Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Lola Montès (1955) & Dr. No (1962)

Lola Montès is a biopic about the titular 19th century Courtesan, a living prop in a circus show about her life. Throughout the show, during the Ring Master's (the always dynamic Peter Ustinov) exposition, Lola (Martine Carol) flashbacks to her past life and loves, when things where easier, the cigars plentiful, and her lovers rich, famous, and easy to break up with.

This movie is crazy colorful, with vivid reds, blues, and yellows that you just don't seen any more on film, and expensively elaborate, with puffy costumes fringed with sequins and a carriage big enough to hold a piano. I don't see why critics are so disdainful towards Ms. Carol; I thought she was fine, not great, mind you, but perfectly fine; she didn't stand out as being particularly dull or flagrantly artificial, like the worst actresses I've seen. The other actors were admittedly superior, especially Anton Walbrook--always nice to see him play a nice guy, in this case King Leopold I of Bavaria. Jules (Oskar Werner) from Jules and Jim (1962) also shows up as a smitten student.

I really need to see more Ophüls movies; thus far, the only things I've seen by him are Letter From an Unknown Women (1948), Caught (1949), and La Ronde (1950). All of those are great, highly enjoyable and aesthetically jaw-dropping (well, Caught was a bit underwhelming, but it did have its moments), so this needs to be corrected. Eventually. Can't understand why this movie was originally reedited to make it more "chronological"; did the studio really think that audiences wouldn't be able to follow the plot? Then again, the similarly timeline jumping Intolerance (1916) didn't do that well financially either, and it's a hands down classic!

Now for Dr. No, where the world first saw Bond, James Bond, on screen, the big screen, that is. Technically, his debut came on TV, in an hour-long adaptation of Casino Royale (1954) on the anthology show Climax!; he was dubbed Jimmy Bond, and was American. I wonder if one can see it.

But to the point; Dr. No already sets up much of what we know and love about Bond: his fancy suits, his "shaken not stirred" dry martinis, his bedding (or boating, at one point) of multiple beautiful women, and his usage of his license to kill. Unfortunately, his fear of tarantulas were not further elaborated on. And there are no nifty gadgets here: a gun is traded in for another gun, and that's it. Good to see that the movie already offered eye candy for all the folks in the audience, with bikini babes, in addition to Bond being shirtless a lot.

It's also surprisingly brutal, for a Bond film: James bosses around women and grabs them forcefully, and when people get shot, it looks like they got dabbed with some fake blood swiped from Hammer Studios. There's also an unfortunate black stereotype (John Kitzmiller) who's afraid of dragons and ends up getting fried by the baddies.

And there's yellowface, which is unfortunately and awkwardly, a very common element in older movies. The though process must have been: "Hey, why hire an Asian when we can just hire a white dude to play one? Genius!" A quick scan of the "Examples of Yellowface" article on Wikipedia show that this tendency has continued. I know it was the early 60s, and Joseph Wiseman's subtle Dr. No is less wincing than Alec Guinness having difficulty saying "lollypop" as a Japanese widower in A Majority of One (1962).  But it's weird, and slightly disconcerting, that he Bond franchise, long may it live, has prospered because of the success of a film that has metal-handed Fu Manchu whom threatens the world with nuclear yellow terror?

And yet, I still like this movie. Because, damn it, I'm only human, and Sean Connery's Bond is so cool; even when he sang, and I got Darby O'Gill and the Little People (1959) flashbacks (which isn't necessarily a bad thing, because Darby O'Gill is among Disney's best live action films). Plus, Jamaica locations, that gun-barrel opening, and that goddamn awesome theme song, the latter which ISN'T written by John Barry, to my disillusionment that John Barry.

