about Bond's behavior. "Yeah!" Ford growled. "Bond's a son of a bitch, alright! But he's our son of a bitch." As in: "He's a jerk, but forgive him." As in "We've all got our faults." As in: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

I love John Wayne. And I despise John Wayne. But I love John Wayne.
I love John Wayne movies, and admire greatly the performances of John Wayne in them. That George Stevens story is funny...and plays into the myth of Wayne being a poor actor...something Wayne was only too quick to contribute to. "I don't act. I re-act," he would say. It never hurts to lower expectations, I guess. But one need only look at how directors could only cast him against strong co-stars--if they didn't, Wayne would blow everybody away like a prairie mist. Wayne had to work with players wise with their own tricks before the camera--the Clift's, the Brennan's, the O'Hara's, the Mitchum's and Douglas' and Holden's and Marvin's--or he'd walk all over them with a simple glare. All Wayne had to do to make his point was NOT look at an actor. Even sick and weak, Wayne in The Shootist had to be balanced with a cast top-heavy with strong actor-personas: Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan, Hugh O'Brian. They had to be--for Wayne's last film they were playing against Wayne and his legend. I'm completely unapologetic in saying that John Wayne was a master of his craft and the more I see of his work, the more I believe it.

I also think John Wayne was an immature man with a false sense of what being a man was: he was a bully, a bone-head, and a complete fake, espousing Great American Ideals, while holding to none of them personally. The actor who portrayed "America's Fighting Man" never joined the military, opting to stay out of World War II claiming marriage, and because he didn't want to go in "as a private" (and with most of Hollywood's leading men off to war, commission or no--it allowed a vacuum that Wayne was only too eager to fill--he feathered his nest very well during the war). John Wayne, American, was married three times and all three times his marriages were contentious, and rumored to be abusive. John Wayne, hero of the West, was never a rough and tumble cowboy, but a football player and actor who grew up in California, and lived a very privileged life. It was all a charade. But I love him in those movies, and I can't get enough. A John Wayne movie can even bring a tear to my eye.

I love John Wayne. And I despise John Wayne.
And Marion Morrison? Well, now, there's the mystery.

Because Marion Morrison of Winterset, Iowa, born 100 years ago today, was a football player who worked on John Ford's crew and did the occasional line on-camera until Raoul Walsh picked him to star in The Big Trail and changed his name to "John Wayne". And though Marion Morrison appeared in many many films, his greatest role was as "John Wayne," actor and patriot--the persona that never really existed but was portrayed as if it did, an American Myth. And even that role I admire and wonder at--the performance of a lifetime--though the things said in that guise could be alarmingly knuckle-headed. God and Country, sure. But "the Indians shoulda got out the way...they were selfish," how retarded is that? Still, when the Harvard Lampoon invited him to accept their bogus "Brass Balls" award, Morrison Wayne...and bowled them over with his, by-now, well-learned self-deprecating humor. It was a day to show up and not take anything too seriously. He got as many laughs as jeers from the Hah-vahd boys, and there's something great about that. "Brass Balls," indeed.
And then there are the stories that keep popping up. New truths punctuating the Myth. How "John Wayne" would publicly rail against communists and want them to all go back to Russia...but when Carl Foreman, blacklisted writer-producer, came back from self-exile producing films in Europe, and encountered Morrison at a dinner party he was astonished when Wayne came over to his table and gushed and made a fuss over him in front of Foreman's they were old buddies. Effusive in his praise and admiration. By-gones. There's the rabble-rouser John Wayne who would carouse and whore on-set, but who won the admiration of that most judgemental of actresses, Katherine Hepburn. There's the Marion Morrison who got along famously with wildly liberal director Don Siegel (who would needle Wayne on The Shootist set by wearing a peace medallion) and send Siegel's mother in hospital fresh flowers every day. There's the Marion Morrison, who read black-listed author Marguerite Roberts' screenplay for True Grit and declared it "perfect." Marion Morrison had less bluster than "John Wayne" did. Gentlemanliness. Grace.

I encounter those stories more and more and marvel at them. And marvel at how Marion Morrison maintained "John Wayne" all those years. How he became greater...improbably greater...than himself in that persona. How he "sold" the myths and made you believe. There's real artistry there...beyond the screen roles.
So, I marvel at Marion John Wayne...and the dichotomy, and the contradictions
...the complications embodied there in the one man. And wonder what's Myth and what's Truth. A little bit of both, as we all are. Just bigger. Broader. In gifts, and in failings.

And I go on contemplating that as I watch him stride across the screen in that walk that made him look like he was balancing on a ledge...or maybe a tight-rope. And I smile and admire him, despite everything else, say what you will about him.

But he's our son of a bitch.

Afterword: John Wayne died 30 years ago, and I have vivid memories of that. It was a Saturday, I was living in Longview, Washington working as a disc jockey and driving home from my shift when the news came over the radio. Death. Cancer. Long fight. I was so swept up in grief that I had to pull off to the side of the road and weep. I'd lost my father a couple years before and was probably sensitive to loss at the time. But this one, this time, was John Wayne. I had no connection to him other than his roles on-screen, although there was ample opportunity to have met him when he was in Seattle filming McQ** or come up to the Sound for one of his frequent fishin'-and-drinkin' sortee' a converted mine sweeper! The marina he tied up to is named in his honor.

He was ranked #1 by Quigley Publications' annual poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars, 19 times from 1949 to 1972. Only one other Hollywood actor has surpassed that popularity—Clint Eastwood at 21.

Wayne died of stomach cancer June 11, 1979.

His gravestone reads: "Tomorrow is the most important thing in life.  Comes into us at midnight very clean.  It's perfect when it arrives and puts itself in our hands.  It hopes we've learned something from yesterday."

In interviews, he favored "Feo, fuerte y formal." Spanish for "Ugly, Strong and Dignified."
The statue honoring Wayne at the John Wayne Airport, Santa Ana, California
* I'm not alone here. French director and French Nouveau critic Jean-Luc Godard hated everything about Wayne, but there's a moment in The Searchers that so moved Godard that it "filled him with love" for the actor.
** I did have conversations with an actor who'd worked with him on McQ, and got the usual: "Bigger than life," "Big man," "Gregarious, always laughing" and this..."He had tiny feet!"
Robert McGinnis painting of Wayne—"Ethan"