Thursday, May 31, 2018

Northwest Passage: Book 1 - Roger's Rangers

Northwest Passage: Book 1- Roger's Rangers (King Vidor, 1940) The posters warned Northwest Passage was "Not Suitable for Children" which it might be, with its stories of atrocities, men who fight with muskets and axes, and the "good of the many" philosophy. But, it's such a "Boy's Own" adventure...if "for" adults...that one is tempted to dismiss the warning. But, one does so at their peril.

It's 1759, during the French and Indian Wars (look it up) in North America, and young Langdon Towne (Robert Young) has come back to Portsmouth, New Hampshire from Harvard (after being expelled) to ask the hand of his sweetheart, Elizabeth Browne (Ruth Hussey). Bad timing. Beyond that, Dad Browne, a clergyman, thinks Towne's profession, an artist, is a poor prospect for his precious daughter, and Langdon, rebuffed, goes out and does what any young man would do under the circumstances—he goes out to the local pub and insults the local British constabulary...who just so happen to overhear him from the next room. With the help of "Hunk" Marriner (Walter Brennan), friend and fellow flagon-drainer, the two manage to get in a fight with the two red-coats (to avoid being arrested) and are soon on the lam.
On the lam to another bar, that is. If Mr. Browne thought Langdon was lousy husband material before, it's a good thing he isn't around to look down his nose at this. At that rustic pub, they meet Major Robert Rogers (Spencer Tracy) who treats the two fugitives to his favorite drink, "Flip," and tales of his explorations. The stories are very good, but the rum must be better, because the next morning they wake up at Fort Crown Point as recruits for Rogers' latest mission—to take on the Abenakis native tribe and stop the French at the town of St. Francis, the starting point for a lot of attacks on "civilized" settlements. Langdon's secondary mission, and apparent only usefulness, is to map the route for future expeditions...and posterity. 
That is...if he survives. That trek is arduous, even without the man-made hazards along the way (director Vidor filmed in the wilds of Idaho), which are recounted in vivid excruciating detail. 142 men start on the mission, which starts out with the best of intentions and the best of planning, but Nature has a way of upending plans and what Nature doesn't delay, men and happenstance will.
After taking whaling boats up Lake Champlain, Rogers and troop hoofs it to make their way up to St. Francis, fully expecting to be able to meet up with the boats at the end of the expedition and fully expecting for their provisions to last the journey...with hunting being the fall-back. But rifle-fire will give away their position, so they have to make do with rationing what they have and what they haven't lost. Men are lost to attack and to injury, and rather than continue with the troop, slowing them down and leaving them vulnerable, they are merely fend for themselves or die trying...or not trying.
It's a more dangerous version of The Lost Patrol, with the men gradually being picked off, moving forward even when they're convinced they have no chance of success, their return-boats and extra provisions stolen, and finally making it to St. Francis, where they stage an attack so intense and complete that they've become indistinguishable—in methods and ferocity—from the very people they've condemned as savages. There is no parsing for cause or motivation. It's just "kill 'em quick and kill 'em dead" where by flintlock, bayonet or tomahawk, and, just as with the men they've left behind, there's no time for funerals. If there's any message to be sent it's in the mutilated bodies and burning village.
But, that burning village is sure to be noticed from a distance. And with their left-behind provisions already taken and no food to be had except for dried corn in the village, the Rangers attempt to get to the closest fort, Fort Wentworth, and hope that they're met by re-enforcements and food. In the hope that they can find fishing and game, they head to Fort Wentworth by way of Lake Memphremagog, only to find they shouldn't tarry as there are signs that the French are nearby. Staggering behind them is Langdon, shot during the battle at St. Francis ("First thing I've had in my stomach for days...") and unwilling to be left behind.

Leave it at that. The travails of Northwest Passage only get worse—and even plunge deep into the macabre as mutiny, insanity and cannibalism all work against Rogers' increasingly hollow "only a few miles left, men" optimism. "A Boys Own" adventure? Hardly. It is tough, unrelenting in its depiction and description of the hard-scrabble life and "take no prisoners" racial hatred in the early "civilized" days of the country. And despite its eye-popping photography, the expense of the location Technicolor work kept the movie from making a profit and cancelled any attempts to make a "Book 2." Still, an interesting, troubling, starkly surprising film that makes you amazed at what "they" got away with back in the studio days.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story

What a Piece of Junk!
Too Many Crooks Spoil the Plot

As a witness to the fan-meltdowns that occurred after The Last Jedi, one would think that one would be quite capable of living up to the expectations of adhering to one's own philosophy; in my case, it is "don't go into a movie with expectations." That path leads to the fan-tantrum.

