Wednesday, September 21, 2011


“Dude,” as I was addressed by a handful of people, “did you see that new Russian superhero movie, yet?”

I hadn’t. “What’s it called?”

“Mechano-something. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s awesome! The camera is all over the place and the effects are great.”

This was relayed to me a number of times over a period of about ten days. The description always vague and usually leaving me with less information than I had going in. Finally, one of these good Samaritan dudes (and one dudette) included an IMDb link to a movie called The Sword Bearer, aka, in Russia, Mechenosets. Based on writer Yevgeni Danilenko's book, directed in 2006 by Filipp Yankovsky, The Sword Bearer turned out to be something different from what was described. I suspect that these well-intentioned friends were trying to steer me towards the flying-car movie Black Lightning, produced by Timur Bekmambetov, or maybe even Bekmambetov’s Daywatch, because what I got with The Sword Bearer was not a slam-bang actioner, but a very quiet and occassionally disturbing story about a young man who has been ostracized by society for a unique flaw in his genetic make-up.

Unfolding slowly and deliberately, we are gradually introduced to Sasha (a remarkable Artyom Tkachenko), a withdrawn little boy who grows up to be an isolated teenager, shunned by many who know him because of his temper and the violence that results from it. When Sasha feels threatened, a gleaming, indestructable metal blade extends from his wrist. With it, he can cleave stone and wood as easily as flesh and bone, and he doesn’t seem to have the ability to control it, or even set it on “mild injury” much less “stun”. However, he doesn’t pop the blade like Wolverine; the sword bursts painfully through his skin, sometimes skewering the palm of his hand, leaving behind a bloody appendage he does his best to hide with bandages.

Returning to his childhood neighborhood after an unexplained absence, the adult Sasha happens across a girl he knew from school. Her mobster’s son boyfriend and his droogs arrive and beat the young man down in the street, then drive off in their flashy Yay-Capitialism sports car. Tracking them back to her home, Sasha uses a rusty pipe to destroy the car with the bullies inside, killing or severely injuring each one. Shocked by his violence, the girl withdraws and Sasha runs. The next morning, the boyfriend’s connected mother puts a price on Sasha’s head.

In a new city, he meets a woman about his age, Katya (Chulpan Khamatova). They bicker in a stairway then fall into each others’ arms, anger fueling passion. Then her lover arrives home. Instead of offering any explanation, Katya orders the man out of the house. When he attempts to shoot her, Sasha breaks a chair over his head and they leave him tied up. Once freed and out for revenge, he attempts to rape her in the back seat of her car. Sasha’s rescue of her is brutal and horrifying, even to himself. Slamming the would-be rapist overhand into the car’s windshield, Sasha straddles him. Without his bidding, the blade extends and leaves the man bloody and dead, half in and out of the car. Shocked and shamed, Sasha runs and the girl comes up behind him, watching him press the blade tip into the pavement to force it back into his body. 

The brutality and revelation is too much for her and she collapses. Sasha takes her home and she wakes up terrified of him. He hands her the phone, tells her to call the police, but she can’t.

It’s at this very point that you realize that this will not, cannot end well for either of them. This is a movie borne of a tragedy with all the classic tropes—misunderstood hero, doomed lovers, society mistaking iconoclasts for the mentally ill, the disease of revenge—all distilled into an odd little metaphor that is rarely even visual. The blade represents Sasha’s isolation, his barely-controlable rage; the bloody path left behind him are predominantly accidents—just as the first time, as a child, when he defended his mother by murdering his stepfather; when he protected a schoolmate from an escaped prisoner. First we see the wooden sword in young Sasha’s hand, then the bloody corpse on the floor.

Restrained and disciplined, Yankovsky never allows The Sword Bearer to dab even a toe into X-Men territory. Preferring to show the aftermath of Sasha’s emotions, at no point does the director attempt to ape western testosterone set pieces. We never see, for example, Sasha racing down a hall, blade extended, mowing down assailants. (The best we gorehounds get is a shot at the rear of a police van, a cascade of blood spilling through open doors and around Sasha’s boots, once belonging inside the half-dozen men escorting him to prison.) He’s not a superhero; the blade isn’t a curse. It’s just a part of him he doesn’t understand. He can’t even extend it at will, to prove his story to a policeman who is eager to hear any rational explanation. When it does emerge, he can cross-cut forests, cleave tractor trailers in half. Even then, Yankovsky keeps the blade obscured by action, more a force than a weapon. When we watch Sasha slice off the tail of a helicopter, we realize that the blade’s length is as infinite as his rage and grief, and many more times powerful.

