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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Ruthless; Despicable Me; Battleship; Lawless

RUTHLESS (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)

U.S.: Edgar G. Ulmer, 2013 (Olive)

Who is Edgar G. Ulmer and what is he doing in any pantheon, or semi-pantheon of world classical filmmakers? It’s been a classic nagging anti-auteurist question ever since Andrew Sarris introduced Ulmer to most of us in his guidebook The American Cinema. A cultishly admired German émigré film director, loved by some of the French, Ulmer has been called the King of Poverty Row,  a title both adulatory and a little mocking. But  indeed, frowsy-seeming Ulmer pictures like the legendary 1945 low-B film noir Detour, his 1939 African-American ultra-indie Moon Over Harlem,  the 1951 low-fi sci-fi The Man from Planet X, and the 1955 cheapo Western noir The Naked Dawn  seem to stretch the limits of the special kind of cinematic ingenuity brought on by minuscule budgets. In Ulmer’s undisputed masterpiece Detour, the reason the director shows a city street in one scene with buildings lost in the night and fog — a spine-chilling effect — is probably because there wasn’t enough money for a street set.

Ruthless, by comparison, is a fairly lush production, with  a multitude of richly-detailed sets,, visibly high production values and a cast that ranks just below A-level. Zachary Scott, the great film noir lounge lizard, here plays the ruthlessly successful  financier Horace Woodruff Vendig, a cad who cheats and double-crosses and sleeps his way to the top, and shrugs it off when a  one time ally commits suicide after waiting too long in Horace’s waiting room. Louis Hayward is his often-abused  and appropriately named best friend Vic Lambdin. Sydney Greenstreet is Buck Mansfield, a fellow businessman and rival who’s not quite ruthless enough. Diana Lynn, double-cast,  is the love (or loves) of Horace’s life, Martha Burnside  and, later on, a look-alike named Mallory Flagg.

There’s more.  Lucille Bremer (Judy Garland’s piquant older sister in Meet Me in St. Louis) and Martha Vickers (Lauren Bacall’s slutty younger sister in The Big Sleep) are two more ladies Vendig loves and loses. Dennis Hoey (Inspector Lestrade to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock)  and Edith Barrett are two more betrayed benefactors. And that ace noir heavy of heavies Raymond Burr pops up as Vendig‘s profligate dad Pete. All this for a director who usually counted himself lucky if he got actors like Tom Neal and Ann Savage, the doomed couple in Detour.

The subject of Ruthless is wealth, and its ill uses and hypocrisies and the price it ultimately exacts from the soul of the taker. (Vendig is now trying to redeem himself by philanthropy and institutional peace-mongering,) Its ambitions are titanic. The obvious inspiration for Ruthless, which was based on a novel by Dayton Stoddart (I know, I‘ve never heard of him either), is the film of films, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. From Kane, Ulmer and his screenwriters (including, incognito, Alvah Bessie of the Hollywood Ten) borrows the theatrical milieu of great wealth, the multiple flashback structure,  the theme of the sins behind great fortunes, the foil of the elegant humanistic best friend (Hayward) as Joseph Cotten-like conscience, the deep focus camera virtuosity, and even the anti-hero main character with three names.

In Ruthless, as in Kane, the past keeps invading the present. The young Vendig (played by Bob Anderson, who was the young George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life) sets his sights high early, falling in love (or something) with sweet rich girl Martha Burnside, one of  perky ex-Preston Sturges juvenile Diana Lynn’s two roles here. It is Martha’s father (Hoey) whose  largesse helps Vendig through college, before Horace dumps her for richer girl Susan Duane, played by Vickers, and then dumps Vickers for Buck Greenstreet’s trophy wife, Christa (Bremer) and then dumps her. Most of these ill-used people and victims have somehow wangled their way into Vendig’s mansion party at his hour of triumph and philanthropy and flashbacks. Like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, they’re in the house of secrets where Vendig’s best pal from childhood on, Vic,  shows up with his new lady friend Mallory (played by, once again, Diana Lynn).


