Friday, November 17, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok

Goblins and Garden Parties
"Darling, You Have No Idea What is Possible"

The first couple of "Thor" films were extraordinarily dull things. It might have been because the first was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who wanted to make a Shakespearean myth rather than a comic book movie and art-designed the thing to a fair-thee-well and treated it SO seriously, that it wasn't until Joss Whedon's The Avengers that Chris Hemsworth's version of the character could display some personality besides being ontuse at the top of his lungs. Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World I can barely remember except for a lot of things going *thud* at the end—one of them being my patience.

The Avengers showed that the God of Thunder could be more than just a guy with a hammer, increasing both the possibilities and the personalities of Thor and his half-brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston). The whole Odin story-line could be dispensed with, but the fact that Thor was the only one of Marvel's heroes being utilized who was world and dimension-spanning gave the MCU some scope (even if they didn't know how to use it just yet) and set the paths for Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr. Strange.

Thor: Ragnarok does a lot of things: there's a lot of cameos and guest-stars, brand new characters, and a minimum of returnees from the previous two films—Loki, Thor's father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and Heimdall (Idris Elba); it introduces another family threat, who is primarily the focus of the story; once the film is finished, everything has changed and the elements that buttressed (and limited) the first two movies are gone and there is no "safe zone" anymore. "Significance" happens in Thor: Ragnarok, and it's a significance that can't be walked back in the next movie (of course, they could do that, but audiences would see it as a cheat and lazy film-making). And that's good; it certainly makes this "Thor" memorable...and that's a first in the trilogy.

We find Thor chained up in a prison in some cavernous expanse, suspended over a lava-bubbling landscape. How did he get there? Who cares? (although he does the requisite "Maverick" style "I suppose you're wondering..."). He is being held by the CGI beast Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown--the other voice you hire if you can't get James Earl Jones), and it's an odd little back and forth except for the interruptions when Thor rotates at the end of his chain from looking directly at Surtur. "Oh! Wait a tick! Need to be facing you!" And they wait until Thor is in proper axis to look at Surtur while he simmers threateningly at him. That this little interruption happens is your first indication...other than the Marvel Studios logo sinking and melting into hot lava...that this one's going to be a little different; the filmmakers are not going to be hurtling pell-mell to the next ringing declaration or action set-piece. There are going to be Pythonesque "silly bits" when a situation gets a bit...absurd. Like being polite to a lava monster.

Anyway, that's the first bit. Then, Thor goes to his home in Asgard, finds out that Dad-Odin is missing and that Loki is behind it (really, there doesn't need to be much investigation), that Heimdall is not around and an Asgardian named Skurge (Karl Urban) is in his place on the Asgardian turn-stile letting people in. The guy isn't the best border-guard and would have Donald Trump tweeting out something ending in "sad." I won't spoil the details, but ultimately it's determined that Odin is exiled to Earth (Loki's's always Loki's fault), in the most demeaning of circumstances (he's treated like a human being).

Some such-and-such happens (with the help of Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Strange (thanks for stopping by and recycling the post-credits tag from your own movie, Doc)—and ultimately, there's a family dissemblation and a family reunion with the first child of Odin—Loki and Thor's half-sister Hela (Cate Blanchett—you may have seen Blanchett over-act before but you've never seen her relish in it, as she does here, reminding one a bit of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard) and before you know it, she's smashed Thor's hammer, Mjolnir (rest in pieces), and managed to make her way to Asgard, while kicking Loki and Thor out of the bifrost "rainbow connection" warp-tunnel that gets you there.

Loki we find out about later, but the hammer-less Thor ends up in a garbage planet (called Sakaar) and gets captured by Valkyrie (or Scrapper 142 as she's known—played by Tessa Thompson in a breakout role), where he's set up for gladiator duties by the planet's "Grand Master" (Jeff Goldblum, reminding you of why you like Jeff Goldblum) to fight the current champion of the gladiator games. Anyone who's seen even the first trailer knows who that turns out to be, and, frankly, it's a good move on Marvel's part to play with the animosity that was displayed between the two characters in a brief scene in The Avengers that lasted all of five seconds. To repeat: 

