Saturday, November 18, 2017

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) in SPOILERVISION

It's not that bad as a whole, but to be honest, the first half-hour of Zack Snyder's new film, with credited co-writing and uncredited reshoots by Joss Whedon, is awful: a jumble of scenes attempting to establish an important trait of parademons (the bug-winged creatures Batman [Ben Affleck] saw in his Dawn of Justice nightmare); remind us urgently that Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) exists; and remind us more clumsily that the world is worse for the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) in the aforementioned Snyder production. Nothing really flows together and you might believe that several films, not just the Snyder and Whedon footage, had been awkwardly spliced into something crudely approximating a feature film. Nor are things helped much by the introduction of the film's villain. Steppenwolf, here embarking on his second stab at world conquest after millennia of dormancy, is a relatively minor character in Jack Kirby's "Fourth World" mythos, which few at DC Comics have really known what to do with since the King laid down his pencil. His presence here looks like a hedging of bets, as if Snyder, co-writer Chris Terrio and DC producer Geoff Johns didn't want to waste Kirby's actual big bad, the oft-misused Darkseid, on this particular movie and chose Steppenwolf as his proxy. No effort was made to give this substitute villain any personality beyond his generic lust for conquest, but I suppose you could argue that the villain of this piece was never meant to be anything more than a Macguffin, since the real story of Justice League is the formation of DC's in-print precursor and cinematic answer to Marvel's Avengers. Picking up the hints dropped like anchors in the last film, Batman and Wonder Woman set out to recruit the three supposed superbeings discovered by Lex Luthor's researchers: Arthur "The Aquaman" Curry (Jason Momoa), the bastard child of Atlantean royalty and quite the strongman on land; Barry "Flash" Allen (Ezra Miller), the young Central City speedster; and Victor "Cyborg" Stone (Ray Fisher), a man now more than half machine desperately trying to keep up with his evolving alien technology. The real purpose of this movie is to get you interested enough in these three to seek out their solo films as they appear, beginning with next year's Aquaman.

The results are mixed. All three actors succeeded in making their characters interesting, and they establish decent chemistry with each other and the established heroes. But I still question whether any of them can carry a feature film by today's standard of what such films should be. The future of the DC movie franchise now rests on the shoulders of Jason Momoa, and I'm glad to report that, liberated from his grim typecasting, the actor gives easily the best performance I've ever seen from him. But I still doubt whether whatever good will he's earned will make people interested in exploring DC's Atlantis, all too little of which was shown here apart from introducing Aquaman's eventual love interest Mera (Amber Heard). As Cyborg, Ray Fisher does probably as good as anyone could do with Marv Wolfman's character, making him sardonically bitter rather than self-pitying and adding a certain coldness that inclines the character to agree with Batman much of the time. But Cyborg has always been a hard sell as the black face of the DC Comics universe since Geoff Johns gave him that role by putting the character in his "New 52" era Justice League. Popular though he may be as one of Wolfman and George Perez's Teen Titans, Cyborg never seems to have clicked as a solo character despite Johns and other writers' stubborn efforts, and he has so little personal mythos that I find myself wondering what on earth a Cyborg movie would be about. Meanwhile, the development of a Flash movie is an ongoing nightmare for Warner Bros. Laboring in the shadow of the popular CW TV series, which automatically begs that question of what a feature film can do differently other than spend more money, the project can't hold on to a director as everyone struggles to fine-tune the property. The one thing different about Miller's Flash so far is his relative youth and his jittery Spider-Manic personality that makes him Justice League's comedy relief character. I thought Miller was likable enough to get away with it here, but I don't know if he can carry his own movie doing the same stuff. I'd be happy to see all of these guys again in another Justice League film, but despite this film's post-credit scene there are no immediate plans for another that I know of, and the drubbing the film is getting from Snyderphobic reviewers is unlikely to speed the day of their return.

I probably should talk about the story some more. The plot is right out of a serial: an artifact hunt. If Steppenwolf gets all the artifacts he can activate "the Unity," which won't be a good thing for anybody. Despite their being salted away on Atlantis, Themyscira and ... somewhere Cyborg knows about, he gets them. Fortunately, the good guys had just used that last one to resurrect their old pal Superman who, acting true to comic-book form, starts fighting them until Lois Lane (Amy Adams) shows up and tells him that the sun's getting real low, or something along those lines. Honestly, though, even in comics if Superman is messed up and not behaving right, mind-controlled, amnesiac or whatever, Lois is your best antidote. There was this one comic where to snap Superman out of Poison Ivy's mind-control, Batman has Catwoman throw Lois off a building, or at least that's how I remember it. But I digress. Anyway, Supes still needs some work in the shop so Lois takes him back for (ahem) debriefing in Smallville while the rest of the gang goes to some Sokovia-like place where Steppenwolf, his Unity and his army of parademons make life miserable for one humble family -- to, you know, make the situation more real for us, I guess. Determined that this shall not stand, the as-yet-unnamed Justice League -- I think the only person who actually describes them as a "league" is Lex Luthor (our old friend Jesse Eisenberg) in a post-credits secene -- go about delaying the bad guy until Superman is cleared for action, after which point there's really no contest.

Sounds stupid, right? Well, it kind of is, but while this is regrettably one of those films where the whole is less than the sum of its parts, a lot of those parts are quite entertaining. While Fisher, Miller and Momoa held up their end of the deal, Affleck, Cavill and Gadot were once more their reliable selves, though our Batman is much more mild-mannered than in his last appearance, to a degree that's left some again questioning his commitment to the franchise. I actually liked the change of pace and the way some things (like Bruce Wayne's whiskey-swilling) remained the same. So the acting was fine, apart from the helpless Ciaran Hinds, tasked with voicing Steppenwolf. As one might expect from Zack Snyder, some of the action is spectacular. The highlights include an extended battle on Themyscira as the Amazons run a desperate relay race to keep their artifact from Steppenwolf; a flashback establishing Steppenwolf's backstory featuring a super-epic battle pitting Amazons, Atlanteans, Olympian gods, Green Lanterns, etc. against old-timey parademons; and the guilty pleasure of the JL's brawl with the reawakened Superman, who seems capable of matching the Flash's speed (Miller sells this wonderfully) and trading head-butts with Wonder Woman all day. For all its many flaws, the film ultimately entertains. I'd reverse the conventional reviewer consensus and contend that Justice League is marginally worse than Dawn of Justice, and almost the weakest of this year's good crop of superhero movies -- after a second viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I'm inclined to leave that at the bottom. Snyder and Whedon have done Warner Bros. no great favors as far as Friday morning reviewers are concerned, but I close with the observation that at my half-full multiplex screening the audience applauded the film.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

On the Big Screen: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

After an unlikely period as a director of high-profile tentpole pictures -- Thor, Jack Ryan, Cinderella -- Kenneth Branagh returns to more personal filmmaking with this new adaptation of Agatha Christie's beloved novel, previously filmed to great effect by Sidney Lumet in 1974. It's a more personal picture this time because, unlike those recent efforts, this one stars Kenneth Branagh, following in the prominent footsteps of Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov, and the deeper tracks of David Suchet, by taking on the role of Christie's fussy Belgian, Hercule Poirot. For that you need an accent and a moustache. Branagh's Poirot accent -- I don't know whether it can be described accurately as a Belgian accent -- is at least superior to his attempts at an American accent; he's one of the few British actors who can't really do that well. It's with the moustache that Branagh really tries to differentiate himself from past Poirots. Certainly the preemptive favorite for the Best Moustache Oscar, should that category suddenly come into being, it's big, brown and bristly where the typical Poirot look is small, black and oily. As the years tell on the former boy-wonder actor-director, you wonder sometimes whether this is a Poirot mystery or The Sam Elliott Story. Ultimately, however, there's no mistaking the familiar story of a murder with a seemingly ever-expanding number of likely suspects, and if you've seen the Lumet movie (I have) or read the Christie original (I haven't) the only suspense the new film offers is whether Branagh's writer, Michael Green -- who was very busy this year with Wolverine, Alien and Blade Runner sequels -- would dare change Christie's ending. Spoiler alert: he doesn't.