Going into the film blind, The Sword Bearer became for me a very pleasant surprise, but one that demanded my attention (and not just because all the subtitles were about a full-second off, making following the subdued story even more difficult). Not everything is explained but then not every detail is necessary. All we have to no that a very special man is in love with a very special woman, that they’re both damaged in their own way, and that the world is a cold, hard place that has no interest in understanding them. It’s a very simple story wrapped up in an atypical narrative.

Depending on your own tolerance for deliberately-paced movies (what some may call “boring” and not unjustified), you’ll either find The Sword Bearer remarkable or intolerable. And for this reason, in addition to the subtitles and the presence of actors who may be acclaimed in Russia but are virtually unknown here (until they’re hired to play thuggish villains for the next Jason Statham movie), Mechenosets did not receive a wide release in the U.S. It played festivals in the big cities but was not released on domestic DVD. But even abroad, the pacing and open-ended questions, primarily concerning Sasha’s origins and any explanation of the blade, have left many viewers frustrated.

It’s at this point in the review when I suppose I should ask, pretentiously, if subtlety and allegory have been completely bred out of our DNA, regardless of location. Because I found meaning and satisfaction instead of explanation doesn’t raise me above or place me below another viewer. The Sword Bearer is a story about a scream told in a whisper. Whether you dig it or not will depend on how loudly you want to hear a story like this and when you’re willing to hear it. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

D.C. CAB (1983)

Once upon a time, the phrase “Directed by Joel Schumacher” was not met with the revulsion and disgust that it is today. Rather, the director was considered with thoughtful indifference. It wasn’t too long ago that filmgoers left a Schumacher film thinking “gee, that could have been a lot worse”, instead of cursing the god that created him. Flamboyant in life but not in his art, Schumacher can be best-thought of as a competent director, serviceable perhaps, before he started putting nipples on everything. In the mid-‘80s, the young writer and director had perhaps already risen to the height of his adequacy with back-to-back successes appealing to the shallow youth in us all, St. Elmo’s Fire (1986) and The Lost Boys (1987). Today, like most of his pre-Batman efforts, these are great soundtracks in search of better movies, but they still managed to rake in enough money at the box office to garner him subsequent work. After writing two flops—Car Wash and The Wiz—Schumacher made his directorial debut with the Lily Tomlin hit, The Incredible Shrinking Woman. And that led him to perhaps his most infamous achievement, D.C. Cab.

Like Car Wash and The Wiz (I guess), D.C. Cab is another street-wise, working class adventure set against a flashy backdrop of poverty. The set up is fresh from dozens of previously made movies: a group of multiculture misfits working in the same environment learn to unite thanks to the intervention of a brand new white boy. In this case, obviously, the titular company is a bottom-feeding hack outfit headed by Barney Miller’s own Max Gail, the fleet driven by the likes of Mr. T, Paul Rodriguez, Bill Maher, Marsha Warfield, Gary Busey, Charlie Barnett and the Barbarian Brothers. The new white boy with the big ideas is Adam “No Relation” Baldwin as Gail’s nephew. The movie has less of a plot than it does a board game goal: get the misfits from start to finish, band together and keep the company from folding into bankruptcy. Accomplish this by first focusing on the disparity of personalities, loudening the profanity and sex jokes (and racist and homophobic jokes, bless their hearts), and then manufacturing some larger-than-life crisis that will point out how these aforementioned differences can be cast aside when push comes to shove and lives are at stake.

You’ve seen this movie. Maybe not this movie, but surely Porky’s, Animal House, Quicksilver, Police Academy. There’s nothing wrong with this formula. It works. It always works. It always will work, no matter how much Paul Rodriguez you throw in there. It even works in spite of the movie’s structure, which seems to operate under the philosophy, “It doesn’t matter if one scene has anything to do with the next so long as we have a cool song playing, somebody swears, and, oh, what the hell, put a lap-dissolve at the end.”

