erik lundegaard

Friday December 14, 2018

Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1936)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s just a metaphor for China, isn’t it? It’s taking the quintessential early 20th-century boys adventure story—travel to the Far East!—and sticking it in outer space, where the oriental tyrant lusts after the blonde woman and the exotic beauty lusts after the Teutonic hero. Ming (Charles Middleton) is the giveaway—in name, looks, manner and gongs. He’s a Chinese emperor in space.

Flash Gordon 1936 movie reviewIs this where we started the thrones-in-space trope? I was noticing this even in 2017’s “Last Jedi”:

You know what really bugged me about that scene? The throne. Dude’s sitting on a fucking throne in the midst of a big red empty in the middle of a spaceship. Can we get past this throne trope already? How about a desk with some paperwork on it? How about a comfy couch with two corgis?

Secondary thought: Is Capt. Kirk’s chair a kind of throne, too? Or is it a command chair because it swivels? Can a throne swivel? Not onomatopoeically. Throne, like stone, seems to demand stasis.

I’d heard that “Flash Gordon” had been an inspiration for “Star Wars,” but here at least (I haven’t seen the sequels yet), there’s no strong connection. Yes, there’s a princess, but she’s not our princess. Yes, we get a few screen wipes. The most obvious connection is King Vultan’s city in the sky, which is like Cloud City in “Empire Strikes Back,” and just as absurd. Much work goes into keeping it aloft but no one asks the obvious question: Who thought it was a good idea to put it there in the first place?

On the whole, “Flash Gordon” is simply battles with various hawkmen, sharkmen, lion men and monkey men. 

Dr. Zarkov and his Interstellar Inventions
It begins in a planetarium, where two elderly scientists (George Cleveland and Richard Tucker) look at the stars and wring their hands:

Prof. Hensley: We are doomed, Professor Gordon. The planet is rushing madly toward the earth. And no human power can stop it!
Prof. Gordon: You’re right, Henry. It’s only a question of time. Soon the earth will be smashed to atoms!

Thanks, guys. We’re then shown cities throughout the world in panic. Well, “panic.” It’s stock footage, and the white cities (London, Rome, Paris) tend to be fairly placid, while the darker places (Shanghai, India, Africa, Arabia) tend toward riots. The titles themselves are indicative: three European cities, one Chinese city, and then, fuck it, let’s go countries and continents.

Professor Gordon is, yes, Flash’s father, but the two will never meet in this serial, and Prof. Gordon, that old hand-wringer, will never be much help. In fact, he’ll get everything wrong. At one point, he and Hensley discuss a possibility to save the planet only to dismiss it. “Zarkov’s mad, his theory fantastic,” Gordon says.

Dr. Zarkov (Frank Shannon) turns out to be correct, his theory totally doable. By the second chapter, he’s actually saved the earth:

Zarkov: The course of this planet has been changed. The earth will not be destroyed.
Flash: Ah ha, that’s fine. Where’s Dale?

“Ah ha, that’s fine, where’s Dale?” Dude, he saved the earth! I don’t think Zarkov gets his necessary props in this serial. He does everything. It’s called “Flash Gordon” but what does Flash really do? Fights some guys? Then fights more guys? He falls in love (with Dale) and is lusted after (by Aura). He makes friends with enemies. That’s about it. Mostly he fights.

What does Zarkov do?

  • Invents a rocket ship that can land on distant planets and return to Earth—in the 1930s!
  • Convinces Ming to divert his planet’s course so it won’t crash into Earth
  • Saves Flash’s life after the various tortures of the Static Room
  • Creates an explosive device that allows Flash and others to escape King Vultan’s atomic furnace rooms
  • Creates a substitute for radium that will allow Sky City to remain aloft
  • Throws a grenade at the fire monster, saving Flash
  • Helps Flash regain his memory after Princess Aura has wiped it out
  • Invents an invisibility machine that again saves Flash’s life  
  • Electrifies the door to the lab preventing Ming’s men from entering
  • Figures out a way to signal Earth
  • Figures out a way to return to Earth

It’s the invisibility machine that really got me. When did he have time to invent that? In his spare time in Ming’s lab? The guy’s Einstein and Edison rolled into one! This thing should be called “Dr. Zarkov and his Interstellar Inventions.” He really should talk to his agent—he’s getting short shrift here. 

Does Princess Aura (Priscilla Lawson) get short shrift, too? Yes, there are numerous instances when, in her goal to win Flash and destroy Dale, she imperils both. But just as often she saves Flash. She shows up at the 11th hour, gun drawn, to save him from King Kala’s octopus (Chapter 3) and Vultan’s “Static Room” (Chapter 7). She joins him in the arena to save him from the monkey men (Chapter 1) and the Orangopoid (Chapter 8). What’s Dale doing in the meantime? Cringing. Fainting. Aura actually develops as a character—tamping down her love/lust for Flash to accept the hand of the monumentally dull Prince Barin (Richard Alexander). She so pisses off her father, Ming, that by the end he’s ready to let her die: “You have chosen to consort with traitors, you shall share their fate.” Thanks, dad.

At least she gets a reward. In the final chapter, after Ming enters “the sacred palace of the great god Tayo, from which no man returns,” she becomes Queen and sits on the throne.

