A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: April, 2015

“Bombshell” (1933)

"Bombshell" poster


My relationship with 1933’s Bombshell is akin to that of a lit match and a kerosene soufflé. I first crossed paths with this rapid-fire farce in a college film course, where its screwball styling and almost breathless dialogue nearly sent me screaming off campus. Being young and decidedly cocky at the time, I let my surface-level issues with the picture persuade me from digging any deeper, leading to my interest in giving it another chance growing stronger ever since. Well, now that a few years of adulthood have cooled down my youthful audacity, the day has come for Bombshell to receive as fair of a shot as yours truly can muster. Unfortunately, while the movie most certainly has its merits — namely in how it, intentionally or not, effective captures what a horror show it must have been to be a sought-after celebrity in Hollywood’s golden age — they’re drowned out by a whole mess of shrill comedic chaos and a catastrophic misconception of how to handle a female protagonist yearning for a shred of empowerment. I’ve no doubt that Bombshell had satirical intentions in mind, but treating its heroine like garbage and dismissing her misery with a condescending chuckle sure is a funny way of getting them across onscreen.

Everyone wants a piece of Lola Burns (Jean Harlow). She’s made a very successful career for herself as Tinseltown’s newest “it” girl, although it seems as if she barely has the time to enjoy the spoils of her popularity. While her father (Frank Morgan) blows her money on horses and secretary (Una Merkel) throws parties in her absence, Lola is shuttled from set to set, hardly given a moment’s peace in which someone isn’t badgering her for one reason or another. It also doesn’t help that public relations guru Space Hanlon (Lee Tracy) holds so much sway over her image, constantly cooking up new schemes to keep her name in the press…whether the news is flattering or not. But one day, Lola decides that enough is enough and seizes control of her own life for once, boldly announcing her desire to adopt a child. She’s answered the call of motherhood and wants to give up the movie business for good — a decision that her entourage doesn’t take well. With the prospect of their meal ticket going up in smoke, Space and Lola’s other moochers launch one last madcap effort to woo the girl away from domesticity and back into the pictures.

To understand Bombshell, one must also understand its star. Although the film was based on an unproduced play said to be drawn from the life of fellow silver screen sex symbol Clara Bow, Harlow’s own background wasn’t that far off from Lola’s. She too was an object of intense obsession by both moviegoers and the press, a woman who wielded incredible star power in her day but whose success came at the cost of studio forces governing her life and public visage. This was an unfortunate story that applied to many other actresses of the era, one that ended with several of them getting driven to exhaustion…or worse, as in the case of Harlow, who died tragically at the age of 26. Bombshell had the makings of a scathing satire on celebrity culture and how despicably it sometimes treats those it claims to celebrate, and for a little while, it looked like that’s where it was heading. The film pulls no punches in surrounding Lola with an almost literal circus, giving you a front-row seat to the near-constant stream of broad characters (all talking in that clichéd 1930s-speak people like to make fun of) and crazy sight gags she’s assaulted with on a daily basis. But where the picture makes its most critical error is ultimately siding with — or at least feeling like it’s siding with — not Lola but rather her entourage. Bombshell almost seems structured like a story focused on teaching a ditzy actress to not treat the prospect of family as some frivolous fad, yet that isn’t how Harlow’s character comes across in the least. From what we see, she has every right to want to ditch show business and raise a bouncing bundle of joy, but that the movie is dead set on tearing those desires from her and doing so with a smile on its face reeks of a shocking degree of cruelty.

