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Eden of Exploitation

Although I wouldn’t call the adventures of Americans making B-movies in the Philippines a dry subject, Machete Maidens Unleashed! is a joyride of a documentary, breezing through talking heads and endless clips of guns, girls, and gore with one adoring and one ironic eye to exploitation films. Writer/director Mark Hartley is quickly establishing himself as the top archivist of cinematic trash, chronicling Ozploitation (Australian genre filmmaking) in Not Quite Hollywood (2008).

Turning his gaze two dozen degrees northward, Hartley starts in the mid 1960s, when the domestic Filipino film industry was churning out over 350 titles a year. Kane W. Lyn, an American G.I. who had made the tropical islands his home, partnered with director Eddie Romero to attract overseas investment. The country had everything you could want for economical production: cheap labour, dense jungles, and available exotic women. Lyn and Romero sold horror flick after horror flick to American drive-in audiences with what critic Mark Holcomb calls the requisite three B’s: Blood, Breasts, and Beasts.

After cult producer/director Roger Corman saw one such masterpiece, Beast of the Yellow Night, he visited the Philippines and his New World Productions oversaw a decade of astonishing qualitative, if not quantitative, output. Notable for mediocre film history was the desperate-women-in-prison genre, which Corman updated in Big Doll House (1971), Pam Grier’s breakout role.

In interviews Grier and her co-stars suggest the girls-gone-wild film empowered women in cinema, giving black actors roles they would not have found in the Hollywood system. I find this a stretch, a moment when Hartley is looking too hard for a redemptive angle. Did Women in Cages and The Big Bird Cage pave the road for Ripley in Alien? Maybe, but turning abused objects into gun-spraying killers is a pretty limited arc for feminist liberation. As director John Landis says: “They took control. But they’ll show you their tits!”

Well, at least Hartley shows both sides of the argument. What he tends to hurry over is the mutually exclusive relationship Corman had with the country’s brutal dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. New World was truly exploitation filmmaking, using reckless stuntmen happy to get five pesos even if it meant breaking limbs. Marcos volunteered the use of his army, especially ironic in films like The Hot Box (1972 – one of Jonathan Demme’s first) sporting revolutionary, anti-fascist messages.

But apart from an unnecessary sequence on Apocalypse Now’s troubled shoot (better see Hearts of Darkness: Apocalypse Now for the full story) the doc sticks to its trashy subject, capturing a unique moment in place and time before multiplexes and Star Wars. Now our bad taste comes in big budgets too.

You can also find this article at The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto.


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James Stewart: The Spirit of St. Louis

It’s odd that a biopic on Charles Lindbergh – aviation maverick, Nazi sympathizer, anti-Semitic quasi-White supremacist – should portray its hero as a wholesome country boy from Minnesota. It’s odd that James Stewart should play Lindbergh (producer Jack L. Warner blamed him for the picture’s financial failure ), and it’s odd that the most difficult thing about the first transatlantic solo flight is staying awake.

Critics have largely agreed that Stewart was miscast in the leading role. He may not be a good Lindbergh, but he fits the overall tone as loose and easy as a glove. Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity) made a safe, comfortable biopic, taking on the relatively noncontroversial issue of anti-flightism. We find Lindbergh sleepless the night before his journey. At 47, Stewart isn’t the picture of youth as the 25 year-old Lindbergh.

We get to learn a little about our aerial Mozart’s past, his offhand genius for flying, and his stints at a Flying Circus and US Air Mail. This is essentially a one-man film. Stewart occupies all our screen time. There is no romantic interest, only a woman (Patricia Smith) who lends him her makeup mirror for the plane’s compass. Luckily Jimmy is at his homely best, pouring all the can-do American enthusiasm left over from Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington (1939).

Wilder and Wendell Mayes’ (writer of Anatomy of a Murder, Von Ryan’s Express) screenplay has its moments, all of which are lightly charming:

People are always impressed when you call ’em long distance. Especially in New York.

And when Lindbergh gives an uncoordinated priest a disastrous flying lesson:

PRIEST: When I’m up there I feel closer to God.

LINDBERGH: I’d say you’re closer to God when you’re landing.

But Wilder and Mayes can’t get any deeper into the characters, or character, since there is only one focal point. Why does Lindbergh like to fly so much? When his circus co-performer Bud Gurney (Murray Hamilton – he played the mayor in Jaws) asks:

BUD: What is it? What makes us go up there?

LINDBERGH: Oh, you tell me.

Like a lot of biopics, The Spirit of St. Louis takes its hero’s deep-seated motivations for granted. All we see of Lindbergh’s family life are a handful of pastoral flashbacks in which his parents are stock country bumpkins – although his father once served as a Congressman. Apparently his youth was easy, unproblematic. Tortured backgrounds should not be mandatory in the life of every luminary (biopics often assume this), but everyone has some bumps along the way. Not this Lindbergh. Obtaining a $15,000 bank loan to buy a plane? Speeding up the manufacturing of the aircraft to beat rivals Nungesser, Coli, and Chamberlin? Not too difficult. It’s clear skies until he actually gets off the ground, which is when the film also gains more engaging altitude.

