Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Too Much TV: "INVASION!" (November 28 - December 1, 2016)

The CW network runs superhero shows four nights each week. It picked up Supergirl after CBS decided the ratings didn't justify the expense, and promptly reduced expenses while actually improving the special effects and the overall tone of the show. While the show is now on the same network as The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl remains in its own separate universe, despite what many fans saw as a golden opportunity to integrate the show into the larger "Arrowverse" when Flash did its version of DC Comics' Flashpoint event, in which Flash fundamentally altered reality by going back in time to stop the murder of his mother. It was most likely thought by Greg Berlanti and his writers that the Arrowverse was incompatible with the overwhelming everyday presence of not only Supergirl but Superman (who was introduced as a recurring character with an actual face and voice this fall), while Supergirl could not accommodate the everyday presence of all the costumed heroes who ply their trade on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. However, what's the point of a multiverse, which is what the CW now has, if the universes can't cross over?

Flash had already visited Supergirl's universe last year, when their shows were still on separate networks, so all you needed was a proper pretext for the Maid of Might to return the visit. Berlanti's team found this in a nearly 30 year old DC miniseries about an invasion of Earth by the Dominators, a species fearful of our planet's native and resident "metahumans," to use DC's catchall name for superbeings. On TV they would invade the Arrowverse Earth, giving Flash the idea that the best way to beat an alien invasion was with the help of a more powerful alien. So far, so good, except that Supergirl precedes Flash on the weekly schedule. Therefore, Flash and his colleague Cisco "Vibe" Ramon transported themselves to what we learned later was "Earth-38" (DC Comics hosts anywhere from 52 to Infinite Earths) after a couple of abortive attempts for the last few minutes of a Supergirl episode that had at most a thematic (and that perhaps accidental) relationship to the invasion concept. In it, Supergirl learned that her Kryptonian people had developed a bioweapon to repel alien invaders of their planet by killing anyone without native DNA. Evil Earthlings discovered the weapon (inexplicably called "Medusa" by the Kryptonians) and re-engineered it into a plague for non-human residents of Earth. I'm giving you just enough of the plot to explain why some Arrowverse fans, some of whom claimed to be watching Supergirl for the first time, felt that billing the episode as part of the Invasion! crossover was a bait and switch. Yet if anything this is typical of Berlanti's scattershot approach to storytelling, maddening to those who prefer the more focused, less crowded Marvel shows on Netflix. Berlanti's writers typically load their shows with vast casts of characters, then struggle to find things for all of them to do, often at the expense of the main character's storyline. So while Supergirl's near-irrelevance to the crossover was disappointing, it didn't scandalize me as it did other viewers.

It did, however, force an awkward chronology on the crossover. After seeing Flash recruit Supergirl to fight the invaders, viewers returned on Tuesday to find the Dominators just arriving on Earth. They were unappealing, unimpressive creatures, naked unlike their comics counterparts and apparently content to lope across the world on foot instead of traveling in vehicles outside their spaceship. Of course, both clothes and vehicles probably would have strained the special effects budget for these shows past its breaking point, but this apparent creative indifference to the series' villains betrayed their macguffinesque essence. The alien invasion, almost until the end, only provided that pretext for gathering all the Berlanti heroes together to bounce off each other. Even on that understanding of what Invasion! was actually about, the series only functioned as a crossover little more than 50% of that time, primarily during parts two (The Flash) and four (Legends of Tomorrow). By coincidence or design, part three would be the 100th episode of Arrow, the founding show of the whole shebang, and that hour inevitably was caught up in a conventional commemorative sort of storyline. At the end of Flash, the Dominators for some reason beamed Green Arrow, some of his supporting players, and former supporting player The Atom onto their spaceship. On Arrow they were imprisoned in individual pods and subjected to what was meant to be a mutually-reinforcing fantasy of how all their lives would have been different had Oliver Queen and his father not been lost at sea all those years ago. Why the Dominators should have done this is still unclear, though one character speculates afterward that the aliens may have been trying to harvest information from their subconsciences. If so, it benefited them little, and the device itself was severely defective, since our heroes almost immediately began having flashbacks to their real pasts. Their interactions only served to break the illusion down more quickly, it seems, but the whole thing was really a pretext, or should I say excuse, to bring back some actors whose characters had been killed off in previous seasons. While all this was going on, Flash and Supergirl fought some random supervillain who had some sort of technology they needed and there was much of the banter Berlanti fans enjoy so. On its own terms Arrow wasn't a bad episode, and that seems consistent with reports that the show has improved on its disastrous fourth season, but I'm sure more casual fans expected something more fully integrated into the main storyline of the week.

