Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Too Much TV: OUTCAST (2016-?) and PREACHER (2016 -?)

In James Blish's story Black Easter triumphant demons dismiss the Bible as "propaganda," noting that "each of the opposing sides in any war predicts victory." Many modern genre writers have taken that idea to heart by adopting many of the trappings of Biblical mythology while rejecting the fundamental premise of God's omnipotence and inevitable triumph. They feel as entitled to play with the Judeo-Christian mythos as anyone does toward Greek or Norse or Chinese mythology. Some people, it seems, prefer the idea of demons running amok, or unsupervised angels running amok, without the bothersome absolutes of God as Christians in particular (if not also Muslims) understand him. As a sort of atheist myself -- one, that is, who acknowledges the impossibility of disproving the existence of an omnipotent being, especially one who likes to test people -- I have no problem with that, though I'd also have no problem with someone addressing in fiction how people might respond to indisputable proof of an omnipotent, jealous and judgmental creator. Right now people seem more comfortable imagining that the Bible describes something real, though not with perfect accuracy or honesty. Two Summer 2016 TV shows based on comic books grapple with the idea that the supernatural is not quite how the Bible describes it, or as believers see it. For one, this anti-Revelation is cause for black humor. For the other, it inspires one destructive crisis of faith while leaving the rest of us questioning what the "hell" is going on.

Preacher (AMC) is based on Garth Ennis's comics series for Vertigo, DC Comics' line of creator-owned titles offering alternatives to superhero action. The involvement of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (Sausage Party, but also The Green Hornet) should tip you off as to the overall tone of the show, but the real auteur of the show is probably writer/director Sam Catlin. There's a lot of weirdness for weirdness' sake in Annville TX, a methane-powered town (courtesy of the Quincannon Meat & Power Co.) where two rival sports mascots spend their whole lives in costume and former bank robber Jesse Custer (Dominic "Howard Stark" Cooper) preaches every Sunday in his father's old church. Jesse doesn't seem to have the calling, but three interesting things happen to him. His old girlfriend and partner in crime Tulip (Ruth Negga) returns in dramatic fashion, urging Jesse to join her vengeance quest for the man who betrayed them and drove off with their loot. A happy-go-lucky Irish vampire, Cassidy (Joseph Gilgun) literally falls out of the sky, having to leave a plane without a parachute when vampire hunters attack him. He'd still be a piece of abstract art in open country if a cow didn't happen by to give him nourishment. Most importantly, Jesse gets possessed by a dangerous entity -- others it possessed, all religious and quasi-religious figures, including Tom Cruise, exploded -- that confers upon him a voice that commands whoever hears it. With Cassidy as his helper or hanger-on and Tulip watching skeptically, Jesse believes he's been gifted by God to spread His word. He especially wants to convert the meanest man in town, Meat & Power proprietor Odin Quincannon (Jackie Earl Haley), an embittered degenerate who has espoused a Gospel of Meat since his family died in a horrific crash. Jesse (or "Preacher," as many call him) uses his new power to make some people change their evil ways, but his big goal is to make Odin "serve God." In fact, he wagers Odin that he can get him to serve God, or else he'll give up his church and the property it stands on. Jesse thinks he's won the bet, but he learns that what it means to "serve God" depends as much on who's listening as on who's talking.

Meanwhile, Jesse shouldn't really have his "gift." In the pilot we saw a Mutt-and-Jeff team of mystery men globetrotting to wherever the mysterious people explosions took place. When they reach Annville, we learn that they are angels (with a direct, primitive phone line to Heaven) tasked with reclaiming "Genesis," the entity possessing Jesse. The offspring of an angel and a demon, Genesis normally lives in an old economy-size coffee can and can be coaxed back inside if you sing "Wynken, Blynken and Nod" to it. Needless to say, these two incompetents -- luckily, they can rematerialize almost instantly after their terrestrial bodies are killed -- raise more questions than they can (or care to) answer. It turns out that Genesis doesn't want to leave Jesse, reinforcing his sense of mission even as Quincannon's unexpected defiance prods the Preacher to demand an irrefutable revelation from God Himself. Having stolen the angels' phone, Jesse promises his congregation that he'll talk to God in a way that everyone can see next Sunday. His triumph turns to existential disaster when it turns out that God Himself has disappeared to his angels know not where. It's almost anticlimactic after that when Annville is destroyed by a methane explosion, after Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy have set out on a quest to find God, more or less -- not knowing that they're being followed by the implacable, unstoppable Saint of Killers (Graham McTavish), a gunman doomed to relive the death of his family and his horrific vengeance upon an evil town until he's recruited by the angels to reclaim Genesis by killing its host....

Preacher goes against the grain of modern genre shows by virtually demanding indifference to the fates of most of its characters, having shoved most of its pieces off the board in its first-season finale. It's enough to invite indifference to the show's fate, despite strong ensemble acting and impressive craftsmanship throughout, unless you're committed to dark quirkiness as an end unto itself or find atrocity inherently hilarious. For this show the absence of God amid the evidence of angels, Hell, etc. makes everything a cosmic joke. Dominic Cooper does all he can with the role of Jesse Custer, but can't keep him from coming across as a self-pitying putz, while McTavish's Cassidy is occasionally amusing but ultimately a one-note stereotype of violent irreverence. Ruth Negga, who has a highly-touted role in the movie Loving this fall, enters the show like a super badass but rarely gets to live up to that entrance. Negga is a good enough actress to make you wish Tulip could convince Jesse to return to her world. However mundane it may be, it's probably a more compelling underworld than the snickering apocalypse Preacher promises.  I don't object to black comedy at all, but it had better be funnier than Preacher usually is if it really wants my respect.