But, unfortunately, I did. I went in to Solo: A Star Wars Story besotted with the fan-speculation: "What if 'Chewie' is the smart one of the two?" I've managed to convince myself that he is in the couple years since I first heard the idea and just has confidence issues.

But, the name of the movie is Solo, he's a fan-favorite and the movie is directed (or re-directed should be the proper term, after Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were sacked over "creative differences") by Ron Howard, who has made a career out of making movies that are exactly what you think they will be going in. 
"Opie" the director doesn't surprise.

Which is why his last Lucasfilm project—Willow, way back in 1998*, done after his movie Gung Ho tanked and before he revived his career with Parenthood—was such an underwhelming dud of a film. I mean, let's face it, Howard is an artist who paints by numbers. He keeps things in focus, follows the shot-lists, doesn't go over-budget, "plays well with others" and is a dependable work-man with a good temperament. But, as a filmmaker, he's no "visionary." He's a general who holds the line but doesn't win the war.

Reportedly, in the creative tumult, he ended up shooting 80% of Solo, so...this one's on him. And the result is that I'd kinda liked to have seen what Lord and Miller were making of the film, because even if wrong, it might, at least, have been interesting.

Because Solo is the first "Star Wars" film I didn't like...or even admire for its ambitions, such as they are. Even though I have no "Han Solo movie I want to make," I can see why fans get upset when things "go South"—not that I've seen that happen, having avoided "The Holiday Special," "The Ewoks" TV movies and the entirety of the "Star Wars" animated series that give the characters such large Easter-Island-carved heads. This is one where there doesn't seem to be anything "Star Wars" about it and just goes through the motions.
"Star Wars" means something to different people, of course (with a bottom-line of competence, which also means different things to different people). But, this is the first really incompetent "Star Wars" film I've seen. And this one is incompetent from the git-go. Han Solo is the not the best character to make a movie of (as I'll get into later). Oh, he's beloved, but that's pretty much because of the first movie where he displayed some change-of-heart from his scoundrel days and found...dare we say it...redemption. Here, he's just a scoundrel. And not a very smart one. And he has no idea what he doesn't know. So, throughout the movie we get to see him stumble around a lot and learn a couple of lessons along the way...about how to be a scoundrel. That's not a great idea for a movie, unless your idea of a great film is Butch and Sundance: The Early Days.
So, the movie is basically "wrong," from conception. And the script from Lawrence Kasdan (who should know better) and his son Jon (who's got a screen credit) doesn't improve things one bit. In fact, they imagine a sort of space-spaghetti western where everybody's within a few shades of dark from each other...but nobody distinguishes themselves (certainly not character-wise) as being worth your attention, let alone trust. It's a movie filled with unreliable narrators and, as such, things get a little confusing.
What's really confusing is where it all fits in the Star Wars timeline. One can assume it fits in between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode VI: A New Hope, but where is a little difficult to pin. Harrison Ford's Han Solo was in the 29-31 age range (Ford was 34 at the time of filming) and Young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) looks to be a young 20's. The film takes us from "The Adventures of Han as a Young Man" to the point where he's going to Tatooine to work for Jabba the Hut. So, how long was he doing that? A few years? We only know about the disastrous last job where he dumped his cargo and had the slug sending bounty hunters after him, but that was about it. He didn't do anything else? Per this movie he didn't do anything really legendary—in fact, the Kessel Run isn't made much of, but, still, even if Han was a low-grade smuggler down the ladder of the profession, what's with the ego? Is he merely deluded? Is Chewie the smart one? It seems this story is there mainly to put a younger guy in the role. It certainly isn't there to broaden the character. So, the conception is ill-conceived and the ambitions for it a bit weak.
So, what's the story? You remember when Obi-Wan Kenobi said of the Tatooine backwater Mos Eisley "you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy." Well, he obviously never went to Corellia, home of many crime syndicates ("food, medicine, and hyperfuel") as well as young Han (not yet dubbed "Solo") and his lady-love Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). They're two street kid "scrumrats" "olivered" into the White Worms gang run by Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt) who have managed to squirrel away some hyper-fuel called coaxima, which they could either turn in to the syndicate or use to get off the planet. They decide on the latter, starting a chase through the back-alleys and passageways pursued by Moloch (voiced by Andrew Jack) and Rebolt (Ian Kenney) in a desperate bid to get to a transport depot. After crashing their speeder, they have to continue on the run, but Qi'ra gets captured, but Han uses the coaxium to bribe his way to become a pilot for the Imperial Fleet (they have to bribe them?). The recruitment asks him what his name is. Just "Han." By itself. He has "no people." The recruiter calls him "Han Solo."** Roll credits.