Except ... Is the serial forgetting Barin’s intro from Chapter 5?

I am Prince Barin, real ruler of Mongo. I was dethroned as a child by Ming the Merciless who killed my father.

I’d assumed this was setting up our ending, with Ming dead and Barin restored to his rightful patriarchal place. Nope. Ming winds up dead (ish), Barin winds up with Aura, but the throne goes to Aura. Too bad we don’t get that conversations:

Barin: Can’t I sit on it for just a little?
Aura: No.
Barin: Please? I am the rightful ruler, you know.
Aura: You are a rightful nothing.
Barin: You’d let me do it if I were Flash.
Aura: You are not Flash!

I was impressed with Buster Crabbe, the former Olympic gold medal swimmer. He’s athletic, earnest, shockingly handsome, and not a bad actor by serial standards. He’s certainly better than most of the actors here. Barin is a limp noodle, Thon worse, while Vultan overacts horribly. In the first chapter, Flash’s dress- shirt-and-jodhpurs look is torn, Doc Savage style, and thereafter he wears skintight Mongo suits. Just as often, he’s shirtless, glistening with sweat, and wearing boots and big-belted supertight shorts. The movie apparently ran into trouble with censors because of some of Aura’s more revealing outfits, necessitating refilming, but no one noticed the near-naked bondage sequences with the star? Maybe that’s the one nice thing about being sexually marginalized in a puritanical society: Your kink may pass unnoticed.

What’s the role of Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden? Love interest (for Flash), lust interest (for Ming and Vultan), rival (for Aura), general damsel in distress. She also looks good in her midriff-baring Mongo outfits (sans bellybutton). But does she ever do anything? Plan? Scheme? Aura’s best revenge may be that she won over her share of fan boys. In “Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial,” Alan G. Barbour writes, “Many fans felt that Flash should have been interested in Princess Aura rather than the constantly screaming Dale Arden.”

Aura also never stepped on anyone’s lines. From Chapter 9:

Dale: We must go after them.
Zarkov: No, we must not. There’ll—
Dale: No mo—
Zarkov: There‘ll be  danger.
Dale: No more than here.

How Flash and Dale wind up on Mongo may be the most absurd element of a story full of them. In Chapter 1, Flash, on a flight back to America to see his father, is flirting with Dale, whom he’s just met, when the plane is buffeted by forces of the oncoming planet. The pilot tells everyone to bail out, adding helpfully, “You’ll find a parachute on every seat. We were ordered to bring them aboard in anticipation of any trouble.” Where do they land after they bail out together? Of all the places on Earth? Right next to Dr. Zarkov and his rocket ship.

After an absurdity like that, monkey men and orangopoids are easy to take.

Ode to Aura
Is Flash even necessary for the main storyline of “Flash Gordon”? Doesn’t he cause more trouble—with his looks and his fists—than he solves? You can imagine a much shorter version if it was just Zarkov: He arrives, convinces Ming not to crash into Earth, invents his invisibility machine, uses it, plants a bomb under Ming’s throne. In the confusion, he escapes back to Earth. The End.

One thing Flash and Dale do accomplish: They keep turning enemies into friends: Thon, Barin, Aura, and especially Vultan, who, for several chapters, is truly villainous: all but raping Dale Arden and subjecting Flash, Thon and Barin to the atomic furnace rooms, where they toil along with other slave labor. Question: Does Zarkov’s substitute for radium mean that furnace rooms are no longer necessary? Or are shirtless slaves still shoveling this substitute into his furnaces?

“Flash Gordon” supposedly had a budget three times the norm for a serial ($360,000), and the special effects aren’t bad for the time. The rocket ship (left over from the 1930 sci-fi musical “Just Imagine”) turns in a circle and lands shakily but charmingly. A few scenes with a giant lizard in the same shot as Flash and Dale are particularly well done. More quaint are Ming’s mores. He doesn’t just take Dale; he feels he needs to be married to her. So, via hypnosis and banged gongs, he attempts an elaborate wedding ceremony. That also includes scenes from “Just Imagine.”

I don’t know how they measure the financial clout of serials (which, after all, played before features), but supposedly “Flash Gordon” made more than any Universal film—let alone serial—that year. Yet first-time director Frederick Stephani didn’t direct anything else until TV in the early ’50s. Why?

It’s interesting who went on. Buster Crabbe wound up having such a popular and extensive movie serial career, he’s been dubbed “King of the Serials.” Jean Rogers kept acting until 1950, Charles Middleton until his death in 1949, Richard Alexander all the way to 1970. For Patricia Lawson, “Miss Miami Beach” of 1935, this was her first credited movie appearance, but she would manage only five more credits (and 23 uncredited roles) before retiring from movies in 1941. Supposedly she joined the military; there are rumors she lost a leg and opened up a stationary shop in LA. She died from a duodenal ulcer on August 27, 1958 in a Los Angeles VA hospital. She was 44.

SLIDESHOW


  • Alex Raymond’s comic strip was born when King Features needed a spaceman to compete with the popular “Buck Rogers,” whose comic strip debuted in 1929. “Flash” didn't show up until five years later, January 1934, but beat “Buck” to the big screen by several years. Both would be played by Buster Crabbe.

  • The special effects aren't bad for the time. 

  • Here, too, as Dale Arden almost walks into a giant lizard on Mongo. 