That leaves it up to Branagh and his cast of actors to make the story fresh in other ways. There are some stabs at progressive casting that let Penelope Cruz and Leslie Odom Jr. into the picture, but only Willem Dafoe as the Pinkerton man (with an extra level of imposture) is arguably an improvement over his 1974 predecessor. The other actors aren't bad, though Michelle Pfeiffer goes maybe too far over the top, but as a director of actors Branagh, for all his Shakespearean experience, is no Sidney Lumet. He proves that further by indulging in overblown camera movements in an effort to give what should be an economically staged story -- apart from the Orient Express's necessarily luxurious furnishings -- a quasi-epic feel. If two characters are chatting in a boxcar, he'll have the camera hovering at some distance, and then he'll have it rise from below, or descend from above. Toward the end he rolls out a long shot following Poirot through a number of train cars, but it only reminds you that he'd done a much more impressive tracking shot in his debut film, Henry V, nearly thirty years ago. He even gives Poirot a Bond-style prologue as a mystery-solving peacemaker in the Old City of Jerusalem, and for all we know, given the nod toward Death on the Nile at the very end, he may have a franchise in mind, if audiences demand it. The theater where I saw the film is a neighborhood arthouse where the audience skews older, and there was a healthy crowd for a second matinee on a cold November afternoon, but I doubt the houses will look the same at the multiplexes. If he wants and gets another chance at Poirot I'd recommend that Branagh not go for the pre-sold titles but look for stories that have not been filmed as theatrical features. His Murder is not a bad film by any means, but in the end it did nothing to make me forget the Lumet film or what I knew to expect from the Christie mystery. But as someone who remembers a 43 year old movie fondly, perhaps I wasn't this film's target audience. Maybe those who know nothing of Agatha Christie or Sidney Lumet are the ones who'll rightly decide this film or this franchise's fate.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

THOR: RAGNAROK in SPOILERVISION

Taika Waititi is a cinematic miracle worker. His What We Do in the Shadows is not only the funniest vampire comedy ever made, which isn't much of an achievement in itself, but one of the funniest movies I've seen recently. His portrayal of vampires as almost childishly narcissistic apparently persuaded Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios that Waititi could be entrusted with the next chapter of their absurd Asgardian soap opera after the disaster of Thor: The Dark World. That Waititi could work wonders on a limited budget didn't hurt either, though now, by comparison, he would have money thrown at him. Working from a screenplay by three other people, he's made the most imaginative and funniest Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) while demonstrating an aptitude for epic action on a colossal scale -- though as always with Marvel movies, one must wonder exactly how much of the set-piece action was planned out and rendered on computers before Waititi first called "Action!"

For all the spectacle, Ragnarok is character-centered, reiterating more strongly the premise implicit since the beginning that Thor (Chris Helmsworth) and his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) are a couple of spoiled brats of frighteningly immense power. This is re-established early as Thor, after thwarting the demon Surtur's scheme to initiate Ragnarok, the foredoomed fall of Asgard, quickly clears up the one dangling plot thread from Dark World, exposing Loki's impersonation of All-father Odin (Anthony Hopkins finally has some fun imitating Hiddleston) and overthrowing the self-indulgent trickster, who had placed the old man in a since-demolished retirement facility in New York City. Their arrival in Manhattan to claim Odin sets up the encounter with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) previewed in the epilogue to Strange's own origin film. The Strange scene shows Waititi's hand most plainly in the disorienting way the Master of the Mystic Arts teleports Thor all over his sanctum in a succession of jump cuts. The good doctor sends them off to some cliff where Odin has been waiting, before dying, to tell his boys that their elder sister Hela, goddess of death (Cate Blanchett), will be released from her prison upon his imminent demise. In other words, the grown-ups are taking over, as Hela, who grows an antler-like crest in combat mode, breaks Thor's favorite toy, his Uru hammer, and boots both him and Loki off Bifrost bridge en route to Asgard, where she promptly slaughters the Warriors Three (Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson and the other guy) on her way to the throne, while the boys tumble to parts unknown. I'm sure this perfunctory dispatching of three favorite supporting characters from the comics will annoy some people, but it really was a waste of time having Asano and Stevenson keep showing up for how little the films have used them. As for the other supporting players, Sif is AWOL (the actress has a regular gig elsewhere) while Heimdall (Idris Elba) conveniently went underground when "Odin" started acting weird, forcing the king to appoint the mediocrity Skurge (Karl Urban) as guardian of Bifrost. Skurge survives Hela's initial onslaught to give the villainess someone to whom she can tell the secret history of Asgard and offer the job she held under her father as Executioner of the ruler's will and enemies.

A film within the film now begins as Thor crash-lands on Sakaar, better known to comics fans as "Planet Hulk" but ruled here by the self-styled Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) on bread-and-circus principles, with emphasis on circus. Big G relies on slave hunters like Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) to recruit talent for his gladiatorial games. He agrees with her assessment that Thor, rendered tractable by a classic sci-fi pain device, will make a good contender for his "incredible champion," whose identity was revealed in trailers long ago. Loki has ended up here as well, but is content to make money betting on Thor to lose. For his part, Thor has recognized Scrapper 142 as a Valkyrie -- for all intents and purposes, the Valkyrie or just plain "Valkyrie" -- one of a long-gone cohort of Asgardian women warriors, and apparently the sole survivor of an attack by Hela during her uprising against Odin. There's no hope of Thor pulling rank, however, since Scrapper/Valkyrie has grown cynical and alcoholic in her attempt to forget the loss of many close comrades-in-arms. But the situation isn't as hopeless as it looks, since Thor's powers over thunder and lightning prove innate rather than hammer-based, though it takes the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) nearly beating him to death to realize his potential. Ol' Greenskin has been on Sakaar since we last saw him in Avengers: Age of Ultron and has come both to like it here and to express his liking. Waititi and the writers give us a classically stupid Hulk (he had one of his increasingly common intelligent periods in the original Planet Hulk comics) with an almost-Trumpian insistence on taunting and "winning" regardless of appearances. Fans of the character will regret the wasting of one of Hulk's best-regarded storylines as a subplot to a Thor movie, but as Ruffalo himself has conceded that we'll probably never see another Hulk solo movie this is probably as good as it'll get for Marvel's Hulkamaniacs.

Thor's challenge now is to rally his three most likely collaborators into teaming with him on a breakout and reconquest of Asgard. Valkyrie would rather drink and forget, Loki is still out for himself and Hulk actually likes it on a planet where he's beloved by fight fans and hasn't had to turn back to Bruce Banner for ages. Those of you who found the buildup of a Hulk-Black Widow ship in Age of Ultron icky will be annoyed to learn that that's still a thing and key to Banner finally reappearing after Thor's own efforts to use Natasha's calming spiel fail miserably. The other pieces soon fall into place and we're finally on our way to a spectacular showdown in Asgard, assisted by Heimdall and, eventually, Skurge, whose machine-gun fetish allows him to recreate the comics character's classic last stand in Walt Simonson's 1980s comics, which are acknowledged in the end credits and regarded by fans as the best Thor stories since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's time. A lot of undead minions are wasted, Hulk fights a big dog, and Thor hits Hela with "the biggest bolt of lightning in the history of lightning," but the film still hasn't hit 11 yet....

While most of Ragnarok is generic Marvel spectacle on paper, on screen it benefits from Waititi putting a fresh set of eyes on it. As the Doctor Strange sequence shows, the style he developed collaborating on What We Do in the Shadows was not entirely homogenized into the Marvel machine, and that helps make the new Thor feel fresher than, say, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Both films may share a retro sensibility in their soundtracks -- as do most recent Marvel movies, it seems -- but Ragnarok creatively enhances that retro feel with original music with hints of video-game soundtracks from Mark Mothersbaugh and a pictorial sensibility, assisted by cinematographer Javie Aguirresarobe, reminiscent of vintage van murals or Heavy Metal magazine covers come to life. The acting is a mixed bag, and a lot of it may disappoint people who expect something more like, as Tony Stark would say, Shakespeare in the Park from a Thor movie. Helmsworth and Hiddleston are fine, but as Hela Cate Blanchett arguably doesn't chew the scenery enough, or as much as one might expect from a barnstormer like her. You might have expected Galadriel with the Ring on, but she sometimes sinks to the overall glib level of the dialogue, referring to Odin as "Daddy," for instance. By now, of course, we should be reconciled to not getting authentic Stan Lee-style rodomontade from Marvel movie villains, but if you were going to get away with it in any Marvel movie, this was probably it. These are action movies anyway, and Hela's actions (both Blanchett's and uber-stuntwoman Zoe Bell's) speak louder than her words. As for the other villain, Jeff Goldblum gives, to no legitimate surprise, a Jeff Goldblum performance as the Grandmaster that makes that Elder of the Universe more capricious than truly threatening, but his participation in the interlude doesn't require him to be truly evil or scary. For all Waititi's efforts to maximize the comedy in the story, Ragnarok was only ever going to be an action spectacle, and the fact that he succeeds on that level gives us more cause to look forward to whatever he does next, for Marvel or on his own.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