It's too soon to pass judgment on the mythos of Outcast (Cinemax) because as yet we have but few clues as to what exactly is going on in Rome WV. Adapted from the newest comics series by Robert (The Walking Dead) Kirkman,  Outcast expands considerably on the first twelve issues of the comic, adding or enhancing supporting players and subplots. The main story remains focused on Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit), an isolated man with a record of domestic violence, now separated from his wife and daughter by a restraining order. Kyle's mother is a catatonic inmate of a mental institution. She and Kyle's wife both have been possessed by something; naturally enough, Kyle assumes it's the devil at first. He's reinforced in that belief by Rev. Anderson (Philip Glenister), the local exorcist. As Kyle's sister Megan (Wrenn Schmidt) tries to draw him back into the world, he finds that he has a special knack for dealing with the possessions Anderson ministers to. Kyle can hurt and even drive the demons out of people by touching them, inspiring awe and eventually envy in Anderson, especially once he suspects that his own exorcisms haven't worked as well as he'd assumed. Kyle has something Anderson's faith can't account for, something to do with the demons calling Kyle an "Outcast."

Kyle and Anderson discover an epidemic of possessions that the Rev. blames on Sidney (Brent Spiner), a newcomer in town who takes over the home of Kyle's neighbor who'd unexpectedly killed himself. Pale and black-clad, Sidney certainly looks the part of a satanic mastermind, and he plays the part when Anderson gets too nosy and confrontational, carving a pentagram into the Rev.'s chest as a warning against further interference in what we come to know as "the merge." It begins to be apparent that Kyle has power over the possessed while Anderson doesn't because they're not really possessed by the sort of demons Christianity tells us about. We learn that they come from someplace where they can't stay anymore, that they "land" in people randomly (Sidney had the bad luck of landing in a serial killer whose impulses he must struggle against), that the possessed can find their presence pleasurable once they get over a violently traumatic period of adjustment, and that the possesseds' loved ones can find the experience pleasurable too, one collaborating husband having found his wife more exciting once taken over. You could almost believe a modus vivendi is possible, except for the feeling that Sidney and his friends are going to do what they have to do whether we really like it or not. Whether Kyle is one of them in some way remains unclear, but it's significant that his daughter demonstrates similar power over the possessed in the season finale. In an odd parallel, both Outcast and Preacher ended their premier seasons with the protagonist leaving town -- you could almost imagine the two groups of characters meeting in some diner -- but the Outcast cliffhanger teases that Kyle might not be allowed to leave town.

Like Preacher, Outcast has a strong ensemble cast. Of this group, Philip Glenister steals the show as the tormented Rev. Anderson, a sincere servant of God who succumbs to the sin of pride in his determination to prove his exorcism methods as effective as Kyle's. Anderson's is the moral horror of a man fighting a holy war in the apparent absence of God. His tragedy is that he can only see what's happening in Bible terms, as a struggle with demons from Hell led by Sidney as The Devil Himself. Ironically, this puts him on a fatal collision course with an unpossessed punk who attaches himself to Sidney to spite the Rev., who happens to be dating his mom. At his best Anderson can still be helpful to Kyle, but at his worst you can believe he causes more damage, direct and collateral, than Sidney and his kind. Both Outcast and Preacher are noteworthy for the way ordinary citizens -- Reg E. Cathey's police chief is the standout in the supporting cast -- become willing to believe in outlandish things; Outcast is more noteworthy in this respect simply because Rome is a less outlandish place than Annville. Both shows steer admirably clear of "they won't believe me" tropes when the evidence of strangeness is too obvious to characters and viewers alike. Of the two shows, I obviously like Outcast better for the perhaps lame reason that it takes itself more seriously than Preacher does. For shows like these, that means Outcast more effectively and intriguingly plays out the implications of its fantasies, though again, Preacher could redeem itself if it were as funny as it thinks it is -- if it were Ash Vs. Evil Dead funny, for instance. It isn't a bad show at all, except that it won't pass the "who cares?" test for many people. In a highly competitive genre TV environment Outcast does get you to care, and it's the show I'm more certain to watch when it returns for another season.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

On the Big Screen: BEN-HUR (2016)

I was probably the youngest person at a screening of Timur Bekmambetov's film this afternoon, and I am not a young man. The word is that Ben-Hur is bombing, and I think I understand why. This third Hollywood version of Lew Wallace's "Tale of the Christ" is by no means a B-movie, but for anyone to whom "Ben-Hur" means anything, the fact that a remake of the Oscar-winning 1959 blockbuster is not being treated as a tentpole event must make it look sight-unseen like a poor imitation of both the William Wyler epic and its 1925 precursor. In 1959 there was no bigger tentpole than Ben-Hur; probably something bigger couldn't be imagined. Biblical or Bible-era epics were the superhero films and CGI extravaganzas of their day, just as contemptible in many critics' eyes and just as compulsively spectacular for the masses. By then, Ben-Hur had set the standard for spectacle for generations, in theater before movies. If you had a big action climax in a movie you called it your "chariot race." But when was the last time your chariot race was a chariot race? Movies can soar in so many ways now that they'd seemed to pass Ben-Hur by, so that to remake the story again with such inevitable modesty as one must have in the 21st century must seem like an insult to those for whom the Wyler film was the biggest thing ever.