That left Legends of Tomorrow, which reportedly has improved on its disastrous first season, though you couldn't have convinced me with the first two episodes I saw this fall. Legends was the master class in Berlanti chaos theory; send a bunch of mismatched characters caroming in all directions and hope at least one of them does something fans will want to see more of. Since I never bothered reviewing this show last season, let me explain that a time traveler assembled a motley team of other shows' supporting characters and unimpressive newcomers to combat TV's underwhelming version of comics' immortal supervillain Vandal Savage.Having seen him off, the surviving "Legends" seek out alleged anomalies in time and usually cause more mischief than they correct. The show's approach to history is usually insulting, but it excels in using none of its characters to their full potential, except perhaps for the sardonic Mick "Heatwave" Rory (Dominic Purcell), once a foe of Flash and now the man with every episode's best lines. However improved it may be, I think there was an implicit acknowledgment that the Legends are the awkward squad of the Arrowverse in the fact that their part of the crossover played the most like a true crossover -- as it had to, being the conclusion -- and less like an episode of their own show.

While one of the Legends, Dr. Martin Stein, (Victor Garber) discovered a Flashpoint complication of his life in a daughter who didn't exist before Flash's meddling in time -- which somehow went undetected by the history-regulating Legends but was noticed by the Dominators -- the main character arc this hour belonged to Cisco Ramon, who despite helping Flash to Earth-38 back on Monday was on the outs with his fleet friend. In an inexplicable attempt to wreck the funniest character on all four shows, the Flash writers made Cisco mad at Flash for not going back in time to save his brother Dante, an occasional supporting character who had died offscreen. In time Cisco's anger cooled, only to rekindle in obnoxiously redundant fashion once he learned that Dante's death was not merely a sin of omission but a sin of Flash's commission, a consequence of the Flashpoint event. Cisco thus spent most of the crossover undermining what authority or credibility Flash had, only to face his comeuppance on Thursday, when he joined the Legends on a trip to 1951, the time when the Dominators first visited Earth, and helped rescue one of the aliens from some men in black bent on dissecting him. Cisco's thought was that the Dominators would remember this human kindness, but it actually only reinforced their belief that a breakout of superpowers such as the Legends displayed made Earth a threat requiring destruction. So Cisco learned that anyone can succumb to the temptation of good intentions and make honest, unwitting mistakes, and so he refuses to allow Flash to sacrifice himself by surrendering himself to the Dominators as they demanded, and presumably they'll be buddies again by the next regular episode of their show.

That only leaves the nearest thing to a proper invasion we see all week, and its defeat when Flash, Supergirl and Firestorm -- the composite being formed by the merger of Martin Stein and Jefferson Jackson (Franz Drameh) -- neutralize the dreaded metabomb, apparently the only such weapon the Dominators possess, or at least brought with them. It's all over then but the chest-beating, which comes in brazen form when Supergirl dubs Flash and Arrow "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" -- a term you may have heard elsewhere and may strike some as copyright infringement. I can say with some certainty that it was the best Legends of Tomorrow episode I've ever seen, but that's a case in which any praise is damning. But to be fair, while it was far less as a whole than it could have been, Invasion! was pretty entertaining on the geeky level it aimed for -- while Netflix/Marvel partisans and some comic book fans despise Berlanti's "cheesiness" that's what many people want from superhero shows --  and actually convinced me to give the new seasons of both Arrow and Legends another chance. I don't agree with those who prefer Berlanti's multiverse unconditionally to the "grimdark" tendencies of DC's movie universe, but I can understand and sympathize with what many still like about it, in all its earnest and endearing awkwardness.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: MASSACRE (1934)