It's three years later and Han is an Imperial fighter and not loving it. He's been kicked out of the Flight Academy for insubordination and has the innate ability for "stickin' your nose where it don't belong." he's advised by an Imperial, Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who, with Val (Thandie Newton) and pilot Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau), have less to do with the Empire than they appear. Then, Han (being Han—"Nobody cares," he's told), after voicing his suspicions of the three is disciplined, taken to a prisoner hold with what is called "The Beast," with the clear implication he won't emerge in one piece.
It's at this point that Solo starts becoming such a "call-back" machine that a checklist should be provided in the lobby with every purchase of a large popcorn. Meeting with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo)? ✓ Meeting Lando "He has a lot of capes" Calrissian (Donald Glover, who's the best player in the movie)? ✓  The Millenium Falcon?✓  "The Dice?"✓  Bar scene with lots of aliens?✓  Han gets his iconic blaster-pistol?✓  Han shoots first?✓  Chewbacca plays with the hologram board-game?✓ Hyper-space jump?✓  The mentoring by a scruffier older guy whose loyalties are questionable?✓  The passive-aggressive Han/Lando man-hug?✓  Re-meet with Qi'ra only to find she's not the woman he left behind?✓  A variation of the "I love you"/"I know" line?✓ 
Around the time Han dumps his cargo (✓ ), I had checked out. That last one happens fairly early on with a sci-fi variation of a train robbery on a monorail, up high in the mountains while going at a very fast clip, but without much wind resistance impeding their progress.*** Not that the way Howard shoots it gives you any sense of where anybody is, or just how much danger being on such a crazy contraption would pose. There's not an awful lot of detail about how the thing works—heck, nobody comes close to being ground in any gears—and just how bloody precarious the monorail is to evoke any sense of real danger for the people scrabbling along the top of it. Chalk it up to the perils of digital film-making; you can't imagine being crushed by megapixels.
That's one episode. But, the whole thing is built around the idea that there are so many roving gangs around every asteroid that eventually you can't tell one band of pirates from another, not what their loyalties might be. At some point, I stopped caring. So much scattered skull-duggery to so little effect. There is a through-line of a mission, but the goal is rather porous and Han and crew spend most of their time just running away—from everybody—for it to seem worth it or even have a clear goal in mind. After awhile, you're just going from one murkily imagined planet ('the subtitle could have been "Fifty Shades of Gray") to another with no distinct end-game.
New bad guys are brought in right up to the end to challenge our less-than-heroes, but you begin to suspect that the only difference between any of them is that the more powerful ones have merely lasted longer. Everybody has larceny in mind with no moral compass (and the way the thing is so dodgily shot, no compass at all!)
An Imperial Destroyer shows up in a nebular cluster during the Kessel Run.
No, no, really, it's in there.
This is Star Wars? The series with the Good Side and the Bad Side? And you have to make a choice between them? In Solo, there is no choice and the morality of things doesn't much enter into it at all. The series with such tag-lines as "Trust your feelings" and "May the Force be with you," sinks to the level where the most sage advice is "Trust nobody...and you'll never be disappointed."
Finally, one must wonder why—except that Solo is a "fan-favorite"—that a solo Han Solo film was made in the first place. The main character arc for Solo had already been filmed in the first Star Wars, where Han turns from doubting scoundrel to turning around and diving out of the sun—a sun—to run defense for Luke in taking out the Death Star. That's the character's pivotal moment—a change in character and function. Before that, Han is just a drifter, talking big and not really living up to his own image of himself. He's a supporting character, a big brother, but less of an influence on Luke than Kenobi or Leia. It's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces," not "The Cynic with a Thousand Faces." Anything before that is preamble and not emblematic. It's just more of the same and not the most interesting aspect of the character at that.
It's a cautionary predictor of the type of shallow thinking that fan-wishes can produce and one hopes that the folks making the decisions at Disney don't heed when there are stray calls for a "Boba Fett" movie (to what end and why?) or the pursuit of a "Darth Maul" series—again, the character's presence (although alluded to as having survived his bisection from The Phantom Menace in "The Clone Wars") had no influence at all in the events of the original trilogy. Why, then, bother, other than appeasement to the voluble fan-base.