Lola Montès and Dr. No are very much preoccupied with gazing: men looking at women, and women, in turn, looking at men. Because of gender dynamics, and in the tradition of fictional "loose women," Lola ends up punished for her indiscretions though, to the movie's credit, she isn't condemned for her actions; the most unsympathetic characters are those that use her for their own ends: the mother who tries to marry her off to an old rich nobleman, her cheating drunk of a husband, the Bulvarian revolutionaries who make her a scapegoat, and, ultimately, the coin-counting circus owner who exploits her fame for his financial gain. On the other hand, Bond, because he's all manly, never gets any sort of punishment or comeuppance for his numerous sexcapades. But isn't that just the way of movies in a patriarchal society?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Gladiator (2000)

Though slow in spots, good action scenes mean that Ridley Scott managed to create one last iconic movie before the inevitable critical decline. The beginning is a special kind of slog, all blue tinting with occasional spurts of yellow flame in a battle scene which's a tiny bit on the dull side; I blame lack of stakes so early in the game (another rebellion the Roman Empire needs to put down); then again, the only purpose of this fight is to demonstrate what a popular guy and great tactician Maximus (Russell Crowe) is. Things don't get any more compelling with the entrance of Emperor Richard Harris, who expositions with anyone he comes into contact with, including his daughter Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), Crowe, and son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix); the latter proves himself a bad apple when he bumps off pop and blames Crowe.

Being a farmer, which means that he's a nice, incorruptible guy, Crowe escapes execution to save his wife and son, who he LOVES VERY MUCH. This doesn't bode well with this type of movie, and following following the sacred movie law of killing off the hero's dearies to provide him motivation to get all medieval on the asses of his enemies, they are brutally murdered.

Somehow, Crowe is found, and is taken to the desert with Juba (Djimon Hounsou), a Black actor who'd be whitty's sidekick again in Blood Diamond (2006) No complaints about him , or really any of the actors here, because he's really good and has a ton of presence, and outlives many of the white characters when the credits roll  (the last time I saw that in a sword/sandals film was, what, Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)?)

Crowe and Hounsou become buddies, and they get bought by Gladiator trainer to Oliver Reed, whose presence automatically raised my interest 20%; he died during the making of this film, but it's nice that his last movie was something so uncharacteristically classy and high budget.

And with his appearance, plus the tinting change from blue to brownish tan (because desert), the movie gets a whole lot more compelling, because the action needs to fit the title, so Crowe becomes a GLADIATOR!!! Being a general, he's really good at killing people. Meanwhile, in the still-impressive CGI, gray-tinted landscapes of Rome, Joaquin really takes to the role of emperor, toying with dealing the incest card with his very NOT receptive sister. She's in love with Crowe, but thankfully is very subdued: less swooney and more repressed attraction. She also actively tries to help Crowe, and gets to show all sorts of worried faces as she tries to protect her son (and future Emperor) from eeeeeeevil Joaquin.

Meanwhile, as Crowe becomes a superstar and creates a meme ("Are you not ENTERTAINED?!") We find out that Crowe has a method behind his consistent killing: he wants to be so good and popular, that the Emperor will go down to meet him, and Crowe can kill him. Sounds like a good plan, but considering how much longer we have to go, it's not gonna work. We need complications, dun dun dun. Which include tigers, Germans, and I Claudius (Derek Jacobi) showing up.

Won't lie, this is chockfull of cliches, but this is made up with surprisingly compelling characters and action sequences, which are a bit over-edited, but very comprehensible, thank God, all of which results in a genuinely moving ending. Additionally, Though this is a sausagefest of full of men fighting and killing other men (mostly white), it was nice to see some Black women gladiators show up in the carthage battle, throwing spears. They end up dying in brutal ways, like their male cohorts, so equal opportunities? Other than that, not really any other signs of female fighters; there's only one major woman character (and she's the only one to have any lines) and that's the sister. I hope that a movie is eventually made about a female gladiator, preferably with no involvement of gratuitous nudity).

To kinda change the topic, I wonder how many other films there are that follow the "dead family/loved ones as motivation" cliche? Off the top of my head, I can think of Death Wish (1974), Mad Max (1979),  The Punisher films, and the gender-fliped The Brave One (2007), but there are definitely others. Here, the doomed family is only seen briefly, which I can't really complain of, because had there been more scenes with them, then this movie would've ran way over 2 1/2 hours. But at the same time, this is downgrading characters down to them only existing so that the hero can have proper motivation to be Mad Maximus. But ultimately, it didn't prevent me from getting emotional during the death scene, so go figure.