August 18, 2010

Aphrodite, Goddess of Love

1958 film
directed by Mario Bonnard
written by Alberto Manca, Mario Bonnard, Sergio Leone, Mario di Nardo, Ugo Moretti

I was only able to find a crappy VHS print with so-so subtitles, so let me see if I've got this right.... The unseen Emperor Nero wants to build a new canal in Corinth, so he outsources the job to an equally erratic regent named Antigono (Ivo Garrani), who decides the best way to do the job is to evacuate and burn down a stretch of farmlands. His soldiers pull the people out of their rightful homes and "compensate" them with some loose change, all the while raising their taxes and enslaving anyone who complains. Some things happen and it all leads to a famine and plague which cuts through the class divisions, all of which is blamed on the token targets of Roman persecution: the Christians. In other words, it's a token B knockoff of previous successes like FABIOLA and QUO VADIS, with your star-crossed romance, depraved dictator, soldiers up and down the streets, big crowds, and Christians being burned on stakes that the poorly aligned trick shots fully reveal are actually about 10 feet behind the flaming pyres.

What sets this apart is that it's largely told through the point of view of two women. Lerna (Isabelle Corey), the daughter of a priest, is captured and enslaved when her town of uprooted farmers launches a brutally suppressed riot. While in the slave quarters, she befriends the striking Diala (Irene Tunc), a daughter of lavish wealth who was sold into slavery when her father was screwed out of everything he owned. As time goes by and circumstances change, they stick together. Lerna stays quiet and hidden, dividing time between her daily duties and evening trips to the hidden caves where her people hold their ceremonies. Diala, the ultimate femme fatale, uses her beauty, shrewd intelligence, and a seductive dance (check out the obvious ballet double when they cut to the wide shots) to charm her way up the political food chain, becoming the favorite of one slave master after another, and then the concubine and eventual second wife of Antigono himself. Even then, Lerna is by her side as her most trusted servant.

Ah, but where would we be without conflict as the inevitable man comes between them. Demetrio (Anthony Steffen) is a master sculptor prized by both the people and their rulers. Commissioned to make a sculpture of the primary local goddess, Aphrodite, Demetrio finds his model in the form of Diala. But even as his skilled hands shape the luscious curves of her body in stone, he finds his attention drawn elsewhere for the face ... to the innocent and soulful gaze of Lerna. Diala is spurned, Lerna faces a choice, Demetrio begins the process of conversion, Antigono doesn't like any of this, yada yada. You can see where it goes from here.

This is not a bad movie, but nor is it a good one. The story is cliched up the wazoo, but decently executed with bonus points for a bit of a different approach. And there's solid moments in there, like Lerna's father being pelted with stones by the people he's trying to save from a massacre of their own making, or the reveal of the divide within Demetrio's sculpture, or the quiet way the plague works up the food chain, or the rise and fall of Nero taking place entirely off screen as we see how it affected peripheral territories, or the great character of Tomoro (John Kitzmiller), a warrior slave who gradually becomes a big brother of sorts to both women, leaving him with a tough choice by the time the climax rolls around.

But it's just so "been there, done that". FABIOLA hit theaters in 1949, and this was only one of countless toga epics which followed, and there's nothing there to set it apart. The story? As I said, the approach is interesting, but it constantly drops into the same old beats. The acting? There wasn't a bad performance in the flick, but nothing jumped off the screen. I've never seen any of these actors before and I can't say any of them were memorable enough that I'd recognize them a second time around. The direction? Basic workman style, with flat shots and tired staging. Visuals? The stock studio costumes and sets are as impressive as ever, as are a few quick crowds, but it's just so lifelessly filmed. The music? Rousing at the right time and romantic when needed, but forgettable.

I think that's the best word right there: forgettable. Though the writing has a decent flourish now and then, this is nothing more than a B effort to capitalize on the toga fever that was sweeping the A marquees. In the end, everything in this film has been done better elsewhere and not a single element rises above the average. No need to bother.