INQUISICION (1976)

If no one expects the Spanish Inquisition, how is anyone gonna deal with the French Inquisition? That's the challenge of Jacinto Molina's directorial debut, a vehicle for his on-screen alter ego, Paul Naschy. Filmed in Spain while longtime dictator Francisco Franco was still dead, the production probably was careful not to give Spanish Catholicism a bad name. Naschy plays itinerant judge Bernard de Fossey, a hammer to witches who takes too much pleasure in his work. He struggles to suppress the sexual arousal he feels reading accounts of witches consorting with the Devil, and takes his distress out on accused witches who are almost invariably attractive and tortured in the nude. Bernard's not after your typical hag; that would kill his buzz more than he actually wants it killed.


Bernard stirs up hysteria when he arrives in town, especially when the boyfriend of Catherine (Daniel Giordano), a comely local lass, is murdered by hooded highwaymen. Obsessed with getting justice, Catherine consults an actual witch (Tota Alba) who shows her how to get in touch with Satan, who may, if he's in the mood, give her the key to the mystery. It's not quite that mysterious to us, because we've seen how Bernard looks at Catherine -- and veteran Naschy fans may have noticed something familiar about one of the highwayman's leaping attack on the victim. Sure enough, under the influence of a potion -- if not also Satan! -- Catherine envisions Bernard removing the hood. She decides to take the fight to him, fulfilling his own fears of temptation, but events quickly spiral out of either person's control.


One of the subplots in Molina's screenplay follows Renover (Antonio Iranzo), a one-eyed professional informer who spreads rumors of witchcraft out of misogynist resentment of women who won't give the poor scumbag a chance. When his aggressive advances on Catherine's friends end with two women dead and himself mortally wounded, he uses his ante-mortem statement to denounce Catherine and her witchy mentor. Bernard actually has tried to protect Catherine from prosecution but has no choice now but to put her through an ordeal. He seems taken by surprise when Catherine confesses, and then denounces him, after which damning corroborating evidence promptly appears to seal his fate. While Catherine goes to her death screaming in terror, Bernard seems resigned to his fate, if not relieved by it.


For an actor-turned-director Naschy/Molina was unusually self-effacing. I don't know how many people knew that Naschy and Molina, who'd already written many Naschy pictures, were one and the same, but I'd expect exploitation film producers not to take chances and tout director Naschy as the next Cornell Wilde or something similar. Make what you will of his creative split personality, but Inquisicion is clearly an ambitious work for a first-time director. Visually it's quite attractive in the way of many Euro horror films that take advantage of ancient locations, but also effectively expressionist in cinematographer Miguel Fernandez Mila's use of lurid reds in Catherine's vision of the Sabbat (with Bernard as the Devil) and Bernard's vision of Catherine as a crimson temptress. As a writer, Molina plots things fairly well, though his conclusion, with Catherine's denunciation following Renover's fatal encounter, feels anticlimactic, if only because we expect something more hair-raising from Paul Naschy. That he closes the film that way suggests that, despite the sleaze of the torture scenes, Molina saw this as something more than the typical Naschy vehicle.


Naschy's film is a late entry in a continental cycle of witchfinding pictures, a subset of a larger "history of cruelty" genre. While its torture scenes put it in the exploitation category alongside pictures like Jess Franco's Bloody Judge, Inquisicion sustains a more subtle ambiguity on the subject of witchcraft and the devil. The old witch is plainly a witch in the most mundane sense, knowledgeable about potions and such, but we're left to judge for ourselves, prompted by the film's one voice of reason, whether Catherine saw the Devil or not -- or whether Bernard even was in on killing Catherine's lover. Our only evidence for his guilt is Catherine's vision, the authority of which we're forced to question. If Catherine's community is cursed by anything, it's by a common human malice and hypocrisy that consumes clergy and laypeople alike. Overall it's an impressive debut, though it came a little too late in the history of Spanish horror for Naschy to build on it as he might have had he stepped up a few years earlier. It still goes down as one of both Molina and Naschy's best efforts.

Monday, October 30, 2017

DVR Diary: THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR (1975)

Because the post-apocalyptic community in Robert Clouse's film is led by a man known as "The Baron" (Max von Sydow), there may be a temptation to see The Ultimate Warrior as a distant precursor to the current TV series Into the Badlands, in which parts of the onetime U.S. are divided among a group of Barons. That would make Carson (Yul Brynner) the original Clipper, but in Clouse's picture, which he wrote as well as directed, warriors like Carson are mercenaries rather than feudal vassals. He appears in a ruined city -- civilization has collapsed, a la No Blade of Grass, due to a plant-killing plague, among other things -- and makes himself conspicuous, standing shirtless on a prominent ledge, to declare his availability. Ultimately Carson is just passing through on his way to relatives on an island off the Carolina coast, but the idea of a distant safe haven with a more natural landscape appeals to the Baron, whose prime asset is the ultimate gardener (Richard Kelton), to whom the little barony owes a precious crop of fresh veggies. That crop is hopelessly vulnerable to the depredations of such human vermin as Carrot (William Smith) and his gang; hence the appeal of an ultimate warrior, not only to safeguard the crop and its gardener, but possibly as an escort for a breakout to that island, where the gardener could raise larger crops. The situation, from the security of the garden to the Baron's grip on his people, proves unsustainable, forcing Carson to make his break with nothing but a bag of seeds, a pregnant woman and his own very special skills.

Clouse directed the non-combat action of Enter the Dragon and thus, following Bruce Lee's death, was typed as a martial-arts expert in his own right. He was hired to try to put over martial-arts talent, from Dragon co-star Jim Kelly (Black Belt Jones) to Jackie Chan (The Big Brawl) to Kurt Thomas (the infamous Gymkata) to Cynthia Rothrock (China O'Brien). As a martial-arts director, Clouse presumably was only as good as his talent, and 55 year old Yul Brynner could only be an ultimate warrior in a relative, very specific context. Fighting skills have deteriorated with every other aspect of civilization by Carson's time, so that being able to sidestep and stab or slash accurately with a fairly modest knife is enough to establish his ultimacy. You might have seen William Smith mentioned as his ultimate antagonist and thought, "Good lord, Smith should kill Brynner with his bare hands," but Carrot turns out to be the sort of villain who leads from behind until he's the last man left standing. At that point he pulls out a ball and chain and puts up something of a fight before falling into a hole. Brynner, apparently coasting on a sex appeal that had been mysteriously re-established by his robotic turn in Westworld, is in reasonable shape for a man his age, but by the frightening standard set that decade for his age group by Charles Bronson in Chato's Land you could well doubt whether Carson is any more ultimate in any physical situation than Jim Hellwig, the war-painted inheritor of his title, was during the late 1980s.

Fortunately for all involved, The Ultimate Warrior is less a martial-arts picture -- though I wondered whether it began with an idea Clouse had for Bruce Lee -- than a sincere post-apocalyptic dystopia. Perhaps necessarily, it is less interested in choreographed sensationalism than with conveying a truly depleted society near the end of its rope. It's a demoralizing picture, perhaps especially for anyone going in expecting epic action, and that proves to be a good thing, even if I'm reluctant to call this a good movie. A sense of Seventies-ish exhaustion hangs over all the proceedings, including the tired performances of Brynner and von Sydow, who actually play off each other quite well, with Brynner refreshingly relaxed in their dialogue scenes. Von Sydow, early in a run of odd career choices, is persuasive as someone who's a good leader in theory but not really in practice, benevolent and selfish at the same time, someone who could help save civilization but not secure it. Smith, meanwhile, is ironically effective as a largely inactive villain, since his inactivity leaves you questioning Carrot's courage or competence until he finally has to fight it out with Carson. Overall, compared with what would come just a few years later, The Ultimate Warrior seems calculated not to romanticize the fall of civilization by making it primarily a liberation of violent impulses. Even when it's not really satisfactory as a genre picture, there's still something decent about it, even if only in a passive, negative sense, that's worth saluting.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

SEVEN DEATHS IN THE CAT'S EYE (La morte negli occhi del gatto, 1973)

Like many an Italian giallo, Antonio "Anthony M. Dawson" Margheriti's film takes place in that hotbed of horror, the United Kingdom. The time is the early 20th century, a point when the theories of Sigmund Freud are still a novelty. The location is, more specifically, Scotland, where Corringa MacGrieff (Jane Birkin) is returning to the ancestral stead, Castle Dragonstone, to visit her mother. It's a tense reunion. There's a fight over whether or not to sell the castle, and the family eccentric, Lord James (Hiram Keller) is being an arrogant jerk as usual. Also, there's some sort of ape in the castle. It gets worse from there.