As William Goldman was fond of saying "Nobody knows anything" (an example of which is the many studio rejections of Star Wars when George Lucas was first pitching it). Don't entrust it to folks who know less than nothing.

* You don't remember it? Of COURSE you don't. It was a planned trilogy that never got past the first movie.

** Supposedly, it was this scene in the "pitch" to Disney head Bob Iger that prompted him to say "I'm in." Yeah, but, it's not exactly a "binary sunset."

*** Hey, I recently re-watched Michael Crichton's The Great Train Robbery and Sean Connery was getting knocked around when that train was going 35 miles an hour!

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Thief of Bagdad

The Thief of Bagdad (Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger, Tim Whelan, etc., 1940) Epic Alexander Korda production, with considerable work from his brothers Vincent and Zoltan, and the grand production designer William Cameron Menzies, that boasted three directors, filming on two continents (interrupted by the Blitz) and became a fantasy favorite.

It's still amazing, even if the two leads are a little leaden (and if we don't get too picky that all of the featured players are extraordinarily ethnically inaccurate—
Sabu was born in Mysore, then a part of British India, and Conrad Veidt...was German!), but if one takes it with a light-heartedness, and a mighty roaring laughter worthy of the Djinn (played by the larger-than-life—even without special effects—Rex Ingram), there are more than enough wonders that would enchant and entice a watcher (as it did with the young Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who both count it as their favorite childhood film).
Because it all comes together, all the disparate elements in eye-popping Technicolor, that somehow manages to make the real world look drab and shabby by comparison. I've had that experience where movies change your outlook:  every new Orson Welles film made me see the world—and its possibilities—differently; a theater screening of the cinematography documentary Visions of Light was followed by an extended parking lot discussion in which the lights of the city (even in that drab corner of Seattle) never looked more beautiful to the eye; a screening of Don't Look Now (in the very same theater, coincidentally) had me walking back to the car, obsessively looking for the color red.
And The Thief of Bagdad has that same effect. Between Menzies' sets (and his insistence on how they be filmed), the vibrant color sense and stylishness of the entire production, one yearns that movies might be more like this one, let alone the world (oh, by the way, give me a chance at those three wishes)...and isn't that illusion why we go to the movies, anyway?

The visually eye-popping The Thief of Bagdad

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: The Straight Story

The Story: The story of Alvin Straight is true. The real-life Alvin actually did what transpires in the film, and I remember seeing it on the news. But David Lynch turned it into a lyrically strange, G-rated movie for Disney—a reminder that Lynch is a multi-faceted director, not an odd-ball, who can make powerful, moving films of great beauty*—movies that find the miracle in the everyday, in the way sun shines and smoke curls, and how life is strange on its own without having to pour on the gothic melodrama. Lynch is adept at turning over a rock to examine what's underneath, but he's just as fascinated with the rock without embellishment.

So, Lynch made The Straight Story about an elderly farmer who drives a John Deere mower across state to visit his ailing brother. The story transpires, moving slowly, topping out at 5 miles an hour, but there's a lot of country to see, and many stops along the way. One of them occurs while Alvin has some repairs done on his John Deere. During that respite, this scene occurs, though giving no comfort.

I once asked a grandfather-in-law about his participation in the Normandy Invasion. "What was that like?" I asked, naively. There was a pause. "Well," he said, fighting off the dark clouds. "I got through it..."

I guess that was the good part.

My Uncle (Bill) served in Europe, and he and some of his boys took a trip back there to look at some of the places he'd been during the war during the overland campaign with Patton. He showed them a field he and his troop had to sprint across under fire, and he mentioned how long it took them to do so. His kids were all athletes and one of them said "...Doesn't look so far..." to which the father replied, "Well, you're not seeing it with bullets!"

When I was going through my Father's things, I found a lot of interesting things: one was a letter that he got—I presume everyone got one—saying that their tour was over, and that they should go home and put it all behind them. "Just live your lives and forget it."

"Well, you're not seeing it with bullets."

Because we have not fought a war on our soil in 150 years, we've become somewhat inured by the thought of our nation at war and, probably, the idea of war in general. Our image of war is the sanitized, censored version our government (made up mostly of prominent sons who got deferments) lets us see. There is always feigned shock when there's a reported incident of friendly fire when we should be used to it by now, as used to anything that can go down in the chaos of war.

As I was going over this scene, I couldn't proceed without also including the next scene of The Straight Story, where Alvin, still thinking of the war, and as he does many times in the film, looks up at the stars at night, which Lynch subtly, importantly, sets in motion.