This isn’t to say that what Bombshell puts Harlow through would be called for even if she were painted more as a selfish, empty-headed ingénue, but that it removes itself so much from any real sense of motivation makes it a seriously difficult watch at times. Whether she’s getting pawed at by deluded stalkers or having her own P.R. guy virtually break into her house, it’s absolutely horrible to both see Lola trapped in such perpetual powerlessness and have her ordeal treated as a joke. Any observations or means of cleverly criticizing oppressive practices right underneath the noses of the studios that created them go right out the window when moments of Lola telling off her hangers-on are followed with scenes of the men in her life conspiring to set that silly girl straight. Besides, even if you ignore what sardonic commentary may or may not be present, Bombshell simply isn’t a very good comedy, period. Once in a while, you’ll snatch a choice one-liner from the air; in mistaking servants, Lola quips, “He was Summers, and you’re Winters…are butlers always in season?” But mostly, the dialogue plays like white noise, nonstop yammering that eventually blends together and pours out of the actors’ mouths with little semblance of wit or structure. Harlow deserves a medal for attempting to create a strong and spirited character from a screenplay that’s hell-bent on taking her down, but it seems like the harder she tries, the more harsh that script’s treatment feels. Tracy’s Space Hanlon was written to be an obnoxious creep and ends up being just that, though not in a way that’s endearing or deserving of the victories that come his way as the picture nears its end. Counted in the supporting cast’s ranks are such character actors as Morgan (The Wizard of Oz himself), Pat O’Brien, and Ted Healy, but best of luck in being able to view them as anything other than mere additions to the shrieking, indiscernible masses with which every scene is packed frame to frame.

One could make the case for Bombshell being a top-notch horror film, but as a showbiz farce, calling this a train wreck would be an insult to loused-up locomotives. In spite of doing such a great job at showing how stifling the celebrity life truly gets, its insistence on playing everything for yuks and hardly taking itself seriously for one second just about neuters any points it wanted to bring up. Loud, misguided, and clueless as to what a subversive premise it has in its hands, Bombshell is one of the screwball genre’s most disappointing duds.

(Bombshell is available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.)

“The Battery” (2012)

"The Battery" poster


The zombie genre is a deceptively simple one. Its demands are few, and movies can be crafted with budgets great and small, but the line separating a truly grueling experience from a boringly-plotted slog of the living dead is extraordinarily thin. Just because a filmmaker doesn’t need to do much, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try hard; that so few take this philosophy to heart is why we often end up with a plethora of independent productions that resemble glorified demo reels more than complete narratives. 2012’s micro-budgeted chiller The Battery frequently threatens to cross this line, to cease caring about its characters and to mistake scenes of endless bickering as a means to maintain tension. Yet the picture never makes that jump, always keeping the audience on an uneasy edge that comes to be reflected in the story itself. The Battery tests us as often as it does its own protagonists, and for our troubles, it presents a more stirring and novel take than we’re used to on a genre many viewers wish would stay buried already.

Our tale begins some time after an undead apocalypse has done a doozy on America’s populace. How it began and whether or not the damage has gone global is unclear, but what is known is that most folks have either been killed by those shuffling ghouls or joined their ranks. Fortunately, baseball players Ben (Jeremy Gardner) and Mickey (Adam Cronheim) have managed to survive by sticking to the woods and back roads…though how they’ve gotten this far without murdering each other is another story. The two men share very different views on how to live life after the zombie armageddon; while Ben wants to stay on the go and live off of whatever he can scavenge or hunt, Mickey refuses to acknowledge the situation, blocking out the carnage by cranking up his headphones and wishing to settle down in a real house again. But the battling buddies are put under further strain when they pick up a radio signal from what sounds like a group of survivors, who warn them not to even try to find them. Obsessed with having a normal life again, Mickey attempts to get back in contact with the group, despite Ben’s warnings that doing so might end up getting them killed…either at the hands of the zombie hordes or their fellow man.