(internet movie database)

August 13, 2010

Helen of Troy

1956 film
directed by Robert Wise
written by N. Richard Nash, John Twist, Hugh Gray
based on the poem THE ILIAD by Homer

Let me start off by saying that I hate THE ILIAD. Culturally and historically, it's a work of major importance and I totally get that, but reading it made my brain hurt. There's no consistent narrative, the characters are all over the place, scenes of great power and scope are intercut with sequences of ridiculous actions and motivations, and let's not get started on the gods constantly swooping in and out of things (and I'd also mention that it has no beginning or end, but that's not its fault as it's the only surviving volume of a larger saga). I know, I know, it's an ancient work and shouldn't be held to modern standards, but its sister tale, THE ODYSSEY, is a rich and flowing story with solid structure and genuine character development, and not only fits those modern standards, but holds up as a better example of them than many a modern book.

That said, there is a fantastic story in there. While discussing peace in neighboring lands, Prince Paris of Troy (dashing Jacques Sernas) meets and instantly falls for the beautiful Helen (Rossana Podesta, whose striking face fits the bill). Though she initially resists her growing attraction, Helen ends up taking off with Paris for his homeland, which her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta (the quietly fierce Niall MacGinnis), really doesn't appreciate. Rounding up allied kings and "the greatest army ever known", he sets out to tear down the impenetrable walls of Troy.

This is a bit of a loose adaptation, with important figures like Hector (stony Harry Andrews), Achilles (lean yet shockingly formidable Stanley Baker), and Agamemnon (quietly scheming Robert Douglas) pushed into supporting roles so that Paris, Helen, and Menelaus can have the spotlight, a choice which I found to be both bold and refreshing. All the important stuff is there - Hector is the heir apparent, Achilles all cock and ego (great moment where he just stands there without flinching as arrows bounce off his armor), Agamemnon milking the humiliation of his brother Menelaus as an excuse to launch a raid on the richest kingdom in the lands - we just don't linger on any of it; and as these parts have been so richly explored in other adaptations, nothing feels lost. There are some additions to the story that are odd, like a new, third Prince of Troy, the war-hungry Polydorus (Robert Brown, acting as forgettable as his character), who serves absolutely no purpose before dying at the midpoint. More successful is the expanded first act in which Paris is swept off his boat and sneaks around Sparta as introductions are made, motives explored, and plans set in motion. Because of this, the Trojan War itself doesn't kick in until around the half-way point, but the scale and toll of the battle is captured so well that it works just fine. After all, this isn't the story of the war, but the doomed romance that made such a conflict inevitable.

I don't think this would work nearly as well in the hands of anyone but Robert Wise. As an editor, the man is a master of pace, using moments to build scenes and scenes to build a story, and knows just when to push past and when to draw out. He has incredible control as every moment of this films hits in precisely the right way. Take, for instance, our first sight of the attacking fleet. It's night. The people of Troy line the waterfront balconies of their city. Paris and Helen are called up to stand alongside the concerned and angry King Priam (the always dependable Sir Cedric Hardwicke). They look out on the sea as the torches of a thousand ships fill the horizon. We cut out to those very ships as drums beat out a rhythm for the oarsmen, and Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ulysses (the precise and witty Torin Thatcher) gaze hungrily at their approaching target. We cut back to the balcony. Priam turns and casts a cold glare at Helen. "The face that launched a thousand ships."

It speaks not only to the skill of Wise, but the group of seasoned screenwriters that such a line can be pulled off. While there are a few moments that feel a little forced, like the opening storm that strands Paris or a huge drunken party at the feet of that fateful wooden horse (the creation of which they execute very well, by the way; not many adaptations do), I was surprised at the sharpness of the writing, particularly the central romance. These are two people who can't not love one another, even as reason tells them that everything they know would be better off if they just stayed apart. Every arrow that strikes home, every body that takes a sword, every pyre that clouds the sky is a constant reminder of the consequences of their romance, and yet they get to a point where it's no longer possible to turn away. This is a very, very hard relationship to pull off without it feeling like total fluff (QUO VADIS), but the attraction is immediate (not just physically, but intellectually; something often missed), the chemistry undeniable, and the situations naturally evolving to that point of no return. And a lot of credit is due to the Italian actors Sernas and Podesta. Far from mere pretty faces in empty parts, they fully become these complex characters trapped on a road to tragedy. And points to whoever did the dubbing of their dialogue. It was flawless.