This is why Lynch is one of our greatest directors.

It's why this is the scene for the day before Memorial Day.

The Set-Up: Straight (the late, great Richard Farnsworth)** is on a cross-state ride on his customized John Deere mower to see his ailing brother (Harry Dean Stanton), maybe for the last time. Among the people he meets on the way is Verlynn Heller (Wiley Harker), who eyes him during one of Straight's mis-adventures, and one day turns up at his temporary quarters to see if he'll have a beer. Straight is wary (after all, it is a David Lynch movie), but once bellied-up to the bar, it's time for old war-stories and some Straight talk.


Alvin Straight: I picked up a mournful taste for liquor in France. When I came back I couldn't drink enough of it. I wasn't worth a stick of stove-wood.
Straight: I was mean.
Straight: A preacher helped me put some distance between me and the bottle. And he helped me see'd the reason I was drinkin' I was seein' all them things here that I'd seen over there.
Heller takes a swig.
Verlynn Heller: Lotsa men came back drinkin' hard.
Straight: Oh. Everyone tryin' ta forget. I can see it in a man right away.
Heller looks at him.
Heller: Yep.
He takes another pull.
Heller: There was one time....
Straight knows what's coming, and steels himself.
Heller:...when we just...
Heller:...were waiting for that first warm meal in ten days. (chuckles) We'd thought we'd seen the worst. We hadn't had much trouble from the air.
Heller: I was on the rise.
Heller: There was a quartermaster workin' on some more coffee for me and my buddies. A stray Fokke-Wolff came over the tree-tops and dropped an incendiary on the mess-tent...
Heller: All my buddies.
Heller (struggling now): The kraut then banked right in front of me on that hill,...and...
Straight nods.
Heller: ...and I can see the swastika. (Heller is shaking, trying to maintain control).
Straight: That is one thing I can't shake loose. All my buddies' faces are still young.
Straight: And the thing is, the more years I have, the more they've lost.
Heller's barely holding on.

Straight: And it's not always...
Straight: ...buddies' faces that I see. Sometimes, they're German faces. Near the end we were shootin' moon-faced boys.
Heller looks at him.
Straight: I was a sniper. Where I grew up, you learned how to shoot to hunt food.
Straight: They'd post me up front, darn...
Straight: ...near ahead of the lines. And I'd sit...forever.
Straight: It's an amazing thing what you can see while you're sittin'.
Heller smiles.

Straight: I'd look for the officers, their radio-guys, or artillery spotter.
Straight: Sometime, I'd spot a gun-nest by the smoke. An' I'd fire into it. Sometime, it was just a movement in the woods.
Straight takes a ragged breath. Heller glances at him.
Straight: We had a scout. A little o' Kotz. He was a Polish boy from Milwaukee. He'd always take recon and he was darn good at it. We went by his word, and he saved our skin many a time. He was a little fella. We'd broken outta the hedgerows. We were makin' a run across the open. And we come upon the woods. We started drawin' fire. I took my usual position. And I saw somethin' movin'...real slow-like. I waited ten minutes. It moved again...and I shot. The movement stopped. The next day we found Kotz...head shot. He'd been workin' his way back toward our lines. Everyone in the unit thought a German sniper had taken him.
Straight: (takes a breath) Everyone all these years. (takes a breath)
Straight: Everyone but me.
The two old men sit at the bar, shaken.

The Straight Story

Words by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

Pictures by Freddie Francis and David Lynch

The Straight Story is available on DVD from Walt Disney Home Video.

* And let's drop the sophistication long enough to acknowledge that...sometimes...Disney can drop the princesses and the "Mickey Mouse" attitude and take a truly creative chance on a project that might be worthwhile (although, don't think that if the movie had made money there would be an "Alvin Straight" tractor ride in Disneyland-Florida.

** Farnsworth was dying of cancer when he was making this movie. He'd started an acting career late in life, starting out as a wrangler, stunt man and extra. You can see him in odd little roles throughout the 60's and 70's, and if you're from the Pacific Northwest, you might remember him as the Olympia Beer groundskeeper who saw "Artesians." His first major role was in Alan J. Pakula's Comes a Horseman, for which he was nominated for an Oscar (as he was for The Straight Story) When he finished the film, he did the press junkets, the Awards circuit, he participated in the selling of the movie. He won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actor. Then, he went home and finished his battle, which ended when he took his own life on October 6, 2000. I met him once when he was doing publicity for The Grey Fox, and he was as gentlemanly and cordial he was on-screen.