Saturday, December 3, 2022

No Weeping for the Return of “Willow”

 Disney+ is kicking off the holiday season with Willow, a new series, based on an old movie. Back in 1988 (which I’m tempted to refer to as “olden times”), George Lucas persuaded a new young director named Ron Howard to  make a fantasy film with a little person at its core. Lucas had, while directing Return of the Jedi, been impressed by tiny WarwickDavis, a three-foot-four-inch bundle of energy who played Wicket the Ewok, among other roles. It was Lucas’s idea to star someone like Davis in a period adventure saga.

 But since Lucas was a shy man who lacked an easy rapport with actors, he  had gradually moved into the producer’s role. Howard at that time was still fairly new to movie-making on a grand scale: his Splash(1984) and Cocoon (195) had been mainstream hits, but Willow’s $50 million budget and sizable special effects demands gave him pause. Still, he was eager to work with the tech wizards at Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. Moreover, he reasoned that his five-year-old daughter Bryce and his toddler twins (not to mention the little boy on the way) would soon be the perfect age to appreciate big-screen fantasy.

 Despite Lucas’s enthusiasm, Warwick Davis was not a shoo-in for the leading role of Willow Ufgood, who is forced by circumstance to journey far from his home among the Nelwyns, a race of little people under four feet tall. A farmer who dreams of becoming a magician, Willow suddenly finds himself entrusted with a full-sized (or “Dakini”) baby. This baby is none other than Elora Danan, whose survival spells doom for the evil Dakini queen, Bavmorda (Jean Marsh). In the course of his travels to return the infant princess to her rightful home, Willow encounters all manner of unlikely creatures: vicious deathdogs, frightening trolls, beautiful fairies, a sorceress trapped in the body of a rodent, and pugnacious brownies nine inches high who make the three-foot four-inch Willow seem like a giant. There are battles and breathless escapes aplenty before Willow uses his budding magic skills, along with his native wit, to defeat Bavmorda and restore the forces of good.

 When I spoke to Warwick Davis for my Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon . . . and Beyond, he told me he was somewhat daunted by the demands of the title role. Despite all his experience on Star Wars films, here he would be without a mask and a creature suit, and the range of his emotions within the film would be huge. Howard too was worried about Davis’s suitability, because he was a mere seventeen years old. Not only did the part of Willow call for him to interact with a baby, but his character was supposed to be a loving husband and the father of two young children. Once he won the role, Davis, who had never before lifted a baby, was put through an informal training course on how to care for an infant, diaper-changing and all. Howard also arranged lessons in diction, horsemanship., and sleight-of-hand.

 Happily, Disney’s new series returns Davis to the title role. Now a 52-year-old with a long filmography to his credit, he occupies a world in which baby Elora Danan has become a grown woman and a queen, but still relies on Willow’s talents to help her fight off evil.. Long ago I wrote that the original film “is an uneasy blend of life-or-death adventure, heartfelt sentiment, golly-gee wizardry, and comic riffs.” Still, it found many young fans on video, and the well-regarded new series should bring in more.

 

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Man Wanted -- "The Postman Always Rings Twice "

 James M. Cain can be viewed as God’s gift to American film noir. His fictional works The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936), and Mildred Pierce (1941) were all adapted into major studio hits, and  he had his hand in many other Hollywood projects, like the classic Out of the Past. I admit I have not read Cain’s fiction (though I’m awaiting a library volume to help make up the gap in my pop culture education). So I’ll have to judge Cain by the films made from his prose.

 Women in Cain’s world are very beautiful, very smart, and very powerful.  As Mildred Pierce, Joan Crawford shows the tough-minded business savvy of a single mom who rises on the social ladder by founding a chain of popular restaurants. In Double Indemnity (1944), Barbara Stanwyck is the classic femme fatale, romancing Fred MacMurray as a convenient way to get rid of her wealthy but unwanted husband. (Billy Wilder, who both directed and collaborated on the screenplay with Raymond Chandler, felt that this was his very best film, and treasured the fact that Cain praised his adaptation.) The Postman Always Rings Twice, filmed in 1946, also contains a wow of a female role. Once again, murder is afoot, but the twists and turns of this story keep the audience guessing.