Corringa's return to Dragonstone Castle exposes her to menaces in many forms.


When Corringa's mother is killed, there are many suspects to choose from, from her bitter sister (Francoise Christophe) to her lover (Anton Diffring), who's two-timing her with the apparently bisexual French tutor Suzanna (Doris Kunstmann) to Lord James and the ape, also named James. Once more people start to die you have to add another suspect to the list: the mother herself, who if the family legends are true will have returned from the dead as a vampire. The family cat jumping on her coffin is one of the tip-offs, and as the title indicates, this grumpy cat is a malign presence most of the time and a witness to (if not a perpetrator of) most of the killings.

Margheriti's direction isn't really ambitious or audacious, but Carlo Carlini's cinematography has its moments.


More gothic than giallo -- the murders are rather simply staged -- Seven Deaths follows a whodunit formula only to blindside you with a final revelation that you most likely won't have anticipated while trying to separate the real suspects from the red herrings, yet is typically gothic itself. Generally more spooky than sleazy, Margheriti's film benefits from a genre-perfect location and appropriate cinematography by Carlo Carlini. The performances, including English dubbing, are what they are and seem right for the setting, even if some of the dialogue sounds even more stilted than is typical in translation. The versatlie Margheriti may do nothing special visually here, but nailing the mood the way he and Carlini do is most of the battle, and the rest is just a matter of having fun with the undemanding horrors and the extra bits of Euro weirdness that make this genre so endearing.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

On the Big Screen: PROFESSOR MARSTON AND THE WONDER WOMEN (2017)

When Wonder Woman made her big-screen debut last year in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, comics fans wondered why it took Hollywood so long to put the medium's most famous female character in the cinematic spotlight. Ironically, hard on the heels of a blockbuster Wonder Woman solo film comes the first-ever big-screen biopic about a comic-book creator, featuring Princess Diana's inventor, William Moulton Marston, aka Charles Moulton. It's not as if no one else's story had cinematic potential. The riches-to-rags saga of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, would make a great cautionary tale, for instance. Once Stan Lee passes from the scene, his turbulent collaborations with Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Dr. Strange) and Jack Kirby (just about everything else) might make epics of pop-culture history. But there's a more obvious hook to the Marston story, the same one that made Jill Lepore's Secret History of Wonder Woman a best-seller a couple of years ago. Depending on your perspective, Marston was a sexual progressive, a sexual predator, a pervert or simply a creep whose preoccupations made the early issues of the Wonder Woman comic some of the most peculiar reading of the medium's Golden Age. Long story short: Marston, a proponent not merely of gender equality but female supremacy, was a bondage fetishist who lived in a menage-a-trois in which the two women were the breadwinners most of the time while Marston himself, a disgraced academic who failed to profit from his development of a lie-detector, struggled to write something that would sell.  I imagine anyone who's read Lepore's book will share the author's ambivalent view of a man whose theories of erotic submission as the key to world peace could well be interpreted as mere rationalizations for his fetishistic fantasies. Angela Robinson's version of the Marston story is somewhat less ambivalent.

Writer-director Robinson follows a standard biopic formula, using a late-career crisis as an opportunity to tell Marston's story as a lengthy flashback. As in real life, Marston faces criticism from National Comics' (aka DC) educational consultants over Wonder Woman's kinkier content, as well as scrutiny, perhaps more so than in real life, over his personal background. Robinson elects to start the story proper at Radcliffe College in 1928, at the time when Marston (Luke Evans, who's played Greek gods in the past) was already long-married to his intellectual partner Elizabeth Holloway (Rebecca Hall, in a performance that strongly resembles an Emma Thompson impersonation), but just meeting junior muse Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcoate, wearing what strikes me as anachronistic non-bobbed hair), a student turned teaching assistant. In fact, this happens in the wrong year and the wrong college, but there's no point to calling out all Professor Marston's errors and anachronisms. By now, once you see "Based on True Events," you should know what to expect. Dramatic license dictates that the Marstons are still struggling to develop their lie-detector, so the proof of its success can also be an early emotional climax of the story. In any event, Marston hires Olive because he has the hots for her, while Elizabeth allows it as part of her film-long effort to appear more progressive than she often feels. Another expression of this, and practically a character trait in its own right, is her habit of saying "Fuck" in approximately every other sentence. She has a lot to curse about, since Harvard Law is unwilling to award her a doctorate and her husband's a bit of a dick. But -- and here the film has raised controversy and riled descendants of the Marstons -- it develops that Elizabeth shares William's attraction to Olive, who possesses a certain progressive glamour as the niece of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger. After Elizabeth catches Olive in a lie and discovers, in classic biopic fashion, the key to the lie-detector, the Marstons test their device on their protege, who makes a negative confession of her desire for both husband and wife.

This leads to a three-way that is at once ingeniously prophetic and intrusively anachronistic. The trio invades the costume department of the school's theater-arts building for some role-play. Olive puts on a Fay Wray like fairytale princess costume, while William throws on a uniform that makes him a precursor of Steve Trevor and Elizabeth wears a leopard-skin coat evocative of Wonder Woman's arch-enemy, the Cheetah. The year is still 1928 or 1929, but the scene is scored to Nina Simone's "Feeling Good" from the Swingin' Sixties. That's just another hint that the filmmakers would rather not have dealt with the Twenties at all. They've already moved events forward in time so that the characters aren't too old when Wonder Woman hits big -- the trio hardly seems to age over approximately twenty years -- and the music heard in a speakeasy early on didn't sound authentic, either. Was there no erotic music back then? That can't be true, but I guess whoever compiled the soundtrack gave up too quickly.

Olive's doubly-cuckolded fiance denounces the menage and gets the Marstons fired from Radcliffe. Elizabeth is forced to become a secretary while William pounds the typewriter at home -- in fact, he spent time in Hollywood experimenting with monitoring audiences' emotional responses to movies -- and Olive does ...? In bad times Elizabeth takes her frustrations out on Olive, but their estrangements never last long. Meanwhile,  William's discovery of a fetish store in Greenwich Village leads inexorably to his invention of "Suprema, the Wonder Woman" after he discovers how the proverbial French postcards illustrate his DISC principle more effectively than all his treatises.  National Comics impresario M.C. Gaines (Oliver Platt) finds Martson pretentious but bites on the idea, suggesting only that they do without the "Suprema" part. Apparently the kinky bits that caused such trouble later -- Marston's scripts were very detailed about knots, for instance -- troubled Gaines not at all initially. But before long proto-suburbanites are holding merry book-burnings and the Marston kids are getting into fights at school after a neighbor wanders through an unlocked front door (these really were more innocent times) and finds our trio in a compromising position. Once more, Elizabeth folds almost instantly and Olive is driven into exile, but in another biopic tradition, William's tense meeting with the consulting board coincides with a health crisis -- somehow he doesn't cough up blood -- that brings everybody back together for good. The Marston makes a speech somewhere, for some reason, and the movie ends.