Take, for example, the pre-credits sequence in which the shrill and soon-to-be-hated-at-least-by-me Barnett is chased in his cab by a platoon of other cabs, their drivers wearing comically-sinister rubber masks. After blocking in his ride, they corner him in a dark and locked parking garage. Just as you’re sure that the African-American man wearing a ‘fro of curlers is about to meet his doom, laughter ensues, masks are removed revealing vaguely-recognizable actors playing future characters. Cue credits and then never reference this situation again (except in a vague way towards new white boy Baldwin, who is told that all new drivers have to make “the run”). As a hook, it doesn’t work. As a character-building sequence, it doesn’t work. But as an ease-in for the target demographic, the pot-heads, it works like a dream. So do the multiple brawls, the dirty jokes and every scene where Gary Busey seems to be taunting an off-camera orderly armed with a tranquilizer gun.

In Sweet Liberty (1986), Alan Alda’s character posits that a movie has to contain three elements to be successful with modern audiences: 1.) Disrespect of authority; 2.) Destruction of property; 3.) People taking their clothes off. Check, check, and check. So while D.C. Cab wasn’t the box office smash the studio had hoped for—even with focusing all advertising on Mr. T, who’d become an overnight sensation following the previous year’s smash hit Rocky III—it led a long productive life in video stores and on cable television. This cemented the careers of Schumacher and T, at least and allowed Rodriguez to escape unscathed for another decade. Baldwin would move forward into much more psychopathic roles, culminating in the most beloved character of all time, Firefly’s Jayne Cobb. Eventually, Maher would hang up whatever persona he’d been trying to cultivate as an actor and would evolve into a political satirist. Marsha Warfield found a home on Night Court. And the “special guest star” Irene Cara would survive her inconsequential cameo appearance to become the singing sensation she had been three years prior.

What makes D.C. Cab so fascinating is the sheer number of famous faces present in the film. While working on the index for a collection of reviews, I discovered that 1-out-of-every-6 people I cited either had the movie on their resume or a six-degrees tie to it somehow. Bring the movie up to fellow ‘80s children and you’ll get fond memories from many provided they hadn’t actually seen it since grade school. It’s slipshod editing and seemingly-random direction definitely qualifies it for “guilty pleasure” status. There are plenty of good lines, though Busey gets most of them.

Dell: Heck nobody goes in the army any more, except blacks. Someday one nigger's gonna wakeup and say, "We got the guns and the mustard gas and the tanks, hey were runnin the army!" And they're gonna take over the whole damn country and we'll be in with them already - we'll be Token Whites. Think about it.

Dell: Bruce Lee ain't dead you know. They got him frozen in carbonite down under Chatsworth. They're gonna melt him down as soon as the economy gets better.

However, it’s Barnett, the most grating character, who gets the best tag of any movie of the era, because of a deadpan delivery that had to have been jettisoned early in favor of his shrill “jive-turkey” schtick. It begins when none other than Timothy Agoglia Carey sits down in the back of Barnett’s cab:

Tyrone: Where to?
Angel of Death: I am the Angel of Death. Take me to hell.
Tyrone: Got any luggage?

In short, it’s a movie that doesn’t ask anything of its audience. By the early ‘80s, this sort of controlled chaos was so familiar, the paint-by-numbers plot was unnecessary. The Underdogs become the Good Guys in the end. That’s the slug line that undoubtedly sold the script, that’s sold thousands upon thousands of scripts since the beginning of Hollywood. Nothing else matters except for the number of cars involved in the crash, the big set piece and how insane the various characters are allowed to be. Schumacher could have delivered a movie cobbled out of left-over frames from the countless comedies that came before it and it still would have made money. It’s the mantra of Meatballs: “It Just Doesn’t Matter”. A paycheck for the fantasy football cast; something to flash across the eyes in an air conditioned theater during a hot summer day. Subversive only to those who still believe that “they shouldn’t be allowed to say stuff like that!”

This low-expectation continues to attract the audiences today. There’s no difference between D. C. Cab and Hot Tub Time Machine or The Hangover or Hall Pass save the faces occupying the blank spaces where characters should be. We’re living in a green society; what better recyclable material than Hollywood comedy?