Alan Crosland's modern-day western describes a slow-motion massacre: the systematic exploitation and swindling of Native Americans by corrupt Indian agents. It may not be as violent as what you saw in period westerns, but as the protagonist says, "It's a massacre any way you take it." He's an intriguingly ambiguous figure. Joe "Chief" Thunder Horse (Richard Barthelmess) is a riding, roping star of a wild west show playing, ironically enough, at Chicago's "Century of Progress" exposition. Joe plays the stereotyped bare-chested taciturn savage for the audience, but in reality he's as nearly deracinated as an Indian could be, admitting to his white girlfriend of the moment (Claire Dodd), who embarrasses him by redecorating one of her rooms into a mini museum of native artifacts, that "I wouldn't know a medicine man from a bootlegger" after using an old mortar and pestle as an ashtray. Barthelmess often seems the slow learner of the Warner Bros. stock company, but performing alongside people playing taciturn Indians all the time, he seems as much a glib, fast-talking smartass Warners hero as he ever would be. Joe has to go back on the rez when he learns that his father is gravely ill. Driving with his personal servant Sam (Clarence Muse) in his deluxe roadster -- his name is on the door, his face on the spare-tire case -- Joe rediscovers a dusty wasteland ruled over by the federal agent, Elihu B. Quissenberry (a reliably repulsive Dudley Digges) with his ally in swindling, the undertaker Shanks (Sidney Toler) and his minions, an alcoholic doctor (Arthur Hohl) and a puppet sheriff (Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton). They have a nice racket going on in which Shanks makes a mint on overpriced caskets and burials while Quissenberry enriches himself by administering estates. You can tell that Joe's dad isn't going to get proper medical attention from this lot, but Joe's been off the rez long enough to be shocked by it all, despite the efforts of agency secretary Lydia -- like himself, a college-educated Indian (Ann Dvorak) -- to wise him up. Joe may be seeing the world, but Lydia tells him there's a lot about the world they don't teach you at the old alma mater. Joe's old man was still a traditional man and Joe decides he should have a traditional funeral, which enrages Quissenberry more because it skips Shanks's funeral racket than because it represents some "pagan" revival.

Joe clearly has become a disruptive element whom the agency people should like to see leave as soon as possible to make $400 a week back in Chicago. But when Shanks rapes Joe's 15 year old sister -- they don't say the r-word of course, but it could not be more obvious within Pre-Code bounds -- it looks like they'll be stuck with him for a while. In a brutal modernization of the typical western chase, Joe in his car pursues Shanks in his until, cowboy style, he ropes the rapist. Slamming his brakes, he snaps Shanks out of his car and into the dirt, and drags him awhile before leaving him in a ditch. He'd already roughed up the agency doctor, so inevitably Joe gets arrested. Since Shanks is still alive it's only an assault charge that sends Joe to jail for 90 days after a kangaroo trial and leaves him a few hundred dollars poorer. He can afford that, but if Shanks dies he'll face a murder charge. Before that happens, Lydia arranges to break him out of jail so he can go to Washington D.C. and take his case directly to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Since Joe has the most conspicuous getaway vehicle imaginable, Sam sacrifices himself by driving the Thunderhorse-mobile into an obvious trap while Joe hops a freight for the nation's capital.  There, in keeping with Warners' favorable attitude toward the FDR presidency, our hero finds a sympathetic bureaucrat (Henry O'Neill) who's been trying to expose agency corruption but hasn't found anyone willing to testify about it. He sends Joe back to the rez with a federal attorney to investigate things, but Shanks has died in the interim and there's a murder warrant out for Joe. If it hadn't been plain before what Shanks had done to Joe's sister, the understanding that Joe will use the "unwritten law" defense to justify his killing should have left things clear even to the dimmest viewer. For that defense to work, however, the girl has to testify, but Quissenberry's minions have abducted her. That finally takes the tribe to the breaking point. They propose to raid the town to liberate Joe and burn the courthouse. Again, Massacre resists the temptation to portray this as a reversion to savagery. Just as Joe never reverts to the native address he identifies with wild west show hokum, the Indians look like your typical American lynch mob in modern dress, arriving by car as well as wagon or horseback, except that they're riding to the rescue. However, Joe joins those appealing to the rule of law as the courthouse burns, determined to stand trial like a good citizen until he learns that his sister has been kidnapped. That sets up one more ride to the rescue, one more horrifying revelation of the mistreatment of Indians, and a final dangerous showdown with a desperate Quissenberry.