I'm probably not the ideal audience for Professor Marston because I've read Lepore's book, but I tried to be indulgent toward dramatic license, except that superficial things like the Nina Simone song annoyed the hell out of me. I can't help feeling that the film would have been better off starting before Olive and doing more to establish the progressive milieu from which the Marstons emerged. In the final analysis I don't think Robinson or Luke Evans ever really figured out what to make of Marston. Was he a martyr for sexual freedom -- despite the factual cancer diagnosis film logic implies that persecution hastened his demise -- or a pretentious jackass, as he is sometimes shown to be? Perhaps we should accept that he was a little bit of both, just as you can decide that Elizabeth and Olive were to some extent his partners, and to a lesser extent his victims. The greatest act of creative license in the picture is its imagining of a sexual relationship between the two women, which their descendants deny. At the end of the movie its they who live happily ever after, after Marston's death, but to this day it's still subject to debate whether we can assume that two women who raised a family together were lovers, or whether such an assumption is stereotypical. Making the main relationship a true threesome arguably makes Marston look less bad, though I doubt that was the intention so much as to make Elizabeth and Olive more like "wonder women" as sexual progressives by modern standards. In all likelihood the jury is still out on William Marston, and his story remains fascinating enough that, like many a comic book character, it could stand to be "rebooted" sometime by better filmmakers.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

BEYOND MOMBASA (1956)

Here's an unpretentious but colorful programmer George Marshall directed for Columbia Pictures that features a fun star turn by Cornell Wilde, one of Christopher Lee's more substantial pre-Dracula parts, and a vivid combination of African location shooting by Freddie Young. The story, adapted by Richard English and Gene Levitt from an apparently unpublished story, is pure pulp. Wilde plays Matt Campbell, an amiable boor who arrives in Kenya to learn that his brother, a uranium miner, had just been killed. He was the victim not of the Mau-Mau, those predictable villains of a contemporary cycle of African movies, but of a resurgent cult of leopard men, sacred killers who don leopard skins for their dirty work. Matt wonders whether that's the truth of a story someone else made up, as his brother had some questionable business associates, particularly the sleazy white hunter Gil Rossi (Lee) and fellow miner Hastings (Ron Randell). Possibly more dependable are the missionary Ralph Hoyt (Leo Genn), an expert on the leopard cult, and his anthropologist neice Ann Wilson (Donna Reed). Rossi, Hoyt and Wilson take Matt to the site of the mine, which "clicks" according to the last letter from Matt's brother, which means whoever owns it has a fortune. Matt's his brother's heir, Hastings was his partner and Rossi was a 1,000 pound investor in the project. Matt instinctively looks on the other men with suspicion, but they're not the only people he has to worry about, as the leopard men seem to be all too real...

Cornell Wilde flirts with Donna Reed in Beyond Mombasa


Once Ralph Hoyt admitted he was only a lay missionary you could add him to the list of suspects, especially since Genn gives the sort of meek-and-mild performance that becomes increasingly suspicious as the film proceeds into the jungle, arriving finally in the ruins of an older civilization where our protagonists end up besieged by the leopard men and a white ally. I will spoil things only partly by letting you know that even before audiences identified him with movie villainy, Christopher Lee made a good red herring.


Wilde, who would famously return to Africa for his own project, The Naked Prey, is easily the best thing about Beyond Mombasa. His Matt Campbell is a bit of a goon, a tough guy who'd been working in Saudi Arabia before this opportunity turned up, a master of drunken fighting but also terrified of the local wildlife, including a chimp the Reed character decks out in a dress for nebulous purposes of scientific observation. Once they're on safari and under fire -- from spears, blow darts and rocks, that is -- Matt becomes more of a standard he-man hero, but his blatantly flawed nature earns our interest and sympathy more than if he'd been too good at everything to be true.


The three-way bickering of Wilde, Lee and Randall keeps things pretty hard-boiled most of the way, and when the film finally goes over the top it has the lurid flavor of men's adventure magazines of the period. I like that in a Fifties movie, and while Mombasa has no delusions of grandeur it does provide 90 minutes of two-fisted fun for those who appreciate that sort of thing.

Monday, October 16, 2017

DVR Diary: GHOST OF YOTSUYA (1959)

Starting in the late 1950s the horror genre exploded into a bold new world of color. Japan's answer to Fisher, Bava and Corman was Nobuo Nakagawa, who brought an oft-filmed 1825 kabuki play to livid life at the end of the decade. It's a simple story of greed and its supernatural comeuppance that wouldn't be entirely out of place in an American EC comic of the time. An ambitious ronin, Iemon (Shigeru Amachi) wants to marry Oiwa (Katsuko Wakasugi) won't take no for an answer when her dad. apparently a good judge of character, turns him down. Encouraged by his mephistophelean minion Naosuke (Shuntaro Emi), Iemon kills the old man, and a few others, covering his trail so Oiwa is none the wiser. Married life proves less comfortable than Iemon hoped for, as he's quickly reduced to walking the streets as the Japanese equivalent of those guys who wore sandwich boards in old American movies, advertising that wonder remedy, "Dutch medicine." When an opportunity arises to marry into more wealth, Iemon decides that it's time to move on and leave no loose ends behind. Resourceful Naosuke provides him with some European poison to mix into Oiwa's face cream to ensure a painful, disfiguring demise, but Iemon's taking no chances. He recruits the hapless Takuetsu (Jun Otomo) to seduce Oiwa so the aggrieved hubby can rush in, in a cruel variant on the old badger game, and exercise his conjugal prerogative by killing his adulterous wife. Takuetsu quickly loses his enthusiasm for the project when Oiwa applies the face cream and is, as planned, painfully disfigured. Deranged by pain, she tries to kill Takuetsu but ends up impaling herself on a knife. Not to worry: Iemon promptly arrives to make sure Takuetsu doesn't tell the truth. We learn that Iemon's prerogative extends to nailing the "adulterers" to shingles and cutting them in half, but he's content to dump their bodies in a swamp.

The problem for quickly-remarried Iemon is that Oiwa died cursing him, and in Tokugawa Japan you can't write that stuff off as mere delirium. She and Takuetsu have a bad habit of turning up on intimate occasions, while Iemon has the worse habit of trying to kill ghosts with a sword. Worse still, his aim is pretty accurate, but there usually are living people -- temporarily living people, that is -- standing where he sees the ghosts.  In short, Iemon goes Sword of Doom on his new family. Meanwhile, his old family isn't done with him. Oiwa's brother, whom he and Naosuke had thrown down a waterfall earlier in the picture, reappears as a living, angry avenger. He teams up with both a live sister and, indirectly, a dead sister to mete out samurai justice to the villain. In many respects Yotsuya is basically a samurai film or the cynical, debunking variety with supernatural trappings, but some of the spooky stuff is quite effective, particularly the surprise reveal of Oiwa's ghost crawling on Iemon's ceiling. The best scene from the horror standpoint is Iemon's out-of-control rampage, which has you fearing helplessly for innocent people once you realize that whenever he starts waving his sword at a ghost, somebody real is going to die. Tadashi Nishimoto's cinematography strikes a stylish balance between natural locations and expressionistic set lighting, but overall Nakagawa's work in color here is a dry run for his real calling-card effort in Jigoku the following year.Yotsuya is still a nicely done film in its own right that did much, in retrospect, to put Japan on the global horror film map.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

AIR HAWKS (1935)

Someone said once that the problem with socialism is socialism, while the problem with capitalism was capitalists. In other words, while socialism is an inherently flawed economic system, capitalism's credibility is undermined by capitalists who don't live up to the system's ideals. Popular fiction and cinema seemed to confirm this. Through the period of Code Enforcement and even through the anti-communist hysteria of the late 1940s and early 1950s, you hardly saw a film featuring competing businesses in which one of the competitors didn't cheat. A compact case in point is Albert Rogell's pulpy little programmer for Columbia.


Air Hawks is the film for those of you who think the only thing glaringly missing from Only Angels Have Wings was a death ray. We're still in the early days of commercial aviation here, with Independent Transcontinental Lines trying to earn a niche in the high-speed air-mail market. Since Barry Eldon (Ralph Bellamy) can't secure any more bank loans, he and his scrappy team of pilots have to prove themselves in the air. The established firm, Consolidated Airlines, appears to have all the advantages, but highly-connected casino owner Victor Arnold (the inevitably evil Douglas Dumbrille) advises Consolidated not to take chances. He has just the thing to end the competition: renegade scientist Schulter (Edward "Dr. Van Helsing" Van Sloan), who has perfected, on a small scale, a device to transmit a high-temperature current on a beam of light. In short, Arnold is suggesting that Consolidated hire a mad scientist to blast its competitors' planes out of the sky with a death ray. Consolidated likes the idea.


What more need I say? Van Sloan, gleefully playing for the other side, merrily incinerates a number of ITL pilots, the company's stock plummets, and Barry has to tell some Shirley Temple wannabe in a baby flight suit that Daddy will be flying another route for the foreseeable future. Air Hawks tugs at the heart strings, showing the scorched, mutilated baby doll Daddy was going to give to his daughter for her birthday, and in an extra macabre touch shows us that Barry has kept that grim memento in his desk until the poor tyke randomly finds it. Meanwhile, Barry's reporter pal manages to find and escape from Schulter's lair, while Barry tells the press that he'll personally set a speed record on the next high-altitude mail flight to prove ITL's viability.

 Slade Wilson's grandpa (Wiley Post) suits up for a Republic serial, but  Air Hawks wraps up in one long chapter.

Into the middle of this wanders real-life celebrity aviator Wiley Post, playing himself months before his fatal flight with Will Rogers. Tragic as Post's demise was, it probably didn't cost him further film opportunities, as his few mumbling minutes of screen time in Air Hawks proved him one of the most hopeless actors ever to recite lines before a camera. He volunteers to make the real mail flight, giving ITL added publicity, while Barry lures Arnold into his plane and takes him into the danger zone. The climax is a land-air battle as Barry dodges Schulter's mobile death ray while throwing bombs at the machine. The explosive climax comes complete with a dummy, presumably representing poor Schulter, blown out of the truck and flopping onto the dirt. It's all pure exhilarating idiocy carried out with succinct panache, and it's always fun to see Ralph Bellamy, at a point when he was already becoming the archetypal "Ralph Bellamy" who always loses the girl in romantic comedies, play the sort of two-fisted he-man he'd been more often in Pre-Code days. You can enjoy it as unpretentious camp with a dash of madness, and assure yourself that it's too silly to be subversive -- but was it?

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Too Much TV: THE VIETNAM WAR (2017)

Donald Trump will most likely be the last President of the United States to have been old enough for military service during the Vietnam War. Should that be the case, no President will have been a combat veteran of that war, though the American people have had a few chances to elect one. For what it's worth, John McCain and John Kerry are conspicuously absent as present-day talking heads in Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's ten-part documentary, though they receive appropriate attention for their adventures during the conflict. The filmmakers focus more on the ordinary grunt experience of the war, though a disproportionate number of witnesses, American and Vietnamese, went on to write eloquently about the war. None of them becomes the sort of "Shelby Foote" character people may still expect in Burns's documentaries, but they more than compensate in lived experience for what Foote contributed in folksy oracular insight. The Vietnam War presents an admirably broad array of perspectives on the Vietnam ordeal, yet somehow, for me at least, President Trump loomed over the series like the gaping mouth of a new tunnel, if only because the controversy over whether or not athletes should stand for the national anthem escalated while the series rolled out on PBS. Especially once the war came home in the form of mass protests and conservative backlash, you could see the first sketches of the battle lines of Trump's America. It was fifty years ago, approximately, when Americans in large numbers first dared "break faith" with the troops by demanding an immediate end to the war the troops were fighting -- unless you count the 1863 Draft Riots, reviewed by Burns long ago, as the original moment or original sin. The country has been torn ever since by the conflicting imperatives of individual conscience and national solidarity, among other things, and the Burns/Novick Vietnam is probably most instructive by showing us how we started then on the road to today.

It's probably most infuriating, in a healthy way, in its relentless illustration of cynicism and moral cowardice on the part of American politicians. The Vietnam War makes clear that few if any American leaders ever believed that the war could be won through the elimination of the Viet Cong or the forcing of North Vietnamese acquiescence in the independence of the South. Yet successive leaders escalated American commitment to a South Vietnamese regime that apparently never was viable out of fear of losing elections for being "soft on Communism." Burns and Novick actually should have gone into more detail on the emotional and intellectual basis of American (and South Vietnamese) anti-communism, to account for the compulsive aspect of our involvement with Indochina, just as they should have told us more about Vietnamese culture before French colonialism, on my assumption that older history might tell us something about underlying class or regional conflicts in that old country.  I don't think the filmmakers can be accused of being soft on communism themselves -- I recall such a charge being made against the 1980s Vietnam: A Television History, after which PBS aired a right-wing rebuttal documentary -- since the North Vietnamese leader Le Duan, something like the Stalin to Ho Chi Minh's Lenin, only without the cult of personality, is as much a villain in his harebrained wasting of lives, during the Tet offensive and other occasions, as Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. This series makes all too clear that there were no good options for the ordinary people of Vietnam, whose choices were Leninist terror, U.S. mass destruction, or a South Vietnamese ruling clique that too often seemed implacably hostile, on religious or other grounds, to their own constituents. On this last point the series undercuts somewhat its efforts to put across the tragic mood of veterans who regard our abandonment of South Vietnam after 1973 as treacherous, since the leaders of South Vietnam most likely surrendered viewers' sympathies long before then. It's hard to find any politician, American or Vietnamese, who emerges from the Burns/Novick narrative with honor, and that may be why the series has no time for veterans who became politicians.

The Vietnam War is Ken Burns documentary dependent entirely on living participants in actual events. As a result, it will look like a Ken Burns film to those whose expectations are still defined by The Civil War. Nor does it sound as a Burns show normally sounds; there's no "Ashokan Farewell" here to capture the national imagination, but the same old oldies trotted out for period pieces, interlarded with comparatively imperceptible incidental music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. You could have made up a Vietnam War drinking game for the occasion: create a list of 100 or so Sixties or early Seventies classics, distribute the titles at random to your buddies, and have each person drink when one of their songs is played. It would have given new meaning to binge-viewing. That carping aside, the key Burns strategy of a long-term cast of talking heads still helps structure an immense narrative while giving it a sort of subjective coherence. His cleverest trick this time was introducing "Mogie" Crocker of Saratoga Springs NY, a gung-ho kid determined to enlist over all family opposition . Since you never saw a 2017 Crocker talk to the camera you could guess that Mogie was doomed, and in fact he lived only long enough to grow profoundly disillusioned before getting KIA'd in 1966. But Mogie's story was really the means to introduce his sister Carol as a major character the series would follow through her collegiate involvement in the antiwar movement and her eventual pilgrimage to the memorial wall in Washington D.C. That sort of connection quite literally ties the foreign and domestic threads of the story together, but you get a similar effect when some of our POV soldiers come home and get involved in the antiwar movement themselves, sometimes very conflictedly. Overall, I think Burns and Novick did justice to the ambiguities of the U.S. "Vietnam experience," though I suppose some may still complain about the absence of anyone willing to say the war was a righteous cause and we deserved to win.

For me, the series hit its emotional climax in episode eight, which itself climaxed with the Kent State killings in 1970. Out of the whole "Vietnam experience," the shooting of four students by National Guardsmen may be the "loss of innocence" moment of no return for people still living today. Many of Burns's witnesses definitely portray it that way. For many observers it was awful enough to see college students breaking faith with the troops, but for many others there was a different kind of breaking faith when the troops started killing white college kids. If some today still find the echoes of student protest repugnant, others find the possibility of another Kent State all too plausible in the current sociopolitical environment. For me, again, The Vietnam War's treatment of Kent State was saddening in yet another way. I DVR'd the series and watched one episode every couple of days, between the other shows I record. By the time I got to episode eight, the Las Vegas massacre had happened. When I watched it, the really heartbreaking thing was how traumatized everyone in the U.S. of 1970 was by the deaths of only four people. If Kent State and the war experience as a whole was a loss of innocence, there was still plenty of innocence to lose afterward. The Vietnam War's great virtue is that it allows you to see and feel that original loss of innocence -- presuming that you presume America innocent at any time in its history -- almost as if it was happening live before your eyes.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) in SPOILERVISION

Once the mystery plot of Denis Villeneuve's film began moving, I had a bad feeling about where it would end up. But when it didn't end up there, I still felt disappointed, since it was now clear that the writers, including a contributor to the 1982 Blade Runner film, were just playing with the audience -- or else they realized sometime during the production that the most cliched of plot twists probably would have sullied a revered brand name. Whatever they thought, they had Villeneuve, who after last year's Arrival was poised to become dean of sci-fi filmmakers if 2049 hit big, plod ponderously toward a revelation anticipated even by the protagonist, only to leave audiences possibly wondering why, after all, we were supposed to be interested in a protagonist who turns out to be just another replicant. Of course, all replicants are supposed to be more human than human, and when given a chance Ryan Gosling, playing the replicant blade runner with the Kafkaesque nickname "K," did all right portraying the yearning introspection of a genuine artificial intelligence. The problem with 2049 is that while there arguably was a viable film idea in returning to the world Ridley Scott had extrapolated from Philip K. Dick's very different dystopian vision and following a new character, there was no point commercially to making a new Blade Runner film without catching up with fugitive recluse Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) thirty years of so after his romantic, violent heyday. Whatever the writers wanted to do with K, it had to connect at some point with the Deckard saga. As noted already, the film threatened to link them in the most hackneyed, tiresome way, but perhaps I should elaborate a bit.

So K. is a replicant blade runner, not really respected by his human police colleagues but also condemned as a traitor by his victims, such as Sapper Morton (for more on Dave Bautista's character, see one of the short subjects released online to promote the feature). Off duty, he leads a seemingly sad life, his only companionship coming from his personal Joi (Ana de Armas), who is basically Alexa with a holographic body. In the brief early scenes of his domestic life I thought the new film actually came slightly closer to the actual existence of the protagonist of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But before 2049 becomes an enhanced version of Her K has to follow up on a grisly discovery on Sapper's property. The now-retired replicant at some point buried a skeleton under a tree. The skeleton belonged to a woman who had been pregnant and may have died during childbirth, but closer examination reveals a serial number identifying the corpse as a replicant -- a replicant, that is, that indisputably gave birth, according to the forensic evidence. If the child of this dead replicant (you can guess who it was) is alive, that could revolutionize the expanding extra-global economy. The idea of reproducing replicants appeals greatly to Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the tycoon who acquired the bankrupt Tyrell Corporation some years ago, because organic reproduction would be less expensive than mechanical production, while making available the large innately unfree workforce Wallace believes essential to humanity's further expansion across space. K's police boss (Robin Wright) sees replicant reproduction as a threat to human supremacy and sanctions K to find the child and retire it. The problem with this, from K's vantage, is that he has cause to suspect strongly that he is the child.

K. lies to the police, claiming to have found and killed the child. He's lucky he wasn't asked to produce a body, but the Wallace Corporation, spearheaded by replicant enforcer Luv (Syliva Hoeks) isn't fooled. They feel certain that K. continuing on his quest, will lead them to the child. Almost as good, he leads them to the long-missing Deckard, who's been hanging out in a recently irradiated Las Vegas with a whisky-swilling dog. Knowing of Deckard's relationship with Rachel the replicant (Sean Young appears in clips and apparently did some mo-cap and/or voice work for a 2049 vintage Rachel doppelganger), the Wallace crew thinks Deckard can point them to the child, so they overpower K, snatch Decker, and inexplicably leave K laying rather than retiring him or bringing him along -- didn't they suspect that he might be the mystery kid? This miscue proves costly, for Luv if not for Wallace himself, as K is retrieved by a replicant underground that tells him the presumably straight story of Rachel's pregnancy. This reduces K, even as he races to Deckard's rescue, to a facilitator of the actual father-child reunion while he, having little left to live for, has little time to live....

Blade Runner 2049 is too long and slow to work as the sort of sci-fi thriller the original film was. In choosing Villeneuve to direct, the producers, including Ridley Scott in an "executive" capacity, opted for mood over momentum, but for all his proven virtues the director isn't really the man for the sort of popcorn film 2049 has to be. It's stylish as hell, thanks largely to cinematography by Roger Deakins, and I appreciate they way the production design doubled down on the original film's vision of a corporate future in spite of the so-called "Blade Runner curse" that befell many of the companies advertising in the old film's cityscapes. There's not much new to those cityscapes, however, while the most striking scenes are set in the quasi-pornographic ruins of Vegas, which apparently has worse in store for it than last weekend's massacre. While the new film can recreate the original's architectural effects, the abandonment, for the most part, of the older film's neon-noir atmosphere somewhat undermines the effort to identify sequel with precursor. As for the actors, Gosling tried hard but is undercut as soon as Ford puts in his belated appearance. The older actor's performance is pretty much an ego trip, as the elderly Deckard is shown still to be a two-fisted he-man capable of beating up the presumably human goons Wallace has conveniently sent along with Luv to collect him. As the corporate baddie Jared Leto orates like a comic-book villain, apparently making up for the speeches he didn't get to make in Suicide Squad. As the top cop, Robin Wright may have finalized her new typecasting, following Wonder Woman, as a mature female authority figure. In sum, 2049 is far from terrible -- using a relevant benchmark, it's better than The Force Awakens --  but the fact that it's merely underwhelming is more disappointing, in a way, than if it had laughably bad.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

THE BAD BATCH (2017)

How many times have we heard this one? A hotshot indy auteur impresses critics with a modestly budgeted yet creatively audacious picture that becomes a sort of sleeper hit. Some studio throws money at the auteur for a more ambitious project, perhaps equally audacious, that bombs. Playing the familiar role of the auteur is Ana Lily Amirpour, whose sleeper success was the Farsi-language dystopian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The admirable Megan Ellison of Annapurna Pictures backed Amirpour's new English-language project and no doubt helped her hire name actors, including that new embodiment of indy edginess -- I'm not kidding, either! -- Keanu Reeves. It might tell you something about the character of the project that Jim Carrey, of all people, was cast as a mute. It's really one of his better performances.


What remains from A Girl Walks Home, along with skateboards, is an arid dystopian environment, now located somewhere in the neighborhood of Texas. At an unspecified near-future time the place is a dumping ground for all sorts of undesirables who are known collectively as the Bad Batch. It's never quite clear how Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) qualifies, but we follow her into this bad new world, where she's promptly captured by cannibals who live in a vast auto graveyard/trailer park. The cannibals aren't greedy; they butcher Arlen one limb at a time, but once she's down to one arm and one leg she tires of her new role and perpetrates an improbable escape.


She ends up in the relatively civilized colony of Comfort, where she acquires a prosthetic leg, but encounters more cannibals while exploring a vast dump. Killing one, Arlen inherits her(?) child, whom she takes to Comfort. The girl is lured into the household of the apparent ruler or guru of the place (Reeves) while Arlen wanders back into the desert on a drug trip, drugs being the principal cuisine of Comfort. Meanwhile, the girl's father(?), a tattooed Cuban cannibal sketch artist (Jason Momoa), hunts for the child. Finding Arlen, who denies known the her, he demands nonetheless that she return to Comfort and retrieve the girl. Why he can't go in himself remains unclear, but the point becomes moot when one of the many marauders riding around shoots the Cuban and brings Arlen to Comfort on his own initiative.


Finding the girl in the guru's entourage, Arlen insinuates herself into his presence. "The Dream" has a harem of gun-toting women, many of whom are pregnant by him. Comfort is his garden; he feeds it, he says, so it will feed him. Whatever he means by this -- simply that he reaps the benefit of their servitude or that he eats the babies -- it repels Arlen, who has smuggled a gun into his compound inside her prosthetic foot and uses it to take a hostage first, and then the Cuban's little girl. Back in the desert, she reunites with the Cuban, who's recovered with help from Carrey's hermit, and resolves to stay with him and his daughter.


Let me cut to the chase and call The Bad Batch Amirpour's Brave New World. In the end, Arlen chooses savage liberty over somatic subjugation in Comfort. The freedom she chooses will come at a more terrible price than most people in the movie audience could imagine paying -- symbolized at the end when the Cuban slaughters his daughter's pet bunny to satisfy her Comfort-cultivated appetite -- but wouldn't anything be preferable to life under Keanu Reeves' thumb, or some other body part of his? Whether we're to understand that Arlen has made the right choice, or simply the best of bad choices, is, like much of Amirpour's dystopia, unclear. What's clear enough is that submission for the sake of small-c comfort is not an option, and probably never was for many in the Bad Batch, or else they wouldn't be part of that group in the first place. What's significantly missing is the other option, the world from which Arlen and the others have been exiled, that has designated them misfits. By what standard? Are all the Bad Batch people really misfits, or has mainstream society judged them unfairly? We don't know enough about the dystopia as a whole to judge whether Arlen presumably adopting a predatory lifestyle as the Cuban's consort can be left as an acceptable outcome or whether that outcome defines The Bad Batch as a horror film. It's not a horrible film, at least. Amirpour has a good directorial eye, strongly enhanced by Lyle Vincent's cinematography, and on some level the very limited range of options she leaves her characters is to the film's credit. On the other hand, Arlen is never much more than a cypher, unoriginal even in her mutilation (see also Charlie Theron in Mad Max:Fury Road and Rose McGowan in Planet Terror), while Jason Momoa is what he is: someone who looks like he should be a fascinating badass, if not a fantasy book cover come to life, yet invariably a charisma vacuum. If the name means anything to you, think of him as the Roman Reigns of actors. This is actually one of his better performances, but he's still more sculpture than actor, and that hurts a movie that wants to present his character, in all his viciousness, as possibly the most human being of the Bad Batch. Of course, a dystopian story doesn't really require very well-rounded characters, so the limitations of Momoa and Waterhouse aren't fatal to the film. Overall I think it was a worthwhile endeavor that will, with luck, prove a useful experience for Amirpour as she moves on to better projects, as long as she isn't exiled to some cinematic Bad Batch for this sophomore stumble.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Too Much TV: THE DEFENDERS (2017)

Geoff Johns, the chief creative officer of DC Comics, gave an interview last week announcing that, following the success of Wonder Woman, Warner Bros. would focus on standalone superhero movies with a loose continuity rather than making every film part of a single master narrative. Cynics pounced on his statement, seeing it as preemptive damage control, an early indication that next month's long-awaited Justice League movie would be a stinker that should not, Johns hoped, be held against future DC-based movies. But he could just as easily have just finished watching The Defenders and seen it as a cautionary tale. The eight-part Netflix series is the culmination of a Marvel Studios program that began with the debut of Daredevil in 2015. From the beginning, it was understood that Daredevil and its companion shows -- Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist -- were steps leading up to the formation of the Defenders, Netflix's street-level counterpart to the big-screen Avengers. Counting the pre-production time for Daredevil, Marvel had three years to develop a Defenders story, yet the finished product looks like the writers threw something together a week before shooting started.

Defenders is a substitute for a third season of Daredevil, produced and mostly written by the creative team from that show's second season, where many of the concepts at play here were introduced. The main concept is the threat of The Hand, the evil martial-arts cult created by Frank Miller during his landmark run on Daredevil at the turn of the 1980s. The Hand was also a major force in the Iron Fist show, so all the writers have to do is find some way for alcoholic superhuman detective Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) and nigh-invulnerable incarcerated Harlem do-gooder Luke Cage (Mike Colter) involved. Jessica's trail starts when she investigates the disappearance of an architect who turns out to have developed a mad plan to blow up one of his recent buildings. Meanwhile, a freshly exonerated Luke goes after a new drug dealer in Harlem, his surviving antagonists from his own show being conspicuously absent (as are Iron Fist's corporate pals) from a show thick with supporting players from other shows. Luke's new crusade crosses paths with Danny Rand's (Finn Jones) vendetta against the Hand, one of whose Fingers is Luke's new enemy. Danny and sword-wielding sidekick Colleen Wing's (Jessica Henwick) brutal approach to anyone associated with The Hand raises Luke's ire when their targets are young black men, and so, naturally enough in the Marvel Universe, when two heroes meet, they fight. By contrast, Jessica and her new, unsolicited attorney Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) don't fight, but they don't quite trust each other either. Jessica wonders why the blind lawyer is nosing around her business -- and how he happens to have super-ninja skills when he thinks Jessica isn't looking -- while Matt, being Daredevil, knows that Jessica, her violent reputation notwithstanding, is wandering into dangerous territory, since the building her architect wanted to destroy has been built on the site of that perhaps-bottomless pit Daredevil discovered some time ago, which means it all has to do with The Hand. After that Nick Fury of Netflix, freelance night nurse Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson), imposes a time-out on Luke and Danny, and as Matt continues to tail Jessica, all four heroes end up that the aforementioned building, where Danny hopes to at last confront the leader of The Hand.

That's where everything starts to fall apart, though the seeds of destruction really were planted as soon as Sigourney Weaver appeared as Alexandra in the first episode. First among equal Fingers of the Hand, which also includes Madame Gao (Wai Ching Ho, Daredevil/Iron Fist) and Bakuto (Ramon Rodriguez, Iron Fist), Alexandra is feared and/or resented by her colleagues, all of them exiles from the magical land of K'un L'un, but fears for her own life. Virtually immortal, she has grown mortally ill at a time when the Fingers have run out of the mysterious "substance" that has sustained them for centuries. A fresh supply apparently can be found in New York City, presumably at the bottom of that pit under Alexandra's building, but getting at it requires setting off a few tremors that briefly terrorize the city, as well as the services of the Black Sky, aka Elektra Natchios (Elodie Yung), Matt Murdock's psycho-ninja girlfriend of old -- and, for reasons that remain vague until nearly the end, the Iron Fist of K'un L'un. The problem with all this is that it's often unclear exactly what Alexandra wants to do, or what the consequences will be. The early earthquakes are meant to make us anticipate a cataclysm, but the show never really follows up on that threat, and the ultimate revelation that The Hand simply wants to harvest dragon bones to get more "substance" seems awfully mundane for something that sounds fantastic on paper. Worse, as Thumb or Index Finger -- they never specify -- Alexandra should be the ultimate boss of the series, the villain it takes all four Defenders to fight -- but she never displays any truly menacing powers, or any powers at all, to be honest. All the Fingers of the Hand should be super badass martial artists with virtually magical chi abilities, but only Mme. Gao lives up to that expectation, while Bakuto is unceremoniously eliminated by one of the auxiliary, Colleen, in a wrap-up to their Iron Fist subplot, and another Finger seems to have only the power to speak Japanese. Alexandra ought to have the powers given to Gao, but Weaver most likely was uninterested in doing any superhero fighting, or else the Alexandra character was introduced only as a Macguffin, an excuse to hire a big-name actor. You get the feeling that they could have told the same story without Alexandra, especially since the writers' endgame is to make Elektra the big bad, though her agenda is, if anything, even more vague than Alexandra's

At eight episodes, Defenders is the shortest of Netflix's Marvel shows, but it seems the most padded of them, as well as the worst written. The four stars do the best they can and are the best things about the project -- though I wouldn't mind a Defenders Auxiliary of supporting players dealing with more modest threats -- but they're put into the sort of petty bickering scenarios that supposedly typified the inferior storytelling of The CW's "Berlantiverse" superhero shows. Charlie Cox probably comes off the worst of the four, since Daredevil goes through many of the most tired tropes. He doesn't want to unmask in front of Luke and Danny -- he's borrowed Jessica's scarf and she's already made Matt as the Devil of Hell's Kitchen -- and then he wants to work alone because The Hand is dangerous and he doesn't want to be responsible for more people getting killed -- and then he goes into business for himself desperately trying to talk Elektra into rehabilitating. By the time Defenders was done, people were comparing it unfavorably to the lesser seasons of the CW shows. The Netflix shows' reputation for superior action scenes did not redeem this one. The set pieces have grown redundant, and the typical stuntman-concealing darkness of them has grown especially tiresome to this reviewer. Worse, our heroes lacked interesting styles and powers to fight against, while Elektra's power level was all over the place. I get that the Black Sky is supposed to be getting stronger constantly, but it still seems implausible for a ninja, however superfied, to hold her own against the truly superhuman likes of Luke and Jessica, much less the irresistible Iron Fist. The pacing of everything seemed off, as if eight episodes weren't enough for writers accustomed to thirteen, or else they lacked story enough for eight and had to pad everything out with evasions and poses. 

I'll cite one annoying moment to represent the whole. During episode four Jessica tires of all the bickering and mumbo-jumbo and leaves to check in on her clients. After rescuing them from Hand harassment, she makes a dramatic return to the Chinese restaurant where the others are hiding, driving through the front display window to run over Elektra. As she exits the car we see a groggy Elektra on the floor. I'd expect Jessica to kick a menace like that while she's down, but instead she marches over to join the guys in a heroic-standoff pose to end the episode. That pose exemplifies nearly everything that was bad about Defenders, which accelerates a declining thread for Marvel/Netflix apparent since the second half of Luke Cage. The experience left me wanting just the sort of assurance Geoff Johns is offering now, since I'd like to see more of Luke Cage and Jessica Jones especially, but I'd hate to think that it might all lead to Defenders Season Two.