Friday, September 2, 2011


With the print industry dying a slow, strangling, agonizing death in the current climate of iEverythings, it seems not only fitting and nostalgic but grimly ironic to take a look at a story that has both lionized and demonized both the newspaper business and the crack journalists who work for The Fourth Estate. Written in 1928 by former Chicago writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Front Page is as true in its cynicism as it is today, performed on stage almost constantly since its pre-Crash premiere and, without taking into consideration the numerous television versions, has been directly adapted for the big screen no less than four times.

The gist: The Front Page takes place on the day before poor Earl Williams, commie sympathizer or dupe and the alleged murderer of a black policeman, will be led to the gallows. Crammed inside the Press Room of Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building, reporters from most of the city big sheets play poker and make horrifically inappropriate jokes about the various horrors of the world as well as Earl’s big kick-off. Enter Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson, crack reporter from the Chicago Examiner, there to say goodbye to the gang. He’s off to get married and get a respectable job. More importantly, he’s looking to get out from under the Examiner’s tyrannical editor, Walter Burns, who’d commit murder to get that scoop-worthy headline. Suddenly, shots rip through the windows—Earl Williams has escaped! When the other hacks race out to the scene, Hildy stays behind to bask in the quiet. Through the window crashes Earl Williams—a meek little guy who’s been railroaded by the Chief of Police and the Mayor (a corrupt Chicago mayor? Such fancy!) for an election-week stunt. Hildy is faced with a dilemma. He can either leave with his fiancĂ©e, Peggy, as planned, and escape Burns and the soul-killing news biz forever, or he can stay behind, shelter Williams and write a piece that will exonerate him once and for all. But to do that, he’d need the help of the hideous con man, Burns.

Keppler: “This is my first hanging.”

Hildy: “Don’t worry kid, this is Williams’ first hanging too.”

The play’s first trip to the movies came about in 1931, starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien. (Don’t “who?” me! Menjou was the original “Billy Flynn” in Roxie Hart, basis for Chicago. O’Brien was friggin’ Father Connolly in Angels with Dirty Faces. “Who” indeed.) It played pretty close to the original script with very little action occurring beyond the press room.

Murphy: “Update on the Williams hanging: Sheriff Hartman's just put 200 more relatives on the payroll to protect the city against the Red Army, which is leaving Moscow in a couple of minutes. Bet a dime.”

Arguably the most famous and beloved of the adaptations is Howard Hawks’ near-perfect His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. (Spin the dial, so to speak, to one of the cable movie sections, guaranteed it’s playing on one of them this very minute.) Working from Charles Lederer’s script, Hawks flips Hildy’s gender and makes her the ex-wife of Walter Burns, which bringsWalter into the story earlier and adds not only the much-needed team-up but a bit of Hayes-approved sexual tension. It also stars the fastest-spoken dialogue in movie history.

Thus far, the last remake of The Front Page is an untidy and unpleasant little mess from 1988, starring Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner called Switching Channels, the setting a television news stage, rather than the press room. Mean-spirited and misanthropic rather than cynical, this movie reportedly suffered from the two leads’ mutual abject hatred of each other, which is reflected in the film’s energy. If it weren’t for Joan Cusak as a loony assistant, the movie would be a complete wash.

Between the sublime and the hideous is adaptation #3 which premiered in 1974. Starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Directed by Billy Wilder. With a script by Wilder and his astute partner I.A.L. Diamond. Gold, right? Sheer gold. Run with it, Duffy and let it hit the streets!

Well, gold plated, at least. Still a good value with today’s market.

Hildy: [to Sherriff Hartman] “You what I think, Hartman? I think you let Earl Williams out yourself so he could vote for you next Tuesday.”

By the ‘70s, Wilder’s career was faltering under the weight of his own greatness. Bitter at the Hollywood industry that he more or less owned in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Billy made some odd choices. For one thing, the snappy Hechtian/MacArthurian dialogue was “sweetened” by Wilder and Diamond, mostly to great effect, but so married were they to their own words that they forbade the rapid-fire overlapping delivery that made His Girl Friday such a hit. Even Lemmon and Matthau wanted to keep the furious pace, but Billy the writer wouldn’t hear of it, likely in direct opposition of Billy the Director.

Walter Burns: “Jeez, Hildy. why didn't you tell me? Kid, I woulda thrown you a little farewell party... “

Hildy: “Oh, no, no, no! I know your farewell parties! When Ben Hecht was leaving for Hollywood, you slipped a micky in his gin fizz. It took four of us to get on the California Limited.”