There is much brief rejoicing, not only on Thor's part, but also the audience's. This isn't the "stuffy mythology" Thor that has been displayed in his own solo movies; this is the potential that could be done with Thor if anybody in the first two movies wasn't so afraid of failure at the box-office. The breath of fresh air comes from New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who helmed What We Do in the Shadows and last year's bright, shining Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Waititi has a kiwi sensibility ("yeess"), but his film language is strong and he has a wonderful way with presenting the logically absurd into his work. If he wasn't doing Thor, he'd be doing wondrous things with Marvel properties like Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy—and they could certainly have used him in the Dr. Strange feature if his expansion of the End Credits "tag" of that film is any indication.
Waititi embraces the odd and that's a far cry from what other film-makers do with the four-color world of super-heroes, usually tamping down the comic nature of the things and replacing it with leather costumes and sturm-and-drang. But, when you're dealing with in-fighting Norse gods and ADHD-CGI Hulk's, it might be best to keep your sense of humor, especially once these characters have gotten over the "tragedy" of being displaced and "gifted." Waititi also has a nice visceral sense—subtlety is not his strength—and he's happy letting super-heroes be super-heroes in extremis. So, a completely gladiator battle between Thor and Hulk goes into giddy excess, even repeating a couple of Avengers jokes for good measure.

It's fun. A lot of fun. But, Waititi CAN get carried away with the in-jokes—for instance, an Easter-Egg for Marvel junkies has the Gladiator arena exterior* decorated with the busts of past champions, including Beta-Ray Bill (who took over the "Thor" title for awhile) and Man-Thing (what the hell?). In another instance, Thor is being wheeled into the Grandmaster's tournament hall, he is given an audio tour of the place, all accompanied by "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It got a laugh out of me, but...really? Willy Wonka wasn't a success when it was released made it out to Sakaar?

It pads things out a bit—ultimately, the whole idea comes down to getting the Hela out of Asgard and finding a way to get there to do that (they find a way as Sakaar, being a dumping ground for the universe has all sorts of portals through which refuse falls through—and the portal to get them back is called "The Devil's Anus"...really). And, ultimately, Thor finds out that in order to accomplish what he must, embracing the worst thing that could happen might not be a bad thing. Change happens, and the shorn, hammerless Thor must learn that power comes from within...literally.

Odd. Frequently silly. But, ultimately, Thor: Ragnarok is the best film of the trilogy for its own ability to see what hasn't worked in the previous films and embrace its own change. That it causes some destruction of its own history along the way is all for the good.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Casablanca (1942)

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942) Of all the films in all the film-houses in all the world...I've never written a review of Casablanca.

At least, I've seen it (only about a million times). A recent story on NPR's "Weekend Edition" had host Scott Simon interviewing a fellow who'd just gotten around to seeing the 1942 film for the first time (evidently that's what constitutes "news" these days). It reminded me of the time, my buddy-in-Bond, Frank, proudly announced that he had finally watched Casablanca (was it at the premiere of Skyfall or Spectre?) I think I asked him what he thought of it after congratulating him and I recall he said "Great!" (or something like that). 

It did, after all, win The Best Picture Oscar of 1944.

I've never written a review of Casablanca—not here or on any previous movie blog. Oh, there was the five-part series of "Don't Make a Scene" entries centered around what other character's think of Humphrey Bogart's character (under the collective title of "Deconstructing Rick") and that said a lot. There's no formal review of the film Casablanca, however, anywhere. It doesn't even show up as one of my "Anytime Movies"—those that I can watch anytime and have the power to keep me to the end, fascinated, over and over. Again, that series is most interesting to me for what's NOT on it than for what's on it.

And Casablanca isn't there.

Casablanca is legendary, because it should NOT have "worked." Production was a mess. Bogart got the role because George Raft and Ronald Reagan didn't play it. Ingrid Bergman was an unknown. Paul Heinreid had more audience appeal. The actors frequently didn't know "why" they were playing the scenes they were playing and were not sure how it would "end" (it's a rather brilliant strategy to not have the actors betray any fore-knowledge lest the audience catch on, but...really, they were still working on the script). It is not a movie of strong "auteur" sensibilities—but its Hungarian director, Michael Curtiz, manages to fill every frame to bursting and his filming strategies have been copied in the decades since, probably as much for nostalgic recognition factor as for the fact that the strategies are so...apt. It was based on a play that flopped, but it was cobbled together by two twin-brother writers and the estimable Howard Koch into a crazy quilt of conflicts and various sides.
Director Michael Curtiz told Bogart to nod, but didn't tell him what he was nodding for or at.
It's to cue the band to play "La Marsellies," an emotional high-point in the film,
and the first instance of Bogart resisting his urge to "stick my neck out for nobody."