Scott, a sometimes underrated actor (he was tremendous in both Mildred Pierce and in Jean Renoir‘s The Southerner), manages to show the warmer, more seductive qualities beneath (or maybe above) the ruthlessness of Vendig. Greenstreet will always seem miscast playing a guy named “Buck’ (unless it’s in  Flamingo Road). But he  has a good time as the vengeful ex-tycoon, as does Diana L:ynn (twice) and Burr, who can occasionally, though not here, seem like a second-string Greenstreet.

Ulmer, Like Joseph H. Lewis, can sometimes seem a poignant cinematic case. Each made a masterpiece that inarguably establishes their talent, Detour and Gun Crazy. Each was later blocked, sadly, infuriatingly., What if Anthony Mann and Phil Karlson, or David Cronenberg and Peter Jackson,  had never stopped making cheapies.  Would they too be cultish favorites? If the director of Ruthless had been Vincente Minnelli or George Cukor, or even Welles, we’d tend to write it down as a second-tier effort, which needed more work on the script. (After all, what can you expect from a movie where the heroine is named Mallory Flagg and the main character is named Horace?)

Coming to Ulmer — the low-rent auteur who persevered through often threadbare productions like Babes in Bagdad, St. Benny the Dip, The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, the all-Yiddish Singing Blacksmith, The Amazing Transparent Man, Beyond the Time Barrier  and Isle of Forgotten Sins — and who even directed (and wrote) Damaged Lives, a low-budget 1933 cautionary drama about venereal disease — the script and cast and production team in Ruthless must have made him feel as if he’d migrated temporarily from Poverty Row to Paradise. (It says everything about this auteur’s career and timing that, in St. Benny the Dip, he got Freddie Bartholomew as an adult.) And while Ruthless is not as good as Detour, it does show that Ulmer could have functioned very well, if they’d let him move more often to the right side of the tracks. (The rumor is that the director was banished to the likes of PRC and Eagle Lion because he’d seduced the wife of a major studio bigwig.).

Ulmer and his charmingly disreputable and penny-wise films will always be special treats to devotees of black and white Hollywood, and it doesn’t really matter if he could have been better with better projects and actors. Almost anybody can be better with better stuff — and the one big advantage of working on Poverty Row is that they’ll leave you alone if you can get it done on time and on (you’ll excuse the word) budget. Ruthless has that sense of impending evil and doom that also marked Ulmer‘s 1934 Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi horror classic The Black Cat. Even when the film becomes absurd — as in the fervidly ludicrous climax — it’s always fun to watch. It even teaches a lesson and sends a message —  the old Christian parable about the camel and the eye of the needle — ruthlessly. Now let’s go watch The Amazing Transparent Man. (I hear the reason the Man was transparent is that there was no money for another actor.)

No Extras.

DESPICABLE ME (Also Blu-ray and 3D)) (Three Stars)

U.S.; Pierre Coffin/Chris Renaud, 2010 (Universal)

Despicable Me — a 3D cartoon about a plot to steal the moon, a cad who redeems himself and the three little cuties who redeem him — is a movie that at times irresistibly amuses, and at times, pushes too hard. It also gives` Steve Carell, the “Despicable Me“ of the title, one of his best movie roles.

But mostly, it gives adults another good time at a movie that’s supposedly made for  children. The very fact that this movie puts a word like “despicable” in its title, a word that most adults probably can’t even pronounce, shows that it’s not scared of stretching boundaries. And even if Despicable Me — which done by Illumination and the French house Mac Guff Ligne,– falls short and  falls down at the end, it’s still a good show.

Carell, the 40-year-old virgin of the Apatow gang and the neurotic boss of The Office, here plays Gru, a fat, sinister little chap who looks like an Edward Gorey drawing on steroids. Gru, who’s bossed around by his busy-body Mom (Julie Andrews), is also the suburban czar of a bunch of bulbous, skittering insanely helpful little yellow beings called Minions (played by, among others, this movie‘s directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud).

And Gru is concerned that his reputation for spectacular crime is being outshone by a new, lippy super-miscreant named Vector (voiced by Jason Segel of I Love You, Man), who has just swiped the Egyptian Pyramids and replaced them with huge, inflatable Egyptian Pyramid balloons. Not to be outdone, Gru shoves ahead with his own grand scheme, to shrink and steal the moon, aided by his own Q-style gadget-master, Dr. Nefarious (Russell Brand). But Vector proves an unscrupulous, just as Gru’s banker proves to be another greedy jerk. So, to facilitate his moon-grab scheme, Gru is forced, he thinks, to adopt thee little girls from the local orphanage — the adorable Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) — and to enlist them and their expertise at cookie selling, to outflank cookie fiene fiend Vector. Can he remain despicable in the face of such cuteness in triplicate? Can ice melt in June on a Riviera beach?