  • Less so here. It's Mongo's plodding welcome committee. “Grab whatever's left in wardrobe.”

  • Ming the Merciless, a Chinese emperor in space. 

  • What begins as a battle to save Earth becomes a battle to save Dale.

  • The first of many arena fights—this time against the monkey men.

  • I suppose Constantine Romanoff (real name: Friedrich William Heinrich August Meyer) had prouder moments on screen, but he made the best of “Monkey Man.”

  • Crabbe would‘ve made a good Doc Savage. 

  • Or an Aquaman. If Aquaman had existed. (He was created five years later.) 

  • Typical Flash/Dale shot: He’s determined, she's frightened. 

  • Typical Flash/Aura shot: He's determined, she's ... determined, too. 

  • The risqueness: A hypnotized Dale is sent to bed in anticpation of Ming...

  • ... and cowers before the rapacious Vultan. 

  • Vultan, aroused. A year earlier, he played the engineer's assistant in the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' “A Night at the Opera.”

  • The orangopoid. Mugato, “Star Trek” fans?

  • In the 1960s, journalists were amazed at the shots of the Earth that Apollo astronauts sent back, but moviegoers had been seeing such shots for decades. 

  • Sadly, “spaceographed” never caught on. 

  • Neither did “Stratosphere Party,” although it sounds fun. 

  • All's well that ends well. *FIN*
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Posted at 06:45 AM on Dec 14, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s
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Thursday December 13, 2018

Tweet of the Day

Cf. an NBC News headline today: Trump was in the room during hush money discussions with tabloid publisher. Cohen got three years for this, right? Will be interesting to see if the other shoe ever falls for Donnie.

This past summer, I told my friend Andy, who was afraid Trump would get reelected in 2020, that he wouldn't even last the year. I'm probably wrong but ... I'm not that wrong. 

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Posted at 07:58 PM on Dec 13, 2018 in category Quote of the Day
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Boxscores: August 1, 1970, II

Twins Tigers August 1, 1970

Earlier this year, while writing a blog post about a long-remembered 1970 game between the Atlanta Braves and Pittsburgh Pirates, which the Pirates won by the football-like score of 20-10, I checked to see how other teams did that day. How did those 30 combined runs compare with the rest of the Majors? I was assuming there weren't other high-scoring games, but I was wrong. There was even another football-like score: St. Louis over Houston, 14-7.

Anyway, that's how I stumbled upon this high-scoring game between my team, the Twins, and a Detroit Tigers team only two years removed from winning the World Series. Twins won 12-4. Then I noticed the oddity. Wait, in 10 innings? The Twins scored eight runs in the top of the 10th? 

Yes. Yes, they did.

Wow. So how many homers did they hit?

None. Three doubles, though.

That's it?

That's it. This is how they did it. 

FRED SCHERMAN PITCHING

  • Bob Allison: K
  • Cesar Tovar: 1B
  • Danny Thompson: 2B (Tovar scores)
  • Harmon Killebrew: IBB
  • Tony Oliva: 2B (Thompson scores)

TOM TIMMERMAN REPLACES SCHERMAN 

  • Rick Renick: 2B (Killebrew, Oliva score)
  • Rich Reese: IBB
  • Leo Cardenas: 6-3
  • Paul Ratliff: IBB
  • Bob Allison: BB (Renick scores)
  • Cesar Tovar: 1B (Reese, Ratliff score)

MIKE KILKENNY REPLACES TIMMERMAN

  • Danny Thompson: 1B (Allison scores)
  • Harmon Killebrew: K

Notice the three intentional walks? I immediately thought of Joe Posnanski, a longtime sportswriter who has long railed against the intentional walk. He thinks it's bad for the game for two reasons: it's 1) stupid and 2) not exactly sporting or fun. A good hitter like Harmon Killebrew comes to the plate, you want to see him swing. It's no fun seeing him not get the chance. Imagine if every time LeBron James got the ball, the other side did something so he'd have to give it up. So we couldn't see him play. No fun. 

The Twins' 8-run 10th is both testament to Poz's philosophy and a refutation of it. It was obviously stupid, since it didn't help the Tigers at all. Everyone intentionally walked came around to score. At the same time, Detroit manager Mayo Smith's use of the intentional walk was so idiotic it must‘ve been fun to watch. “Really? You’re going to walk another one? Sure, have at.”

A lot of people might agree with Mayo's first free pass. At this point in the game, you‘re down by one, there’s one out, you‘ve got a not-very-fast guy, Danny Thompson, on second base, and last year’s MVP and the greatest homerun hitter of the 1960s, Harmon Killebrew, at the plate. Plus he's slow and the guy on deck has knee issues. A ground ball and you get out of the inning. 

The trouble: The guy on deck is Tony Oliva, who was one of the best hitters of the ‘60s, and the only man to win the battle title his first two years in the Majors. And at that point in the 1970 season, he was hitting .325. (He’d wind up leading the league in hits and doubles.) So walking Killebrew to get to Oliva was like walking Ken Griffey Jr. to get to Edgar Martinez. Pick your poison. The only argument in favor of it is the lefty-right thing. Detroit's pitcher, Fred Scherman, was a lefty. That's why Mayo did it. Why you shouldn't do it? Oliva doubled.  