And great lines. Quotable lines. Lines so memorable that they're mis-remembered:  "Play it, Sam." (NOT "play it again, Sam") "Here's looking at you, kid." "I am shocked, SHOCKED to find out that GAMBLING is going on in this facility." "I don't mind a parasite, I object to a cut-rate one." "I was misinformed." "Be careful! There are vultures, VULTURES everywhere." "I remember every detail—the Germans wore gray. You wore blue." "I'm going to die in Casablanca, it's a good spot for it." "We mustn't underestimate 'American blundering.' I was with them when they 'blundered' into Berlin in 1918." "I stick my neck out for nobody." "It would take a miracle to get you out of Casablanca and the Germans have outlawed miracles." "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." "Go ahead and shoot. You'll be doing me a favor." "Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try and invade." "And remember this gun is pointed right at your heart"--"That's my least vulnerable spot." "You'll get along beautifully in America." "Well, that's the way it goes—one in and one out." "Of all the gin-joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine." "I'm no good at being noble." "The problems of two little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." "We'll always have Paris." And the line that the Epstein brothers realized simultaneously in the middle of L.A. traffic would solve all their script problems: "Round up the usual suspects."
It's a film that exudes the exotic even though it was filmed in Burbank, on Warners stages combined with matte shots (like the one above--see any waves in that ocean?) filling in the details. Other legerdemain done on the cheap complete the picture; the scene below has the actors performing in front of a screen back-projected with model airplanes to improve the scope. It's something they did in the finale at an airport, where to give the proper distance they had model planes attended to by "little people," and lots of fog to increase the illusion.

They could get away with it because Curtiz directed and edited fast and the audience was concentrating on a convoluted plot with equal parts conflicted romance and cloak-and-luger politics played out by a terrific cast of Warners contract players and a new fresh-faced import from Sweden named Ingrid Bergman. Everything resonated. Women liked it...even though Bogart was hardly considered a romantic lead...until then. Men liked it...even if things didn't turn out by the dictates of billing.

And, it's hardly a glamorous story: an ex-pat American, Richard Blaine, is running a saloon in Casablanca where booze flows freely, the gambling is questionable and all the authorities are paid off; Rick's Cafe Americain is a going concern because it is a black market hide-out in a desperate city and its owner, Richard—call him "Rick"—keeps a surly dispassionate view on things.  But, don't approach him unless you're working for him. He doesn't drink with the guests, he doesn't fraternize, he sits in lordly isolation in a table against the wall playing chess against himself and keeping an eye out for the glance directed his way by an employee looking for direction. Then, he simply nods and that's the last word. He doesn't get involved in the deals, in the tables, nothing. He keeps things orderly, but for the under-the-table dealings going on in the saloon he has one comeback: "I stick my neck out for nobody." 

On this particular day, there are rumors and desperation flying around: two German couriers who have "letters of transit" out of Morocco to Lisbon, gateway "to the Americas," have been found murdered, their much-sought-after documents missing. They mean freedom for anyone seeking asylum, but the police are stymied, doing what they normally do when they have no other option—"round up the usual suspects." Roust some people to intimidate and see what you can scare out of them. Under pressure from the Nazi's, their interest is in both the murderer and in the papers; but, the letters are in safe-keeping in the one place they don't suspect—hidden in the piano at the Cafe American, hiding in plain sight, Rick's non-commitment being their best camouflage.

But, even a Rick Blaine has his limits. As the original play-title says "Everybody Comes to Rick's" and that includes one particularly prominent (too prominent) Czech partisan named Victor Laszlo (Heinreid). Rick would only have a dispassionate on-looker's interest in Laszlo's struggles to evade Nazi capture, if not for one key element, one a burden that he will not neglect: he has a wife Ilsa Lund (a radiant Bergman).

Both Laszlo and Lund are unfamiliar travelers to Casablanca, but it is Ilsa who arrives at Rick's with extra baggage. She recognizes Sam (Dooley Wilson)—whom she refers to as as "the boy," the only hint of racial inequity in the film—the piano player, and where Sam is, Tick can't be too far away.  It's obvious that Ilsa and Rick (and Sam) have a shared past, and he is determined to keep Rick from Ilsa. But, a song request brings on Rick, charging on Sam like a bull, with an accusation of...well, betrayal. But, that protest is cut short when a larger betrayal is brought to mind when he notices Ilsa, and he realizes he was pulled by a siren somg, whose first line ("You must remember this...") is both a promise and a curse.