All of this leads up, of course, to a race to the moon. But it’s not all that predictable, and it doesn’t end quite as you’d expect. Even if you can guess everything that will happen (spoilsport), the sprightly animation, the witty script by Ken Daurio and Cinco Paul and the deft voice-acting by Carell, Segel and Brand — and by Kristen Wiig as the orphanage meanie-mistress Miss Hattie — keep it light and funny.

Like many French, or French-derived cartoons, Despicable Me has a delicious, dark little twist to its images. Pixar, very typically American, presents a world of good and evil, locked in combat. The more urbane French animation often mixes good with bad, showing the nice side of despicable Gru.

Carell is one of those comic actors, like Peter Sellers, who excels at playing self-deluded, self-centered phonies, like Sellers’ Clouseau or like Carell‘s Michael on The Office. But Carell can tease the human element in too, as he does here. Working without his body, or rather working with Gru’s plump, creepy animated physique, Carell creates an unusually complex, sometimes explosive character — as the great Mel Blanc always did for the Looney Tunes. (Actually, Illumination is said to have employed a revolutionary computer-imaging device here called Insta-Freeze, which shrunk Carell and the other actors and turned them into animated cartoons, for the entire duration of the shoot. But that‘s another story.)


BATTLESHIP (Blu-ray DVD Combo) (Two Stars)

U.S.: Peter Berg, 2012 (Universal)

Battleship? Why? The idea of spending of two hundred million dollars and change to try to adapt a Hasbro board or video game (called “Battleship,” natch) into a huge would-be blockbuster war-action movie (likewise Battleship)’ toplining TV star Taylor Kitsch (“Friday Night Lights,”  John Carter), and swimsuit model and would-be movie star Brooklyn Decker (What to Expect When You‘re Expecting), struck me as a waste of time, sight unseen.

Sight seen, it’s even worse.

Visually dopey, punishingly loud, choked with absurdities and screamingly overproduced, Battleship shows, once again, the primacy in our theatres these days of big, dumb, loud movies with what are regarded as “surefire” commercial tie-ins. Battleship has some good stuff every now and then, and it’s “state-of-the-art” in some ways, I suppose –chockful of  CGI of extraterrestrial monsters and their space ships and ocean fortresses, destroying everything they can. But it’s also nonsensical and clichéd — possibly thanks to writers Erich and Jon Hoeber (Red), possibly not.

The inanities attack almost immediately, before the monsters even arrive on earth. (Their hangout is a distant world dubbed Planet G by Terran scientists ). Kitsch, as rebel-without-a-clue Alex Hopper, is out drinking with his straighter-than-straight-arrow Navy Commander brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgard), when he spots a tall blonde hottie (Decker) in a bar, having troubles with the bartender (Louis Lombardi), who refuses to microwave her a chicken burrito. A brawl develops and somehow, they all (except the bartneder) wind up in Oahua, in an otherwordly ocean fight with otherwordly goateed monsters on huge monster-vessels.

If all of that sounds pretty stupid, believe me, it is. The story may be ridiculous, the sound track deafening, and most of the actors (including Liam Neeson as an admiral) may look trapped, but the effects, as usual, blow you out of your seats — or your couch.  But even by the standards set by all the loud, dumb action movies of the past, Battleship strikes into new, louder, dumber territory. Director Berg, who seems better working with a smaller canvas like Friday Night Lights, fumbles the ball. And why shouldn’t he, since the whole movie plays like an ad for Hasbro board or video games, while the board games function as ads for the movie, and Taylor Kitsch and Brooklyn Decker function as ads for the U.S. Navy. And vice versa maybe.