Mayo rewards Scherman by yanking him for Tom Timmerman, a righty, to face the right-handed Rick Renick. Renick doubles, too. (BTW: The Renick at-bat is the only time during that long, long inning that first base was open with men in scoring position and Mayo didn‘t go for the IBB.) 

That brings up another Double-R, Rich Reese. He’d had a good season the year before (.322/.362/.513 in 132 games), but had fallen off a bit in ‘70. At this point, he was .271/.339/.374. But he was also a lefty and now Mayo had a righty on the mound. So he intentionally walks Reese to get to Leo Cardenas, a former four-time All-Star who was hitting .281. But it kinda worked. He got the grounder he wanted, but no double play. And now two men were in scoring position. 

Which brings up my favorite intentional pass of the evening. 

At this point, remember, the double play is meaningless. There are two outs. A grounder and you get out of the inning. Plus you’re down by 4 anyway, in a game in August, for a team that's going nowhere. Pitch away. Go for it. 

Nope. Mayo had Timmerman issue the Tigers' third intentional pass of the inning. To Paul Ratliff. 

My immediate reaction upon seeing the name was “Who?” That's most people's reactions. Except that's probably their reaction to Rick Renick, Rich Reese and Danny Thompson, too, but I knew all those guys. In 1970, I was a 7-year-old with a mind like a sponge who was ga-ga over the Minnesota Twins. I collected baseball cards, I went to games, I knew them. I knew them all: Brenta Alyea, Jim Holt, George Mitterwald. They were legends to me.

But Paul Ratliff? Nothing. 

Turns out he was a back-up catcher who came up in ‘63 for a cup of coffe, then not again until 1970. As of August 1, he was hitting .243 with a .706 OPS. Not exactly an intentional-pass candidate. But the lefty-righty thing. So Mayo, for the third time that half inning, played the percentages. He assumed the next guy up, a guy hitting .170, and who had started the inning with a K, would get him his out.

Except the next guy up was former All-Star Bob Allison, who, with Killebrew and Oliva, had been part of that Murderers Row Twins Club of the mid-1960s. And while he was on his last legs, and his batting average was way, way down, his OBP wasn’t: .333. He couldn't hit but he could still draw a walk. Which is exactly what he did. With the bases loaded. Another run.

Then Tovar singled to plate Reese and Ratliff, the two most recent IBBs, and then Thompson singled to plate Allison. The final out of the inning was made by Killebrew, the first IBB.

Anyway, that's how you get a 12-4 score in 10 innings: two singles, three doubles, and four walks—three intentional. Those IBBs weren't smart, they weren't sporting, but I bet they were a lot of fun.

Rich Reese, Camera Day 1970

Me and my brother with Rich Reese on Camera Day, 1970, a few weeks after the above game. And is the guy in the background the elulsive Paul Ratliff? Anyone know? 

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Posted at 10:54 AM on Dec 13, 2018 in category Baseball
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Wednesday December 12, 2018

Lancelot Links

Crazy Rich Asians bombs in Crazy Rich China

很好看的中国人。可是,中国人不要看。

  • The U.S. box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” which some U.S. critics sadly keep touting, debuted two weeks ago in China—and bombed. It wound up in eighth place, grossing the equivalent of $1.1 million, $23 mil behind “A Cool Fish” in its third week. The website Sixth Tone tries to sort out why. Too shallow? Too Mary Sue—“a pejorative referring to the trope of shallow, unconvincing female characters in works of fiction”? How about too Asian? The article mentions how an All-Asian cast is a breath of fresh air in the U.S. but kinda not in China. It also doesn't mention the arms-length reaction of many Chinese to overseas Chinese or huaqiao. At the same time, the movie did OK in smaller Chinese markets like Taiwan and Hong Kong. But China said 不要。Could make a good dissertation someday—the why of all of this.
  • Hey, guess what didn't bomb in China? “Aquaman.” It's opening weekend gross was $93 mil, which is the 21st biggest opening in China ever. Go know. 
  • Larry Stone has a good eulogy on Robinson Cano's five-year tenure with the M's: PED suspension, yes, occasional lapses, yes, but two top-10 MVP finishes and 23.6 WAR. He delivered. Mariners management didn‘t. Not enough. It was a bad deal, and now we’re out of it for the worst part of it, but I‘ll miss him. He was fun to watch. What Yankee fans saw as laziness, I saw as the usual nonchalance of great baseball players turned to 11. 
  • In an interview with Bob Schieffer, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it was difficult to work for Trump because he’s “pretty undisciplined, doesn't like to read, doesn't read briefing reports, doesn't like to get into the details of a lot of things, but rather just kind of says, ‘This is what I believe.’” Not a huge shocker. Nothing about Trump is a huge shocker to anyone who was paying attention in 2015 and 2016. And all the years previous. 
  • Speaking of: If you know anyone who says “They didn't know ...” what Trump was like, kindly direct them to this 2006 piece by Mark Singer in The New Yorker. He nailed it all then. There have been no surprises.
  • Can't recommend enough George Packer's mid-November piece on the demise of a moderate Republican. Mostly because it's not about that. It's about Packer holding the GOP accountable for its 50-year-long slide into the muck: from the Southern strategy to welfare queens to Willie Horton. “They pushed conspiracy theories into the mainstream,” Packer writes. “They kept raising the bar of viciousness. ... Trump is the movement's darkest realization, not its betrayal.” His Mitch McConnell metaphor is brilliant. 
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Posted at 11:07 AM on Dec 12, 2018 in category Lancelot Links
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Tuesday December 11, 2018

For NPR, ‘Trump Implicated in Felony’ Creates Dilemma for Democrats

So the president of the United States was implicated in a felony in federal court on Friday—for buying the silence of McDougal/Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 election regarding affairs with each of them. Here's the headline the next day in my hometown newspaper:

TRUMP IMPLICATED IN FELONY

That's pretty nice; that's pretty straightforward. Much of the rest of the mainstream press was less so. They prevaricated as much as possible.