While the climax teases a tragic finish, Massacre ends happily with Joe giving up show business for a new career as a conscientious representative of the U.S. government and a new life with Lydia. Compared to other movie exposes of reservation oppresses, Massacre is relatively unpatronizing toward Indians and is admirable in its commitment to modernity. The traditional funeral for Joe's father might not seem consistent with that commitment, but as Joe says, no one bothers Christians when they practice their religion, so why not let Indians worship their way? Maybe it's me, but I doubt Joe himself is very religious either way. Joe is one of Barthelmess's best talkie performances, along with the same year's A Modern Hero, and it's sad that Warner's dropped him just as he seemed to be getting the hang of talkie stardom. You can still see that the once-boyish Barthelmess, going on 39 when Massacre came out, was losing his movie-star looks. The bags under his eyes undermine Joe's alleged magnetism, but the actor puts enough charisma into his performance to make up for his fading beauty. Apart from Barthelmess, Massacre has obvious historic interest (if not continued relevance) for its portrayal of Native Americans' plight at a time when Calvin Coolidge's grant of citizenship to reservation Indians (as noted in the film) may have made some believe all problems were solved. Crosland's direction is solid, but special credit goes to whoever chose the desolate location where much of the film takes place. If anything, Massacre's story is too good to be true, but it's fun to see a western with a successful Indian uprising and the U.S. government cheering the Indians on.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: Fatty Arbuckle speaks!

Tragedy is sometimes just a matter of timing. The tragedy of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is that he died in the middle of rewriting his tragic narrative. A heart attack claimed him at age 46, reportedly on the very day in 1933 that Warner Bros. signed him to a feature-film contract. Arbuckle had already finished Stage One of his comeback from an exile imposed on him despite a most emphatic acquittal after his third manslaughter trial for the death of Virginia Rappe. Merely to have taken part in the wild party where Rappe took ill, it seems, had been enough to justify making an example of Arbuckle at a time when Hollywood had been rocked by its first serious moral scandals. Like future blacklisted talent, Arbuckle never fully disappeared from the entertainment business. He performed in vaudeville and on Broadway, and returned to Hollywood to direct movies under a pseudonym. It seems right that he was called back before the camera during the Pre-Code era, but Arbuckle's six Big V shorts for Warners aren't really Pre-Code pictures in the salacious sense. You can divide them between nostalgic knockabouts in Arbuckle's old style (particularly How've You Been?, in which Fatty wastes his already-limited grocery store stock mindlessly hurling sacks of flour at a suspected criminal) and forays into contemporary nut comedy. I happen to like the nuttier films the best, but they're also the shorts in which Arbuckle most seems like an interchangeable part in the Big V machine.