Made for a reported six thousand bucks, The Battery wears its independent roots on its sleeve. The cast is tiny, the action is minimal, and the undead themselves are sparsely used. For the vast majority of its 100 minutes, this is Ben and Mickey’s show, following them as they get drunk, forage for canned food, and play some catch whenever they aren’t in danger of being relieved of their innards. It’s a decision that will make or break the film for a lot of people, for while focusing on conflict and how survivors deal with the veritable end of the world in their own ways is par for the course in zombie flicks, rarely is so much screen time dedicated to so few characters. Ben and Mickey’s sparring can get repetitive, and neither feels entirely sympathetic, but that’s also kind of the point. The Battery is what happens when you place two guys who probably didn’t care that much for each other in the first place into a situation where, in spite of their fighting, they don’t really have the option to split up. They’re both extremely stubborn and set in their ways, and you can easily understand why they act how they do — just as it’s obvious why each is driven up the wall by the other’s behavior. Their iffy alliance lends the movie an element of danger whenever the undead aren’t the immediate threat; you’re always wondering when each guy will reach his breaking point, and in scenes such as when Ben locks Mickey in a room with a zombie to force him to fend for himself, you’re as on your toes as the story intends.

That said, prepare for The Battery‘s intentionally languid pacing to push your patience. Many of its scenes have as much of a shot at being interpreted as quietly tense or observational as they have at being seen as obvious padding. The movie lasts an hour and forty minutes, and quite frankly, it didn’t need to; it seems as though the many montages of Ben and Mickey putzing around the wilderness only last as long as they do so that whatever song the soundtrack has cued up can finish playing in full. The climax especially has a knack for eliciting a wide range of reactions, as we watch zombies trap the guys in their car for days on end with a mixture of eye-rolling restlessness and genuine, edge-of-your-seat concern. But in the end, The Battery clicks more often than not, courtesy of both the deliberate storytelling and actors who knew precisely how to play their parts. Garnder also wrote and directed the feature, and as Ben, he fulfills an alpha male type of role with a bleak perspective on what’s happened to his world without coming across as a grating, overgrown frat boy. Cronheim is also top notch as Mickey, portraying him as enough of a whiner so as not to drown out the inherent sadness of the character. All he wants is some stability in what’s left of his life, and even darkly funny scenes like when Mickey makes an odd decision upon being cornered by a female zombie have a poignant edge because of Cronheim’s effective performance.

Though The Battery does contain the blood and gore that some fans desire from the zombie genre, they may find that the movie doesn’t dwell on it enough to carry them through its slower patches. The picture does needle viewers with its leisurely pace, but it’s a rather clever way of getting us acquainted with the mindset of its characters, asking you to empathize with them despite their flaws just as it requests that they do the same for one another. While it may not be for everyone, The Battery is a gripping little ditty that proves to be pretty deft in using what scant resources are at its disposal.

“Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994)

"Eat Drink Man Woman" poster


The food we consume and how we consume it speak volumes about where we are as people. When cooking, do you stick to the traditional recipe as it’s written, or are you prone to taking new chances? Do you make sure to savor every bite of a meal, or do you usually end up horking it down on the go? Food says a lot about the sort of lives we lead, a relationship so intimate that the right whiff of the right dish can immediately conjure any number of memories. 1994’s Eat Drink Man Woman understands this power and wields it with expertise, telling the story of a family build upon a foundation of the culinary arts. It was director Ang Lee’s third feature, and although his edges are considerably more rough, comparisons to the great Yasujiro Ozu in the way he spins the tale of clashing generations aren’t entirely unheralded. Eat Drink Man Woman contains a bounty of delectable visuals, yes, but that it hits such profound notes without feeling false or overtly schmaltzy makes watching this even more satisfying.