Walter Burns: “Ben Hecht! Used to be one of the greatest newspaper men I ever knew. Look at him now, sitting under palm trees writing dialogue for Rin Tin Tin.”

Secondly, given the freedom to not only use the spicy language of pre-code Front Page but also the saltier speech of the ‘70s, the use of profanity is almost constant. Not a big deal today, when Baby’s Day Out sounds like Scarface (hyperbole intended), but for a movie set in 1929, the language sounds incongruous, even if it is actually more accurate. All the “goddamns” and “bullshits” muck up the rhythm of the patter moreso than the line-then-next-line delivery.

Hildy: “I wouldn’t cover the Last Supper for you if you had it in the Pump Room of the Palmer House!”

Thirdly, when you go to see a Lemmon/Matthau movie, you expect the two of them to be in the room together for more than just the third act. By hewing to the original Hecht and MacArthur structure, Walter Burns (Matthau) is kept at the Examiner for far too long. Not that Lemmon (as Hildy) isn’t entertaining by himself (or surrounded by Charles Durning, Herb Edleman, a glib Harold Gould, a giddy Austin Pendelton), but the give-and-take that made The Odd Couple and The Fortune Cookie so wonderful and electric is held off to the point where the movie seems to slog along until the last forty minutes. Once Walter Burns finally shows up, things pick up steam again, but by then the meanness and the hysteria and the overacting (Carol Burnett and Vincent Gardenia) has worn a path through the audience.

Like Switching Channels later, Wilder’s The Front Page adds too many barbs to the wire. The cynicism doesn’t seem borne out of world-weariness on the parts of the newspapermen and the corrupt governing system, but out of some sort of utter hatred for the world. Some may find nihilism and fatalism funny, but here it crams the other elements against the wall. Wilder made his career revealing the skuzzy side of the world to the audience with black-humor. Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard spring immediately to mind when you think of cultural skewering and reversal of expectation. But towards the end of his career, Billy had started to see the world through smoked glass. That antagonism spilled into his work and literally weighed it down (just as it would in Fedora and Buddy Buddy).

For those like myself who believe that bad Billy Wilder is better than no Billy Wilder at all, The Front Page is hardly an appalling waste of time, but far from honorable satire. Maybe if Wilder had updated it to the decade in which it were made, the culture shock may have been lessened, the jokes seeming a little more biting with current issues addressed. But the idea of a “Red”, who’s reputation was made for sticking “Release Sacco and Vanzetti” into fortune cookies would have been too trite for 1929. In 1974, it was almost insulting and doesn’t adequately translate. (Although the idea that Williams got beaten up by a crowd of pimps for trying to get hookers to unionize is definitely funny.)

Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: “Tell me, Mr. Williams, were you unhappy as a child?”

Earl Williams: “Not really. I had a perfectly normal childhood.”

Dr. Max J. Eggelhofer: “I see. You wanted to kill your father and sleep with you mother.”

Earl Williams: [to Sheriff Hartman] “If he's gonna talk dirty ...”

Even Billy himself would admit that The Front Page was, despite its moderate box office success, a mild misfire. “I'm against remakes in general,” he said, (Nobody's Perfect: Billy Wilder, A Personal Biography, Charlotte Chandler, 2002.) “Because if a picture is good, you shouldn't remake it, and if it's lousy, why remake it? . . . It was not one of my pictures I was particularly proud of.”

It wasn’t the remake status that held The Front Page back. The themes are universal even today in the era of information saturation: political malfeasance and nonfeasance; reporters out for blood to smear across their headlines (or click-through links) and the weariness that comes from a slow loss of soul; equally bloodthirsty readers ready to form a pitchfork-bearing Simpsons mob at the slightest change of wind, seeing injustice in jaywalking and racism in Neopolitan ice cream.

Think what Hecht and MacArthur would make of today’s “journalism”? Live blogging from anywhere, just so you can say “First”. (“First” being the new scoop.) Letters to the editor morphed into virulant posts left on Yahoo! News, revealing the basest of all human traits as misanthropy spews across the screen. Aside from the technology, nothing has changed since 1928, certainly not human behavior when one thinks nobody is looking.