Comedies like Close Relations and Tomalio (the latter finished the day before Arbuckle died) are more ensemble pieces than star vehicles, though Arbuckle's face fills the title cards. Big V had an eclectic stock company that included Shemp Howard (who must have had the longest hair on a Hollywood man at the time) a young Lionel Stander and the studio's most underrated comic, Charles Judels. With a range from the amiable to the apoplectic, Judels' signature was a closed-mouthed whine like a whistling kettle. Playing a psychotic Latin American general who can summon a firing squad to any location with his trusty whistle and insists on hearing the Lohengrin overture during executions, whether on a jukebox or performed by a three-piece band, Judels pretty much steals Tomalio from Arbuckle, who with his Kansas accent never sounds more like Oliver Hardy than in that short's clever opening shot. Fatty is shown in close-up sitting in the middle of the desert, angrily asking an unseen interlocutor, Hardy-style, "Why don't you help me?" The camera pulls back to indicate that Fatty is talking to a mule. Then we hear another voice, and the camera pulls further back to reveal that the mule is sitting on Fatty's sidekick for the picture. These shorts mostly have nice production values, though several opt for cheap animation effects to portray insect attacks or eruptions of Mexican jumping beans across a dinner table. They seem state of the art otherwise, but Arbuckle himself, however good-natured, seems old-fashioned in his standard costume with high-water pants and a voice that marks him as an oldschool rube. He still has some of his physical skills, best displayed in his juggling of kitchen implements and ingredients in Hello, Pop!, though he doesn't take the truly epic bumps he did in his youth. For that matter, the films themselves often flinch from large-scale destruction, usually setting up a violent collision, then cutting to someone's reaction shot before showing us the wreckage. It's an odd quirk that doesn't really harm the films very much.

Watching the Arbuckle shorts in a Warner Archive Big V collection was a nostalgic experience for me. I remember long long ago seeing In the Dough played in the wee hours on The Joe Franklin Show, at a time when I knew about Fatty Arbuckle but not about his Vitaphone shorts. Seeing him talk on screen late that night was like looking into an alternate reality. While I found all the shorts are all fairly entertaining -- Tomalio, Close Relations (Fatty is named an heir to a fortune but discovers his uncle [Judels] is a gouty lunatic) and Buzzin' Around (Fatty invents a shatterproof coating for ceramics but takes a jar of hard cider to town for the demonstration by mistake) are the best -- they do leave you wondering how much further Arbuckle might have gone had he lived. He was probably at the right studio, Warners being the home of Joe E. Brown, another exemplary physical comedian. Brown occupied his own separate universe at Warners, his films arguably more kiddie fare than the studio's typical Pre-Code product, and you can imagine Arbuckle making features in a similar sphere. Would we have seen Fatty among the comics in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or grappling with such absurdities as Sh! The Octopus? Would Warners have given him a chance in more adult  fare, possibly as a younger version of Guy Kibbee? Or would Arbuckle have ended up making crap at Columbia alongside his great friend Buster Keaton by the end of the decade? Or would the backlash that led to Code Enforcement drive him from the screen again? The real tragedy of Fatty Arbuckle is that we can't know. His story ends all too abruptly on what he reportedly called the best day of his life.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

ALLENDE (Allende en su laberinto, 2014) and THE BATTLE OF CHILE (1975-9)

Santiago, Chile: September 11, 1973 
 
La Moneda, the Chilean presidential residence in Santiago, is an Alamo of the Latin American left. President Salvador Allende made his last stand there against a military coup on September 11, 1973, as chronicled in Patricio Guzman's documentary and dramatized in Miguel Littin's 2014 movie. Guzman and Littin are near contemporaries, born a year apart, who both went into exile after the coup d'etat. Both are biased in Allende's favor, though neither The Battle of Chile nor Allende in his Labyrinth -- the latter borrows its title from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel about the death of Simon Bolivar -- is a hagiography of the socialist martyr. The fictional Allende played by Daniel Munoz seems testy and stubborn and prone to speaking of himself in the third person ("Allende does not surrender!") in his determination to be a martyr, while the real president documented by Guzman seems suicidally naive in his determination to carry out a socialist revolution against massive resistance without resort to force. Either way, there's pathos in the image of an aging academic in his sweater donning a combat helmet and firing a machine gun in futile resistance but epic courage.