 In Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck makes one of the all-time great movie entrances, gliding down the staircase of a high-class home. The blonde pageboy hair-do, the scanty clothing, the sexy anklet . . . all spell trouble with a capital T. Tay Garnett’s film adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice gives us another version of that same entrance. This time it’s Lana Turner at the foot of the stairs leading from the living quarters down into her husband’s luncheonette. She’s clad all in pristine white: white turban, white shorts, white midriff-baring top. No  wonder the handsome drifter played by John Garfield looks gobsmacked. When he hands her the dropped lipstick tube that’s rolled across the floor and ended up at his feet, we know what’s coming . . . or we think we do.

 What makes Postman so fascinating is that the characters keep changing their minds about what they really want. As Cora, Turner first makes it her business to rebuff her husband’s new hire, harshly telling him to leave town. Her main goal, she insists, is fixing up the lunchroom, and Frank’s salary will only deprive her and husband Nick of needed income. But the amiable Nick, who loves his liquor and trusts his wife, insists that Frank stay on. (Nick, at midpoint, lovingly serenades Cora with a 1931 tune that captures his naïve view of the situation: “I’ve got a woman crazy ‘bout me--she’s funny that way.”) 

 Of course the inevitable comes to pass. There’s an elaborate plot by the lovers to rid themselves  of Nick, but a meddling cat changes everything. From that point forward, nothing ever works out as planned.  Even when Nick is finally gone for good, some clever legal shenanigans have Cora and Frank at one another’s throat. The ending is bleak for all concerned, though in a strange way connected with the story’s unusual title, Frank comes to feel at peace with the fact that he’s only getting what he deserves.

 I noted, at the outset, that the sign that lures Frank into the luncheonette reads Man Wanted. In both Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, this come-hither call should be construed as a warning. The sirens are singing, and there’s danger ahead.


 

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Robert Clary: A REAL Hogan’s Hero

Last week Robert Clary died at the ripe old age of 96. As we celebrate a holiday dedicated to thankfulness and brimming with nostalgia for times gone by, it seems appropriate to salute this pixie-ish Parisian who was so much more than his acting career.

 I was first aware of Robert Clary because of his role on an improbable hit sitcom (1965-1971) called Hogan’s Heroes, which was one of my father’s favorites. The series, which seemed to tickle those who had served in the U.S. military during World War II, was set in a POW camp behind the German lines. Bob Crane, as the American Colonel Hogan, led a ragtag group of international prisoners (a Brit, a Frenchman, a Black American, a hillbilly) who took delight in sabotaging the German war effort. It was a bit like Billy Wilder’s great Stalag 17 (1953), but in a much more light-hearted vein, with no one coming anywhere close to dying. On a weekly basis, the “heroes” pit themselves against the fuss-budget  German camp commander, Col. Klink, and his doofus sidekick, Sgt. Schultz, and hilarity ensues.

 Personally, I always found the success of Hogan’s Heroes disturbing. Knowing something about the horrors inflicted by the Nazis upon Jews and others, I was not ready to laugh at them as essentially harmless dummkopfs. (Others, I know, have felt the same way about Mel Brooks’ treatment of Hitler enthusiasts in The Producers. Brooks makes a good case, though, in describing his comic skewering of Nazis as a form of victory over oppressors who’ve gone down in flames.) 

 Years after Hogan’s Heroes went off the air, I was surprised to learn that Clary—the series’ feisty, beret-wearing LeBeau—was in fact Jewish. Moreover, he had first-hand knowledge of Nazi atrocities during World War II. Clary, then known as Robert Max Widerman, was born in Paris to an emigré couple from Poland, the youngest of 14 children. When he was 16, the family was forced by the Nazis from their cramped but picturesque apartment and herded into cattle cars, bound for death camps. Though his parents were quickly murdered in Auschwitz and most of his siblings also perished, Clary used his musical comedy talents to gain favor and improved rations. On April 11, 1945 he was one of those liberated by General George S. Patton’s Third Army from Buchenwald. Eventually his theatrical skills brought him to the Broadway stage (via the New Faces of 1952 review) and then to television.