By now, you've probably detected a note of regret implying that the 2016 film has gotten a raw deal. So let me end the suspense by saying that Bekmambetov's movie is an often-worthy remake into which a lot of creativity has gone, that it shouldn't be judged by comparisons of scale to previous versions of the story or the hype surrounding them, and that I recommend it despite the way it trips across the finish line and falls on its face.

While some people may dismiss the new Ben-Hur in advance as another product from Bible-film purveyors Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, it's still a film from the director of Nightwatch (and, alas, Wanted), co-written by the screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave. It is no mere "Bible movie," though the biblical parts are certainly its weakest. Inevitably it embraces Christianity, but it does so almost in pragmatic rather than proselytizing fashion, its message being that Jesus's message is the only thing to keep people from destroying themselves and each other. But it's a minimalist, theology-lite Christianity that boils down to little if not nothing more than "Forgive Your Enemies." Unlike the previous Hollywood Ben-Hur films, this one looks Jesus in the face and lets him talk, but in the most perverse casting choice of the year the actor who played Frank Miller's god-monster Xerxes in the 300 films here plays Our Lord & Savior. While the new film departs from its cinematic predecessors in normalizing Jesus -- watching the Wyler film I can't help wondering whether Jesus was horribly deformed, given the way one Roman reacts to that face we can't see, though a Roman in a similar situation reacts the same way to Rodrigo Santoro here -- it also departs from Lew Wallace's story (or so I assume, not having read of it) in important and interesting ways.

Part of the modesty of scale that has handicapped the new film is that it comes in at nearly 90 minutes shorter than the 1959 film. Keith Clarke and John Ridley do this by eliminating the Nativity prologue and, more significantly, the whole storyline of Quintus Arrias, the Roman admiral who adopts Ben-Hur as his son and secures a pardon for him after the wrongly-condemned galley salve rescues him during a sea battle. The new writers prefer to have Judah Ben-Hur (fourth-generation film dynast Jack Huston) a criminal and fugitive when he returns to Jerusalem for vengeance on his enemy Messala. As for the Roman antagonist, his is the most dramatically altered storyline. In the new film, Messala Severus (Toby "Koba" Kebbell) is Judah's adopted brother, his own family having been disgraced, if not condemned, for its participation in the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar. Some wags have speculated that Messala has been made Judah's brother to preempt the homoerotic reading of the story inspired by Gore Vidal's  purported injection of subtext into the 1959 screenplay. But given that Clarke and Ridley have Messala fall for Judah's sister Tirzah (Sofia Black D'Elia), establishing a family tie need not rule out any shipping or slashing between the men. In any event, brotherly love prevails until Messala, feeling alienated as a practicing pagan among Jews, enlists to reclaim his Roman heritage. Before that, to show what a good guy he is, we see him and Judah drag racing in Bronson Canyon until Judah's chariot hits a rock and tosses him headfirst to the ground. Messala's own ride having run away, the Romano-Judean carries the unconscious Judah all the way back to the city. Throughout, we're reminded of the almost unbearable pressure Messala is under to prove himself and restore his ancestral family's good name by getting tough with Judean insurgents. Even past the point of no return, certain moments illustrate his horror at what has happened. Just before the chariot race, as Judah guides his team to their starting position, we see Messala in the foreground, leaning his head forward on his arms as if struggling to absorb what's about to happen. Even during the race, the film softens Messala by having him do without the scythes on his chariot wheels that did so much damage in the 1959 race. In sum, the new Messala is an intriguingly, evocatively ambiguous figure, at once embodying the arrogant occupier and the unassimilable immigrant. He threatens to be irreconcilably Other, except that this Ben-Hur is doggedly dedicated to reconciliation.

Meanwhile, Judah starts out dangerously ambivalent toward the enduring Zealot insurgency against Roman rule. He doesn't believe in violent resistance himself -- and for that is accused of privilege -- but can't bring himself to rat out Zealots when the returned Messala, now the right hand of Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek), asks for help in pacifying Judea. Judah believes in peace but has no clear idea of what peace requires. He's unimpressed by his first encounter with Jesus, who you may be surprised to learn plied his carpentering trade in Jerusalem for a time. When Jesus tells him that God has a plan for everyone, Judah asks how that's different from slavery. Perhaps tellingly, Jesus doesn't have an answer to that just yet. Whatever Judah's plans are, they begin to unravel when he ends up reluctantly harboring a wounded Zealot who takes the place of a loose roof tile as the instrument of doom for the house of Hur. When Pilate and his army make their entrance into Jerusalem, after Judah and Messala have tried to discourage violence, the Zealot can't resist the opportunity to take a pot shot at Pilate and incriminate his hosts. The entry into Jerusalem is one of the new film's best scenes. Because the script has emphasized the importance for both Messala and Judah of the event going off peacefully, tension is established early. It's heightened when the Romans come in chanting belligerent sounding marching songs in Latin, almost as if daring the Zealots to do something. Making Pilate the victim of the roof incident rather than some pointless, otherwise nameless Roman also helps tighten up the plot.