LAWLESS  (Also  Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Three  Stars)

U.S.: John Hillcoat, 2012 (Starz/Anchor Bay)

The sometimes exciting, sometimes pretentious crime movie Lawless takes place in Franklin County, Virginia — “The Wettest County in the World,” according to the book on which the picture is based. And it deals with a legendary family of moonshine-makers and bootleggers, the Bondurants, as they wage war against both their gangster rivals and the sadistic dude of a Chicago law man, Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce), who’s come down south to shut them down.

Rakes is played as a pure, rotten villain, and the Bondurants are shown as at least semi-heroes, so the movie, somewhat like the crime thrillers and neo-noirs of the ’70s, scrambles our responses — and it would probably have been better if it scrambled them even more. Directed and written by the team of John Hillcoat and rocker-scenarist Nick Cave (who also joined forces on the nerve-jangling 2006 Aussie western The Proposition), Lawless is a very arty film about a rustic underworld — and it’s arty in both good and grating ways.

The design and cinematography here remind you of James Agee and Walker Evans’ classic book on the Depression rural poor, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” But the main characters here, the Bondurants, are far from impoverished. They’re prosperous criminals who make the best moonshine in Franklin County and also run a restaurant and are handy with guns. Maybe that’s what partly wrong with the movie; it tries to pant a realistic picture of 1931 Virginia and to bring us close to the Bondurants, but it also heroizes them in ways that don’t quite ring true. The book that Hillcoat and Cave adapted was written by a Bondurant ancestor, Matt (the grandson of Jack Bondurant), and sometimes the two Australian filmmakers tell the story like loving relatives too.

The Bondurant Brothers are played by Jason Clarke (as Howard, the eldest and their terrifyingly fearless enforcer), Tom Hardy (as the near superhuman head man Forrest) and Shia LaBeouf (as Jack, the youngest and most ambitious of the,. Their ladies are played by Jessica Chastain (as Forrest’s ex-stripper friend), and Mia Wasikowska (as Jack’s lively preacher’s daughter of a girlfriend). Gary Oldman takes stage as the boss gangster Floyd Banner. There’s also a sympathetic sheriff who likes good moonshine whiskey (and good moonshiners), played by Bill Camp, and Jack’s fragile sidekick Cricket, played by Dane DeHaan. They’re all good, though the most memorable character here is Pearce’s Charlie Rakes — a fancy dan with plucked eyebrows and expensive suits, reeking of cologne. Rakes makes a snazzy villain.

The story begins with the Bondurants as kids, and the revelation of Jack’s sensitivity: he won’t shoot a pig though the pig’s time has come. The movie then glides past World War I, which messes up Howard’s mind, the Spanish Influenza epidemic (with Forrest miraculously survives, the first of his many miracle) and into 1931, the Prohibition era and the thriving Bondurant hooch business. Forrest and Howard (now played by Hardy and Clarke) run it without Jack — you never know when another pig has to be killed — and we see Jack (now played by LaBeouf) chamfing at the liquor bit, enlisting Cricket to help him set up a rival operation, and then selling his booze to Banner.

But Lawless doesn’t really plunge toward fraternal strife. Rakes is the antagonist and a mean one. His sadism keeps escalating. So do the Bondurants’ survival skills, none more formidable than Forrest‘s. At one point, Forrest has his throat slit and walks 12 miles through the snow — holding his throat together with his fingers.

Lawless is reminiscent in mood and style, and angle of vision of the period outlaw epics of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, especially Bonnie and Clyde, Thieves Like Us, Boxcar Bertha, and The Godfather 1 & 2. If it doesn’t really match its classic predecessors, or fulfill all its sometimes considerable ambitions, or justify its plentiful, harsh violence, it’s a movie that definitely achieves more than the average crime show these days.

For one thing, the movie, photographed by the French camera virtuoso Benoit Delhomme and designed by Chris Kennedy, is a triumph of period visualization. With its smoky vistas and tangled hillside forests, its antique ‘30s guns and cars, its frayed houses and rustic towns, the film feels right even when the characters don’t quite connect.

Cave’s script is stark and unsentimental, and it doesn’t sell out in the usual ways. But it also lacks the great scenes or the great character moments, of its best predecessors (or even of Hillcoat‘s and Cave‘s The Proposition).  The movie doesn’t make the leap into darkness that The Godfather movies did — which is part of the reason why The Godfather is fine old wine, and Lawless is merely a shot or two of moonshine.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon