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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: George Bernard Shaw on Film; G. I. Joe Retaliation


George Bernard Shaw On Film (Three and a Half Stars) U.K.; Various Directors, 1941-1952 (Criterion/Eclipse)

adfadfLate in life, George Bernard Shaw entrusted the film rights for o all his plays to a relatively inexperienced  and threadbare thirty-something producer named Gabriel Pascal. Pascal, raised in Hungary, was an entrepreneur without money, and his only film credit up until then  had been, appropriately enough for a native-born Transylvanian, a movie called “The Living Dead.” But Shaw, then in his 70s, liked Pascal. The Nobel Prize-winning writer, the most famous playwright in the world at that time, and also a socialist who could get along with capitalists (if they made him money), had nevertheless resisted most other attempts to film his plays.

But Shaw made, and Pascal accepted, the major demand that the producer  not change or overly cut Shaw’s unusually verbose texts, but instead respect the playwright’s letter and law. In return, Shaw gave Pascal the rights to all his plays, and even worked on the screenplays (for which he took full credit), advised on the productions, and attended the shoots.

Pascal mostly did what Shaw wanted. (Once getting his producer‘s word, the crusty writer became more tractable as far as making changes designed to attract audiences and boost box office.) The first results were two instant classics made successively out of “Pygmalion,” in 1938, co-directed by Anthony Asquith and star Leslie Howard, and co-starring Wendy Hiller and Wilfred Lawson (a film available from Criterion but  not included in this set) and “Major Barbara,” a witty 1941 film with an extraordinary cast: Hiller again, supported by Rex Harrison, Robert Morley, Robert Newton, Sybil Thorndike, Emlyn Williams, Stanley Holloway and Deborah Kerr. Major Barbara was signed this time by Pascal, though most of the actual directing was done  by Harold French (who guided the actors) and the young editor David Lean, who, in his first stab at movie helming, handled both the camera direction and the montage.

Shaw and Pascal seemed now an unbeatable combination, producing and making great plays just as they should be made: leaving intact the  original ambitious themes and ideas and memorable characters and brilliant dialogue,  pulling in vast worldwide audiences for quality work, and with Pascal joining Alexander and the Korda brothers as yet another Hungarian master of prestige British cinema.

But, then came a legendary financial flop: the huge prodigal spectacle Pascal, as sole credited director, tried to wrest from Shaw‘s “Caesar and Cleopatra,” costarring Vivien Leigh as a saucy minx of a Cleopatra, and Claude Rains (Shaw’s personal choice) as a wise, bemused old warrior-king Caesar — along with Stewart Granger at his most dashing, Cecil Parker at his fubsiest, Basil Sydney at his staunchest, and Flora Robson and Francis L. Sullivan at their most sinister. The gorgeous location photography was by Freddie Young, who later returned to the desert to shoot Lawrence of Arabia” for Major Barbara’s co-director, David Lean.

That movie, shot in Egypt, was an Ishtar of its day, and it made Pascal something of a joke, and, despite Shaw’s continuing support, brought about the end of most of his lofty projects. The exceptions were  one more lower-budgeted film, the charming Androcles and the Lion, shot more cheaply at Howard Hughes’ RKO, with Alan Young (as Androcles), Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Newton, Maurice Evans and Jim Backus — and Pascal‘s long time plans for a musical version of “Pygmalion,” which were realized two years after his death.

That, of course became “My Fair Lady” — a project reuniting two actors from the 1941 Major Barbara, Harrison and Holloway, and a play that achieved such phenomenal success that it might have won a living Pascal back everything, prestige and cash, that  he lost on “Caesar” (as long as he didn’t try to direct it).

These films today look as good as they did on their release, and in “Caesar’s” case, a little better.  I wish Pascal had produced a few more. Which shows that Shaw was right about producers sticking to their, and his, words.

Included: Major Barbara (U.K.; Gabriel Pascal/Harold French/David Lean, 1941)  Four Stars. Caesar and Cleopatra (U. K.; Pascal, 1945) Two and a Half Stars. ” (U.S.; Chester Erskine, 1952). Three Stars.

(Extras: Liner notes by Bruce Eder.)


G. I. JOE: RETALIATION (Two and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Jon M. Chu, 2013

G. I. Joe Retaliation may sound like another big, rotten box-office smash shooting down the pipes: another ridiculously over-violent action movie, in this case with characters based on Hasbro action figures or toys (and on Marvel Comics versions of them) with another machismo-drenched cast (topped by Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis and Channing Tatum) and another cliché-drenched script. And some of it as bad as your worst fears. But some of it surprises you.

Not at first though, You walk into the theater or turn on the player,  the lights (and your wits) dimming, and you think: Is that all there is? Is this what movies have come to? Are most of us now reduced to watching the 3D chronicles of the battles waged  by the toy hero G. I. Joe (Willis, in a supporting role), the massive hero Roadblock (Johnson, the star) and, for a while, the two-fisted hero Duke (Tatum, who was the star of the last 2009 G. I. Joe smash), with all three fighting the gang of the insidious Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey) and his maniacal minions? Where is Ming the Merciless?

The movie then reveals its secret weapon: a light touch. The plot is familiar, but it’s done with some humor. In the story, the G. I. Joe guys are hit with a massacre (of most of their number, apparently including Duke), a frame-up of the ones left, including Roadblock and the adorable Lady Jaye (Adrienne Palicki), and a plot to conquer and  destroy the world, engineered by their old nemesis Cobra (I think) and involving a phony double of The U. S. President (Jonathan Pryce, of Brazil), who bullies a gathering of world leaders and starts yet another countdown to destruction (one of those countdowns that usually gets all the way past five), while the real President (also played by Pryce) languishes in captivity nearby, probably wishing he were in Brazil.

That’s what it’s all about: a lot of bang-bang, but no kiss-kiss — or at least none I remember. Be that as it may,  G. I. Joe Retaliation is better than most of te recent big-bucks bang-a-thons. Maybe the film partly works because of the cast: Johnson, Pryce as The Presidents real and ersatz, Willis, Tatum, Bracey, Byun hung-Lee as the aptly named Storm Shadow, Walton Goggins as a warden, D. J. Coltrona as Joe‘s man Flint, Ray Park as the aptly-named Snake Eyes and James Carville as the aptly named campaign advisor James (“It’s the economy, Stupid”) Carville.

Or maybe it was because of the truly spectacular action, which includes one certifiably killer scene: an amazing battle raging and soaring all over Himalayan cliffs and slopes, with Storm Shadow in a body-bag being carried or whooshed downhill  by his daredevils — with bad guys swooping at them to try to stop the escape, and the snow-capped mountains treated like the site of  a parkour chase, bodies tumbling like the popcorn that the entire audience probably failed to eat while they watched dumbstruck, as this outrageously exciting scene —  a sequence that puts the “cliff” back in cliffhanger — run its course.

Or maybe it was because the people who made Retaliation, director Jon M. Chu (of  the ludicrous, if high-spirited musicals Step Up 2 and 3) , and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (of  the undead comedy Zombieland), just don’t seem to be taking themselves or the movie all that seriously. They have fun with the clichés and formulas, which is more than you can say about most of these  gun-crazy shows.

So the movie wasn’t so bad after all. But don’t be fooled. Except for the mountain battle, it’s not that good either. Now, excuse me. Ming the Merciless and Storm Shadow are waiting in the hall with a high concept. It has something to do with the Himalayas.

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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