Did anyone do this more than NPR? When I listened to Morning Edition on Monday, the focus of their broadcast, for the 15 or so minutes I listened, was on the dilemma all this causes for Democrats.

I shit you not. 

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson, in breaking down the matter, refers to Trump once; she refers to Democrats six times. 

INSKEEP: Now, you said unindicted co-conspirator. Of course, the key word there is unindicted. He's not indicted here. He's just named for his involvement in a crime, or Individual One is. It is a matter of dispute whether a sitting president can be indicted by a grand jury, but he certainly can be impeached by Congress. Do Democrats want to do that?

LIASSON: Some Democrats do. Most Democrats don‘t. Democrats want to keep the right balance when they take over power in the House. They want to exercise oversight. They want to investigate the president and the administration in a non-showboaty way.

BTW: Some people might consider the key word “co-conspirator,” Steve. 

Then Morning Edition’s crack team immediately went to a long interview with Jonah Golberg, senior editor at National Review, who also talked about what a dilemma all this was for the Democrats. Particular, he added, because of the demands of its base:

The base of the Democratic Party wants impeachment. They crave impeachment. They hunger for it. They're sort of like werewolves. At the full moon, they must feed. And if they must impeach over this stuff, they may in fact impeach over this stuff.

Rachel Martin brings up how the Clinton impeachment actually backfired against the GOP, to which Goldberg says: 

I agree. I think politically it would be a bad idea. It was a bad idea for the Republicans to do it politically, but they sort of had to follow through on their own, you know, line of reasoning and consistency.

Got that? Dems are werewolves, Repubs follow a “line of reasoning.” And the illegalities of a Republican president create dilemmas for the other party. So glad NPR is here to help me make sense of the world.

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Posted at 05:07 PM on Dec 11, 2018 in category Media
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Movie Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There’s a moment about 45 minutes into “The Spy Who Dumped Me” that made me laugh.

Our main characters, Audrey and Morgan (Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon), two American girls caught up in international spy intrigue, are on the run for their lives in Europe. Unbeknownst to them, Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno), an international model/gymnast/assassin (you know the type), has been sent to Prague to kill them, and, I assume, retrieve the maguffin in Audrey’s possession. She’s getting in position over Prague’s Old Town Square and asks her superior, via earpiece, who she’s looking for. Response: “Targets are two dumb American women.” She raises her rifle, looks through the scope, sees:

  • two girls posing for a picture, one flipping the bird, the other doing the flicking-tongue-under-v-sign gesture
  • a hung-over girl on a bridge throwing up into the water below while her friend holds her hair back
  • two girls doing a bump-and-grind against a shrouded medieval statue, and, per subtitles, “both whooping”

The Spy Who Dumped Me reviewAt which point, realizing the impossibility of her task, she lowers her rifle.

That’s a good bit.

The rest of the movie is simply empowerment of those same dumb American women.

Us/them
Our heroes are amateurs who bungle their way into international espionage and thrive there. The outlandishness that makes Morgan “a bit much” in the real world is perfect for distraction, while Audrey, 30 and going nowhere with her life, has real talent for the spy game. Before, she couldn’t lie. Now she’s adept at it. She’s good at the bait-and-switch, at killing (via all those Friday-night video arcade shooting games), and at hiding the maguffin where the sun don’t shine. Sure, innocent people die (Uber driver), but our girls wind up feeling good about themselves, and isn’t that what’s important?

Audrey also gets to kill the duplicitous spy who dumped her (Justin Theroux) and win the spy who’s loyal (Sam Heugan). Both women get new, sexy careers. They start out the movie as us (stunted, marginal) and wind up the movie as them (heroic, central). The thing they were brought in to mock is what they become. 

Sound familiar? It should. Think: “The Other Guys,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” “The LEGO Movie,” and “21/22 Jump Street.”

Here’s an excerpt from my 2015 review of “Spy” starring Melissa McCarthy:

Most genre spoofs occur when Hollywood takes someone who looks and acts like us (a schlub) and places them in an exciting genre movie (western, action-adventure, spy thriller). The laughs come when the schlub tries to live up to the genre and falls flat, while the catharsis comes when the schlub becomes the wish-fulfillment fantasy figure in the end. The genre may be mocked but it ultimately wins. Wish-fulfillment fantasy wins. We want us on the screen but no we don’t; we’d rather see them.