For probably his first time in Casablanca, things get personal for him, and he is pulled into a series of complex triangulations that he is uncomfortable with—triangulations of loyalty and partisanship that he has avoided since coming to the Moroccan city at the edge of freedom and despair. He finds himself just another fish in a small pond.

Rick recovers well, but he spends that eventful evening in an indulgent, sodden reverie (which we see, conveniently, in flashback) over a bottle (or five) in which he reaches the depths of his own personal despair, and for the rest of the movie, he conducts an inner battle with himself and his character, walking the maze of morality while trying to betray...nothing.

The character of Rick is a cypher—to the audience as well as the characters surrounding him in the movie, whether strangers or intimates. He is the big mystery in Casablanca, a man with no past (and professing no future), who must deal when confronted with it, and whose best weapon is his own veneer of inscrutability, walking among the powerful and the weak, with equal contempt showing for both. He is the puzzle at the center of Casablanca, the mystery that cannot be solved...except by himself.

So, why has Casablanca lasted so long? It has been 75 years.

Perhaps it has survived because it lays out a  landscape familiar to us as we shuffle through life—a morally indifferent cesspool where "life is cheap" and everything is expensively out of reach. The only thing worth less is one's word—loyalties are betrayed, women are not only not respected but treated like disposable playthings, authority is corrupt (quite happily and never apologetically), and where even a high-roller like Richard Blaine can stare at the business end of a gun and come to say "Go ahead and shoot, you'll be doing me a favor," but it's the best that one can do when one has been pushed to the water's edge by the Nazi's, and who do all of these things and worse, and have all the charm of a rubber stamp...and all of the conscience.

In such an atmosphere, an air of nihilism abides, irony substitutes for humor, sarcasm for philosophy, cynicism instead of the naive impulse of positivism or faith. All of that abounds in the film, which exudes sophistication and entertainment value with vast displays of all of it in witty, pointed  rejoinders...but no one laughs. No one dares to. It's a comedy for people with withered hearts.

So, that takes care of the sophisticates (poor, wretched souls!). But, where does that leave the rest of us? Why does Casablanca survive in our minds...and in our hearts?

I would contend that it presents us a fable, a choice that we can live with and hope with. It is because, despite desperation, despite the hopelessness, it shows us, in the most romantic of terms, that—even in that landscape—an instance of nobility—of conscience—is a candle in the darkness and that is heartening (whether it's in the middle of WWII or the Trump Administration). Cities may crumble, all may seem lost, but one act by one lone angel of mercy can dissipate the fog and make it clear again. It may take generosity, it may take courage, it may take inspiration or love, but, whatever it takes, the noble effort is still the best way to fight the ordinary tendency of sloth or indifference. March on. You must remember this.

So, it has been 75 years. We will always have Casablanca. The fundamental things still do time has gone by.

The last of the Casablanca principles to pass on:
Madelein Lebeau, who played Yvonne ("Because, 'Ewonne'...I luff you")
the saloon girl of divided loyalties, who also has her own reckoning.
I've always loved the sauciness of Captain Renault's rude
remark of her: "In her own way, she may constitute a third front!"
She died May of last year at the age of 92. Vive la France!

Casablanca through the years

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Don't Make a Scene: The Godfather Part II

The Set-Up: "Useful idiots." It's a term that first saw print in June of 1948 in The New York Times commenting on Italian politics and the role of local newspapers pushing a communist agenda. In spy/political parlance, it describes those individuals who, for whatever reason (be it ideological zeal, a literal or political romanticism, or something as practical as greed) betray secrets to spies or comrades or fellow travelers to meet whatever ends the puppet-masters in Moscow...or wherever...require. They may do so deliberately or because they don''t know any better, or because they truly are "idiots."

Whatever. It's a need or weakness of character in the UI's that contrariness can seem minor compared to what is gained in return...even if it is only respect, real or imagined. The deficiency in thought is that they think they are in some sort of control, when, in fact, they are merely leaving themselves open for a betrayal of their own from whatever they are working for. In the mirror, they are rebels or heroes; observed, they are pathetic and disposable.

They may be "idiots" or not; they actually may be very smart—but not as smart as they think they are...or as they think should be recognized by others. The medical result is a chip on the shoulder and in that toxic mix, their actions may seem like an act or revenge ("Oh, yeah? I'll show 'em!), impotent though it may be.