Allende was the rare Marxist to win power by election, and wanted to prove that socialism could be achieved by peaceful means. Guzman's three-part documentary (I've only seen the two parts aired on TCM last week) is subtitled "the struggle of an unarmed people" and from all appearances the deck was stacked against Allende and his movement. Allende did not win a majority of the popular vote in 1970 -- he led the three-candidate field with approximately 36% -- and was chosen by the country's senate. But his fate was sealed almost from the start by the fact that his Popular Unity coalition never won control of the Chilean legislature. Conservatives and relative moderates could block many of his initiatives, but in turn they never had enough votes to impeach Allende. As Guzman stresses at every opportunity, the U.S. (under Nixon and Kissinger) opposed Allende from the beginning and provided both moral and material support to both the legal and the military opposition. The coup that toppled Allende was the second attempt of 1973, following a small but lethal uprising by a rogue unit that June. The first part of Guzman's documentary closes with ultimately dramatic footage of these soldiers firing directly at a cameraman as that brave man films his own murder. The anti-Allende majority in the legislature refused to declare a state of emergency after the coup, denying Allende the power to purge the military and other institutions, while many in Chile felt that Allende himself had far overstepped his constitutional bounds. The latter viewpoint is not taken seriously by Guzman and isn't addressed at all by Littin, and watching these films only launched me into a labyrinth of history without guiding me to the end.


The Littin film focuses exclusively on Allende's last day and presumes knowledge that only Chileans or specialist historians outside that country will possess. So I recorded the Battle episodes to get more context, and while Battle of Chile is a powerful piece of documentary propaganda it begged as many questions, if not more, as it answered. While I can't believe that a military coup or Allende's death -- the consensus is that the president killed himself as troops stormed the palace -- were justified, constitutional objections to his measures or his alleged refusal to abide by high-court rulings against him can't just be dismissed as the dishonest carping of conservative or bourgeois "mummies." Nor can I dismiss workers who went on strike in 1973 as stooges for the "mummies" as readily as Guzman does, no matter what damage they did to the Chilean economy and Allende's position. Guzman seems satisfied that Allende was always within the constitution because he was the duly elected president, and he refers to Allende's supporters as "constitutionalists," but Battle refuses to engage constitutional questions objectively. You could believe from Guzman, if not from Allende himself, that a constitutional election only provided a pretext for an extra-constitutional transformation of society. Allende deserves a fuller treatment of his character -- and may have gotten it in a 2004 documentary -- then either film gives him. Littin doesn't give us much sense of what he stood for other than occasional remarks about "comrades" and "workers." The main thing I got from Littin's film was that Allende chose death over exile to deny the coup plotters and the eventual dictatorship -- Augusto Pinochet was military chief of staff at this time and Littin shows Allende repeatedly asking where Pinochet is until he learns that the supposedly loyal general is leading the coup -- any pretense of legitimacy via a peaceful handover of power. In that sense Allende lost the battle of La Moneda but won the battle of history, at least on film. But while Battle is a fascinating film that also seems eerily prophetic of the polarization of the 21st century U.S. in its man-on-the-street interviews and clips from Crossfire-style TV shows, and Allende can't help but be dramatic, my real recommendation is that you find some reputable, nonpartisan book for the real story.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Too Much TV: A note on TV westerns