“Spy” did the genre spoof better because McCarthy’s character wasn’t a schlub; she was assistant to a superspy (Jude Law) but actually competent. I.e., more competent than the men. She’d just never been given the chance. But when Jude appears to die in the first reel, she gets it. The comedy comes in how less-than-glamorous her version of the spy game is. It’s really a feminist/lookist take within the genre spoof. 

This isn’t that. “Dumped Me” reverts us back to the stupid norm. It pretends that you can join late with zero experience and still master the game. 

Funny/not funny
That’s not what dooms it, though. It's just not funny. I think I laughed fewer than 10 times. I liked the bit about driving the manual-transmission car into the kiosk at 2 mph. I liked Cheesecake Factory menus compared to the novels of Dostoevsky. I liked Paul Reiser and Jane Curtain as the parents, and Reiser’s line reading on Woody Harrelson. And not much else. 

Some of the action sequences are surprisingly good but has McKinnon ever been less funny? Has Kunis made a smart decision since “Black Swan”?

“Targets are two dumb American women.” The movie’s targets are many dumb American women. Based on its pallid box office, it didn’t hit them, either.

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Posted at 08:54 AM on Dec 11, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Monday December 10, 2018

Movie Review: The Spider's Web (1938)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In its current listing, Wikipedia credits “The Spider’s Web” as the first superhero movie serial ever. It was released in 1938, two years before “The Green Hornet” and “The Shadow,” and three years before “Captain Marvel” truly ushered in the superhero age.

So what makes a superhero serial? A better question: What makes a superhero? Off the top of my head, I’d say:

  • superpowers (but not necessarily: Batman)
  • mask (but not necessarily: Superman)
  • fights crime (but not necessarily: X-Men)
  • urban (but not necessarily: Black Panther)

The Spider's Web movie reviewI might also add this:

  • Born in comic books (rather than radio, pulps, comic strips)

None of those guys before Captain Marvel were born in comic books. The Shadow began as a radio narrator who was so popular they created his own radio show around him; then he took over the pulps. The Green Hornet began on radio as a modern update of The Lone Ranger, who, in Wikipedia’s classification, is a western hero rather than a super hero. The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years.

Overall, at least in their serial incarnations, these three are basically the same guy: a rich dude with no superpowers and an ethnic sidekick, who puts on a mask, fedora and trenchcoat to fight a criminal mastermind bent on taking over the city. In this, The Spider should suffer in comparison. The Shadow has the best calling card (his laugh and catchphrase), the Green Hornet has the best sidekick (Kato), and both have better masks. To modern eyes, the Spider’s mask, with holes for eyes and mouth, looks suspiciously like bondage gear.

And yet “The Spider’s Web” is slightly better than the first offerings from Shadow and Hornet. Its lead, Warren Hull, has energy and verve throughout—even before he puts on the mask and cape. He’s not overshadowed by his sidekick (see: Hornet) nor is his main power given to the villain (see: Shadow). Plus Iris Meredith’s Nita Van Sloan has it all over her female counterparts.

But the serial, like all serials, gets bogged down in the sameness of it all: the hidden villain in his lair sending out his men to implement his orders; the hero and his team working to counteract them; the police stymied and useless and suspicious of the hero; the cliffhanger, the escape, and the regroup. Repeat.

I’m curious: Has anyone with talent ever taken one of these serials—which can run 300 minutes—and edited it down to about 90-100 minutes? So it has a modern pace? So there’s less pause and bad fill and it flows? What would that look like? Could it be good?

Friendly neighborhood Spider
I first heard of The Spider in 1974, while reading Stan Lee’s “Origins of Marvel Comics.“ I was 11. Stan takes us back to the glory years. By 1962, he had created the Fantastic Four and the Hulk and was looking around for other characters to invent and promote:

In the long-dead, practically Paleolithic era when I had been on the verge of approaching teenagehood, one of my favorite pulp magazine heroes was a stalwart named The Spider. He wore a slouch hat and a finger ring with the image of an arachnid—a ring which, when he punched a foe fearlessly in the face, would leave its mark, an impression of a spider. It was The Spider’s calling card, and it sent goose pimples up and down my ten-year-old spine. More than that, I can still remember how the magazine’s subtitle grabbed me. It was called The Spider— but after his name were the never-to-be-forgotten words: Master of Men. Just play with that for a moment—roll it around on your tongue, savor the fateful, fascinating flavor—The Spider, Master of Men. My mind was made up, the stage was set, the cards had been dealt. I was no more than a puppet in the shadow show of destiny.

Yes, Spider-Man. The similarities between the two characters end with the name.

Except watching this, you do see other similarities. The Spider has webbing on his mask and cape. He’s fairly athletic, can climb easily and swings from ropes a lot. Then there’s the villain: The Octopus. He’s not a scientist, doesn’t have mechanical arms, but in the 1938 battle between The Spider and The Octopus, it’s easy to see the trace outline of the epic Spidey/Doc Ock battles to come.

The serial begins well—with villainy and the chaos it causes. We see trains colliding followed by numerous headlines about sabotage, the bombing of freight trucks, a fire destroying the airport. It’s all the work of the Octopus. Who is? Just a guy in a white mask wearing a white cloak who hobbles on a crutch to the big mahogany desk in his lair, and then, to his men—who are all cloaked in black and sitting politely in chairs in front of him—announces plans and issues threats via a raspy voice into a microphone.

Roberts from the Bankers Association shows up and we get this exchange:

Roberts: Where do I fit in?
Octopus: You don’t. You will be eliminated as an obstacle. Tomorrow morning you will no longer be chairman of Roberts Co. Inc. My man will take your place.
Roberts: You’re crazy!
Octopus: I’m quite serious. ... Very soon I will have control of every key industry in this country. I will have the very nerve centers of the nation in the palm of my hand. 

That last line almost calls for a “Mwa-ha-ha!” but instead the Octopus calmly shoots Roberts, then announces the next target: our hero, Richard Wentworth (Hull). Why Wentworth? Who knows? But it’s a classic example of picking on the wrong guy. 

At this point, and despite the headlines, our hero is oblivious to the Octopus’ doings. He just wants to go on a trip and settle down with his new wife, Nita Van Sloan, who knows he’s The Spider. They’re in a plane that he’s flying. Are they coming back from some place? Just flying around for the day? They’re about to land when the Octopus’ men sabotage the runway, forcing them to take off again and bail out. 

For a ’30s serial, it’s nonstop action for a while. The bailout leads to fistfights on the ground and Wentworth even kills a few dudes; then he says to his assistant Ram Singh (Kenne Duncan in beard and turban), “Nita just landed in the meadow. You get her into the city as fast as you can—I think the Jefferson Highway will have the least traffic.” That last bit of micro-managing cracked me up ... until I realized it was part of the plot, since Wentworth discovers the Octopus’ men plan to blow up the Jefferson Highway bridge. So off he goes in pursuit. 

It may be a new series but there’s a nice in medias res aspect to it. On the plane, Wentworth tells Nita he’s putting The Spider behind him. Obviously the attempt on their lives changes things, but we don’t see him as The Spider until the last few minutes of the half-hour opener. The Octopus plans to blow up the bus terminal with a bomb on a bus. The Spider and Ram Singh clear the terminal by firing off guns. After a gun battle with the bad guys, The Spider is driving the bomb-ticking bus away, when ... boom! Except of course, in the next episode, we see The Spider leave the bus and pull down the garage door before the boom.

Here’s how all those cliffhangers work out:

 Ch. Cliffhanger Escape
1 Bomb goes off in bus Spider is driving He'd already gotten out
2 Spider and Nita on fast-falling dumbwaiter thing Ram Singh slows descent
3 Spider seems electrified after being punched into bank of switches He isn‘t. He gets up groggily
4 Spider is gassed He gets up, opens window, leaves
5 Bank of lights is pushed on Spider, who cowers He flattens against the wall
6 Car, with Spider on runner, crashes into electrical transformer He jumps off at last minute
7 Door with jagged edges threatens to close on KO’ed Spider He wakes up and rolls away
8 Fights O's men in car that goes into drink He and Ram Singh jump off beforehand
9 Spider and Ram Singh plunge in elevator whose cables are shot out They initiate the ”Automatic Brake Control“
10 He plummets in plane that's aflame Uses high speed to put out the flames
11 Rockslide Spider jumps from car in time
12 One side of wire Spider dangles from is cut loose He swings into a brick wall, then drops to the ground
13 A motor on a chain swings toward the Spider He jumps out of the way
14 Falls through trap door and dangles by rope upside down Slips out of rope
15 n/a n/a

You pity the screenwriters. You imagine them in the writers room, exhausted, drunk, or both, saying, “OK, what the fuck can happen to him now?” 

I admit being excited at the end of Chapter 12, “The Spider Falls,” when, pursued, he shimmies across a wire high above a courtyard and the bad guys—who seem unable to shoot him from like 10 feet away—cut one side of the wire. I’m thinking, “Hey, he’s going to swing to safety! It’ll be like Spider-Man!” We’d already seen him swinging several times—at the Bureau of Power & Light in Chapter 3; and onto a double-decker bus in Chapter 8—so we know he can do it. And he does—but into a brick wall. It’s more George of the Jungle than Spider-Man. But for this period it’ll do.

Arguing against the hero
There are missed opportunities throughout—scenes that indicate a better serial. My favorite is from Chapter 13. By now Wentworth has figured out that The Octopus, who keeps killing members of the Bankers Association, is a member of the Bankers Association, and, in his living room, he holds forth before the other members of his team with the following written on a chalkboard:

Reynolds        Gordon
Bronson         Gray
Mason            Frank
Chase            Crane

“Now that Chase has been eliminated,” Wentworth says (he was kidnapped in the last chapter), “we find that our search is down to three men: Gray, the banker; Gordon, head of the power company; and Frank, head of the broadcast company.”

Imagine if we’d learned about all of these men earlier—and if they’d had distinguishing personalities or features rather than being vague background figures. Might’ve made a pretty good whodunnit. We could’ve been trying to figure out the identity of The Octopus with Wentworth. But of course that would’ve taken planning, time and talent. 

Ironically, the above scene also includes an example of why vigilantes like The Spider are dangerous. After a brief discussion, Wentworth says the following: “Gray is a very powerful man in this city. Nevertheless, we must go on the assumption that he is the Octopus and let him prove that he isn’t.” Wait. Guilty until proven innocent? In such scenes, Hull’s dynamism actually works against him. He comes off as dangerous.