I was really, really impressed with this film. I shouldn't have doubted Wise, but this can be tricky material to pull off. Yet as I think not only of the authentic romance and the honesty of its crushing consequences, but of the spectacularly detailed sets and costumes and the talented cast and the vibrant score and that army of thousands of fully dressed extras with swords and armor and catapults and even four actual on-location battle towers, I'm blown away by just how well he did.

However, about those fake beards....


(internet movie database)

August 7, 2010

Quo Vadis

1951 film
directed by Mervyn LeRoy
written by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien, John Lee Mahin, Hugh Gray
based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz

(my review of the 1895 novel)
(my review of the 1948 screenplay)

It started with a book. An absolutely fantastic book full of riches and complexity and thought. It became a screenplay. A good, solid, worthy adaptation. Now, it's a film. An entertaining yet ultimately disappointing example of a typical Hollywood Spectacle.

The central point of the story, as is Hollywood tradition, is the epic romance. Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) is a Roman Centurion, proud of the conquests he's achieved for his emperor. Lygia (Deborah Kerr) is a foreign princess, captured as a young child, adopted and educated in a quiet country estate. She's a Christian, he is not. She promotes peace and compassion, he bloodshed and fear tactics. While I'm glad they kept the novel's central conceit of Vinicius starting out as an antagonist of sorts, only gradually coming to love the inner Lygia after a period of lusting over and trying to capture her body, so much of the philosophical conflict of the book is lost that it now has all the depth of a Fabio romance painting.

And why does Lygia love Vinicius? Honestly, why? In the book, she saw good within and had to constantly search and dig in order to bring it to the forefront. Here, no good is present in his predatory behavior and talk of bloody victory; she just likes him because he's handsome. She wants to save him, cure him of the cancerous decadence of Nero's Rome, that much I understand, but without the sliver of good for her to dig for, I don't understand the draw?

The two leads don't help matters. At all. Though he sucks in the gut and throws a spring in his step, Taylor is a little long in the tooth to play Vinicious, who's ego and impulsiveness were written for a man in the youthful stretch of his 20s. His "manly" posturing and barking delivery only punctuate his miscasting. Kerr is bizarre and all over the place as Lygia. An incomparable beauty, she certainly looks the part, but her constantly staring eyes have all the depth of a porcelain doll, and when she opens her mouth, this odd fluttery, breathy delivery constantly leaves me in confusion.

In fact, the acting overall is largely either forgettable or completely off, which is a shame given the promising roles. Pompaea is the wife of Nero, the true poison behind his increasingly lethal fangs, but Patricia Laffan tries too hard to be sexy while her eyes are scrunched up in a way that makes it seem like she just caught whiff of a fart. Eunice is a slave girl infatuated with her master, who chips at his heart to the point where he loves her as an equal, but Marina Berti plays her like a teen groupie who just snagged a back stage pass. Tigellinus is the leader of the Praetorian Guard, the brutal hand of Nero who constantly pushes the emperor to punish the populace into submission, but Ralph Truman is so flat and forgettable that he never once backs up the threat of his actions.

The worst is Finley Currie as the Apostle Peter. Not only has the script gone through a few more changes since the draft I reviewed, adding some ridiculous heavy-handed miracles to what should be grounded and real events, but Currie takes what was a genuinely inspirational and towering figure on the page and brings him to life with all the dignity and grace of a department store Santa Claus. It's ridiculous.