It looks like I won't have much time for this blog this week -- holiday deadlines do that to me -- but I wanted to let readers know that after a couple of years of somewhat intensive viewing I'm about ready to start doing series reviews of some classic western series from the 1950s and 1960s. TV westerns are a relatively late enthusiasm of mine, rather like pulp fiction and probably for some of the same reasons. I didn't care much for westerns when I was a kid, when what I had for reference was Bonanza, a show I've never warmed to, and the last seasons of Gunsmoke. It was unfair of me, I know now, to judge the genre by these shows, but only in recent years have I been able to see a larger sample of shows, thanks to cable TV. The premium channel Starz Encore Westerns, the Christian channel INSP, and channels of the sort used by local network affiliates to fill their digital slots -- MeTV, GetTV and Grit in particular -- have made a wider range of westerns available than we've had in thirty or forty years. In the past you'd see Gunsmoke and Bonanza because those were the longest-lasting shows. Now you can see shows that lasted only three or four years, or even one or two. Some deserved to last longer while some, of course, deserved their quick demise. I've seen enough now to know what I like and, I think, to know what's good. In general I like these shows for their tremendous stock company of character actors, some of whom moved on to movies (Charles Bronson, Warren Oates, George Kennedy, etc.) while others remained TV stalwarts (John Dehner, Claude Akins, John Anderson, etc.). I also like the efficiency of their storytelling, their ability to tell a complete story in an hour or half an hour. While there's much to be said for the modern immersive longform series, there's a sense of satisfaction from seeing a story complete in one sitting, without binging, that the modern shows, for all their virtues, can't provide. It was easier to tell complete stories quickly because the old shows didn't focus on an ongoing evolution of their heroes. That might sound bad at first hearing, but the idea usually was that we encountered characters already fully evolved, as opposed to today's concern with how everyone begins. The older shows weren't distracted by shipping, either. While I don't deny the entertainment value of shipping, the old arrangement that doomed every relationship a protagonist got into -- a love interest might die but more often simply moved on -- seems more like life somehow in its commitment to transience. I don't know what most people think when I raise the subject of classic TV westerns, but the best of them were clear kin to the "adult" or "psychological" westerns that flourished in the Fifties, and the necessity of cutting off all storylines but the protagonists' at the end of each episode often took these westerns in very dark directions. Some 1965-6 episodes of The Virginian, for instance -- that long-lived series' darkest season, that almost killed it -- might not seem out of place on HBO fifty years later, a lack of gore notwithstanding. It isn't darkness I'm looking for in the best western shows, however. I'm looking for a certain laconic authenticity and gravitas absent in both the more garrulous or simply goofy shows and the more stylized or gimmicky spaghetti westerns to which the classic TV westerns are often unfavorably compared. I'm also looking for heroes who kick ass and -- this is important -- talk the talk as well as walk the walk. I've found a few of those in my western watching, and I hope to introduce some of them to you sometime soon.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

THE LAST KING (Birkebeinerne, 2016)

On the snowy slopes of thirteenth century Norway, warriors on skis must have traveled faster than any man could without the aid of a horse. Their speed lends a thrilling novelty to Nils Gaup's compact epic, which admirably gets a big job done in little more than 90 minutes. Gaup is on somewhat familiar ground, having made his name globally with the similarly set 1987 film Pathfinder. In Birkebeinerne (the Last King title doesn't seem relevant to the story) it's 1206 or thereabouts and Norway is torn between two powerful factions, the titular good guys ("birchlegs" in some translations) and the bad guy Baglers. For an outsider it's hard to tell what each party stands for, though there's an interesting anticlerical angle in the film's emphasis on the Baglers' alignment with the Vatican that's underscored by a Birkebeiner's scoffing attitude toward prayers over a wounded ally. Suffice it to say that the poisoning of a young king puts the Baglers' man in power, but a mere baby boy has a more legitimate claim. It's up to the Birkebeiners to keep the baby safe while they try to raise an army in his name. The child's location is confided to Skjerveld (Jakob Oftebro), but the Baglers are on to him. They threaten his wife and his own small child with death unless he confesses where the baby king has been hidden. Skjerveld cracks, only to be mocked by the Bagler commander for having less fortitude than his wife, whom the commander orders killed out of pure spite.


Skjerveld, aided by his buddy Torstein (Kristofer Hivju), now has a twofold mission of revenge for his family and redemption for himself. Only a Bagler attack saves him from execution after he admits his betrayal, but he and Torstein take the baby to the next safe house, with the big-bad Bagler commander in hot pursuit. The chase scenes are exhilarating in an almost anachronistic way, since we still expect James Bond, not some furry medieval man, doing this sort of thing.