As the years go by, few things remain as consistent as we’d like them to be. Times change, traditions are forgotten, and events that fueled our fondest memories become just that: memories. But for Mr. Chu (Sihung Lung), one of the greatest chefs Taiwan ever saw, Sunday dinner with his daughters is the one constant he has left in an ever-changing world. A widower who raised his girls on his own for the longest time, Chu spends each and every weekend preparing a glorious feast for his family to enjoy…although with his kids now grown-up, the wave of progress has begun to carry them away one by one. Eldest daughter Jia-Jen (Kuei-Mei Yang) has almost entirely cut herself off emotionally following a past romance that went sour, devoting herself to teaching and Christianity. Youngest child Jia-Ning (Yu-Wen Wang) works at a fast food joint and eventually becomes involved in a relationship with a co-worker’s ex-boyfriend. Then in the middle, there’s Jia-Chien (Chien-Lien Wu), an airline executive on the ride who for years has hidden her cooking prowess from her father, who’d rather she pursue a career outside of the kitchen. As their story progresses, those Sunday dinners are more scarcely attended, forcing Old Chu to decide whether he wants to fear the future of his clan or embrace the avalanche of even more changes yet to come.

Made just prior to Lee’s English-language debut with Sense and Sensibility, Eat Drink Man Woman also represents one of the last stylistically down-to-earth movies he supervised. Even dramas such as The Ice Storm and Brokeback Mountain had a certain dreaminess to them, as opposed to this film’s noisy and crowded reality. Eat Drink Man Woman is an optimistic picture with a mild streak of whimsy running throughout it, but it has enough of a level head to be aware that with any change will come resistance, a period of hard times during which the strengths and weaknesses of both the old and the new must be weighed. Its comedy doesn’t come across as forced, and its dramatic developments don’t feel contrived (for the most part), resulting in a story that earns the knowing chuckles and the tears it’s aiming for. That’s not to say that every character or relationship is as effective or even as memorable as one another — at times, it’s a little hard to distinguish between who’s sexual partners with who and why certain people are lying about their romantic goings-on — but at the very least, everyone here feels genuine, as if they have lives that exist outside of what the script covers. While a little background info wouldn’t have hurt in particular cases, Lee has engineered a story where you mostly don’t need to be told a whole lot to understand where someone is coming from. We hear just a few short words regarding Old Chu’s reputation in the kitchen and Jia-Chien’s untapped dreams about following in those footsteps, but it’s all you need, a more effective way of communicating their feelings than lengthy monologues could ever produce.

This brings us to one of Eat Drink Man Woman‘s most powerful assets: food. Firstly, it’s a means through which Lee allows the audience to better connect with the drama, asking us to look back and see just how many of our own culinary traditions we’ve abandoned throughout our lives. But while the ground he treads seems awfully somber, Lee eases the acceptance of such changes by having his characters find a sense of balance by themselves. For instance, while Old Chu is upset over his children fleeing the nest, one amusing subplot has him compensating for it by cooking school lunch for the daughter of a family friend…only to end up taking orders for her entire class. Plus, on a purely superficial note, all of the prepared dishes simply make the picture incredible to look at and easy to salivate over. The opening credits sequence alone (which apparently took an entire week to shoot) is a feast for the eyes, as are all the other meals we see, which makes the fact that Chu finds himself without as many people to prepare them for all the more heartbreaking. Speaking of which, Chu is played wonderfully by Lung, who helps the character’s sadness and stubbornness shine through in a very effective performance. The actresses playing his daughters all have varying amounts of screen time (with Jia-Chien emerging with the meatier subplot), but each has their well-deserved moment in the sun. Wang is solid as the baby of the family who gets a great deal of responsibility suddenly thrust upon her at one point, you feel for Yang as her character tries breaking out of a seclusion of her own design, and Wu is simply great as a woman who comes to realize she doesn’t need the approval of others to follow her dreams.

Despite its strong family element, Eat Drink Man Woman seems to have been sold as a spicy sexcapade when it opened up stateside. Sexual awakenings are present within the narrative, but they’re just a small fraction of the multitude of topics Lee and his creative team canvas with an understanding eye over the course of two hours and change. Although I’m not sure how many moviegoers were left disappointed by Eat Drink Man Woman not having wall-to-wall sack-hopping, hopefully enough had the good sense to stick by and appreciate its honest but gentle message about how funny, tragic, and unpredictable as hell life can be.

(Eat Drink Man Woman is available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.)