From here the plot develops in familiar ways, apart from Judah washing up after the sea battle directly into the custody of Sheik Yilderim (Morgan Freeman). The sea battle has been the most acclaimed part of the new film so far, since it's probably the easiest part of the 1959 film to top. However, the CGI skies and waters don't look that much less fake than the studio tank Wyler had to use. On the other hand, Bekmambetov's strategy of staying inside the doomed galley, with only fleeting glances of the action through oar windows until the ship is rammed, earns the scene some honest suspense, as does Judah's climactic escape, which requires him to unchain himself underwater from a line of drowned men. Freeman's Yilderim is a more ruthless character than Hugh Griffith made him in his Oscar-winning 1959 turn. The sheik is ready to turn an escaped galley slave over to the Romans until Judah shows some horse-whispering and horse-doctoring skills that will make him useful to a breeder of chariot-racing animals. Yilderim is a realist whose cynical wisdom comes from futile experience as an insurgent against Rome. The most you can do to Rome, he advises Judah, is humiliate their champions in the no-holds-barred environment of the chariot circus. Since chariot racing is for all intents and purposes a death sport, racing for Yilderim gives Judah an opportunity to embarrass Rome and kill Messala, especially after Yilderim makes immunity for Judah part of his bet with Pilate.

The 2016 chariot race has been criticized, mostly, as a poor, CGI-fake imitation of the 1959 race contrived by Wyler, Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt. But I don't think Bekmambetov need be embarrassed by comparisons with 1959 or 1925. While CGI allows him to come up with plenty of new stunts, the 2016 race is also soundly structured dramatically. Yilderim has advised Judah to hang back for the first half of the race, since the front of the field will be a demolition derby early on. Since Messala heads for the front immediately, this means the two antagonists will be separated for half the race. The new film solves this problem by giving each man a preliminary antagonist, Judah a bald Egyptian in the back of the filed, Messala a turbaned lunatic up front prone to yelling "I kill you!" These early rivalries are punctuated by disasters befalling other drivers, all of which sets us up nicely for the main event. Some of the stunts are frankly preposterous. To top Charlton Heston's somersault bump, Huston actually falls out of the chariot and is dragged for a seemingly-lethal period of time before he pulls himself back in by the reins. Other moments are brutally spectacular, and one of my most vivid memories of this movie will be of one chariot tumbling into the seats and the horses running amok in the stands as spectators flee in all directions. Overall the 2016 chariot race works as a climactic action scene, and thematically as well. In a way it exposes Judah and Messala's feud as irrelevant and petty, since all the other drivers seem ready to kill each other with nothing personal entering into it. It also exposes the hollowness of the symbolic vengeance on Rome Judah and Yilderim hoped for. As Yilderim enters Pilate's box to collect his winnings, he sardonically consoles Pilate over the Roman's defeat.  Strangely, Pilate doesn't feel defeated at all, apart from the money he's losing. Surveying the Judean mob that's swarmed onto the track to celebrate Judah's victory, some of them bouncing a seemingly-lifeless Messala about like a meat puppet, Pilate observes that they're all Romans now.

By the way, this film's Pilate is rather unbiblical in one important respect. In the Gospels, you get the impression that Pilate doesn't know Jesus from Adam when first presented with the prisoner, and of course he famously states that he finds no guilt in the man. Here, Pilate actually witnesses an impromptu Jesus sermon after the carpenter rescues some petty thief from a stone-throwing lynch mob. Hearing Jesus preach forgiveness, Pilate advises Messala that the carpenter will prove more dangerous than any Zealot. Violence can be answered by violence, after all, but what is Rome's answer to Jesus's message. The answer, of course, is crucifixion, and since the Sanhedrin isn't shown at all in this picture, there's no doubt where it places responsibility for Jesus's execution, which has been foreshadowed both by Judah's march to the galleys, arms tied behind him, which Jesus witnessed, and Judah's floating on a cruciform fragment of a ship's mast.

Jesus's capture at Gethsemane begins Ben-Hur's death plunge. I suppose there was no way to escape the ending we got given how the screenplay had harped on forgiveness and reconciliation, but even if you still believe that Christianity is capable of achieving those results you'd probably concede that this film's resolution is way too good to be true. Lew Wallace himself would probably think so. For the most part, of course, the denouement follows the familiar story. Judah tries to intervene during Jesus's march to Golgotha but is told to stand down by the condemned man, who goes to death willingly. Judah watches the crucifixion and hears Jesus's dying words, "Father, forgive them..." making an especial impression by provoking flashbacks to better times with Messala. Upon Jesus' death a healing rain falls, curing Judah's mother and sister of the leprosy they contracted in a prison where they were sent by Messala's subaltern without his commander's knowledge; the man had explained to Judah that he'd wanted to save Messala from himself on this point. Yilderim uses some of his race winnings to pay for the Hurs' release. Judah heads to the Roman barracks to see what became of Messala. He survived the race (as he does in the novel, though he doesn't survive the novel) but has lost a leg. He deliriously vows revenge, promising to grow his leg back the better to kill Judah with, until Judah reminds him of the time he carried Judah home after the chariot accident. After everything, this suffices to reconcile the brothers into a sobby embrace of mutual forgiveness, and that brings Messala back into the family fold, and back into Tirzah's embrace, all of them presumably Galileans now. Obviously the writers wish this to happen, and for the film they are God, but they're the ones in a delirium for the last five minutes or so of the movie. It's an embarrassingly bad finish given how good most of the movie is, but it's not enough to sink the film, especially if you concede that this version of the story probably couldn't end any other way. If no other Ben-Hur movie existed, I suspect most people would think more highly of this one. As it is, in some respects it's better than the Wyler film or the 1925 picture. None of them are truly great films because, or so I infer, Wallace's novel isn't really great source material. But as a Ben-Hur for our time, Bekmambatov's film will do -- or it would have had people really wanted one.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

DVR Diary: WHITE CARGO (1942)


Richard Thorpe's film may well have seemed an anachronism when it appeared. The story behind White Cargo had been in circulation for thirty years by then. It began with Ida Vera Simonton's novel Hell's Playground, which you can sample at the Internet Archive to see for yourselves how oh-lordy bad it is. The playwright Leon Gordon loosely adapted the novel for the stage; his White Cargo had been touring all over the place for twenty years while M-G-M's film was in production. Burlesque queen Ann Corio was playing the half-caste seductress Tondelayo at the same time that retrospectively-recognized supergenius Hedy Lamarr was blacking up for movie cameras. At the brink of the film noir era, the epoch of the femme fatale, Metro was offering a real oldschool vamp, a demoralizing virtual succubus and corrupter of men. But what was the difference, really, between the archetypes? It's easy to differentiate when the vamp is also a racist stereotype as Tondelayo is. She's actually toned down from her stage version, less blatantly African, but she still embodies the idea that outside western civilization, the people are childlike, sensuously materialistic and utterly without ideals. Tondelayo wants sex and she wants stuff, and that's all she knows. She's a brainless parasite with just enough cunning to be dangerous to whomever she might exploit. She latches on to Langford (Richard Carlson), the new English arrival at an African rubber plantation who like a sap falls in love with her despite the warnings of cynical Witzel (Walter Pidgeon), pious Rev. Roberts (Henry O'Neill) and a drunk doctor (Frank Morgan). He wants to marry Tondelayo because he loves her, and to stick it to Witzel, who despises the woman, probably from experience. The long scene in which the other white try to argue Langford out of the marriage is the film's high point, apart from Lamarr's mere presence. It's a scene that simply can't mean the same thing now that it did then, since our instinct now is to take Langford's side almost unreservedly, on the assumption that the other men are howling racists. But in the film's own context they're absolutely right, and if you want to treat Tondelayo as an individual and not as a representative of her sex or ethnicity, you have to realize that she can only be a disaster of a wife. Soon enough she and Langford grow bored with each other, and while Langford might carry her like a cross indefinitely, Tondelayo finally wants out by any mean necessary, only to be forced by the contemptuously righteous Witzel to drink her own poison.


The problem with White Cargo is that it's impossible to extricate the indictment against Tondelayo as a person from the assumption that she's categorically unfit because of what she is, let alone what she does. She's a double-whammy: a savage and a vamp. She's like that because they're like that -- and that, I suppose, makes the difference between a vamp and a femme fatale. For all that the latter is also arguably a misogynist archetype, the femme fatale always has more individuality and often can be indulged sympathetically as a creature or victim of circumstance rather than dismissed as someone (or thing) that can't help being what she is and can't be forgiven for it, either. So much for the dissertation, which is my confession of guilt in taking some pleasure in Hedy Lamarr's slinky antics and the over-the-top duel of Carlson and Pidgeon. As I suggested, White Cargo may well have been treated as camp as soon as it premiered, while now treating it as camp is probably the only way to make it acceptable. Some people today won't accept it under any circumstances, but most of us still find plenty of deplorable things entertaining, in spite of themselves or not. White Cargo isn't really that entertaining, but it's definitely a fascinating film in its sort-of-evil way.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Serial Pulp: THE SPIDER'S WEB (1938), Chapter Six: Sealed Lips

The Octopus's gangsters (led by Marc Lawrence) already think they've killed criminologist and amateur magician Richard Wentworth and are trying to take out The Spider with a falling spotlight as this chapter opens. Of course, Wentworth's (and The Spider's) lovely assistant Nita Van Sloan gives a timely scream to signal that The Spider should step out of the falling object's way. The thwarted gangsters make a fighting retreat, convinced that they were at least half successful until they see Wentworth walk out of the bus station turned theater. As Nita had explained earlier to the benefit organizers, the gangsters had shot at a projected image of Wentworth, apparently lacking any depth perception to help them detect the trick. To account for his absence during the mayhem, Wentworth claims that the gangsters had knocked him out and left him in his dressing room. No one finds this odd, considering that the gangsters had tried to kill him earlier. But never mind. My favorite thing about this whole scene is how baffled the organizers are by Nita's explanation of the projection trick. Should I explain in more detail how it worked? she asks. Cut to The Spider skulking outside. Back to Nita: "Now do you understand?" They may not, but they're not going to admit it.

The Octopus is strangely forgiving of this latest failure, given how casually he's killed failures earlier. A great general takes minor setbacks into account, he says before moving on to his next project: payroll robberies. Again in a peculiarly chipper mood, he promises big bonuses should the caper succeed. He has reason to be confident this time since he's got an inside man -- a woman, actually, -- at the bank. This receptionist can tap into executive calls to find out when money is arriving or departing. She then passes notes to The Octopus's man. Meanwhile, Wentworth has had the benefit tickets purchased by the gangsters checked for prints. One set matches a police file that gives Wentworth a name to work with. As Blinky McQuade, he finds this man to give him a tip that the police are going to tap his phones. Wentworth expects him to call his boss right away to stop all calls to this phone, and he's planted his minion Jackson in the place as a drunk to get the number. We've already seen Jackson display a now-obsolete talent for listening as someone dials a number on a rotary phone. He can identify each digit in the number by the time it takes the rotary dial to circle back into place. Once the crook finishes dialing, Jackson attacks him and knocks him out. Blinky reappears, now speaking with Wentworth's voice, to call the cops for a trace on the number, which turns out to be the Commerce Bank where that receptionist works.



We've already met the receptionist. During the chase as the gangsters fled the bus station, their car clipped a newsboy and knocked him down in the middle of the street. Wentworth stops his car to help the lad, and the boy's older sister ends up being the crooked receptionist. After snooping on her method for relaying info to the Octopus, Wentworth and Nita snatch her off the street, Wentworth using the same finger-in-the-back technique that Blinky used on a cop a few chapters ago.


When Wentworth threatens the third degree, the receptionist faints. Since fainting is a girly thing, Richard asks Nita to verify that the girl isn't shamming. No she isn't, it turns out; the poor thing is scared to death and Wentworth didn't even have to put on his Spider outfit. Needless to say, the receptionist is a good girl at heart who was embroiled in a wiretapping scheme some time ago that left her subject to a gangster's blackmail. It looks like she and her Wentworth-idolizing brother are going to stick around as supporting players for a while, whether we like it or not.


Meanwhile, The Octopus's men pull off the robbery but the gangster who'd been blackmailing the receptionist is killed in a shootout. That hard-luck newsboy is practically trampled by a fleeing gunman, but recognizes the man as a nearby garage worker. Wentworth is exultant at an apparent big break and gathers Jackson and Ram Singh for a stakeout of the garage. They find some gangsters driving away, apparently to deliver the bank loot someplace. The good guys follow but are eventually made by the suspicious gangsters, who start firing bullets and lobbing grenades at the pursuing vehicle. Wentworth changes to The Spider and prepares for a car-to-car attack. There's one long shot shot of the car stunt shot on location, but most of the action in both cars is done with process shots. The gangster car goes out of control once The Spider jumps on board and crashes into an electrified power-plant fence for our cliffhanger. This episode again shows the above-average competence of the Octopus gang, since they score another win with the bank robbery, and despite plenty of action the focus this time is more on detective work. The episode is slowed a bit by the need to introduce two possibly major new characters but it's still pretty good. If you're really worried about The Spider's fate, we'll have the answer for you sometime next week.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

THUNDERBOLT (1929)

 
Josef von Sternberg's career can be divided into two phases. He's best known for the period when he was identified with his protege Marlene Dietrich. In the earlier stage, he was identified with George Bancroft. There's a contradiction for someone to reconcile. Sternberg became a star director putting burly Bancroft through his criminal paces in Underworld, and starred him again in his seedy romance The Docks of New York. He depended on Bancroft, who had since become the Wolf of Wall Street, to put over his talkie debut. Sternberg reportedly wanted to work as creatively with soundscapes as he had worked with images, and you can hear that in Thunderbolt's diegetic soundtrack and in occasional thematic devices like a sort of hyena laugh that hovers in the atmosphere of the Black Cat nightclub. Inevitably, however, a Sternberg film works best on the visual level, and to an extent Bancroft's voice limits this one. Most of the time he has an unusually smooth delivery as the title character, a gangster named for his lethal punch, but as I've noticed in other Bancroft talkies, the star has a bad habit of slowing...his lines...down...very...deliberately in his big dramatic moments, to the point that you can imagine him intoning the infamous "Take him ... for ... a ride" line from Lights of New York. That's a shame because Bancroft gives an interesting performance overall as a rather peculiar gangster.


Above: Thunderbolt enters the Black Cat.
Below: Fay Wray as the woman Thunderbolt has lost, and 
Theresa Harris as the dream of another possibility.



What's peculiar about Jim Lang is his detachment, or his ability to detach himself from his concerns to dwell in moments of pleasure or play. You notice how he hangs out at the Black Cat, apparently an integrated nightclub with black entertainers, and how he lingers before leaving to take in the uncredited Theresa Harris's song, "Daddy Won't You Please Come Home?" Sternberg and Bancroft convey Thunderbolt's appreciation of Harris's voice and figure, but just as interesting as his appreciation of black beauty is his readiness to stop everything and enjoy the moment. Later, Jim enters an apartment building to kill Bob Moran (Richard Arlen), the new lover of his erstwhile moll Ritzy (Fay Wray). He's followed inside by a stray mutt from the street that's attached himself to the gangster. Thunderbolt wants to be rid of the yapping dog and tries to attract it back downstairs by getting on all fours, shaking his rump and sliding with a weird smoothness across the carpet. You get the impression that despite his mission of death Jim will take as long getting the pooch's attention as he needs to, that now all that matters is getting that dog to come to him. And as we'll see, he doesn't really want to be rid of the dog at all, even if the dumb animal gets him pinched. Thunderbolt is used to doing whatever he wants, and in moments like these there's an almost endearing modesty to his whims.


Above, Thunderbolt acts as virtual executioner for "Bad Al" (Fred Kohler).
Below: Bob confronts his enemy at last.


Inevitably, Thunderbolt is a melodrama typical of its decade. As noted, Thunderbolt wants to destroy Bob, the man he assumes is cuckolding him. Even on death row -- it's unclear what exactly he was convicted of -- he has enough influence to take belated revenge on Moran. He has his men lure Bob to the bank from which he was recently fired -- his relationship with Ritzy came to light and might have harmed the establishment's reputation -- and plant a gun on him while robbing the place. Lives are taken and Bob promptly finds himself on death row across from Thunderbolt, even though you'd think the bank president's testimony would have substantiated Bob's defense that he was lured to the bank by a crank call. Bob is so thoroughly railroaded that he's scheduled to burn before Thunderbolt. Everybody takes for granted (even though no one can prove it in court, presumably) that Thunderbolt framed Bob, but despite entreaties from Ritzy and Bob's mother (Eugenie Besserer, who couldn't be more different from her Jazz Singer mom in a wonderful scene where she and Bob are playfully roughhousing in their bathroom) Jim refuses to fess up. It's only when Ritzy and Bob have a death-house wedding that Thunderbolt relents and admits to the frame. This is where such stories usually end, with the pathos of renunciation as Jim gives up Ritzy once and for all, but Sternberg and the screenwriting Furthman brothers create fresh suspense by having one of Jim's cronies confide that Thunderbolt is still playing a long game. What he really wants, we're told, is a chance to kill Bob with his super punch, which we've already seen knock another con into a coma. To do this, he needs Bob to stay in his cell (while the paperwork for his release is prepared) until the day Jim himself is scheduled to die. Jim will get a chance to shake hands with all his death row playmates, and when it's Bob's turn, POW! Everything leads to a climactic long take that's both corny and brilliant, as Jim and Bob say their farewells while Sternberg calls our attention to Thunderbolt's deadly hand moving from bar to bar of Bob's cell. Then Bob hits Jim with a final revelation: it turns out that he'd been Ritzy's childhood sweetheart, but that Jim had fairly won her away from him until she tired of gang life. This idea tickles Thunderbolt, and he moves on to the death chamber in good humor.

Watch that hand, Bob!

What happened here, exactly? There's room to see it two ways. It may be that something about Bob's story made Jim relent, but for all we know that other gangster was talking through his hat and Jim never had any intention to kill Bob after the wedding scene. Conceding some ambiguity makes the moment somewhat less corny, and my overall impression of Jim Lang is that he is too easily amused by things to be as deadly as everyone assumes, and that even his frame-up of Bob is little more than a practical joke. At the very end we leave him laughing at a guard having the name Aloysius. You could almost believe that Thunderbolt is tired of his life without actually realizing it. I may question Bancroft's line readings sometimes, but there's a subtlety to his performance that makes my view of Jim's bemused ambivalence seem plausible. Whatever Sternberg's intentions, Thunderbolt isn't one of his characteristic spectacles, though it is nicely shot. That may be because his camera doesn't really worship Fay Wray the way he'd worship Dietrich, or the way he worships Theresa Harris during her song. In the end, it's Bancroft's imperfect but intriguing performance that makes the film worth seeing.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) in SPOILERVISION

They blew it. The trailers promised something anarchic and exhilaratingly amoral, and for some that promised redemption for the "DC Extended Universe" after the "no fun" sturm und drang of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Instead, David Ayer delivered a tedious slog that is considerably shorter than Dawn of Justice yet seems interminable by comparison. Rumors of editorial interference have been swirling, but I doubt whether any alternate cut could improve much on what I saw. Suicide Squad is a failure on almost every level. The filmmakers wimp out on the promise of the trailers by trying too hard to make characters sympathetic and copping out whenever they have the chance to be hardcore, but they apparently hope you'll be distracted from the truth by the heavyhanded oldies soundtrack. After all the hype surrounding his off-camera pranks, Jared Leto shockingly gives us a boring Joker, neither especially funny or particularly scary -- merely a gangster with an odd fashion sense. Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, who for marketing purposes is the reason this film even exists, never coheres into anything more than a collection of tics and quips, and the movie, telling her origin in truncated flashback form, skips over what should have been terrific scenes between smitten psychologist and psychopath seducer like a pebble on the surface of a lake that sinks well short of shore. Most of the other characters aren't even that well developed. Will Smith tries hard as Deadshot to project the correct badass attitude but is weighed down by a conscientious-dad subplot that no one really could have wanted. But I suppose it was inescapable in as generic a mismatched-buddies picture as Ayer has delivered, one where all our psychopaths and sociopaths apparently come to think of themselves as friends -- if not, gad help us, "family" -- and step up to do the right things in utterly predictable fashion.

Nor does it help things that Ayer came up with possibly the most incompatible menace for all his antiheroes' skill sets and made that menace absolutely uninteresting. Perhaps I should take that back. If anything, he made the menace less than uninteresting by tying it to another unwanted romantic subplot. An uninteresting menace leads to uninteresting fights, this time pitting the Squad plus anonymous army guys against a horde of literally faceless foes. These scenes expose Ayer's lack of the sort of epic visual imagination Zack Snyder possesses or the creative action choreography of Marvel Studios. Ayer prefers close-quarters combat, repetitive and roughly edited and thus ultimately tiresome. Warning that the villain's antics are putting the world in jeopardy seem like the filmmakers' desperate last appeal for our attention, if not an insult to our intelligence, since it now seems reasonable to ask why, should this be so, Wonder Woman, Batman and whomever they've gathered up so far don't show up to make short work of it. Ben Affleck shows up often enough as Batman to beg the question why we -- and, more importantly, Warner Bros. -- are bothering with these losers instead of getting on with a Justice League movie. It was Ayer's job not to let us ask that question and he blew it. Fortunately, I doubt whether word-of-mouth on Suicide Squad will do major damage to the overall DC movie franchise, since its irrelevance, rather than the hoped-for irreverence, should be self-evident to anyone who sees it. I doubt anyone will want to see Wonder Woman any less because Suicide Squad stinks, but let's not deny the truth for the next movie's sake. I notice I didn't really spoil a lot despite my Spoilervision promise. The fact is, I can't be bothered to describe what passes for a plot here in any detail. If I've spoiled anything, I suppose it might be some fans' hope that the critics were wrong again. Sure, some of those reviewers are biased against the whole superhero genre, but even a broken clock is right sometimes, and you shouldn't blame the clock for that.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Here we go again: DC fans embarrass themselves

I suppose we should be grateful that no one -- to my knowledge -- has yet threatened the life of a film reviewer for panning David Ayer's Suicide Squad in advance of its release on Friday, August 5. Four years ago people weren't so civilized, and the Rotten Tomatoes website, which aggregates film reviews and assigns films "Rotten" or "Fresh" scores, was driven to disable the comment threat for Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises after it became apparent that 1) the film didn't live up to Nolan's previous Batman film and 2)some fans wished death and/or rape on reviewers for killing their buzz. Now we do things in a more civil fashion. One Abdullah Coldwater has started a petition on the change.org site asking for Rotten Tomatoes to be shut down altogether because "It's Critics always give The DC Extended Universe movies unjust Bad Reviews ...and that Affects people's opinion even if it's a really great movies." Nearly 15,000 people have signed the petition. This looks like a Trumpian tantrum against a "rigged" system, even though DC Comics' corporate parent Time Warner remains a part owner of Rotten Tomatoes. I'm surprised that Coldwater didn't accuse RT of being partisans of Marvel Studios and its corporate parent, Disney.

There's a pathetic partisanship among fans of the two major comic-book publishers and their cinematic spin-offs that has only grown worse once Marvel finally learned to make proper movies and beat Batman-focused DC in the race to create a "cinematic universe" in which heroes and villains are shared among filmmakers. Since Nolan's Batman series ended Warner Bros. has been in catch-up mode, which is proving a no-win situation. They are accused of either aping Marvel/Disney or of trying so hard not to be Marvel that their films stray out of many people's comfort zone -- and all the while the more moronic Marvel fans really are rooting for the DC films to fail. Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice have been savaged by both mundane reviewers and many DC Comics fans, the latter resenting deviations both aesthetic and ethical from what they're used to in print. In response, the DC movie franchise has spawned a fanatical, backs-to-the-wall rooting section that is just a little paranoid, accusing practically anyone who criticizes DC of a pro-Marvel bias. As a DC Comics fan who wants to see the DC "Extended" universe flourish and has liked the Zack Snyder Superman movies more than most people, I find this paranoia absurd and embarrassing. As a longtime fan of both "cult" and "art" (and "genre") movies, I'm used to being outside the mainstream in my tastes. By now, with reviewers talking hopefully of "superhero fatigue," all comic book fans should have reconciled themselves to a certain biased skepticism among reviewers that is entirely within their rights. If DC fans are demoralized because reviewers are bashing Suicide Squad before they get to see it this weekend, and if that seems unfair because some people like Marvel movies better, that's just too bad. I liked the Suicide Squad trailers and I want to like the movie. Whether I like it will be decided by the movie, not the reviewers, and whether the reviews cost the movie at the box office really doesn't bother me. Again, I'm used to liking films that have been total bombs at the box office, without even one good weekend to boast of, and I've liked no film less for being unpopular. It's always a shame if that sort of failure means filmmakers don't get a chance to do similar work, but  neither film fans nor comics fans should take it personally. Even if the DC Extended Universe dies young, you can bet that Warner Bros. or someone else will try it again before too long. Maybe this generation of DC movies is destined for cult status, at whatever cost to Warner Bros. now. If so, my advice to the people rallying to Suicide Squad's defense sight unseen is that cult movie fandom is not for crybabies. So grow up already.