Our heroes finally patch together a little army that should be enough to ambush the Baglers as they fall into a trap baited with the baby king on a sled. The movie exposes its budgetary limitations in the big attack, although I suppose that a mere handful of ski-jumping warriors could well wreak havoc on a conventional horseback army. In any event, the final battle is nicely plotted to set up a redemptive showdown between Skjerveld and the Bagler commander, the last of the one band of bad guys to escape the trap and threaten the little king. It's all based on fact, although I read that Norwegian historians unsurprisingly found the film's version of events oversimplified. Birkebeinerne is no masterpiece, but it's cool to get a decent action film that comes with a history lesson to broaden your knowledge of the wild world of cinema.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

On the Big Screen: ARRIVAL (2016)

It's nice to see Hollywood spend some money on science fiction that isn't space opera, but it's not as if "first contact" isn't a familiar subgenre already. The really good thing about Dennis Villeneuve's film is how it problematizes that contact and explains the problems involved in comfortably dramatic fashion. We start with twelve contact lens-shaped alien ships appearing in apparently random parts of the world, including Montana USA. An Army colonel (Forest Whitaker) invites linguist and translator Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to interpret what the seven-limbed creatures (their vaguely cthulhoid appearance keeps our guard up) have tried to say so far. The colonel wants to cut to the chase and find out why the Heptapods are here, but Banks explains quite clearly how the building blocks of conversation have to be assembled before we can ask the colonel's question in comprehensible fashion. Quickly concluding that talking to the Heptapods may be impossible, Banks starts to teach them written English, and in turn learns the Heptapod language, written with natural ink in circular, distinctively blotted sentences that hang in the creatures' thick atmosphere or stick to the glass partition separating them from the humans. This allows the beginnings of communication, but specific meanings of "words" still need to be nailed down before false conclusions are drawn. In the most obvious case, the Heptapods seem to be saying that they're here to "offer weapon" to the different countries they're visiting -- including not just the U.S. but China, Russia, Pakistan, etc. -- and urging us to "use weapon." Are they really talking about a "weapon," and what do they mean by using it? The authoritarian countries, somehow led by a Chinese general rather than a party secretary, conclude that the Heptapods are hostile and prepare for military action. American instincts are along the same lines, but Banks bucks authority, backed by sympathetic physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), to get crucial clarification from the Montana Heptapods they've nicknamed, in a nod to cinematic language games of the past, Abbott and Costello....

I want to be more careful about spoilers with Arrival than I am with superhero films that, as components of larger projects, may only be comprehensible in contexts established by spoilers. Arrival happily stands alone and deserves to have the integrity of its surprises respected. I'll tease rather than spoil by warning you that the film toys with certain movie conventions in a manner that first seems disappointingly derivative -- one particular attempt at character development will seem to have been ripped off blatantly from another recent sci-fi film with a female protagonist -- but gains fresh meaning once the story resolves itself. I'm not sure I entirely comprehend the full story -- it's unclear to me whether an important attribute of the heroine is acquired or innate, though I lean toward the former -- but in this case, at least, that doesn't mean the picture is incomprehensible. While its portrayal of military-intelligence types is pretty cliched, Arrival overall is a film that respects your intelligence and deserves respect in return. Villeneuve directs in a classic widescreen style, with cinematography by Bradford Young, and even if it's not a space opera it's often spectacular to look at. I'm not ready to anoint Amy Adams an Oscar front-runner, but I appreciate why people appreciate her work as a character defined primarily by brains and I can't honestly say I've seen much better acting this year. It's nice to see her in an alternate universe she can share with Jeremy Renner (see also American Hustle) when their regular "cinematic universe" haunts are off-limits to each other. In a way, that makes the world of Arrival more real, no matter how fantastic a story it tells.