And I think this speaks to the broader problem that is director LeRoy. I haven't seen many of his films and can't talk for his broader career, but the direction here is little more than hack work. I know it's an old movie, but it's practically drowned to death in a style that, while clean, never rises above the quality of a workman. In what's come to be termed "tv directing" he sticks to the basic formula of "master shot, medium shot, medium shot, closeup (don't forget the soft focus lens), medium shot, dissolve". It's clean and keeps everything moving at a steady pace, but it's boring and does nothing to liven up the material. What I read in the script slowly draws you into huge sequences as the emotions of crowds gradually boil to an epic moment. Here, he just lines everybody up, shoots a reel, and moves on to whatever's next. And it's not just the script. The stunningly massive sets and intricate costumes scream for the attention they deserve, but LeRoy's camera hovers over them like a slideshow from grandpa's vacation. Miklos Rozsa's sweeping score is packed full of emotion and the clash of beliefs, but is brushed away like a buzzing gnat by the flatness of what it's there to support.

But that's not to say it's a bad movie. It's painfully mediocre, but it moves along at a steady pace, sports some great design work, and still tells a thrilling tale. And there are some good moments in there. The springiness of Taylor's performance many not work for the character, but he's great when he gets to kick into some action. The model work used for the burning of Rome, while obvious, is really well used as the camera lingers over unimaginable devastation. The punishment in the Arena of the unjustly accused accused Christians is powerful and surprisingly brutal, especially as they unite in song before gradually giving way to screams on burning crucifixes. And the climactic battle between Lygia's giant bodyguard Ursus (charmingly played by heavy-weight boxer Buddy Baer) and a frothing bull is marvelously executed.

And there's two performances that rise above the others. Leo Genn as Petronius and Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero himself. The two are eternally bound to one another, yet represent diametric opposites of the iconic Roman male: both enjoy wealth and luxury, but Petronius is civilized and intelligent, approaching situations with wit and grace, whereas Nero is pompous and decadent, manically searching for new amusements. One comes to appreciate the citizens of his homeland, the other loathes them from the start. Furthering the divide, Genn is absolute subtlety as the charming Petronius, always watching, always listening for the right place to slip in, while Ustinov is a volcano jolting from lazy flows to gushing explosions. It's impossible to take your eyes off either one when they're on screen, which makes the frequent scenes they share delightfully tricky to soak in.

In the end, it's not a bad movie, just a letdown. A few years earlier, the draft of the screenplay that I read was to be directed by John Huston with Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles. With the best two features of the final incarnation, Genn and Ustinov, also being the result of Huston's casting, one can only image the film that would have resulted. It might not have had as much spectacle, but I'm sure it would have been smarter. As it is, what we're left with is typical Hollywood.


(internet movie database)

August 1, 2010

Quo Vadis

1948 screenplay
written by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien, John Lee Mahin
based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz

(my review of the 1895 novel)
(my review of the 1951 film)

QUO VADIS is a rare book that I consider to be perfect. It creates a rich, complex world filled with rich, complex characters, tells a sweeping, challenging, genuinely moving story, and makes every little detail in the intricate web essential without anything feeling forced or artificial. A perfect book. Now comes the challenge of adapting it to film.

There's obvious places to start in the conversion process. You've got your two huge setpieces in the burning of Rome and the punishment of the innocently charged Christians in the Arena. You've got a snarling, prancing, smirking villain in Nero. You've got a starcrossed romance between Roman centurion Marcus Vinicius and captured foreign princess Lygia. All big, epic, crowd-pleasing stuff. But this script didn't stop with them. Petronius, the uncle of Marcus and right hand to Nero who wages a cold war against his rival advisers as schemes build in troubling directions. Ursus, the massive warrior who dedicates himself to the life and teachings of Lygia. Eunice, the infatuated servant and lover of Petronius. Pompaea, the wife of Nero who's not only jealous of his extramarital conquests, but the loves of others she desires. Acte, the first love of Nero when he was young and good, who was pushed away as youth left both behind. The Apostles Peter and Paul, struggling to hold together a flock as it's being eradicated before their eyes, and conflicted on whether or not to leave and start anew. Rome itself which casts an uneasy eye on decadence that it nonetheless has grown comfortable with.

All of these elements are there, and more. And, surprise surprise, it hasn't been dumbed down. These three writers (I'm not sure who specifically did what) somehow managed to compress a 500+ page novel into a 152 page screenplay without losing much of that intricate web.