He was certainly a danger to Charlie Dennis in Chapter 4. Once upon a time, Wentworth helped youthful gas station owner Charlie build a radio, and more recently Charlie was able to get on the Hertzenband(?) wavelength, where he heard men talking in a kind of code; so he alerts his mentor. Wentworth listens, too, and hands Charlie money. “Buy some candy for the kids,” he says. As Wentworth is figuring out the code (the letters and number correspond to pages and words in Webster’s dictionary), and realizes it's the work of the Octopus, does he get back with Charlie? No. Who does? The Octopus' men. They figure out someone is on their wavelength, show up at the gas station and shoot Charlie dead. Then they blow up the gas station. By the time Wentworth finally arrives, he's distraught. He cries over Charlie’s corpse.

I'm kidding about this last part. It's actually worse: Wentworth never finds out what happened to Charlie. How awful is that? The kid has served his purpose in the story and can be eliminated—by both the bad guys and the writers. I get the former but why did the latter eliminate him in this sudden, brutal manner? And why blow up the gas station? Yes, it reveals the menace of the bad guys but it also reveals the obtuseness of our hero. Were scenes cut? 

There's a lot of suspect actions on Wentworth's part. He kidnaps a switchboard operator who is being blackmailed by the Octopus, and questions her until she faints. Then he involves her newsboy brother, Johnny, and almost gets him killed. He often uses Nita as bait. As for The Octopus’ true identity? It turns out to be Chase—the very guy Wentworth eliminated from contention. 

It's as if the serial is an argument against its hero. 

One more time with feeling
Even so, “The Spider’s Web” became a big hit for Columbia. (Does anyone know how they measure serial popularity?) So much so they turned the “Shadow” into a virtual remake: businesses targeted by masked /invisible villain who turns out to be one of the businessmen; incompetent cops suspecting hero; sideplots including raygun that causes airplanes to plummet; early references to television.

Each hero, too, has a third identity with underworld ties. For The Shadow it’s Lin Chang; for The Spider, Blinky McQuade, an eyepatch-wearing con who sounds a like Popeye. He extracts relevant info from time to time. He’s so good at it, one wonders why Wentworth ever bothers with The Spider.

THE SPIDER SLIDESHOW


  • The Spider began in the pulps in 1933 to compete with The Shadow—and wound up beating him to the movies by two years. In fact, ”The Shadow“ serial, also created by Columbia Pictures, pretty much followed the blueprint of ”The Spider's Web.“ 

  • You have a rich guy who plays a masked superhero at night (The Shadow's mask was cooler, less fetish-y)...

  • ...who also adopts a third identity: a man with underworld ties who extracts info from the bad guys. 

  • Buck Rainey's ”Serial Film Stars“ references Meredith's ”ethereal charm, and attractive, restrained acting style." She certainly made this more watchable. 

  • We never see The Octopus outside of this room. The movie may be Spider vs. Octopus but we‘ve got a long way to go to reach Spidey vs. Doc Ock. 

  • But at least we get an early version of web-swinging.  

  • Here, too. Did anything look cooler to kids in 1938?

  • Of course, the police suspect Wentworth of being The Spider, whom they suspect of being a criminal. They’re right on both counts. 

  • Caught. Not in flagrante delicto, despite appearances. 

  • Nita, wondering when the honeymoon can begin. *FIN* 
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Posted at 08:41 AM on Dec 10, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s
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Sunday December 09, 2018

LA —> Roma

Another victory celebration

A week after NY, LA film critics chose their best of 2018, and with the same best of 2018: Alfonso Cuaron's “Roma.” 

I think LA is unique in giving out both gold and silver. No bronze. Here's the films they tapped:

  • Best Film: “Roma”
    • Runner-up: “Burning”
  • Best Director: Debra Granik, “Leave No Trace”
    • Runner-up: Alfonso Cuaron, “Roma”
  • Best Actor: Ethan Hawke, “First Reformed”
    • Runner-up: Ben Foster, “Leave No Trace”
  • Best Actress: Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
    • Runner-up: Toni Collette, “Hereditary”
  • Best Supporting Actor: Steven Yeun, “Burning”
    • Runner-up: Hugh Grant, “Paddington 2”
  • Best Supporting Actress: Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
    • Runner-up: Elizabeth Debicki, “Widows”
  • Best Foreign-Language Film: ??
    • Runner-up: ??
  • Best Documentary/Nonfiction Film: “Shirkers”
    • Runner-up: “Minding the Gap”
  • Best Animated Film: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
    • Runner-up: “Incredibles 2”
  • Best Screenplay: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
    • Runner-up: “The Favourite,” Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
  • Best Cinematography: Alfonso Cuaron, “Roma”
    • Runner-up: James Laxton, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
  • Best Editing: Joshua Altman and Bing Liu, “Minding the Gap”
    • Runner-up: Alfonso Cuaron and Adam Gough, “Roma”
  • Best Music/Score: Nicholas Britell, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
    • Runner-up: Justin Hurwitz, “First Man”
  • Best Production Design: Hannah Beachler, “Black Panther”
    • Runner-up: Fiona Crombie, “The Favourite”

I saw “Roma” Friday and can't disagree. Looking forward to “The Favourite.” Seeing “Burning” in a few hours. 

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Posted at 04:24 PM on Dec 09, 2018 in category Movies - Awards
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