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They rocked: (l-r) Fanning and Stewart in The Runaways.

Queens of Noise

By John Brodeur

The Runaways

Directed by Floria Sigismondi

It seems impossible to make a rock biopic worth a damn. At least that’s how you’ll feel after watching The Runaways, which is about as half-assed a feature on a historical subject as you’re likely to see, a color-saturated blur of sex and drugs and rock & roll that curiously manages to underplay any of those three key elements. Barring the language, most of the picture plays like the network- television edit of a heavier film.

But that’s not to say it isn’t fun. Separate yourself from the idea that this is a real story (mostly) about a real band, and The Runaways is kind of a blast. Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, the film follows the formation and brief but colorful career of the first all-girl rock band who mattered, with a focus on the relationship between principal members Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). Formed in 1975 by Jett and drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) with help from producer-svengali Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon), the group made five records in four years and helped to break down doors for generations of female rock musicians to come—all before the band members turned 21.

Not that you really get a feel for the band’s impact, or any sense of timeline. (To wit: The first shot of the band in the recording studio comes 15 minutes from the film’s end, and coincides with Currie’s departure from the band.) What you do get is a snapshot of girls behaving somewhat badly, shot with the gloss of a Björk video. That makes sense, as Sigismondi’s history is in directing music clips, but it’s also a liability: The performance shots are staged like music videos, lacking any real grit or immediacy. For a band who were supposed to be dangerous, these scenes are far too controlled. The rounded edges carry over offstage, where the band’s excesses come across as little more than teenage frolicking; even when Currie hits her inevitable low point, it seems like just another “oopsie.”

The performances, however, are pretty great. Stewart portrays Jett with a sneering cockiness not seen in her other work—coached, no doubt, by the rocker herself, who served as one of the film’s executive producers—and Fanning carries the lead role like the seasoned actress she is, even if her vocals don’t quite match up to the menace of Currie’s originals. (Unfortunately, Alia Shawkat, as fictional bassist Robin, might want to look into getting a new agent—she’s given nothing to do here but hold an instrument.)

Best of all is Shannon, who chews up and spits out every frame of his screen time as world-class weirdo Fowley. The film’s best bits are in the cramped trailer that doubles as a practice space, with Fowley haranguing the fledgling group with the fervor of an NFL head coach. It’s the kind of foaming-at-the-mouth performance that could accidentally win Shannon another Oscar nomination.

Get Kraken

Clash of the Titans

Directed by Louis Leterrier

Zeus and his celestial court may have been omnipotent in the classical world, but in Hollywood they tend to turn to cheese as surely as the gaze of a gorgon can turn a man to stone. In Louis Letterier’s gory remake of the 1981 camp classic Clash of the Titans, Zeus (Liam Neeson) wears an iridescent suit of armor and gripes about the lost love between him and his fondest creation, humankind. Not even Neeson’s imposing baritone can give Zeus enough gravity to overcome the script’s inanities, but soon enough, Hades (Ralph Fiennes) appears in a belch of smoke to challenge Zeus on how to control the wayward humans who would prefer to live without the meddling of jealous and amorous deities. The gods live in Olympus, shown as a hovering, heavenly plane invisibly suspended above the earth, and seem weirdly detached from the rest of the movie.

Typical of villains, though, Hades gets to have all the fun, setting up the warriors of Argos for failure and using the fires of the underworld to turn their best efforts to cinders. And it’s Hades who controls the Kraken, a gargantuan sea monster that can destroy even titans. Once again, immortal storytelling is used as merely a framing device for a panoply of special effects. For Clash 2010, CGI replaces stop-motion creature effects, with mixed results. Nasty harpies convincingly swoop about their prey, yet Medusa seems comically artificial compared to the creepy gorgon of the original. And the last-minute addition of effects shot specifically for 3D is noticeably out-of-place.

But the people have a hero, however reluctant, in Perseus (Sam Worthington), the son of Zeus who was raised by a simple fisherman. The film’s smattering of mythology sends Perseus upon a quest to save Princess Andromeda from becoming a human sacrifice. Worthington, who apparently used up what little acting skill he has in Avatar, is so bland he practically blends into the scenery—at least until the scenery is chewed up by the other actors. Only Mads Mikkelson (Casino Royale) as Draco, Perseus’ mighty ally, manages to create a compelling warrior (and the Pegasuses are kind of cool, too). Not that feats of strength have much to do with the quest’s success; when pitted against giant (but clumsy) scorpions, gorgon sisters with withered flesh instead of faces, and an alienlike race of nomads with LED eyes, divine intervention is more handy than swordsmanship. Especially since the film hurtles through so many CGI obstacles that the audience may feel even more pounded by fate than Perseus and his comrades. When the Kraken finally roils the sea en route to claim Andromeda, its uncoiling tentacles provide more relief (the film is almost over!) than dread.