Lindbergh somehow takes off from the rain-drenched ground of Roosevelt Field, flying out of New York, over Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and into the lonely stretches of the North Atlantic. For the next 33.5 hours he fights off sleep and ice-laden wings. Before he reaches Ireland and subsequently Paris, we are stuck with Lindbergh and his memories. Since Stewart has reserves of natural charm deeper than South African gold mines, and because his facial takes up the battle against sleep valiantly, we are blessed with an entertaining companion. To convey Lindbergh’s psychological processes Wilder has inserts interior voiceovers, though these verge more on the comical than reflective (a wanton fly in the cabin takes up a lot of screen time).

According to the DVD jacket (from the James Stewart Signature Collection) Stewart is in “his role of roles”. It’s an admirable performance considering the weakness of the film, but it shows none of the neurotic complexities Stewart brought to his Westerns or his work with Hitchcock. Wilder is not in his film of films either. He’s neither as funny or incisive as he could be…but this is a safe sturdy biopic, not making any transatlantic journeys. Just domestic.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

It is hard to believe that at last, at long belated last, the Harry Potter franchise is almost over.  It may appear, especially to detractors, that “The Boy Who Lived” is really “The Boy Who Never Dies”, an indestructible brand that, even after The Deathly Hallows, will be continuously reincarnating in video games, toys, spinoff books, and maybe – dare I say it – a cinematic reboot. But Warner Brothers’ marathon undertaking of translating the novels onto the screen is about to reach the finish line.

Almost. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 opens(ed) November 19th; Part 2 will crown the saga this summer. Splitting the final book in two is partly a cynical money-making scheme, but I think it more importantly allows the story to surface.

On the run, on the road, on the final stretch of the septology.

Director David Yates knows this should be an epic film and quickly establishes a swift but comfortable pace. We move from Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, perfect) holding court in Malfoy Manor to Harry leaving Privet Drive, escorted by friends magically transformed into Potter decoys. This is a little too much Daniel Radcliffe to take at once, but the ensuing aerial/highway chase (Hagrid has his wonderful motorcycle) more than makes up for that.

A brief scene at the Weaseley’s recaps Harry’s quest to find and destroy the Horcruxes, enchanted objects containing parts of Voldemort’s soul. A briefer Weasley wedding is interrupted by news that the Ministry of Magic has fallen. Death Eaters separate Harry, Ron, and Hermione from the others, hunted and obstructed by dead ends and detours.

Hey, it's Bill Nighy! A little miscast as Rufus Scrimgeour, but still great to see him pop in.

There’s a wand-waving shoot-out in a London restaurant,  an espionage interlude at the Ministry, and a return to Godrick’s Hollow, Harry’s birthplace. While The Half-Blood Prince was a journey into Voldemort’s past, the Deathly Hallows explores  the late Dumbledore’s background. Harry encounters old friends, foes, and places, playing detective at the outskirts of the wizard community.

It is moot to mention that this film is the darkest yet. This has been repeated ad nauseam ever since The Chamber of Secrets. You only have to look at the poster of Hogwarts burning and the tag line “It Ends Here” to get an idea of where the series is going tonally. In between all the set pieces, apparating, and colourful GBAs (Great British Actors), this Potter effort is more sombre, as if cinematographer Eduardo Serra threw out the warm colours from his palette.

Amid the ruckus, Yates focuses on the three people the stories were built around. Rupert Grint (as Ron) and Emily Watson (as Hermione) are allowed out of their two-dimensional straitjackets. Grint is given more dramatic weight when his loyalty to Harry is tested by the stagnation of the Horcrux quest. Watson is better than she’s ever been, though her Hermione still does everything practical for the bickering males. That said, these actors have trouble holding so much screen time in the second act.

It is at this lonely point – the slowest part of the novel – that the film flounders, unable to balance operatic action with long stretches of inactivity in long stretches of forest. Yates rescued Potter after the mediocre Goblet of Fire, and yet he has not left a distinctive vision that Chris Columbus and Alfonso Cuarón brought to the first three instalments.

The lack of cohesion is at the center of series’ problems. Rowling was able to brilliantly construct a complete, compelling world, making the novels truly magical. Warner’s adaptations feel increasingly slapdash and derivative.

Compare this eclectic production design to the immaculate cultural detail in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, a literary adaptation imagined down to the last Eleven shoulder plate. In The Deathly Hallows the wizarding world is aesthetically patchy: the Ministry is populated by 1984 storm troopers and leaflets copied from Nazi propaganda, the Death Eaters exist in shiny black interiors, other villains are dressed and made up as punk anarchists. Rarely does this magpie job work. A remarkable exception is the superbly odd animated sequence recounting the “Deathly Hallows” legend.

Fiennes is great when you see him, good news for Part 2.

Fortunately, Yates can close as strong as he opens. I will only say that Part 1 ends at a low point, a calm before the storm similar to how The Empire Strikes Back left the story in limbo. The final twenty minutes are deftly handled, acted, and poised before the inevitable blackout, giving hope that Part 2 will be an unrelenting stampede of emotion, action, and magic. May it end well there.

Advance screening at AMC Yonge and Dundas, Toronto, November 15th.

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