I've written before about the Dunning-Kruger effect, the one that came to the conclusion that a lot of people—maybe a majority of them—aren't as knowledgeable as they think they are, and think that they are (unless they're shown—and accept—that they aren't). 

And because I'm surely not good enough to explain Dunning-Kruger, here's a very enlightening video:

Search Results

Just as knowledge increases exponentially, the internet seems to have increased the Dunning-Kruger effect just as dramatically. I can remember a time when I could say "People don't know what they don't know" and dismiss it. Then, there came a time when people didn't care what they didn't know. Now, people are actually proud of what they don't know.

And who is the patron saint of the D-K crowd? I nominate Fredo Corleone from 2/3 of "The Godfather" trilogy ("I'm not dumb, like everybody says. I'm smart!"), as exemplified by this scene from The Godfather Part II.
Appropriately, it ends in the dark.

The Story: Things are not going well with the Corleone Family: Michael's negotiating a deal with dying Mafia Don Hymen Roth (Lee Strasberg) over control of his business interests in Cuba; the Senate is investigating the Mafia and paying extra-close attention to the Corleone's; he's losing respect—he's facing defiance from his family members and hostility with his business partners: with the Corleone's in Las Vegas, his lieutenants are losing control in the old neighborhoods in New York; things are fractious between the head of the Corleone family, Michael (Al Pacino), and his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), especially after an attempted hit on Michael at his Lake Tahoe estate.

That last one stung and Michael spends a good deal of time trying to find out who was able to penetrate his net of security to get close enough to spray machine gun fire into his bedroom. In Cuba, he discovers, from an ill-considered boast, that it is his older brother Fredo (John Cazale) who has betrayed him. With the two Corleone's safely back in Lake Tahoe, it is time to get some information.



Fredo sits on the couch.  When Rocco sees Michael, he automatically takes his leave.  

Michael sits in the chair opposite Fredo.

FREDO (after a pause) I don't have a lot to say, Michael.

MICHAEL We have time.

FREDO I was kept pretty much in the dark. I didn't know all that much.

MICHAEL What about now, is there anything you can help me out with?
MICHAEL Anything you can tell me now?

FREDO I know they got Pentangeli, that's all I know.
Fredo gets up, walks to the glass panel that separates the terrace from the lake.

FREDO I didn't know it was a hit, Mike. 

FREDO I swear to God I didn't know (it was going to be a hit). 
FREDO Johnny Ola contacted me in Beverly Hills -- said he wanted to talk. 
FREDO He said you and Roth were in on some big deal, and there was a place...
FREDO ...something in it for me in it if I could help them out.
FREDO They said you were being tough on the negotiation, and if they had a could get a...
FREDO ...little bit of help,
FREDO ...they could close it fast and it would be good for you the Family.

MICHAEL And you believed that story?
MICHAEL You believed that?

FREDO He said there was something good in it for on my own.

MICHAEL I've always taken care of you, Fredo.
FREDO Taken care of me.  Mike, you're my kid brother, and you take care of me.  Did you ever think of that, huh? D'ja ever once think about that? 
FREDO Send Fredo off to do this, send Fredo off to do that... let Fredo take care of some "Mickey Mouse" night club somewhere, and there; send Fredo to pick somebody up at the airport.  Mike,
FREDO I'm your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!
MICHAEL It's the way Pop wanted it.

FREDO It ain't the way I wanted it!  
FREDO I can handle things.  I'm smart; not like everyone says; like dumb. 
FREDO I'm smart and I want respect.

MICHAEL Is there anything you can tell me about this investigation?

MICHAEL Anything more?

FREDO The Senate lawyer; Questadt, he belongs to Roth.

MICHAEL Fredo, You're nothing to me now; you're not a brother, you're not a friend,
MICHAEL I don't want to know you, or what you do. 
MICHAEL I don't want to see you at the hotels. I don't want you near my house.  When you see our Mother, I want to know a day in advance, so I won't be there. 
MICHAEL Do you understand?
Michael turns, and starts to leave.  A frightened voice behind him:

FREDO Mikey?
Michael doesn't stop, doesn't turn back.  He continues off through the veranda, and out the summer doors.
Neri stops by him.

MICHAEL I don't want anything to happen to him while my Mother's alive.

Michael leaves.

The Godfather Part II

Words by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

Pictures by Gordon Willis and Francis Ford Coppola

The Godfather Part II is available on Paramount Home Video.