—Ann Morrow

American Antiheroes

By Shawn Stone

The Last Flight (Warner Archive)

Central Airport (Warner Archive)

Once stardom is established, it’s infrequent that a male movie star’s persona changes. Gary Cooper was a hero from the beginning to the end; Jack Nicholson has always been a wild man. Hero or villain, Bruce Willis is an iconoclastic loner. Alien or angel, John Travolta is an unrepentant egoist. Steve McQueen couldn’t be anyone but Steve McQueen.

Of course, as Joe Jackson sang, “it’s different for girls.” Katharine Hepburn kept in the game by transitioning from spunky independence to brittle, lovelorn middle age; Bette Davis turned into a cartoon version of herself; and Meryl Streep moved from diva-like lead roles to character parts. For women stars, it’s reinvent yourself or retire.

It was also different for silent- and early talkie-era star Richard Barthelmess. He made his name playing the clean-cut, all-American boy in D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East, scampering across an ice floe to save willowy Lillian Gish from a watery grave; Barthelmess cemented his status in Henry King’s moving pastoral drama Tol’able David, as the kid brother who has to defeat a trio of inbred hillbillies to save his family (in a hand-to-hand fight that’s still shocking in its brutality).

At the end of his career, however, he played characters who were alienated from traditional American society. It was a remarkable transformation. In Heroes for Sale (1933, available in the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 DVD set), he’s a morphine-addicted veteran. In G.W. Pabst’s A Modern Hero (1934), he’s a social-climbing heel; in Massacre (1933), he’s a Native American who has turned his back on his tribe.

While the last two films turn up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies, another two Barthelmess dramas were recently issued by the video-on-demand Warner Archive imprint.

The Last Flight (1931) is a “lost generation” drama set in 1919 Paris; it’s in the style of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. (You could say it’s a rip-off, but since The Last Flight avoids the racism and anti-Semitism of its model, much can be forgiven.) And it’s as haunting, and haunted, as any work about that era.

Barthelmess is Cary, a World War I pilot who survived the crash of “last flight,” but maimed his hands in the process. His war-damaged comrades are even more lost: One (Elliot Nugent) is a narcoleptic ex-gunner; another (Johnny Mack Brown) is a cheerful thrill freak compelled to prove his manhood in crazy ways at exactly the wrong moments; and his best friend, Shep (David Manners), has a nervous eye tic that compels him to stay drunk. (Or, as Shep says in the parlance of the day, “I’m going to get tight and stay tight.”)

The lost boys meet a lost girl, Nikki (Helen Chandler, as otherworldly as she is in Dracula), a Southern belle who is evidently very rich, estranged from her family, and eccentric. She loves all of them—chastely, of course—because they believe in nothing.

In his first American film, director William Dieterle brings the poetic sensibility of 1920s German cinema to this sad tale. This Paris is a series of bars and hotel rooms filled with people working very hard at having fun—and drinking oceans of alcohol. The film’s most repeated line? “Drink this. It’ll make you laugh and play!”

This is my favorite sound-era Barthelmess performance. Cary is a wreck, skittish and droll and bemused, quick to fight and even quicker to laugh.

The other recent release, Central Airport (1933), finds Barthelmess in the cockpit again. This time he’s a disgraced ex-passenger pilot, flying stunt planes on the 1930s barnstorming circuit. Briskly directed by ex-pilot William A. Wellman, it’s not in the class of The Last Flight—but it’s a first-class melodrama with an exciting sea rescue as its climax. Here, Barthelmess’ character takes a physical beating; by the end of the story he’s limping and sporting an eye patch. It would almost be absurd, but there’s a saving, poignant moment when he dances with Sally Eilers (as his ex-partner) that shows a kind of broken grace.

As in most of his other late films, Barthelmess loses everything: his family, his girl, and the life he wanted. In the depths of Depression-era America, this made the former all-American hero a contemporary (doomed) everyman.

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