Take, for instance, the character of Marcus. The initial draw between him and Lygia isn't so much love at first sight as it is lust. He sees her bathing at a spring and goes total horndog, and the only thing keeping him from forcing himself on the woman that night is the looming Ursus at her door. He continues with the playboy routine as he tries to take her again at a party, then goes so far as to concoct an arrangement where Nero will personally have the foreign hostage swapped from her current household to Marcus's. This is not an innocent man and his intentions are not pure. He wants to rape the woman and make her his pretty love puppy. And when her Christian brethren help her to escape before the transfer is made, he tracks her down and even brings along a full-on gladiator to challenge Ursus.

This was a ballsy way to set up a romantic lead in the book, and I'm stunned it made it to the page in a Hollywood adaptation. Now, as with the book, Marcus does eventually experience a conflict of conscience when things go wrong and he finds himself at Lygia's mercy, but it's still very uncommon to have a lead protagonist play out so villainous for the first third or so of the script. And I love it. I absolutely love it.

The romance is a bit typical, but there's nothing wrong with that as it's nicely executed. Marcus comes to know Lygia and genuinely falls for her as a person. For her part, some of the snips have resulted in her hesitancy having more to do with him not being a Christian than her shame at her own initial lust, but it still largely works, and she comes off very intelligent and graceful.

But all this isn't to say the script is totally without alterations, some of which make a lot of sense. The most notable is the cutting of Chilo, an aged swindler who helps Marcus infiltrate the underground Christian sect while the man is still searching for Lygia. That's the extent of his involvement here, but he was a huge character in the book, constantly reappearing and driving new twists in the stories as he couldn't resist any type of involvement that promised profit, even as he started to question the brutal consequences of his actions. He was a magnificent, absolutely unforgettable character, and it hurts to see him reduced to little more than a cameo, but I understand the decision. He doesn't drive the story. It's as easy as that.

There are, however, a few choices I do take issue with. The first is the portrayal of Nero. In the book, he's a pompous yet ineffectual leader who never intended to burn down Rome, but made a lot of bad choices in the event's wake which led him to depths of paranoia and aggression. In other words, he becomes mad, but doesn't start there. The Nero we have here is a totally wicked loon who does want to burn the city so he can replace it with a new capital dedicated in his name. While he's still a very well written madman, a lot of the ambiguity of the character is lost. The Nero of the book made bad choices, but you could understand why he was making them. The Nero of the script is glee and anarchy and ego. It's an impressive villain, but a lesser one.

Another is the glorification of the Christians. Here, we have the typical speeches about how the holy and peaceful and benevolent Church will triumph, but it's lacking the balanced arguments of the pragmatic and fair Petronius, who spent an entire chapter in the book discussing things with the Apostle Peter before casually dismissing the teachings as "Not for me." Now, granted, the holy flights of fancy still don't hit too high, but there is a notable shift there as faith declared from states of emotional extremes are no longer countered by calm rationalization. And they also cut the character of Crispus, a fire & brimstone preacher who's damning sermons acknowledged the darker places future incarnations of the Church will go. I don't say I want him back in the picture because my personal atheism desires a smear campaign, but because I miss the moments where the Apostles Peter and Paul took him on. It's a very honest look at how even tight religious communities can find fractures and how even the worshiped original founders can't fully control what their teachings will become in someone else's hands when they're no longer around.

Granted, a lot of these issues can be attributed to the abridgment of the material for screen, but it doesn't make me miss them less. I think this is a case where I'll just let them slide and appreciate the impressive amount of what they got right. And, man, they got a lot right. There's even great little flourishes they added, like a scene where Nero first appears for a speech and we cut around the crowd as people slip sharp insults about the emperor to one another between shouts of "Hail!", or the masterfully staged atrocities in the Arena which are vividly set up, then cut away at the moment of violence, making it all the more striking.

It really is a fantastic script, and, while I have a few nitpicks here and there, it's most certainly worthy of the book. The world is captured, the characters brought to life, the pace driven smooth and steady, the opening and ending coming right as they're needed. Great stuff.