 Clary was not the only Jewish member of the Hogan’s Heroes cast. Ironically, the series’ two main Nazis were played by Jews who had fled Europe when the Nazis came to power. Werner Klemperer, who won two Emmys for playing Col. Klink, was the son of world-famous orchestral conductor Otto Klemperer. The family left Berlin for Los Angeles, one step ahead ot the Nazis, when Werner was 13. John Banner, who hilariously played the obtuse Sgt. Schultz, was a Viennese Jew who left Nazi-occupied Austria for the U.S. in 1938. I’ve never run across their comments about the comic bad-guy roles they played to perfection. Clary never spoke of his background either, until in 1980 he recognized that—in the face of Holocaust denial by many—he had a moral obligation to speak out. Working through L.A.’s Simon Wiesenthal Center, he became a frequent speaker at high schools and colleges. In 1985 there was the release of a documentary Robert Clary, 85714: the title reflected the number tattooed by the Nazis on his arm.

 Despite his past, Clary was never one to look back in anger. All hail! 

 

 

 


 

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

May You Have “A Perfect Day”

Benicio del Toro, Tim Robbins, and a host of international actors I’ve never heard of. Sometimes it’s fun to watch a movie about which you know nothing. That certainly was the case when I aired 2015’s A Perfect Day, directed (and co-written) by Fernando León de Aranoa in an English-language adaptation from a Spanish novel. With Thanksgiving fast approaching, “a perfect day” seemed like a timely idea.

 The day that plays out in this fascinating film is hardly perfect. We find ourselves in a random part of Croatia, where war is splitting apart the former nation of Yugoslavia. In theory, at least, the hostilities are nearly over, but that fact doesn’t call a halt to the random bombings and other hostilities that are pitting neighbor against neighbor. The film’s central players are humanitarian aid workers, some experienced and one brand-new, who are trying their darndest to protect the locals from one another. Crisis #1: a rather large man has been killed and then tossed into a well. It's too late for him, but his decaying corpse is sure to contaminate the villagers’ precious water supply.

 The film’s opening credits are, quite dramatically, set against attempts to tie a rope around the body and then hoist it from the well before any more harm is done. Alas—the rope breaks, and the aid workers’ desperate search for a stronger one proves futile. (Locals just don’t trust this international group of do-gooders, even when promised generous compensation.) A kid offers a rope that turns out to be tied to a vicious dog, and before the film is out we’ll find that rope can show up in other disturbing circumstances as well. It will take until the fade-out to solve the problem of the man in the well, and I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise.

 The aid workers are led by the crusty del Toro, who dreams of going home, and by the maniacal Robbins, a joker-type who seems to be working overseas because he’ll never make good in the country of his birth. Assisting them is Mélanie Thierry, a French water and sanitation expert who’s brand-new on the job but is already trying to process the viewing of her first corpse. A temporary member of the contingent is Olga Kurylenko, a gorgeous Slav who was once the del Toro character’s lover. (When he notes that she looks different from what he remembers, she wryly notes that now she has clothes on.) 

 The gallows humor that is laced throughout the film is reminiscent of M*A*S*H, both the 1970 film and the long-running TV series about an American medical unit near the front lines of the Korean War.. The big difference is that these aid-worker characters are on neither side of the conflict. They don’t play favorites: their only goal is to preserve the health and safety of the war-battered people around them. But somehow this ends up meaning that they’re always personally facing danger from angry partisans, booby-trapped cows, and natural disasters exacerbated by the destruction of war. Even the American peace-keeping forces in the region make their work more difficult: military red tape is always stopping them from doing what needs to be done.

 As in M*A*S*H, battle-scarred men turn tender when faced with the plight of innocent children. Nikola is a small boy whose concern about a stolen soccer ball turns out to be a cover-up for his anguish over his parents’ fate. He too is gradually absorbed into the aid worker entourage, proving that these wisecracking tough guys do have hearts after all.